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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Review: Alto Mail Client

After 15 days of using the service, I can honestly say that I've enjoyed AOL's new email client, Alto.  Although the platform is still by invitation only and will continue to evolve, a new feature called stacks makes a much needed improvement on one of the oldest uses for the internet.  Stacks have the ability to reveal information to users about themselves that is otherwise hidden or inaccessible.  Here is a brief review of what Alto is like:
  • Design: Visually, it’s a stimulating, elegant, and looks modern with clean edges for the inbox stream which is located on the left as you would find in Outlook, Thunderbird, or Opera.  The larger portion of the screen includes "stacks" on the right (more on that later) that have the appearance of a shuffled stack of photos or paper that elicits a more informal feel.  Usability also leverages established scenarios such as a nav bar on the left for getting to the inbox, various folders, and opening your calendar, as well as tabs for opening different functions of the client.  
  • Tabs: Tabs have been in Opera and Thunderbird for a long time in order to view a calendar, a web page, or plug-in content.  Alto uses these tabs to open individual messages or display message content contained within your stacks.   
  • Analytics: As a long time user of Gmail Meter, Graph Your Inbox, and wannabe Quantified Self enthusiast, I value the analytics software can provide.  In it's current form, Alto provides rudimentary charts about the stacks such as the number of messages in the stack, the most active, and the top recipients.  I have no doubt this feature will continue to grow and include more.    
  • Stacks:  It's this concept that really took Alto to the next level for email clients.  On the right side of the message stream are groups of content much in the same vein as Pinterist boards or Evernote notebooks.  Although a user can establish a new notebook for any content, when you first log in there are a few pre-loaded to help demonstrate what is possible. Here are 3 reasons why this makes an improvement:
    • Hidden content: Good software can add tremendous value when it enables access to data that was previously hidden from the user. In this case, one of the pre-populated stacks extracts all of the photos in my mailbox and displays them in a photo album.  This feature makes it easy for me to discover content (fast) that would otherwise be buried or inaccessible through a normal search query.  As we move towards visual search, it’s these types of features that can reveal hidden information while simultaneously makeing it fast for me consume, arrange, and organize the information I need.  For this particular stack, one could imagine Alto leveraging the tools from traditional image search engines such as organizing by size, colors, date, and other defining features.  
    • Sorting content:  Stacks enable email to be separated out instead of taking up visual line space in the inbox tsream.  One such pre-loaded stack sifts out the hundreds of coupons and daily deals that float through my inbox.  Although this can be achieved with rules in other email clients, stacks keep them visually present for me to view later. 
    • Stacks scrolling:  I discovered this tiny UI feature by accident but it's actually pretty cool.  On the stack that contains my flagged and starred message, I can move the mouse from left to right over the stack and it will scroll through the messages in that stack.  
Overall using Alto was a pleasant experience but there are a few limitations that prevent me from making the switch completely.  As someone with more than a few conversation tags, I value the speed with which I can label and archive messages in Gmail and Taglocity for Outlook by typing the name of the tag and then archiving.  This is not possible in Alto and takes almost as long as dragging conversations to folders used to be in Outlook before I installed Taglocity.  I'm glad they opted to use conversation view for displaying messages, however I would like to see discreet conversations like Thunderbird and Gmail used to have, as well as the ability to toggle hide/unhide quoted text.  Finally, there is curiously no Microsoft Exchange and that is a must-have for my work email.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Finally, a solution for all that Yammering

Like many people out there, the number of social networks that I participate in can be a full time job in-and-of itself.  Thankfully, tools such as If This Then That can help improve the more menial side of posting multiple times, but it's not a perfect solution for broad social network management.

I'm talking specifically, about Yammer.  My own employer Hitachi Consulting uses Yammer, as do a few of my clients, as well as the community of a post-graduate course I took through The Leaders Network.  Unfortunately, Yammer doesn't currently support logging in to multiple networks within the same browser session so I either have to open them all in different browsers or constantly log in and log out.  

