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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How to Survive a Viking Attack, Make a Citizen’s Arrest, and Other Useful Process Flows

Play with me here. In the year of Our Lord 793 you find yourself, regrettably so, on Lindisfarne off the north-east coast of England. The village and monastery on this tidal island are about to be ransacked by the original inventors of the hit-and-run maneuver, and the priory is in line for a much-needed makeover, courtesy of that justly feared Hammer of the North. The sound of those Viking horns makes you freeze like a scratched DVD, and the sight – and not to mention the smell! – of these seaborne savages in their famed longships … you’d much rather have Mickey Rourke in his birthday suit jumping out of your birthday cake any day of the week. Their firey dragons make for terrible portents over Northumbria, and along with the other affrightened inhabitants you get your first peek and whiff of the harrying of the heathen: fierce Norsemen looking like Nick Nolte on the lam – in all exceptional navigators with a patent disregard for personal hygiene – committing rapine and slaughter with such “frenzied efficacy” that The Times would later report: “And they came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted feet, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers; some they took away with them in fetters; many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults; and some they drowned in the sea.”

Despite such notable policy failures, as not even trying to win the hearts and minds of the few people left breathing after each raid (and in sharp contrast to say 21st century U.S. military strategy), there was most definitely some method to the madness. Viking attacks were as agile as any Ken Schwaber (“father of”) Scrum. Runic inscriptions on the Kjula runestone and the Inchmarnock “hostage stone” as well as excavated evidence near Roskilde Fjord show that the Vikings had a Dark Ages version of a project methodology. From stating long-term objectives (demographic, geopolitical, securing food supplies), spelling out short-term deliverables (repeatable and best-practice pillaging across the Baltic coastline), to specifying means and tools (a chain-mail hauberk or equivalent armor made of metal platelets, conical helmet featuring a protective nasal bar – sorry no horns on the sides, circular shield of stout limewood, swords, spears, and the dangerously “bearded axe”, and finally, one heck of a bad attitude).

The contemporary writings of Alcuin of York, also known as Alcuinus or Ealhwine, would portray the Norse raiders as self-organizing teams that were adapt at responding to change, as opposed to following a plan; amenable to collaboration but disdainful of contracts; they were leaning more towards being individualistic rather than being process-oriented; and had there been software in their days, they’d definitely prefer it to be a “working prototype” over comprehensive documentation. The Vikings as ideological brethren of today’s Agile software development teams? How preposterous! What would that say about the interplay of process and discipline (or the respective lack thereof) which is so crucial to Agile? And is there perhaps an element of “chaos” that might serve a certain purpose, after all?

In Agile software development, discipline without process is blind, while process without discipline is empty (to borrow from Kant’s famous dictum). Discipline and process are indeed intertwined in Scrum which is an iterative framework for Agile software development and project management. Work is structured in cycles of work called sprints, iterations of work that are typically two to four weeks in duration. During each sprint, teams pull from a prioritized list of customer requirements, called user stories, so that the features that are developed first are of the highest value to the customer. At the end of each sprint, a potentially shippable product is delivered.

When Jeff Sutherland created the Scrum process in 1993, he borrowed the term “scrum” from an analogy put forth in a 1986 study by Takeuchi and Nonaka, published in the Harvard Business Review. In that study, Takeuchi and Nonaka compare high-performing, cross-functional teams to the scrum formation used by Rugby teams. Ken Schwaber formalized the process for the worldwide software industry in the first published paper on Scrum at OOPSLA 1995. Since then, Scrum has become one of the leading Agile development methodologies, used by Fortune 500 companies around the world. In short, Scrum is made up of three roles, three ceremonies, and three artifacts. The three roles are: the Product Owner, who is responsible for the business value of the project; the ScrumMaster, who ensures that the team is functional and productive; and the self-organized team. The three ceremonies are: the sprint planning meeting, daily scrum meetings, and sprint review meetings. Lastly, the three artifacts for prioritizing and tracking tasks are: the product backlog, the sprint backlog, and the “burndown” chart.

There is no (more) denying that Agile software development is more successful than traditional project management for software delivery (e.g., a sequential software development process like the waterfall model). Just like it’s a historical fact that Viking attack were messy but effective. In the past, the Agile community used to defend its own “messiness” (we’re not code-slinging cowboys, but a little creative chaos is a good thing) and try to prove its effectiveness. Nowadays, Agile has become so mainstream that its leading practitioners are at pains to explain how it is still different – especially when deployed at large project scales – from previous process improvement methodologies. After all, once the hullabaloo and proto-Norse shouting had subsided, was a Viking formation really that different from say a Roman legion? Having run a number of larger Agile projects myself for our clients at Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/), I can offer up three observations for why Agile is indeed different and better:

