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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Buying Into the iPad – Available this Weekend At a Big-Vision Store Near You

Faint surprise may just surmount the frequent reader of this blog, but I for one (good reason) am tiring of the (mostly bad) jokes, the barbs, and the sundry wisecracks that have preceded this Saturday’s debut of Apple’s iPad. Non-technical reviews, amply volunteered by chief marketing officers in spe and DIY brand management experts, alas all solely from the amateur domain, have ranged from the mildly sophomoric (“I’m going to buy an iPad. Period.”) to the unapologetically puerile (reference the evident geeks-without-girlfriends’ fascination with the feminine hygiene aisle and such Judd Apatow-inspired memos to Cupertino helpfully suggesting that the 64GB version should be labeled the “Heavy Flow” model).

iMoses didn’t descend from Mount Sinai with a “magical and revolutionary” tablet (at a price tag that still beggars belief) in order to change the fate of humanity or His untethered 4G children (in Steve’s appendix to the Decalogue, however, it clearly states that “Thou shalt not be caught reading a Kindle, for thou shall look like a total douch,” like the pale, pasty kid on the beach next to all the bronze, sculpted bodies evoking that stark visual contrast between Amazon’s pastel-colored “Original Wireless Reading Device” and the iPad’s supremely sleek back-in-black design). No, the iPad won’t change your iLife, you must still be kind to your nagging iWife (although there was a good one about the iDesperate iHousewives, its pointe lost completely in the seeming novelty of adding Apple’s trademark “i” to just about everything), and moreover, the Pentagon is not about to license Jobs’s patented “reality distortion field” to squelch the quagmire in Afghanistan, as this week’s rumor mill would have you believe.

Instead, let’s review some “news you can use,” in case “starting at $499” is not enough to get you off the settee:

  • Wall Street predictions for how many iPad tablets Apple will sell in the first year vary widely, with a range from 1M to 10M units;
  • There’s a pre-order limit of two per customer, even for businesses which is surprising (I guess one for the “magic” and the other one for the “revolution”);
  • Be cautious when making an impulse purchase at 9:00 a.m. this Saturday, as only the WiFi model will be available at first, and buyer’s remorse may beset you when tablets fit for 3G cellular service will be shipping at a later date;
  • Try to imagine what you’re going to do with your iPad; a comScore survey found that people would use it equally for web browsing and email, reading digital print media, and watching videos and playing games;
  • Thus far Apple has only allowed few established publishers – including Time Magazine, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc. – pre-launch access to its device, and thus there will be only a handful of big-media applications available this weekend;
  • Business models among the print media companies are still all over the place, with some charging the equivalent newsstand price for the same content, others offering premium content taking advantage of the iPad’s seductive multimedia capabilities but also at a cost premium, while again others are billing for monthly subscription;
  • Advertisers are, albeit cautiously experimenting together with the media, with the Wall Street Journal, for example, selling advertisements for about $100,000 per month;
  • A few software development issues persist for third parties, including the automated iPhone-to-iPad-app conversion process that involves “pixel doubling” and has proven a challenge for developers rushing to get their iPhone apps adapted to the iPad’s much larger 9.7-inch screen;
  • There are other technical gripes too, especially around the iPad’s notorious incompatibility with Adobe’s hugely popular Flash technology which Steve Jobs couldn’t help but calling “buggy, littered with security holes, and a CPU hog” (there you have it, Google, why bother integrating it with Chrome then?);
  • And on that point, if you really cannot live without your favorite Flash sites, there’s HP’s upcoming big spoiler with the help of a touchy Microsoft Windows 7 called Slate which “runs the complete Internet” (completely just for emphasis, that is).

One more thing …, as Mr. Jobs would famously say (who, incidentally in the eyes of your blogger, is the best CEO in the world today, running one of the most innovative companies ever): please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you be thinking about building an iPad app for your business – for helping you find just the right people with that leading-edge expertise at competitive offshore rates is our business.

The New Buzz: Is Google Buying California?

