Help the reader and help yourself

No-one needs to tell you that the reader is the most important person in the world to a publication.

Conventionally, the journalist is responsible for maintaining this focus. Sadly, a great deal of journalism these days, especially online, is 'churnalism' in which barely disguised press releases take the place of reader-centric writing.

There is another way. It probably won't win me many friends among my journalistic peers (although it could save their financial bacon) and that is to ask vendors themselves to write reader-focused and informative, non-selling, articles about their specialist subjects. In my case, the readers being focused on are those responsible for technology in law firms.

The trick is to have a good editor who will help the contributors to get it right – i.e. send it back with recommended changes, seek clarifications and corrections or simply give it a light polish. Having handled a couple of dozen pieces for LawTech magazine, I'm amazed how few had to go back for a rework.

Let's come back to the journalists and their 'financial bacon'. The document properties of one or two of the pieces revealed that they were ghost-written by freelance writers. If vendor staff are too busy to do the writing and publications are too strapped to pay decent rates, this represents a good 'halfway house' for a writer. They're not involved in writing 'puff' pieces, the vendor gets a mention and a web address in the magazine and the reader gets some solid information which contributes further to their understanding.

To add a little colour to what I've said above, here's my latest editorial from LawTech magazine. It also introduces Tom Foremski and his Every Company is a Media Company philosophy.

TNLTMayWhat a terrific bunch of people we have writing for us this month.They are all experts in their various fields and, despite the majority working for vendor organisations, they've all made a real effort to talk to you and address your needs. It's not easy for them; they must feel tempted to give their products and services a little mention in every paragraph. But they've resisted heroically. The result is a collection of articles, which we hope you find interesting and informative.

Yes, each is written by someone who knows his or her company better than any other, but show me someone in a senior position that doesn't have wider experience of the marketplace. Most bring a broader perspective, and it shows. You will find that some articles overlap others but these different points of view will all help to round out your own perspectives.

We are not here to guide you in a particular direction but we hope that by laying out these different viewpoints, article by article, issue by issue, that you are better placed to make your own tough decisions about which strategies to pursue and what sort of vendors you'd like to work with.

For me, it's a great honour and privilege to be able to take this fresh approach to publishing. No one who's been aware of changes in the media over the past fifteen years can fail to have noticed a rise in the "Every Company is a Media Company" sentiment. This phrase was first coined ten
years ago by Tom Foremski, a former journalist who left the Financial Times after 30 years to found the Silicon Valley Watcher blog. He's seen first hand how important it is for companies to share their knowledge, usually through their own online media. He has helped many companies achieve this by applying strong editorial standards to the process.

And this is where we come in. We're an independent publication with a strong editorial ethos that believes in giving the experts a chance to engage with a carefully selected audience. And that's you.

Thank you for reading LawTech magazine.

We have some great issues planned for the future. The feature themes for the coming year are detailed on the website. The backdrop of 'security' and 'cloud' will always be there, but if there's anything else you'd like us to cover, please drop me a line.

David Tebbutt
Editor – LawTech Magazine

 

 

Is authority the first word or the last?

David Weinberger was one of the co-authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto which looked at the impact of the internet on markets and organisations. He wrote his first blog post in 1999 but didn't hit his stride until 2001. That's probably years before any of us had even heard of a blog, or social networking, which is where this particular blog post is heading.

He's a genuine guy and a deep thinker and he's written some great books and delivered some brilliant lectures.

Last week he came up with a gem about authority being increasingly about having the first word rather than the last. His exact words were:

"…in the old days, we took expertise and authority as the last word about a topic. Increasingly, the value of expertise and authority is as the first word – the word that frames and initiates the discussion."

This is at the heart of the dilemma that traditional management faces when trying to figure out the role of social networking in the organisation. Assuming the value is understood, it becomes mainly a cultural issue. Some organisations – especially knowledge-based ones – are predisposed to sharing, openness and self-direction, while others are more into command and control. In the first instance, management might define the desired outcome and leave employees to decide how to get there; Weinberger's "first word". And in the second, the process will be rigidly defined.

The management of each type of organisation adopts its style because it believes that is the most effective way to get things done. Although, it has to be said, persistence with a command and control approach could also be a function of fear (of the lunatics running the asylum) or laziness (because it's always been done this way).

Some organisations realise that some departments are well suited to a more collaborative, networked, style while others are best run in a traditional way. Marketing versus computer assembly, for example.

