Tag Archives: Twitter

Taxonomies 1, Semantic Web (and Linked Data) 0

I’m not a big fan of Semantic Web{{1}}. For something that has been around for just over ten years — and which has been aggressively promoted by the likes of Tim Berners-Lee{{2}} — very little real has come of it.

Taxonomies, on the other hand, are going gangbusters, with solutions like GovDirect{{3}} showing that there is a real need for this sort of data-relationship driven approach{{4}}. Given this need, if the flexibility provided by Semantic Web (and more recently, Linked Data{{5}}) was really needed, then we would have expected someone to have invested in building significant solutions which use the technology.

While the technology behind Semantic Web and Linked Data is interesting, it seems that most people don’t think it’s worth the effort.

All this makes me think: the future of data management and standardisation is ad hoc, with communities or vendors scratching specific itches, rather than formal, top-down, theory driven approaches such as Semantic Web and Linked Data, or even other formal standardisation efforts of old.

[[2]]Tim Berners-Lee on Twitter[[2]]
[[4]]Peter Williams on the The Power of Taxonomies @ the Australian Government’s Standard Business Reporting Initiative[[4]]

The technologies behind the likes of Semantic Web and Linked Data have a long heritage. You can trace them back to at least the seventies when ontology and logic driven approaches to data management faced off against relational methodologies. Relational methods won that round — just ask Oracle or the nearest DBA.

That said, there has been a small number of interesting solutions built in the intervening years. I was involved in a few in one of my past lives{{6}}, and I’ve heard of more than a few built by colleagues and friends. The majority of these solutions used ontology management as a way to streamline service configuration, and therefor ease the pain of business change. Rather than being forced to rebuild a bunch of services, you could change some definitions, and off you go.


What we haven’t seen is a well placed Semantic Web SPARQL{{7}} query which makes all the difference. I’m still waiting for that travel website where I can ask for a holiday, somewhere warm, within my budget, and without too many tourists who use beach towels to reserve lounge chairs at six in the morning; and get a sensible result.

[[7]]SPARQL @ w3.org[[7]]

The flexibility which we could justify in the service delivery solutions just doesn’t appear to be justifiable in the data-driven solution. A colleague showed my a Semantic Web solution that consumed a million or so pounds worth of tax payer money to build a semantic-driven database for a small art collection. All this sophisticated technology would allow the user to ask all sorts of sophisticated questions, if they could navigate the (necessarily) complicated user interface, or if they could construct an even more daunting SPARQL query. A more pragmatic approach would have built a conventional web application — one which would easily satisfy 95% of users — for a fraction of the cost.

When you come down to it, the sort of power and flexibility provided by Semantic Web and Linked Data could only be used by a tiny fraction of the user population. For most people, something which gets them most of the way (with a little bit of trial and error) is good enough. Fire and forget. While the snazzy solution with the sophisticated technology might demo well (making it good TED{{8}} fodder), it’s not going to improve the day-to-day travail for most of the population.


Then we get solutions like GovDirect. As the website puts it:

GovDirect® facilitates reporting to government agencies such as the Australian Tax Office via a single, secure online channel enabling you to reduce the complexity and cost of meeting your reporting obligations to government.

which make it, essentially, a Semantic Web solution. Except its not, as GovDirect is built on XBRL{{9}} with a cobbled together taxonomy.

[[9]]eXtensible Business Reporting Language[[9]]

Taxonomy driven solutions, such as GovDirect might not offer the power and sophistication of a Semantic Web driven solution, but they do get the job done. These taxonomies are also more likely to be ad hoc — codifying a vendor’s solution, or accreted whilst on the job — than the result of some formal, top down ontology{{10}} development methodology (such as those buried in the Semantic Web and Linked Data).

[[10]]Ontology defined in Wikipedia[[10]]

Take Salesforce.com{{11}} as an example. If we were to develop a taxonomy to exchange CRM data, then the most likely source will be other venders reverse engineering{{12}} whatever Salesforce.com is doing. The driver, after all, is to enable clients to get their data out of Salesforce.com. Or the source might be whatever a government working group publishes, given a government’s dominant role in its geography. By extension we can also see the end of the formal standardisation efforts of old, as they devolve into the sort of information frameworks represented by XBRL, which accrete attributes as needed.

