Tech trends and business ideas

All things that motivate entrepreneurs

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Contest fatigue

Is it all about cheap mashups…? Asked the startup founder who sat next to me in a biz plan contest award ceremony.

I wanted to disagree. I couldn’t. This guy was obviously scornful of the pattern of results emerging from ongoing biz plan contests. Everywhere only the usual suspects had won. VCs flocked to them with vanilla term sheets. They were either founded by faculty from premier institution, employees were malleable students and their idea was a take on what manybody else were doing. “They were the best of the lot” served well for a plausible excuse proffered by the panel of judges. Perhaps the panel’s own disgusting levels of mediocrity robbed them of groovy balls to overlook the usual suspects and reward creativity. No we don’t want to look like novices. Let’s follow the herd. If another panel has adjudged them, why hazard a novice tag..? I need to come back here next year… seemed closer to truth.

"If you were a contest organizer, what would your theme be ?" The founder asked me sheepishly.

Set me thinking. “I would prefer the theme economic and original ” I replied after a pause.

That’s it. When I say economic, I don’t mean cheap. I want something useful if not cheap. It should help eliminate some processes, reduce some complexities from existing applications while seeking to deliver perceptibly refreshing user experience. And yet – capable of being founded by a driven but not so rich teams in about less than $ 50 k strap at the most. Should scream value bit by bit. The customer should be happy to pay without a thought. I call that economic.

Not another take on something which is already out or being pursued elsewhere. Almost 90% of the work done at Web 2.0 startups are a take on a Google, Yahoo or MSN ( GYM ). Everyone claims they are next in line to be acquired by one of the Big Three. Organizers should do well to do a random search while screening the entries and find out the size and spectre of competition. Call up and search them for what’s original about their venture and let them explain why would they merit an entry. Nix them if they don’t sound convincing - with full refund, of course. Newness comes only from creativity in thought and originality of execution. Hence original.

I am dedicating this post to the organizers of biz plan contests.

Please keep it as your central theme so that economic and original ideas get rewarded. That will at least get you quality entries in your next annual do and leave you with a reputation. You don’t have to run around seeking sponsors since VCs are going to love it - it should end the drought of investible ideas. You don’t have to splurge in Ad campaigns and PR blogs since new entrepreneurs eagerly look forward to it.

You got it right if the VC cluetrain stopped at 7 out of 10 idea stations and picked up some delivery….!

Friday, December 08, 2006

Unified Communications – next big leap for Enterprise / CRM…?

It happened to me last week.

I had nearly missed the boat leaving for Alibaug and with it my weeklong holiday plans too had almost gone for a toss.

I was desperately trying to renew my broadband service thro the customer care centre of the service provider. Since I couldn’t renew it online ( no MBs in my account ) it took me as much as four offline calls to as many numbers and an hour to get myself hooked on to the Net again. [ Dammit…I had to check my mail once before I took off for as much as a week. ] I didn’t enjoy the onward cruise much since part of my mind was still debating what advancements in CRM technology has delivered to a consumer in real terms…? If one has to make four calls to get it fixed, CRM still has a long way to go. ERP modules are equally bad if not worse. Clearly.

The Level next

I think in order to reach the next level of customer intimacy, companies need to figure out how to use technology to achieve "normal human contacts" with the very first call from the customer – real-time, immediate and simple communications that emulate methods used in pre-technology days, such as knocking on someone's office door to ask them a question. Why can’t Contact Centers ( a call centre is passé ) push customers toward self-service, reserve agents for customer relationship building, and use “presence” technologies to employ the immediate support of trouble shooters or subject matter experts throughout the organization….? Is this what is buzzing in tech circles as “Unified Communications (UC)”….? Looks like the next stop for CRM…! It had better work.

An important part of UC is presence. In the above example, before I even placed the call, I would know whether the person was available and if so where could I reach her. If I had found out she is not, I might have simply waited to call later, or sent her an IM or email. With UC, if you wanted to contact someone and through presence you found they were available, you might start with an IM to ask if they were available for a call. When she receives the IM, she could simply click a button and connect, turn it into a video call or just start shaing applications.

The Context

UC is broadly defined as “Communications integrated to optimize business processes.”

A more complete definition would be “UC is a range of communications capabilities that are integrated into how people get work done in a way to optimize underlying business processes.”

The key is that communication, at least in a business enterprise, should be thought of in terms of the business process—task, project, contact or collaboration— to which the communication is related. This takes communication out of the realm of a highly personalized, inconsistent “manual” task and puts communication into an informed, predictable and measurable context. Most well-run enterprises have already done this in contact centers, where results are most visible to customers, and it’s time to make similar advances in the field, office and knowledge worker categories.

