Thursday, June 30, 2011

QR Code Obsession

Last week, I was at Enterprise 2.0 in Boston which is a major conference and trade show for the 2.0 crowd. The conference was a bit different than last year – with a new, bigger venue and a much stronger presence from the ECM vendors. On the buzzwords front, “Facebook for the enterprise” is out while “social business” and “social analytics” are in. It was fun to catch up on all the 2.0 buzz!
You should try this one!

One of the new trends I’ve seen was the growing use of QR codes. QR codes are 2-dimensional bar-codes that contain small amounts of valuable information such as URLs, contact data, geographic coordinates, Wi-Fi network information, SMS, or a text message. Compared to regular bar codes, QR codes can contain much more data. That comes in handy with mobile devices since most of us don’t like to type on them due to the small keyboard size. QR codes provide a great shortcut as they allow us to capture data via the built-in camera. The QR code reader app analyzes quickly the captured image, extracts the data – and in most cases acts on it immediately. For example, when the QR code contains an URL, the reader takes us directly to that URL in the browser.

QR codes are obviously hugely effective anywhere the traditional bar codes worked well. You need to order a spare part? Just scan the QR on the broken part and the app brings you straight to the right catalog entry. Do you need to keep track of patient records in a hospital? Use the QR code on her wristband to check all the drugs, procedures and materials she used. Do you need to locate the right crate in a warehouse? Just scan the QR code in the physical records application and off you go.

Unlike bar-codes, however, QR codes are much more mobile and don’t require any proprietary reader device – you can download one of many free apps onto the smartphone that you already own. That enables many new use cases. For example, airlines started using QR codes as a paperless boarding pass. Real estate companies started sticking them onto the “for sale” signs in front of a house to give you an on the spot tour of the property, eliminating those rain-soaked fliers. For marketers, QR codes can serve as a virtual coupon, offering you an interesting on-site promotion and taking you straight to the purchase page with a single snap.

At the tradeshow, I was surprised by two things. The first is that even though the QR codes are becoming pretty omnipresent in advertising, most people didn’t know what they were and didn’t have a QR code reader installed on their smartphone. This is the geek crowd, the intellectual elite of the enterprise 2.0 world, the folks who are always connected and on top of the latest market trends.  That makes me wonder how effective those QR codes on billboards are. Most likely, the number of clicks is rather dismal.

The other thing that surprised me was that many of the QR codes splattered on the banners were just taking me to a marketing web page. I’m standing in front of a booth where I could see a live demo and talk to real people and, instead, they expected me to just check out their web site? I didn’t need to come to the trade show to do that. To their credit, though, several of the QR codes I tried took me to a page offering some sort of value – a free analyst report (great) or a white paper (not that great).

Clearly, the marketing use of QR codes is still in their infancy. Over time, we will likely get a much higher population of users with QR code readers installed and using them readily. And we will develop marketing tactics that will make it worthwhile snapping pictures of QR codes. Or perhaps we will use some completely different technology. How about implanted RFID chips or the omnipresent retina scanners like in the movie Minority Report? We’ll see. For now, I encourage you to get a QR code reader – I use i-nigma although most readers I tested were just as good. Try it out!

PS: BTW, you can generate your QR codes yourself with many online generators. I like this one:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Semantic Search at the Globe and Mail

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with Kevin Schlueter, enterprise architect at the Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail is one of Canada’s largest newspapers and they run one of the largest Web sites in Canada. Kevin told me an interesting story that I thought was worth sharing.

The Globe and Mail runs one of Canada's largest news sites
Newspapers live from advertising and so they are keenly interested in attracting the largest possible audience and keeping the readers on their site as long as possible. People usually come to a newspaper Web site to find some specific information. This becomes particularly relevant in times of significant events of interest - such as the recent federal elections in Canada. While the home page usually provides up-to-date information about the main election race, most users are also interested in their particular candidates and so they search for them.

Search optimization became very critical for the Globe and Mail. Since a newspaper is in the information selling business, the goal was stated as “show me what I want to know even if I don’t ask for it”. And this is the tricky part - exposing the readers to relevant articles that the user will likely be interested in. And that’s why the Globe and Mail employed semantic technology.

Semantic search is the next level of searching. The basic search is looking for the most statistically prominent keywords that are contained in the text body. It can find out about who, what, when, where, and perhaps even why. Full text search is often augmented by a metadata search which can reveal information such as the author, section, page, or publication data. But a semantic search can leverage automatically generated semantic metadata which is information about topics, people, places, products and concepts.

