No Joke – this is what my Windows Live looked like this morning

I did a double take when I saw this. I had clicked on an uninteresting story and lo and behold while Vista was taking its time loading up Internet Explorer, lo and behold, this is what the Windows Live app showed. Eventually it refreshed with correct “news” but not before I was able to take this screenshot.

Looks like I was treated to a Windows Live wireframe. If so it’s entertaining to see the level of humour and cynicism amongst their designers.

Looks like a windows live wireframe
Looks like a windows live wireframe

Consultant Day Rates Incentivise Mediocrity

I spent several years working for IT consultancy organisations. Something I didn’t get then and still don’t get now is how consultants are essentially targeted to be average. Here’s how:

Consultants are targetted, bonussed etc on the amount of revenue they generate. The revenue they generate depends on the number of billable days they do.

  • Consultants who fail to deliver are eventually found out and removed from projects.
  • Consultants who finish their projects ahead of schedule end up charging fewer days.
  • The ones who do best financially, then, are the average ones who use up the expected number of days and are able to justify some extra billable days on top of the original engagement.

For sure this is a bit on the cynical side, but only a bit. In reality personal pride kicks in and individual consultants will generally want to do the best they can for their clients. For example, I have certainly seen many occasions where consultants (especially young-ish ones) will put in unpaid evenings and weekends to complete something on time. But it does worry my somewhat if we are relying on personal pride to outweigh market forces.

Does this mean I have a major issue with consultants? Of course not. I use consultants for many projects. And most of the time this involves paying day rates. But I work hard to ensure that the relationship and level of mutual respect is sufficient to give me confidence that I’m not going to be ripped off. Of course, you never know, do you?

No conclusions, just thinking out loud.

More Reverse Auction momentum

Some more recent reverse auction stories that popped into my Google Reader:

Using Reverse Auctions to buy advertising spots on Radio. A quote:

Bid4Spots allows the media buyers (that’s us) to set a maximum bid and allow stations to bid ever-lower media prices. After all, the stations are selling next week’s leftover airtime.

The real power of Bid4Spots is the steadily lessening of price rather than the gradual increase. In a Bear economy, when most businesses are cutting their media spend, there exists a real opportunity for small and medium-sized businesses to get a lot of airtime for their money.

City of Waco uses a reverse auction to buy electricity. There seems to be a lot of interest in running reverse auctions for electricity these days. A quote:

“We’ve been wanting to try a reverse auction for some time, as we believed the process could significantly benefit the City and, ultimately, our taxpayers,” said Danny Jackson, Administrative Engineer, City of Waco. “I can’t say enough about how great World Energy’s people were throughout the process. The market directors were extremely knowledgeable about the industry and helped us make key decisions regarding structuring the auctions to ensure we had significant supplier participation. We were particularly pleased that World Energy was able to drum up supplier interest for the auction, even though we used our own paper for awarding the contract.”

 

2 points on this:

  1. The Bid4Spots story is spot on in linking an upswing in reverse auction interest to the current downwards trajectory in the economy. This is what happened last time round in 2002.
  2. The Waco story is spot on in highlighting the importance of market making support in running a successful auction. It’s no good these days for software companies to sell only software and/or software integration/implementation services. These days successful technology delivery revolves around what What Max Bleyleben (Disclosure: he works for Kennet, an investor in TradingPartners) calls software/services/content convergence. 

Careful with all that Flash, Flex and AIR

I read with interest James Governor’s write-up of his Adobe/SAP nanoconference  and enjoyed watching the video, showcasing all kinds of cool new UI stuff you can do with Adobe AIR

There was an example with screens swooshing around like they do on the iPhone. There was an example of a car insurance claim where rather than describing an incident on paper they can drag around images of cars to “draw” an example of who crashed into whom, when and how.

And then there are the likes of http://www.zui.co.uk/ who use Adobe technologies to build cooler UIs for SAP – certainly cooler than the ones I remember from 1999.

This is all great.

But in amongst all this whizz-bang technology it’s worth remember that first and foremost users want interfaces that let them get on with their day jobs quickly. Google is always a good example for a simple, pretty ugly, user interface that seems to work well.  Here is a page I’ve linked to before on usability – it’s well worth a read before loading up your user interface with bells and whistles.  http://www.asktog.com/basics/03Performance.html

And here are a few gems from random pages of Gui Bloopers by Jeff Johnson (the Web 1.0 version from 2000) that are still worth bearing in mind:

On the research at PARC into what has now become established as the GUI:

Fairly quickly, PARC researchers relized that one that that did not work very well was for the computer – or more accurately, its software – to unilaterally move objects around the screen. Some researchers had initially assumed that it would be helpful to users and more efficient for software to sometimes move or “warp” the mouse pointer automatically to new positions. Similarly, some researchers tried having their software automatically reposition, stretch, and shrink windows “when appropriate”. Although well-meaning, these attempts to be helpful and efficient disoriented and frustrated users more than they helped them.

