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.

Advertisements

Forecasts, Women, Fire, and Other Dangerous Things

He just got back from Shenzhen last night (where he claims all the action is these days), and although he’s badly jet-lagged, looking like he’s had a spoonful of Nembutal mixed in with his coffee, he’s all-business, being of course a very busy man, as not least his BlackBerry humming faster than the heartbeat of a hummingbird would indicate. In fact, nailing my thirty-minute “catch-up” meeting with this high-powered head of global supply-chain strategy for one of the largest and most admired IT firms was a lot harder than getting Tosca tickets at La Scala. (Although I always marvel at the inventiveness of that particular scheduling term, as this is but only our second meeting, and I’m hardly catching up with an ol’ college buddy here.)

I enter his office, and I might as well – judging from the computational horsepower on display – be stepping onto the trading floor of the Chicago Merc or into launch command at Cape Canaveral, were it not for the costly collection of Bonsai, carefully manicured and magnificently cared for (its continuous cultivation, he says, reminding him daily that the devil is in the details, that one’s job is never quite done, and that the locus of all the action is these days – where else? – in Asia.) Pleasantries and pastries are quickly consumed, and he gets straight into it by asking me a straight-forward question which I have my reasons to skirt (first mistake), and rather than answering instead I just tell the man not to worry (second mistake). These admittedly hollow words have barely passed my larynx, when he retorts in his trademark 140 Decibels “‘cause-you-evidently-didn’t-hear-me-the-first-time” wail (which happens to be the sound intensity of artillery fire and is clinically classified as “nearly deafening”): “What do you mean ‘don’t worry’? I always worry. Worrying is what I do for a living. If I’d stopped worrying, we’d all be screwed, our business partners included, such as yourselves!” Ouch!

This high-octane executive and Bonsai cultivator (no, timid and taciturn are not the words that leap out at you to describe his professional demeanor) does worry a lot. About where, for instance, a company the size of his – that, in a good year, would have to add the entire revenue line of a smaller Fortune 500 company just to meet its annual growth target – will find the most cost-effective and sustainable supply of both human and material resources to allow for future, profitable growth. By background, our man is 1/3 applied mathematics professor (in a former life, of course), 1/3 proud company-lifer and procurement careerist, and 1/3 street-fighter – a mixture that would normally appeal to me, were it not for the middle part, where I find myself invariably on the receiving end of this consummate procurer’s incessant worrying about how to squeeze ever more costs out of his global supply base (whereof our company is proudly a part). (As far as world-class professional worrywarts go, it must be said that our friend is leagues apart from the phlegmatic fretting of say a Woody Allen; but still, asking him to “lighten up” on his patented procurement anxiety that anything in this world that can be bought, ought to be bought for the cheapest price possible, would be like asking Frodo Baggins to shave his feet, dispense with that peculiar Hobbit habit of having second breakfast, or stop that premonitious whining about gloom and doom by some monoscopic flame-ball in the sky – in other words, unlikely to happen.)

And all I was asked to provide was a detailed forecast of all the hot IT skills in all the different geographic markets so that this one procurement strategist could better gear his formidable world-wide skills acquisition machinery for optimal world-class results. If I knew the full answer to that question I wouldn’t even tell my own mother, for this is real leverage, having a window of time to be able to build up a privileged on-demand skills pool in the hopefully correct anticipation that these skills will soon be hotly in-demand. The “don’t worry” comment was meant to imply that indeed our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) does very much exactly that: the analytical forecasting and anticipatory sourcing across a very large number of IT skills, functions, and disciplines and across all applicable geographies. Since Talent Trust operates as both a demand- and supply aggregator, we have uniquely powerful insights into what technologies and related skills are on the rise or demise, if a “bleeding edge” programming language is turning “leading edge” overnight, or if a specific legacy skill-set is turning red-hot again for lack of available talent (e.g., try COBOL-with-PowerBuilder). And since we operate a “virtual bench” of trusted partners – all highly specialized, mid-market IT firms in various low-cost countries – we have significant operational advantage when it comes to very rapidly mobilizing these hot skills (e.g., Ruby on Rails, PHP 5, Flex), because we are not constrained by any single organization or geography. In fact, our network (which we call the “Talent Trust Alliance”) has the breadth, depth, and ready availability of IT talent no single supplier, no matter how large, can match. Think of it as a whole forest of Bonsai vs. the single giant oak tree. Yes, our friend does like that analogy, and now he gets my meaning that by virtue of partnering with us, our clients will automatically enjoy the benefits of tapping into our dynamic knowledge of the marketplace for skills, be it onshore, nearshore, or offshore. So don’t you worry, my friend, after all.