Avid readers of that highbrow literary genre called cyberpunk will barely raise their brow at this dystopian scenario: the once-great State of California is on its financial deathbed. An angry mob with ruined dreams, shattered keyboards, and broken Chardonnay bottles is storming the Governor’s Smoking Tent. After midnight, following an all-stock tax-free acquisition including the assumption of the state’s crushing debt, California is declared a corporate principality, now run by a trillion-dollar market-cap mega-corporation that trades in nothing but information. (At the buyer’s insistence though, a last-minute carve-out is made for Southern California, its perennial water shortage and endless, nagging drain on the well-irrigated North cited as deal-killers; and besides, who’d want all these meddling creative types from Hollywood and those stubbornly Republican Naval retirees living in La Jolla?) Hasta la vista, Golden State!

At first it feels a bit weird, but the corporate citizens of California, Inc. quickly adjust to the perk-pampered life under the new regime. What’s not to like about free Sushi luncheons, mandatory reflexology massages at the workplace, and heavily subsidized 24×7 dry-cleaning? Foosball and frisbee are the official pastimes, red and green are added to the state colors, blue and yellow, and the K-9 police kennel of Alsatians and Dobermans is gracefully retired and replaced with loveable Golden Retrievers. But for the takes there are some gives too. Citizens are required to register with the corporation’s ubiquitous search-cum-information organization-cum-communication-cum-collaboration-cum-social-networking “matrix” (otherwise no comping your Hamachi, hombre). I’m not talking about your vanilla “opt in” EULA; non-compliers are rounded up by Blade Runners and summarily reinstated into the matrix via the corporation’s equally ubiquitous email system. Resistance is futile. Beguiling the populus with brazenly colored and annoyingly ever-present “We’re Not Evil” neon signs, this corporegent – whose business ferocity and trans-commercial ambition has not been matched since the East India Company set sail or before Microsoft lost its mojo – has fooled just about everyone except for these equally annoying and specially crafty Chinese (and look what they’re doing now, tempering with our matrix!).

The We’re-Not-Evil-Doers are just fabulous at day-to-day execution, and promptly they prove that this deal has been, in the words of their banking buddies who helped put it together, “exceptionally accretive.” Here are just a few highlights from the prospectus:

  • By virtue of having their lives digitized and uploaded onto the matrix via continual live feeds, every citizen becomes a “data node” on the company’s data-mining grid. Statistical analysis and pattern recognition across data-sets such a medical records create revolutionary advances in predictive medicine and preventive measures: “Results 1 – 10 of about 1,790,000 for people with identical symptoms, similar backgrounds, and typical outcomes. (0.19 seconds).” Healthcare savings in the billions.
  • Everybody has a smartphone that’s powered by the matrix-gone-mobile, which means every citizen, continuously geo-located (via the phone’s GPS chip), is an extra set of eyes (the phone’s camera) connected to the company’s brain. Location-tagging is a popular sport and hyperlinking reality with useful, personalized information (the “IndiWiki”) creates an augmented reality of astonishing depth and utility, rendering any Luddite “blind” to the “real” world. Advertising revenues in the billions (move over, mayors of foursquare, you’re in our augmented reality now!).
  • It is a citizen’s sworn duty to uninstall all local instances of productivity software (and those who fail their hardware inspection get a nasty house-call from Mr. Deckard). If it has words, columns and rows, or slides, it’ll move straight into the company’s Cloud – no discussion. Naturally, this one is about pocketing rightful revenues from Microsoft, but additional billions are minted when the company’s analytical clout is unleashed on the thousands of documents, spreadsheets, and slideshows that are uploaded every second; in a strictly anonymized fashion, mind you, trends, patterns, and common if not best practices are spotted (“meta-content”), and work product is now put up for search and sale, provided the owner agrees, making this the Lego store for intellectual property on the web.

(Note, if you will: the dystopia of governments ceding power to private organizations and entrepreneurs in a “distributed republic” was, of course, first portrayed in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash, an immensely enjoyable read, which popularized terms and concepts such as “avatar,” “metaverse” viz. Second Life, and “Earth Software” viz. Google Earth. Also, the numbers are not far off. PetroChina became briefly the first trillion-dollar company by market capitalization, following its debut on the Shanghai index, but having since “settled down” at today’s value of about $200B, while Google is currently trading at $178.92B, to be precise. California’s deficit will grow to $28B through June 2010 with a Moody’s rating only three inches above non-investment grade, which is slightly worse than Kazakhstan’s. And factoring in its long-term bond debt, California is in the same obligation order of magnitude as Europe’s favorite spendthrift, Greece. Google, by comparison, has a surplus of over $24B in cash sitting on its balance sheet.)