  1. Just by virtue of being an “improvement process” alone, it forces you to define the things that you wish to and need to observe, measure, and effect. Even if you didn’t follow through on the rest of the methodology, you’d already have gained an advantage by creating a “map of key observables” in the software development lifecycle.
  2. Agile really won’t work unless you’re very disciplined – no mystery there, as you’d have to be more disciplined to compensate for less process rigor. But furthermore, it is discipline that matters: a regimented approach to team training (otherwise nothing will work); closely controlled and strictly enforced adherence to scope; a rigorous way to do effort estimation; and an open and honest peer-based culture of information sharing. Yes, all of this takes tremendous discipline on a daily basis that will naturally accrue to the benefit of your project and IT organization.
  3. An explicit acknowledgement that software development is both an inherently creative and collaborative process. Just putting the words “software,” “creative,” “collaborative” and “process” in one sentence will give you a clue that there’s a creative spark at work here that’s a) difficult to manage and b) the cause of consternation for “traditional types,” as predictable schedules have indeed become a thing of the past.

As an aside, the odds of surviving a Viking attack, especially if you were a book of hours-illuminating or medicinal Rosemary-plucking monk ca. 793 – 1066 A.D., were about as low as a George Carlin joke. However, here’s what you can do to increase your chances of living to fight another day: a buddy system is always recommended, though an early-warning system (sentries stationed in equal spacings along the seashore) is deemed to be even more effective. Brush up, if you can, on your dönsk tunga (the “Danish Tongue”), norrœnt mál (Norse language), or Old Gutnish, a peculiar Gotland dialect, for these brutes didn’t speak English at the time, and translators were typically the last in line to meet Odin, Thor and gang. If you can muster the courage, it will be to your advantage to use long-range weaponry such as the English longbow or a crossbow, as your Viking opponent will prefer to slay you in hand-to-hand combat, which he believes to be infinitely more honorable than distance-killing (take that for a fact, Mr. Rumsfeld). And whatever you do, don’t feed their cute little birds of prey – they’re raptor gryphons trained to eat your eyes out.

And to follow through on the other title teaser: you must adhere to a very specific process when apprehending your felonious fellow man, if you’re not acting as a sworn law-enforcement official. Notify authorities if you can; evaluate the situation clearly; say “Stop;” inform the suspect that he’s under citizen’s arrest; try to convince him not to leave until a police officer comes; be firm and matter-of-fact; in the U.S., a Miranda Warning is only required if you are both detaining and questioning the suspect at the same time; for clarification, you do not need to read the suspect his rights if you first question and then detain him; call the local authorities and identify yourself to the police when they arrive; try to stay calm at all times. This is, of course, an example of a process flow that is bound to get you in trouble – and probably end up looking like Rihanna if you try to do this at home and home happens to be Queens – if you’re not agile and you don’t have the discipline (or in fact the guts) for follow-through.

Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

“Don’t cry for me, Argentina
The truth is I never left you
All through my wild days
My mad existence
I kept my promise, don’t keep your distance”
– Eva Perón in Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice

In everyday life there are many successful husband-and-wife teams; I’ve personally encountered such domestic-cum-corporate duos thriving for example as restaurateurs, travel agents, certified public accountants, florists, vinotecarians, pre-Netflix vidéothèquers, European-car mechanics albeit with limited repair capabilities, temporary employment agencies, bagel store owners, expensive dry cleaners, and my favorite pedicurists whose marriage though, I sense, is a bit on a rough footing. Despite federal and state-issued labor regulations that must be prominently displayed in all work areas, including the bedroom, specifically warning of such workplace hazards as “spousal arousal,” the kinship of business and pleasure has obvious advantage (viz. merit and merriment) as well as disadvantage (for richer or poorer but never for lunch, as my wife, for one, would freely assert). (The analytically-minded will note that there are four possible outcomes when matrimonial and monetary matters conspire or collide, as the case may be: business success or failure paired with marital bliss or whatever the opposite, I dare not ponder – just compare / contrast the pairings of Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and Siegfried and Roy.)

Think about starting a technology firm with your spousal business partner? Doable indeed, as such notable Silicon Valley offspring as Cisco, Super Micro, VMware, Flickr, Bebo, and Six Apart prove. However, think about running a country together? Well, then you will have to keep up with the Kirchners. Meet Cristina and Néstor of Number One Quinta Presidencial de Olivos in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Néstor Kirchner, protean a politician, with his devil-may-care populism of near-Chávezian proportion, his on-again-off-again dislike for markets, and his fondness for decrees (having issued more than the Council of Trent), would have hated vacating the Presidential Villa at the end of his term (as anybody would), and was surely consoled by the seamless, subsequent installment of his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as President of Argentina. Cristina Kirchner, for her part, debacled into office with a creative multi-billion dollar debt retirement scheme that met the stark resistance of that marplot of her Central Bank President who opposed it and who was since decreed-over multiple times, Kirchner-style. With plummeting popularity ratings at home and the national press infuriated (and who cares about  international opinion?), she’s done well to focus on all-out capitalistic reforms (despite nationalizing the country’s private pension funds), taking it perhaps too far with a few dubious development deals of her own that would put even Donald Trump to shame (alongside a fashion decorum to make the Real Housewives of Orange County blush). Luckily for the Kirchners (and the country, of course), a vast amount of oil – estimated at some 60 billion barrels – has been discovered in Argentina’s inshore waters and is certain to now unleash another economic boom. With Argentina’s farm-commodity exports at an all-time high and inflation generally in check, the country under the Kirchners resembles a lush economical oasis in the financial isthmus of Latin America.

