I’ve already had the opportunity to touch on the important subject of the return on investment of Web conferencing in a previous post published in three separate instalments on this very blog. One of the questions that came to my mind following that post is related to the comparison between various conferencing modes. Telepresence may be on top of the media agenda at the moment, but I don’t think that this will make the need for different types of conferencing modes any less important. On the contrary, the advent of telepresence is breathing life into this entire industry. This is a typical example of a competitive advantage applied to an industry as a whole, as Michael Porter would have it.
Having established this fact, what is the difference between the various conferencing modes and what makes them complementary rather than mutually exclusive? I have attempted to represent a number conferencing alternatives in the following slideshow in order to highlight how complimentary all these solutions could be.
read on at this address on the Business Value & ICT blog by Orange
In response to our initial post, C.R. asked for more details on how IT distorts management’s vision of reality. Given the work and resources that have gone into enterprise applications over the last two decades, he asks, why doesn’t IT feed back a true image of how we work? If the daily statistics and scorecards provided by today’s business applications don’t seem to “ring true”, what can an organization do to improve the quality of the data to better reflect individual customers, projects, and opportunities? To understand this challenge, and to explore potential scenarios to improve enterprise applications, we need to first consider how business applications today represent and aggregate data, then explore the fundamental weaknesses in this logic, and finally investigate other avenues of putting the pieces together.
Enterprise applications, including those dedicated to enterprise resource planning, supply chain management and even project management, and are largely based on the principles of business process improvement. A process can best be understood as a set of activities and tasks that managers group together to meet internal or external client demands. Processes thus have four defining characteristics: their origin can be detected in an organization’s recognition of a client need for a product, service or information, they consume resources, and they have a set cost and produce a benefice that ideally meets the clients’ needs.
Improving business processes requires tracking inefficiencies in how an organization captures market demand, supply or measurement. How are an organizational activities and tasks executed to capture client demands? How can an organization improve its capacity to deliver products and services? How does the organization capture and evaluate costs and benefits? Enterprise applications provide responses to these fundamental questions in allowing management to map the current state of existing processes, implement best practices around ideal designs of how these processes should work, and measure organizational progress to these goals.
The resulting ‘process-centric” view of the organization is often a weak approximation of the reality of business practice, and as such limits the usefulness of enterprise applications. One reason for this is that business process improvement was originally designed for organizations producing standardized physical goods, modeling processes around personalized services and/or information delivery has proven a much more difficult assignment. Implementing business processes assumes that management (or their business partners) understand where an industry or a market is headed, an assumption that is sorely tested today in industries ranging from information services to banking to telecommunications.
Moreover, the notion of “best practices” which assumes that there is “one best way” to build product or deliver services has been widely disputed in organizations that have traditionally put a premium on company culture, customization, and understanding individual customer needs. Finally, improving business processes assumes that the employees and managers involved in the targeted processes agree with organizational objectives, and are willing and able to follow organizational guidelines. In many situations, even this assumption is contested by those that prefer focusing on the realities of their organization and their market (i.e. getting the job done) than complying to unrealistic or unworkable company procedures. For all of these reasons, “process-centric” software most often offers management a highly distorted view of the realities of the workplace.
If we abandon the notion of processes, how can business applications be modeled to provide a more realistic view of work? A growing number of management specialists are underlining the importance of networks in understanding how employees and managers actually get work done. In business, networks are interconnected systems of people that share common interests, beliefs, and goals. Social and business networks are used by workers and managers alike to solve problems, to identify opportunities, to build trust and passion, and make sense of their jobs, organizations and careers. These networks cross organizational boundaries; they are composed of centers of influence (the “hubs”) and are held together by the intensity of personal relationships (the “links”).
If most managers understand the importance of their personal networks, improving networks requires understanding how these networks function and how they can be extended and strengthened. Social researchers have identified a number of defining characteristics of networks that potentially can help mangers improve their effectiveness: “power laws“, “degrees of separation”, “discontinuous change“, “fat tails“, etc. These networks are held together by common beliefs, passions, trust or know-how: in other words non-structured information that largely escapes “process-centric” view of enterprise. The power of networks has fueled the popularity of a new breed of the social media applications: LinkedIn, Plaxo, and Facebook are among the better known examples. Will this new generation of software applications help management improve their business?
