Work.com… Maybe ‘web2.0’ means ‘second time round’?

Well well well. This site (thanks for the link, Torsten [linkedin] [blog]) brings back memories of BusinessEurope.com (RIP) and a couple of years working away at ‘how to guides’ (H2Gs) for SMEs.

Started in 2000, BE’s ambition was to be the information portal for Europe’s SMEs. The sites comprised (for a while) UK, German and French operations, but the combination of cost of content, cost of marketing, cost of operations and – ahem – total lack of willingness to pay on the part of SMEs rather doomed that model.

At the time we stumbled upon a previously-learned lesson and became a sort of ‘contract publisher’. By working on behalf of organisations who had to provide excellent, business-focused information (the DTI, Business Link, British Chambers of Commerce) and those who saw it as a valuable add-on (Banks, technology companies, business organisations) we found a profitable space. A small space, but at least profitable.

Looking at Work.com, however, we can see a new take on this. The software, systems and hardware are tending towards zero. The cost of content is limited since people contribute for PR or ‘guru point’ reasons. Quality and relevance are helped by a ratings system and having Work.com editorial staff (whose guides are distinguished with a ‘work.com staff’ imprimatur).

The business is also more networked from the outset, with each article offering quicklinks to Digg, delicious and to email. These offerings are now standard, yet I can remember the pain of having to code such capabilities ab initio even as late as 2003 (whereafter we switched to Plone as our CMS and got these capabilities ‘free’).

Interestingly, though, Work.com has so far not moved beyond being a static site: pick a topic, read it, rate it, leave.

The holy grail of business advice is making it actionable. To this end interactive diagnostic tools are vital (since in many cases people aren’t fully certain that they have the right question, and therefore can’t evaluate the “answer”). Furthermore, a step by step action workflow is necessary. Take the fraud prevention guide (picked at random): under the “Action Steps” it kindly offers deep links to other people’s online tools, checkups and CD-ROMs. However, this is ‘viewing’ not ‘doing’. Why, in a Web2.0 world, don’t these run on the site? Why not JFDI there and then?

There’s a fallacy that ‘filling the bucket’ with content items and guides is somehow a good thing. However, more is less. People have no shortage of other guides (all equally good), and can find these services via a quaint thing called Google.

My current view, were I to do this again, would be to launch with 12-20 deep, detailed, workflows for the biggest problems in business. I’d then add a couple a quarter, but would spend most effort in making each workflow industry-specific and country-specific. I’d also create lots of video of – seriously – form filling (think of the video on planes to the US on how to fill out the immigration cards). Thankfully, YouTube can do the heavy lifting there.

Businesses want reliable, worked-through, detailed and very, very real support for their basic requirements. After that, it’s all fun, learning and ‘development’.

In business support the ‘appearance of less’ is always more. Businesses will grudginly pay for solutions, but only advertisers will pay for to-do lists.

‘Inside the bubble’ panel discussion

Had an opportunity to see the ‘bubble’ last night at the “Inside the Bubble” event organised by Banner. The venue was fun, the event well-attended by a host of interesting folk (predominantly in IT and media) and – if you can measure a business by its guests – Banner are certainly doing something very ‘right’.

There was rigorous chairing from Banner’s Director of Strategy, Robert Hollier (firm but fair) and thankfully none of the panel fell off the ‘boyband stools’ on the podium…

Banner recorded the event and there’ll be a videocast on their website soon.

Nielsen: “Participation inequality”, the 90-9-1 rule

Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox)

Nielsen’s latest research quantified (with an elegant formulation) something that community owners, retailers and those working with ‘user-generated content’ already know:

In most online systems, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

This seems to shock some people and undermines their view of UGC. To me, it seems normal.

We notice the inequality online because we can measure it. To take a retail, high street, comparison, the 90 people walk past your shop, the 10 go in and 1 person buys. This – to a retailer – looks like a 10% conversion rate, rather than 1%.

In Nielsen’s posting the only point with which I’d quibble is the term “lurker”. This implies that there’s no value derived from those visits.

Take, as an example, a product catalogue with user-contributed reviews. Only a few people can be bothered to contribute (think of TripAdvisor as an example). Those people have disproportionate power – but that’s no different to any system where there’s a binary distinction between people who “do something” and those who do nothing!

Being able to rate a review (x people found this review useful) can draw not only the occasionally-contributing 9% but also engage the other 90% (who may of course be influenced and/or informed by the content contributed).

