Tuesday, November 16, 2010

CloudPointe: Middleware that Matters to Business Users

If you're going to collaborate, you will likely want to share electronic documents. And you probably already use one if not several tools for creating, editing and storing those documents. So the last thing, and I mean the VERY last thing you and your colleagues want and that your business needs is yet another application to facilitate document sharing and collaboration.

What you really want is a solution that enables these abilities in ways that are, as the most popular and valuable business IT features always become, pervasive, ubiquitous and invisible. From a more technical perspective, what you want and need looks and feels a lot like middleware -- software that users never see or touch, but that makes the tools and services they do touch work better together.

From this perspective, I believe that I have seen the future, or at least one strongly compelling future, where document-centric collaboration is concerned. I believe a harbinger of that future is CloudPointe, which has just introduced a cloud-based service that enables users of Amazon.com S3, FTP, Google Docs, Microsoft SharePoint or Secure FTP (SFTP) to share, collaborate with and store documents easily and securely.

For more details, I direct you to a recent SYS-CON article on CloudPointe by my industry colleague and fellow Focus Expert Network member Tim Negris. You can find the article at http://dortchon.it/CloudPointe, and you should read and remember it, even if you never become a CloudPointe user. Tim makes several points about what's needed for effective document sharing and collaboration -- points I've decided that I don't need to make here if you read his article, because I enthusiastically agree with all of them.

Check out Tim's article, and let him (and me!) know what you think. Ditto regarding CloudPointe. Sometimes, it's true that the future is now, and I believe now is one of those times.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Business Applications, Faster, Cheaper & Guaranteed -- EnterpriseWizard CEO Colin Earl: The Dortch on Collaboration 3-Q Interview

In many companies, the most business-critical collaborations today take place via highly or totally custom-built applications. This is especially true at lager enterprises, and thanks in part to cloud computing, it's increasingly true for smaller companies as well.

Two increasingly critical challenges to effective, money-making, customer-delighting collaboration immediately leap to mind:
  1. getting apps built, deployed and tailored as needed rapidly and cost-effectively; and
  2. getting and keeping those those apps aligned with critical, subject-to-sudden-change key business processes.
Colin Earl is the CEO of EnterpriseWizard, makers of "adaptive business automation software" (!!) that enables businesses to build and tailor premise-based or hosted/cloud-based applications that comply with and automate business processes, with no code required. And the company offers a no-BS 100-percent money-back satisfaction guarantee. Colin is also a member of the Focus.com Expert Network, and has contributed some useful and interesting content there.

I thought Colin might have some useful thoughts on the current state and near-term future of business application-building. And I was right, as you'll read below. (I've added links to appropriate Wikipedia definitions and other resources rather than inserting a bunch of distracting explanations for some of the terms Colin uses. You're welcome.)

Q1: What is the greatest challenge facing business application builders today?
A1: Time/Cost. The business manager might say "We just need to manage XXX". He/she thinks of it in terms of a simple Web interface and expects that it should take a few days or weeks to complete.

But to meet corporate standards and government compliance, it also needs a ton of back-end and reporting functionality, such as: auditability, dashboards, automated backups, security, [support for] Web services/REST APIs, graphical charts, searching, synchronization with other systems, data integrity constraints, database connectivity [and] export/import capabilities. The list goes on and on.

By the time they have finished and debugged all this, the "little" project has taken man-years, cost a million dollars and may well be obsolete because requirements have changed.

Q2: What is the greatest challenge facing providers of tools and solutions for business application builders today?
A2: Providing a compelling value proposition. The old proposition of "Invest in months of training so that you can build applications that only the original developer can maintain" is no longer acceptable, especially when it involves some proprietary language.

With the possible exception of Microsoft, no single company can really afford to keep their proprietary technology apace with the rate of open-source development stacks. The LAMP [Linux/Apache/MySQL/PHP] and open-source Java stacks are simply evolving too quickly. Compare the rate at which Android has developed, as compared to the Microsoft smart-phone OS (assuming you can still find a Microsoft-based phone).

Tools and solutions for business applications builders must therefore leverage the open-source stacks, while adding compelling value.