With semantic metadata, a reader can search for an article about a particular topic - say the Canada’s Governor General David Johnston. Unlike Wayne Gretzky, David Johnston is a fairly common name and a conventional search would find a whole bunch of them. Just try to google that name.  This is where a semantic search helps by identifying correctly all relevant concepts - such as the David Johnston who is Canada’s GG, the one who’s a Harvard professor, or the one who’s a known author and journalist. These concepts can be either presented to the reader as options or they can be used to deliver the content relevant in a given context.

You may think that this is what the online retailers have been doing for years - recommending similar products based on your current selection. But there is a big difference here. The retailers work with product catalogs which contain very structured data. When you are looking at a pair of shoes, the retailer can automatically recommend another five pairs in your size that are similar but perhaps a little more stylish (aka expensive). All of that is based on defined database fields. The semantic search can make such associations based on information contained in unstructured text in an article or a group of articles which is much more difficult.

Papers are changing
And that’s exactly what the Globe and Mail is doing - using the semantic search technology to generate semantic metadata that improves search results, increases search engine optimization (SEO), and makes the site more “sticky”. And stickiness means more advertising revenue which is what the paper lives from.

According to Kevin, it works really well as he could see during the recent election when the traffic on the site peaked to over 12,000 hits per second after the first results were published. Kevin plans on additional uses for the semantic search technology such as faceted navigation, similarity, or automatically generated topic pages. All that to keep the Globe and Mail site competitive in the Canadian news business.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Quo Vadis, RIM?

Everybody is talking about RIM today and I simply have to comment. I have written several articles about RIM in the past. Over a year ago, I have suggested the 10 Reasons Why Microsoft Should Acquire RIM. A few months back, I have also wondered why does RIM keep chasing the consumers instead of focusing on their traditional strengths in the enterprise. RIM is the largest employer here in Waterloo, ON and so I do care.

RIM is in trouble and there is no way to hide it. Having discovered the killer mobile app - email - a decade ago, RIM has completely missed the notion that we could use the BlackBerry for more things than just email. Apple entered the market back in 2007 and completely transformed it with some 400,000 apps available for the iPhone. The result is a dramatic loss in market share which is now inevitably followed by revenue shortfall.

Here is RIM's problem: declining marketshare.

The question on everyone's mind is what will happen next with RIM. I see three possible scenarios:

1. Turn-around
In this ideal scenario, RIM will find a way to compete with compelling devices but that won't be enough. RIM will need to attract developers and get quickly to some 100,000 apps. That won't be easy since the developers have to divide their precious resources between supporting iOS, Android, RIM and now Microsoft and HP are also vying for their attention - and with much deeper pockets. And even the application support may not be enough. RIM will need to add some exclusive or at least unique and compelling content and services. The mobile battle ground is no longer about devices but entire eco-systems. Apple has got music and movies, Google has search and ads, and even Microsoft has the Xbox games. What will be RIM’s angle? My suggestion would be enterprise content and enterprise apps but that hasn’t been RIM’s focus lately.

2. Acquisition
The voices suggesting that RIM will be acquired were loud yesterday. The Wall Street Journal even declared Microsoft the most likely suitor. While I suggested that a year ago, I don’t see that scenario as likely in the next 12 months. Microsoft is right now in a committed relationship with Nokia and that relationship would have to fail before Microsoft could pursue RIM with a straight face. And honestly, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Microsoft built an awesome and differentiated mobile operating system and appears to be quite determined to make it a success. However, they still have to get those 100,000 apps - here they face the same challenge as RIM.

There are, of course, other possible suitors who could be interested in RIM. Cisco could use it to boost its unified communications agenda - and to add some additional load on those routers.  Oracle has surprisingly not articulated any mobile strategy so far and buying RIM would be a shot in the arm, particularly given Oracle’s laser focus on the enterprise. IBM has also been waiting on the sidelines and could use a mobile platform. And even Google could acquire RIM, swap the OS and use it as a foray into the enterprise market. And let’s not forget other big players in the IT market: Dell, Intel, Lenovo, etc. I just hope it’s not going to be Computer Associates or some cable company.

3. Demise
The 3rd, least attractive scenario is a slow - or maybe not that slow - demise. Vicious cycle of falling market shares, declining revenues, and lay-offs could lead to RIM following in the footsteps of Palm. Sure, even Palm got eventually acquired by HP but at the time, Palm was already pretty much irrelevant. And if RIM doesn’t make some radical changes, this scenario could really happen.

I sincerely hope it won’t come to a demise of RIM and that RIM turns things around. RIM is a great company and the world will be a better place with an independent player keeping the big vendors honest. Acquisition by the right company would not be a bad outcome either. I still believe that Microsoft would have been the best fit but as I explained above, this scenario is less likely now than it was when I have suggested it in April 2010.

