Spending time in the Blogsphere

In my last posting I confessed that while I write a blog I don’t spend a lot of time reading others. Well in my efforts to better understand how blogging can be used commercially I’ve been trawling around and reading more blogs.

First thing to observe is that I’m more convinced than ever that RSS is a key technology. Without RSS it would just be impossible to follow what is going on.

One of the places I visited in my blogging travels is Robert Scoble’s blog. I have to say: how does this guy have time to write so much? Let alone do a day job. Not sure I’m impressed so much as wondering: why?

Having surfed around the blogsphere I wish I had more time to read blogs, I think I could give up my life and just read peoples blogs all the time. Don’t know what kind of person that would turn me into – what is the Blog equivalent of Supersize me?

One of the things I found interesting at Scobles blog was the links. First he tipped me off about this site, Second Life that seems to be Snowcrash
Snow Crash come to life. Wish I had to the time to play around with Second Life it looks good.

More usefully Scoble linked over to Nichlas Carrs blog where he gives his Seven Rules for Corporate Blogging. Now that is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for in my research!

The way I see it blogging has two sides for the corporation. The good side: give your company a human face, hype things up, show honesty, improve recruitment, a dialogue with your customers and so on.

Then there is the negative side: what do other people say about you? how can the blogsphere be used (deliberately or accidentally) to damage your company? And: how you can shoot yourself in the foot.

Of course its not just companies that have this problem. Individuals have the same thing to, maybe I’m just trying to hype myself here, create a buzz about “me” but at the same time I could say something that someone could take offence at, I could say something that would make me unemployable. And then of course, someone else could say something about me I have no control over.

Actually, some of the most interesting things about Carr’s entry are the follow up comments, not least from Scoble!

So, next time I criticise myself for blogging too much I’m just going to remind myself how much other people blog.

Blogging: Some things I’ve learnt (and am I learning) and commercial uses

Lets get one thing straight: this isn’t a “why do I blog?” navel gazing entry. No, I promised myself I wouldn’t write one of them until I had a year of blogging under my belt – so you have another couple of months until I hit that anniversary.

No, this entry is a set of thoughts on what blogging can do for commercial organizations. And specifically, can blogging help the company I work for?
(Plus my usual exploration of just what is it product manager do? which is becoming such a theme I should add it to the blog description.)

The story so far: I’m the product manager for an extranet site. The site exists to help our customers with support issues and to communicate better with them. One of the problems I face is: lack of content. Trying to get people to write specific stuff for the site is nigh on impossible, product managers and technical support staff (the people I’m most interested in) all have full jobs already and the idea that they might have a spare hour to write something for the extranet is not something they recognise.

Compounding the problem is the fact getting content into the site is considered “difficult.” So, even if they did have the time its not an very attractive proposition.

So, product manager hat on: Problem, How do I get content into my site?

Second, I sense an opportunity. The opportunity to provide better marketing of our company and products. Actually, this opportunity probably always exists in every company, its hard to imagine a company that could not communicate about its products better – although I can imagine a company were they can’t communicate better in a cost effective manor.

Now, problem and opportunity are two words that address the same idea from different sides. So, I think, still with my product manager hat on, I can go after this opportunity.

Lesson for the product manager: Don’t just look for problems, look for opportunities.

Actually, I recently had a go at defining what I was doing. After all, does any company need and extranet? And do you need a product manager for it?

Eventually I came up with a definition of my role something like “To find opportunities to address customer problems by using the internet.”

Now I didn’t start with these problems and opportunities and work out a solution. What happened was something like this: I accepted that in the next development iteration we need to do a particular piece of work. Shortly after I realised that if we did this work the site would also be able to host blogs created with a regular blogging tool.

Then I asked: and what good would that do?

After all, I could probably host an online Space Invaders emulator on the site but I don’t think it would do much good.

Lesson for the product manager and developers: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

When I thought about it I realised that if I hosted blogs in the site it would lower the barriers to contribution and maybe encourage some people to contribute. Hopefully if we have a couple of people blogging (and showing it can be done) it will encourage more.

Then I started to think about the marketing angle. Suddenly a host of articles I’d read in various places (mainly the FT and Economist) came to mind about how companies could use blogs to speak directly to customers. This makes a lot of sense to me, blogging is less formal, sometimes designed to provoke, and more personal than press releases and glossy marketing leaflets.

Now all I have to do is persuade people inside the company. So far its looking positive. To start with we’ll keep the blogs inside the password protected section and switch off comments.

But all this set me thinking about how other companies are doing this.

Now I should make a confession. Although I’ve been blogging for the best part of a year – and writing a website before that – I’m not a great reader of blogs. Partly this is a case of too much choice and partly well, I guess I’ve never really found a blog that fits me.

