Monday, January 31, 2011

Securing competitive edge

Recently we've been working with a number of organizations to help them to achieve strategic competitive edge by aligning business processes with innovations in technology.

Starting with a SWOT analysis across seven dimensions of the business, we're typically able to help organizations to
  1. Reduce costs of operations
  2. Increase revenue, often with a gross margin in excess of 65%
  3. Lock in or protect their relationships with clients
  4. Increase barriers to entry into the market by competitors
Of course, it's great to be able to do any one of these; but to do all four simultaneously is the source of a fantastic competitive edge!

As Wired UK wrote, "the power of your friends' influence is going to transform how we spend. And that means marketing, as we know it, is on the way out." Companies that do not position at the forefront of this trend will lose out. Find out more

Friday, January 28, 2011

Problems with Orwell and Huxley - where's the intent?

Here's the scenario, in simple overview:
  1. Some claim that Orwell's forecast of state control through intrusive monitoring, propaganda, &c. is coming to reality.
  2. Others claim that Huxley was right to stress that people are kept in submission through hedonism, amongst other factors.
  3. Still others claim it's not one or the other, but a combination of the two: different countries, at different points in history, can be seen as dominated by one approach or the other. (Contrast the Stalinist/Orwellian state with its more recent history where, for many, the pursuit of materialism and pleasure pacifies...)
  4. Alternatively, perhaps the most nuanced thesis claims that there's a combination of the two simultaneously. It's suggested that for many societies there are some aspects that are Orwellian and others that follow Huxley. (Modern Russia under Medvedev-Putin has a strong state police control to accompany the BMWs.)
Here's my problem with the arguments: all four caricatures contain the implied assumption that what we observe and debate in our own society, or that of another country, is somehow planned and intended. It takes a strong conspiracy mindset to establish that for most societies, at most points in history!

Historians and social commentators can certainly paint a picture of Orwellian state control in some states (simplistically, USSR under Stalinism; Myanmar or North Korea today). But surely these are precisely the exceptions that cause Western (and other) liberals to raise human rights questions on the international stage.

It's much harder to bring a convincing argument that there's a secret plan to subdue all societies globally in some permutation of Orwell, Huxley or Orwell-Huxley. It's hard, whatever we think we know about space aliens, the United Nations, Freemasons, or some other topical conspiracy theory!

Personally, I'm not prepared to go down that conspiracy theory route for modern, pluralist, states. However, last year I referenced the general human obsessions with Money, Sex and Power. And I'm quite taken by Evgeny Morozov's application of Maslow to the Internet.

Perhaps what we see is simply the outworking of something like Adam Smith's 'Invisible hand' in the absence of morality?
  • It's the combination of self-interest, competition and the principles of supply and demand.
  • In pursuit of money, sex and/or power.
  • Resulting in Huxleyian amusement at the price of an Orwellian loss of privacy so that the whole exercise can be funded through ever more targeted advertising.
Not consciously planned in some Bilderberg conspiracy; but the unintended and unforeseen consequences of classical economic theory!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mobile payments: expect shadow economy to shrink

There's speculation that the next iPhone will join Android Nexus S and phones from suppliers such as Nokia in incorporating a chip to support short range wireless communication for mobile payments. It's a technology familiar to commuters in London who mostly pay for their journeys with an Oyster card.

Incorporating the technology into a mobile phone promises added convenience when it is claimed that people are more likely to forget their wallet than their phone.

The convergence of payments and mobile (smartphone) communications is claimed to speed purchases and so cut the waiting time at the checkout. It also holds out the prospect of novel applications, such as the ability to register presence in a café for a loyalty scheme or touch an advertising display to get further information sent by email...

Expect the untaxed "grey (gray)" economy to shrink as cash follows the way of cheque (check) payments and more of our spending goes via our bank account.

Expect anonymity to become more rare as more of our purchasing habits get associated with individual profiles built up by advertisers.

Expect the advertising profiles to be combined more tightly with the phone's ability to track location ... So, for example, we can be lured into one coffee shop chain rather than the others around as we pass by.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Social revolutions: Egypt clamp-down

I've just been reading Evgeny Morozov's "The Net Delusion" where he argues that Western media wrongly concluded that Twitter and other social networking tools were helping to foment revolution in Iran in 2009.

