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There’s Not An App For That November 30, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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3 comments

I’ve been in a few CIO briefings of late that have revolved around the topic of business process management.  There is little doubt that much value can be found in formally capturing, defining, and managing the hundreds of processes that keep our companies running.  Even the simplest processes can have costly inefficiencies that can make a big difference in delivering good service and maintaining efficient operations.  A good BPM exercise can find and eliminate those issues and yield a good return on the effort.

For many of these initiatives, much time is spent selecting and implementing the right tool.  Certainly, having a sound workflow system to drive your processes helps.  The right system can automate mundane tasks, track all sorts of things, and make sure people know who needs to do what when.

As with most tools, however, it is easy to get so wrapped up in the tool that you lose sight of the real goal: creating a better process.  While it may be fun to connect lots of boxes with lots of lines, you’re creating a monster, not a better way.

I was once a party to just such a monster, several years ago.  As part of a workflow design team, we were tasked to formalize and automate a process within  our company.  This process had several gates, at which point someone could reject the item and stop the process.  This had been a bit of a sore point in the past, so we were careful to design in ways for rejected applicants to appeal their rejection.

This quickly escalated into a multi-level appeal process, with committees and advisors and automatic hearings.  It looked great on paper and took seven pages to draw out all the various options and choices that could occur.  We were pretty proud of this “better” way of doing things.

Finally, we all came to the same conclusion: this was a disaster in the making.  First, it would be extremely difficult to implement.  Second, it attempted to automate tasks that really needed to be handled by people.  And third, it would cause confusion and chaos among the users.

The real answer to the problem was far simpler: when an item was rejected, the rejecting party was expected to call and explain the circumstances to the rejected party.  The whole group realized that actual communication had an important place in the automated workflow.

That lesson hasn’t changed.  Tools are useful, but they can only go so far.  We cannot automate the most important part of any business: the interaction between team members as they get work done.  We need to use tools to remove the drudgery so that people have more time for the high-value interaction that really counts.  Freed from mindlessly shuffling paper (or email), people can actually discuss issues and work things out.  Communication is the most important thing we do; unfortunately, there isn’t an app for that.

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Skin In The Game November 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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5 comments

With clouds on everyone’s mind these days, more and more CIOs are beginning to consider cloud-based services.  There are still a lot of concerns with this, depending on the system or service you seek to move to the cloud.  In particular, what happens when the cloud goes down?

When negotiating with cloud service providers, the conversation inevitably turns to service level agreements.  Typically, a vendor will promise some level of availability, with some prorated refund if the service is unavailable for an extended period of time.  Thus, if a service is unavailable for more than 24 hours, you might get one-thirtieth of your monthly service fee refunded.  Less than twenty-four hours? You might get nothing at all.

Does anyone, except for the service provider, think this is a good deal?

The cost of an outage is not the actual cost of the underlying service.  The cost of an outage is the value of the business impact you suffer.  If your e-commerce platform goes down for an hour, costing you $100,000 in sales, you should get $100,000 from your service provider.  Needless to say, when you mention this to potential providers, they tend to get a bit defensive.  “You can’t expect us to fully reimburse your lost business, can you?”  Well, yes.  Yes, you can.

If your service is good enough for a client to bet their business on, they’d expect you to have some skin in the game.  If you aren’t willing to put money on the table that says you are as good as you claim to be, why should they be doing business with you? Does anyone want to be the CIO that, while explaining a multi-million dollar outage to his board, concludes with “but we got a check for $1,200!”

What is baffling is that this would be an easy guarantee for a qualified vendor to make.  Hedging risk against failure is an actuarial problem.  Why wouldn’t a vendor purchase an insurance policy against just such an occurrence, in an amount that would cover the exposed risk up to a certain point?  Roll the insurance costs into the service fee and proudly market your “Million Dollar Guarantee” far and wide.  I suspect you’d get some business.  I also suspect that you’d get really good at providing exceptional service.

A lot of CIOs are naturally reluctant to deal with service providers who refuse to share the risk equally.  Vendors who find a way to put their money where their mouth is will gain the respect, and business, of discriminating CIOs.

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Got A Card? November 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking, Technology.
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At any industry event, the impact of social media is evident.  People are tweeting as the event transpires. Bloggers c0ver keynote addresses live.  Vendors stream video from their booths, letting you watch presentations as you browse the show floor.

It is now common to see people run into folks they know but have never actually met.  Relationships built on Twitter or Facebook come alive when people actually meet face to face.  Closing the loop with a physical connection is now the last component of a rich relationship; it used to be the first.

In spite of all this connectedness and mobile technology, one thing has remained absolutely unchanged throughout the lifetime of the internet: the business card.  How can it be, with all this technology at our disposal, that the single most important way to gather important data about a person is a little card? Even people who have built a strong relationship electronically will still exchange cards when they meet for the first time.

Why?  What is missing from the new media that this old solution provides?

The problem has two sources.  First, people still need to exchange some basic data to complete a connection: name, phone number, email address.  Physical address is becoming much less important; other items (like your Twitter or Facebook name) are becoming more prominent.  Even so, the basic way to reach most people is by phone or email.