Still, when I look around its clear that a number of technology companies are using blogging effectively. Some are using it as marketing and some are using it to present a more human face (e.g. Microsoft). And blogging can act as a big employment advertisement, good people attract good people so let your good people blog and tell the world.

IBM bloggers are interesting. They have an official policy that encourages staff blog. IBM seem to be using partly as a technology and change play (get staff familiar with what the internet can do) to keep them ahead of the game.

I know people at Thoughtworks who blog. They seem to use it both as internal communication and a motivator for people to look out for stuff to blog about. That can be technology, process or just personal awareness.

As I may have mentioned I’m a great fan of people keeping diaries. I think it helps you reflect and assess your situation. Blogging is another form of this – more comments when I do the navel gazing in a couple of months.

Since I’ve been blogging I’ve learn a lot more about the current wave of internet technologies: blogs, RSS, syndicated advertising, referral fees (yes, I’ve earned commission from my Amazon referrals!) and sites like Bloglines and recently Technorati.

The other thing I’ve learnt is that people do read blogs. A few months ago I found myself in a meeting were someone told a story I’d put in my blog a few days before. This made me think a lot: firstly I have to be responsible here, then, what a great tool for internal communication.

(Actually, one of my recent blogging entries said I was wondering if I could start my own company. When I started talking to people inside my company about blogging I had to “decloak” and say I had a blog. I then realised: if they all rush to see what I say in my blog they’ll find I’m thinking about what I do next! So, be careful what you write.)

One thing I am decided on: if anyone ever hires me as CEO the first thing I’ll do is start an internal blog.

“Changing your organization” – ACCU conference 19-22 April, Oxford

Don’t think I’ve mentioned this before – but apologies if I have! I’ll be at the ACCU conference in Oxford next month (19-22 April). I’ll be presenting a session entitled “Changing your organization” – although I expect to get roped into a couple of other things.

The presentation has been written for a while, well a draft has, I find that if I revise it just before the conference its fresh to me and fresh in my mind. In fact, it was putting this presentation together that sparked me thinking about revisiting my book project.

After my previous blog entry I came to the conclusion that its easier to write a book before you start a business than after it so that’s the logical order to do it. Still don’t know if I’ll ever actually start a business but just in case I do!

When I looked again at the ideas I had I found there was more material than I thought. I’m tending towards entitling it “Knowledge, Learning and Change in Software Development” – a grand title but it sums up what I’m interested in.

As I said before the book would need to solve a problem. The problem I think I’m solving – and its not completely clear in my mind – is “How should we understand software development in the twenty first century?” Still not clear who the audience is, and I’ve no idea if I can get a publisher interested yet.

So, now I’m busy at work again, and now I have an project for home my energies are directed – it feels good! – and I’ve a little less time for blogging, which is no bad thing itself.

Write a book or start a company? – Lessons for Product Managers and notes on VoIP, eBay and Skype

Some kind of normality has returned. The house move is done – although plenty to do on the new place we can live here quite normally. And my product at work is back to normal, actually that happened about a month ago but I don’t think I mentioned it here.

So, with a kind of normality returning I’m asking myself “what next?” I’m lacking a personal project now and I’m wondering what it should be. Two ideas keep coming up.

First idea is to write a book. A couple of years ago I started to outline a book that would piece together some of my Overload pieces with some of my MBA dissertation work to produce a book called something like “Re-learning software development” or “Knowledge, Learning and Change in Software Development” or even “Software Development in the 21st Century”

I started to put some flesh on the idea and even had a conversation with a publisher. She asked me the very product manager-like question “Why would someone buy this book?” “What problem will it solve?” I was kind of stuck for an answer, I could imagine a neat book but then why would someone actually buy it? I couldn’t answer that question and I eventually put the idea to one side.

The other idea that comes up again and again is that of starting a company. Being entrepreneurial. Again the question comes “Why would someone buy something from you company?” which is another way of saying “What would your company do?”

As a Product Manager I know the first starting point has to be “What problem will you solve?” All I have to do is think of a problem, an answer, and a means of putting the two together… easy really.

Of course my techie background has me approach it from another point of view “Gee, this is neat technology I could… maybe someone will pay money for it?”

At the moment there are two technologies out there that should inspire me. One is AJAX – which a key building block of Web 2.0. I see people building all sorts of stuff with AJAX but you still need to solve a problem.

Some people are resolving known problems with existing solutions. For example: office automation applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.) This could work but you have to ask: Why will a Web 2.0 word processor be better than what is there at the moment? And given economic network-effects: Why would anyone change from the standard?

The second technology I see as big just now has a similar problem: Voice over IP. We have solved the voice communication problem, its called the telephone. Has been solved for about a hundred years, again there are network-effect economics to keep people with the traditional system yet you can cross link the two systems.