Iran is not the only example cited: there have been several others since, including claims about Tunisia and now Egypt. In the last hour there have been reports that Facebook access is being blocked inside Egypt, along with Twitter and other sites.

None of the reports contains statistics or evidence of the effect the sites have in coordinating opposition; like the original 2009 Iranian stories they make assertions based on conjecture. Compared with Tunisia, Egypt has lower literacy rates (source: UNICEF) and lower Internet penetration (source: OpenNet Initiative), implying that electronic media will have less effect in Egypt.

However, the reality is likely to be that the statistics mislead: Internet penetration and literacy levels are higher in the cities where protests take place than for the country as a whole where rural and regional variations lower the overall percentage rates.

And, anecdotally, the electronic media sites do allow rapid communication and some degree of coordination of efforts by protesters.

But then, and this is a major thrust of Morozov's argument, the very same tools also empower government surveillance. In Egypt, for example, there have been cases of hacking of Facebook pages and stealing of passwords, attributed to attempts by the Egyptian government forces to monitor the activities of dissidents.

So, it's too early and complex to make firm, fixed conclusions. But expect the cat-and-mouse game to continue to evolve rapidly in unexpected directions as technology empowers both those seeking free speech and those monitoring in an attempt to close it down. The trouble is, in this game the stakes are very high for individuals who get caught and subject to abuse.

Friday, January 21, 2011

History by Tweet

We used to have to re-learn stuff every six months to stay current in the IT world. Now there are daily developments to stay abreast of. Two factors cause it: firstly, the pace of change has genuinely increased with more players introducing more features and services. Secondly, we know much more about what's going on, more quickly, thanks to electronic communications, particularly social media.

For example, one of this week's innovations is that the John F Kennedy Presidential Museum in Boston MA has started to tell the story of the first 1,000 days of the President's days in office on Twitter, the micro-blogging service.

Kennedy1961
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy1961
“All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days...But let us begin.”
What a great use of technology to bring awareness of JFK to a broader audience. It's wonderful to see innovation from an organization that could be rooted in the past, using the technologies of now to fulfill its mission globally and at close to zero cost.

Expect to see other NGO and not-for-profit sector organizations copy the idea and try to develop their own audience.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Not Orwell vs Huxley; but Orwell-Huxley

Orwell famously provided a disturbing view of the future in 1984 where the state controlled by Big Brother rules by fear through surveillance that removes all privacy, mind-numbing propaganda ('Newspeak') and censorship to remove independent thought. It's usually seen as a diatribe against Stalinism.

Huxley wrote Brave New World depicting a world where science and technology maximize pleasure, and all of life (including sex) is about 24/7 consumption.

In his essay on Western society, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that Huxley, not Orwell, had been right. Certainly the casual observer of modern Western culture would find it easy to argue that hedonism rules much of our decision making. The utilitarianism that Huxley was writing to battle is still a dominant guide to many in public and private life who seek 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number' and - in the absence of generally accepted moral absolutes - consider that everything is permissible, provided that others are not harmed.

So far, I'm persuaded by Chapter Three of Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion where he argues that this is a false polarisation.

He quotes Naomi Klein, 'China is becoming more like [the West] in very visible ways (Starbucks, Hooters, cellphones that are cooler than ours), and [the West is] becoming more like China in less visible ones (torture, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, though not nearly on the Chinese scale).'

Entertainment is cheaper than surveillance, and the Internet is supremely efficient at keeping people amused and distracted. He concludes, 'The Internet has provided so many cheap and easily available entertainment fixes to those living under authoritarianism that it has become considerably harder to get people to care about politics at all.'

I'm persuaded that the Internet-era is much more nuanced than casual observers believe: while blogs and social networks allow dissidents to express their view; the electronic media also empower much easier search and surveillance, whether by the secret police of authoritarianism, or the commercial interests of marketers.

