Recent portfolio additions

wellclientRev2

After months of development following a long period of customer consultations we are happy to announce that WellClient has onboarded it’s first group of founding members!

Wellclient is the easy to use software that makes it easy to manage administrative tasks, increase engagement with clients and generate more revenue from a healthcare business.

Siri (a Semantic) application launches

As mentioned in this video at SemTech Siri is a Virtual Personal Assistant that is launching soon (in the US only :<) that really picks up on the “Knowledge Navigator” video that Apple produced 20 years ago! Twenty years may not seem like much, but in 1987, Michael Jackson was still the King of Pop (he just released the album BAD), and the President was Ronald Regan. A lot has happened since then in the technology space but we are still not quite where this video would have us believe is the future of human computer interaction. (If you haven’t seen the original I encourage you to take a look at it.)

What Siri tries to do is make an interface that is as natural as talking with gestures that correspond to how you’d want to communicate not to suit the demands of a QWERTY interface or a desk-bound mouse. As Tom Gruber mentions the vision that Apple put forward in their video anticipated many of the technologies we are seeing today. It knows who is in your social network, it knows time (and the interconnection of events) and there was continuous speech recognition which is a bit different than voice commands. This is where the computer knows the context of what is being said and can “intuit” what is meant by the context, something that today’s systems still have trouble with.

But the big question which everyone wants to know remains: “Is the vision of Apple’s Knowledge Navigator here today?” Tom answers, “Unfortunately No. (But we’re getting there)” This highlights the promise (and reality) of Web 3.0 (or the Semantic Web, or Information Simplicity or…) It is really difficult to do all of these things that we take for granted in our daily lives interacting with other human beings. It takes children years to learn social cues, knowledge, basics on living in their environment and current systems are far from the complexity of the human brain.

But we do have some interfaces that point towards an easier way of interacting (besides the keyboard!)  The iPhone multi-touch interface is one approach. Voice-based applications are another, but as I’ve written about before, its not just voice which will be the silver bullet to all our interface problems. As with other problems, there are a multitude of different interfaces we use without thinking (voice, vision, touch etc.) that help us understand the world around us. We have for the past 20 years, confined ourselves to one or two of these because that was the simplest way that we could get information into the cloud and interact. Now we really need to put the multi-dimensional aspect back in to fully experience the richness of information.

(PS Siri looks really cool and I wish it were available now!)

The best of social media marketing – for now

This is a great list of brands that are focused and using social media to support their goals. What I found interesting is their criteria for deciding the best:

  1. All of these are very focused, while they bring lots of benefits, they’re really designed to do one thing and do that well
  2. They put the product or service directly at the center.
  3. They are completely customer focused, they aren’t designed to do things that the company may want e.g. build community, evangelists etc. they are designed to serve customers.
  4. They are utilities much more than they are communications.
  5. Simply put, they make it easier for customers to do more business with them.

I really like the last one- with these new technologies its easy to lose focus on the customer and making things easier is one of the best things about technology.

Strategic innovation counters short-term thinking

Many executives find themselves facing difficult decisions these days in light of the challenging economic conditions. Short-term results are often scrutinized closely by the market as a way of determining a company’s financial health and direction. Although this can be a viable way of judging whether corporate strategy is translating into market success, what often happens is that short-term thinking permeates the organization leading to a starvation of resources for longer-term initiatives like new products and services.

One can see this happening at large companies in different sectors as they announce cutbacks in spending on innovation to meet customer needs. As the former CTO of Cisco notes, America is facing an “Innovation Crisis,” and needs to find “new ways of funding fundamental research.”

She cites the fact that Bell Labs announced late last year that it was discontinuing basic science research to “align the research work in the Lab closer to areas that the parent company is focusing on.”

The problem is that with these expense reductions, there is a tendency to pull back customer facing programs in order to conserve cash and “reduce” risk. As in an earlier post, I maintain that this may actually be a riskier strategy over the long term as competitors who continue their innovation program will be in better shape once the economy returns to normal growth.

Arguably, innovation can be seen as an “assembly” of tools, techniques, or assets to meet those deep customer needs. But without the foundation of basic research, it is very difficult to source assets to put into a solution. Of course there are grey areas within both fields, but I believe these days it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify investments in basic research which makes partnerships with universities an interesting way to explore getting access to more fundamental work.