I’ve been thinking a lot about VoIP lately. Partly that is because I was reading Richard Edge’s blog and secondly because of a conversation I had with Craig Taverner a couple of weeks ago.

So far the big problem VoIP has solved is cost. It brings the price of telephone calls down. This is another point Product Manager should remember: its OK to solve a problem that has already been solved just so long as you change the solution in a superior way.

However, VoIP currently comes with another cost: inconvenience. Unless you have a PC, a broadband connection and a little bit of computer skills you can’t get it to work. Even if you do get it working to save the maximum amount of money you need the person on the other end to have a PC too. And then the two of you have to stay close to your PC.

Well, VoIP is going to get better still. Already there are routers that allow you to plug in regular handsets to the network. Like this one from LinkSys and Netgear are promising a phone that is loaded with Skype and talks to your Wifi router.

These kind of products will reduce the inconvenience of VoIP but I’m still wondering if that is enough.

The way I see it is that VoIP needs to offer something, some application, that we can’t do with regular phones. For example, although I’d played a little with Skype the thing that got me to use it a lot was the conference call facility.

Of course we’ve had conference calls on regular phones for years, but, on the whole they have been restricted to business because of the extra cost and need to set up an account. I use a traditional conference call system a lot in work but it entails dialling a lot of numbers.

With Skype I’ve been able to hold free conference calls with more people and it has been much much easier to set up.

Conference calls are an example of an application we run on top of voice connectivity. Other examples are voice mail, caller id, ring back and even faxing. Traditionally creating a new telephony application meant some experimentation plus access to telephone equipment – which tended to be complex stuff and only available to a few people in big companies.

To get your application out there was even more complicated. Telecoms companies are a traditional bunch, and for the application to be widely available it needs to run on multiple exchanges so you need agreed standards. Then you need to roll it out to a lot of exchanges so introduction was usually slow.

Now, with VoIP on Skype, Vonage, etc. you can write an application on top of the VoIP system much more eaily. More people have access to the technology and rollout means people installing the app on their PC.

Conclusion? We’re going to see more applications on voice based VoIP systems.

In fact I think we’ve already seen the first signs of this with the eBay takeover of Skype. Until now I couldn’t figure this deal out. Now it makes sense, eBay wants a sales application that integrates seamlessly with the eBay website. It also needs installed users to adopt the system and show the masses it works.

So there you go. I know the technology and I know the logic. I still don’t have a business idea. I still don’t have a problem to solve. Maybe I’ll have to go back to the book!

Business patterns the state of play

For a few years now I’ve been interested in the application of Patterns and Pattern-thinking to the area of business and business strategy. Just to be clear, when I talk of Patterns I’m specifically thinking of the type of Patterns that originated with Christopher Alexander’s work on architecture – see PatternLanguage.com.

Alexander explained his theories in The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language.

During the early 1990’s his work was picked up by a bunch of people in the software engineering community and this led to many books – the most famous being Design patterns – plus an dedicated software patterns organization (Hillside and Hillside Europe) and a series of conferences known as PLoP’s.

When I was studying for my MBA I regularly found myself saying “This could be better explained as a pattern.” Subsequently I did some searching and yes some people had done some work in this field already but often the patterns were kind of “We have this problem that IT people describe as a ‘business issue’ so lets write it as a pattern.” This kind of thinking leads you to stuff like IBM’s patterns for e-business.

Then there are Patterns written about the IT environment that can be applied more generally to business and organizations. Jim Coplien and Neil Harrison’s Organizational Patterns of Agile Software Development is one such book. Its a really good book, I might not agree with every pattern in it but I would recommend it to anyone trying to organize a software development group or indeed, anyone concerned with organizational structure.

But I was actually thinking was: forget the IT, apply pattern thinking to business in general.

This has lead me to produce a number of papers that I have taken to pattern conferences to validate my ideas – you can find them on my website. One of the fundamental tenants of pattern writing is that you should write from experience. Patterns are about what you know not what you can learn or discover. This places a limit on my pattern writing because my experience is in IT so I’ve had to do a little pattern mining.

Still, I’m not alone with business patterns. Linda Rising, Daniel May and others produced Patterns for Building a Beautiful Company. Others have worked in specific business domains, for example, Cecilia Haskins has produce a set of patterns for conference production.

Sometimes people don’t get it, or they ignore Pattern thinking and just look for “simple” patterns. That’s why I don’t consider Adrian Slywotzky book Profit Patterns to have anything to do with Patterns. (A fuller discussion of this book is on my website.)

From time to time I find others who have had the same thoughts as me, namely, Business Strategy is crying out for Patterns. Richard Veryard has had some thoughts online for a while – although I don’t think he has updated this recently.

Just recently I discovered Julian Elve’s blog on the same subject.

I don’t know if Business Patterns will ever break through to the mainstream – the mainstream in Patterns or the mainstream in Business and Strategy. But I do think they have a role to play, I also think a growing number of people are realising this and attempting to do something.

