IBM Reimagines the Email Story With IBM Verse

email iconYou’ve got mail! It’s been a long time since most of us have experienced the surge of pleasurable anticipation that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan enjoyed in the 1998 classic, “You’ve Got Mail.”

Instead, if you’re like me and many others, opening your business inbox has become a soul-sucking experience that consumes too much time, distracts you from more important tasks, and leaves you feeling that in spite of all the time you spend in email, you probably missed something important. Yet with all of its flaws, you continue to use email because it has become a seemingly irreplaceable part of the business workflow.

You’ve Got Information Overload!

The feeling of information overload that many of us experience isn’t surprising. According to Osterman Research, most corporate decision makers and influencers view email as the single most important application they have deployed. The typical user spends two hours per day working in the corporate email system and sends or receives a median of 130 emails per day. Email is also the primary method for:

  • Sending an attachment for 94% of users.
  • Sharing files while on a call for 60% of users.
  • Managing a project for 56% of users.

Sadly, much of this time is wasted: According to a 2012 Grossman Group study, middle managers typically spend 100 hours a year on irrelevant email. Many frustrations arise from this sorry state of affairs, including some of my top aggravations:

  • That nagging feeling that I’ve missed something (especially in all of those crazy Google threads!).
  • Spending too much time catching up on email after work hours so I’m not swamped the next day. For better or worse, this is easier than ever because I can do it on my iPhone.
  • Spending too much time searching for that one, elusive email that I really need.
  • Toggling back and forth from my email to calendar to find open time for meetings.
  • Getting back to what I was supposed to be working on after be email distractions.

But, despite these problems—and the emergence of newer digital communications methods (social networking, activity streams, text messages, IM, etc.) touted as email replacements—email is still very much alive and well. While newer methods are making some headway (and in fact, reducing email use in our personal lives), email remains the top form of business communication. In fact, 52% of those surveyed by Osterman Research indicated that their use of email had actually increased over the previous 12 months, while for 44%, use remained the same. Use declined for only 3% of respondents.

Towards A More Intelligent Inbox

To be fair, email has evolved since the first email with an @ sign was sent (reputedly in 1972, by Ray Tomlinson, an ARPANET contractor and Internet pioneer). Commercial developers got in the game, and developed folders to organize email, offline synchronization, standards and protocols, web interfaces, search capabilities, spam filters, ways to pre-sort emails into different buckets and more to make email more user-friendly and usable.

Although these improvements have helped somewhat, the original paradigm of looking at a big long list of stuff—emails, files and folders—remains. We’ve gained more ways to slice and dice our inbox, but it’s still served up to us in pretty much the same way as it has always been, in rows of information.

Newer social and collaborative tools, from activity streams to file sharing apps have been developed to make communication and collaboration easier, and to reduce and/or replace email. But while they are a great fit for certain tasks and activities, they haven’t displaced email to any great extent. Email volumes continue to multiple, and email overload continues to plague us.

You’ve Got Focus!

But what would happen if you began with the premise that email isn’t likely to go away? And that since people spend a lot of time in email, it should be a place where people like working and can be more productive, and that easily integrates with newer social and collaborative tools, instead of competing with them? In other words, how can you have an inbox that works for you, instead of the other way around?

This is the premise that IBM team has zeroed in on with IBM Verse. Verse is designed to help people focus on, find and act on the most important things in their inbox in a more intuitive and integrated fashion. Big Blue has invested $100 million to design the solution, which combines its cloud, analytics, social and security platforms.

Initially announced at IBM’s 2014 Connect conference (under the codename Mail Next), IBM Verse replaces those deadly rows and folders with a fresh, visual mental map to help you make sense of your inbox more quickly and easily (Figure 1). With one look at the IBM Verse dashboard, you can:

  • See what replies and tasks you owe others.
  • View meetings and free time.
  • Identify what’s most important in your inbox.
  • View your activity stream.
  • Move over a face to see that person’s emails, chats, invites and more all in one place.