In my opinion, innovation (which I define as meeting stated or unstated customer needs) is different than basic research or invention. While both are important, it is harder to make the case in today’s corporate environment for basic research, which is why I believe that many corporations are reducing their investments in these areas to (hopefully) concentrate more on innovation and getting more value from their existing assets. Keep in mind that the best way to use these assets is understanding the needs and taking a simple (but not dumb) approach to serving them.

In this economic climate, we at Brandsential work towards this goal by using “Value Extraction;” to leverage what’s inside the company to satisfy deep customer needs. And as I’ve said before, now is a perfect time to develop and innovate with these existing assets to make sure the company is well positioned to lead the market once the economic climate improves.

How not to conduct a Social Media campaign

Here is a great parody (really?) of a conversation between an advertiser and a consumer. Its not about the goals of the advertiser, but understanding the needs of the consumer.

I love the part where the advertiser says, “Did you miss the billboard in Times Square? That was like a 200 ft tall declaration of love.” Not exactly a “dialogue.”

Innovation in the Auto sector?

With all the talk lately around how to bail out the Big 3 automakers, there have been many comments on how to administer / police the firms that receive government bailouts. Which is all well and good: many of these firms have been less than successful in adapting to the needs and realities of the current market. As a condition of a bailout, the taxpayers should have some measures to ensure that their “investment” is being properly used to rebuild a stronger more responsive industry.

But in talking to a colleague with a long history in the automotive industry, they mentioned that this has been coming for a long time based on the structure and bureaucracy rampant in the firms. One example they recalled was that resources were not allocated to the projects with the best chances of success, but those which were championed by persuasive leaders in each silo of the company. So one has to ask; will this bailout give the firms a chance to re-organize for success or just continue along the same path? I believe that what can tip the balance towards the former is a belief from the top down in product/service innovation.

Looking back to the late 1979 and Chrysler’s last brush with insolvency we can see fundamental differences between today’s market conditions, industry players and other elements that make direct comparison difficult. But there are a few notable items to highlight that point toward why they were successful in making it through their earlier crisis.

At the same time as the company asked the U. S. government for $1.5B in loan guarantees former Ford executive (and “car guy”) Lee Iacocca was brought in to lead the company. A persuasive leader, he was able to rally the public behind the comeback and by to some extent, bashing the Japanese imports that were selling in greater numbers in the U.S. (It also helped the company’s cause that the U.S. Military bought thousands of Dodge pickups to bring into service.) Iacocca also brought in quality improvements on the assembly line which made the vehicles more reliable and the factories more efficient.

However what I believe gave the company its most significant boost was the development of the (at the time) innovative models, the K-car and the Minivan. As Iacocca believed in the products, the entire company could see that from the top down, product innovation was being given the support it needed to flourish. (What was interesting is that both of these concepts had been initially investigated at Ford and rejected.) Coming after the oil crisis of the late 70’s, the front-wheel drive K-car platform sold extremely well paving the way for the introduction of the Minivan.

Introduced in late 1983 (a three-year development cycle, which was unprecedented in the U.S. auto industry at the time), the minivan concept met customer needs for a vehicle with the space of a van, but could fit in a residential garage and have a low step-in height for small children. It continues to be the best selling minivan in the industry with over 12 MM units sold to date.

So although there are few direct comparisons that can be made between the two situations, I fear that unless the companies start to do a better job of really listening and responding to deep customer needs, we may be extending the automakers a few more months or years of struggling sales and poor performance.

Innovation – The time is now!

I have been talking with several business owners about prospects given the uncertainty in the current marketplace. The instinctual reaction is to cut back on spending on Innovation, customer needs investigation and product development. However we feel that now is the best time to Innovate and this can actually decrease risk. Why?

  • the cost is relatively low, given that there very talented people on the market to lead these initiatives
  • it is easier to get teams to focus on one or two very important Innovation initiatives (after companies re-commit to their strategy, making sure they are well positioned for the conditions)
  • customer needs analysis when the market conditions are tough will unearth needs that are more core to customer’s lives and this insight will help define more enduring products
  • when the market picks up, concepts are ready to be fast-tracked to development. Those products and service are those that differentiate companies and customers will pay a premium for them.