For example, the tool might automate provision of all the "standard" functionality such as auditability, dashboards, automated backups, etc. The developer could then focus on development of the user interface and specialized business logic, so that the whole application could be built in a matter of weeks.

Q3: What is the "next big thing" in the building of enterprise applications -- technological, cultural or other?
A3: Removing the need for hand-coding. It is not only a huge time-sink, but the source of most problems.

The Google App Inventor [for Android] is doing this in the smart-phone space and we are doing it in the enterprise application space.

Let’s examine the main reasons that CIOs are fired, as described in a 2009 CIO Strategy article:

Project never gets finished or goes too far over budget. (Removing the need for custom coding reduces the time required to develop a project by a factor of four or more.)

Major application failure. (If the tool allows the project to be developed using the functionality built into the core platform, then it will be leveraging a code set that has been tested for scalability, audited for security and proven in hundreds of enterprises worldwide.)

Non-compliance or a high-risk issue compromises the organization.  (Compliance support can be automated with a tool that only shows an auditor what a defined business process is and how the system enforces it, but how the process has been followed in any particular instance.  The framework can capture and collate data, such as who logged in, what IP address they came from, what records they viewed, edited, etc.)

There are further advantages [when the need for hand/custom coding is eliminated]:
  • User adoption is a lot easier with a system that can be rapidly adjusted based on their feedback.
  • If there is no custom code, there are no code-compatibility issues with upgrades.
  • Business managers no longer need to agree with one another on everything six months in advance. After all, the system can be changed using just a browser in a few hours.  They are also no longer dependent on the “common sense” of programmers to deliver the system they need.
  • The system is self-documenting because everything is exposed through the admin browser.
  • Data integrity is automatically maintained by the system, not by custom code.
  • Code maintenance accounts for 80% of the cost of software projects. With no code to write, there is no code to maintain so cost, hassles and unpredictable delays are eliminated.
Dortch's Recommendations:

One of the major drivers of IT into the heart of almost every business on the planet was this intentionally vague value proposition: automate/eliminate mundane tasks and let people concentrate their skills and efforts on higher-value activities. As technologies for building, tailoring and deploying applications have evolved, "programming" such applications is increasingly becoming more mundane than unique and creative.

Of course, that means the "programming" of tools such as App Inventor for Android and EnterpriseWizard must result in tools that are powerful, yet relatively simple to use for those building and tailoring applications. Colin and his team, like the team at Google Labs building and refining App Inventor for Android, understand the criticality of combining power, flexibility and simplicity in a balance that favors, supports and empowers users.

Companies seeking to build premise-based or hosted/cloud-based applications that improve competitiveness and agility without requiring extensive programming or IT support resources should look closely at solutions such as App Inventor for Android for mobile applications and EnterpriseWizard for others. The better your business applications, and the fewer resources you have to spend on building, running and improving them, the better the collaborations your company translates into revenue and profit. You have little to risk, and much to gain, by exploring such solutions now.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Collaboration, Communication and Business Processes: Why They're Connected and How to Get Them There, in 13 Sentences!

1. Every business relies on collaboration and communication to do business.

2. Almost all business collaboration and communication is supported by some form(s) of information technology (IT), whether e-mail, social media telephone or even fax.

3. To win consistently and thrive competitively, businesses need to be able to do the right things for customers, partners and prospects consistently and respond to changing requirements or conditions in a timely, agile fashion.

4. Ad hoc, inconsistent collaboration or communication practices make it unlikely to impossible for businesses to do what they need to do to win consistently or thrive competitively.

5. The key difference between collaboration and communication practices that help a business to win and those practices that don't are consistent business-driven processes implemented and enforced across all business-critical activities and actors.

6. Processes that are crafted, documented and enforced well and consistently help to ensure that all important actions contribute to satisfaction of customers, partners and prospects and business success.

7. At most businesses, critical processes are often inconsistently and poorly crafted, documented and/or enforced, when they exist, are documented or are enforced at all.

8. The businesses best able to capture, define, implement, enforce, integrate and manage critical processes are those best positioned to win and to thrive competitively.

9. A potentially powerful way to achieve these goals is to process-enable the collaboration and communication solutions upon which the business already relies and with which users are already familiar.