Figure 1: IBM Verse Screenshot

Mail Next screen shot (9)

Source: IBM

From there, you can drill down to different layers to manage things, take action and stay on top of priorities (Figure 2). For instance, you can:

  •  Pull up and attach links to files and manage version control.
  • “Unlock” emails and turn them into social posts to share with a community.
  • Use team analytics to create social graphs to see how active different people are in a thread.
  • Create rules to sort, filter, mute and hide messages.

Focus on Experience, Not Features

IBM Design Thinking, IBM’s design framework for delivering great user experience to users. Is also taking a different approach to designing IBM Verse. Instead of testing the user interface after some (too often) wonky developers come up with it, product management, development and design all work together equally from the beginning.

Using tools such as IBM Digital Analytics (formerly Coremetrics) and other technologies from its portfolio, IBM can continually personalize and prioritize email and social activities for users and improve search. Over time, according to IBM, Watson will provide much of the analytics behind IBM Verse, with the goal of providing users with more insights and less overload from their email.

Coming Soon…

IBM Verse will debut as a cloud service (but IBM is prepping an on-premises version as well). Key sponsor and design advisory users have been reviewing, testing and helping co-create the solution since August. The solution will officially premiere in November as one of just eight IBM “Signature Moments,” putting IBM Verse on par with the IBM-Apple deal. After that, IBM Verse will enter beta mode, with general availability slated for March 2015.

IBM will provide Notes Domino users with a preview and transition to IBM Verse. Notes Domino users will be able to use IBM Verse in combinations with Notes Domino and with IBM Connections.

IBM will also offer a standalone Verse solution of Verse in a freemium model, to compete against Google Gmail and Microsoft Office 365. As an SMB analyst, the standalone version is of most interest to me as this is the first freemium IBM has offered. The freemium model will provide entrée to an app that almost every business needs, and has the potential to generate viral adoption for an IBM product—another first for IBM.

Will IBM Verse Measure Up At the Box Office?

But it’s not a slam-dunk. IBM Verse should provide Notes Domino users a more compelling case to stay the course instead of defecting to Microsoft, Google or other cloud-based mail alternatives. However, most Notes Domino users have a lot of applications, many internally developed, running on the platform. IBM Verse will need to be able to run, expose and interface with these apps to make the transition truly easy.

Meanwhile, as alluring as the IBM Verse demo and interface is, gaining traction outside of the Notes Domino installed base will be extremely challenging. For starters, many companies, especially small and medium businesses (SMBs), are already using cloud-based email and collaboration solutions. SMB Group research indicates that 49% of small (1-99 employees) and 40% of medium (100-999 employees) already use cloud-based email and collaboration solutions. Furthermore, the preference for cloud among SMBs planning to purchase or upgrade collaboration solutions is strong (Figure 2).

Figure 2: SMB Adoption and Plans for Email and Collaboration Solutions

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Source: SMB Group 2014 SMB Routes to Market Study 

In addition, IBM will need to make a strong case to business decision-makers and end-users, as well as to IT. IBM will not only need to create broad-based awareness for the solution, but convey why and how it’s different from other email solutions, and how it directly benefits users—aka “what’s in it for me” to move the needle.

And, while IBM Verse isn’t exactly a new category, it’s a very new approach that goes beyond traditional email. Users will need to develop a new mental map—and IBM will need to help them do so. Going to market with a freemium model will help, but it won’t be enough. In addition, IBM will need to:

  • Deeply internalize sponsor and beta user feedback, not only to influence solution development and design, but also to ensure that IBM Verse messaging, positioning and marketing reflects the user voice and experience.
  • Heavily socialize the IBM Verse concept across events, social media, communities, influencer groups, etc.
  • Maximize conversion of users that try IBM Verse to users that buy, or in the case of the freemium, stick with IBM Verse and make it their corporate mail system. It’s easy to get people to download free apps, but tough to get them to test them and tougher still to displace an existing solution with a new one.

