Why the US is different to other countries

I have just spent 10 days in the USA, split between a week just south of Los Angeles in Costa Mesa, and several days in Lawrence, Kansas. Although I have been to the US several times before, this time it was different, for reasons I explain below. But also because I may have figured out the essence of what makes the US different to other countries when it comes to business and technology.

My previous visits were either as a pure tourist, or as an overseas employee of a US company coming to get an update on future plans and directions. For those work-related visits, I was a passive recipient. This time it was different. I went to the US to attend a sales conference organized by my employer in South Africa. This time I was one of the people helping to set future plans and directions. This time I had to actively engage – mainly, though not exclusively, with people who work in our North American offices about their concerns and issues.

One of the ongoing issues is that we, i.e. South Africans, don’t understand the US. In the past, I have always supported the view that while the US may start earlier with certain things, there’s not that much difference when it comes to business. But at the end of the sales conference, I had a strong feeling that things were much more different than I had been able to understand.

On my previous working visits, I received direction from US head office people, and used to consider them rather ignorant of the world outside the USA. Now the roles were somewhat reversed: I was the head office person, and they were saying people like me were ignorant of their world.

It took a few days after the intensity of the sales conference, staying with family in Lawrence, and talkininside Dillonsg with my South African brother-in-law who works at the University of Kansas, to distill what I think is the essence of the difference. It was after a visit to a local supermarket, Dillons, that it occurred to me.

It’s what is considered basic.

For each product category, e.g. bread, the range at Dillons was two or three times more than I have seen in South African, or UK, supermarkets. Moreover, the products in Dillons exploited every single consumer niche you could imagine, no matter how specialized the niche. In others words, the choice and competition was greater than I had experienced. I surmise that this makes US consumers more demanding than consumers elsewhere, and makes what they would consider basic different.

When hearing the North American sales people talk about their market and competition, the same kind of impression arose:
product category range + exploitation of niches = high degree of expectation from business

Perhaps it’s because the US economy is so highly competitive that the basics are different – in supermarkets, in business, in IT (and if you watch any reality TV, in relationships).basic differences

It’s something for both sides to consider. If you enter the US market to do business, be aware of how the needs and requirements will differ and be at a higher level. On the other hand, for US companies operating internationally, don’t expect the same issues to be of concern, and don’t assume US concepts are universal.

When it comes to business software, the requirements of a US business are likely to be greater or more detailed than business in other countries because what is considered basic fo US business is different. The same duopoly then applies – overseas software companies must get really immersed in the US to learn what is needed, US software companies may not find the same functional requirements from businesses in other countries.

Other companies becoming like IBM

technologyA number of years ago I wrote a blog post about the possibility of Microsoft turning into the ‘old’ IBM. Now it seems there are other similarities, but another company looks to be doing the same thing. Looking back at what I wrote in 2007, a few points now seem strangely familiar.

  • reliance on a monopoly cash-cow; IBM with mainframe hardware and operating systems, Microsoft with Windows and Office
  • branching out into all sorts of different systems and applications; being good in some areas and terrible in others, but still continued in the terrible areas
  • being a symbol of conventionality; Microsoft is now even old-fashioned to the millennial crowd
  • thinking that they might take over the world; in their heyday there were concerns that they might get too much influence, how quickly that fear can change

Nearly eight years later I think the points I made above confirm Microsoft has become like IBM, even as far as experiencing a downturn in business as new competitors and business models emerge.

Something else though has appeared that makes them similar to my mind – a knight in shining armour coming to the rescue. In the IBM story it was Lou Gerstner who saved IBM from a serious predicament. For Microsoft, it’s new CEO Satya Nadella’s change of business model. Nadella has introduced a number of initiatives which indicate a significant change in attitude, a recent one being the acquisition of email app Accompli; who would have thought that Microsoft would support other email platforms.

There’s another vendor whose business model has changed from what it set out originally, Oracle. Starting out purely in the enterprise software arena, in the last few years the number of acquisitions and the broadening of focus make it look like another IBM. But in this case, it’s because Oracle wants to own the whole stack. In comparing Digital Equipment Corp and Oracle, I commented in 2009:

There was a belief about Digital that it became too difficult to manage so many different technologies, and that contributed to the company’s demise. So I can’t help wondering how Oracle will manage.

Oracle seems to be doing OK. So far. Although Larry Ellison stepped down as CEO earlier this year, I bet he is still in control. The test will come when he leaves the company completely.

So perhaps it will have to wait another seven years before I can write again about how tech companies become like IBM.

Update: Gartner’s Merv Adrian published a quadrant-style picture that shows where Microsoft products are on the Gartner Magic Quadrant. Look at the range of products, and those that are not in the leader quadrant.

IT talent needed for SMBs

1410454581_skillsAn article on the McKinsey site recently discussed the issue of developing and retaining IT talent, especially the key skills it believes are necessary for organisations planning to become a digital enterprise. For an enterprise to become digitized it needs to implement transformative IT-oriented projects, and without the necessary IT knowledge and experience, projects often overrun on budget and time, and don’t deliver value. However, being McKinsey, the article is targeted at large organisations, whereas I am more interested in how small or mid-size businesses (SMBs) can apply their advice.