And on designing consistent screen layouts (the Ribbon in Office 2007 may be a lot better once you are used to it, but for most people the menu structure in Office 2003 was just fine and shouldn’t have been messed with):

The vast majority of computer users these days are interested in getting their work done. They are not interested in the computer and its software per se … They want the computer and its software to help them develop habits, and then they want to forget the computer and software and concentrate on their work. In fact, they are often so focused on their work that if they are looking for a Search function but the application window spells it “Find”, they may overlook it. For this reason, developers should design user interfaces as if the prospective users were autistic – people who abhor any difference or variation in their routine.

Get these basic considerations wrong and it doesn’t matter how much AIR gadgetry you throw at the UI. It’ll just be putting lipstick on a pig.

An honest, open and transparent approach to supplier selection

I was doing some googling recently about Japanese auctions to see if there is anyone out there apart from TradingPartners who has anything useful to say about them in a procurement space. Turns out there doesn’t seem to be. But in the process I stumbled across this entertaining old article from the NY Times:

Takashi Hashiyama, president of Maspro Denkoh Corporation, an electronics company based outside of Nagoya, Japan, could not decide whether Christie’s or Sotheby’s should sell the company’s art collection, which is worth more than $20 million, at next week’s auctions in New York.  
 
He did not split the collection – which includes an important Cézanne landscape, an early Picasso street scene and a rare van Gogh view from the artist’s Paris apartment – between the two houses, as sometimes happens. Nor did he decide to abandon the auction process and sell the paintings through a private dealer.

Instead, he resorted to an ancient method of decision-making that has been time-tested on playgrounds around the world: rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper smothers rock.
In Japan, resorting to such games of chance is not unusual. “I sometimes use such methods when I cannot make a decision,” Mr. Hashiyama said in a telephone interview. “As both companies were equally good and I just could not choose one, I asked them to please decide between themselves and suggested to use such methods as rock, paper, scissors.”

Well as a process it’s certainly honest, open and transparent.

Information Democracy

Nick Carr wrote a piece a while ago about the pros and cons of easy information distribution of information. Specifically the double edged sword: GPS http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2008/01/looking_at_a_se.php

As GPS transceivers become common accessories in cars, the benefits have been manifold. Millions of us have been relieved of the nuisance of getting lost or, even worse, the shame of having to ask a passerby for directions.

But, as with all popular technologies, those dashboard maps are having some unintended consequences. In many cases, the shortest route between two points turns out to run through once-quiet neighborhoods and formerly out-of-the-way hamlets.

Scores of villages have been overrun by cars and lorries whose drivers robotically follow the instructions dispensed by their satellite navigation systems.

That’s the problem with the so-called transparency that’s resulting from instantly available digital information. When we all know what everyone else knows, it becomes ever harder to escape the pack.
There is, of course, much to be said for the easy access to information that the internet is allowing. Information that was once reserved for the rich, the well-connected, and the powerful is becoming accessible to all. That helps level the playing field, spreading economic and social opportunities more widely and fairly.

At the same time, though, transparency is erasing the advantages that once went to the intrepid, the dogged, and the resourceful … The commuter who pored over printed maps to find a short cut to work finds herself stuck in a jam with the GPS-enabled multitudes.

You have to wonder whether, as what was once opaque is made transparent, the bolder among us will lose the incentive to strike out for undiscovered territory. What’s the point when every secret becomes, in a real-time instant, common knowledge?

I don’t buy the argument.

It’s safe to assume that technological advances (like GPS) will lead to externalities (unintended side effects, both positive and negative). I live in a village which suffers every now and again from GPS-enabled truck drivers getting stuck in narrow lanes – so I can see where he’s coming from with this particular criticism. But it seems to me that Nick is arguing something more than just about side-effects. He seems to arguing that there is something in the very nature of the technological advances – “what was once opaque is made transparent” – that devalues us. That makes us less willing to strike out for something new.

Hogwash. What is the point of striking out for undiscovered territory? People will always do that just for the hell of it, in the hope of commercial gain or personal aggrandisement. For a number of reasons. What they are striking out for may be different to what their grand-parents considered undiscovered but they will continue nonetheless.

I like analogies. When I think of Nick Carr railing against GPS making it “too easy” to get from A to B I try to imagine similar scenarios. So how about going back 1000 years to the introduction of the abacus into Western Europe which made it far easier to do your maths than it would have been to multiply CLXI by XIV in Roman Numerals. In the same way that GPS democratises navigational data, the abacus democratised the ability to do mathematical calculations. That’s a good thing, right?

Alien Abductions – the most compelling/entertaining theory I've heard

… as told to me by a fellow member of my ante-natal group a few years ago.

Alien abductions are misty recollections of having your nappy (diaper) changed as an infant.

Think about it. What do so many alien abduction stories have in common?