From an etail perspective it’d have been useful to assess the purchasing behaviour of the 90% who ‘lurked’ (used? read? ignored?) the contributions – to see whether user generated content inequality is a good, bad or indifferent matter to overall sales levels.

Professionalizing IT : Articles : Professional Issues : BCS

Here’s a well-written summary of the BCS’s position on developing the “professional” aspects of IT.

As IT becomes the medium in which business progress is made, a strategic enabler and a tactical nightmare – all simultaneously! As computer literacy and management of IS/IT resources is required of every employee (from marketing to front line sales staff) there’s a point of view that holds us all to be IT people now.

The question for the BCS will be to differentiate between “skills” (eg certifiable capability in an application, coding language, architectural knowledge) and “professionalism”.
For my part I see professionalism as a code of behaviour, conduct and commitments that sit on top of an arcane body of specialist, necessary knowledge. One can have all of this knowledge without being professional, and equally act in a professional manner with a less than comprehensive knowledge.

The BCS is putting great energy into this initiative. Rightly so, since it will define the role, remit and indeed purpose of the BCS.

“meta” is the new value: FreshBooks invoicing reports how you stack up

Techncrunch is reporting the new release of Freshbooks’ online billing service. Nice enough, very Web2.0 and a neat web application.

Interestingly though the new feature opens a different and possibly lucrative revenue stream: data-mining metadata –

Users are now asked if they would like to identify what industry they work in and contribute to aggregate data collection by sector. Participants will be able to see how much other web designers, for example, are charging per job, how much they make per month and are how quickly invoices are being paid. Those who participate will be able to access their individual averages over time and be notified whether or not their performance is improving relative to others.

Others have similar models (eg Hitwise accesses ISP logs to get a picture of users’ overall usage and can then report on a site’s share of that total; GfK gets the sales information from 71,000 retail outlets and so can plot prices over time…). What’s interesting is how quickly and clearly a Web2.0 business moves from a linear-scaling revenue model (where revenue = users x fee) to a related, decoupled revenue source.

The initial business models that were predicted for the web revolved around disintermediation, giving users direct access to services and eliminating middlemen.

The new model is going to be “meta data” and mining that information to provide valuable insights and benchmarking. In this particular instance the value derived from being able to anonymously benchmark your rates exceeds any concerns about privacy.

In an highly-connected, transparent world it’s not possible to hide commissions charged. We therefore have explicit, valuable services being offered separately (where previously they were bundled) and the ‘by product’ of large, transactional data sets being mined for value.

Tesco to sell software

Tesco adds software to its line-up

Just published this article on InternetRetailing.net.

I love a company which is determined to fight everyone and anyone for some market share and margin, but Tesco has really impressed today with its assault on Microsoft’s dominance of the ‘office software’ model. The BBC is reporting that it will be selling budget own-brand office software, competing with Microsoft Office.

Tesco have decided to offer a re-badged version of Formjet‘s Ability Plus software. This software has been around, in several guises, since the DOS days of 1985 (it debuted apparently as a free trial CD on the cover of PC World magazine). The software has moved on from then but still sports a rather dated interface (as in ‘MS Office Last Year’).

The three big questions for customers buying office software are:
* Price – anything cheaper than the headline £400 for MS Office Professional looks attractive
* compatibility – no-one wants to head down a blind alley and be unable to communicate with the rest of the (Microsoft) world
* support – anything off the beaten track must be very well supported.

Looking at each of these in turn the attractiveness of TescoOffice2004 [tm, etc] is not entirely obvious.

Of course MS Office can be expensive, but you can always steal it (which of course we at IR Towers would never condone – we simply report this as an option!). You can also get the software for £60 if you’re a student. There’s also a thriving second-hand market for fully-licenced software. While you’d wonder why people would want an old version of Office, you could argue that the TescoOffice is effectively a clone of the older versions anyway. Furthermore, backwards compatibility and the overkill of the total feature set mean that older versions are just dandy for the vast majority of users.

