Dec 052014
 
uber-hire-car-app-disruptions

Having just raised $1.2 billion in funding, Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick has written of the company’s next steps.

Kalanick flags the Asia Pacific as being the focus for the company with the latest fund raising which values the business as currently being worth over forty billion dollars.

That valuation is a massive achievement for a five year old business, with the growth pains involved being one highlighted in Kalanick’s post.

This kind of growth has also come with significant growing pains. The events of the recent weeks have shown us that we also need to invest in internal growth and change. Acknowledging mistakes and learning from them are the first steps. We are collaborating across the company and seeking counsel from those who have gone through similar challenges to allow us to refine and change where needed.

One of the big challenges for a high growth business is managing that growth; systems that work well for a ten person organisation with a few hundred clients fall over when you have a hundred staff, thousands of contractors and millions of customers.

Probably the biggest challenge for businesses like Uber is privacy; what’s clear is the ‘God View’ that allowed the company’s staff to monitor customers and drivers has been abused and is too easily accessed by employees. Tightening data security is going to be one of the major tasks for business.

Fortunately, taking swift action is where Uber shines, and we will be making changes in the months ahead. Done right, it will lead to a smarter and more humble company that sets new standards in data privacy, gives back more to the cities we serve and defines and refines our company culture effectively.

‘Giving more back to cities’ flags what could be a new strategy for growth in places where regulators and governments have been hostile to Uber. One of the reasons for Uber’s success in Sydney for example has been the utter disgust the general population and business community has for the local taxi companies, showing Uber as a good corporate citizen could help in more hostile European markets.

While Kalanick identifies the Asia Pacific as being the big growth market he doesn’t identify in what fields; it’s hard not to think Uber’s software has more potential in logistics than hire car dispatch and this is an area where the company could find more  opportunities to expand the company’s services.

Regardless of the direction Kalanick decides to take Uber, the company is cashed up and ready to expand. As long as management keeps the confidence of investors, the business’ fate is in it’s own hands.

Uber is probably the most fascinating and complex of this generation of tech startups, Kalanick’s post shows it’s story has a long way to play out.

Nov 202014
 
uber-hire-car-app-disruptions

At this week’s Australian Gartner Symposium ethics was one of the key issues flagged for CIOs and IT workers; as technology becomes more pervasive and instrusive, managers are going to have to deal with a myriad of questions about what is the moral course of action.

So far the news isn’t good for the tech industry with many businesses failing to deal with the masses of data they are accumulating on users, suppliers and competitors.

A failure of transparency

One case in point is that of online ride service, Uber. One of Uber’s supposed strengths is its accountability and transparancy; the service can track passengers and drivers through their journey which should, in theory, make the trip safer for everybody.

In reality the tracking doesn’t do a great job of protecting riders and drivers, mainly because Uber has Silicon Valley’s Soviet attitude to customer service. That tracking also creates an ethical issue for the company’s management and one that isn’t being dealt with well.

Compounding Uber’s ethical problem is the attitude of its managers, when a Senior Vice President suggests smearing a journalist who writes critical stories then its clear the company has a problem and the question for users has to be ‘can we trust these people with our personal data?’

With Uber we may be seeing the first company where data management and misuse results in senior management, and possibly the founder, falling on their sword.

Journalists’ ethics

Another aspect of the latest Uber story is the question of journalistic ethics; indeed the apologists for Uber counter that because some journalists are corrupt that justifies underhand tactics from companies subject to critical articles.

That argument is deeply flawed with little merit and tells us more about the people making it than any journalist’s ethical compass, however there is a discussion to be had about the behaviour of many reporters.

As someone who regularly receives corporate largess — I attended the Gartner Symposium as a guest of BlackBerry and will be going to an Acer event tomorrow night — this is something I regularly grapple with; my answer (or rationalisation) is that I disclose that largess and let the reader make up their own mind.

However one thing is clear at these events; everything is on the record unless explicitly stated by the other party. This makes Michael Wolff’s criticism of Ben Smith’s original Uber story in Buzz Feed pretty hollow and gives us many pointers on Wolff’s own moral compass as he invites other writers to ‘privileged’ dinners where the default attitude is that everything is off the record.

Playing an insider game

Ultimately we’re seeing an insider game being played, where journalists like Wolff put their own egos above their job of telling their audience what is happening; Jay Rosen highlighted this problem with political coverage but in many respects it’s worse in tech, business and startup journalism.

It’s not surprising when a game is being played by insiders that they take offense at outsiders criticizing them.

