Oct 032015

As announced two months ago, Google quietly morphed into Alphabet after stock trading closed on Friday. The Wall Street Journal describes the new structure and the rationale behind it.

It’s hoped putting the smaller, more speculative operations into a separate business units from the company’s core search and advertising businesses will allow managers to be more focused on the business while giving more flexibility to the newer divisions.

One of the major reasons for Google’s reorganisation is the company had become too unwieldy with the WSJ story quoting one former employee who illustrates the problem.

Many entrepreneurs believe “it’s easier to do their business outside Google rather than inside,” said Max Ventilla, who left Google in 2013 to found an education startup. “There’s a lot of red tape for head count and money to get through at Google.”

At the moment it’s not clear that headcount is going to fall under the new structure and certainly some more revisions to the core business are going to be needed to get focus back for products like Google Docs and the local business search operations which have been drifting for some time.

Over the next two years we’ll see how successful the new structure is. If it works, then Alphabet could be showing the new model for corporate conglomerations.

Sep 302015

Businesses would be wise to stop telling people what they should want and let customers tell them what want says Shel Israel in his latest book, Lethal Generosity.

In this book, Israel’s previous works include Naked Conversations and Age of Context which were both written in collaboration with Robert Scoble, he looks at the technological and social changes affecting business and how they can adapt to a rapidly evolving marketplace.

Key to that evolving marketplace is the explosion of data offering businesses deep insight into their customers. as Scoble describes in Lethal Generosity’s introduction in talking about social analytics service Vintank;

VinTank was acquired by a big PR agency that wants VinTank to do for all sorts of industries what it has done for the wine industry. Are you a restaurant or a winery ignoring that data? Go ahead and keep doing that for a decade. Your competition won’t.

Israel illustrates the need to watch the marketplace in citing a campaign where Canadian brewer Molsons completely wrong footed an oblivious competitor, something similar to how one bank discovered a rival’s successful marketing campaign through real time bank deposits data described  at the recent Splunk conference.

Focusing on the customers

A customer centric outlook, not looking at competitors but focusing on what consumers want is key to success in the new economy, Israel believes. This is enhanced by technologies that allow both products and marketing to be personalised as shown in the chapter detailing how retailers and airports are using beacons and data analytics in their operations.

One good example is AirBnB, while Israel trots out the ‘biggest hotel chain’ in the world fallacy that’s pervasive among commentators, its effects on the established industry has been profound and have forced hospitality operators around the world to re-evaluate their business models.

Israel suggests the best response for businesses affected by the ‘Uberization’ of their industries is to adopt the social and analytic tools and strategies being used the upstart businesses and he provides a wealth of examples.

Seamless sales

Tapingo, the food ordering service for US college students, illustrates the seamless experience that consumers are increasingly demanding in their shopping, business and leisure activities. Israel cites how Tapingo’s merchant partners are seeing an in-store traffic boost of 7 percent and a gross profit rise of 11 percent as a result of using the service.

Shel also illustrates some of the failures in deploying new technologies, specifically London’s Regent Street Alliance that failed due to poor execution and a failure to engage the marketplace.

One of the weakness in the book – which Israel acknowledges – is its focus on US, and specifically Bay Area, case studies. While there are some non-North American examples such as Australia’s Telstra and China’s Alipay, most of the examples cited are of companies based in or around San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Focus on Millennials

Another weakness of the book is the over-focus on Millennials or Digital Natives. While this group is important that obsession risks Israel’s message being pigeonholed amongst the noise of poorly thought out pop demographics and poor analysis that marks much of the discussion around changing tastes and habits between generations.

Israel’s point that the post 1982 generation will soon outnumber older cohorts in both the workforce and the marketplace in the near future though is an important aspect for businesses to keep in mind with the safe certainties and predictable customer behaviour of the baby boom era being long gone.

However the shift in consumer and workplace behaviour is just as pronounced among all the post World War II generations as technology and the economy evolves in the early 21st Century. Focusing on the younger groups risks missing similar shifts among older members of the community.

The value of customer service

Ultimately though, Israel’s message is about customer service. Shel himself flags this is not new, in describing the competition between hiking goods suppliers The North Face and Sierra Designs in 1970s Berkeley.

What is different between today’s businesses and those of forty years ago is technology now allows companies to deeply understand their customers and provide customised marketing, products and experiences to the connected consumer.

For the business owner, manager or entrepreneur, Lethal Generosity is a good starting point to understand the forces changing today’s marketplace. The case studies alone are worth considering for how an organisation can adapt to a rapidly evolving world with radically shifting customer behaviour.

Sep 202015

Probably the best regular session of the annual Dreamforce conference is the final session where Salesforce founders Marc Benioff and Parker Harris answer questions from the attendees.