It sure will be interesting to watch this market play out.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Software Alone Won't Make You Social

I hear about many organizations that struggle with taking advantage of the power of social media. The first problem is of course buying into the idea that social media isn’t a waste of time. The second, far larger problem, is to get users to actually use the software and become social with their colleagues.  Yes indeed, deploying social software alone will not make you social. The ultimate goal must be to use the technology to raise employee productivity by increasing the level of social collaboration across the enterprise.

Many organizations, however, do not have an inherently social DNA. Sometimes, it is the focus on individual accomplishments that has created an individualistic culture. Other times, the nature of the business has historically not stimulated collaboration across teams. And sometimes, organizations that have gone through years of tough times, develop a culture where employees compete with each other and their primary instinct isn’t to share and collaborate but to horde information to make themselves indispensable. Such survivalist behavior is at odds with the openness and team spirit that social software can stimulate.

There is often a big difference between various functions and groups in the organization. Typically, particular groups embrace social media quickly while others remain in denial. This is where the organization needs to focus on adoption. There are various approaches that an organization can apply to stimulate the adoption. For example, the organization should suck into the social software as much already existing profile data as possible from other applications. Employees should be encouraged to post their pictures. Or, the pictures should be automatically imported from the employee badge database. Nothing makes veterans update their profiles faster than when they find out that their 10 year old badge picture is visible to all of their colleagues.

These tricks are based on a simple realization. Unlike in the consumer space, the enterprise social media knows all of its users already. They are the company’s employees and their user accounts already exist. We don’t need to convince them to join in - we can make them part of the application automatically since we know who they are. As a result, the early adopters of the social software can mention anybody in the enterprise by their user name - which then sends the mentioned user an alert. And when people see that they are being spoken about on a social site, they will come to check it out.

The adoption of social media in the enterprise has a few advantages over the public social media. It does not happen automatically though, particularly not in organizations that are historically not very social. In the end, however, the greatest driver is the corporate culture. If the culture hasn’t been very social, the management really needs to take this issue on and work towards a change. The best place to start is leading by example: when management starts communicating via social media, employees follow.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Email Isn’t Dying Yet

For a while now, social pundits have been tolling the bell for email. Pointing out that email is ineffective and out of control, they proclaim the upcoming demise of email which is to be replaced by social software. I agree that email has been used and abused by many people to do many things that it has never been designed for. Indeed, email is not a suitable team collaboration tool and yet we all have probably attempted to use it for team collaboration at some point - often with frustrating results. Email has also not been designed for file sharing and still we all keep sending out attachments every day. However, email has several things going for it that, I believe, will keep it around for a long time:

1. Unique identity
The world of social media is pretty messy when we consider identity. I have an ID on Twitter, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Xing, Ping, and many other social services. None of them talk to each other well and having to create my identity with yet another profile on each one of the services leads to severe limitations in my experience. While there have been attempts to establish a common ID (e.g. via the Open ID Foundation), those attempts are still in their infancy. In the end, all the social services fall back on my email address because that is a unique and consistent way of identifying me.

2. Single inbox
With all the services that I subscribe to, I am expected to regularly check in several times a day to catch up on the news from my social network. I may actually do that several times a day on Twitter and Facebook but it is hardly realistic to keep track of multiple accounts. In the enterprise, the situation is similar with all the different social services such as Dropbox, Box, Yammer, SharePoint, Lync, Salesforce Chatter, SAP StreamWork or OpenText Pulse.  That’s why all these vendors rely on email alerts to inform me that someone has posted a note for me on a social site. In fact, Twitter recently expanded the use of email alerts which indicates that social networks aren’t winning this particular battle. Email has managed to achieve what no other software managed to do yet – it trained me to come looking for new messages on a regular basis.

3. Targeted messages
Email is not a very good collaboration tool. Collaboration is about multiple persons jointly working on a task. When you receive those endless and frustrating email threats that keep CCing everyone, whether it’s relevant or not, you know that someone is using email for the wrong purpose. Social software can improve such collaboration significantly. However, email is a very effective way for any one-to-one and one-to-many communication. If I don’t expect a task to be worked on by a team, email is the right way to communicate to that team. Sure, I can send a “message” on Facebook but that’s really just email. Besides, Facebook sends me a real email to alert me about this message. Maybe, the new generation of millennials can do all their work on Facebook and not use email at all. But there is nothing wrong with using email – when used for the right type of communication.

While I agree that email has many shortcomings, social media is not a panacea. I keep hearing complaints from people who get too many emails. Well folks, sorry to tell you, but you can just as well get too many messages in your social site. You can find a lot spam in your social networks and, if you are a poor communicator, social media isn’t going to save you. Social software has created tremendous opportunities for team collaboration but no, I don’t believe that it will make email obsolete anytime soon.