Once the customers become outsiders though, the game is drawing to an end. That’s the fate Uber, and much of the tech industry, desperately want to avoid.

Uber in particular has many powerful enemies around the world and clumsy management mis-steps only play into the hands of those who see the company as a threat to their cosy cartels. It would be a shame if Uber’s disruption of the many dysfunctional taxi markets was derailed due to the company’s paranoia and arrogance.

Eventually ethics matter. It’s something that both the insular tech industry and those who write on it should remind themselves.

Oct 242014
 
innovation

“Technology is part of the solution, but it’s also part of the problem,” says Brian Solis, the

Brian Solis describes himself as a digital anthropologist who looks for how businesses are being disrupted. We talk about digital darwinism, how businesses can approach change and the role of individual changemakers within organisations.

“My primary responsibility is to study disruptive technology and its impacts on business,” says Solis. “I look at emerging technology and try to determine which one is going to become disruptive.”

To identify what technologies are likely to disrupt businesses it’s necessary to understand the human factors, Solis believes.

One of the problems Solis sees is the magnitude of change required within organisations and particularly the load this puts on individuals, citing the story of one pharmaceutical worker who tried to change her employer.

“Her mistake was thinking this was a short race, she thought everyone could see the opportunity inherent in innovation and change when in fact it was a marathon. She burned herself out”

“What that means is to bring about change you really have to dig yourself in because you’re ready to do your part. You can’t do it alone, you have to do change in small portions and win over the right people.”

Oct 232014
 
sales methods are changing in an era of cloud computing and social media

Today GE had their At Work conference in Sydney where CEO Jeff Immelt was interviewed by Westfarmers’ boss Richard Goyder.

One of the key messages from Immelt in his interview with the Australian conglomerate’s CEO was that finding growth in a flat global economy is going to take hard work and creativity; just relying on increased domestic spending is not longer an option.

Immelt was particularly pointed about the developed world’s economies, “the US is best since the financial crisis, growth is broad based but it’s still in the two to two-and-a-half percent range. It may be that’s the new normal.”

“Europe and Japan are pretty tough, forty percent of the world’s economy is still difficult, not going downward but stable and flat.”

Preparing for a slow growth world

“We’ve prepared ourselves for a slow growth world but one where you can invest in growth.”

“There’s still opportunities out there,” Immelt observed. “We’re going to have to make our own growth.”

Part of that growth story relates to the end of the consumerist era where debt funded consumer spending, particularly in the US, drove the global economy.

“We are coming out of a time period of the last ten or fifteen years where the US grew four and half percent every year with no inflation. So the US was the dominant economy in the world during the 1980s and 1990s.”

“We knew that was not going to be the same, so we’re in a world with no tail wind where we think greater focus on things like R&D, globalisation and things like that which will be critically important.”

Changing business focus

One of things Immelt did after the global financial crisis was to change the focus of the business away from the consumer finance division that had been a river of gold over the last thirty years back to being an industrial infrastructure company.

“Everyone needs to paranoid about relevancy and what they do great in the world today. There is no shelf life for reputation or anything else.”

“The engine of growth in the US when it was growing at its best was the US consumer, both in the combination of their own wealth and in taking on leverage. That was the engine of growth from 1980 to 2007.”

“It ended badly, but those were big engines of growth. What will be the next engines of growth?” Immelt mused.

Asian consumers to the rescue

Immelt sees the rise of Asian economies as being the next growth drivers with over billion consumers rising in affluence.

Whether those Asian economies can generate the growth that the hyper-developed economies of North America, Europe and Japan were able to provide during the past thirty years remains to be seen given China’s, and most of Asia’s, consumers having nothing like the West’s spending power.

The truth is we’re decades off Asia’s huddled masses having the economic strength to carry the global economy in the way the western world’s consumers did for the closing decades of the Twentieth Century.

For economies like Australia that are largely based upon domestic consumption funded by debt, this will mean a massive redirection of the economy away from renovating houses to investing in productive industries.

Immelt’s message to business leaders is clear; don’t rely on a rising tide of domestic growth to keep you afloat. Companies are going to have to find new markets and products if they want to grow, waiting for customers to arrive is no longer an option.

Jul 302014
 
soldier pawns on a chess board

This week I’m in New York to attend the BlackBerry Security Summit, more of which I’ll write about later although this story for Technology Spectator covers much of the news from the day.

BlackBerry is struggling to find relevance after losing its way when Apple and Android smashed their business model of providing secure, reliable and email friendly phones.

Now in post Snowden world, BlackBerry under new CEO John Chen is looking to rebuild the company’s fortunes on its strengths in security.