[[12]]Reverse engineering defined in Wikipedia[[12]]

The general trend we’re seeing is a move away from top-down, tightly defined and structured definitions of data interchange formats, as they’re replaced by bottom-up, looser definitions.

Innovation [2010-02-01]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

Childhood readers and the art of random

Note: This post is part of larger series on innovation, going under the collective name of Innovation and Art of Random.

Innovation can seem random. We’re dealing with so much change in our daily lives that we miss the long and tortuous journey an innovation takes from it’s first conception through to the delivered solution, causing the innovation to seemingly appear from nowhere. We’re distracted as we’re trying to cope with the huge volume of work our changing environment creates, adjusting to the new normal, while trying to find time to sift through the idea fire hose for that one good idea. However ideas are common, commoditized even, and our real challenge is to make connections.

As Peter Drucker pointed out: insight, the tacit application of knowledge is not a transferable good. The value we derive from innovation comes from synthesis, the tacit application of knowledge to create a new solution. The challenge is to find time to pull apart the tools available to us, recombining them to synthesis new (and hopefully innovative) solutions to the problems we’re confronting today.

While ideas may be cheap, the time and space needed to create insight are not. We need to understand our problem from multiple contexts, teasing out the important elements, bringing together ideas to address each element in the synthesis of an original solution. This process takes time, often more time than we can spare, and so we need to invest our time wisely. Which steps in this processes are the most valuable (or the least transferable), the steps we need to own? Which can we outsource, passing responsibility to partners, or even our social network? And is it possible to create time? Using technology to take some of the load and create the breathing room we need.

Dr. Khee Pang
Dr. Khee Pang

One of the best pieces of advice I picked up at university was from Dr. K. K. Pang, who unfortunately passed away in March 2009. Dr Pang taught circuit theory, which can be quite a frustrating subject. It’s common to encounter a problem in circuit theory which you just can’t find a way into, making it seemingly impossible to solve. Dr. Pang’s brilliant, yet simple, advice was “If you don’t like the problem, then change it to one you do like.”. Just start messing with the problem, transforming bits of the circuit at random until you find a problem that you can solve.

Fast forward to my current work, far removed from circuit theory, and I still find myself using this piece of advice at least once a week. It’s not uncommon to come across a problem, a problem with little direct connection to technology, that needs to be approached from a very different angle. When stuck, take a different angle, make it a different problem, and you might find this new problem more to you liking.

You often bump into the same problem in different contexts as you work across industries and geographies. Different contexts can necessitate a different point of view, making the problem look slightly different. This highlights other aspects of the problem that you might not have been aware of before, highlighting previously hidden assumptions or connections to other problems. However, while this cross industry and geography insight is a valuable tool, the time required to go spelunking for insight is prohibitive. We find ourselves spend too much decoding the new context, and too little teasing out the important elements.

Learning to read, something I expect we all did in our childhood, is a struggle for fluency. We work from the identification of letters and words, through struggling to decode the text, to a level of fluency that enables us to focus on the meaning behind the text. Being fluent means being good enough at identification and decoding that we have the time and space for comprehension.

The ability to change the problem in front of you is really a question of being fluent in a range of environments; understanding a number of doctrines. These might be different industries (finance, public sector, utilities …) domains (logistics, risk management, military tactics, rhetoric …) or even geographies (APAC, EU, US …) as each has its own approach. We need enough experience in an environment to be able to decode it easily. Generally this means in the trenches experience, focused on applying knowledge, allowing us to weed out the common place and find the interesting and new. But building fluency takes time though; we can’t afford to immerse ourselves in every possible environment that might be of interest.

For quite a few years (from back in the day when my email address had a .oz at the end) I’ve been collecting a network of colleagues. Each is inquisitive in our own way, each with our own area of interest or theme, covering a huge, overlapping range of doctrines, while always looking for another idea too add to our toolbox. With the world being small, or even flat, this network of like minds has often been the source of a different point of view, one which solves the problem I’m working on. More recently this network has been migrating to Twitter, making the shared conversation more dynamic and immediate. It’s small networks of like-minds like this which can provide us the ability to effectively outsource the majority of our analysis, spreading the effort amongst out peers and creating the time and space to focus on synthesis.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem: innovation relies on the synthesis, and the key to synthesis is in finding interesting problems to solve. An idea, no matter how brilliant, will not go far unless it results in a product or service the people want. Innovation exists out at the surface of our organisations, or at the production coal face. Just as with the breath strips example, interesting problems pop up in the most unexpected places. Our challenge is prepare ourselves so that we can capitalise on the the opportunity a problem represents. As a famous golfer once said:

Gary Player
Gary Player

The more I practice, the luckier I get.
Gary Player

The world around us changes so rapidly that innovation can seem random. The snowmobile was obvious to the people who invented it, as they worked via trial-and-error from the original problem they wanted to solve through to the completed solution; it didn’t leap from their brow as a fully formed concept. Develop your interests, become fluent in a wide range of relevant topics and environments, use your network to extend your reach even further, and look for interesting problems to solve. In a world awash with good ideas, when innovation relies on your ability synthesis new solutions by finding an new angle from which to approach old problems (possibly problems so old that people forgot that they had them), the key to success is to find our own focus and then use your own own interests to drive yourself forward while effectively leveraging your network and resources around you to take as much of the load as possible. Innovation is rarely the result of a brilliant idea, but a patient process of finding problems to solve and then solving them, and sometimes we’re surprised by how innovative our solutions can be.

Why we can’t keep up

We’re struggling to keep up. The pace of business seems to be constantly accelerating. Requirements don’t just slip anymore: they can change completely during the delivery of a solution. And the application we spent the last year nudging over the line into production became instant legacy before we’d even finished. We know intuitively that only a fraction of the benefits written into the business case will be realized. What do we need to do to get back on top of this situation?

We used to operate in a world where applications were delivered on time and on budget. One where the final solution provided a demonstrable competitive advantage to the business. Like SABER, and airline reservation system developed for American Airlines by IBM which was so successful that the rest of the industry was forced to deploy similar solutions (which IBM kindly offered to develop) in response. Or Walmart, who used a data warehouse to drive category leading supply chain excellence, which they leveraged to become the largest retailer in the world. Both of these solutions were billion dollar investments in todays money.

The applications we’ve delivered have revolutionized information distribution both within and between organizations. The wave of data warehouse deployments triggered by Walmart’s success formed the backbone for category management. By providing suppliers with a direct feed from the data warehouse—a view of supply chain state all the way from the factory through to the tills—retailers were able to hand responsibility for transport, shelf-stacking, pricing and even store layout for a product category to their suppliers, resulting in a double digit rises in sales figures.

This ability to rapidly see and act on information has accelerated the pulse of business. What used to take years now takes months. New tools such as Web 2.0 and pervasive mobile communications are starting to convert these months into week.

Take the movie industry for example. Back before the rise of the Internet even bad films could expect a fair run at the box-office, given a star billing and strong PR campaign too attract the punters. However, post Internet, SMS and Twitter, the bad reviews have started flying into punters hands moments after the first screening of a film has started, transmitted directly from the first audience. Where the studios could rely a month or of strong returns, now that run might only last hours.

To compensate, the studios are changing how they take films to market; running more intensive PR campaigns for their lesser offerings, clamping down on leaks, and hoping to make enough money to turn a small profit before word of mouth kicks in. Films are launched, distributed and released to DVD (or even iTunes) in weeks rather than months or years, and studios’ funding, operations and the distribution models are being reconfigured to support the accelerated pace of business.

While the pulse of business has accelerated, enterprise technology’s pulse rate seems to have barely moved. The significant gains we’ve made in technology and methodologies has been traded for the ability to build increasingly complex solutions, the latest being ERP (enterprise resource planning) whose installation in a business is often compared to open heart surgery.

The Diverging Pulse Rates of Business and Technology

This disconnect between the pulse rates of business and enterprise technology is the source of our struggle. John Boyd found his way to the crux of the problem with his work on fighter tactics.

John Boyd—also know as “40 second Boyd”—was a rather interesting bloke. He had a standing bet for 40 dollars that he beat any opponent within 40 seconds in a dog fight. Boyd never lost his bet.

The key to Boyd’s unblemished record was a single insight: that success in rapidly changing environment depends on your ability to orient yourself, decide on, and execute a course of action, faster than the environment (or your competition) is changing. He used his understanding of the current environment—the relative positions, speed and performance envelopes of both planes—to quickly orient himself then select and act on a tactic. By repeatedly taking decisive action faster than his opponent can react, John Boyd’s actions were confusing and unpredictable to his opponent.