The problem such companies face is social networking creep. It's as if one lot of employees have freedom to work where they like and when they like providing they achieve their objectives and the other lot are chained to their desks or their workshops and have little discretion over their use of time and (in particular) online resources. The deskbound ones are the ones who will be eyeing the socially-networked crowd with some jealousy.

So what's a company to do? Widen access to online resources and social networking, even to those who don't really need it, and trust staff not to abuse it? Some companies who have done this believe that a lot of time and IT/communications resource is being wasted doing non-work-related things. Downloading and watching questionable movies probably being the most extreme example. (In philosophical terms, it's actually not so different to previous upheavals when companies abandoned switchboards for direct dial telephones or introduced email to all and sundry.)

One company solves the problem by allowing anyone to participate but it's thrown a firewall around all social activity – restricting it to dialogue between the company employees only, although it is about to invite some customers and business partners to participate. Another says, "do what you like, but achieve your work objectives." Another is trying to monitor all online activities in order to reprimand those who step out of line.

What's important is to figure out what strategy is best for your own organisation:

Do you keep communication behind the firewall? This would restrict access to valuable information and external contacts.

Do you let people do what they like as long as they achieve targets? This might work best if they pay their own communication costs.

Or do you monitor every move? Employees may find this distasteful, if not illegal in some countries.

In the end it comes down to trust. The social media evangelists will argue that it's only through openness, transparency and trust that organisations will move forward. Others will argue that this is nonsense and that some people simply cannot be trusted with these new tools.

The organisations that will have the toughest time are those that have embarked on the social thing, spread it too far and now wish they could stuff the genie back in the bottle. Perhaps an answer lies in ground rules and education…

To paraphrase Dr Weinberger, this blog is only the first word. If you have experience-based views on the foregoing, we'd love to hear them.

Is the eco-wind blowing your way?

It wasn't so long ago that all 'green' activity went under the heading of 'idealism'. Nothing wrong with that, but the so-called developed world is not big on that sort of thing. It doesn't put money in shareholders' pockets, satisfy fashion urges or keep children 'happy' at Christmas. (The quotes are because I remember our family's happiest festive times were when we were poorest.)

Now, with Copenhagen looming and the Carbon Reduction Commitment legislation just around the corner, large organisations especially are beginning to realise that a regulatory steamroller is heading their way and they will need to do something about it, quite regardless of their anthropogenic climate change beliefs, or otherwise.

In terms of business operations (as opposed to political lobbying or scientific research), it's probably best that organisations focus on what they can do which will deliver genuine benefits while minimising their impact on the environment. Generally speaking, benefits boil down to cost savings and increased revenues, although public bodies are likely to focus more on the former than the latter.

The tough bit is measurement. Like accounting and auditing, this is necessary to understand progress and to be able to report convincingly, both internally and externally. All the time the global warming, climate change and greenhouse gas discussions have been going on, it's all seemed a bit abstract to day to day life. Now that we're facing the prospect of being nailed by governments, councils, customers and investors, the need to act has crystallised. What a fantastic opportunity for the IT world. If nothing else, it's very good at collecting and processing information in very high volumes and that's exactly what organisations need as they contemplate their own sustainability, in all senses of the word. (We shouldn't be so dazzled by the CO2 story that we forget about raw material use, water, waste and other forms of pollution.)

Some software companies – Access and Microsoft Dynamics spring to mind, although I'm sure there are others – got into carbon accounting before their clients were fully aware that this was going to become important. Hats off to them, and others like them, who knew what had to be done and just got on with it. They will, hopefully, reap the rewards of their early efforts.

As ever, the pioneers aren't usually the ones that walk away with the big prizes. While journalists and bloggers have been complaining about the apparent lack of action, the big guys were getting on with the job. They were watching what's going on out there, putting their own houses in order while preparing new products and services for market. Now they're emerging from the woodwork.

For example, CA managed to secure the name ecoSoftware for its SaaS-based measurement and reporting system aimed at medium to large businesses. It looks into every nook and cranny of a business in order to assess and report on its environmental health. It takes the whole sustainability perspective, rather than concentrating on carbon or energy alone, for example. It takes its feeds from just about anywhere – hand entered meter readings, electronic feeds and inputs from other recording systems. It integrates with other software, especially the major ERP systems. Users can drill in and out of detail, and filter the information in a variety of ways – by business process, by GHG Protocol Scopes, per shipping unit, by floor area, and so on. The end result is action plans based on genuine insights and, of course, the ability to measure progress.

