Who pays the bill for eliminating net neutrality? You and me.

When I started my career, I was not certain that I wanted to be a technologist. I took a job with a higher education publisher because I thought that books and education were cool. My experience there excited me about software development and I took on a voracious appetite to learn how to build software.
Complicated Computer Code
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
 
What was interesting about this time was that you couldn’t just decide you wanted to learn how to program as an adult, at least not easily. This was because most of the software programming languages actually cost a significant amount of money to buy, as did the books and courses to learn how, even if you could get access.  There were several enormous barriers to entry in the way of prospective developers including: money, status, and corporate sponsorship, all before hard work.  Then there was bandwidth: even if you could get the other parts to line up, you still had to go home to a dial-up internet service provider and try to pull down whatever content you were lucky enough to find over a small pipe.
 
This all changed when the world wide web started to roll out in full force.  Soon people were publishing courses on how to program different languages. Not long after that, we started to see more powerful software like programming languages and operating systems get open sourced.  This was the beginning of a new kind of free culture that was put on hyper-speed once broadband internet made its way into homes and schools.
 
Along with these developments came the ability for any average person to get an idea and learn how to implement and distribute it freely and quickly.  Sure, you still needed access to computers and networks, but the price of these had been driven down so much that it was virtually free to innovate with little up front investment.
 
The specter of the repeal of net neutrality runs the risk of taking us back to a different time.  This would be one where access could be throttled for those who cannot afford the same fee structure.  I’ve forgotten what it was exactly like to try and pull down file archives from a dial-up bulletin board, but I remember it being awful. 
 
Net neutrality was the concept that all content should be treated equally by internet providers based on consumer choice.  This implied that delivery and content should be separate in order to keep organizations from favoring their own content.   
 
The Master Switch by Tim Wu is the authoritative text on the subject. It was eye opening when it was published 7 years ago, and slightly more terrifying now. We’ve been watching convergence of bandwidth, content and copyright happen at a speed that we have never seen before, and now, the lobbying pressure has been put on full blast for the FCC to eliminate Net Neutrality provisions. 
 
I don’t want to go back to a world where information is expensive. Where its hard to create new things because you simply cannot afford the tools. I hope you don’t either.
 
Do what’s in your power to get educated on net neutrality and the battle for the open web. Talk to your friends, relatives and congressional representatives.  The cable companies and wireless firms are utilities that provide a public service and should be treated as such.  Putting velvet ropes around the best parts of the web will not accomplish anything other than slow our productivity and stifle innovation.

Innovation Hibernation: The Road to Straight-Through Processing

Effective last week on September 5th, the investment industry moved to  “T+2” settlement.
 
This new rule makes investment transactions complete two business days after the actual transaction date.  This is a change to the long standing “T+3” settlement rule which since the 1990’s has caused investors to have to wait three business days before they could consider their transactions closed. Keep in mind this was a huge jump from the T+6 rule that existed previously.
Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash
Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash
 
What’s fascinating to me is that the last time I was thinking about this rule, it was 2001. That year, there had been a huge push by the major investment banks to move to what would be called “Straight Though Processing” or STP for short. If you worked in financial systems integration consulting, you were working on STP.  In any event, I can remember being perched in our Manhattan offices through the midnight hours to develop our several hundred page proposal.
 
Later that year our attention turned to 9/11, and STP was no longer as important as keeping the financial system running. Just a few years after that, we lived through another financial crisis, this time due to mortgage-backed securities fraud. That crisis which brought down several of the largest players in finance also pushed the notion of STP further away from public awareness.
 
So here we are, 16 years later with a reduction in settlement time of one day. The nirvana of STP is still elusive, but it’s kept alive in terms of progress toward an ideal: you’ll see clearing houses now present their STP Rate (e.g. 95% STP).  That said, the road to T+2 is one that illustrates some important points about innovation in business.
 
  1. You can never underestimate the ability of a crisis to sideline even the boldest business ideas. 9/11 was an event of monumental significance where the sheer emotional and destructive forces unleashed succeeded in pushing this initiative far from the minds  of those who would champion it.
  2. Incremental improvements can often be “good enough”.  In this case, 16 years later, the industry pushed to “T+2” while maintaining the spirit of STP. While this was short of the goal, the reality is that one day gained back by investors is enough to eliminate mountains of incomplete trades and put more money back into new investments.
  3. You’re going to need a bigger framework.  STP was trying to make a number of existing complex systems work together. In contrast, the greenfield Securities Process Automation (SPA) movement has shared many of the same goals as STP while also proscribing a more far-reaching ideal. That said, it has been much more modest and pragmatic in implementation recommendations.
 
