How things go ’round and ’round

I had an email yesterday from my friend Robb, which I have his permission to publish here. Robb used to work for me — in fact, I think that I hired him a total of three times — and whenever a company seeking to hire him calls me for a reference, I always tell them that the only negative thing about hiring him is that when I’m ready to start another company, I’ll be hiring Robb away from them. Robb has four essential qualities when it comes to working: he’s smart, he’ll do anything to get the job done for the customer, he always has my back, and he’s funny. His email yesterday, as usual, showed off the smart and funny bits:

Below is a newly formed company called Miria Systems. I give a history how this company came into being. Imagine how some things never actually die off:

  • 1998 – A company named Application Partners was founded around an insurance/finance product and named it Sequis– because apparently the English language is short of meaningful words
  • 2000 – FileNet bought Application Partners and renamed it PeBA (standing for Panagon eBusiness Application) shortly after that they got bored with the name PeBA and renamed the product Acenza
  • 2003 – After some successes the Acenza FileNet stalled the product program (to make way for BrightSpire) and effectively sold Acenza to a company called Endymion
  • 2004 – Endymion changed the name from Acenza to (drumroll) Acenza for Payables
  • 2003/2004 – Not satisfied with a simple named change Endymion completely re-wrote Acenza for Payables and changed the name to ManagedPay
  • 2004 – Endymion apparently used up a lot of their budget on the name changes (and even more on re-write) because they were forced into a merger with Software Consulting Group (SCG) — the two companies formed Soluziona USA
  • 2005 – Not satisfied with a single re-write was good enough to keep their engineers happy Soluziona USA again decided to re-write ManagedPay but decided that the name should stay the same
  • 2006 – Soluziona USA sold their ManagedPay product to a group of investors who formed a new company around this three-times-rewritten-and-five-times renamed product, keeping with tradition they gave the company a name with equally little English meaning as anything else in this brief history — Miria Systems, below is the link

www.miriasystems.com

The interesting thing here to me here, besides the obvious snide comments around product/company naming exercises, is that the functionality of this product lives on despite name changes, rewrites, etc etc. That the market still has the (relatively) same problems almost ten years later makes me think that there is a disruptive or revolutionary solution waiting to happen.

No doubt you will recognize all of those companies and product names, most of which (except for Miria) I have been either directly or indirectly involved with.

Just some thoughts….

/rr

What Robb didn’t mention is that PricewaterhouseCoopers also took the Acenza code base and rewrote it in J2EE around the time that they were purchased by IBM, to create a case-based application framework targeted at insurance customers. Once part of IBM Global Services, it was further rewritten to make it “vendor independent”, meaning that the underlying content and process management could be either IBM or FileNet products, hence serving up the least common denominator of functionality and completely obviating proper use of the underlying product. I had the unhappy job of doing a review of an installation of this on behalf of the customer, and it’s unbelievable how little of the FileNet product capability was actually exposed or used.

Although I agree with Robb that the market need for systems like this remains, I’m not sure at all that Sequis/PeBA/Acenza/ManagedPay/Miria product remains a viable solution. I haven’t seen it in a while, but last time that I did look at it, it was too heavy and rigid, too old-school, and had the same problem as the IBM version that I mentioned above in that it completely hid the underlying capability of the BPM system below it: you might as well be using records in a database table for queue entries rather than a BPM system like FileNet.

I’ve talked about this problem of hiding the very nature and capabilities of a BPM product behind a rigidly-structured custom system in the past, and discussed it briefly on my Web 2.0 and BPM podcast, and I feel that it’s a significant contributor to the lack of acceptance of BPM in many organizations.

I believe that the new world of enterprise software is less customization and more customizability: give the users the raw product and let them do what they need with it.

Passion in entrepreneurship

I went to a literary reading last night that paid tribute to author Barbara Gowdy, who read from her novel in progress after we heard readings from five other great authors about their views and experiences of Gowdy. Catherine Graham, one of the other authors who spoke, made the most amazing statement in her short piece “It Chooses You”: she said that if you write, you should write about what obsesses you. I’m a huge believer in being passionate about my work, and definitely do my best work when it’s something that I just can’t put down, so that really resonated with me.