Perhaps not all companies would benefit from a concentrated effort on Innovation, but for those companies who do not just want to compete on price, it is key to maintain focus on Innovation. Investment, not cuts are necessary to keep this focus because cutting talent fosters a bunker mentality. This turns the rest of the company inward concentrating on cutting in all areas to “follow the leader” instead of focusing on growth opportunities.

Proctor and Gamble has put Innovation at the heart of their strategy, focusing on the consumer and the CEO A.G. Lafley even going so far as to call Innovation a “team sport” because “Innovation doesn’t spring fully formed out of the head of one man or woman.” Keeping the right social climate for an innovative culture is part of how they are re-inventing the company.

Apple certainly understands this and as Steve Jobs said in an interview with Fortune:

“We’ve had one of these before, when the dot-com bubble burst. What I told our company was that we were just going to invest our way through the downturn, that we weren’t going to lay off people, that we’d taken a tremendous amount of effort to get them into Apple in the first place — the last thing we were going to do is lay them off. And we were going to keep funding. In fact we were going to up our R&D budget so that we would be ahead of our competitors when the downturn was over. And that’s exactly what we did. And it worked. And that’s exactly what we’ll do this time.”

Not only can Innovation help with growth opportunities, because it is centered around customer needs, it can actually help retain customers through difficult times. In fact you could argue that Innovation decreases risk as a company that retains customers can maintain cash flow on the one side and develop new ideas for increasing growth without see-sawing back and forth between inward and outward focus.

Just as financial discipline is part of the way leading companies operate, Innovation should be part of a company’s strategy not only in good times but also in challenging times.

Print3D- How will you use it?

There is a great post on the Ponoko blog, that talks about a disruptive shift in the way consumers will represent everything from maps to parts. Its called 3D printing and could be as important a change in the way we think about form as the shift from dot-matrix printers (remember those?) to laser printers.

The reason is because a company called Desktop Factory has dropped the price of the individual units to below $5000. While not exactly a staple on everyones Christmas list, they have gotten to the range that the Apple LaserWriter was in about 1985. I remember using one of these around that time and apart from the outrageous price per page (I was using it in school or at Kinkos) I knew after I saw the output that there was no going back to dot-matrix. It was like seeing a movie in colour, then again in black and white; there was no comparison.

Although dot-matrix printers continued to improve in quality and speed, the flexibility of laser printing quickly changed the way that people thought about putting graphics and text on the page. In theory consumers were able to compete with publishers with the availability of these new tools. But the reality was not quite as profound.

What I remember was that there were quite a few newsletters, posters etc. that looked like they had been assembled from a whole bunch of different sources and thrown down on paper. (Which reminds me of what is currently happening with interactive applications and Web 2.0, but that’s a whole other post.) What struck me at the time was that there still needed to be some design involved to make sense not only of the detail but of the overall picture.

You could see this about a decade later when the first html pages were created. (Anyone remember rainbow lines and scrolling status bar text?) Even though the palette of choices and tools was limited, those skilled web designers could make great looking pages even in those early days.

So maybe 3D printing will bring a new way of envisaging information to the masses. But it will still take talented designers to really make the information usuable to the masses.

(An interesting sideline to this discussion, RepRap makes a printer that (although not as esthetically nice as other commercially available machines) has successfully replicated (or cloned) itself by making its parts. Available under GNU, there are documents online so you can make one yourself.)

Design in use

We are considering getting some work done on our house and in order to help us make any work run smoothly, we brought in a pro; an Interior Designer. What was interesting is that the first thing she did was asked us what we liked and disliked about the current situation. She also had a long questionnaire that she went through with us in detail to get a feeling for how we live in the space. She also saw how we demonstrated a few problems with the layouts. After that exercise, she gave us magazines to go through to identify ideas, and prototypes that we found interesting.

It seems to me that this is an interesting way to approach product development in other fields: there is a process to understand how customers are using products; and there is then some building blocks brought in to help ground the discussion as well as show what is possible. This is something that we at Brandsential also try to do.

To really bring value to the area of product development in organizations we bring in the best and brightest in an organization to determine what is possible then mash that up with what we find with customer discovery sessions. What is does is allow a company to use its existing assets to better address the deep customer needs that drive successful products.