To Mob the Web Fantastic: Mobile- and Social Media Confluence Strategies for Brick-and-Mortars

There is as much blood in a Bloody Mary, as there is actual resolve in the average New Year’s resolution. Today is January 24, and the pavement on the road to hell never looked so resplendent in abandoned self-betterment. Take a notion that struck you as clever just a few short months ago (Zumba dancers with nicotine patches, anyone?), douse it in a bucket of forward absolution, and sprinkle a light dusting of discipline on top. Bring to a quick boil on New Year’s Day and let the stir simmer for the twelve months to come. A worthy three weeks into it, and I can assure you, both the novelty and nobility of forcing changes unto life’s design will have worn as thin as a Nicki Minaj character. (Last seen inside a gym when the British left Palestine, your blogger, as a case in point, is tiring admittedly of the thrill of carb counting while spending more time with his family – blaming the waning enthusiasm for wanting to look less like a Care Bear on the two pre-adolescent sodium sales people which the Kraft Foods company has so insidiously installed in his own home. And predictably, he sides with Oscar Wilde – whom else? –, for “good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”)

In a professional context, I have noticed that IT leaders are ringing in the New Year with two items seemingly topping the list of their department’s make-it-happen resolutions: the respective implementation of a mobile strategy and a social media strategy for their businesses. While every business may have unique objectives and requirements for how to capture an increasingly mobile and social network-based audience, there are a number of common themes unfolding. Here I shall highlight one that has garnered strong interest in particular from a number of our clients in the retail sector: the “fusing” of the physical and the virtual worlds. In short, 2011 may yet be the year that will see the blending of brick-and-mortar with bits-and-bytes, as many consumers today are “glued to their smartphones and living on Facebook,” as a CIO client of mine recently put it.

Here’s what’s having the CIOs at global retail companies as excited as the residents of Wisteria Lane at the arrival of the UPS delivery man: today, shoppers with their smartphones in hand are browsing the aisles of brick-and-mortar (B&M) retailers with the ability to look up any product information on the spot, including competitive pricing typically from Amazon.com. However, not all paths lead to Amazon; with powerful new mobile applications, merchants now have viable marketing tools to attract and entice customers with in-store specials tailored to the individual. For B&M retailers the future of one-to-one marketing may just have arrived. And if you’ve seen the movie “Minority Report,” you’ll know what I mean.

Think of the smartphone as a “bridge” between the physical and the virtual worlds. Terms like “mobile tagging” or “object hyperlinking” refer to smartphones’ ability to recognize an object and to call up information from the Internet that is specific to that object. This is accomplished through image recognition (a computer science technique that is becoming ever more effective), the reading of a QR code (a format that is fast gaining in popularity, especially in Europe and Japan, and is promoted by Microsoft in the U.S.), or the scanning of the ubiquitous barcode.

For example, when you see something of interest in the “real” world – say a product or an ad – you can take a snapshot with your camera phone, and the phone, equipped with the right app, can recognize the product and allow you to “interact” with “it” right then and there. Scanning a barcode while in a store, can give a shopper real-time access to price-comparison data; reading the QR code printed on a magazine ad can bring up the advertiser’s web page directly on the handheld; and a number of apps can visually recognize book covers and other items just to bring up the corresponding shopping cart at your e-tailer of choice. Regardless of whether this interaction is enabled through image recognition or code scanning (or other emerging techniques for object identification), it is my belief that people will increasingly use their smartphones to take pictures of physical objects (shopping goods, print ads, display windows, movie posters, showcases, billboards, etc.) or “check in” at physical locations (à la Foursquare, Gowalla, and shopkick) in order to instantly obtain object- or place-specific information from the web.

