Business with your partners: IT strategy

A colleague in LinkedIn posted a question about how you determine your business partners’ business requirements, so that you can determine technology strategy. It’s only been out there a couple of hours, and it’s got a string of answers already. I’d like to spawn a more general thread.

Almost all the answers assume, I think, that “business partner” means “someone you want to sell to”. But there are many other kinds of business partners. In pharmaceuticals, where I worked for a decade or so, partners might be a research organisation you’re working with, a peer enterprise with a co-marketing agreement, your regulator, your upstream partners (important, because the regulator can demand to see information they supply about the compound they’ve sold you), a service provider, an information source … and no doubt some I’ve missed. And a partner may turn up in more than one role: maybe IBM provides technology to American Express, and American Express provides outsourced travel services to IBM (it’s a hypothetical example: I don’t know).

So: there are some fundamentals.

First: you can’t determine your technology strategy according to what your partners are doing, because there are so many of them. Think the ongoing Lotus Notes versus Microsoft Exchange debate for a very pertinent example. Nor can you dictate strategy to them – they have exactly the same variety, unless they are so small and so closely tied to you that they can be seen as part of your organisation.

Second: therefore, individual business strategies with particular partners in particular roles can’t be allowed to determine your overall technology strategy. Even if you decide to have one of whatever your partners use, that’s a strategy; and it has a very specific consequence, which is that your own technology base must be capable of doing the integrating, in-house, to present a single picture (to your executive management, at the very least). More likely there will be specific partners who have the power to dictate how you inter-operate with them: Walmart, say, and your regulator; some who you can dictate to, if you so wish; and others with whom you must inter-operate using a variety of specific technologies with neither partner dictating. Heterogeneity is the rule; and true business partnering is about respecting each other’s decisions and strategies, not dominating them.

Third, and inescapably, therefore: strategies based on product decisions are doomed to failure. Bar none. Not even Microsoft Office; I would lay odds you have several versions active in your enterprise environment right now, and your partners will add several more. Every changeover means conversion filters, or constraining users to the previous version’s formats. And the latest release of Office changes everything more fundamentally than most, with its XML-based formats.

So you need your business partners’ business objectives, and a definition of the business requirements which you and your partners share. But it’s perilous to define an IT strategy on the basis of current requirements with the current set of partners. Take a step back, and use these to create a higher-level business and technology strategy for your own organisation. It must be stable enough and at a high enough level of abstraction to survive partnership changes, new regulations, mergers, acquisitions and divestments.

And this makes a very strong case for open standards as the basis for architecture (which is IT strategy anyway: see Jeanne Ross of MIT Sloan School on the subject): at least at the interface where your systems meet your partners’, directly or (via the Internet, for example) indirectly. “Open” in this case is probably fairly close to the Microsoft definition. Not necessarily publicly created, or even in the public domain: this may help, but it can slow development down. But published, open to licence, easily accessible, widely implemented, and evolving in a backward-compatible way.

So: know your business partners; figure out how to work with them; but remember you’re also figuring out how to work with the business partners you don’t know you’re going to have. It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know, that kills you!

• Jeanne Ross MIT Sloan online profile
You may be able to see:
• Enterprise Architecture as Strategy Video View, Jeanne Ross, Forrester Forum, 15 May 2007
• Enterprise Architecture as Strategy Presentation, Jeanne Ross, Forrester Forum, PDF file, 15 May 2007
(these are Forrester Research excerpts from the 2007 Architecture Forum, and may be available to clients only)

Spreading the discussion: what is an analyst?

There’s a discussion going on over “what is an analyst”, started by sagecircle and picked up in various places.

A great dal of what’s discussed is for IT vendors’ analyst relations professionals, rather than users. I’ve a different perspective because I’ve come out of a decade or so managing analyst services for a major enterprise IT function. So, rather than comment in the existing threads, I’ll spawn a slightly different one here and link back.

I’ve encountered a variety of attitudes among colleagues, ranging from those who see the output as commodity research papers to those – myself included – who looked for a longer term strategic relationship. We talk about research services, about information providers, about advisory services as well as about analysts. What enterprises want is insight – into a marketplace, into an IT-business issue, into a strategic question, into a technology future. So I talk about insight services.

From the enterprise perspective (so this isn’t relevant for vendor-oriented services), what does the client want? That’s another way of saying, how did I position the service I was managing?

Of course, you want eyes and ears in the technology marketplace. You want people who have the spread you can’t have, the time to develop the knowledge, and the ability to draw conclusions. You want people who know the connection between IT and business. That’s research and analysis, in the sense the threads have discussed it.

But you want something more. All the major insight services – Forrester, Gartner, IDC, whoever – will want to develop a closer relationship. The more understanding they have of your business, the more they can go beyond their research base (the written documents, and the work that went into them) and provide specific, tailored advice that is relevant to your own enterprise – not just your type of business, or your industry sector at large.

For me, the thing that’s been missed in the discussion about what defines an analyst is precisely this ability to go beyond the research and provide insight that makes the data, the analysis actionable in the specific context. That’s true whether you are speaking of a service company as a whole, of an individual analyst within one of those companies, or of a one person outfit. That’s what makes an insight service, rather than just an analyst.