As a solution, I believe that IBM Verse is launching with the right stuff, including.

  • As a cloud first solution, IBM Verse can tap into the growing number of companies that opt to start with or move to the cloud.
  • IBM’s design thinking team aligns with where users are today: helping people get more done, more quickly with fewer menus, mouse clicks and a more visual representation.
  • “Personal analytics” taps into user concerns about information overload, and the desire to manage email more intelligently.

But, only time will tell if IBM’s elevation of IBM Verse to Signature Moment status—and the marketing power attendant with this—will be enough to ensure that IBM Verse will become the blockbuster hit that IBM is hoping for.

This post was sponsored by IBM.

Dell’s Strategy to Bring Game-Changing Technologies to SMBs

This is the second post in a two-part blog series discussing Dell’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. The first, A New Cloud Formation: Dell Cloud Marketplaceprovides perspectives from Dell World 2014. This second post, which is excerpted from SMB Group’s April 2014 report, Guiding Stars: Vendor Strategies to Bring Game-Changing Technology Trends to SMBs, offers additional insights into Dell’s approach to help SMBs capitalize on technology trends.

delllogoThe writing is on the wall for any business: With customers and prospects racing into the digital, mobile, and social future at breakneck speed, SMBs must proactively deploy technology to improve both business processes and the customer experience. SMBs that figure out how to use technology to stay ahead of their customers’ demands will thrive, while those that don’t face extinction.

But there are lots of vendors and solutions out there ready to help you on your journey, and one-size-fit all doesn’t apply in SMB. Is Dell a good fit for you? Read on for information and insights to help you decide.

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Dell’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs

Dell sees cloud, mobile, social, analytics and other technologies converging towards the next pivotal tipping point, where IT will change the lives and experiences of nearly every industry, country and person on the planet.

Dell articulates its view on top technology trends somewhat differently than other vendors interviewed for this report. However, the same technology trends—cloud, analytics, social, mobile and security—are core to Dell’s top picks. Dell sees the following trends ushering in new wave of business transformation, similar or greater in scope to how the Internet and web affected businesses:

  1. People will increasingly rely on technology to connect, collaborate and accomplish tasks and goals. Embedded in user-friendly solutions, cloud, social and mobile technologies enable SMBs to connect, collaborate and engage anytime, anywhere to better serve their customers and to work more efficiently.
  2. IT is changing from a support function to becoming core most business operations, and business decision-makers are increasingly involved in IT decisions to ensure the business gets the value it needs from IT.
  3. Amidst the growing volumes of structured unstructured data, SMBs that have the rights tools to find the needles in the haystack and uncover useful, actionable information and insights will gain competitive and market advantages.
  4. As SMBs rely more on technology to run their businesses and engage with customers, partners, suppliers and others, taking measures to secure and protect data, information and access are increasingly essential to business viability.

Some of the tangible ways that Dell is helping SMBs capitalize on these changes include:

  • Becoming an über-cloud provider: Dell has been steadily expanding the Dell Cloud Partner Program to provide access and end-to-end support for offerings from multiple cloud vendors.
  • Offering open, private-cloud solutions, which should help give SMBs more confidence in using OpenStack as an alternative to proprietary IaaS and PaaS (infrastructure and platform as-a-service) alternatives.
  • Expanding portfolio of mobile management solutions, such as Enterprise Mobility Management, a unified mobile management solution to managed devices, apps, and content, and Secure Remote Access Gateway to protect endpoints.
  • New intellectual property gained from acquisitions such as SonicWALL, Quest, Boomi, Compellent and Force10 is skewed towards the SMB world. In fact, Dell views SMB and midmarket as an ideal focal point for development and acquisitions since it believes large organizations also want scalable solutions that are easier to deploy and use too.