The above – however far-fetched! – was, as you would expect, inspired by some of the recent “problematic” PR (to be polite about it) that greeted Google’s launch of Buzz, its integrated social networking platform. If you didn’t buy the part about Google buying California, try to fathom, however, the influence that a truly integrated Google-powered communications-productivity-social-media-platform might wield over people’s everyday lives. Buzz is only scratching the proverbial surface of what’s possible for Google. You can check it out at: http://www.google.com/buzz and for a useful overview watch their introductory video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yi50KlsCBio

Some critical voices questioned “how far” Google would go to catch up with the undisputed social networking leader Facebook. While other, more technical reviews centered around security and privacy concerns and quite serious vulnerabilities (such as betraying a user’s geographical location via the company’s integrated Location Services). In general, the reception has been mostly mixed, which – quite frankly – surprised me. Your blogger believes that Google is the technology company of our time for a simple reason that transcends all their technical brilliance and business savvy: Google can be trusted. The element of trust is so central to our business that it’s part of our corporate identity (for more on Talent Trust see http://www.talenttrust.com/). In turn, as an organization we trust Google to help us all become more informed, connected, and productive, while safeguarding the user (his security, privacy, and data assets). In fact, we recommend that our clients use Google Sites (http://www.google.com/sites/help/intl/en/overview.html) for most aspects of virtual collaboration – nothing could be easier to set up, more intuitive to use, and safer in terms of reliability and backup. Google Sites is literally everything-you’d-ever-need-out-of-the-box in order to set up a web presence, an intranet, or a web-based collaborative work environment for distributed teams. Although you won’t have the full-blown functionality or, let’s be honest, the refinement and elegance of a mature Microsoft application, you should keep Google Sites and now Buzz in your technology repertoire or even just your ‘starter kit’ to enable remote work. We’ve been using Google Sites extensively – so please contact me if you have any questions or need any professional assistance (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com).

The World Is Not Flat, And Good Help Is Still Hard To Find (Apologies, Tom Friedman)

There is many a pearl of wisdom to be found in Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s celebrated Shareholder Letter, where in its most recent installment, Warren E. Buffett, the great value investor, Sage of Omaha, and all-around good (and very rich) guy issues the following warning: “Don’t ask the barber if you need a haircut.” Something about wandering into Lloyd Blankfein’s office and wondering if you should be doing more M&A deals. Tougher Wall Street regulations? For the birds! Having Goldman Sachs traders worry about global risk management – like having Saddam Hussein watch over your nuclear weapons stockpile or the brothers at Delta Tau Chi curate your wine cellar. The point: don’t ask me whether you need a remote IT workforce …

Instead, ask any economist what would happen if a given commodity – such as oil or lithium, hey you, I’m-sitting-on-a-thousand-laptop-batteries Tesla-driver – became scarce, and you might just receive a textbook, two-part answer: firstly, make more efficient use of what you have (indeed the hybrid car comes to mind); and secondly, explore alternate sources towards the same end (think windmills and solar panels). And if consumption cannot be limited regardless, the price of that commodity will, of course, continue to rise.

Whether you’re filling up at the gas station, amping your Prius, or filling positions for IT professionals as your company’s hiring manager, you’ll encounter much of the same problem: IT talent – as a local market commodity – has become preciously scarce and hence expensive and difficult to procure. And just like discussions around our Nation’s dependency on (mostly foreign) oil and other precious goods, it is impossible today not to consider the local-global context behind the demand for and supply of IT talent. Given the post-recession blues that surround us, it may come as a counter-intuitive shocker that government estimates put the shortfall in talent still this year at 10 million individuals – which it measures as the number of domestic workers required in order to just keep up with the nation’s productivity levels. (On that very point, however, on how we did manage through a jobless recovery, increasing productivity with fewer workers, I’ve just witnessed a most Dilbert-esque exchange in our Silicon Valley office, with folks now associating being no longer stuck in traffic for hours on their morning commute along the nightmarish Highway 101 as “great for me but unhealthy for the economy.”)

