It’s Just a Bunch of Stuff That Happens has done a brilliant job of capturing this visually (included below). I like the usability aspect this highlights. A mash-up’s focus is cross-application usability—removing the annoyances of dealing with separate information sources. We could simply take these sources and squish them up against the glass, delivering the content into iGoogle or NetVibes gadgets. But what those original push-pins on a map mash-ups did was improve the usability of these information sources by eliminating the decisions required to navigate across them. Just as Apple did with the iPod and iPhone, eliminating or fusing functions to eliminate the (unnecessary) decisions required to navigate the overly complex and confusing interfaces of the mobile phones that came before them.
iGoogle and NetVibes are the Symbian to a mash-up’s iPhone.
Mash-upno longer seems to mean was we thought it meant. The term has been claimed by the analysts and platform vendors as short hand for the current collection of hot product features, and no longer represents the goals and benefits of those original mash-ups that drew our interest. If we want to avoid the hype, firmly tying mash-up to the benefits we saw in those first solutions, then we need to reclaim the term, basing its definition on the outcomes those first mash-up solutions delivered, rather than the (fairly) conventional means used to deliver them.
Definitions are a good thing, as they help keep us all on the same page and make conversations easier. However, what often starts our as a powerful concept—with a clear value proposition—is rapidly diluted as the original definition gets pulled in different directions.
Over time, the foundation of a term’s definition moves from the outcome it represents (and the benefits this outcome provides), taking rest on the means which the original outcome was delivered, driven by everyones’ desire to define what they are doing in relation to the current hot topic. Next, the people who consider it to be just a means, often start redefining the meaning to make it more inclusive, while continuing to claim the original benefits. We end up selling the new hype as either means or goals or any half-hearted solution in between – and missing the original outcome nearly completely.
The original mash-ups were simple things. Pulling together data from two or more sources to create a new consolidated view. Think push-pins on a map. Previously I would have had to access these data sources separately—find, select, remember, find, select correlation, click. With the mash-up this multi-step, and multi-decision workflow is reduced to a single look, select, click. Many decisions became one, and I was no longer forced to remember intermediate steps or data.
It was this elimination of unnecessary decisions that first attracted many of us to the idea of a mash-up. As TQM, LEAN, et al tell us, unnecessary decisions are a source of errors. If we want to deliver high quality at a low cost (i.e. efficient and effective knowledge workers) then we need to eliminate these decisions. This helps us become more productive by spending a greater proportion of our time on the decisions that really matter, rather than on messy busy work. Fewer decisions also means fewer chances for mistakes.
Since those original mash-up solutions, our definition of mash-up evolved. Todaysdefinitionsare founded on the tools and techniques used to deliver a modern web-based GUI. These definitions focus on the technology standards, where the data is processed (client vs. server), standards and APIs, and even mention application architectures used. Rarely do they talk about the outcome delivered, or the benefits this brings.
There’s little difference, for example, between some mashups and a modern portal. We can debate the differences between aggregating data on the client vs. the server, but does it really matter if it doesn’t change the outcome, and the difference is invisible to the user? The same can be said for the use of standards, APIs used, user configuration options, differing solution architectures and so on.
The shift to a feature-function base definition has allowed the product vendors and analysts of seize control of our definition, and apply it to the next generation of products they would like us to buy. This has diluted the term to the point that it seems to cover much of what we’ve been doing for the last decade, and many of the benefits ascribed to the original mash-ups don’t apply to solutions which fit under this new, broader church.
Modern consumer home pages, such as iGoogle and NetVibes for example, do allow us to use desk and screen real estate more effectively–providing a small productivity boost–but they don’t address the root of the problem. Putting two gadgets on a page does little to fuse the data. The user is still required to scan the CRM and order management gadgets separately, fusing the data in their head. Find, select, remember, find, select correlation, click rather than a single look, select, click.
The gadgets might be visually proximate, but we could do that with two browser windows. Or two green screens side-by-side. The user is still required to look at both, and establish the correlation themselves. The chair might not swivel as much as with old school portlets, but eyeballs still do, and we are still forcing the user to make unnecessary decisions about data correlation. They don’t deliver that eliminate unnecessary decisions outcome that first attracted us to mash-ups.