In any event, it’s great to see something you worked on come to fruition. I wonder what we’ll be saying about Blockchain in 16 years.

Alternate Worlds of Innovation

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When you work in software, you come to realize that you can pretty much create anything you set your mind to. Your biggest problems tend to be: coming up with a common vision for what you want to build and setting short term goals.  Software folk love new methodologies. Agile and design thinking help us visualize new products and processes.  Is it so easy for us to move fast because there is no legacy to deal with? 
 
Dubai by Roman Logov
Photo by Roman Logov http://unsplash.com/@prostoroman
 
I wonder how easily innovation comes to those with more rigid constraints. When your materials are expensive and products take physical labor to produce.  When your employees have labor unions or not well incentivized. When hard sciences or engineering ground your business, departure from traditional process is discouraged.  These are different worlds than that of pure software.
 
It’s not to say that new ideas are easier to come by in one world over another. But I think they might need more courage to bring to life.  
 
Constraints provide focus. They allow organizations to identify opportunities for innovation quicker. Even still they have less mobility to seize them.  Software based businesses have greater mobility, but the challenge of charting a course in an ocean of endless possibilities.
 
Both perspectives can inform each other. Modern innovation will benefit from the cross pollination of alternate worlds.
 

How to Develop a Digital Strategy

Miles Law:  Where you stand depends on where you sit. – Rufus E. Miles, Jr. (1910-1996)  

This article is part two of an ongoing series. Read Part One: Digital Strategy Starts With Marketing and Part Three: A Step by Step Guide to Building Your Digital Vision.

With all of the current chatter about “going digital” we are surprisingly deficient in a solid approach towards building a digital strategy.  In this article,  I propose a hybrid approach towards defining a digital strategy that is informed by marketing, technology, design and product thinking. First I will offer some background on why this is needed.

If you are looking for a solid definition of what makes a digital strategy, you are likely to get a different answer based on who is writing it. In fact, the term has relatively recently started becoming a big deal. Advertising agencies were telling brands 10 years ago that everything was now digital and they should adapt accordingly.  So what’s different now?

Within Digital Strategy Starts With Marketing  we talked about the historic role of marketing in establishing the digital beachheads for many organizations.  Agencies were there to help them lay this groundwork. This is starting to change though; there are a greater number of players helping brands transform themselves now.  

In a recent Forrester Research report, “Wanted: Digital Engagement Providers”, the authors describe how the digital space is being approached by a few distinct groups of firms:  strategy consultancies, systems integrators, product development service shops, and interactive agencies. Each of these classes of firms has their own strengths and are rapidly acquiring other specialty firms to round-out their offerings.

What is the output of a digital strategy?

Digital strategy can take many forms, but ultimately it should be focused on the relationships between three things:  Audiences, Channels and Capabilities.

  • Audiences can include your customers, employees, influencers and partners.
  • Channels include your owned (website, social media, email), paid and earned media, but also emerging areas such as devices (mobile, tablet, watch) where syndication plays a huge role.  
  • Capabilities represent the skills brought to bear in delivering experience to your audiences

Digital Ecosystem Components  

aud-chan-cap

Your strategy will lead to delivering a set of desired outcomes for one or more of your audiences.

Ok. I know. You’re  about to say, “Wait a minute. Are you telling me that my organization should have multiple digital strategies?”

I’m glad you asked that.  The answer is yes.  More on that later.

To that effect, let’s define digital strategy as: An organization’s plan for delivering valuable outcomes to its audience by way of digital channels.

The capabilities are informed by a number of different disciplines and will affect how the organization goes about building and delivering on its plan.

Now that we’ve defined it. Let’s talk about putting it together.

A Roadmap for Building Your Strategy

Digital strategy has some essential components which we will discuss. Because channels and consumers are constantly evolving, our strategy needs to be focused on short timescales and revisited frequently. The journey to building the strategy is non-linear.

stages-strategy-creation

Getting to a digital strategy requires some upfront work, followed by a number of iterative parts. The  main stages of creating a digital strategy are:  

  • Assessment – This is where your research of the problem space takes place
  • Imagination – Consider this your visioning space, where you bring your best minds together to dream of the possible
  • Do – This is the factory where your work happens. A bit of planning and scope definition, governance and project management, the execution of your digital projects, and your testing to ensure they work as intended. Do is continuous.
  • Engagement – Getting feedback from your community. This should be happening all of the time.
  • MeasurementBecause strategy needs to evolve on an ongoing basis, you need to have members of your team whose job is to continuously sample and track your progress. Understanding of the data will change over time, so it is important to focus measurements on things that matter and that are actionable  in the ‘now’.
  • Learning – It might seem obvious because great teams are always learning, but you need to expressly build in time to digest, discuss and act upon these learnings.
  • Telling – Managing change well is all about communications. You could be building the biggest and best mousetrap in town, but if no one hears about it, it didn’t happen.