Although my foray into micro-journalism has been greeted by my corporate host with admirable support (and I’m no longer called a “mean dodgeball player” who doesn’t answer his client’s questions), I’m reminded that there is a special circle in hell reserved for NDA-violators, and so I shall refer my reader to a recent public-domain but nevertheless very useful ranking of hot IT skills in the market (this one courtesy of IT Business Edge and Dice.com):

  1. Informatica
  2. Virtualization
  3. ETL (Extract, Transform and Load)
  4. Python
  5. Service-Oriented Architecture
  6. Sybase
  7. WebLogic
  8. SOAP
  9. Data Warehouse
  10. SharePoint
  11. MySQL
  12. E-commerce
  13. JavaScript
  14. VMware
  15. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets)
  16. Business Analyst
  17. ITIL
  18. Ajax
  19. Perl
  20. Business Intelligence

(Finally, an editorial note before the Comment section swells up like an English complaint box: the title of this blog is barefacedly lifted from George Lakoff’s 1987 seminal work in cognitive linguistics called “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.” Its readers will ask themselves what the terms we use reveal about the way we go about doing the things that involve said terms. This happens to be an important insight for anybody trying to do proper forecasting and trending involving qualitative measures. A good read.)

The Death of Distance

His capacity for industrial-strength enlightenment and satirical polemicism (against both church dogma and state institutions) never in doubt, Voltaire nonetheless could be a bit of wuss: “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” Now, who would say such a thing in IT? Of course, if you were a prolific pamphletist and public intellectual in mid-18th century France, and an outspoken supporter of social reform and free trade and other revolutionary vices, you’d be hedging your prose and poetry, too, sufficient to make the chief-topiarian of Versailles blush. Think of some of the more benignly erroneous misproclamations by established authorities in the field of technology:

  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” – Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” – David Sarnoff’s associates (obviously prior to pioneering American commercial radio) in the 1920s
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson of IBM, 1943
  • “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” – Popular Mechanics on the relentless march of computer science, 1949
  • “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” – Prentice Hall editor-in-chief, 1957
  • “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” – Bill Gates, 1981

We get the point. Though I feel compelled for the purpose of this blog to add one more mispronouncement, this one from John Doe, Chief Information Officer at DJI, Inc. in the mid-1990s: “Getting IT done means everybody must sit in the same office.” And, truth be told, this one is perhaps the hardest myth to debunk, even with the relative passage of time that saw “India Inc.” vaulting onto the world stage a decade ago as the remote fix-it destination for all-things-Y2K (and without whose legions of highly skilled coders and bug-fixers, even mighty Microsoft’s Windows 2000 may have only shipped in the second quarter of 1901).

Let us first settle on some familiar terminology. The notion that you, as an IT manager sitting in an office in say Bloomington, Indiana could be working with a programmer sitting in an office in say Bangalore, India, I call (for the sake of simplicity) “remote staff augmentation.” This programmer could be working for your firm’s Indian subsidiary or for an Indian software house, or he or she could be a freelancer – what matters is that you will be managing and collaborating with that particular resource as if he or she was sitting in the cubicle down the hall with you in Bloomington. The only difference between another local, Bloomington-based colleague (the employment mode set aside) is, and as the blog title would imply, “distance.”

There’s an immediate, important distinction between this form of remote staff augmentation and (to use the catch-all phrase) ‘outsourcing.’ When you outsource an IT project (and to simplify greatly), you write up requirements for what needs to be done, and you give these requirements to somebody else, typically a professional IT Services firm, and then this firm “goes off and does it” and only comes back to you when the job is done to deliver the finished project. Where these outsourcers go to do the work is really up to them, but they could be staying on your premises, they could be driving back to their head office in Indianapolis, or – like most do – they could be “shipping” the work to their own colleagues in India. Again, what matters is not where the work is executed, but that you, the client, has asked a services provider to do it for you. Now ironically, although outsourcing is in everyday parlance and popular opinion inextricably linked with the concept of ‘offshoring’ (thank you, Lou Dobbs!), outsourcing a project, even if the project is executed for the most part offshore, has little to do with “working remotely.” If you wish to successfully outsource a project, you must understand vendor management; if you wish to successfully engage remote staff, you must be able to work with another human being who is in a different physical location than you.

Managing across distances – including geographic, time-zone, and cultural ones – can at first be thorny and outright costly for the uninitiated. The catchy phrase “Death of Distance” used to express the industry’s conviction that ever-falling telecom prices and the whole-sale commoditization of the communications sector would level the playing field for the global world of work. If the cost of pipes (or rather fiber optic cable) was cheap and the price of piping bits from place A to place B nominal, then surely, and voilà, moving work to people, as opposed to moving people to work, was feasible now that distance had succumbed to high-speed fiber.

