Context is everything


This happened in the year 2000. I am fairly new to USA, and sitting in my client’s IT offices in Colorado Springs,CO. It is close to lunch break – and my mobile rings. I pick it up – and it is my dear friend from India. A minute later I am telling him – in an exasperated voice -“Do not let that bitch on your bed, she won’t let you sleep one wink all night.”. Next thing I know, 20 heads are staring at me with horror written large on their faces. Little did they know that I was actually talking about a dog – a female German Shepherd that I bought and sent to my friend in India to show there in dog shows. Despite me explaining to the best of my abilities, I am sure not all 20 believed me then, or ever after.

That is the thing about context – data without context means nothing. And this is especially true in the world of analytics. A given set of data can mean many things to many people. Consider this example.  If you are at the physician’s office to check blood work results. You and the doctor are both staring at the same numbers. Yet – doctor and you have two levels of understanding about what those numbers mean.  But why does that happen?

It happens because we try to abstract everything into some common model for all users of the information.   Since you and the doctor have a difference in your level of knowledge on the subject, the idea is to make it useful to you – who has minimum knowledge.  It can also work in another way – like the stock market. There, the information is skewed towards the more knowledgable users – and the layman investor cannot make use of it easily.

But why does this happen? We have raw data  – so this should not be hard to represent it in ways that a given user can figure out. The reason is that if we were to create a report per type of user, it is a nightmare to develop and maintain. But what if there was a tool and a framework that could take raw data and present it differently to different users without a developer writing report after report?

Here is another scenario. Lets say an order entry clerk is entering a sales order. The context has all the information on customer, product, location and so on. And there are probably plenty of BI reports that analyze the product and customer in a hundred different ways. But the clerk probably does not know that or care about that. Wouldn’t it be nice if system had the ability to ask the Clerk “hey did you know this customer always pays on time, and hence you should check if he can be given a loyalty discount?” or “we have this other product that is similar, but no one is buying it. Why don’t you ask the customer if he would take that instead for a reduced price?”.  That is actionable information – presented in a way that a user can understand. And depending on context, system can figure out what the user can be presented with.

The best part is – there are plenty of technologies around us that can do parts of these already. Missing aspect is the integration of all of them. So – will all the smart product developers recognize this and do something about it? I am counting on them !  As intel says in their campaign – “it is not what we make, it is what we make possible”

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Post SAPPHIRE NOW musings


SAPPHIRE was way cool – one of the most well-organized ones, and I enjoyed it very much, despite the extreme sleep deprivation that I had to endure. In general, I was quite excited with SAP’s messaging, and analyst commentary. But as soon as I left the convention center, I started thinking more about the messages I heard at SAPPHIRE, and I think I am not as excited as I was a few days ago. It was a mixed bag. Please check my blog I posted when I was on my way to Orlando. http://www.sdn.sap.com/irj/scn/weblogs?blog=/pub/wlg/19247

Let me start with Sybase. For one – SAP paid a huge premium for Sybase. The only reason I can think of is that SAP fears some one else like ORACLE or HP might be ready to buy Sybase, and in the process put roadblocks to SAP’s way forward on enterprise mobility. SAP claims to have figured out in-memory data bases even before Sybase story came out – and Sybase is nowhere near the top-tier of enterprise DB market. Even in SAP ecosystem, I think Oracle and DB2 have the lion share. So this is not going to help SAP rule the DB market. On Analytics – SAP has BOBJ, which is top of the line. So it is hard to imagine that they need more from Sybase. So mobility is the only reason that is worth SAP paying this premium. But why pay that much when Sybase is already a big partner, and is committed to building SAP specific solutions? 

Where this makes it confusing for me is that on one hand – SAP swears that they are committed to all the partners having an open level playing field. On the other hand – if a client gets a mobility pitch from a partner and Sybase tomorrow – which one will they choose? In today’s world – Sybase solutions are SAP CRM specific from what I know – and there are other partners that do other things. Post acquisition, I am pretty sure Sybase will become the de-facto standard.  This looks like a repeat of BOBJ story in analytics world – it is true that other BI partners can still sell to SAP customers, but what is the long-term value proposition for non SAP BOBJ vendors any more when they sell BI to primarily SAP shops? 

SAP cannot buy every company around – so of course they need partners to build things around their solutions. So I am not surprised that SAP reiterates its commitment to keeping it an open field for every one. But won’t partners now feel a constant fear that after they have invested in SAP solutions for a while, SAP will buy one of them – and leave others by the way side?

Now on to HANA and in-memory. I was super excited to hear that SAP is taking this route, and that they have something that customers can sign up for right away. On the flight back from Orlando, I posted these questions on my SAP blog and there has been some good discussion around it. http://www.sdn.sap.com/irj/scn/weblogs?blog=/pub/wlg/19339 .  Technical questions apart – SAP is a relative late entrant into this market. So calling it innovative is a stretch. Hasso had this idea a while ago. So what prevented this from getting productized for so long?