How will this tension play out?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Persuasive speech-writing

I came across a great list of the six key features dominating JFK's inauguration speech and have clipped it here so I can remember it for future.
  1. Contrasts "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"

  2. Three-part lists "Where the strong are just, and the weak secure and the peace preserved"

  3. Contrasts combined with lists (by contrasting a third item with the first two): "Not because the communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right"

  4. Alliteration "Let us go forth to lead the land we love"

  5. Bold imagery "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans"

  6. Audience analysis
There's lots more good comment on this subject in a BBC article and in Dr Max Atkinson's blog.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

To .tel or not to .tel?

That's the question I face as my subscriptions to a couple of .tel domains comes up for renewal soon.
.tel is a relatively new domain name (available since February 2009) designed to act like a global address book, and not to require web design or hosting like a conventional web site. Boosters claim they're vital to secure brand recognition for a business, of any size, and can help to increase search engine rankings.

See an example at http://MikeSchorah.tel or the friend to whom I recommended .tel


My dilemma comes because the concept just hasn't caught on, certainly not for individuals. But if I don't renew my registrations would some other Mike Schorah grab my space?!

And since the launch of .tel some of us have become increasingly concerned about Internet privacy issues and I, for one, have no intention of using the feature to update my geographic location status on a dynamic basis, for example.

On balance, now I've got the domain it's probably worth the relatively small cost to renew. But I no longer advise clients and business partners to register as a matter of course. Only go for it if you're running a business and want to create a presence for your business similar to a Yellow Pages entry; don't register if you're an individual. I find the added features of my blog and YouTube channel and other web properties much more useful and compelling for users.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Innovation in the job market

As ever, Rory Cellan-Jones from the BBC provides a useful summary of developments in the technology world. Today he's posted an item about some job seekers setting aside the printed CV or résumé and using 'new' technologies such as videos on YouTube.

Rory Cellan-Jones

hi-tech tricks for jobseekers - technology transforms recruitment industry

I liked what he had to say, but wanted to point out that there's a bigger potential than he noted: this whole web site is designed with more than merely a job hunt in mind. However, it helps to serve that purpose. Here are some of the features:
  • The domain name reinforces my personal name, www.MikeSchorah.com and I use that domain for my email correspondence. The site's graphics banner is the same as the graphics on my printed business cards; and I pick up the graphics theme for my letterhead; and the printed copies of my CV, etc.
  • I've got a few videos, including a visual CV/résumé, as well as some short, serious pieces and some jokes at my expense that show some of the rest of my personality. And there's a link to my YouTube channel.
  • There are links to find my profile on LinkedIn and my tweets on Twitter. Visitors can download a PDF of my profile.
  • There's a big Skype button to show whether I'm online for a chat or a call right now; and visitors can enter an email address to subscribe to updates whenever I post a new blog entry. This is handled by Feedburner, which also provides an RSS feed for me.
  • The site links automatically to Twitter to send out a tweet whenever there's a new blog post; and there's that email digest that goes out at the end of a day if there's been a new blog entry.
  • Because I'm in the tech field, I use the .tel domain just to show that I know what it's about; although, frankly, it's not that useful. (Maybe that's the subject of another blog entry?)
  • I rank the popular posts over the last month; and there are lots of opportunities for people to share my thoughts through their own Facebook, Twitter or other pages.
And then, there are the statistics: it's encouraging to me to see a gentle, steady rise in readership; with a consistent base.

The bulk of the site is devoted to my blog posts where I try to write briefly, regularly and intelligently on some of the subjects that interest me. Most are somewhere in the intersection of technology and business; with some futurist predictions; and the occasional funny stuff to lighten the scene.

Thoughts? Reactions? How can I build or improve on this site? Drop me an email! Or comment here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Expect battles over identity provision online

Facebook claims more than 500m users (each one worth a notional $100 dollars in the recent valuation!). It's already making money from advertising but Simon Garfinkel argues in MIT Technology Review that the company wants to be the single source for authenticating users on the Internet. Already users can login to selected websites automatically using the Facebook Connect system. This is probably disturbing for a number of reasons:
  • The movie The Social Network re-hashed for a mass audience some of the arguments about the company's controversial ethics.
  • Web developers can work around Facebook technology potentially to grab name, address, phone, friend and other information without you knowing it. (More)
  • There's a rising current of concern over the dangers of privacy breaches in our connected world.
The revenue stakes are high: expect companies to pile in with competing offerings, and governments to seek to gain or retain control. And expect the hacker community to try to find alternatives.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cloud reactions

There's an entertaining and mildly paranoid post by Paul Carr on TechCrunch, "Why I'm having second thoughts about the wisdom of the cloud." He likes to shake things up and when I re-visited his post today he'd had over 180 (mostly sympathetic) comments and 650+ Tweets, etc.