10. Fortunately, new IT tools are appearing that make it relatively easy for even non-technical business decision makers to capture, define, implement, enforce, integrate and manage business processes effectively and consistently, and to process-enable key collaboration and communication solutions.

11. Examples include Cordys, which offers cloud-based process and workflow management that integrates with Google's online office applications, and EnterpriseWizard, which combines cloud- or premise-based application building and process capture/creation with an unconditional money-back satisfaction guarantee.

12. Your business needs to begin by capturing, analyzing and optimizing all critical incumbent processes, evaluating and prioritizing key collaboration and communication solutions and mapping out how best to process-enable these -- preferably now if it hasn't already.

13. For more on this (and on EnterpriseWizard), read my recent Focus Brief at http://focus.com/c/B3E/; to discuss, feel free to drop me a line at mdortch@focus.com and/or at medortch@dortchonit.com.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

No Flash? No Problem: Three Work-Arounds for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch Users

As you may already know, I'm a big fan of almost all things Apple, especially and most recently my new iPad. As you may not know, I'm also a big fan of all the Adobe technologies with which I have experience, especially Flash. However, I am definitely NOT a big fan of how the two companies have been dealing with the lack of Flash support on Apple's iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch devices, two of which I own and use almost every day.

Partly out of frustration and largely to help other similarly frustrated users, I've collected and offer for your consideration three work-arounds -- one involving creative search engine use, one involving Web sites designed for mobile devices and users, and one involving a bit more risk. You can read about them in detail in a Brief I've just published at Focus.com under the same title as this blog post. Of course, as always, your thoughts welcome.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Unified Communications? How About UNBRIDLED Communications?

In the 1970s, companies bought a bunch of computer equipment -- when what they really wanted and needed was computing.

In the 1980s and 1990s, companies bought a bunch of networking equipment -- when what they really wanted was connectivity to business-critical technology resources.

More recently, many vendors are selling, and noteworthy numbers of companies are buying, stuff that's referred to as "unified communications."

With all due respect to those worthy sellers and buyers, I'd like to submit that "unified communications" is not really what users want or need.

As I see it, the term "unified communications" is focused a bit too tightly on the underlying enabling technologies, and not tightly enough on user and business goals and needs. No more than a cursory look at how business is evolving reveals a bit of useful detail about those goals and needs.

So, what does business want and need? I'm glad I asked. Here's one answer. Business wants and needs the ability to deliver the right information to the right people at the right time in the right form, anywhere and anytime, in ways that enable and sustain high levels of user productivity, constituent care and business success.

From this perspective, businesses and their users, I believe, need "unified communications" far less than they need unbridled communications -- anytime, anywhere and secure access to accurate, consistent, timely and actionable information.

It may be a minor semantic distinction, but I mean for it to speak to a larger difference in perceptual focus. For almost the entire 30 years and change I've been in the information technology analysis business, vendors have tended to focus more on what they have to sell than on what users need to accomplish. Vendors have gotten better in recent years, to be sure, but every time a new spin on technology appears, the initial focus all too often reminds me of a popular Talking Heads lyric -- "same as it ever was."

I think that vendors would sell more solutions in less time, and that users would see meaningful, measurable ROI faster and more consistently, if each focused more on users' needs and goals. Smart resellers and integrators are making fairly nice livings by basically doing nothing but this. It's time that more of those companies and the vendor companies that supply the building blocks of those solutions followed suit. And given the business criticality of agile, secure, flexible, integrated communication and collaboration, there may be no better place to pick up the pace of the transition than the market currently -- and soon formerly, I hope -- as "unified communications."

Shameless Self-Promotion Department: One of the things I see helping to move things closer to what users need and care about is that whole "cloud computing/software-as-a-service/SaaS" thing. In fact, two of the areas in which cloud-based and SaaS business solutions are seeing their most rapid growth are in collaboration and communication. But I worry that some IT people at some businesses may be sabotaging the adoption of such solutions, intentionally and/or otherwise.

I've posted a blog entry that goes into a bit more detail about my concerns, which you can read here. I'd like it very much if you'd offer your opinions about this in a discussion going on now at Focus.com. Or you can feel free to write to me directly at medortch@dortchonit.com with opinions on anything about which you care enough to write. Thanks in advance!