McKinsey highlights three IT roles which companies should keep in-house.

  • IT program manager

needs to oversee the project, understand both the business context and the technology involved, and have strong management capabilities. He or she must also be able to talk about technology and business decisions in a language that business managers understand.

  • Business change leader

responsible for ensuring that the organization adopts the new solution. This role requires strong communication skills and an understanding of the full amplitude of the transformation and its implications for the business side, including required organizational, process, and mind-set changes.

  • Lead IT architect

responsible for reviewing and challenging technical proposals and deliverables such as solution design and IT architecture. He or she needs to understand the current IT architecture and also have a good view of the transformation journey to ensure that decisions fit with the architecture road map.

Why could this not apply to SMBs? Because SMBs typically have staff with multiple or overlapping responsibilities, while larger companies tend to have more specialised, narrow roles. SMBs also dont’ usually have the budget to hire such specialised staff.

Therefore I would modify the McKinsey article for SMBs. Here are three existing roles in an SMB which could take on the responsibilities mentioned above.

  • CFO or Financial Director – IT program manager role

In most SMBs I have dealt with, the overall responsibility for IT has been with the CFO or FD. Therefore this dual role should not pose a major problem for most SMBs.

  • Human Resources Manager – business change leader role

This is the dual role that could be controversial. In some SMBs, the HR manager role can be mainly administrative, however unless the CEO wants to take on this responsibility, HR would seem to be only only other option.

  • IT manager – lead IT architect role

A non-brainer in my opinion. The only manager in an SMB with the background and skills to do the IT architect role is the IT manager.

I would be interested to hear if any alternatives are suggested.

Email or social networking – which is better for business communication

Back in 2011, it was briefly news that a large company had banned email in favour of instant messaging and social networking tools. This decision looked to be an early reaction to the restrictive paradigm, that of the old postal-style communication just transferred to a digital version. Today it seems that decision could be considered rare, even unique. Email is still the predominant communication mechanism in business.

The original idea of social networking at work using digital technologies was proposed by Andrew McAfee in 2006 who introduced the term ‘enterprise 2.0’. He believed the advantage of these new technologies was that:

they can potentially knit together an enterprise and facilitate knowledge work in ways that were simply not possible previously.

Two bloggers have recently had opposing views on the issue of email vs social networking debate. JP Rangaswami, chief scientist at Salesforce.com, commented in favour of social networking, whereas Sameer Patel, whose job at SAP should espouse the same view, actually seemed to promote email over social networking.

Taking Rangaswami’s argurment first, he points out that initially (in the 1990s) email was good, allowing people to send quick, informal, short messages. Then it became more formal and email started to look like standard company memoranda. As email became an enterprise function, it got corrupted further – turning into a broadcast mechanism controlled by the sender, and consensus-by-email became a way of decision-making.

Rangaswami mentions two problems with email.

1. Because threading is often not possible, discussions become fragmented.

the fragmentation caused by email sometimes takes a darker route. Person A sends an email to a group of people. Some of them reply-all, seeing that it is the right thing to do. A few others then corrupt the conversation, by taking a few people off the recipient list and adding a few more, with liberal doses of cc and bc. Before you know it there are now multiple conversations with different carefully-chosen groups of people, with only a few, usually politically-motivated, members playing puppetmaster to all the conversations. Cut-and-paste then comes into play, as segments of one set of conversations get viewed in other, exclusive, environments.

2. How to handle email on vacation

[With social networks] you choose whom you follow. Amongst the people you follow is this class of person called your friend … These friends know you, know what’s important to you. Sometimes they even know what’s important to you despite your not recognising or acknowledging that importance … You no longer have to read every email. When you come back from vacation, whatever has passed in the stream unread can stay unread …  Because you have a network of friends. They will DM you or private message you about the things that are important. They will SMS you or text you or IM you or Whatsapp you about the things that are urgent.

On the other hand, Sameer Patel makes these comments, referring to social networking as a ‘stream’ or ‘feed’.

You can hardly tell your boss that you missed an important update from him because you didn’t happen to be watching the stream.

There is a place for a feed in enterprise as part of a larger tapestry of interaction models. It’s an excellent way to ambiently learn and get wind of many things.

The world of work demands a significantly more decisive design [ie, email] – to facilitate closure of the repeatable tasks … yet with a facility that that helps me manage exceptions that will undoubtedly show up, unannounced.

I find his argument that social networks are not designed to drive closure seems hard to substantiate. Referring to the future of business communication, however, he does make a good point.

Business applications that will ultimately resonate won’t be about transactions or about social feeds but understanding the interplay between data, people, applications and content to get stuff done.

Almost in support of Patel, one of the big promoters of ‘social enterprise’, CEO of Salesforce.com Mark Benioff, is now cooling off on the subject.

In his original paper, McAfee did mention that there would be challenges for the new technology.