Thankfully, Hootsuite offers a solution for running multiple Yammer networks within their web app.  It's fully functional including "liking" and responding to posts in addition to the ability to post directly to individual groups.

The steps for setting this up are outlined below:

  1. Log into Hootsuite
  2. Select "install apps" (picture at left)
  3. Browse the apps and install Yammer
  4. A new tab should be created called "Yammer"
  5. Open a new browser window and sign in to your Yammer Network #1 

  6. Go back to Yammer and select the "sign in with Yammer" button on the Hootsuite social stream (picture at left)
  7. A new browser window should open asking you to authorize the Hootsuite app
  8. After your stream has been imported, return to the browser window that you opened Yammer in and sign out
  9. Sign in again to Yammer with Network #2

  10. Return to Hootsuite. In the top left corner you should see a grey button to "add stream". Click it
  11. Select the yellow button that says "Apps" and select the green "+" (picture at left)
  12. Repeat the steps above starting at step 6

Friday, December 14, 2012 Can Fill The Void in the Tech Wars

Sydney Harbour Bridge
By Christopher Chan
Tech wars are nothing new, but recently there has been a flurry of large battles that are stranding users without the services they have come to depend on.   First Instagram blocked the ability to upload photos as Twitter cards, then we heard that Google is disbanding support for Exchange ActiveSync on Windows Phones, and there still is no easy way to simultaneously post to Google+ and all the other social networks.

We all have emotional connections to these services because we use them to express the most personal parts of our lives.  They enable to us to connect with friends and family in unique and meaningful - and those connection channels are being cut.

Enter, the service that is the mediator for the consumer. acts as the middle man between 59 different online services to create a bridge between them.  Need to automatically save that Facebook photo into Google Drive?  They have a "recipe" for that.  Or, need to re-enable the ability to post Instragram photos to Twitter - they have a solution for that as well.

In fact, the number of combinations is almost overwhelming, and continues to grow as users self-publish the combinations they have thought of.  Problems and inconveniences you didn't even realize you had are being solved by users all over the world.  Head on over and check it out, you'll feel like a kid in a candy shop.  After all, the data is yours despite what the EULA says.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Internal Corporate Incubator

via alles-schlumpf on Flickr
Imagine if every firm had an internal center designed to incubate ideas and truly invest in the best ones.  In fact, I'm positive that super innovative firms like Apple or IBM have these programs, but I think every company should.  

The reason is because I recently saw first hand the power that an incubator has to launch a start-up from an idea to reality.  My colleague Marlo Struve and I had the pleasure of working with the Hub Seattle these past few months to facilitate the creation of a new accelerator program.  In case you're unfamiliar with the concept of an incubator,  "a start-up incubator [is] for people to connect, work, attend and produce events, run bootcamps, access funding and mentorship, source clients and co-conspirators, build campaigns, prototype and test products, and launch companies."  An "accelerator program" is like a boot-camp within the incubator designed to fast-track a select group of start-ups to new heights.  I can't say enough about how great it was to work with Brian Howe and Lindsey Engh from the Hub, as well as Rashmir Balasubramaniam from Nsansa and Luni Libes from BGI to design this program.

Going through the process of designing the requirements was incredibly educational - especially because the Hub is focused on social entrepreneurship rather than the typical tech start-ups that other incubators focus on, so it had to be entirely new.  Yet it awakened me to the potential for ideas to explode into reality while providing something as simple as a space to be collaborative.  And it made me realize that all major firms should create internal incubators within their own walls - including my own.  

As a consultant, I operate in markets that change direction at the speed of light.  Deloitte's shift index highlights that the firms that stay on top from year to year is changing faster than ever.  At Hitachi Consulting, we're already focusing on the next round of emerging markets for clients to enter and designing systems for measuring energy ecosystems that were previously un-measurable.  But we should never stop increase the flow of information because we are supposed to stay ahead of everyone else, so it is imperative that we create environments that facilitate innovation.  