Another company, 1E, is probably best known for its NightWatchman system which minimises the power use of the desktop computing estate. It has recently announced a system for measuring data centre energy use and identifying how much useful work each server is doing. It can change the power profile of each device according to the work it is (or is not) doing. The system reports what's been going on in charts and tables and users can drill into any unusual patterns. It will integrate natively with hardware vendors' own tools or scripts can be created for exceptions or new developments. Crudely stated, the point of the exercise is to maximise the business value delivered with the least use of equipment and energy.

These examples serve to show which way the wind is blowing. Organisations will find that the IT industry will be key to helping them get a grip on their environmental obligations and costs. It is a case of a win all round but, as is frequently the case, no one will win bigger than the IT industry itself. 

Dan Bricklin (inventor of PC spreadsheet) on technology

A couple of weeks ago, Wiley asked if I'd like a review copy of Dan Bricklin's 'Bricklin on Technology' book. Normally, I'd say "not on your Nelly" because I know what a chore book reviewing can be. However, I was at the West Coast Computer Faire in March 1980 when Bricklin collected his first award for VisiCalc – the pioneering spreadsheet for the PC. I was also a fairly avid user of his 'Demo' program a few years later. Even though I don't think we met, (unless it was in Zaragoza a couple of years ago), I felt connected, not least because I also developed and published PC software for many years, but without his degree of visibility or success.
When the book arrived, I winced because it's more or less 500 pages long. Unless you're a commuter or you don't get much sleep, how do you find time to read that much?
Anyway, the book was enjoyable at a couple of levels and a disappointment at another. Enjoyable because it peeled off and examined the layers of thinking that went into various products and issues. Bricklin leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of insight. The transcript of an 85-minute interview with wiki inventor Ward Cunningham is a classic in this respect. (It was 37 pages.) I'd rather Bricklin had identified and pulled out the key elements but then, I suspect, this would have been an editorial step too far for him. He would have had to impose his own interpretations on the conversation, rather than laying it out in full in front of his audience.
You will get insight if you read this book. Insight into what brought us to where we are and a few glimmers into how we might get to where we're going.
The other enjoyable bit for me, which you won't all share, is that I've met (albeit fleetingly) many of the people mentioned in the book, worked with many of the products and written about many of the issues. Bricklin and I even started programming at the same time – early 1966, and we've both tried to take the user perspective in our work. The book triggered many long-dormant memories and reawakened many old feelings, especially in the late 70's/early 80's as we all groped our way through the chaos of the emerging microcomputer/PC business. This is not really a reason for buying the book because Bricklin's chosen subjects seem, in the main, to be serendipitous. A comprehensive history book it is not, although it is a useful addition to the history of the IT world of the late 20th century.
The book is a compilation of old blog posts, essays and transcripts of recordings, loosely arranged around topics which Bricklin finds important, all topped and tailed with narrative from the perspective of 2007/8. As he says in the conclusion, "On any topic you can explore deeply and find nuance", which more or less sets the tone for the book. He does dig deep, he records faithfully and, at times you want him to make his point more quickly. But maybe that's not what he's trying to do. Perhaps he's trying to help the reader understand the nuances, so that they can move forward with their own thinking. I don't know.
Most of his topics have some resonance today, although much of the writing has been overtaken by events or absorbed into the mainstream. The chapters will give you a clue: What Will People Pay For?; The Recording Industry and Copying; Leveraging the Crowd; Cooperation; Blogging and Podcasting; What Tools We Should Be Developing?; Tablet and Gestural Computing; The long term; Historical Information about the PC; Interview with the Inventor of the Wiki; and VisiCalc. It's a ramble round the industry and round the inside of Bricklin's head. His invention of VisiCalc gave him a passport to go where he likes when he likes and meet who he likes. And that's what he's done and, in this book, shared it with us.
My approach, if you're thinking of buying it, would be to say "I'm getting a good 300-page book, I'll just need to pick which 300 of the 500 pages are of most relevance to me." It's a bit like his approach to software – give the user the tools and let them choose how best to use them.

Amazon is selling it in the UK for £10.99

Align green and business strategy, or fail

Call me an idiot if you like, but I fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book this morning. A few weeks ago, a colleague forwarded what looked like an interesting invitation from Infor to watch some webinars. My response was to wonder to my colleague why Infor hadn't written to me directly since it knew me. But all this was forgotten as I finally got round to doing something about it.