In the long term, I think one could refer to all of this as simply communications. We will continue to describe each component as we do today - phone calls, IM, email, etc. but as people become accustomed to what we are now calling UC, the process of blending will begin just as handheld devices are beginning to. Just as a cell phone now has email, calendaring and music capabilities.

The Perspective

If at all UC seeks to integrate real-time and non-real time communications with business processes and requirements based on “presence” capabilities, presenting a consistent unified user interface and experience across multiple devices and media types is welcome. The key elements are the use of presence, a unified or common user interface across devices and integration with back-office applications, systems and business processes.

UC is NOT unified messaging, although UM is a component of a total UC solution. The components I see as making up a UC solution include messaging (email, IM, voice, video), calling (audio, video), conferencing (audio, Web, video), presence, device awareness, information sharing (Web chat, file sharing, document sharing), business applications and database access, tied together with a common user interface (which may be Microsoft Office Communicator, or a vendor-specific interface). Right now, several vendors offer parts of a UC solution, but I don’t see anyone offering the total package.

At an enterprise level, here are a few desirable presence requirements - I must be able to set some broad parameters for who can interrupt what sort of activities. Also, what devices do I have access to in which circumstances. This should be a setup step with only occasional modification. But when it needs to be modified, this must be easy to do. Current status information has to be as automatic as possible, without requiring me to go in and set my status manually whenever I change tasks. This means communicating and integrating information from a variety of devices—telephone systems indicate that I’m talking on the phone or cell; my desktop applications notify the server that I’m actively working on a document; and maybe my car tells the server that I’m driving down NH - 47.

The Bundle

But looking at it from another direction, here are two different ways that UC might be adopted. First, if these capabilities are just positioned as productivity tools, even for knowledge workers or road warriors, I think it will be a hard sell in a lot of companies over the next few years. Until the client software comes bundled into the desktop and laptop operating systems and is effectively “free,” with the server and central software costs spread over a large community, I think that many businesses will struggle with justification. Second, to integrate these new communication capabilities into business applications and processes to enable companies to transform how they get work done. In those cases, these tools can become an integral part of shortening cycle times, building customer satisfaction, and other activities that can be directly connected with hard economic results. If those applications pay for the infrastructure costs, other users may tag along even with less tangible benefits.

We are already seeing some of this happening—particularly in the contact center environment where specific business applications and processes are taking advantage of basic presence capabilities from within the CRM or contact center software. We’re also seeing Microsoft Office applications, which most of us use daily, having UC capabilities embedded within the applications so users can do a “click-to-call” or set up an ad hoc conference from within the Word document or Excel spreadsheet, for example, without having to go to a separate application or user interface.

The Benefits

In the long term, UC will deliver value in three main categories: The customer experience, differentiation of your business, and controlling resources (time, payroll, assets, expenses, etc.) for the enterprise.

The first two, customers and differentiation, should drive up your revenue, while the third should cut your costs. With UC, your customers should always be served by employees with full knowledge of the customer’s preferences and transactions.

Enterprises will find ways to deliver better products and services faster or less expensively than their competitors. And with UC, it should be possible to eliminate massive amounts of currently wasted time and expense. The key is actually to take action, i.e., actually change or improve your business processes to get these benefits.

In the short term, we’ll see useful exchanges both inside and outside the enterprise due to better communication between individuals, resulting in shorter project times, quicker time-to-market and organizational efficiency.

The Rub off

Installing UC for one process will make it available to others in the enterprise, and the employees will begin to innovate their own process improvements in unexpected areas. It’s important to watch for that “volunteer” UC innovation in addition to managing the success of the intended processes. One good example of this might well be instant messaging, which could be applied, for example, to speed up collaboration in the product development team, and then the services team finds they can accelerate service responses with IM-based presence as well.

The Roadmap

Where the most important processes touch the largest group(s) of employees is exactly where UC should first be implemented. It makes a UC implementation very feasible. An enterprise can start UC in one process for one group and build on the learning rather than trying to convert the entire enterprise to a new business model overnight. That way the early-adopter companies can integrate UC into specific processes where they can see a payback.

The low-hanging fruit in this market are the groups that need to collaborate. This can be all over the map—an M&A group working on a deal, marketing working on a new promotion, legal working on a contract or a development team working on a project.

The initial processes and applications will most likely be Microsoft Office applications, since Microsoft and partners are already working to UC-enable those applications. Then it will spread to other applications and business processes such as CRM and ERP.

The Promise

The promise of UC is simplicity in connecting and being connected. UC is indeed a great way to leverage internal expertise to provide real-time support to agents dealing with customers. Instant availability of experts will substantially improve first call resolution in a variety of businesses. And first call resolution is becoming an increasingly important driver in contact centers.

( And yes, I could renew my broadband account, check my mail and still make it to that boat.)