We already do a great job at staying ahead of the market and continually provide solid strategic advice.  But imagine how much more could happen with an internal incubator.  Employees could propose new products, service offerings, solutions for un-addressed client challenges, internal web apps and technologies, marketing campaigns, even corporate strategies.  The best ideas would be voted on by internal "VC's" and the teams with winning ideas would be taken to training centers where they could go through a quick 4-6 week intensive accelerator program.  This would also have the additional benefit of transferring knowledge from one market to the other as teams from Seattle would ideally focus on different challenges that teams from London or Iberia.  

As I've stated before, the faster a company can learn to channel flows of information and remove any damns in its way, the better it will be at surviving the new world of change.  

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Enterprise Ambiguity Manager

Via Paul (dex) on Flickr
Facebook recently launched their new profile layout called "timeline". It replaces a user's wall on their profile page with a stream of information surrounded with context such as date, place, photos, "likes", and a host of other details. Although it was always possible to view a person's history, the previous layout primarily focused on the events of the moment, a snapshot of what is happening "right now". The new layout provides a way for viewers to see the "flow" of information over the course of the person's life with the context needed to understand how the individual evolved to the "right now".

This concept of understanding information flow is important for managing risk at a firm.  Deloitte Consulting highlights this concept in their "Shift Index" white paper, "[b]ecause of the rapid change, higher unpredictability and volatility...knowledge flows are a particular key to improving performance'.[1]

Yet before diving into the nuances of how this applies to risk, first it's important to understand how measuring information flow is even possible. "Big Data" has become one of the most talked about aspects of business performance analysis in the past year. As W. Brian Arthur argues in a recent McKinsey Quarterly article, the ability to have so much data comes from the exponentially increasing number of sensors being placed all around the world. Individuals are infinitely connected through multiple devices and indeed the entire planet is being wired to track celestial movements and small insects. These connections converge to create an "...unseen, underground conversation [that] is happening among multiple servers talking to other servers, talking to satellites that are talking to computers." [2] Arthur says this is literally creating a kind of "neural network" for the economy and providing a level of intelligence. He says "I’m not talking about human intelligence or anything that would qualify as conscious intelligence. Biologists tell us that an organism is intelligent if it senses something, changes its internal state, and reacts appropriately." [2] 

David Weinberger from the Atlantic then builds on this concept of a system and big data to underscore that with the amount of data being collected it no longer makes sense to understand component parts of a system but to look at the system as a whole. In that same article he says, "[a] new science called systems biology studies the ways in which external stimuli send signals across the cell membrane. Some stimuli provoke relatively simple responses, but others cause cascades of reactions. These signals cannot be understood in isolation from one another... The result of having access to all this data is a new science that is able to study not just 'the characteristics of isolated parts of a cell or organism'...but properties that don't show up at the parts level." [3]

Via Rebecca-Lee on Flickr
Now it's possible to see that there is a network of sensors providing an intelligence to our economic system that produces so much data that the whole can reveal more than the parts.  It is tempting to measure system reactions from the perspective of it's current context -- what it's doing "right now".  However, changes within a system are never static, they continually evolve and eventually turn into yet another reaction leading to yet another state and each state change is related to the ones preceding it. Just as big data forces us to look at the system instead of a single component part, we should also look at the flow of change over time and not just a component instant.  The neural networks mentioned earlier are carrying a vast amount of information and businesses that can harness the "flow" of information will be able to understand state changes in the system of our economy far better than others.  

Flow is essential to managing risk because it prevents strategies based only on current state factors that are going to rapidly change.  "The next decade or two will be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm; if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern. The most valuable insight is that we are, in a critical sense, in a time of chaos."[4]

Harnessing flow is so important that a new business function needs to be created, traditional enterprise risk management (ERM) is not enough. As Booz & Co. states, "[m]ost ERM groups focus their attention on the risks that businesses most frequently encounter — such as whether the enterprise is complying with regulations, suitably accounting for its activities, and operating in an ethical and legal manner — rather than on black swans."[5]

This new type of manager must not only understand the traditional components of risk, they must be able to thrive in ambiguity, they must be what I call an Enterprise Ambiguity Manager.  The EAM must know how to use information flow to do traditional stress testing of component parts such as the supply chain and the customer portfolio, but also be able to build a model that reveals characteristics of a stressed system and then zoom back out to observe the flow again.  Surviving the chaos requires plugging into the neurons to collect big data on a massively complex system and then tuning in to the flow in order to ride the waves of change.  