One of the aspects Chen’s team is emphasising is the simplicity of their software. Dan Dodge, who heads BlackBerry’s QNX embedded devices division says their operating system has a 100,000 lines of code as opposed to hundreds of millions in Windows and Android.

That weakness in the established software packages is something illustrated in today’s story about a verification problem in Android due to reuse of old code from another older product.

Simplicity is strength is Dodge’s message and that idea could probably be applied to more than software.

In the complex times we live in, simplicity could be the key to success.

Jul 012014
 
Spreadsheets are a powerful but dangerous business tool

Journalists have had a tough time over the last twenty years and it’s about to get tougher.

Last July The Associated Press announced they will automate most of their business reporting. AP’s Business News Managing Editor, Lou Ferrara explained in a company blog how the service will pull information out of company announcements and format them into standard news reports.

instead of providing 300 stories manually, we can provide up to 4,400 automatically for companies throughout the United States each quarter

This isn’t the first time robots have replaced journalists, three years ago National Public Radio reported how algorighms were replacing sports reporters.

Ferrara admits AP has already automated much of its sports reporting;

Interestingly, we already have been automating a good chunk of AP’s sports agate report for several years. Data comes from STATS, the sports statistics company, and is automated and formatted into our systems for distribution. A majority of our agate is produced this way.

Reporting sports or financial results makes sense for computer programs; the reciting of facts within a flowing narrative is something basic – Manchester United led Arsenal 2-0  at half time, Exxon Mobil stock was up twenty cents in morning trading and the Japanese Yen was down three points at this afternoon’s close don’t take a super computer to write.

Cynics would say rewriting press releases, something many journalists are accused of doing, could be better done by a machine and increasingly this is exactly what happens.

The automation of commodity reporting isn’t just a threat to journeyman journalists though; any job, trade or profession that is based on regurgitating information already stored on a database can be processed the same way.

For lawyers, accountants and armies of form processing public servants the computers are already threatening jobs – like journalists things are about to get much worse in those fields.

It could well be that it’s managers who are the most vulnerable of all; when computers can monitor the workplace and prepare executive reports then there’s little reason for many middle management positions.

This is part of the reason why the middle classes are in trouble and the political forces this unleashes shouldn’t be underestimated.

Jun 262014
 
How do mobile phone users reduce costs

‘Digital natives’ has been the term to describe people born after 1990 who’ve had computers throughout their entire lives.

The theory is these folk have an innate understanding of digital technologies from being immersed in them from an early age.

It’s doubful how true that theory is; the generation born after 1960 were born into the television generation yet the vast majority of GenXers would have little idea on how to produce a sitcom or fix a TV set and the same could be said for the war generation and motor cars.

Digitally native businesses

For businesses, it may be the digital native concept is far more valid. Ventures being founded today are far more likely to be using productivity enhancing tools like social media, collaboration platforms and cloud computing services than their older competitors.

What’s striking about older businesses, particularly in the Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) sectors, is just how poorly they have adopted technology. The Australian Bureau of Statistics report into IT use by the nation’s businesses illustrates the sectors’ weak use of tech.

The most telling statistic is the number of businesses with a web presence; the SME sector lags way behind the corporate sector that has almost 100% penetration.

Australian_business_with_a_web_presence

Many of the zero to four business can be disregarded as most of them are sole trader consultants who’ve had to register a businesses for professional reason, although there is an argument even they would benefit from a cheap or free web presence to advertise their skills.

The ABS statistics show small business is lagging behind the corporates in social media and e-commerce adoption as well so the argument that local businesses are ignoring the web and using services like Facebook, LinkedIn or Google Places to advertise their services doesn’t hold water.

Old man’s business

Part of this reluctance to use digital tools is age; many SMEs were born either in the era when faxes were a novelty or when Windows computers were first appearing on small businesses desktops. They are creatures of another era.

In the current era cloud, social media and collaborative services are running business. The idea of buying a workstation for a new employee and waiting for the IT guy to set them up on the network is an antiquated memory; today’s workers have their own laptops, tablets and smartphones to do the work – all they need is a password.

Those services offer a different way of organising a business and this is the most worrying part of the statistics – large organisations are slowly, and not always successfully, adopting modern management practices while many small businesses are locked into a 1970s and 80s way of working.

For businesses being founded today, this isn’t a worry – they are the true digital natives and are reaping the benefits of more efficient ways of working. Something emphasised by Google’s updates to its Drive productivity services announced overnight.

That’s something that should focus the plans of established businesses of all sizes as they adapt to working in a connected society.