When you’re the product

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about purported “social-change” website Change.org. If you’re unfamiliar with the site, you can visit and sign your name to a variety of online petitions, attempting to compel anyone from national governments to corporations to adopts or change their stance on a variety of issues.

While all that seems well and good, skeptics claim Change.org is simply some “social conscious” window dressing for a company that aims to gather and sell personal information. Beyond the questionable representation of its product, it’s a great business: Grab someone’s email address, all them rapidly tell you the causes they’re most passionate about, then package all that up and sell it to the highest bigger. Everyone from nonprofits, to political organizations, to consumer products companies are understandably clamoring for this data.

While it might be perceived as sneaky to present your company as tirelessly trying to make the world a better place, then mining and selling the data of those that use your service, it follows what’s quickly becoming the web’s golden rule:

If you’re not paying for it, YOU’RE the product being sold

The Techie’s Car?

I enjoy following the tech news that emanates from Las Vegas during the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) each year. It’s a good way to stay on top of technology innovation, most of which is happening in the consumer space these days, and a fun way to research future tech purchases, or decide if there’s something worth waiting for in the next 6-12 months.

An interesting development this year was that an automaker, Ford, was a primary sponsor of the show, and unveiled its Fusion Energi model at the show. Aside from an awkward name, the car looks fairly decent, claims 100-MPGe (I’m still not sure what that pesky “e” means, but I’ll interpret that as “really fuel efficient”), and is loaded with technology usually reserved for higher end cars.

I current drive an Audi A4 wagon that’s exceptionally fun to drive, and also fairly advanced on the tech front, although surprisingly Ford seems to have it handily beat. I’ve wondered why it’s taken this long for automakers to integrate mobile devices beyond basic hands free functionality, since they’re now essentially computers and a broadband pipe. Ford claims your phone can do everything from provide music from a streaming service like Pandora, to allowing the car to read text messages, seeming to integrate smartphones in more than a cursory manner.

I have few doubts the Ford’s driving experience will be “uninspired” compared to my current ride, but I’ve come to the gnawingly painful realization that most of my driving is uninspired at best. I’m usually heading to a meeting, grocery run or other mundane activity, or have my 2-year old strapped in the back. Beyond that, I’m frequently on long, straight highway runs, where entertainment, technology and efficiency are more beneficial than cornering ability and acceleration. Certainly not a recipe for “spirited” driving. When I do plan on hitting the twisties, my motorcycle is usually the weapon of choice.

The success of the Prius, a goofy-looking vehicle that drives like a one-legged duck on land seems to indicate there’s a market for efficient, tech-heavy vehicles that Ford is aggressively attacking. Having grown up with Japanese and European autos being the pinnacle of quality while the Detroit Three were mocked as inferior creates some internal cognitive dissonance, but I’m ready to admit a Ford will be on my list of candidates when it comes time for my next auto.

Cloud Computing Benefits, Risks, and Applications

Patrick Gray discusses the benefits and risks of cloud computing, as well as how cloud could be relevant to your company. The discussion is presented at an executive level, without resorting to technical or vendor-specific details, perfect for CxO’s and board members that need a quick briefing on how the cloud might impact their organization.

What is Cloud Computing (video)?

IT BS Watch CBSO (Chief BS Officer) Patrick Gray answers the question “So what exactly is cloud computing” without resorting to technical jargon or marketing puffery. Using plain language targeted towards executives and non-technical viewers, Gray explains why you’re likely already familiar with cloud computing, and probably have already used it. Finally, learn how to determine if cloud is relevant to your organization.

Why Twitter is Useless

I’ve given Twitter an honest effort, and am finally prepared to pass judgment: it’s ineffective for some people, and utterly useless for the preponderance of the population. Here’s why:

Time Suck 2.0

I can hear the cries now: “But there are some real gems posted on Twitter!” Sure there are, but how much detritus did you have to wade through to find those diamonds? For every compelling insight from a business leader or truly witty nugget in Exhibit A, Exhibit B has 7,423 cat-related tweets, 19,743 tweets about what someone ate for breakfast, 954,235 tweets lamenting Monday and/or celebrating Friday, and 6,278 tweets that are so deeply encoded with tweet-speak that no human actually understands them (#RT @patgrayjr #lol #failwhale http://a.b.cd.efg.net.com.is.not.so.gd/hHjh34x).

While you can certainly find an occasional needle in a haystack, I’d rather just pull one from a sewing kit.