This morning, I saw these entrepreneurial proverbs (for geeks) by Marc Hedlund on O’Reilly Radar (via Boing Boing), which included basically the same advice as Graham offers: “pay attention to the idea that won’t leave you alone”.

Very personal banking

Almost a year ago, I wrote about a borrowing and lending exchange called Zopa that had just launched in the U.K. — a sort of peer-to-peer lending service where individuals participate directly with each other rather than through a bank or other financial institution. Since most of my clients are financial institutions, I found this an interesting bit of disintermediation, except for once it was the big guys (the banks) being disintermediated out of the supply chain.

The Economist just published news of a similar exchange (paid subscription required to read article) opening in the U.S.: Prosper. There are a few differences in how they operate (Zopa always spreads a loan across at least 50 lenders, whereas Prosper allows the higher-risk scenario of one lender to assume an entire loan), but they both take on much of the administration work around the loan — credit scoring, collection agencies in the case of a borrower defaulting — for a fee of 1% of the loan amount taken from the borrower. Prosper also allows borrowers to form social networking-type groups, such as alumni from a particular university, where the loan repayment track record of the group can have a positive reflection on the members, and therefore lower the expected interest rate. In addition to reduced interest rates, the Economist also discusses the warm-and-fuzzy part of the equation:

There is a psychic pay-off, too. Users on Zopa have said that they like lending and borrowing within a community of ““real”” people, rather than through a faceless bank. Mr Duvall [Zopa’s CEO] notes that affinity credit cards (ie, those linked to an activity or membership) tend to have lower default rates than traditional credit cards. “The sense of community matters,”” he says.

It will be interesting to see if this technique that’s proving successful in the British marketplace can make inroads with Americans.

Choosing “same old same old” over “new and exciting”

I met with a friend today who works for a large bank (a former client of mine). That is, he used to work for the bank until his division, which provides institutional financial services through some pretty amazing application of technology, was spun off in a joint venture between the bank and an equally deep-pocketed European firm, in order to provide these services more effectively around the world. We spent much of our time talking about how exciting the new environment is: the head of the new joint venture is doing the whole rock-star/entrepreneur launch thing, with a fancy launch party for the staff, T-shirts and other swag, and various other bits of team-building and corporate culture enhancements. I know, for those of us who lived in technology through the boom, that doesn’t seem like much, but we’re talking about a bunch of conservative banking types here.

Being spun off as a new, smaller company, they can create systems and services in a much more agile way than when they were part of the bank, in part because they don’t need to conform to the bank’s corporate standards any more; from my experience there as a contract architect several days a week for about a year, I can vouch for the fact that these standards were sometimes oppressive since they didn’t account for the needs of this relatively small division.

As our conversation neared a close, I idly asked him if anyone had been spooked by the idea of working for a smaller, more agile company (there are a lot of veterans of 15+ years there), and was shocked to hear that several people had opted to move from this division back to the bank proper before the spin-off. A new company, backed by some very pockets? An agile business and technology environment unchained from irrelevent (to them) corporate IT standards? In other words, new and interesting work with no financial risk? I realize that I’m a bit of an outlier, having worked for only one company larger than 50 people since I graduated from university (and that chafed so bad that I had to leave after 18 months), but I have to ask, what were those people thinking?

Business discontinuity

I’ve been developing something recently for a customer on business continuity planning, and it put me in mind of how a former customer handled a disaster without the benefit of much BCP.

It was the ice storm of 1998, and this small financial company had their main processing site in downtown Montreal. Although the storm started on Monday (and continued for a week), power didn’t start failing until late in the week, and my customer didn’t lose their power until Friday afternoon. It quickly became obvious that the power was not coming back any time soon, which created a problem of unprocessed transactions: since they process mutual fund trades, many trades were already entered in the system, but would not be priced and processed until the overnight batch run. That weekend, the CIO and VP of IT decided to take action. They sneaked into the building (by now, the city was being patrolled by the military to deter looters), climbed 30 floors to their offices, disconnected the main server, and carried it on their backs down the 30 flights of stairs. They returned to one of their own homes, which still had power and telephone service, downloaded the pricing data and did the overnight batch run to process the trades. They then packed up the server in a van, drove it to Toronto — an interesting drive given that the main highways were all closed by now — and installed it in their small sales office there. They arranged for the toll-free customer service lines to be rerouted from their Montreal office to Toronto, added a few temporary and relocated staff to handle the phones, and were up and running by 6am on Monday. They were missing a few pieces, such as that nice imaging and workflow system that I had put in for them, but they were operational with effectively no interruption to their customers.