His article says that using cloud computing services to store emails, documents, photos, data and more is wildly convenient. But he's alarmed when he reads "this: the US government subpoenaing Twitter (and reportedly Gmail and Facebook) users over their support of Wikileaks..." He says he's even more concerned to discover that the US legal system means he probably wouldn't know if his information is obtained in this way.

We're living through a massive change in the way in which society communicates and organizes; the rules and practices change almost daily. Part of living in this brave new world means taking responsibility for how we use the technology and understanding the negative consequences to the risks we might take with our online content.
  • Sometimes, people find out the hard way: ‘Stacy Snyder was weeks away from getting her teaching degree when she said her career was derailed by an activity common among many young teachers: posting personal photos on a MySpace page.’ (ABC News 6 May 2008)
  • Careless Internet use might cost me some privacy and make life easier for anyone wanting to find out about me. (Try entering your own name, in "quote" marks, into Google and review the results.)
  • Every now and then Hollywood, or a book author, tries to help us work out ways in which even the innocent can become caught up on the wrong side of surveillance. For example, one of the movies I enjoy most is Enemy of the State.
But I have a much more simple concern: at the moment, I enjoy Gmail, Blogger and other services supposedly free of charge because I'm voluntarily supplying more and more information which allows commercial companies to sell advertising more precisely targeted to the profile they're building up of me. At the moment, that seems like a good trade-off, not least because I'd rather see ads that might be relevant than ones that I've got no interest in. My concern, though, lies in the fact that I can never review, tailor or remove that profile. And, yes, what happens if something I like that's legal and decent now becomes a social taboo in future?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Maslow's hierarchy on the Internet

I loved the playful and shameless rip-off of Maslow's 'hierarchy of needs' applied to the Internet by Evgeny Morozov at the 11:00 point of his TED talk here.

He suggests that Internet users start off using it to have fun (pornography, YouTube); and progress through Talk (email, IM, blogs) to Share (Facebook, Twitter) to Learn (Wikipedia, TED) before a very small proportion uses the Internet actively to campaign.

The ideas are explored further in Morozov's book The Net Delusion which I have on order after an intriguing review in The Economist. More later, if the book turns out to have been worth reading after the hype that got me to buy it!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Knowing what everyone else is doing

"A world where everyone knows exactly what everyone else is doing" (comment #2, by Anonymous to a Harvard Business School article) does seem to be where we're heading: Mark Zuckerberg's vision for Facebook is famously (and controversially) open; the addition of location and presence details to voluntary 'status' data will further erode expectations of privacy...

True, historians think this was pretty much how people lived in the past, but only in the context of the hundred or so people in their small village community. The differences now are many:
  1. What we do and say is known on a much broader scale; not just in absolute numbers, but the photo, audio and/or video that accompanies our text.
  2. It's stored, indexed and searchable by others outside our circle - perhaps on a global scale.
  3. It's "monetized," at least it is grist to the mill of targeted advertising that generates financial benefit to others, not me.
  4. I'm not the only one storing info about me: my 'friends' tag me in their photos or videos and it takes more effort to opt out by deleting the tags from the public record than most people can be bothered with.
  5. Confusing small print in shifting Terms and Conditions mean it's possible, even likely, that some database somewhere retains the content, tags and links - even if I think I've deleted them.
Yes, expect 'privacy' to be seen as an historical aberration; but also expect it to have a commercial value in and of itself so that, for some in some circumstances, privacy will be worth the premium costs of time and technology to ensure it exists.

But then it's likely that others will know we've chosen to go "off grid" for a while and that may bring its own challenges!