With a purpose-built mobile app, a person’s smartphone will not only “know” the shopper’s location but also “carry” detailed, yet hopefully anonymized consumer data which can be used by nearby merchants to issue precisely targeted specials and preferred pricing offers by sending coupons to the phone. These digital coupons are then scanned from the phone’s screen at checkout and thus redeemed. And for extra credit, every time a consumer snaps an item or registers at a location, there is an opportunity to capture a meaningful piece of marketing data: the voluntary and self-motivated signal of interest at the time and place of encounter with any particular merchandise, commercial, or store location. Marketers consider a compilation of such indications of interest a powerful predictor of future consumer behavior, second perhaps only to a shopper’s past purchase history. And, of course, with access to such consumer information in real time – i.e., if products, ads, and storefronts “knew” something about you – that encounter becomes that much more meaningful, as the product pitch can now be tailored to your preferences.

Finally, who knew Coleridge (Jr. nonetheless) had a thing for IT budgets which are customarily cut at the beginning of the year: “The merry year is born like the bright berry from the naked thorn.” Beautiful, of course. Perhaps just as beautiful as being able to stretch your budget to do more with less and to implement some impressive mobile- and social media strategies without going for broke already in the first quarter. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) has helped many traditional, brick-and-mortar firms devise and cost-effectively implement such strategies – with flexible access to highly skilled IT professionals located offshore. Please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you be thinking about building mobile apps and social media platforms to influence and captivate consumer audiences. Talent Trust has a ten-year history of creating successful technology solutions for delighted clients such as Accenture, Agilent, Autodesk, Brady, CMA CGM, CompuCom, Continuous Computing, Critical Mass, Elan Computing, eMeter, Euro RSCG, GE, IBM, Major League Baseball, Manpower, McAfee, Medtronic, Suzuki, Taylor Corporation, Verizon, Zynga, and many more.

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Dragon Claws and Tiger Paws: The Hackers of Globalization

What’s all the fuss about globalization being either good or bad, manageable or inevitable? Globalization is but a fuzzy measure of how globally connected, integrated, and dependent you are on others in terms of economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and not the least ecological interchange. Last time you ever poked fun at that goofy Icelander for believing in his wights, elves, and huldufólk (“hidden people”), for he’ll come right back at ya, by closing his country’s banks – turning a whole bunch of UK depositors into such huldufólk – and shutting down your airspace for weeks on end (and all you can do is sue Thor for spewing volcanic ash and other forms of Icelandic ectoplasm, including Björk, over your Fatherland). (Though on that note, the brave pilots of Deutsche Lufthansa must be congratulated for being the first to face the pulverized magma, proudly living their corporate motto that the “Hansa is flying even when the birds are walking.”)

No, globalization would be a simple and straightforward matter if we just called it global trade (and indeed, if it was just that: worldwide import/export), and if it wasn’t for such complicating factors as the vast inequalities accentuated but perhaps not caused by putting us all on an economic Mercator projection, an equal free-trade footing. In the good old days, it used to be fair and equitable: you’d send a nutter like Marco Polo off on his Silk Road to scam the Kublai Khan with some cheap Venetian costume jewelry, and the fool would come home with spaghetti – home being Italy, mind you! Let’s call this one “Bucket A”: arguments for or against the notion that the world’s haves and have-nots will benefit very differently from the effects of globalization. If the upper left-hand corner of your paycheck says “The World Bank Group,” you’ll likely be a naysayer, arguing that global inequality has risen as a function of increased globalization for a number of factual reasons that are measured in something called the “Gini coefficient,” and the explication thereof would stretch the scope of this blog as much an A-Rod-professed monogamy. Know that your blogger – like most civilized people – categorically condemns the exploitation of impoverished workers and joins with militant fervor in the persecution of all exploiters of child labor (if you can, check out our friend David Arkless’s and his company Manpower’s support of http://www.notforsalecampaign.org/ – a rather worthwhile cause!).