In a sideswipe at large corporates it’s also worth noting that very few large companies are on the latest versions of Office anyway. The investment in patching, customising, training and supporting thousands of users is immense and they take a very sceptical view of the productivity enhancements in new versions. This forms an additional reason for customers to be wary with their own money – they may as well use the same software that they use at work…

Compatibility is another big issue. At IR Towers we are a mixed shop in that the majority have PCs, but we also allow Mac users through the door and our IT person has “Unix” tattooed onto his be-sandalled toes. We understand the difficulties of file compatibility and have working practices that minimise problems. It’s going to be awkward for ‘normal users’ however to find that attachments sent to Aunty Mabel do not display correctly. Ability claim that compatibility is total, but there are comments on internet discussion groups and reviews of some issues with tables and Excel. These are probably minor or irrelevant to most users – however confidence is a fragile thing and any upsets can damage their confidence in the application.

Support is the final Big Issue and there’s no word (no pun intended) at present on how this will be handled.

I’m slightly surprised that Tesco has not opted to package the excellent OpenOffice as its own. OpenOffice is open source software and is multilingual and multiplatform (not just PCs, but Mac and Unix too). The StarOffice version is commercial-grade and comes with manuals and support and would have been an interesting choice for the retailing giant.

It remains to be seen whether Tesco will add PCs to its lineup of new products and – if so – whether they will come without MS Windows. That would be a news story!

In the meantime we can cross off yet another retail sector that’s escaped Tesco’s attentions, while also sympathising with the folk at Tesco’s contact centre – training staff there on how to answer questions on office software productivity!

BBC takes the Microsoft wooden dollar

BBC – Press Office – BBC and Microsoft sign memorandum of understanding

MOU in this case is tantamount to a ‘sales and marketing agreement’.

I read this announcement with some surprise and a shrug of inevitability. Quick disclosure – back in 2000 I was Head of Online Operations for the BBC and played a small part in the development of the BBC’s wonderful online offerings. Throughout that time there was an emphasis upon internal expertise and open-ness. The technical people were very strong and – while the frustration with the “not invented here” arrogance that sometime accompanies Tech Gods on their travels through Middle Earth – there was no doubt that suppliers knew that the technical architecture and strategy was firmly with the BBC and they they would provide a component and not be The Solution.

Over time, of course, the market will develop enterprise-grade solutions that the BBC could consider adopting. When I was paying for publishing systems in 2001, for example, you could spend millions on multilingual, XML-y, highly scalable systems. Now they’re free! In the corporate world global players have emerged for whom the BBC is a “nice to have” customer and not intimidating (eg Akamai). The world has changed.

Countering the Big Software Company developments, however, was the increased tendency to lighter software layers, increased, open data exchange – someone coined the phrase “Web2.0” for this 😉

I had expected that the BBC would continue investing in back-end data and CMS solutions, but that the ‘front end’ would be in the very open vein that they have made their own.

To see this announcement then is a cause for some small sadness. I don’t want to overplay this, but the thought of the BBC becoming a site that requires ActiveX/Windows2000 or later just to access the rich user goodness is a concern (I’m thinking of you, HMVdigital, yes you).

There are going to be clear advantages (over and above the signed photo of Ashley and Mark hugging Bill Gates as they inked the agreement in Seattle): Microsoft’s investment in Vista to “assimilate” the Web2.0 movement and to “own” rich interfaces (much as Flash once did) is not to be underestimated. Furthermore, a well-packaged, integrated production and management environment is not to be scoffed at when you think of the savings in training and maintenance. With the recent sell-offs of BBC Technology as well as BBC Broadcast & Presentation becoming Red Bee Media the corporate is now more clearly run by the Marketeers. Technology is therefore a “service” to be used by the marketing teams and creative bods.

This, for me, is the sadness. The BBC has always invested (sometimes apparently uncommercially – but hey, who ever said that the licence fee was ‘commercial’??) in skills, training and R&D. While I’m not for a second saying that this ‘partnership’ will immediately reduce this investment, it will move from being broad-based and open to focusing on developing capability with Microsoft.

Just to be clear – ignoring or dismissing Microsoft would be stupid and unnecessary. The question is whether it’s possible to have a ‘partnership’ if there is not equality (either in capability, or in an equivalence of exchange). Also, the MOU isn’t a purchase order – major expenditure would need to go through an open procurement process. This does, however, give Microsoft an advantage of being the co-author of ‘innovation’.

The hope must be now that the BBC will manage to influence Microsoft’s development of tools and capabilities in Vista so that the 5% of the world not currently using Microsoft applications ‘soup to nuts’ will not be excluded.

The radical opportunities within ‘web2.0’ are more far-reaching that software inasmuch as they challenge our ways of working together, exchanging information and collaborating. To have a major, if quiet, player appropriated into the “Proprietary Corner” would be a major disappointment.