Key Components of a Digital Strategy Assessment

Assessment sounds like a fancy thing, but it is just getting the lay of the land. We want to do enough research here to determine if there is a worthwhile effort waiting for us, or just a waste of time.  Competitor, industry and audience research all begin during this phase and should continue

A digital strategy assessment should include a look at the following broad areas and questions:

  1. Brand
  • Have we established our brand voice and tone?
  • Do we consistently express the brand across our various channels, while speaking in the native tone of the channel? Are we more formal in our speech on LinkedIn versus Facebook, as an example.
  • Do we empower our key employees and advocates to help build the brand in their social interactions?
  1. Sales and Marketing
  • Do we have a documented and functioning demand generation business process?
  • Is it well-understood how marketing and sales work together to generate, qualify and nurture leads into sales opportunities?
  • Do we educate our sales people how to use digital technologies in personal interactions (e.g. Social selling programs)?
  1. Channels (Includes your website, social media, email, advertising, pr, and also devices like mobile, tablet, and watches.)
  • Do we have a channel strategy in place?
  • Have we documented what channels we participate in and why?
  • Do we have the tone of voice in place for each of our channels? Note the dependency on #1.
  • Have we prioritized our channels?
  1. Capabilities
  • Have we mapped out what skills are required for our digital journey?
  • Have we done a skills gap assessment in terms of our overall digital team?
  • Is there an understanding of what skills can and should be acquired via agency relationships and which should be developed in-house?
  1. Talent
  • Do we have the right people within our organization? Who should we be hiring?
  • What type of investment will it take to reach the level of talent we need?
  1. Technology
  • What software platforms are used to support the digital business?
  • Who are the experts in these technologies and how are they supported?
  1. Content
  • What are the major forms of content created to support the organization’s initiatives?
  • On what channels are they published and promoted?
  1. Governance
  • What structure does the organization have in place to coordinate the above and measure the outputs?
  • How is project management done?
  • Does digital have its own budget? How is budgeting done?

As you are developing this research, you will want to package and distribute it in a way that is accessible to people joining the effort in the future.  Even though it will evolve and change, this can provide a great deal of context around why decisions were made.

brand-hub

Our team developed a content hub using our organization’s intranet software (Jive). You can just as easily utilize a wiki or any other web-based collaboration software that you have.  Depending on the scope of your organization, a more public-facing repository, such as those employed by GOV.UK and the US Digital Service, might be appropriate.

Moving Beyond Your Assessment

As mentioned earlier, digital strategies should be actively maintained, and so your assessment will not necessarily ever be 100% finished. Once you feel that your assessment is “good enough”, you’ll have what amounts to a baseline for refinements to your strategy. At this point, it is critical to begin to get your team aligned around where it wants to go, thus creating a shared vision for your team is the next priority.

In the next article in the series, we will discuss effective methods for creating your “digital vision” and defining the scope of your efforts. Read Part Three: A Step by Step Guide to Building Your Digital Vision.

Mobile Messaging: Platform, paradigm or both

Mobile messaging applications have become more than a paradigm for commercial success but a platform for new systems of innovation.

I can remember instant messaging as always being a core part of my internet experience. From the early chat rooms of Prodigy and Compuserve I learned to find connection and build friendships with remote strangers based on our affinity for comic books, Beatles albums and movies. As the web evolved, messaging was always still there in the background, as an important part of life, yet considered to be separate from the “web”. That reality has changed quickly.

 

messaging
Photo credit: Alone by Laura Finkel, https://www.flickr.com/photos/-followthemusic-/8128132886

 

Life in SLoMo (Social, Local, Mobile, that is)

In the 8 years of hyperspace that we’ve traveled since the smartphones hit the market its become increasingly more clear.  The traditional text message (SMS) fused with instant messaging technology to create a wave of social computing yet unheard of.  When you stop to think about the layers of functionality that have been introduced and integrated on the mobile platforms, it is really astounding:  photo, video, voice, live-streaming.