However, even though communication infrastructure is essentially no longer an explicit cost item in the “remote working” equation, other key factors constitute ‘implicit’ cost items (also sometimes referred to as the “hidden costs of offshoring”). These steps in the engagement process or links in the sourcing chain are: counter-party discovery (individual / facility), HR and system setup, knowledge and work transition, as well as resource and project coordination. Since these are components that take up – at a minimum, that is to say if nothing goes wrong – time and know-how (in other words: money), we can now fathom a ‘true cost’ equation for what it costs an IT manager at place A (e.g., Bloomington, Indiana) to engage a programmer at place B (e.g., Bangalore, India), namely:

  • Programmer’s wage at place B + discovery cost + setup cost + transition cost + coordination cost.

As a commonsensical look at the above ‘cost stack’ would reveal, these implicit costs – in the absence of significant process capabilities and/or efficiencies of scale – might render an otherwise inexpensive (say offshore) resource as, if not more expensive than say an onshore IT worker. Common sense (and believe me, ten years of experience) would also suggest that you might want to seek a process expert or a volume aggregator to help ‘squash down’ each of the cost stack items  so as to optimize the value of remote (and often onshore-offshore) staff augmentation. Ah, but then common sense, as Voltaire used to observe, may just not be so common.

In my next blog I shall introduce two additional variables that will impact the overall cost of engaging a remote staff: first, whether the collaboration is synchronous vs. asynchronous (i.e., whether there is meaningful time-zone overlap or not), and second, whether the remote resources are being managed ‘stand-alone’ vs. as part of an onsite-offsite distributed team.

Afraid of The Invisible Man (or the Remote IT Worker)?

Whenever I travel extensively and am naturally engaged in a remote working relationship with my colleagues from head office, I experience first-hand the chief tenet of our firm’s value proposition to clients: that with a little know-how just about anybody can tap into and benefit from a remote workforce. Whether you’re already part of a distributed IT organization with geographically dispersed teams, or you wish to engage remote workers in order to source or supplement skills that are locally scarce or unavailable, or whether you’re in the market to save money with offshoring, a number of key Do’s and Don’ts apply.

Although there are different engagement models when it comes to working remotely (e.g., managing a remote individual or stand-alone team vs. managing that individual or team as part of a larger and by definition even more distributed team), and hence different best-practice prescriptions exist for how to maximize the chances of a successful engagement, I will share a list of common success factors that make up what I call the “Parity Principle.”

For the sake of argument, our Parity Principle says that in order to make working with a remote person (located say in Buenos Aires, Argentina) as effective as working with someone in the proverbial cubicle next door, there is additional requisite behavioral activity that, when conducted properly, creates efficiency that, over time, offsets the “cost” of the behavioral change required in the first place. While there is in fact a scientific basis for measuring changes in management behavior and concomitant productivity levels, I will give you a commonsensical intuition for what this principle is all about.

Imagine you’re an IT manager and you’ve just called up your local recruiter to help fill an open, say highly specialized and three-month position with a local consultant. The contractor now reports for duty on Monday morning, and is presumably given a desk to work and shown a tour of the facilities, while you collect your thoughts on how best to familiarize, indoctrinate, and instruct your newest team member in order to make him or her as productive as possible on the task at hand. Communication with the consultant on the first day, for the first week, or for that matter for the entire three-month duration, can be spontaneous, on an as-needed basis in order to answer any questions or resolve any issues. And then there is always the iconic water cooler around which co-workers congregate for informal team discussions, and where even a slight gesture or expression of frustration can be more meaningful than a red-flagged item on the project’s Gantt chart. And lastly, you keep regular taps on your consultant using the most effectual management technique known since Peter Ferdinand Drucker left his native Vienna: managing by walking around (in other words, a quick stroll to the cubicle, a quick status check, a look at the screen, and you’re in the know again).

Now compare and contrast the situation with a remote IT worker. All the management activities are the same, but in general everything takes a little more preparation, a little more formality (watch out water cooler, here comes the water wiki!), and a little more follow-up. The Parity Principle now asserts that all that “little more” that is required to manage in a distributed work environment will accrue to the overall benefit of the project and the team (tangible results through a slight perhaps but measurable increase in standardization, formalization, and day-to-day discipline). A short-list of the most common success factors then looks like the following:

  • Planning (on behalf of the local manager);
  • Communication;
  • Collaboration tools;
  • Proactivity (on behalf of the remote IT worker);
  • Governance processes for a distributed IT environment.

In my next blog I will discuss these key factors in detail and within the offshore context. Of course, the world of work is rife with anecdotes of how, for example, communication with the “invisible worker” can be especially challenging when not only bridging geographic but in addition cultural distances. (An old favorite comes to mind that chronicles the travails of a German radio operator at high seas fielding the desperate plea for help of a sinking American vessel; listening in anguish to the repeated “Help, we are sinking” calls, he finally musters the courage to respond in English: “Yes, I hear you, but what are you sinking about?”)