Far more significant

  • Is it significant that I happened to start writing this post at 10:11 on 11 1 11? No.
  • Does it matter that it'll get published at 11:11? No.
  • Nor will it matter more this time in November when the numbers of the calendar click round to make it equally pretty for MM/DD/YY Americans as the rest of the Gregorian world.
We're a strange and superstitious lot: attracted to coincidences, freaked by strange weather phenomenon and things we can't explain, because we want to pretend we're in control.

Years ago I remember being challenged by reading Richard Foster's Money, Sex and Power and his assertion that most of us are captivated by one or more of these idols. Last year, for example, I met some charitable business people who seemed to have conquered Money and, so far as I could tell, had Sex appropriately under control! But that underlying issue of control was what seemed to drive them in a search for Power and influence. Indeed, Money and Sex are often used as ways to try to acquire, exercise or retain Power...

For me, integrity and ethics in business and life are rooted in an attitude of humility and generosity that I try to attain.

To give a concrete example, I'm always looking in a negotiation to find what they call a "win-win" outcome; to ensure that those I deal with gain in the short- and the long-term. Because when we balance needs and resources on both sides of the equation we're taming that lust for Power that can so easily corrupt and destroy wherever it takes hold.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Accident or design? No control...

There are reports of upset users concerned that phones running the Windows 7 operating system transmit 2-5Mb of data per hour, even in idle usage. It's come to light because users on restricted data plans are finding that they hit their limit sooner than they'd expected...

The issue highlights the difficulties we all face in a technologically advanced world: we have little understanding, and even less control, over the tools and systems on which our lifestyle depends. Today I struggled to change a light bulb in the headlamp assembly of the car. It took many minutes longer than it should have done because I couldn't figure out why the manufacturer had chosen to do things that way; and still less why the driver manual needed reading five times just to work out what to do. And that's something simple by comparison with the iPhone I carry or the laptop software I use, all of which interacts unpredictably with the operating system software, upgrades, patches and malicious hacking attempts I'm forced to try to ward off...

But what's the alternative? My wife laments, "Technology's great - when it works" but I don't relish subsisting on a small-holding, skinning rabbits, which seems the consequence of a Luddite reaction.

Instead, I think we have to learn to evaluate, select, and trust, suppliers as well as business colleagues. And remain as educated and self-sufficient as we can, taking responsibility to ensure that the systems we use to support our life are truly fit for purpose - at the same time necessary and sufficient for what we have to accomplish.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Trust, or not?

At coffee this morning with the seasoned MD of a national retail chain we spoke of many subjects, including whether or not to trust others. It's difficult to get to your mid-40s in business without having been bitten badly. Earlier this week I spoke with an Operations Director who'd been cheated out of millions.

Interesting in the light of this to see the BBC covering the same ground today in the wake of WikiLeaks.

The article concludes with a quote from Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, who says "you really have to decide whether to trust a person or not".

This seems intuitively right: the strategic arms negotiators coined the phrase, "Trust, but verify."

Expect increasing recognition of the need to provide ways to do this in our inter-connected world where we often make connections or do business without the face to face meetings around which trust traditionally developed.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year risks

Our New Year's Eve was, literally, brightened by Grace's fiancé Neil demonstrating fire poi tricks before some fireworks. We marvelled at the skill and enjoyed the speed and the sound and the thrill of danger...

But watching Neil get ready for the show I noticed some learning points:
  • Practice - in safety and privacy. Neil didn't start out with the fires lit; he spent hours getting his routine right before showing the display to others, and before lighting the flames. It's a reminder to me to prepare, and rehearse, especially for new situations, or those that have an impact beyond the routine.
  • Plan - having learned the routine, Neil was more aware of the resources that he'd need and the things that might go wrong in different circumstances ... He'd got a damp towel ready to kill the flames for the controlled finish he achieved. But he'd got a fire blanket, water containers and other emergency plans in place in case something went wrong. He wasn't simply focused on the results, he also spent time working through the process to deliver the results: as someone said, "If you fail to plan you're essentially planning to fail."
  • Prepare to share - it's almost never about the showman: all eyes were focused on Neil, but he'd got Grace on standby as his safety spotter and the assistant who helped to douse the flames at the end; Ian was in the background running the sound system for the background music ... In most areas of life, the leader needs a team to get things done!