We often find ourselves on the back foot, reacting to seemingly chaotic business environment. To overcome this we need to increase the pulse of IT so that we’re operating at a higher pace than the business we support. Tools like LEAN software development have provided us with a partial solution, accelerating the pulse of writing software, but if we want to overcome this challenge then we need to find a new approach to managing IT.

Business, however, doesn’t have a single pulse. Pulse rate varies by industry. It also varies within a business. Back office compliance runs at a slow rate, changing over years as reporting and regulation requirements slowly evolve. Process improvement and operational excellence programs evolve business processes over months or quarters to drive cost out of the business. While customer or knowledge worker facing functionality changes rapidly, possibly even weekly, in response to consumer, marketing or workforce demands.

Aligning technology with business

We can manage each of these pulses separately. Rather than using a single approach to managing technology and treating all business drivers as equals, we can segment the business and select management strategies to match the pulse rate and amplitude of each.

Sales, for example, is often victim of an over zealous CRM (customer relationship management) deployment. In an effort to improve sales performance we’ll decide to role out the latest-greatest CRM solution. The one with the Web 2.0 features and funky cross-sell, up-sell module.

Only of a fraction of the functionality in the new CRM solution is actually new though—the remainder being no different to the existing solution. The need to support 100% of the investment on the benefits provided by a small fraction of the solution’s features dilutes the business case. Soon we find ourselves on the same old roller-coaster ride, with delivery running late,  scope creeping up, the promised benefits becoming more intangible every minute, and we’re struggling to keep up.

There might be an easier way. Take the drugs industry for example. Sales are based on relationships and made via personal calls on doctors. Sales performance is driven by the number of sales calls a representative can manage in a week, and the ability to answer all of a doctor’s questions during a visit (and avoid the need for a follow-up visit to close the sale). It’s not uncommon for tasks unrelated to CRM—simple tasks such as returning to the office to process expenses or find an answer to a question—to consume a disproportionate amount of time. Time that would be better spent closing sales.

One company came up with an interesting approach. To support the sales reps in the field they provided them with the ability to query the team back in the office, answering a clients question without the need to return to head office and then try to get back in their calendar. The solution was to deploy a corporate version of Twitter, connecting the sales rep into the with the call center and all staff using the company portal via a simple text message.

By separating concerns in this way—by managing each appropriately—we can ensure that we are working at a faster pace than the business driver we supporting. By allocating our resources wisely we can set the amplitude of each pulse. Careful management of the cycles will enable us to bring business and technology into alignment.

Innovation [2009-06-15]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

This issue:

  • Powering Ideas [Review of Australia’s Innovation System]
    Australia’s innovation agenda for the 21st century. Well worth the read
  • Who Drives Software Innovation? The “Best-of-Breed vs. Giants” Debate [SmartData Collective]
    Is it the industry giants or the smaller, and more agile, best-of-breed players that drive innovation in our industry?
  • The Future of the Workplace [Monocle]
    In the first edition of Monocle’s Design Dialogues, an intimate series of discussions on key design issues, they throw the spotlight on the future of the workplace.
  • How Twitter will change the way we live [Time]
    Are tools like Twitter changing the dynamics of innovation? Traditionally we have used metrics to measure innovation which capture the inputs to the productization process; numbers like volume of patents generated or size of R&D spend. As Steven Johnson says toward the end of this article, “if you measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products and not just grad students, the U.S. has been lapping the field for the past 20 years”. What should we measure (as what’s measure is what gets done) if we want to innovate like Twitter?

What we’re doing today is not what we did yesterday

Telxon hand unit

The business of IT has changed radically in the last few years. Take Walmart for example. In the 80s Walmart laid the foundations for its future growth by fielding a supply chain data warehouse. The insight the data warehouse fueled their amazing growth to become the largest retailer in the world. However, our focus has moved on from developing applications. More recently Walmart fielded the Telxon, a barcode scanner with a wireless link to the corporate back-end. This device is the front end of a distributed solution which has let Walmart devolve buying decisions to the team walking the shop floor.