What is the definition of “analyst”? sagecircle, 1 May 2008
Link to the above in Tekrati Keeping Tabs, which also links to the Wikipedia definition
and all the links in those posts.

BCS Lovelace medal: Karen Spärck Jones

The British Computer Society awards its Lovelace Medal to “individuals who have made a contribution which is of major significance in the advancement of Information Systems or which adds significantly to the understanding of Information Systems”. The award is announced at a lecture given by the previous year’s medallist. This year’s event was a little different.

Karen Spärck Jones, the 2007 Lovelace medallist, died shortly after the award was announced. She was a pioneering researcher in computational linguistics, and received many awards through a long and distinguished career which started, continued and ended at Cambridge University. If you use a search engine, thesaurus-driven retrieval, automatic summarisation, relevance weighting, the Semantic Web, or any technology which depends on language analysis, you owe a debt to her work.

The 2008 Lovelace lecture was given in her memory by Dr. Ann Copestake, Cambridge’s Reader in Computational Linguistics. The lecture itself was a tour de force, ranging across the areas in which Prof. Spärck Jones so often led the way right up to the time of her death. Dr. Copestake educated us, but never baffled us. The logic and algebraic formalisms which she shared were not to be understood, but to illustrate how complex a field of study this is; when she needed us to understand a principle, she used a simple English sentence or, at one point, a Sudoku puzzle.

But, additionally, we were treated to glimpses of Karen Spärck Jones the person, and of her long partnership – academic as well as personal – with her husband Prof. Roger Needham. Fittingly, the vote of thanks was given by Dr. Andrew Herbert, who was closely associated with Prof. Needham in Cambridge research and succeeded him at the head of Microsoft’s Cambridge research lab. In his short speech, and in tributes from Prof. Wendy Hall and Prof. David Hartley, we learned also of the enormous range of charitable activities supported by the Roger Needham Trust and the depth of their joint contribution to Cambridge University and civic life.

Her work has touched my own career more than once: most directly in the 1980s when I managed thesaurus-driven databases and wrote an internal research paper on the then vogue issue of natural language database interfaces. But to my surprise I learned that, through Andrew Herbert, she also directly influenced a completely unrelated field which I was involved in: architectures for wide area distributed systems, developed through the ANSA project into an ISO standard. It was through this project that I met Andrew, who was its technical director. Conversation with Prof. Spärck Jones guided Andrew to one of the principles of that work, that of under-determination (essentially, working with the partial knowledge you do have) which is one of the foundations of modern computational linguistics. In Dr Copestake’s lecture, this is where the Sudoku came in!

Prof. Spärck Jones knew that she would not be able to receive the medal in person; Andrew’s comments brought home to us how much it genuinely meant to her. Surprisingly for a medal named for the first woman in IT, Prof. Spärck Jones was the first woman to receive it; this gave her great pleasure. Computing, as she once said, is too important to be left to men!

Links (follow these links not only for Dr Copestake’s lecture but also for a video lecture recorded by Prof. Spärck Jones herself as an acknowledgement for the Lovelace medal and for the ACM Athena Award which she received at the same time):

2008 Lovelace Lecture: A tribute to Karen Spärck Jones British Computer Society (Dr. Copestake’s presentation will be accesible via this page)
Obituary: Karen Spärck Jones University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory
Natural Language and the Information Layer Prof. Karen Spärck Jones, March 2007 (video lecture, 30 minutes)
Ann Copestake University of Cambridge
Dr Andrew Herbert Microsoft, Cambridge
ANSA project, 1985-1998 official record online

Hey – have a touch of this!

When I visited MIT’s Media Lab last year, among the many exciting, mystical or practical things we saw was the work of the Tangible Media group which mix physical and computer-generated interactions to enable people to model and understand the physical world. Sandscape, for example.

Shortly after that, I became aware of Microsoft’s Surface, an interactive touch-driven table-top display. In the video, touch allows users (for example) to drag images around, group displayed objects together, and so on. It’s different from the MIT table in that it is a display screen, not a collection of physical objects. I suppose it’s not that different in principle from what you could do on a large screen with a mouse, but the table top is an easy collaborative working paradigm and fingertips are an instinctive pointing device. And it’s expensive!

And, of course, there’s the iPhone.

MIT’s Technology Review today reports on a group who are designing multi-touch systems in an Open Source project. The scaled-down version is called Cubit and led by Addie Wagenknecht of Eyebeam. Eyebeam is an interesting organisation that aims to incubate ideas by bringing artists and technologists together. It’s based in New York, not Silicon Valley.

Surface “has an image projector, infrared-light emitters, and five cameras nestled in its base”, as TR explains it. Cubit uses less technology, and off-the-shelf components such as an ordinary webcam. And the report, ahead of a forthcoming California exhibition, lists three or four other such multi-touch projects.

Click the links below for the more, and the why.

Open-Source, Multitouch Display Technology Review, 1 May 2008
Microsoft Surface
Cubit from Eyebeam (click through links for other material including a video)
Sandscape (MIT Media Lab, Tangible Media group)
Maker Faire 3&4 May,San Mateo