The gold standard we need to measure potential mash-ups against is the melding of data used to eliminate unnecessary decisions. This might something visual, like push-pins on a map or markup on an x-ray. Or it might cover tabular data, where different cells in the table are sourced from different back-end systems. (Single customer view generated at the user interface.) If we fuse the data, building new gadgets which pull data attributes and function into one consistent view, then we eliminate these decisions. We can even extend this to function, allowing the user to trigger a workflow or process that make sense in the view they are presented, but with no knowledge of what or where implements the workflow.
We need a definition for mash-ups is that captures this outcome. Something like:
A mash-up is a user interface, or user interface element, that melds data and function from multiple sources to create one single, seamless view of a topic, eliminating unnecessary decisions and actions.
This v0.1 definition provides a nice, terse, strong definition for mash-up which we can hang a number of concrete benefits from.
More productive knowledge workers. Our knowledge workers only spend time on the decisions that really matter, rather than on messy busy work, making them more productive.
More effective knowledge workers. Fewer decisions mean fewer chances for mistakes, reducing the cost of error recovery and rework resulting in more effective knowledge workers.
The original mash-ups were simple things. Solutions like the Chicago Crime and AlertMap pulled together data from two or more sources (maps and crime databases, in the case of Chicago Crime) to create one single view. Previously I would have had to access these data sources separately–find, select, remember, find, correlate, click. With the mash-up this multi-step and multi-decision workflow is reduced to a single look, select, click. Many decisions became one, and I was no longer forced to remember intermediate data.
TQM, LEAN, et al tell us that unnecessary decisions are a source of errors. If we want to deliver high quality at a low cost (i.e. efficient and effective knowledge workers) then we need to eliminate these decisions. This brings a few immediate benefits:
More productive knowledge workers. Our knowledge workers only spend time on the decisions that really matter, rather than on messy busy work.
More effective knowledge workers. Fewer decisions mean fewer chances for mistakes.
If we were to use mash-ups in this way to simplify key, call centre processes (for example) then we can can translate these two points direct into business benefits:
Reduced staff on-boarding costs, cutting training time, and reducing time to competency by providing a simply and more direct workflow, one which leads the call centre operator through the workflow.
Reduce call servicing costs, including reduced escalations and improved first call resolution by avoiding mistakes and and ensuing that the operator has all the information required to solve the customer’s problem on hand.
Improved staff retention, by allowing them to focus on the customer engagement, rather than soul destroying swivel chair integration.
A third benefit is the decoupling a mash-up creates between presentation and back-end applications. As all user interaction is mediated by the mash-up, there is not direct connection between the data and function provided by a single application, and the work surface the knowledge worker interacts with. This enables us to evolve the UI and back-end separately, allowing us to keep the user interface in sync with business demands while continuing to pursue a separate, and longer cycle consolidation effort to consolidate backend systems to reduce operational costs.
It’s easy to extrapolate these (potential) benefits to other solutions. My favourite is human services, where providing a case worker with the right information at the right time, and removing unnecessary distractions, will result in a material difference in the quality of life for the people under their care. However, these benefits can easily be applied to any high value knowledge work processes, such as logistics exception manager, utility field worker, sales personnel, and so on.
We’re all searching for the new-new thing. Be it a product or a method, we’re looking for that innovation that will let us stand out from the pack, because in a world where we are all good, we need to be original. If an idea becomes a trend before we’re involved, we are not a leader. When we’re first to market, if we capture first mover advantage, then we can define the rules of the game. But how can we tap into valuable ideas for products, services or method before they are seen as trends, when they are just … random?
In today’s hyper-competitive business environment being good, being operationally efficient, has become the price of entry. We’ve leveraged methodologies like TQM, Six Sigma, LEAN to optimize our businesses, and while we might carry some baggage from our past, we are good at what we do. In this environment, it’s the ability to be original, the ability to innovate, that will let us stand out from the crowd. Innovation, though, is random. At least it often seems that way. A chance connection or unlikely insight takes someone on a journey to create something new. New developments, new product and services based on original ideas, seem to come out of the blue.
Think of the first time you saw breath strips; small, minty strips that dissolve on your tongue, eliminating pre-meeting (or pre-date) bad breath. Where did they come from? Most of us can’t quite put our finger on their origin. We heard about them one day, and the next they seemed to be in every shop we walking into, anywhere around the world. A new market segment had been created, and its creator had captured most of the value.