Some of the other, softer, and more academic arguments brought forth by the anti-Davos crowd (rash boarders, by and large, who eschew après-ski and raclette with Angelina Jolie) have to do mainly with agriculture subsidies in rich countries (thereby lowering the market price for poor farmers’ crops), the non-existence or at best weakened state of labor unions in destitute regions, and – oh behold, the Bugaboo! – the rapid growth of offshore outsourcing. In “Bucket B” we shall lump all arguments either in favor of or opposed to the notion that globalization will revert all “things” back to their normal mean. And all these things are purportedly economic, technological, political, cultural, social, and perhaps even ecological in nature (you can appreciate how complicated a well-rounded treatment of globalization can get – and most of them alas are as cohesive as Destiny’s Child). Think of it as the global equilibrium point, where say a big media company in the States is outsourcing all of its IT development to India, where the Indian IT developers – because of these two interlocking economic trends called global wage arbitrage and purchase price parity – are making a respectable middle-class living, allowing them in turn to tune into, as it so happens, their client’s satellite TV channel to watch the admittedly timeless episodes of Rachel and Friends, thus sending about $1.50 in revenues back to Burbank, California for each $1.00 spent on outsourcing. The labor savings and the incremental foreign revenues are strengthening the firm in the U.S. such that it can afford to hire more domestic workers. A spiraling win-win scenario, or so it would appear, were it not for the pesky competition all now filing into Bangalore, tilting the local supply-and-demand ratio towards ever inflating wages. Over time, as you would expect, the Bengaḷūrus will be able to command the same level of pay as the good folks back home in Burbank. That’s what “mean reversion” means in this case: everyone’s making the same rupees and watching the same TV shows (where the largest common denominator will, thank heavens, also be the lowest one – watch out Slumdog, here come Jessica Simpson’s hair extensions).

Aforementioned Buckets A and B deal with resource re-distribution and societal re-shaping, respectively. It is perhaps intuitive that according to the KOF (ETH Zürich) Index of Globalization, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden rank first among the world’s most globalized nations (and that despite ABBA!), while Iran, Burundi, and North Korea are plotting away in impressive isolation. Cynics will contend that although the driving forces behind globalization are well understood, corporations (mostly again in rich countries) are in the driver’s seat, and thus it is hardly surprising that globalization will follow a corporate, and almost by definition, opaque agenda. Others point to the “avengers” of globalization, those that are part of a nation’s diaspora, the reverse exodus of Western-trained workers back to their country of origin (such as the legions of highly educated and very successful Indians in Silicon Valley, for example, returning home to start new businesses in India). And of course, there are those who watch Roy Rogers movies on TCM and eat lots of apple pie and claim that the United States will never fall behind, because we – and nobody else! – have the monopoly on innovation. (I’ve got something innovative for you, and it’s not the Xbox 360: here in the States we’ve got more massage therapists entering the workforce every year than computer scientists; and we’re now graduating more social workers from our colleges than engineers – of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with massage therapy or social work, quite the contrary, but you shouldn’t then wonder why someone moved your cheese all the way from Chennai, or why there are as many Indians on the list of the top-ten richest people in the world as there are Americans.)

I’ll close with a contention that may well be controversial: our conception of globalization is about as relevant today as Paul Bremer’s last lecture in the Sunni auditorium at Baghdad University on why “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Globalization has been a decidedly Western concept ever since the Greco-Roman world established trade links with the Parthians and the Han. It’s pretty evident that the Chinese and the Indians – the only two countries with more than a billion people each which together make up nearly 40% of the world’s population – find our notions of global connectivity, integration, and interdependence about as quaint as a Quaker’s chuckle. Bucket A, Bucket B, pro or con, it really doesn’t matter. You might as well try to explain to an Indian “classical” musician the difference between Mozart and Miles Davis or insist to a Chinese that opera is all about stout white men crooning Verdi. Give it another 30 years, and China will produce 40% of the world GDP, with the U.S. (15%) and the EU (5%) lagging emphatically behind. With Chinese economic hegemony and supremacy in hardware, and India’s leadership in software and an unrelenting focus on scientific and technical education, and a potential coming together of two powerful allies at the purposeful exclusion of the United States, the economic, political, and social constructs of the West have lost their relevance as far as the Dragon and the Tiger are concerned (notwithstanding the tragic reality that both countries will still have to lift hundreds of millions out of abject poverty.)

