Monday, May 17, 2010

Where are the Web Work tools?

I’m writing this on Friday afternoon. Through the magic of social networking I know that several friends of mine have “checked in” at local pubs and are already imbibing Portland’s finest. I also know that a former colleague now living in Denver is stuck at JFK. I know that one of my favorite VCs returned to San Francisco this morning from North Carolina via PHL and ORD. He shopped at Whole Foods for what I assume are ingredients for a dinner that I am sorry to be missing. Plus, a friend pointed me to the latest thinking on the possibility of parallel universes.

What I don’t know right now is whether my Web designer has picked up the latest copy I posted to our shared server. I don’t know if our dev team has decided to push the latest changes over the weekend. Tomorrow I plan to prepare our financials, but I don’t know if our accountant has made the updates to the chart of accounts. I have no email from him; I should have called him before he left for his beach house.

Like most people, at any given time I focus on three or four objectives. Why can’t I know as much about those as I know about the drinking habits of my friends? Why don’t I have activity streaming, location updates, automated availability, ubiquitous micro updates, and integral ratings and feedback from my colleagues and business partners working with me on my priority objectives?

I need something that will allow me to identify the group of people with whom I share objectives. We need to self identify the tasks we are contributing to and identify our dependencies. When I need something from someone in the group I should be able to request a task/deliverable from them. They should be able to accept or reject the request with feedback. My ideal tool would let me see the availability, location and status of everyone in the group. I should receive real-time updates for all activity related to tasks that I depend upon. Everything I do related to our shared objective should be available to the group and streamed proactively to those dependent on me.

Technology to do all of this exists today, but no one has yet packaged it into a useful tool. Microsoft’s lame attempt at collaboration services requires a bizarre collection of servers that can only be assembled by a certified SharePoint integrator. The result is overly rigid and can’t accommodate free-form workflows or easily accommodate participants outside the organization. Collaboration and unified messaging from IBM, Cisco, and Avaya are no better. So where’s the Zukerberg who will fulfill this 400 million user opportunity?

Today, while waiting for new tools, I’ll send out a couple of emails requesting updates from my web designer; I will leave a voice message for my accountant; and I will send a text to the head of our dev team. I’ve checked our project management dashboard: the last updates were posted Wed. The shared server shows the latest version of the Web copy is the one I posted yesterday; I have no idea if anyone looked at it. On IM, most of our folks are unavailable and two have status notes clearly posted during the Mesozoic era.

I know with the right tools I could have gotten so much more done before heading out for a beer.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Need For A New Work Web

It is time we came up with a new set of web and mobile tools that transform the way we work. User-generated content and Web 2.0 technology has completely changed the way we relate to each other, but it’s done nothing for work. A recent Harris Poll confirms the workplace is still mired in Web 1.0 tools. And, while social networking technology is entering the workplace it hasn’t transformed anything.

We know how completely social networking has transformed the way we interact outside of work – Michael Andrew at Media Metrics Insider points out:

“…there are now over a trillion known Web pages, more than 500,000 Facebook apps, 140,000 iPhone apps, billions of videos on Youtube -- and more have been created since you started to read this sentence. “

Everyday we post pictures, videos and updates on Facebook, tweet on twitter and check-in on foursquare as our primary way to communicate and share with family and friends.

But at work we still use technology developed two decades ago.
Harris’ findings on frequency of use:

91% email
66% shared spaces
66% voice calls
66% teleconferencing
55% web-conferencing

Social tools have entered work (with 17% of workers using them) but they’re not transformative. These tools merely allow us to find coworkers and more easily identify individuals with related interests and projects. At best this facilitates additional collaboration and potentially innovation. But as Forrester finds our day-to-day interactions are still mired in slow replies, redundant meetings, and irrelevant conference calls that take too long to arrange in the first place.

What we need are tools that support the real work we do – the dynamic interactions between us and our co-workers. Providing management of deliverables - the output - like that of SharePoint, Notes/Domino and OpenText, is important and necessary. But we need to accompany these platforms with something to support the actual work as it unfolds.

I’m not talking about shared white boards or avatars hopping around some virtual world. This new tool will be organized around the shared objective and tasks of a group of participants.

To be productive I need to know:
  • what am I working on?
  • who am I working with?
  • what is my role and responsibility?
  • what are everyone else’s roles and responsibilities?
This provides the context for all the tasks we are working on:
  • what am I doing and who is dependent on it?
  • which of my coworkers tasks am I dependent on?
It needs to support the dynamic nature of the work we are doing:
  • It must support organic spawning of new tasks by each member of the team and dynamically identify new dependencies
  • It must let me prompt my coworkers for things I need from them as they prompt me for things they need from me.
  • I want to know in real time about the activity on which I depend
  • I want to provide continual updates on my activity to those that depend on me
The big misconception - this is project management. Many think it’s just a matter of getting PM capability in the right form online. There are now scores of online project managers from AgileTrack to XPlanner. But these tools fundamentally miss the mark. They manage resources when what is needed is something that lets groups track and manage their interactions. What I’m looking for is more akin to World of Warcraft's support of a guild on an epic raid, than a PM tool’s reports and dashboards on action items.