The “great man” theory of the Internet

When I started on twitter I followed the Twitter 101 textbook, and listened to all the breathless admonishments that “you simply must follow [Guy Kawasaki/Jeff Pulver/Laura Fitton/Robert Scoble/twitter celeb du jour]!” While I enjoy reading articles and commentary from some of these folks, 160 character insights into every aspect of their life, delivered with an annoying beep or pop-up window every 6.34 seconds gets old really fast. Do I want to read an insightful article about effective presentations from one of these folks? Sure. Do I want to hear about the author’s bowel movements? Not so much.

But your customers are out there!

Most of us have been told our customers are lurking on twitter, dying to interact with the makers of their toothbrushes, autos, and favorite ice cream. “Get on twitter, and you’ll get a great view of your customers,” the pundits say. The problem is that twitter gives you a narrow, self-selected demographic. If the only customers you care about are young, tech-savvy, moderate to high wealth individuals who are obsessive, bored, or deranged enough to interact with you constantly, by all means, do your customer research on twitter. You’ll get a skewed and outlier view (funny how everyone on twitter is really mad, or really excited about nearly everything), but it’s worth about what you paid for it.

Where twitter can be powerful is pushing out promotions, early news about your company and products, or other “broadcast” style communications, but as a tool for market research and customer interaction, realize you’re working with a very narrow base.

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t retweet at all

In addition to wading through cat tweets, the retweet feature further reduces twitter’s questionable value. Essentially, retweeting is just passing along the work of someone else, creating an electronic echo chamber that soon drowns out any semblance of value.

Why the twitteratti are so interested in making other people look smart eludes me, but in effect, by retweeting someone else’s work that’s all you’re doing. If you don’t have something original or compelling to say, silence may be far more golden than shining the spotlight on others.

So, should I care about twitter at all?

At the risk of sounding like a total curmudgeon, I won’t harp on the other entropy created by twitter, from the (thankfully dying) trend of “live tweeting” meetings and conferences, to that friend who can’t pry themselves away from diddling a digital device rather than participating in a live conversation. So is there any value to twitter?

If you’re shilling products, or what the cool kids call a “content creator,” twitter is one more channel to promote your stuff. Use it to push high-value content, and it may shine up your brand, or perhaps even entice someone to do business with you, but twitter is certainly not a business strategy (unless you’re a “social media consultant” who makes money tweeting all day, trying to convince companies to spend more time on twitter), and shouldn’t consume more than 3% of your day.

It may also fill some deep-rooted void with the illusory “personal connection” of following a famous CEO or celebrity, and if you want a twitter hobby in your spare time, be my guest. Just don’t kid yourself that those 6 hours you spent twiddling are any better than if they had been invested watching The Real Housewives of Peoria.

Now to go tweet about what I had for breakfast…

Will China “take over the world?”

I’m often asked if China will “take over the world” or “steal” the world’s manufacturing sector. While I don’t think we should abandon ship and prepare for “the Chinese century” I do see several factors contributing to China’s rise in global business and manufacturing in particular:

  • A cultural, governmental and historical emphasis on manufacturing. In many western societies “building” seems to be far lower on the societal pole than “thinking,” but in China they are far closer. I also think this makes the intellectual property concept less understood and respected in China.
  • An extremely (arguably to a fault) pro-manufacturing government. You can dump your waste into a river, work your people at unethical levels (to the point of indentured servitude or borderline slavery, and the oft-mentioned currency and tariff manipulations.
  • An ability to produce extremely high-quality products at amazingly compelling prices. The old stereotype of “everything from China is junk” is long dead. The iPhone, often cited as a pinnacle of industrial design and production is manufactured in China for example.

To a large extent, I think the Chinese society (government and citizenry) see manufacturing, industrialization and business in general as keys to their country becoming the de facto world superpower. While we’re bashing bankers and drooling over the next American Idol, China is trying to learn everything it can from the west, and diligently applying it with their own twists.

I wouldn’t yet write off India, the west or other Asian nations, but there are certainly interesting times ahead.

200 Words on “Cloud Computing”

Much of the “cloud revolution” is overdone, and the facts are that “the cloud” has been around for several years, if not decades. Essentially, cloud computing is a fancy term for putting your data or applications outside the “walls” of your company and its technology infrastructure. You could easily call it outsourcing, timesharing or any other currently gauche term, but I guess clouds sound sexy at the moment.

Transitioning an application to a cloud model should come down to the decidedly un-sexy process of a cost-benefit analysis. The joy of cloud computing, or any outsourcing model, is that you no longer have to worry about maintaining boxes, wires and code in-house. Some of the big costs are security, support and reliability. Just as you would thoroughly vet any other provider of outsourced services, companies looking to the clouds would be wise to look at the maturity, reliability and contingency planning in place at a potential cloud provider, being careful to do full due diligence rather than getting starry-eyed in order to jump on the next tech-driven buzzword bandwagon. Your customers will likely have little patience when you tell them their confidential data is now plastered all over the web, but it was hosted on a really cool, cloud-based Web 3.0 platform!