Please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you or your company be thinking about establishing an offshore presence in either India or China. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) has a ten-year history and successful track record of doing business in both countries and helping our clients successfully navigate some of the challenges of globalization.

The Man Who Mistook His Life for a Game

When your mother told you that life was neither a fairy tale nor a game, she was certainly right about the former and probably wrong about the latter. In fact, there’ve been a few notable thinkers since the mid-1800s who claimed that life was nothing but a game. The notion that people are Pokémon on the great board game of Life first vaulted into the halls of science and took hold of public imagination with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, followed only one year later by the release of The Checkered Game of Life, courtesy of the fine and inventive people at Milton Bradley. Since then some games have indeed become more serious than life itself (sorry, I’m not talking about Dancing with the Stars); and with the advent of game theory (a formalized, mathematical treatment, if you will, of social science) countless advances have been made in manifold fields such of evolutionary biology, political science, international relations, and of course computer science. You’ll really like game theory if you made it through Theoretical Econ 101, you can still stomach your applied math, or you’ve had the hots for Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. For that matter, game theory will come in very handy should you ever find yourself incarcerated with a fellow inmate named Johnny von Neumann, and you’re wondering whether to betray that strange man to the warden or to only say as much as the acteurs in The Blair Witch Project.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma (a formal study, again, of why two people might not cooperate even if it’s in both their best interest) and, conversely, other counterintuitive behavioral models that attempt to explain for instance why people might collaborate (to contribute, say, intellectual “property” into the intellectual commons) even if it’s not in their best interests, have become intellectual staple diet for Social Web connoisseurs. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) does a lot of work for Fortune 1000 companies that wish to implement effective “Web 2.0 strategies.” I put that term in parentheses for no one really knows what it means, except for Tim O’Reilly (who invented it) or Carl Jung (who would have described it as the act of individuation through socialization by means of solidarity networks, but Carl unfortunately is long dead).

Most our enterprise clients wish to harness the web’s social-media sphere as a way to expand their business (be it to grow their brand, widen their customer reach, or deepen their relationships with business stakeholders). If you think you can do that by just sticking a “Share it on Facebook” or “Digg it” button up on your corporate site you belong in a fossil collection, a Barock shrine, or a Tibetan monastery. It’s ironic for me to say so (for our company provides the technical talent behind many a successful Web 2.0 implementation), but Web 2.0 has a lot less to do with technology than with psychology (no, not psychiatry, and apologies, Oliver Sacks). If you want to make your brand attractive to millions and millions of people who live the Social Web, if you want to connect with them, to garner their attention, and to take them on a journey towards your product or your service offering, you must start to play the game. For starters, throw out your Ajax For Dummies (or say “asynchronous JavaScript and XML” three times in a row), and pack your Nash equilibrium, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, and your favorite body piercing jewelry and head over to our friends at social gaming powerhouse Zynga (http://www.zynga.com/). They’ve just changed their company slogan from “More Fun Than Robert Downey, Jr.” to “Connecting the World Through Games.” There you go. I promise you: play one of their fabulous games and you’ll get what Web 2.0 is all about.

Don’t worry – you don’t even have to like “computer games.” Try out Zynga’s Mafia Wars, and yes, you’ll just either love it or hate it (there’s no in-between, just like with anchovies, the London Tube, or Michelle “Bombshell” McGee). You might not even stand for the glorification of violence, vindicta, and organized crime, although the theme of the game is of less interest to us here, and it might as well be about finding seashells on a beach or blue helmets in a Sri Lankan refugee camp. What’s impressive is that Zynga has just nailed the psychological underpinning of the individual as an integral part of a social network. There’s an amazingly effective reward system. There’s compensation for everything. Behavioral modification and forced decision-making against the ever-present timer. There are rituals and archetypes. There’s always the “mob” (the collective unconscious) and the Complex (do I have enough friends / Mafia members, enough stamina / energy to kill, enough money / reward points, etc.?). The process of individuation is particularly powerful, where players become literally more “whole” by virtue of strengthening their profiles, attaining special powers, and recruiting more players. And yes, there is also the fetish which can be cared for or cured, as the case may be, by – in any event – buying lots and lots of little items from Zynga.