1. Employees will be too busy to use the technology, despite training.

2. Management will see it as reducing their ability to control, and opening up avenues for dissent.

It seems that cons of social networking are still working in favour of email. I don’t think that the debate has ended, though.

What are the case studies of companies who have successfully moved from email to an enterprise social network?

Reviewing Gartner’s predictions from 2010

Is it nearly three months since I last updated this blog? I don’t know if other bloggers have the same challenge I find – often issues come up which I want to blog about, but then my thoughts get interrupted, and then the urgency to blog goes away, and that opportunity is lost. Anyway, I now have the issue, the time and the urgency.

I recently found a report by the Gartner analyst organisation from 2010 with some predictions, most interestingly for 2012, but some beyond that. Predictions, like forecasts, are mostly going to be wrong – some in a small way, others in much bigger ways. If your organisation has a sales and operations planning activity, one of the key elements is feeding actual data back into the forecast, so you can see where the forecast was wrong, if incorrect assumptions were made, and most importantly, how you can make more accurate forecasts. I have never seen or heard Gartner do that with their forecasts. So here am I to do it.

Gartner’s top end user predictions in 2010 were:

  • by 2012:
    1. 20% of businesses will own not IT assets
    2. India-centric IT service companies will represent 20% of the leading cloud aggregators
    3. Facebook will become the hub for social network integration and web socialization
    4. 60% of a new PC’s total life greenhouse gas emissions will have occurred before the user first turns on the machine
  • for 2013:
    1. mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common web access device
  • by 2014:
    1. most IT business cases will include carbon remediation costs
    2. more than 3 billion of the world’s adult population will be able to transact electronically via mobile and Internet technology
  • by 2015:
    1. internet marketing will be regulated
    2. context will be as influential to mobile consumer services and relationships as search engines are to the web

How are those forecasts looking? For their 2012 predictions, the only one that might be argued as being accurate is number 3 – Facebook. However, even that could be questioned; consider that Saleforce is pushing Chatter as its social network, and Microsoft recently bought Yammer to beef up SharePoint in the social space. Number 1, the cloud prediction, was clearly driven by analyst hype, and is wrong at the moment, so why doesn’t Gartner review this and give another (maybe more realistic) forecast?

The 2013 prediction is interesting because it is definitely coming, I’m just not sure that it will be by next year.

A lot can happen in two years, ask anyone who thought Groupon would be big. So for 2014 I am prepared to accept the second prediction about how many people will be transacting electronically. I doubt the prediction though regarding carbon remediation.

The predictions for 2015 still seem to be extravagant, but who knows what will happen in three years where the Internet is concerned.

Am I being unnecesarily harsh on Gartner about their prediction accuracy? I would be interested to hear what others think.

My previous blog archived here

I started blogging on a South Africa site in 2005, but moved here to WordPress after about a year. That South African site is going to be terminated soon so I decided to copy over a number of my blogs to a page on this blog – see the Archive page.

It was interesting for me to see some of the observations I made back then – some of them were quite presceient, others actually came true or show things haven’t changed at all.

Microsoft Partner Summit and the new economic landscape

Mteto NyatiI attended the Microsoft Partner Summit Africa, and heard some interesting points in the keynote address made by the two executives who run Microsoft’s business for most of Africa – Nteto Nyati, Managing Director of Microsoft South Africa, and Hennie Loubser, Regional General Manager for Microsoft WECA (West, East and Central Africa).


  • The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are now areas where most growth is projected;
  • 6 of the 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa;
  • a number of Microsoft employees from Africa who have been working abroad are repatriating from Europe and the US back to Africa;
  • there are 1300 large and mid-market companies in Africa from which Microsoft gets 75% of its revenue in this region;
  • Africa has become a continent of hope and opportunity;
  • on the African continent, the community expects companies to become an integrated part of the society – profitable returns to company owners must also accompany returns to society.

This led me to these thoughts:

  1. the focus of economic growth in the world has moved from developed economies (the so-called North) to the emerging and developing economies (the South);
  2. this change should have some impact on the issues and location of technology innovation;
  3. a good deal of technology innovation focuses on mostly ‘northern’ business, consumer and societal issues;
  4. there is an expectation, particularly in the North, that the source of technology innovation should still occur in certain ‘northern’ locations;
  5. Points 1 and 2 do not agree with Points 3 and 4

It makes me proud therefore to say that SYSPRO is an African company that supports the real issues of small and medium businesses throughout the world. Comments of “how can innovation come from Africa?” should now be discarded for the irrelevant and arrogant rubbish that they are.

Some other information from the keynote

Microsoft SA’s FY2011 growth areas:

Public sector 43%
Entertainment and devices 32%
Enterprise services 28%
Enterprise group 22%
Small & medium business group 20%

Microsoft SA’s FY2011 market share changes:

Web browser + 11 pts
Email, calendaring + 17 pts
Unified communications + 7 pts
Database server – 2 pts
Smartphone – 7 pts

Some Microsoft Africa stats (via IDC):

PC shipment growth 15%
Serve shipment growth 6%
Software piracy rate > 80% (US $785 mill) in 2010