  • Sudden transportation away from what you were doing – a transportation you are helpless to resist
  • Bright lights shining in your face
  • Out of focus humanoid people whose faces are a bit similar to your own, only narrower
  • Being made to lie down on your back while your abductors carry out bizarre medical activities – ofteninvolving the nether regions
  • Being dumped unceremoniously back into the normal world as suddenly as you were taken away.

Hmmm …..

Better procurement and integrated design

I read a good feature in my old university magazine with Prof Ann Dowling from Cambridge University’s Engineering Department who is working with MIT to come up with a  very quiet plane: the SAX-40 (Silent Aircraft eXperimental).

But what stood out from a procurement perspective was not all the clever stuff that goes into designing a near-silent aircraft (if you are interested it might be ready by about 2040). What stood out was the design process:

Dowling’s team designed the whole plane as a single, integrated piece of work, including the engines, and built a sufficiently complex computer model of how it would fly to enable them to design out the noise – a far cry from the conventional approach in almost all walks of engineering life. Cars, for example, are currently drawn by graphic designers, handed off to engineers to build, and then handed off again to an engine specialist tasked with making a propulsion unit to fit in a pre-ordained space.

The trouble with this conventional approach (and plane design is essentially no different) is that noise is very ‘cheap’ in efficiency terms: it’s easy to design a lot of noise into a blueprint for a machine without even noticing. That’s because, as Dowling explains, ‘the energy in sound is trifling. An entire Cup Final crowd, cheering and shouting for ninety minutes, generates about enough energy to boil a kettle.’ But integrated design can take accidental noise into account, and car manufacturers are starting to sit up and take notice.

What does an engineering design story have to do with procurement? How about switching out “noise” for “cost” so you have a sentence that reads something like this: “it is easy to design a lot of cost into a blueprint for a machine without even noticing.”

It is a commonplace amongst procurement circles that procurement needs to be involved earlier on in projects in order to add the most value. So it’s heartening to see how other areas, like engineering, are proving that integrated teams deliver better results.

On Free, Open Source and VRM

Open source is pretty standard practice these days – whether on the desktop (OpenOffice), on the server (MySQL), in the enterprise (WSo2), even tools like CRM are now available open source in some flavour or another. There are two types of people who are interested in open source.

A. Open source is interesting because it’s open. The philosophy behind this one is that “given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow” a la http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_S._Raymond.

B. Open source is interesting because it’s free to use. The philosophy here is, duh, why spend money when I can have something for free?

Open source, because it’s open, is great for learning, great for practising and great for demonstrating your chops to your peers and to potential employers.

Open source, because it’s free to use, lets companies build more stuff better and faster and cheaper with open source tools than they would have been able to without. If you want you can even pay for your open source (even if only via add-on services for enterprise support).

There’s a big difference. And I suspect that for most people the free aspect of open source is more important than the open aspect.

Open Source and Free
Open Source and Free

For example I’ve been giving VRM a lot of thought recently (see post in my other blog in which I was put right on some assumptions by Doc Searls and Graham Sadd), and I’ve been interested in some of the debates (e.g here and here) about the role of open source in VRM.

On the one hand is a train of thought that goes something like “this needs to become commercial to be successful”. On the other hand is a train of thought that goes something like “the open source community is our best bet to solve something as massive as this.”

And then of course there are plenty of comments along the lines of “it is both commercial and open source”.

But open source as relates to VRM – is it really that important? Adriana Lukas’s MINE! project is open source but does it need to be editable by anyone (open)? Or does it need to be freely distributable to anyone (free)?

Of course the use of free software elements will be invaluable in building effective VRM, just as with building any software these days. But open source doesn’t need to be part of the philosophy of the movement itself. Identi.ca is open source. Twitter is not. But there are plenty of ways of getting at the data in Twitter in third party applications.

It’s at the data layer that I think the open-ness debate needs to happen. The importance with VRM is in a user controlling their own data and communicating that data easily to potential vendors, under the user’s terms. The code that enables this to happen is of secondary importance. And will probably come from a whole host of small, different pieces. Some parts may be open source, but other parts may be proprietary (but with good APIs). Perhaps I’m trivialising things but I wonder whether with VRM the secret of success is “open data” rather than “open source”?

Unite Members to Protest Against Council Tendering

See here.

Unite, Scotland’s largest trade union, will hold a demonstration [Wednesday, 4th June] outside South Lanarkshire Council offices in protest at the blind bidding process for the care and support services for adults with learning disabilities.

South Lanarkshire Council set up an e-auction for firms to tender for providing care at home by submitting charges by the hour.

Thus begins the press release. Looks like an e-auction is the root cause of the antipathy.

Well – look again, further down.

Bidders were given no information in the tender document on the current terms and conditions of the employees who would be transferred.

In other words: the union’s issue seems to be with the quality (or lack) of information that was given out to bidders rather than with the bidding process itself. Once again – to run a good sourcing process (whether it involves an e-auction or not) you still need to be clear with suppliers. And make sure they have full access to the information they need to place sensible bids.