One value proposition of such network-centric applications is to shift the focus of attention away from an ideal set of activities and tasks (what we “should” be doing) to how employees and managers actually get things done (what they “are” doing). A second insight of a network based view of business is the understanding that networks are self-structuring; people seek to work with those their share their goals, passions and beliefs. A third point of interest is understanding the importance of “non-structured” data, just because we can’t get passions, trust and know-how into a spreadsheet doesn’t mean they don’t largely influence the way we work. Finally, this line of inquiry reminds us that business is essentially a human activity; technology’s role in business is limited to understanding, uncovering and eventually enhancing the human interaction that defines the nature of “work”. For management and their business partners, these propositions constitute powerful levers to improve the value of information technology.
None-the-less, there certainly is a considerable amount of work to be done before applications like LinkedIn or Facebook help managers improve their jobs, organizations and careers. The metaphors of “avatars”, “friends” and “connections” don’t easily translate into the realities of either commerce or industry. The personal information, photos, and videos available in social media today are certainly interesting, but often of little use in driving a business forward. These applications today are largely hard coded; it is difficult or often impossible for end-users to enrich either the information or the software. These applications capture data on how end-users wish to see themselves, rather than how they actually practice business (or anything else…). Most importantly, these virtual networks don’t elucidate today the passions, beliefs, and goals that define how individual professional networks operate. If network-centric applications provide a glance of how the future of enterprise applications can improve business practice, these images need to be brought into focus.
Although IT vendors can proudly claim that computer technology is nearly ubiquitous in business today, many managers remain quite skeptical of the ability of software solutions to help them learn about the different realities of business practice. In spite of constant technological “innovation”, many clients rightfully question whether any supplier is able to deliver business applications that makes as much sense to their “end-users” as it does to their IT department. As an initial contribution to this blog on Marketing & Innovation, let me set out here some of the foundations that I will try to develop in the months to come.After having listened to hundreds of managers in diverse industries throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia, we have the firm conviction that IT is essentially a conversation, and individual markets for IT can best be understood as stories with multiple voices. This view may help explain why many operational managers feel that value of software depends less on its ability to incorporate global best practices than its ability to accurately reflect local visions, contexts and experience. In this era of “anywhere, anytime, anyplace” my ambition in this blog for the coming months will be to explore IT frameworks that amplify these voices to strengthen future success stories of business.
Deploying information technologies to focus on the complexity of business practice will require that vendors and organizations alike give some serious thought to how they design and deploy information technology. Instead of limiting our conversation to choices of information architectures, programming languages and features and functions, we would to extend the scope of discussion to explore how software can enhance or distort our views of our jobs, our organizations, and our clients. In today’s world of mobile workers, dotted-line management, multiple communication channels and “virtual” clients, information technology inevitably plays an increasingly critical role in putting the pieces of business together into a more or less meaningful whole.
The mirror image that most business applications feed back to managers today is biased around structured data, processes, and efficiency metrics. As a result, these applications tend to minimize the importance of non-structured data, networks, effectiveness, innovation and passion. Faced with this distorted view of reality, line management is faced with two options. They can “play the game” by enthusiastically filling in the tables, reports and scorecards that fit their own manager’s view of the market. They can alternatively develop personal information strategies that will help them identify, structure and qualify the knowledge that is important to their assignments, companies, and careers. Rather than blindly filling in the bits and pieces of somebody else’s puzzles, successful managers need business applications that can help them actively restructure information about the specificities of their assignments, customers and clients to get work done.
Let’s take a concrete example in focusing on one of businesses’ key technological challenges today: creating virtual workspaces that will help managers leverage information technology. Forester defines an information workspace as: “a next-generation digital work environment that provides information workers of all types seamless, contextual, role-based, guided, visual multimodal, right-time access to people, content, data, voice, business processes, and eLearning.” Faced with such functional, process-centric jargon, no wonder most managers have trouble understanding exactly how information technology will improve their business…
Let’s suggest a different approach. Assume that the information workspace should be a mirror image of the workplace that we take with us wherever we happen to be working. There are six defining characteristics of the work “place”- how clearly are they reflected in business software solutions today?
A vision that defines the meaning of work;
Actors : the managers, employees, partners and customers that produce work;
Interactions : the events in which we sell and purchase products, ideas and services;
Outcomes: the generated revenue steam
Gateways : communication channels that integrate the workspace into local context, culture and organization
Our contribution to this blog will be dedicated to conversations and stories designed to help managers leverage technology to learn about their businesses. In the weeks to come we will explore the methodologies, architectures and technologies that can be deployed today to build an accurate picture of the multiple realities of business. Fundamental questions that will be addressed include how can business applications capture experience rather than just the facts and figures? Can we extend the paradigm of search to identify patterns of behavior? What technologies today can help managers focus on non-structured data, networks and effectiveness? What are the technical requirements of applications that will capture organize and enhance individual visions, contexts and experience? In short, how can managers make a better use of information technology to learn about business?