Our darling husband-and-wife team, credited with bringing Argentina back into the centerfold of world economic power through political stability, industrial growth, and rising prosperity is following in the footsteps, of course, of another ruling couple, Juan and Isabel Perón, whose style of government in the fifties known as Peronism, that farcical ideological wavering between socialism and capitalism, has for so long managed to hold back a country with just extraordinary potential (given immense natural resources, a highly developed economy and powerful middle class, strong historical ties to European culture, etc.). That Argentina is not yet a G10 or at least an economy the size of Italy’s ($558 billion GDP vs. $1.756 trillion) has famously perplexed V. S. Naipaul who calls it “one of the great mysteries of the twentieth century.” The hangover of Peronism perhaps? Yep, the Argies sure like their colorful husband-and-wife leaders, able as a country, however, to withstand and endure even a bad choice of leadership. Don’t cry for me, Argentina? (Here’s the answer to that one: towards the end of her mad existence, Eva Perón stipulated in her will that Liza Minnelli would be expressly barred from playing Evita, for the good people of Argentina had already suffered too much; she kept her promise; and the children of the Pampas never did shed a tear.)

Argentina is one of my favorite countries in the world. In his day job, your blogger has been working with Argentinean business partners for over ten years. With a demographically young and dynamic population of 40 million, a world-class educational system that’s produced more Nobel Prize winners in the sciences than all other South American countries put together, and a higher adult literacy rate than Greece, Argentina’s workforce can be reckoned with on an international scale. The country’s cultural roots are European and very much like the United States it is a nation formed by settlers and immigrants, affording both Europeans and Americans a great deal of cultural similarity and indeed familiarity. The vast majority of the contemporary workforce employed in science, engineering, and technology speaks English which is taught in school mandatorily as the primary foreign language. The people I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years have not only excelled in their respective fields of specialization but have distinguished themselves as problem solvers, creative thinkers, and innovative contributors; I’ve witnessed entrepreneurship, hard work, and professional pride to degrees desirable for the even the best companies or institutions here in the States.

If you’re thinking about working with a remote IT team, one of Argentina’s most compelling advantages besides boasting a wealth of excellent technical talent at competitive offshore rates is the time zone overlap with both the U.S. and Europe. Just look at your world clock: 8:00 AM in Chicago, is 10:00 AM in Buenos Aires, is 1:00 PM in London, meaning that both Chicago and London will have their respective eight-hour day overlap with Buenos Aires in terms of regular business hours. In other words, Argentina is ideally situated to serve both the U.S. and Europe as “nearshore” destinations for real-time collaboration (think about just being able to Skype your remote colleague in say Buenos Aires in the middle of your day to catch up on a project’s status, as opposed to getting up at the crack of dawn or burning the midnight oil, getting caught up with resources sitting in say Bangalore, India).

It must also be said that you won’t like Argentina if: you are a member of the bovine family (yes, you will get eaten, as this is by a wide but gastroenterologically not-so-healthy margin the world’s biggest beef-eating nation); you are a Malbec grape (you’ll get squashed with Argentina now ranking as the fifth-leading producer of wine in the world); or you get dizzy dancing (Argentina, you’ve got the best dancers in the world – just bite me, Brazil!). Load up your iPod with Astor Piazzolla tangos to relive the magic of the Pampas or the romance of a sultry Buenos Aires evening from afar, and let me summarize why Argentina is possibly your best bet for a remote IT destination:

  • A politically stable nation with a fast-growing diversified economy, vast natural resources, strong at exporting and at the cusp of an energy-sector boom;
  • A large population, with a young demographic and a prevalent middle class;
  • A superb educational system that, with the government’s support, is fostering education and job training in science, engineering, and technology (where the U.S. educational system, in contrast, is desperately lacking);
  • Technical universities across the country produce a wealth of highly-skilled IT professionals;
  • A high penetration of advanced English as a foreign language, both spoken and written, especially among IT professionals;
  • An established and fast-growing IT services industry based on entrepreneurial spirit and technical excellence;
  • IT services exports are strongly encouraged by the government with various incentive programs to further propagate the benefits of a ‘knowledge economy’ (investing in people, non-polluting revenues, currency influx);
  • Cultural similarity with both Europe and North America greatly eases cross-cultural work collaboration;
  • High work ethic, pride in ownership, and innovative ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking are common characteristics;
  • Almost full-working-day time zone overlap with both the U.S. and Europe means you can work with people in Argentina in ‘real time’;
  • And perhaps, most significantly of all if you’re looking for “value for money”: given all the above benefits, Argentina outsourcing is still very much price-competitive compared to most other offshore locations, with savings that can range from 30-50% compared to the cost of domestic staff.