Applications that offer a personal experience using one or more of these capabilities are the new normal; they are the most popular and growing by the day.

 

internet-trends-mobile-applications
Slide 47 of KCPB Internet Trends 2015 by Mary Meeker

 

 

Further, some of these apps, including Whatsapp, Wechat, Slack and Voxer are bridging mediums and arguably becoming platforms for new types of innovation.  What’s the distinction of a platform, you might ask.

Platforms allow ecosystems to develop

If you work in a team environment, especially software, you’ve probably experienced Slack. Inspired by a 45 year-old technology but using 21st century tools, Slack provides a grass-roots platform for collaboration and informal communication within enterprises of all sizes.  But the thing that really has made it a smashing success is the ecosystem that surrounds it; there is a plug-in for just about developer tool on the market. These plug-ins allow developers to create their own best-of-breed project management system – something greater than any of the component parts.
The Slack ecosystem is pale in comparison to what’s happened in China with Wechat. This messaging based application leverages QRCodes and chat to provide a smartphone based platform of search, reviews, peer-to-peer payments and various other tools.  New businesses are spinning-up daily on the Wechat platform, and operating at a scale that gives Facebook’s mega-messaging applications, Messenger and Whatsapp, a run for their money.
Slide 53 of KCPB Internet Trends 2015 by Mary Meeker
Slide 53 of KCPB Internet Trends 2015 by Mary Meeker
These applications are not alone. It seems daily there are new entrants.  One of my personal favorites is Voxer, which provides ‘walkie-talkie’ style voice communication for groups and individuals (think Nextel phones in app form).  I became intrigued by this after watching my wife and her network marketing colleagues use it as an entire business platform for conference calls, offline training and 1:1 catch-ups with colleagues.  It breaks the mold that assumes messaging had to be typed on a keyboard.

The next frontier

I think that Benedict Evans had it right when he said we probably can’t predict where this will go.  I find some of the scenarios he describes regarding Facebook Messenger to be intriguing, especially when you think about technologies like Twilio and Intercom, which have revolutionized enterprise communication by providing a messaging and telephony backbone for web-applications.  Could they too be disrupted once Facebook wants to be the intermediary for web-apps, cars and couriers?  Time will tell.

Update, 30-Aug-2015:  

A couple of interesting stories in the news during the last week or two which should interest those following the messaging space:
  • Facebook released a new guide for businesses that wish to provide a ‘live chat’ capability to their audiences via their Facebook page. The catch is that FB gets to put up a ‘responsiveness rating’ for your page!  Read more…
  • Slack has followed in Facebook’s footsteps by creating an “add to Slack” button for website owners.  Read more…

On-demand is the new subscription

This week I encountered a web based service and took note of their ‘cancel anytime’ feature.  It occurred to me that this had for a few years become a novelty feature in software.  Now I tend to expect it.  So much that I almost overlooked this product’s claim of stopping anytime.
Subscriptions became the default business model for many of the popular software services of the last 10 years. There has been a marked shift though, to a different model, subtlety, but different none the less. That is the on-demand model which allows you to cancel and restart the service at any time.
Take for example services such as Netflix where you can stop, restart, scale up or down on demand. This model works because it mirrors the reality of so many services we use every day: dry cleaners, house cleaning, etc.
This got me thinking: What subscription services do not have an on-demand option?  I asked this question to my circle of friends on Facebook and received back several familiar brands.  Comcast. Dish Network. DirectTV. Verizon. Cable television and cellular.
To some extent, this is not surprising. We have all watched the big providers try to acquire companies up and down the stack of content and service.  We’ve seen them throw everything at crushing net neutrality laws to be able to increase their lock-in power.  Cable and wireless seem to be the holdouts in the consumer space, although there is no shortage of competitors trying to disrupt their rule.
So, I got to thinking a bit more about the B2B software services we use. Platform-oriented software, from cloud providers, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), is already on-demand.
There are many vendors that are not, though. These are products that fall under the classification of ‘enterprise software applications’.  Most of these are still based on annual contracts.  As a product person, I understand why this is good for the product companies. I struggle to see scenarios where its logical to constrain the customer with lock-in given this evolving standard.  The early days of SAAS saw the ‘perpetual license’ start to give way to the ‘annual subscription’.  I dare say that the  these plans can’t exist much longer.
What enterprise software applications have you seen transition to a  pure on-demand model? That is one with consumption or monthly service fees, but no prohibitive set-up/activation fees, cancellation fees, etc.  Please share in the comments.