I remember laughing about this whole scenario when I heard it from the CIO shortly after that, and I definitely thought that these guys were heroes. In retrospect, if that same scenario had gone down today, someone would have been fired for a serious lack of business continuity planning. They suffered from a very common view of continuity planning that exists widely even today: a fatalistic sense that the risks are so low that it’s not worth planning for such a disaster. Given that the last ice storm of that magnitude to hit Montreal was almost 40 years before that, I can understand that view with regards to weather disasters, but there’s other ways to put your business out of commission; for example, Quebec’s history of domestic terrorism can’t be ignored in this post-9/11 world.

In other words, the potential for business discontinuity exists even if you don’t live on a fault line or in the path of major hurricanes: there are enough man-made disasters to keep us all awake at night. It’s no longer possible to ignore BCP, or claim that you can’t plan for something that might never happen. The question to ask yourself when budgeting for business continuity is “how long can we afford to be down?”

Secrets of Success

I just received an email from a recently-graduated engineer in Germany, looking for advice on how to become a credible resource on BPM projects with only theoretical BPM knowledge and a lack of business knowledge — in other words, how to ramp up from being a newbie with a decent technical degree into an experienced BPM consultant. I didn’t want to send off some flippant answer about long years of hard work, so I spent some time thinking about a few of the key things that I did (and still do) to turn myself from a techie with an engineering degree into a BPM architect who spends as much time thinking about business as I do about technology.

My advice to him:

First, research constantly about BPM, particularly case studies. There are lots of great resources on the web, such as BPMG, that have articles on everything that you would want to know about BPM, including real live case studies. Attend a BPM conference or two, such as ones by BPMG or Gartner, listen to more experienced people talk about what they’ve done, and make some contacts that you might be able to call on when you need some free advice.

Second, do some technical research into a few major BPM products, so that you can become somewhat of an expert on how BPM products work even if you haven’t worked with them. Many BPM vendors are very happy to have you learn more about their products, and if your target customers typically use a specific product (such as FileNet or Tibco), then research the technology behind that product or even attend vendor training so that you can stay one step ahead of your first customer on the technical side.

Third, learn more about your customers’ business. For example, most of my customers are in financial services and insurance, and I have become an expert on the business processes in these organizations through research and observation, even though I have never worked for a financial company (I’ve always worked for — or owned and operated — software or service companies). Even if you don’t have a contract with a potential customer yet, offer to come in and do a brief walk-through and analysis of their operations. Sit down with some of the people while they are working and ask them what they are doing, and why they’re doing it: that’s the best way to learn about the details of a business process. Very often, an outsider can observe something in a business that someone in the company won’t see, so you may be able to tell them something about their business that they don’t know after just a brief walk-through, if you’re observant.

Lastly, focus on the business issues, not the technology. If you are consulting on BPM directly to an IT department rather than a business department, the project has a high probability of failure: remember that the “B” in BPM stands for “Business”, and you have to stay focussed on what value that you are bringing to the business in order to successfully implement BPM.

I finished up my email by telling him that there is no real substitute for experience, but it’s possible to educate yourself about BPM in a way that provides obvious value to prospective customers. Many people in the customer organizations (even in the IT department) don’t have formal systems training, so this is a good opportunity to put to use all those analysis and problem-solving skills that they taught us in engineering, just applied to business instead of technical problems.

Clearly…good customer service

Since I am often involved in helping my customers improve their business processes and their customers’ experience, I’m always on the lookout for examples of good and bad customer service in any industry. I deal with a lot of suppliers for business and personal items, mostly online, and rarely does one jump up and surprise me with their fabulous customer service. Recently, however, ClearlyContacts.ca has done just that.