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Global Trend: Mobile Banking

It's interesting to see that developing countries and high-tech countries such as South Korea are all massively outpacing the US and Europe in terms of mobile technology. One important trend has been the rapid proto-typing and evolution of Mobile Banking. To see examples of success, one only has to look at Keny's M-PESA who provides services to "9.5m people, or 23% of the population, and transfers the equivalent of 11% of Kenya’s GDP each year; [and] has inspired more than 60 similar schemes across the world.[1] Additionally, in "2010, mobile banking users soared over 100 percent in Kenya, China, Brazil and USA with 200%, 150%, 110% and 100% respectively".[2]

Mobile banking is really the intersection between 3 main themes happening throughout the world:
  • Successful expansion of micro- financial services products to the world’s poorest communities has proven that the ~ 3 billion “unbanked” global population can be reached in a profitable manner. Further, research such as Portfolios to the Poor and others have shown a sophisticated knowledge of personal finance even at the bottom of economic pyramid and a willingness to go beyond simple savings and debt finance. "The biggest market potential, believes Swiss Re, is in the life and health insurance sectors with the commercially viable market numbering some 2.6bn people with daily incomes of between $1.25 and $4. Swiss Re estimates the premium income potential of this income segment at $33bn".[3]
  • The rapid expansion of mobile technology in only the last decade has brought 2.5 billion people online enabling a customer base of 1.1 billion mobile bankers by 2015 [4] . Solar powered cell towers, wifi, and other technologies enable even remote places to be connected.
  • The search for new markets by all major firms from P&G to Citigroup and the promise of double digit growth in emerging markets has resulted in new and more remote distribution channels, new understandings of rural needs, and large amounts of academic data to guide investment decisions. 
For firms that wish to move into this market, important questions arise around partnership or ownership. In the USA for example, Google is trying hard to launch Google Wallet to allow consumers to use their mobile phones for purchases in stores. Google is a software company, not a financial services institution (FSI) and yet they are pioneering this technology. However, doing so requires partnerships with manufacturers such as Samsung for special hardware, Citi and MasterCard for financial products, Sprint for access to telecom networks, and many other partnerships along the way. And the entire process has been fraught with resistance from major institutions such as Verizon[5] and rumors have said PayPal, Apply, Amazon, and Facebook are all on their way to developing competing systems.[6] In other countries, it may simply be easier for an FSI to simply create the software in-house depending on regulation or even the availability of existing services. In fact, the lines are beginning to blur so much between what a firm categorizes itself as and what products it offers, that it could be said that an FSI now also has to think of itself as a technology company.

There is no doubt that this trend will continue to propagate at incredible rates. The opportunity for customer convenience combined with cost reduction for firms is impossible to pass up. Here is a brief timeline of the action so far:

  • Pre 1999 SMS based banking in US included ability to check savings account balance and recent transaction history.
  • 1999 – WAP internet available for mobile phones, European banks launch internet banking.
  • 2003 – Vodafone uses grant from the UK to develop mobile money transfer tech platform M-PESA in Kenya. Launches in 2007 as is the gold standard for proving it can be profitable.
  • 2009 – Zain launches mobile money transfer in Kenya.
  • 2009 – Telenor Pakistan launched mobile banking solution.
  • 2009 – Syngenta Foundation uses M-PESA to launch mobile property (farm crop) insurance in Kenya.
  • 2010 – Dutch-Bangla launches first mobile banking in Bangladesh.
  • 3/2011 – MTN and Hollard Insurance launch mobile life insurance in Ghana.
  • 7/2011 – ZONG launches mobile accidental insurance in Pakistan.
  • 9/2011 – British American Insurance (4th largest insurer in Kenya) launches low-cost accident insurance in Kenya with Safaricom (Vodafone) and Equity Bank (JV now called M-KESHO) using M-PESA.