In future blog posts, I will explore these concepts further. For now I just throw out the challenge: how do we use web/mobile technology to radically transform work? Orders of magnitude productivity increases and a profound increase in job satisfaction await.

What amazes me is how little development is going on in this regard. Cisco talks the best game, but they still are just selling repackaged versions of stuff we saw from Lotus and Microsoft in 1995. No one should waste money on something labeled “unified messaging” or “collaboration.”

The only company I have seen that even seems to be building is something interesting is Asana. We will see if they can actually move the needle when they release something later this year.

Someone with a far better marketing mind than mine will come up with the new terminology – “interaction tools” clearly doesn’t cut it. But, I will know it when I see it. And the companies that adopt it will gain an advantage over all others.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Next Big Thing: Newspapers

In a parallel universe, one with all our technical expertise but none of our publishing, a business plan is presented. Its title: News Company – All The News That’s Fit To Print.

Entrepreneur: We plan to marshal all the best journalists and band them together to create a comprehensive news source; one that will cover local news, regional news, national news and international news. We plan to develop and staff bureaus throughout the world, so we can originate all our own news. To fill any holes in our coverage, we will purchase the best reporting from other agencies and freelance journalists. We'll include community features, event reviews and lifestyle pieces. We will become the voice of the communities we serve. We will bundle all this together on a daily basis and call it a “Newspaper”.

VC: How will you ensure the quality of your news coverage?

Entrepreneur: We will have experienced editorial staff to guide, select and edit the stories we present to our customers. We will combine broad coverage with “best of bread” expertise.

VC: And who’s your target market?

Entrepreneur: Every household in the areas we serve.

VC: Really; and how will you present this "newspaper" to them?

Entrepreneur: We plan to print it. But the daily volume will require a process completely different than any physical printing done before. We intend to create newsprint – a thin paper produced in broad rolls from which we can print and cut pages. We will mine our forests, pulp the wood, and produce the paper. We plan to print the news on this paper with dies derived from vegetables.

VC: Very interesting. So this newspaper will be a semi-permanent product. But why go to such lengths to render your newspaper onto an enduring product? Do you really think your customers will want to keep it for future reference?

Entrepreneur: Not at all. We expect each edition of our newspaper will only be of interest to our customers for 24 hours. This is critical to our business model; we need them to buy a new one everyday. We have established a way for the newspapers to be recycled into cardboard and other paper products. We are working with municipalities to force our customers to separate these newspapers from the rest of their trash and have the trash collectors handle them as a separate waste stream. If any of our customers do wish to look at old editions, we plan to make them available in community centers. There we intend to capture the images of our newspapers on a special film that when magnified let’s you see an image of original newspaper.

VC: So, to really be of interest to your customers it will have to be presented in an extremely timely fashion. It seems that by the time you collect, edit, print and distribute these stories the newspaper will be anything but new.

Entrepreneur: We intend to create a culture that presses our journalists for stories by a daily deadline. The editors will turn and mix the stories quickly each evening. We will run our presses through the night. By diverting some of the local shipping capacity, we will move the final newspaper from the printers to distribution locations throughout each of the metro areas we are targeting. And then, this is the really cool part; we have worked out the legal requirements to employ child labor in the early hours of every morning before school to deliver the newspapers the final mile on their bicycles to each person’s home.

VC: And what exactly is the monetization model?

Entrepreneur: We intend to combine subscriptions and advertising.

VC: This sounds even crazier than the guy who was in here yesterday claiming that the world wanted it’s stories delivered in printed tomes; he called them "books". He was going to fill buildings with these books as monuments to our intellectual brilliance and creativity. I just don’t understand why we would want to so encumber our stories and news. Everyone gets anything they want today instantly on their electronic tablets. I think we’ll pass.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Augmenting Our Reality

We have transformed our world by automating our everyday tasks with computers. We replaced calculators, accounting ledgers, and typewriters. Computers help us consume, create and deliver information. Letters, memos and reference books are a thing of the past. Increasingly we have crawled into our computer screen to work, play and communicate.

Last year I wrote about wearing our computers and embedding computing in ourselves. I firmly believe the next big thing is computer augmented reality -- bringing us out of the screen and putting the screen on the world around us. A future where rather than doing things on the computer, the computer does things on us.

Pranav Mistry demonstrates this future. It is worth a few minutes to check it out.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Change We Can Believe In

Don’t you just hate influential vested interest groups that make change impossible?

“What’s wrong with our country?,” we wonder. It’s not just that the numbers are bad – unemployment, foreclosure rates, uninsured and segment after segment needing rescuing. We know something is wrong. We want change, but change in this country – where every vested interest is armed with lawyers, lobbyists and PR experts – is hard. We suspect that we are up against something big and influential.

We are on a hunt for the culprits who are keeping us from this needed change: greedy bankers, corrupt financiers, evil pharmaceutical companies, corporate lobbyists, and the list goes on. But the vested interests that keep us from meaningful change are much closer to home. In fact they include my home and probably your home.