Secondly, there is no simple way to exchange this information.  I have used many electronic devices over the years, from a Casio Zoomer to various Palm devices to all sorts of phones.  Each of this gadgets has had some way to create a business card and send it to someone else, either by infrared or Bluetooth.  It was always very cool, seemed to work like magic, and never got used more than once or twice.  After you had shown off your geek skills to admiring neighbors, you then exchanged business cards and went on your way.

I don’t know that this will ever change.  There is no cross-platform standard for exchanging virtual business cards that actually works.  I know all about Bluetooth Object Exchange, but it’s just too hard to set up and actually use in real life.

Even if you could establish such a standard, it would take years for everyone to acquire a device that used it.  In the meantime, you’d still be handing out business cards.  And you’d still need cards for people without a device, not to mention needing cards to throw into drawings and such at industry events.

It’s actually kind of quaint that such an old practice simply will not succumb to modern technology.  Even as more and more people  tweet and blog and post and stream, you still cannot avoid asking that age-old question: “May I have your card?”

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I Feel Your Pain November 4, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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Users are in a tough position.  They’ve evolved to the point where they cannot do their jobs without computers.  The systems that they use are becoming more and more sophisticated, with equally sophisticated interfaces.  Worst of all, they have little or no control over how those systems are built.

Our users rely on us to build systems that are easy to use, reliable, and consistent.  They have no idea how we do this, not do they care.  They trust us to take care of the awful details of system design and development to make things that they find useful.  Regrettably, I don’t think we on the IT side of the house do as good a job as we could on their behalf.

We often make design decisions that cause users great angst.  I’m not talking about sweeping design changes; I’m thinking more about the small, subtle things that can make a big difference in a user’s life.  The layout of a screen, the ordering of a menu, the arrangement of a list can dramatically affect the usability of a tool.  Poor usability results in unhappy users.

Many times, these kind of decisions get made on the basis of how complicated it can be to implement a better alternative.  In short, we reduce development time and expect the user to deal with a less-effective interface.  We reduce developer pain at the expense of user pain, and that’s wrong.

I’ve written about this before.  One of my biggest peeves in just about every web site on earth is that you cannot enter anything but digits into a credit card number field.  The developer will not set the field to “numeric only;” instead, they’ll put some awful text near it that explains that you should not type dashes or spaces in the field.  Here’s a big idea: how about you write some code to strip out dashes and spaces, so I can type the number in a way that make sense to me?  The developer saved twenty minutes; users spend collective years trying to type things correctly.

There are countless examples of this in every system we use.  Time and again, developers and designers make their lives easier by asking users to do a little bit more.  The problem is that the development time is incurred once; the user time incurred over and over and over again, for years.

We owe our users better. They trust us to build systems they can use.  We need to feel their pain, take it on ourselves, and remove it from their day-to-day lives.  Users are the most important part of any system; we need to show that we understand that by building things that respect their time and energy.  Show your users some love: build things that put them first.

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Bug In Your Ear? October 2, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.
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Let’s set the groundwork for this post: I love gadgets.  Any and all of them.  Any device with a battery and blinking light gets my undivided attention; if it has settings and preferences, I’ll spend hours learning every last mode and option.  I have yet to meet an electronic object I don’t want to know more about.

Groundwork, part two: Although I have strong opinions on shoes and ties, I will never be thought of as a sartorial trend-setter. I enjoy fine clothing and constantly seek advice on how to mix, match, and wear the right shirt and slacks at the same time.  I’ll never learn, mind you, but hope springs eternal.

However, when gadgets and fashion collide, I am compelled to provide some general guidance.  And that brings me to today’s bit of fashion advice for the gadget-lovers in the audience:

Never, never, never wear a Bluetooth headset in public. Ever. Never.

As much as I love gadgets, and as cool as the concept of a wireless headset may be, there is no excuse to have a chunk of plastic stuck in your ear, twenty-four hours a day. Who in their right mind thinks this is a good look?

We have abandoned, with great reluctance, the pocket protector.  The vast majority of people would not consider strapping a calculator to their belt.  Yet an inordinate number of people seem to feel that a Bluetooth headset is a crucial part of their everyday attire.  Apparently, nothing completes an ensemble of sweatpants, tank top, and flip-flops better than a glowing thing stuck to your head.

Consider the person behind me in line at the deli counter, waiting to get sliced luncheon meat.  What crucial call do they expect to arrive while they are otherwise occupied with the details of turkey and cheese?  What call could be so urgent that the time it takes to get the phone from pocket to ear could make a difference?  A massive stock trade? Providing a nuclear launch code? Advice to a befuddled brain surgeon?  I can’t imagine, but that blinking blue light on the side of their head certainly tells me that they are much more important than the rest of us.

There is one exception to this rule.  I do use a Bluetooth headset while driving, but only when driving alone, and only in my right ear so it is not visible from the road.  My driving skills are such that the headset significantly improves my chances of arriving at my destination in one piece.  But when I do arrive, the headset comes off before I exit the car.

I suspect a lot of people think that these headsets look cutting edge, and tell the world that you are technologically savvy.  Well, they do prove that you can master pairing a headset with your phone, but other than that, you look like a dork.  I can say this with confidence, because I mastered that look long ago.

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