Changes in SMB Technology Expectations and Behavior 

Fueled by the web, mobile and social access, Dell sees changes in how SMBs evaluate and shop for solutions. Today, SMBs are more prone to have done their homework before they come to the sales table. Armed with a greater understanding upfront, they are looking for vendors and partners that will listen to what they are trying to do and offer authentic, objective and knowledgeable guidance. In addition, Dell believes that simply doing the right things for people works. To that end, Dell prefers having its customers tell its story rather than Dell telling it. For example, Dell cites the tornado damage in Oklahoma City last spring, where Dell served as a first responder, as exemplifying its commitment to doing the right thing to earn customers’ faith in Dell.

Dell sees both the role of SMB IT and business decision-makers morphing. More frequently, line-of-business (LoB) managers are not only customers of IT departments, but also co-owners of IT. This means that IT staff must work harder to meet increasing demands, and become more educated and engaged in business operations and strategy than in the past. SMB IT personnel need more practical and actionable advice and support from vendors and their channel partners to juggle ongoing IT management with innovation.

SMBs are also scrutinizing “calculated risks” much more carefully. For instance, SMBs are interested in the cloud because of affordability and ease of access/use advantages, but want to ensure that cloud solutions are secure and reliable. SMBs are also more likely to factor business disruption into the cost/benefit analysis for any given solution. They are getting wiser about the perils of bad decisions and implementations, so the bar keeps getting higher to deliver solutions with less business disruption and faster time to value.

Finally, SMBs increasingly recognize that the technology-performance connection is real, and can be used to accelerate growth disrupt industry icons with innovation and agility. The perspective is summed up in Dell’s latest ad campaign. SMBs can use new technologies not only to reshape their existing businesses, but also to redefine the economics of an industry and expectation of the market.

However, one constant remains. Most SMBs need capitalize on these opportunities without putting themselves in financial or operational jeopardy. SMB budgets, IT staff and expertise aren’t often able to both maintain what they have and innovate within the window of opportunity. So Dell is focusing on designing, delivering, supporting and financing solutions that take these constraints into account.

Perspective: Dell as SMB Technology Catalyst

Dell’s journey to transform itself has been in progress for a few years. While on Wall Street’s watch, it wasn’t easy for Dell to recast its image from a transaction-oriented hardware company to an end-to-end solutions provider and trusted advisor.

However, Dell’s entrepreneurial heritage is once again alive and well. Michael Dell not only started the company in his dorm room when he was a 19-year old student at the University of Texas, but took it private in 2013 to gain control over its destiny again. With genuine DNA at the heart of Dell’s commitment to SMBs and entrepreneurs, Dell can take a longer-term view on return on investment in new technologies. This should enable it to launch more innovative and affordable cloud computing, mobile, social, analytics and security technologies geared to SMB requirements.

In addition, Dell prides itself on listening to its customers and creating a mutually beneficial dialogue. Dell’s Social Media Command Center is one of the best in the industry, and Dell’s SMB and partner outreach programs are extensive.

While Dell is still in the midst of its own transformation journey, its attitudes and actions when it comes to SMBs should help it to significantly broaden its status as a trusted advisor in this market.

 

A New Cloud Formation: Dell Cloud Marketplace

This is part one of a two-part blog series discussing Dell’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. This first post provides perspectives from Dell World 2014. The second post, Dell’s Strategy to Provide Game Changing Technologies to SMBs, provides a detailed glimpse into Dell’s approach in the SMB market.

dell worldHow has Dell changed since Michael Dell took Dell private a year ago? A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend Dell World 2014 in Austin and find out. As I’ve written in past posts about prior Dell Worlds, the transformation has been underway for several years, since Michael Dell embarked on his strategy to transition Dell from a hardware-centric company to an end-to-end solutions provider.