Here are the opening few lines of the invite:

We invite you to learn more about Green Initiatives

Two thought provoking webinars, sponsored by CFO Europe and Infor, available to view now

CFO Europe and Infor recently sponsored two webinars addressing green issues: "Green Strategy and the CFO: At the Crossroads between Profitability and Sustainability" and "Environmental Performance Management: How CFOs Contribute to the Green Strategy".

I'd taken a briefing from one of the speakers in January and thought this was a chance to catch up. All was going swimmingly until I noticed a spelling mistake on one of the slides, the very mistake I'd pointed out in the January meeting. Then it dawned on me, the 'recent' webinar was no such thing. It was recorded last November.

Oh well. In for a penny, as they say…

If you're interested in nailing the business drivers for green initiatives and you're fairly new to the subject, you'll get some value out of watching the webinars. There's a little bit of subtle selling but, in the main, the speakers play with a straight bat. (I didn't watch the second, but I assume the quality is similar to the first.)

A key learning is that organisations which treat their green, or sustainability, strategy as somehow separate to their business strategy are probably setting themselves up to fail on both counts. The two need to be integrated for the best overall results. In fact, we're really talking about integrating corporate social responsibility (CSR) which should incorporate green strategies.

The CFO was chosen as the focus because they are the custodians of corporate information. They own the budget, they have influence in all departments, and so on. They are well placed to provide or withhold funding according to the likely impact on the balance sheet of any investments, green or otherwise.

When the audience (at the original webinar) was asked what practical impact green awareness had on their organisations, most identified 'process improvement' as the major impact. This suggests that existing processes were improved rather than 'rip and replace' major investments made. Very few – around three percent – identified 'cost cutting' as a benefit, a fact that astonished the speakers. They couldn't see how reducing energy use could fail to cut costs. One of the speakers suggested that the 'either/or' polling mechanism might have been the cause of the surprise.

When it comes to implementing an environmental strategy, the key is to link it to organisational objectives – financial returns or benefit to stakeholders, for example. Gross margin could link to energy use or market share to customer perception.

Failure is usually either the result of lack of funding or lack of communication. If the funding is tied to specific actions which result in future success then it will be, itself, sustainable. Effective communication to employees and stakeholders needs no expansion here.

The audience was asked to vote on barriers to success. Way out ahead of all others (at 63 percent) was 'other competing priorities', which simply reinforces the need for linking investments to organisational goals. One of the speakers warned about starting too many key initiatives. Twenty to thirty would be plenty. Definitely not hundreds – this is the sort of thing that results from attempting to implement every 'good idea', rather than filtering out all but the most impactful.

Legislation is coming, it's still a bit muddly, but this will change the business case because, although voluntary in the early stages, it will eventually impact the bottom line, for better or for worse. This is expected to bite within four years.

The one thing that always bothers me about these presentations is that the supply chain is largely ignored when it comes to the question of equipment replacement. One of the speakers mentioned first year write downs of certain conforming equipment purchases: a fine incentive to invest in green equipment. But no-one ever seems to address the embedded environmental footprint of the new equipment and that of disposal of the old. It seems to me that, by using the business as the boundary of environmental calculations, totally wrong decisions can be made in the context of the planet as a whole.

Or am I missing something?

Gloomy outlook from BT/Independent’s SustainIT forum

Yesterday’s forum run by BT and the Independent was a culmination of a ‘multi-channel media campaign’ called SustainIT. The forum promised to ‘explore the potential of ICT solutions to help businesses reduce their environmental footprint’. And it promised to talk about ‘how to empower the developing world.’

What it actually did was frighten the audience witless and provide it with some virtual hatches to batten down.

Frightener-in-chief was Tony Juniper, environmental activist, ex-director of Friends of the Earth and the Green Party’s candidate for Cambridge. As you might imagine, from someone who’s been beating the environmental drum for many years and who had a major hand in creating the Climate Change Act, we have no time to lose.

Among other things, he pointed out that the temperature-rise effects of our behaviour take 30 years to show up in the atmosphere, which means we’re already deeply in the clag. Later in the session, Michael McCarthy, the Independent’s environmental editor, reckoned our actions to date have already committed us to a 1.4 degree rise. Juniper pointed out that the most recent records show that the past three years have been even worse than the worst predictions.