And the lesson here? Needless to say, without state-of-the-art web technology, none of this would be possible. But technology is just the enabler. Psychology – as in the psychological substrate of a successful social game such as Mafia Wars – is the driver behind any viable Web 2.0 strategy. The overlap between social gaming behavior and social media marketing is just striking. Imagine: getting your customers to self-select a particular affinity group, to connect with like-minded individuals, and to recruit them in significant numbers to make for geometric growth; or, for your customers to enhance their profiles (invaluable marketing data) for the purpose of sheer self-expression, validation in front of their peers, or to earn reward or “reputation” points. If you want to connect with millions of customers, forget about your social media icons (we’ll stick ‘em up for you later) and focus on what drives the individual in the social setting. Learn from the leader in the social gaming arena and play some more of Zynga’s Mafia Wars or contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) if we at Talent Trust can help bring some cutting-edge expertise to your Web 2.0 marketing initiative.

Agile for the Enterprise, Part II, or the Good, the Bad, the Dead Pig and the Living Chicken

The difference between a post-mortem and a project retrospective? The obvious answer: nobody has died in the retrospective, and since Agile software development encourages making (small) mistakes (in order to learn from them), the hope is to find the project manager at the finale sitting straight up, still breathing defiantly on the coroner’s table. Which, as far as software-related humor goes, is rather friendly and humanistic compared to Agile’s retelling of the old Sunday-brunch-after-church parable that teaches children the difference between an offering and a sacrifice, the lesson of which has become a tenet of the Agile “movement.”

And here it goes: A pig and a chicken are walking down a road. The chicken looks at the pig and says, “Hey, why don’t we open a restaurant?” The pig looks back at the chicken and says, “Good idea, what do you want to call it?” The chicken thinks about it and says, “Why don’t we call it ‘Ham and Eggs’?” “I don’t think so,” says the pig, “I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved.” We can all guess who is the chicken (not a kind calling in Anglo-American culture), namely the PM making an offering to the gods of Gantt charts, whereas the developer-cum-pig (and as a male techie I just don’t get it!) is putting more than just the proverbial skin in the game.

Such icebreakers set aside, there is in fact a substantial body of evidence that suggests that a number of Agile-flavored methodologies have yielded significant improvements in software development. The results are defined, measurable, and repeatable and typically involve faster turn-around, fewer defects, and less rework. The benefits are increased business value, better visibility, less risk, and improved team morale / productivity. Another key ancillary benefit, inherent in all Agile methodologies, is the ability to cope with changing requirements throughout the development cycle.

Companies that have adopted Agile and are reporting beneficial results are growing in number both nationally and internationally, are varied in size and industry, and range in diversity from John Deere to Google.

Some healthy skepticism within the CIO community has centered around the notion of exactly what problem domain is most suitable for Agile as a solution framework. For instance, it’s not all that surprising that a “heavyweight” methodology might not be the best fit for a relatively small and fast-paced web development project whose requirements, by the very nature of the project, are in flux and subject to user-driven refinement until completion.

Other critical voices have questioned Agile’s place in the enterprise-level IT organization, where a number of factors (mostly as functions of company scale) can conceivably impede its successful adoption. This is where the values which Agile espouses are prima facie at odds with enterprise realities:

  • Open-ended iterations against frequently changing requirements (versus the need for upfront budgeting and ongoing governance, tracking actual against projected hours and against allocated budgets);
  • Intense collaboration amongst co-located team members (versus the geographically / globally distributed nature of most multinationals’ staff);
  • Self-organizing teams that assign tasks bottom-up (versus the prevalence of command-and-control management structures).

Additional concerns are raised when Agile must co-exist with other, typically stage-gate project management models, as the Agile-developed software is often embedded in a larger development context: whether process integration is possible at all, whether the potential benefits are offset by the duplication in training effort, and/or whether the training of only select staff will lead to a cultural divide between Agile and “non-Agile” team members.