As with any open microphone session, some of the questions are silly but many highlight frustrations Salesforce’s customers have and some give the opportunity for an insight into Parker and Benioff’s thoughts away from the scripted glitz of the main keynotes.

One questioner asked Benioff and Parker what their advice would be to someone in their position of 16 years ago with a new business.

Forget the tech

“Don’t think about the tools or the technology,” said Harris. “Thing about the problems you can solve. Stay focused and work hard and build a great company.”

While Parker also emphasised a great team is another important element, Benioff flagged an element of luck in building a successful business, “we got the timing right.”

Ultimately though it came down to making the jump from a comfortable, if frustrating, corporate job to a risky startup.

“I remember I was working in a big company for a long time, very unhappy.” Benioff recalled and noted the decision to strike out on your own is very much a personal decision, that can only be done when you are convinced it is time.

The five questions of business

Knowing when that time has arrived comes down to five questions, Benioff believes.

“It all starts with you, you have to get clear about what is it that you really want, what is really important to you, how are you going to get it, how will you know when you’ve got it and what is preventing you from having it.”

“When you can answer all those five questions you’ll have clarity in your direction. The problem with most small businesses – and big businesses – is they can’t answer those questions.”

“If you can answer those questions then you can break out.”

Ultimately Benioff and Parker flag focus as the key individual attribute and being able to focus on answering those five questions is a very good first step to having a successful business.

Sep 032015
even the biggest businesses can die if they don't understand the world around them

“From the EMC boardroom you can see the carnage of the mini computer industry – Wang, DEC, Data General – you can see their buildings from the headquarters,” said VMWare’s CEO Pat Gelsinger during an interview this morning.

Gelsinger’s point is well made, those companies were victims of the last major computing shift which saw the minicomputer fall out of favour and be replaced with workgroup servers largely running Windows.

For VMWare, those Windows based servers were the basis of their successful virtualization product and the company was one of the winners of the shift to Personal Computers.

Shifting to the cloud

Now a shift to the cloud, something that Gelsinger sees as a bigger and more fundamental change than the one that dispatched companies like Wang, DEC and Data General to the deadpool in the 1990s, threatens to do the same to the companies that did well in the PC era.

That shift is seeing VMWare repositioning their business to their “unified hybrid cloud”, Dell shifting away from being primarily a PC manufacturer and Microsoft rethinking its entire existence. All of these companies are deeply threatened by IT’s move to the cloud and mobile services.

Watching for unicorpses

It isn’t just today’s incumbents that are threatened by shifting markets, a few of the current crop of today’s billion dollar unicorns will almost certainly become ‘unicorpses’ warns Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair.

That some of today’s seemingly untouchable tech startups may also join venerable older companies in the history books may surprise some but the risks are high, the shifts are great and the successful business strategies are not always obvious early in a technology shift.

One clear point is that size is no barrier to eventual failure, as we see with once untouchable giants winding up after technology and markets move against them it’s only the fast moving and flexible thinking that will survive.

Sep 022015

“It’s no longer the big beating the small, it’s the fast beating the slow,” says Eric Pearson, CIO of the InterContinental Hotels Group.

Pearson was quoted by VMWare CEO Pat Gelsinger in his five imperatives for digital business keynote at the VMWorld 2015 conference being held in San Francisco this week.

The five are an interpretation of the trends in a radically changing business environment where the barriers to entry have fallen dramatically, industries are globalised and the time to market for new products has collapsed.

Put together, Gelsinger believes established businesses have to be more nimble as market and industry forces are going to punish those who are too slow to adapt.

Elephants must learn to dance

Gelsinger’s initial point is the world of business is now asymmetric – incumbents have everything to lose in the face of new businesses where upstarts have nothing to lose.

Part of that asymmetry comes from the world of shared resources, which gives startups and smaller businesses access to tools that were once only available to large organisations.

An obvious example of this are the cloud computing services that is concentrating VMWare’s minds, however another good example of how shared resources will change industries is the self driving car where Gelsinger cites vehicle utilisation will go from 4% to 71%.

Gelsinger points out using a car on a pay for use basis will change the structure of our cities which in turn changes the economics of living in suburbia and the business models built around it.

Standardising the cloud

Cloud computing is at the end of its formative, experimental phase and entering into a professional era where different types of services are going to have to work together.

“We have the private cloud which is focused on IT as we know it today, pulling out costs, slow and complex applications but also has powerful governance and does what I need it to do while meeting compliance purposes,” said Gelsinger. “On the the other side we have the public cloud which is fast and is able to scale effectively but has weak governance.”