Driven by such irreversible demographic macro-trends as declining birth rates and the coming vacuum left by the soon-to-retire Baby Boomer generation paired with steadily dropping enrollment rates for science graduates, the impending “Talent Shortage” will become one of our great economic challenges for decades to come (making assorted trading-floor shenanigans of recent memory look paltry). Already – and especially in the field of IT – it is taking hiring managers longer to find fewer qualified candidates at higher salary levels (even in a job market where anybody fit to as much as just fog a mirror is applying for Java developer roles). (And it is perhaps a troubling matter of fact that the U.S. produces more board-certified sports therapists than computer scientists; and in Germany, another fast-aging country, there are now more landscape architects than electrical engineers.)

The Talent Shortage – I predict – will bring out the textbook economist in all the rest of us: either we make our existing people more efficient, and/or we find alternate (non-domestic, speak global) sources of talent. (The former, an exercise in what is known as “talent management,” is about creating just the right match between work and worker as well as striking an optimal balance between full- / part-time workers and internal / external positions.) The latter, often referred to as “remote staff augmentation,” works on the principle that there is an asymmetric distribution between work and workers in high- and low-cost countries, respectively (for example: the U.S. or Germany vs. Brazil, Bulgaria, or India); and that it is more practical (in most cases and for all parties concerned) to move the work, and not the worker (see my previous blog).

There are some fundamental changes in the world of work that are re-shaping the nature of both the workplace and the workforce; changes brought about by technology and globalization that are calling into question the traditional proximity between the work and the worker. Most IT professionals today have experience with distributed development teams – either as part of a geographically dispersed organization across multiple office locations or during the course of working with an offshore services provider. The notion that IT (and other forms of knowledge-) work can be done remotely, in a virtual fashion, now seems hardly revolutionary.

Just a quick statistical account of ‘Remote Working / Teleworking’ here in the States and in Europe will help make the point:

  • “It is estimated that 100 million U.S. workers will telecommute by 2010.” (Kiplinger)
  • “In a survey of 178 U.S. businesses with between 20 and 99 employees, the Yankee Group found that 79% had mobile workers, with an average of 11 mobile workers per company and 54% had telecommuters, with an average of eight telecommuters per company.” (Yankee Group)
  • “15% of the EU workforce can be described as ‘mobile workers’ (spending more than 10 working hours per week away from home and their main place of work) and 4% as mobile teleworkers.” (Statistical Indicators Benchmarking the Information Society)

Through remote staff augmentation, employers can remotely deploy individuals (and teams of individuals) across geographic distances and time zones, managing them and collaborating with them (almost) just as effectively as if they were all in one physical location. This is typically accomplished through enabling processes and technologies – giving rise to something akin to a “Virtual Workplace,” a collaborative and often web-based environment for performing distributed work. By electronically moving the work, rather than physically placing the worker, employers can effectively augment their local staff with global talent that is situated off-site for tasks that can be performed remotely. And given the sheer population size and ample talent pools in many low-cost countries (my current “there-is-IT-services-export-beyond-India” favorites include: Philippines, Argentina, Ukraine, Egypt, Vietnam – but let us revisit again China next year), seemingly poised to do just the opposite from our high-cost countries in terms of high fertility rates and the wholesale graduation of IT workers, the long-term fundamentals behind global talent sourcing appear to be solid.

To be an effective strategy to address the Talent Shortage remote staff augmentation must be implemented (and its effectiveness continuously measured) along the following three success factors:

  • Access – give yourself the flexibility you need to meet all your skills requirements, as the likelihood of finding just one offshore partner that has the breadth, depth, and ready availability of all skills required is low (consider multi-vendor arrangements for reasons of both readiness and redundancy);
  • Quality – remember the adage “quality is not a function of size;” find suitably sized offshore partners that will commit quality resources, regardless of business volume (there are thousands of high-quality firms in India alone that may be successfully engaged on smaller or mid-sized projects – i.e., for business volumes generally too low for the top-tier Indian vendors);
  • Cost – follow a diversified country approach and be careful not to over-invest in one particular offshore location which may overheat due to popularity.

If indeed the world is flat (as it has been famously and convincingly argued), or at least, if the world is becoming bigger and smaller at the same time, the dual realities of a global workforce and a virtual workplace are forcing us to simply think differently about workers and their work. Remote staff augmentation is a key part of that new thinking, as the Talent Shortage combined with rising cost pressures and the fact that many of today’s IT jobs can be performed remotely, call for a more global and virtual view of talent acquisition and delivery.