He showed a chart from the Stern Review of the consequences of temperature rises on various elements of our environment. If the predictions are correct, everything starts going pear-shaped at two degrees:

SternDegrees

The next speaker, Charles Leadbeater, is author of We-think and was introduced as “Tony Blair’s favourite thinker”. Not something designed to go down well with an audience whose politics were unknown. Despite this, he struck an encouraging note, suggesting that technology (including the web) could be mobilised to tackle some of the issues raised by Juniper: dematerialisation in the form of eliminating travel and using screens to collaborate/meet; and, sharing knowledge about solutions online so that the physical work can be done locally using indigenous materials.

He likes the way that the web can make lateral connections in new ways. He does, however, see that the creative solutions that will be invented to sort ourselves out will cause significant change and turmoil. He believes that we need to look both backward to pre-industrial times, at our old ways of organising and commmunicating, as well as forwards to a different kind of future.

The other speakers – Chris Tuppen, BT’s Chief Sustainability Officer, and Hamish McRae, the Independent’s Chief Economic Commentator, tried to focus on the positive but the backdrop of gloom was fairly palpable. They talked of efficiencies and savings that were possible but, overall, the sense was that bad things were happening and good things, in the sense of proper political leadership, weren’t.

Everyone saw the upcoming Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December as a crucially important meeting. The hope is that the participants will lay the foundation for a low carbon recovery from our present financial woes. But this requires political will of a high order.

Reading between the lines, it would seem that many senior politicians still haven’t realised that their previous, perhaps lifelong, concerns have been trumped by this new reality. When our own government cut VAT, it sent out a signal to ‘buy more’ which wasn’t a remotely environmentally friendly message. This futile gesture did nothing for sales but it cost the government billions in lost revenue. Imagine if that money had been targeted at home insulation, or something else that would have cut energy use and, for the beneficiaries, their electricity bills.

Hope flickered intermittently, as speakers talked about intelligent grids, cutting consumption rather than increasing generation, electric cars and carbon capture. But, without the drive from the top, as in that shown by a Churchill or a Kennedy (and a corresponding willingness by businesses and the public to be led), then we would appear to be facing a very uncertain future.

Technology will undoubtedly play its part but what’s really needed is a dramatist to write a new script. And quickly.

Will the BPOS cloud ensure Microsoft’s future?

Yesterday, Microsoft announced ‘worldwide’ availability of its Business Productivity Online Suite. And it barely mentioned ‘cloud’. Hurrah. But it did mention software plus services which is Microsoft’s way of coupling power at the desktop with online services. The service, by the way, was introduced in the USA last November.

‘Worldwide’ to Microsoft means nineteen countries (listed below) and five languages. And it runs in four data centres: Two in the USA, then one each in Dublin and Singapore. Amsterdam and Hong Kong data centres provide what Microsoft calls ‘geo-redundancy’.

This may be a strange way to start talking about a new service, but some organisations are very fussy about where their information is stored and processed. For those who aren’t, then Microsoft claims the “best-in-class SLAs and IT governance”. 99.9 percent uptime, for example, and nine levels of security.

The countries served by this new announcement are:  Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and UK.

What’s on offer is hosted versions of some well known software from which you can mix and match according to your needs: Exchange, SharePoint, Office Live Meeting and Office Communications.

The benefits are the usual ones associated with moving to a reliable cloud service: someone else takes care of the headaches associated with installing and owning equipment, keeping the applications up to date, backup and security, and so on. And, of course, you get the usual benefits associated with collaboration and communication applications. Neither of these is specific to Microsoft or to its hosted services, but if you’re already a Microsoft shop then it’s a much shorter step than changing software vendors.

Microsoft introduced the concept of the ‘desk-less’ worker. Someone who maybe works on a factory floor but who needs periodic access to basic services, perhaps through a shared PC or kiosk. They’re not what you’d term ‘knowledge workers’, the sort that would benefit from the full capabilities. Each counts as a ‘user’ from the billing perspective but the monthly cost is much less than for regular users.

Pricing is per element per user, by number of elements signed up for and additional data storage. You can learn more on the UK pricing and availability page.

The ‘worldwide’ system started trials yesterday and will be available for purchase next month. From April Fools Day, as it happens. Microsoft is offering a 30-day free trial. Depending on factors such as company size, it can be bought directly from Microsoft or through its resellers.

There’s a lot to be said for going the Microsoft route – not least the ready availability of people already familiar with the software elements. Setting up an effective SharePoint system, for example, still requires some skill and effort. It is, however, an inflection point and other vendors are putting together some decent online offerings. The obvious ones are Google and IBM, although the brave might prefer to assemble a ‘best of breed’ solution. Microsoft, however, has the huge benefit of customer inertia. But will that be enough to see it through?