Buying contact lenses online in Canada is a relatively new phenomenon, unless you order from the US and pay extra for shipping, duties and border clearance. When I lived in California, I ordered from 1800Contacts.com, so I recently decided to take my optometrist’s prescription in hand and order from them again, border crossing be damned. I went to the 1800Contacts site…only to find that they don’t carry my type of lens any more. Damn. I googled around and found another site, CoastalContacts.com, that did carry them; I filled my online shopping cart and was ready to check out when I saw that icon at the top of the screen, filling my heart with joy: the letters “CA” in a circle, right beside other circles: “US”, “UK”, “EUR” and “AU”. I clicked on the CA icon in trepidation, expecting it all to be some sort of dream, and was redirected to ClearlyContacts.ca, which appears to be Coastal Contacts’ Canadian-based shipping point.

I ordered on Thursday, but when I tried to check the order on their website the next day, I got Java/SQL barf all over the screen. To give them credit, the barf screen included a mailto: link to the site administrator, so I clicked and complained. Within a couple of hours, I had a response that explained that they were having trouble with the site, but that my lenses had shipped that day and gave me a Canada Post package tracking number. The email included a great tagline in the signature block:

Passionately committed to making every experience with Coastal Contacts positive and highly satisfying. For everyone. Every time.

The lenses arrived on Monday afternoon, all the way from Vancouver, days before I expected them. The best part? On the side of the ClearlyContacts packing box was printed a motto to live by:

Dance, Sing, Floss and Travel

The fact that they serviced my order correctly and efficiently may be considered a given (although this was a new supplier for me so not pre-supposed), but there’s some great customer service lessons to be learned from this:

  1. If one of your customer interface channels has problems, be able to respond to the issues via another channel. This requires proper integration of information and processes behind the scenes.
  2. In today’s market, it’s not enough to be committed to servicing your customers’ needs, you have to let them know that you’re passionate about it. That requires, of course, that you are passionate about it.
  3. Once you’re absolutely sure that you’ve served your customer well, leave them with a smile on their face.

A lesson in disintermediation

I recall learning the real meaning of the word “disintermediation” in the mid-90’s, when I was helping mutual fund companies build systems to do exactly that: cut out the middle-man (the broker or dealer) in some of the transactions that they have with their end-customers. The primary vehicle for this disintermediation is, of course, the web, where now almost all financial services companies provide some sort of self-service, bypassing a mutual funds dealer, securities trader, bank teller or insurance broker whenever regulations allow. This trend is not restricted to financial services: travel agents, for example, have been practically disintermediated out of existence in some market segments.

The “bad guy” in this has always been the big company: by allowing their customers direct access to their services, they endanger the livelihood of the intermediary. (Having been self-employed for most of 20 years, I don’t believe in the sanctity of any job, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Now it’s the banks’ turn to be disintermediated. The Economist reports in a recent article on the launch of Zopa, a UK-based online lending and borrowing exchange: consider it peer-to-peer lending for the rest of us.

Since borrowers and lenders can get together without a bank in the middle, Zopa effectively disintermediates the bank, while providing bank-like security through credit checks, spreading each loan over multiple parties, and committing to collecting from overdue borrowers. Borrowers are classified by their risk, and lenders choose the level of risk that they want to assume when picking a market within Zopa. Zopa takes 1% of the deal, which means that borrowers get a better rate than a bank could offer them for a consumer loan, and lenders get a better rate than a bank savings account. To quote their site:

Lenders can choose what rate to lend at and, by looking at the markets, decide what sort of people to lend to and when. Borrowers can choose to take a rate offered or to wait and see whether the rates drop. Both avoid paying needless chunks of commission to Financial MegaCorp plc and can get better rates of interest as a result.

I love that dig about “Financial MegaCorp plc”.

You can be sure that the big financial institutions will fight the growth of exchanges like Zopa when it starts to impact their business, but then, all parties being disintermediated fight the trend. This style of borrowing and lending won’t be for everyone, but it will attract those who don’t want to spend the extra money just to have a bank in the middle, any more than I would pay a higher fare to have a travel agent book an airline ticket for me.