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On Bob, MP3 and Business Imagination

There’s a great ad campaign running right now by IBM. The ad shows two lists: on one side of a line is a list of the things that “We Know”—e-Business, Global Infrastructure, Implementation, Middleware, Consulting, yadda yadda.

On the other side of the line is the list of what “They Know.” The first thing on the list: “Bob.” It struck me as funny at the time, and I tore it out of the magazine and stuck it up on my bulletin board.

Since then I’ve thought about it a little more. I think the point the ad is trying to make is that Your Technology Vendor (in this case IBM, but it could be anybody) should be entrusted to handle all the icky technical stuff, so that you, Mr. Businessman, can stick to your knitting, run your business, serve your customers and work without distraction to better manage your supplier relationships.

OK. This is good. One can easily see the intrinsic value in engaging third-party expertise to address the many systems and processes that support your primary business functions. And thus leave the business of doing business to those who know it best. That’s the classic argument in favor of outsourcing, and is undeniably compelling.

Impediments to Success

It’s also, of course, the classic condition that has created the widening disconnect in many organizations between your business processes and the tools you acquire to run them. Because as layers of complexity are introduced between you and the thing you’re trying to accomplish, your ability to connect directly with all your touch-points—to know “Bob”—is severely diminished.In our many attempts to “improve” the relationships we have with suppliers and customers, there have been many artifacts left in the way. These monuments to progress—complex systems, difficult software, non-integrated silo-systems—were purchased with the best of intentions, but often result in the most difficult of environments for information workers to thrive.

As is often the case, the trick is sometimes to “unlearn”—to reevaluate the beliefs and practices that once seemed like inviolable business rules. This struck me the other day as I listened to a “technology for dummies” radio show. The subject was MP3— the audio compression format that allows your kids to trade songs by bands you never heard of with lyrics you can’t understand with other kids you don’t know.

Being the massive geek I am, I listened. MP3 came out of the same standards-development group that developed MPEG for motion video. But MP3 is very different than MPEG; image compression can be accomplished because there’s lots of redundant data in a scanned image. If there is a blue sky, you don’t need the full data on each pixel, just one, and how many identical pixels there are.But music isn’t like that ... there’s too much variation. To solve this, the MP3 people did something kind of astonishing. They knew that much of the data in digitized music—in fact, in all sounds—goes unnoticed. It’s not that you can’t hear something below, say 60 kilohertz at such and such a decibel level. You can. But through the thousands of years of evolution, humans have learned to ignore certain sounds. We’ve learned that they just aren’t important and we don’t bother letting them register in our brains.

So the MP3 guys had the cunning imagination to simply ignore what is unimportant to the satisfactory reproduction of music. Just as humans have learned to “unlearn” superfluous sounds, they created software that “unlearns” what’s just not important.

The Many vs. The One

“(Content Management) is a new frontier, one that is owned by the entire organization, not just the IT group,” says Martyn Christian, Senior Vice President, Corporate Marketing, FileNET Corp. “Line of business managers are more intimately involved in identifying and justifying solutions to their business issues. Hence, the purchasing decision requires thoughtful input from a cross-functional group of individuals.”

The challenge really is one of the blurring definitions and roles of those “individuals” Martyn mentions. We are just growing out of a “post-industrial, pre-information age,” where the assembly-mentality toward information capture and dissemination was ingrained during years of filing-clerks and in-boxes. The job of the individual in an organization was pretty insignificant in those days; it was the accumulation of efforts, like in a beehive, that drove the enterprise.

Now, it’s the reverse. It is often the opportunity for the One, not the Many, to make a difference. The call center agent who satisfies the disgruntled customer. The tele-sales agent who gets the order and pushes it through shipping, same day. The service engineer who talks a customer through a software problem. How do you develop an information system that can be ready for any contingency, and immediately useful to the many individuals who make up your enterprise?

“The accurate ‘indexing’ and categorization of this content across multiple product lines, geographies and operations is exactly what Content Management systems are designed to do,” says FileNET’s Martyn Christian. “This organization of market and competitive research in a CM system can lead to quicker and easier access to information from anywhere in the world via the web. If a company can react more quickly to competitive pressures because of this access, they will win market share.”In a way, all these solutions are moving from different directions to the same intersection: choosing what’s useful from what can safely be ignored.

An Evolving Company

Intelliseek began its life (way back in 1997) trying to solve just that problem, creating “a platform of technologies that gathers information from disparate sources and presents it in one homogeneous view” remembers Sundar Kadayam, Co-founder and CTO, Intelliseek, Inc. A tall order then, as now, but they did good work and created a base-technology that serves them and their customers today.

When the economy got tougher and general IT spending slowed, Intelliseek morphed its technology into a new paradigm that says a lot about the conditions under which we do business today. "B-to-C crumbled, then B-to-B crumbled . . . the remaining market for us was the enterprise," says Sundar.

Evaluating Content

Intelliseek noticed that its customers and prospects were learning to play with new rules. Two related realities emerged: 1. the simple overabundance of information of all kinds; and 2. the questionable worth of that information—its reliability, relative importance and its potential impact on their customers’ businesses.

“Enterprises needed a corporate intelligence service,” remembers Sundar. “They needed a text mining layer with analytics for analyzing everything from rumors to gossip, to rich product ideas and innovative content. Because companies didn’t know about rumors, they lost millions of dollars. At the same time there are many useful things that people are saying...”

So Intelliseek now focuses not just on absorbing information from multiple sources, within and from without an enterprise. It actually "evaluates" the quality, validity and trustworthiness of the information. Intelliseek recently merged with PlanetFeedback, a firm that provides feedback delivery and analytics (traditionally the sort of thing you get from focus groups; now increasingly the domain of chat rooms, user groups and self-organized "watch-dog" sites). Now Intelliseek can quickly distinguish what you need to know from what would be merely nice to know from what you can safely ignore.

Toward Business "Imagination"

There are a lot of sounds out there that can be ignored, and some that may be telling you something other than what you expect.“C

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