It was great to hear that Business By Design is finally ready for prime time. SAP also has a lot of side benefits due to this – they probably figured out how to scale with Agile, something that I am very keen to find out. Please check out the great discussion I had with Enterprise Geeks at http://enterprisegeeks.com/blog/2010/05/19/sapphire-agile-throwdown .Another plus is the use of Silverlight, a Microsoft technology that I think is superior to all the SAP UI tools currently available. I am fully bought in on Vishal Sikka’s position that SAP has way too many UIs to use just one common tool.  but for all the good things – SAP leaders made a statement that sounded like “we do not have a firm target for growth of BBD “. Really? Would you just throw billion dollars at something that you have no real expectations for? Had to swallow that.

I just think it is plain funny when SAP talks about sustainability in these big events like SAPPHIRE. This is an event that makes such a lot of carbon emissions – high energy use for the many display gizmos, the jet setting executives, and many vendors and participants who fly to get there, and the massive air-conditioning that keeps participants alive in Orlando heat and humidity. Al Gore, Powell and the Virgin guy didn’t drive their hybrid cars to get to Orlando, did they? And did the SAP top guns fly commercial between Germany and US to appear at the concurrent events  or did they fly in private jets? So yeah – it is very hard for me to buy into the whole sustainability pitch. It sounds hollow .

SAP is clearly in the top bracket of companies who have figured out how to use social media to its advantage. SCN has 2 million members and the SAP mentor program (of which I am a part) provides excellent input to SAP for free. SAP has a blogger program – which I think pays T&E for bloggers to come to these events, but in no way forces these bloggers to let go of their objectivity.  And twitter helped several of us keep track of the massive event. That is extremely forward thinking and admirable. They are leading from the front – and other companies should watch and learn.

Finally, a couple of things on the leadership front. First and foremost – Hasso is still SAP’s superman. None of the others evoke the kind of passion he delivers. Bill and Jim are a perfect pairing – and I think SAP made a wise decision to do the Co-CEO thing again, especially with these two guys. And Vishal Sikka has all the qualities of a great tech visionary – and like the taste of good wine, his message gets more and more clear to people who follow SAP as time passes. I used to think John Schwarz was the next big leader at SAP – but I was wrong. he left, and probably took some of his trusted guys with him. Now with Sybase comes its CEO John Chen. He is an amazing leader – some one who successfully turned around Sybase and kept it growing despite a terrible economy. Will SAP manage to keep him and his team or will he too leave one day soon after the acquisition? I am very keen to see how that unfolds.

Software companies , Innovation and On-premise


You cannot walk on the street, or browse on internet, these days without some one screaming “innovation” on your face.  Software companies lead the pack here – not only do they use the word “innovation” ad-nauseum, they also take time to explain why their competition is not using “innovation”.

Read this excellent blog by Dennis Howlett  http://www.zdnet.com/blog/howlett/saps-innojagd-dont-laugh-this-is-real/2059 . Dennis is known to give software companies, including SAP (He, I and Craig who is mentioned in the blog, are all SAP Mentors), a hard time on the incessant use of the word “innovation”. After reading his blog, I wanted to put in my 2 cents as well.

When do we call something innovative? I would think that, it is innovative when something changes for the better – in a significant fashion.

When you are working on a project – your aim is to make something better. But you don’t know if it is better or innovative, till your customer uses it and acknowledges it as better than status quo. So does that mean all projects are innovative? I would say no. It is an after the fact issue – a lagging indicator.

I don’t think it makes sense to say “I am working on an innovation project”. Every one is working on projects that can claim to be innovative – but only the ones that make a meaningful result at the end can claim to be innovative.

I read somewhere that Edison had to do few thousand prototypes before light bulb was invented. Do we say that Edison worked on 2000 innovation projects that failed? or do we give him credit for one great innovation?

So in my mind – I would consider it a total marketing buzzword till such time as software companies can say something like ” here is how this product was when it came out, here is what we changed 3 years ago, and over the last 3 years – our customers gained 20% cost benefits due to this. And we have several such cases which we can demonstrate value-add measured by independent sources.  This proves we are known for innovation, and you can trust us to make better and better stuff for you as time passes”.

A closing comment on “On Premise” – as in “On premise vs On demand”. I am told this die was cast and it won’t change – but doesn’t premise mean something like an assumption or a hypothesis? And hence shouldn’t these people start saying “On Premises” or even “On the premises” to denote a system that is local as opposed to, say somewhere on the cloud.  I am not a native english speaker, so I will gladly stand corrected if my premise is wrong 🙂 

So what do you think about this? I am very keen to hear your take on it.