For a long time IT departments have defined themselves by their ability to deliver major applications into the enterprise. CRM, MRP, even ERP; all the three letter acronyms. For a long time this has been the right thing to do. Walmart’s data warehouse, to return to our example, was a large application which was a significant driver in the company’s outlier performance for the next couple of decades.

The world has changed a lot since that data warehouse went operational. First the market for enterprise applications grew into the mature market we see today. If you have a well defined problem—an unsupported business activity—then a range of vendors will line up to provide you with off-the-shelf solutions. Next we saw a range of non-technology options emerge, from business process outsourcing (BPO) and leveraging partnerships, through to emerging software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.

What used to be a big problem—fielding a large bespoke (or even off-the-shelf) application—has become a (relatively) small one. Take CRM (customer relationship management) as one example. What was a multi-year project requiring an investment of tens of millions of dollars to deploy a best-of-breed on-premises solution, has become a few million dollar and a matter of months to field SaaS solution. And the SaaS solutions seem to be pulling ahead in the feature-function war; Salesforce.com (one of the early SaaS CRM solutions) is now seen as the market leader (check with your favorite analyst).

Nor has business been standing still while technology has been marching forward. The productivity improvements provided by the last generation of enterprise applications have created the time and space for business stakeholders to solve more difficult problems. That supply chain solution Walmart deployed that was the first of many, automating most (if not all) of the mundane tasks across the supply chain. Business process methodologies such as LEAN (derived from the Toyota Production System) and Six Sigma (from GE) then rolled through the business, ripping all the fat from our supply chains as they went past. The latest focus has been category management: managing groups of product as separate businesses and, in many chases, handing responsibility for managing the category back to the supplier.

Which brings us back to the Telxon. If we’ve all been on the same journey—fielding a complete set of applications, optimizing our business processes, and deploying the latest, best practice, management techniques—then how do we differentiate? Walmart realized that, all things being equal, it was their ability to respond to supply chain exceptions that would provide them with an edge. As a retailer, this means responding to stock-outs on the shop floor. The only way to do this in a timely manner is to empower the people walking the floor to make a procurement decision when they see fit. Walmart’s solution was the Telxon.

The Telxon is an interesting device as it reveals an astonishing amounts of information: the quantity that should be on the shelf, the availability from the nearest warehouse, the retail price, and even the markup. It also empowers the employee to place an order for anything from a pallet to a truck-load.

Writer Charles Platt during his stint as a Wal-Mart employee in Flagstaff, Ariz.

As one journalist found:

We received an inspirational talk on this subject, from an employee who reacted after the store test-marketed tents that could protect cars for people who didn’t have enough garage space. They sold out quickly, and several customers came in asking for more. Clearly this was a singular, exceptional case of word-of-mouth, so he ordered literally a truckload of tent-garages, “Which I shouldn’t have done really without asking someone,” he said with a shrug, “because I hadn’t been working at the store for long.” But the item was a huge success. His VPI was the biggest in store history—and that kind of thing doesn’t go unnoticed in Arkansas.

Charles Platt, Fly on the Wall (7th Feb 2009), New Your Post

Clearly the IT world has moved on since that first data warehouse went live in Arkansas. Enterprise applications have been transformed from generators of competitive advantage into efficient sources of commodity functionality. Technology’s ability to create value should be focused on how we effectively support knowledge workers and the differentiation they create. These solutions only have a passing resemblance to the application monoliths of the past. They’re distributed, rather than centralized, pulling information from a range of sources, including partner and public sources. They’re increasingly real time, in the Twitter sense of the term, pulling current transactional data in as needed rather than working from historical data and relying on overnight ETLs. They’re heterogeneous, integrating a range of technologies as well as changes in business processes and employee workplace agreements, all brought together for delivery of the final solution. And, most importantly, they’re not standalone n-tier applications like we built in the past.

But while the IT world has moved on, it seems that many of our IT departments haven’t. Our heritage as application factories has us focused on managing applications, rather than technology, actively preventing us from creating this new generation of solutions. This behavior is ingrained in our organizations, with a large number of architects through project managers to senior management measuring their worth by the size of the project (in terms of CAPEX and OPEX required, or head count) that they are involved in, with the counter productive behavior that this creates.

In a world where solutions are shrinking and becoming more heterogeneous (even to the extent of becoming increasingly cross discipline) our inability to change ourselves is the biggest thing holding us back