In a perverse way, it’s Edward Snowden’s revelations that are driving many businesses to maintain their own private cloud networks due to concerns about foreign powers tapping their information flows and the sovereignty of data.

The consequence of a range of different cloud environments mean they are all going to have to get along with open standards becoming more important as businesses ‘mix and match’ their requirements.

Meeting the security challenge

As the Snowden affair shows, IT Security is difficult, complex and messy and becomes more so as workers start using their mobile devices and data is pushed around the cloud.

Gelsinger sees the online security sector as being the one of the biggest opportunities for startups and one of the fastest growing costs for business, “the only thing growing faster than the spend on security is the cost of security breaches.”

While Gelisinger’s focus is on VMWare’s security proposition, the security mindset is going to have be adopted by all business people. As the Target and Ashley Madison breaches have shown, the damage that can be done by a security lapse can be crippling and is a tangible business risk that senior managements and boards need to be across.

Proactive technology

Artificial intelligence has been through a thirty year gestation and Gelsinger told of his early days as a computer engineer working on AI projects in the late 1980s. Those early days of AI were a failure as the results as the time didn’t live up to the hype.

Gelsinger sees this as the next wave of computing as it moves from being reactive to proactive as systems become able to anticipate actions based on the data they are seeing.

While this has major ramifications for the computer industry, it also promises to change management and the role of many professions.

“This is going to change human experiences,” says Gelsinger however there will be challenges as businesses strike a balance between creepy versus convenience and invasive versus valuable.

Welcome to the age of rattling the cage

Half of the firms on today’s Tech 100 list will be gone within 10 years, was the warning in Gelsinger’s final point and he focused on the need for businesses large and small to break out in order to stay relevant.

“Welcome to the age of rattling the cage,” stated Gelsinger. “A time when taking risk is the lowest risk.”

Paul travelled to VMWorld 2015 in San Francisco as a guest of VMWare

Aug 132015
General Electric GEnx jet engine is social media enabled

Technologies like the internet of things, cloud computing, 3D printing and big data are changing our industries and society. At the ACI Connect event today, I gave a presentation on some of the opportunities, risks and ethical issues facing technologists and engineers in the connected economy.

While many of the engineering principles underlying these technologies aren’t new, their scale and the power they give businesses and governments means there are serious ethical, security and societal issues we have to consider.

This presentation explores some of those issues and the technologies and trends driving them.

Entering the Data era

A conceit among technologists is that we’re in an unprecedented era of change. This is not true.

The Twentieth Century saw massive restructuring of our society as the telephone, mains electricity, the motor car and television changed our society. Many of today’s settled industries came out of the huge technological steps forward over the last hundred years.

Just as cheap energy – delivered to us through the motor car and mains electricity – defined the Twentieth Century, this century will be defined by easily accessible and abundant information.

Those changes over the last hundred years give us some hint as to where we are going; the shifts that saw coal carters, newspaper sellers and night soil men eventually become extinct, along with a shift from a largely agricultural workforce to industrialised employment, is going to be repeated this century as information becomes abundant.

Harnessing the Internet of bees

Cheap and small sensors mean it’s easier to put a chip on something. In this case we have a CSIRO project tracking bee activity where Tasmanian scientists have put tracking devices on bees.

Those tracking devices would have weighed several hundred grams and cost hundreds of dollars ten years ago but today they are small and cheap enough to fit onto the backs of bees.

Being able to deploy these sensors means we can fit them to things we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago and the data they generate is going to give us insights into patterns and behaviours we couldn’t have contemplated.

However not all of this data is useful or necessary and some may even be damaging to individuals and groups. One ethical question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is in the community’s interests to collect this information.

Another aspect of connecting devices, or even animals and people, to the Internet or a network is it opens the possibility of hacking, as we’ve seen in the recent Jeep case where engineers showed they could control a vehicle remotely. The security and privacy aspects of the IoT are critical and something designers and product engineers can’t overlook.

Decoding the data

It’s often said that Data is the New Oil. In truth it isn’t, data is increasingly cheap and easy to access. Being able to analyse that information is where the power lies.

Data analytics is probably going to be one of the most important fields in an information rich economy and already we’re seeing companies springing up to help farmers estimate crop yields, truck drivers plan their routes and even organisations like the Royal Flying Doctor Service using cloud services to better plan their operations.

Again these services plan a lot but there’s also downsides as inappropriate data matching risks breaching consumers’ privacy and even drawing false conclusions from confusing correlation with causation. A good example of this is Facebook being used to judge credit worthiness.

Removing the human element

Automation – whether it’s through robotics, machine learning or algorithms – will change many industries and the workforces employed by them.

One understated field is management where many white collar supervisor jobs are at risk from business automation. It may be that the executive suites are the next sector to be decimated by computers and robots.