The race for the new-new thing seems to have created an innovation arms race. We want to be the first to find an idea, nurture it, and turn it into a competitive advantage. This has made innovation—the search for new opportunities—into a race for more. More ideas, more connections, more investment, more involvement. If we can see more ideas, get access to more content, get more of our team involved, if we can get it earlier in its lifecycle, then we might be the ones with first mover advantage.
We’re starting to take this to extremes, industrialising the quest for more. Conferences (some of which are rapidly becoming media empires in their own right), such as TED, are creating idea smorgasbords for us to graze on. The industrialization of ideas has us all drinking from the same (soda) fountain. This is driving incremental improvement in our businesses by sharing best practice, which is a good thing, but it’s not going to help us find the new-new thing, the innovative product that will help us stand out from the crowd.
The challenge when managing innovation is not in capturing ideas before they develop into market shaping innovations. If we see an innovative idea outside our organization, then we must assume that we’re not the first to see it, and ideas are easily copied. If innovation is a transferable good, then we’d all have the latest version.
New ideas rarely just pop into existence though; technology, the development of ideas, is an evolutionary process. New, novel ideas, are simply combinations of existing ones, driven by someone’s desire to solve a problem. Breath strips, for example, were the chance connection between mouth wash, a Japanese trend for a dissolving sweets and our (western) desire for fresh breath, a connection made by a western executive on a business trip to Japan. As new ideas are simple combinations of existing ones, the technology we thought of yesterday might might be more valuable tomorrow, as the key component in a new solution.
Each small step of innovation is the result of someone, somewhere bringing together a collection of previously unconnected ideas to solve a problem. This is a pull, rather than a push process. Solutions are not created in search of a problem, but in response to a problem. A new idea is the result of a series of small, incremental steps from the ideas we have to the idea we need. The net result of this incremental development is huge. What makes innovation surprising, and seemingly random, is the fact that we often only see the end result, and not the journey.
Innovation, the ability to be original, comes from inside, not outside of our organizations. The real challenge is synthesis: understanding what problems are interesting, selecting the ideas which bring value to a solution (as not all ideas are created equal), and then bringing together these ideas to create something new. How do we create space and time to help our team synthesize these new, innovative ideas when presented with a challenge?
Our ability to effectively manage time is central to success in today’s hype-competitive business environment. The streamlined and high velocity value-chains we’ve created are designed to invest as little time (and money) as possible in unproductive business activities. However, being fast, being good at optimizing our day-to-day operations, is no longer enough. We’ve reached a point where managing the acceleration of our business—the ability to change direction, redeploy resources to meet new opportunities more rapidly than our competition—is the driver for best in category performance. If we can react faster than our competition then we can capitalize on a business opportunity (or disruption, as they are often the same) and harvest any value the opportunity created.
Time is our overarching business driver at the moment. We hope to be the first to approve a mortgage, capturing the customer before our competitors have even responded to the original application. We strive to be first to market with a new portable music device (Walkman or iPod), establishing early mover advantage and taking the dominant position in the market. Or we might simply want to quickly restore essential services—power, gas or water—to our customers, as they have become intensely dependent upon them. Globalization has leveled the playing field, as we’re all working from the same play book and leveraging the same resources. The most significant factor for success in this environment is the ability to execute faster than our competition—harvesting the value in an opportunity before they can.
This focus on time is a recent phenomena. Not long ago, no further back than the early nineties, we were more concerned with mass. The challenge was too get the job done. Keep the wheels turning in the factories. Keep the workers busy in their cubicles. Time is money, so we’re told, and we need to ensure that we don’t waste money by laying idle. Mass was the key to success—ensuring that we had enough work to do, enough raw materials to work on, to keep our business busy and productive.
When mass is the focus, then bigger is better. This is a world where global conglomerates rule, as size is the driver for success. Supply chains were designed so that enough stuff was available right next to the factory, where supply can be ensured, that the factory would never run out of raw materials and grind to a halt. Whether shuffling paperwork or shifting widgets, the ability to move more stuff around the business was always seen as an improvement.