Social Media: The “next big thing” or just the latest thing?

I recently came across the question above on one of the LinkedIn groups I follow. For those still pondering the great question of the relevance of social media, here’s my bite-sized thoughts:

Social media is a bit of both. Remember those quaint days in 1999 where the common wisdom was that merely putting up a web page and mentioning in your TV and print ads: “See us on the web at h-t-t-p colon, slash, slash, areallyawkwardaddress-dot-com forward slash more awkward nonsese dot h-t-m-l” would quadruple your sales? Recall all those starry eyed conversations that went something like: “Well, there are 9349834 gazillion people on the web, if just 0.0000001% buy our product we’ll be instant billionaires!!!”

Now the web is just another media outlet. Yeah, you’re expected to be there, and it certainly is a valid and fairly mature medium, but it is no longer some magic potion that will shock, awe and amaze. Heck, you even have to follow old-school conventions like making pages look appealing, and providing quality content rather than a fancy rotating graphic that the heavily-pierced dude in IT coded up for you.

Social media will soon mature and fall into the same bucket. You’ll probably need to be on Facebook and have a presence of Twitter, and have a grasp of what is going on in the social media space, but it’s not this magic amulet that will generate oodles of revenue overnight. Treat it like another arrow in your quiver and you’ll do fine. Expect social media to magically change the world and triple your sales, and you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Fear and Loathing: Books 2.0

There’s been much talk lately of Books 2.0, and how devices like the Amazon Kindle will change reading forever. As an avid Kindle user, I’m excited, and frankly a bit frightened, to see where the book is headed in the digital age. I love the fact that with my Kindle, I can carry the equivalent of hundreds of pounds of books in a tiny package, especially helpful as my trade frequently has me on airplanes for long periods. To me, this is the magic of the Kindle and the “digital revolution” in books.

Many pundits have been breathlessly pondering the Kindle’s potential as a social networking vehicle for books as an exciting capability, but I cannot count myself among their ranks. I’m far from a luddite, but this concept has me running for the hills. As an avid reader and published author, I find that books are one of the last forms of individual literary dialogue left. Unlike most other media, the author and reader share an uninterrupted dialog through the act of reading. It’s a personal and deep dive into another’s world, and a six course meal in a world of bite-sized media. As one who bemoans authors who riddle their text with footnotes and end notes, I rue the day where a book I’m reading will have hyperlinks, sidebar comments, and twitter-like trivialities flashing up in the text interrupting that dialog. I frankly have no interest in what KoolKat9838 has to say about a particular passage of Atlas Shrugged, and if I wanted their opinion I would happily open my browser or pose the question on twitter.

The best and worst aspect of the web is that anyone with a computer can generate content. I purchase a book because I am interested in a healthy dose of a particular author’s perspective. If I want a huddled mass of content ranging from the intellectual to the inane, I’ll head for the web. But leave my interaction with a book and its author alone, please.

Cut your way to success? Not likely.

I recently spoke to a colleague that found it somewhat astounding that several companies were talking about increasing spending on innovation-related projects. Conventional wisdom says it’s time to cut your costs, fire your staff, then head for the fallout shelter and hope there is a world left to return to in a year or two. Despite common “wisdom,” you don’t become the Next Big Thing by selling the boardroom table, eating Ramen noodles and hiding under a rock until times improve.

IT is no different from any other business function in that it should have an investment portfolio that includes rudimentary elements (keeping the network up and the servers serving), some high-risk R&D elements and everything in between. When the economy suffers you might change the mix, but you don’t completely axe a particular category. Show me a company that stopped innovating and rested on your laurels, and I’ll show you the next candidate for a congressional bailout.

Many IT shops miss their biggest asset: their universal presence and cross-functional knowledge. There are boatloads of low-cost, high return projects that executives can attack by exploiting this knowledge that as a side benefit, make IT look like a group that brings value to the table, not a cost to be mitigated. Certainly not a bad way to be perceived in a recession. I have a bit more about this in a column here.

Think of all the process improvement opportunities you’ve seen during say, and ERP implementation that you just didn’t have time to implement. Or think of that database you created for marketing would really benefit production or perhaps a function as diverse as AR. The possibilities are almost limitless and require less funding that a huge multi-year implementation.

Best of luck staying innovative, and pass the Ramen noodles!