Similarly, many services industry jobs such as taxi drivers and baristas are at risk from robotics while large scale 3D printing of buildings threatens to put many building trades under pressure.

No more truck drivers

Driverless vehicles have a whole range of applications, in logistics were seeing them put forklift drivers out of work while mining companies are rolling out massive dump trucks in their new mines that don’t require $200,000 a year drivers.

One study estimates that half the police workforce in the United States would become redundant as law abiding driverless cars become common.

Similarly electric cars will have a massive impact on government revenues. Currently Australian governments raise $17bn a year from fuel excise and has ramifications for businesses involved in the supply chain for service stations.

Once driverless vehicles become commonplace we may well see them changing industries like daycare, public transport and couriers as it becomes possible to summon an autonomous vehicle, put the kids or the luggage into it and then send it off to its destination. If you’re worried, you can track the progress on an app.

The effects of the driverless car show how we have to think laterally about the effects of new technologies on our businesses, sometimes the effects of a new way of doing things could indirectly hurt our business or create new opportunities.

Squeezing out inefficiencies

One of the great promises for the IoT, Big Data and business automation is to remove inefficiencies from industry. Cisco believe that up to 14% of the Oil and Gas industry’s costs could be stripped away with today’s technologies. That in itself is worth over a 100 billion dollars a year in cost savings.

GE are deploying their technologies into a diverse range of industrial equipment ranging from jet engines to railway locomotives and wind turbines with spectacular results in reducing costs and improving productivity.

The effect of these improvements means less downtime and maintenance costs which are good news for customers and shareholder of these companies, but bad news if you’re a maintenance business. It also means the speed of change in business is accelerating.

Skilling the future workforce

In summary the skills needed today are very different to those of 1915 and 1965 and those of the next fifty years will be even different.

As a society we have to decide what skills we are going to give not our children but those currently still in the workforce who are going to be working longer and later into their lives as the workforce ages.

We also have to consider what sort of ethical compass we have. While the technology we have today is powerful and capable of great things, it’s also capable of great harm. We need to have an understanding of what the effects and limits are of our actions with the Internet of Things, Big Data and analytics.

Ultimately we need to ask what value we as individuals can add to our communities and society.

Aug 112015

“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.” Writes Larry Page in his announcement the company he and Sergei Brin founded is to be renamed Alphabet with Google as one of its divisions.

The new company, which will continue to be listed as GOOG on the NASDAQ stock market, will have Page as CEO and Brin as Chairman with the various product lines and products split into discrete divisions under the umbrella holding company.

Page believes this will increase accountability and initiative within the divisions.

In general, our model is to have a strong CEO who runs each business, with Sergey and me in service to them as needed. We will rigorously handle capital allocation and work to make sure each business is executing well. We’ll also make sure we have a great CEO for each business, and we’ll determine their compensation.

How well this Japanese style Keiretsu model will work for Google will be interesting. The initial problem for the company is going to be the jockeying for positions within the restructured divisions.

Google’s management is well known for losing interest in projects and products that aren’t working out and those stranded in ‘orphan divisions’ without strong interest from Brin and Page’s team or big revenues are going to find life frugal and discouraging.

The plight of Google+

If you’re a Google employee you’d certainly be lobbying hard today to avoid being stuck in the division lumbered with the dying Google+ social media platform for instance.

The plight of Google+ may give us some clues to Page’s thinking. At the time of the 2008 financial crisis the company heeded the warnings of The Powerpoint of Doom and clamped down hard on costs. Since the crisis passed, Google has steadily become increasingly cumbersome and increased its headcount from 20,000 in 2009 to 54,000 four years later.

A restructure is an excellent opportunity to strip out a good deal of that fat.

For divisions like productivity apps, this sharpened focus may help the product and stir the teams into innovating. A Gartner report last week put Google Apps at a pathetic 2.1% of the global productivity while Microsoft maintains a 94% chokehold on the market. As an autonomous division, the Apps team is going to have to work a lot harder.

Protecting the core

Another question is how this will pan out for the core Google business. The combination of search and advertising remains a monstrous cash generator however its growth is slowing as the company struggles with the shift to mobile.

For the core Google employees, having profits sifted off their division for loss making moonshots may not be the most motivating thing and we may well see Sundar Pichai, the already announced CEO of the Google division, pushing back hard on the claims of other Divisional bosses for capital.

The restructure of Google is going to be an interesting experiment in how well the Japanese conglomerate model may work in the modern tech industry, if it does then we may see the modern equivalents of US Steel and AT&T develop.

For Google’s managers and employees however, having the harsh glare of shareholder accountability may not be the most comfortable experience.