This is also the world that created a pile of shipping containers too behold in the Persian Gulf, during the Gulf War in the early nineties. With no known destination, some containers couldn’t be delivered. Without a clear understanding of where they came from, others couldn’t be returned. A few of these orphaned containers were opened in an attempt to determine their destination or origin; however the sweltering Arabian sun was not kind to their contents, which included items such as raw poultry, so a stop was soon put to that. The containers just kept piling up. 22,000 of 50,000 containers simply became invisible, collecting in a pile that went by the jaunty name of Iron Mountain.
Our answer was to stop focusing on mass, on having enough stuff on hand to keep the wheels of industry turning. We have to admit that Iron Mountain proves that we could move sufficient mass. The next challenge was to ensure that materials arrived at just the right time for them to be consumed by the business. We moved from worrying about mass, to managing velocity.
Total quality management and process improvement efforts finally found their niche. LEAN and Six Sigma rolled through the business landscape ripping cost out businesses where-ever they went. Equipped with books on Toyota’s Production System and kanban cards, we ripped excess material from the supply chain. Raw materials arrive just-in-time, and we avoid the costs associated with storing and handling vast warehouses of material, as well as the working capital tied up in the stored material itself. Quality went up, process cycle times shrunk, and the pace of business accelerated. Much like the tea clippers from China in the 1800s, with the annual race to get the first crop back to London for the maximum profit (with skipper paid a profit share as an incentive along with their salary), we’re focused on cranking the handle of business as fast as possible.
Zara, a fashion retailer, is the poster child for this generation of business. The fashion industry is built around a value-chain that tries to push out regular product updates, beating up demand via runway shows and media coverage to support a seasonal marketing cycle. Zara takes a different approach, tracking customer preferences and trends as they happen in the stores and trying to deliver an appropriate design as rapidly as possible, allowing customer demand to pull fashion. By focusing on responding to customer demand, wherever it is, Zara has built an organization designed too minimize time from design to marketed product. For example, onshore, high-tech, agile production is preferred to low-tech but low cost, offshore production which involves long production delays. Zara takes two weeks to take a product to market, where the industry average is six months; the lifetime of Zara’s products is measured in weeks, rather than months; and the products offered in each store are tailored to the interests of the community it serves rather than a long term marketing plan.
The dirty secret of high velocity, lean businesses is that they are fragile: small disturbances can create massive knock-on effects. As we’ve ripped fat from the value chain, we’ve also weakened its ability to react to, and resolve, disruptions. A stockout can now flow all the way back along the supply chain to the literal coal face, stalling the entire business value-chain. Restoring an essential service is delayed while we scramble to procure the vital missing part. Mortgage approvals are deferred while we try reallocate the work load of a valuer dealing with a personal emergency. Or our carefully synchronized product launch falls apart for what seems like a trivial reason somewhere on the other side of the globe.
Our most powerful tools in creating todays high velocity businesses—tools like straight-through processing, LEAN and Six Sigma—worked by removing variation from business processes to increase throughput. The same tools prevent us from effectively responding to these disruptions.
Opportunities today are more frequent, but disruptive and fleeting. An open air festival in the country might represent an opportunity for a tolling operator to manage parking in an adjacent field, if the solution can be deployed as sufficient scale rapidly enough. Or the current trend for pop-up retail stores (if new products rapidly come and go, then why not stores) could be moved from an exceptional, special occasion marketing tool, into the mainstream as a means to optimize sales day-by-day. Responding to these opportunities implies reconfiguring our business on the fly—rapidly integrating business exceptions into the core of our business. This might range from reconfiguring our carefully designed global supply chain, through changing core mortgage approval criteria and processes to modifying category management strategies in (near) real time.
We’re entering a time when our ability to change direction, adapting to and leveraging changes in the commercial environment as they occur, will drive our success. If we can react faster than the competition then we can capitalize on a business opportunity and harvest any value the opportunity creates. Our focus will become acceleration: working too build businesses with the flexibility and spare energy required to turn and respond rapidly. These businesses will be the F1 cars of business, providing a massive step in performance over more conventional organizations. And, just like F1, they will also require a new level of performance from our knowledge workers. If acceleration is our focus, then our biggest challenge will be creating time and space required by our knowledge workers to identify these opportunities, turn the steering wheel and leverage them as they occur.
Update: A friend of mine just pointed out that the logical progression of mass → velocity → acceleration naturally leads to jerk, which is an informal unit of measurement for the third derivative.