Our system is rife with structural distortions that cause or aggravate our problems and prevent urgently needed changes. One reason this is hard for us to see is that it deliberately favors people like us: educated and employed. We who own a house, have employer-provided health care, and figure we will survive our later years even if social security is ill-funded.

We have long enjoyed a system that significantly subsidizes these basic structural supports. We pay no tax on our mortgage interest or health care payments and – amazingly - contribute only the same fixed amount to social security regardless of income.

There was a time when these subsidies served a purpose. But since the middle to upper income families will buy houses, have health insurance and invest in their own retirements even without these subsidies – they have outlived their usefulness.

Bernie Madoff’s culpability may be more singular and despicable than our quiet political insistence on mortgage deductions, but that deduction is what distorts home prices, encourages risky mortgages and fuels mortgage backed securities.

It is impossible to justify disincenting rental property given rising homelessness coincident with nearly 70% home ownership. We have reached a point where the disproportionate support of owner-occupied suburban communities is destroying our social fabric.

Similarly, tax advantages for employer-paid health insurance effectively make those uninsured and under-insured impossible to cover with cost-effective private plans. As long as employer-paid health insurance is subsidized, we are disincenting other options when we need them most.

Capping social security deductions – pretending this is actually a public retirement plan instead of a tax-supported social safety net – is a cynical regressive tax that will do nothing in the coming decades to aid retirees.

Meaningful change starts with correcting the structural distortions we take for granted:
  1. Phase out the mortgage interest deduction. Start by capping it at some comfortably high number. Reduce the cap each year until it is phased out all together. Five to seven years should give everyone time to make adjustments in their financial and tax planning.
  2. Make employer-paid health benefits taxable and individual premiums non-deductible. This will level the financial playing field and make it possible to address more affordable health care and broader access.
  3. Eliminate the cap on Social Security payments.

Fixing these foundational issues paves the way to the change we truly need. Putting a small amount of good regulation back in place at investment banks and in other key spots to help ambitious types focus on long-term goals should be easy by comparison.

Conversely, if we do not change these distortions nothing else we do will make much difference.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Changing the IC'y mind set

Last year we took our family to China for spring break. People asked, hell our kids asked, “why go to China for Spring Break? Hawaii is cheaper and warmer.”

My wife and I felt it was important that in this time unprecedented change, we prepare ourselves to understand what is happening. If we think of China as peasants in rice fields, or hordes of poor in the streets of urban centers, we are ill-equipped to adapt to the change that is sweeping over us. In ten days we only scratched the surface, but I think it helped each of us get a better feel for what is happening in China.

The trip gave us the opportunity to experience what Hans Rosling teaches – we need to change our mind set to match the current data set.

TED Hans Rosling from Pedro Andrade on Vimeo.

India promises to have a similar impact to China.

There has been lots of talk of the BRIC countries; although it doesn’t work well phonetically, I think we need to focus on the IC countries. Perhaps they are better thought of as CHI.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cooking - A Genetically Encoded Evolutionary Adaptation

Always a Michael Pollan fan, I jumped to his New York Times Magazine cover article on “decline and fall of everyday home cooking.” It without a doubt struck a nerve in our collective consciousness. Since it appeared, I’ve herd multiple interviews of Pollan motivated by the article. Even today’s NYT Magazine two weeks later has Pollan as the lead subject in the Letters section.

I love cooking: partaking probably 4 times a week. There is something profoundly satisfying about it. And, apparently with good reason. In Pollan’s NPR interview last week
he reference research by Richard Wrangham at Harvard. Wrangham conjectures that cooking is what allowed us to redirect our biological energies from digestion to thought. Not needing the extensive digestive system required to process raw meat and grasses, we evolved a simpler gastrointestinal track and diverted the nutrients and oxygen to our now expanded brains.

Wrangham goes as far to posit that cooking is what separates us from primates and all other animals: Not thumbs, language, tools, or social organization. Without cooking, he argues, we don’t biologically achieve human intelligence. His theories and research are summarized in his book, Catching Fire.

Intuitively this makes a lot of sense to me. Memories from my childhood of the family crowded in the kitchen with my mother cooking dinner are indelibly burned in my brain: the mere whiff of browned butter brings them rushing back. And today I find no greater pleasure than hanging with friends around the BBQ, wine in one hand, and tongs in the other. Cooking connects in our psyche at a very deep level. It is easy for me to accept that this is genetically encoded evolutionary adaptation.

So I wonder what it means culturally if we stop cooking. Is it, as Pollan implies, evolutionarily regressive--a step toward Armageddon? Or is it further adaptation – replacing expensive (biologically and materially) individual cooking with collective food preparation? With a population of 7 billion (heading to 9.5 billion), a strong argument can be made that factory farms and processed food are critical to our next evolutionary steps. Even if true, I am happy to revel in my relatively Neanderthal ways, getting profound pleasure in searing meat on an open flame in my own back yard. Here’s to our frontal lobes.