I will not attempt here to prescribe a certain, single methodology but rather suggest a framework of proven practices that has also been shown to adapt to some key enterprise requirements. In what is to follow, I will demonstrate how Scrum will:

  • Fit into the stage-gate project management approach;
  • Support a traditional budgeting process;
  • Sustain common IT governance principles;
  • Work for geographically distributed and blended (onshore / offshore) teams;
  • Integrate and beneficially co-exist with other software development methodologies (e.g., Waterfall Model).

Stay tuned.

Agile for the Enterprise

What is the difference between a 4-year-old’s birthday party and a seminar on Agile software development? The good news: there is only but one similarity, I’m pleased to assure you, and I’m speaking with the hands-on authority of somebody who just celebrated his daughter’s b-day (in the company of her closest, 20-odd fellow pink-is-my-color-princesses) and also just last week hosted a gathering of an impressive PMO Roundtable in the Midwest. This is the story of having one’s cake and eating it too (in our case, a shockingly elaborate and yes, dominantly pink-colored “Disney Princess” cake) and the PMO’s mandate of managing IT projects at the portfolio level and with annual, upfront budgets while whole-heartedly, and so it would appear, embracing Agile as a way to improve the outcome of aforementioned projects. A contradictio in terminis or simply a meltdown (as experienced when the first guest princess bit into my very own princess’s gateau) of conventions?

In what is to follow, I will be blogging about “Agile for the Enterprise” – a topic that couldn’t be any more topical, as CIO Magazine and Forrester reported only last week as well that “Agile Software Development is Now Mainstream” – and that, my dear reader, is a pronouncement that is making me incredibly nervous … And I will tell you why “Agile for everyone” is making me just a bit uneasy – there are two reasons: first, my company Talent Trust is in the business of helping clients meet their IT staffing needs by provisioning highly skilled IT professionals located offshore. If there’s one thing we’ve all heard about Agile – as even the Rugby term “Scrum” would imply – it’s that teams need to collaborate very closely in so-called “Scrum meetings” – and now I’m selfishly wondering if the world is going all-Agile, what’s going to happen to our remote services business?

My second issue is that many of my clients are PMO Professionals – and now I find myself having admittedly bizarre conversations that go along the following lines: “Sorry, Mr. Client, but you insisted on using Agile, so we’re not going to tell you how much this project is going to cost upfront, but please bring a blank check – not entirely blank, all blank that is but for your CFO’s signature, and yes, I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised – at least I hope you will – and yes, I very well understand: hope is not a strategy – and, furthermore, if I may, please don’t disturb the artist at work – for software development is now apparently both art and science …” You get the picture.

Of course, I’m just setting the stage for my next blog where I will attempt to tie these themes together for us:

  • There are good reasons why Agile has become mainstream;
  • You can do Agile development with geographically and indeed globally distributed team – which is a fact of life for most enterprises (and hopefully means that I’ll stay in business as well!);
  • And that Agile and the PMO can work together – to potentially achieve better results in software development while conforming to such key concepts as governance, budgets, stage-gates, project management, and so forth – again all elements of how IT is managed within the enterprise.

I will be the discussing the following Agile best practices in the “how-to for the Enterprise” context:

  • How the effort estimation / budgeting process works with Scrum, and how Scrum follows project phases (stage gates);
  • How the Project Management Office (PMO) tracks actual-versus-estimates and measures performance, e.g., by Key Performance Indicator (KPIs) / Key Success Indicators (KSIs);
  • How the partnership with the business owners is established and how their collaborative involvement throughout the project is managed (potentially leading to a better alignment between IT and the business);
  • How IT managers build and deploy effective blended (onshore / offshore) teams, using some Scrum-centric best practices and monitoring tools for working with distributed resources;
  • How onshore and offshore (e.g., Argentina-based) resources collaborate as if they were in the same physical work area, delivering Agile benefits as well as cost savings;
  • How Scrum works with other Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) approaches.