I’d like to think that one day the business community will have our own version of Design Patterns but I don’t see it happening for a while. When it does happen I expect to see business consultants at the fore. These are the natural people to be writing such patterns, they see lots of companies and have great opportunities to spot and analyse patterns at work.

Is process improvement bad for innovation?

According to a piece on Knowledge @ Wharton the adoption of ISO 9000, Six Sigma, TQM and other similar initiatives can lead to a decline the innovation (subscription required). Basically, as you get better at your process (i.e. you go deeper into one thing) you don’t experiment as much around the edges (i.e. you don’t go wide.)

Actually, according to this piece its not just ISO 9000 and 6 Sigma, it is broader, any process improvement initiatives. And its partly to do with people’s approach, those who are happiest in innovative environments aren’t so happy in structured environments and vice versa.

For someone like me, who is keen on both process improvement (specifically Lean processes) and innovation this poses a dilemma. Am I, by advocating process improvement and the adoption of Lean techniques actually hindering innovation?

Could be.

I like to think the answer is No. Let me explain why.

I don’t advocate blanket adoption of a process. I don’t believe that a process that works for Team X will work for Team Y – even if they are in the same company. I believe different teams have different people and since no two people are alike, no two teams are alike and therefore no two processes can be alike.

Neither do I believe in Best Practice – at least not in the usual sense. The idea that Team X can document all their best practice and hand it over to Team Y, and then Team Y will be just as good (or bad) as Team X is bunk. Again, there are different people and different experiences in each team. Neither can you actually write this stuff down because so much is tacit.

And finally, I don’t believe management can set out a process and mandate its adoption.

What I do believe is: it all has to be bottom up. The teams need to do their own process improvement, they need to find what works for them, they need to work with the people and experience they have in the team. Teams need to innovate their own process.

Teams can tell other people what they do, they can give them ideas, inspire them, and even coach them but they can not throw it over the wall and expect it to work.

While teams can use books, journals, consultants, outside experience to get ideas and inspiration there comes a point when they need to move beyond other people’s ideas and start creating their own. Force-feeding will only get you so far; sooner or later the teams have to be self-sustaining. After all, your competitors can read the same books and hire the same consultants.

The important thing is, this is about bottom up innovation for improved process. I believe that once people get the hang of innovating then the skills and experience will transfer from process innovation to product innovation.

And thus, I don’t believe the kind of process improvement I advocate is incompatible with innovation.

Am I trying to have my cake and eat it? You tell me.

Another book: Leading Change by Kotter

A couple of train journeys yesterday allowed me to race to the end of Leading Change (John P. Kotter, 1996). This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. Now I’ve read it I wish I’d read it sooner.

Although it is written by an academic like most HBS press books it doesn’t come across as academic and is quite an easy read. I was once told that HBS books are ghost written and to be honest I tend to believe this. Most academics write great papers and scholarly books but aren’t so hot on easy to read literature. Unfortunately, in making it easy to read it also looses the references, I like to see the sources for ideas and places for further reading.

But back to why I liked the book…

I found the book spoke to me. This happened on three levels.

Firstly, I think the main challenge facing software companies today – and probably any business – is the need to change. The last few years have seen a lot of good ideas that have challenged the traditional way of developing software. In order to move from the old ways to the new ways we need to change.

Actually, much software and product development proceeds in a very ad hoc fashion. Consequently when we’ve considered improving things we’ve got wrapped up in methodologies, presses and standards. The real problems are much more basic: people, teamwork and change. They may be more basic but they are harder to do something about.

Software developers, and more so their managers, have hidden behind methodologies and process for far too long. Rather than chasing a process they should be addressing the real problems.

So, I think this book is useful for anyone wanting to improve their products, development and company.

Secondly the book related to my personal experience. Much of this book explains why change initiatives fail and how to avoid those failures. I’ve been responsible for introducing a lot of new ideas and change into my office. Some have been successful and change has succeeded, others have failed.

I’d like to have more of the successes and fewer failures. I’ve sometimes had trouble understanding the failures. It’s too easy to blame individuals or collectives groups like “management” but that doesn’t add much. Introducing change is about getting these people to change too.

In this book I found a lot to explain why my less successful changes have failed and why the successful ones have. So I associated with the book and it gave me some new insights and strategies.

Finally I associated with this book on a personal level. It finishes by describing the need for life long learning and the individual characteristics we need to face the future, to grow and to change ourselves. I found I could associate with this too – it matches many of my ideas.

Some Harvard books can be a little idealistic. This one is quite down to earth, perhaps because it talks about failure so much it seems rooted in real life. This book isn’t the last word in change, and there is much else that could be said. Yet in less than 200 pages it does convey a lot of good ideas.