As a private company, Dell is no longer obliged to disclose financial metrics. But, unleashed from Wall Street’s quarterly pressures, Dell appears to be making excellent progress on its goals. For instance, Dell has broadened its software and service portfolios, and claims significant growth in both areas. According to IDC, Dell is also increasing hardware market share no doubt aided in part by competitors HP and IBM. With IBM exiting the x86 server market, and HP’s recent decision to split itself into two companies (one focused on PCs and printers, the other on servers, software and services) Dell is the only vendor left that supplies an end-to-end desktop to data center portfolio. Meanwhile, Dell has evolved to become a significant force in the channel, with 40% of its sales now going through channel partners.

Dell’s New Cloud Marketplace

One of the most interesting announcements at the event was the beta launch of the Dell Cloud Marketplace, which distinguishes itself from many other cloud vendors by offering customers choice. In Dell’s brokerage model, the vendor provides customers with a one-stop shop from which they can select and manage cloud services from multiple vendors, including Amazon, Google, Joyent and Microsoft. The marketplace is built on technologies from Dell’s Cloud Manager, which Dell acquired from Enstratius in 2013. Key technology partners include Delphix, which supplies data migration services; Pertino, for cloud networking; and Docker, for container and portability services. Dell is also partnering with Foglight to provide developers with tools to improve cloud-based application performance.

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 7.27.13 PM

Dell Cloud Marketplace is tuned to the different needs of IT managers and developers. IT managers get a single console from which they can provision, manage and integrate private, public and hybrid could services. Meanwhile, developers can get instant, self-service access to cloud services. The concept appealed to conference attendees, with over 400 signing up for the beta the day Dell announced it.

 

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 7.27.46 PM

Dell’s vision for its Cloud Marketplace is similar to that of Priceline or Kayak in the travel business. Dell will aggregate, simplify and streamline shopping, selection, purchase and management across many cloud service options. Cloud offerings will initially be sold through Dell.com, Dell’s established, high volume direct sales channel. Over time, Dell is likely to implement reseller programs and possibly even white-label programs for channel partners.

Perspective

Perception is the hardest thing to change. With deep, successful roots in the hardware business, they company has been primarily regarded as a hardware vendor, even though its journey to become an end-to-end solutions provider has been underway for quite a while.

Dell’s move to become a broker of cloud services, highlight the acquisitions, research, development and determination that Dell has been investing in this quest. And, with cloud adoption now mainstream (Figure 1), Dell’s timing for the marketplace is on target as well. The cloud makes it easy for people to buy new services, and more difficult for IT to manage the wide variety of different services that are in play. Providing a solution that gives IT managers more visibility and governance capabilities, while at the same time offering users more choice, promises to help address this challenge.

Figure 1: SMB Cloud Adoption

cloud adopt

Source: SMB Group

However, due in part to the uniqueness of the model, Dell will need to invest in market education to articulate the capabilities and benefits of this new brokerage approach more clearly.

In addition, Dell must create a clear roadmap for what and when it will add to the marketplace to properly set market expectations. For instance, one of the customers I spoke to at the beta would like to use the marketplace to help him manage the wide range of file sharing and collaboration solutions that his users are buying.

Finally with Dell partners accounting for an increasing percentage of Dell sales, Dell will need to come up with an attractive approach to lure partners to resell Dell Cloud Marketplace services.

Disclosure: Dell paid for most of my travel expenses to attend Dell World. 

 

 

California Dreaming? Salesforce’s Dreamforce SMB Story  

This is part one of a two-part blog series discussing Salesforce.com’s strategy to help SMBs better capitalize on technology. This first post provides perspectives from several Salesforce SMB customers on how they are rethinking their business models and using technology to get ahead. The second post, Salesforce’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs, provides a detailed glimpse into Salesforce.com’s approach in the SMB market.


dreamforce2014
Each year, the festivities at Dreamforce, Salesforce.com’s annual user event, intensify. At Dreamforce 2014, the entertainment ranged from musicians as diverse as Bruno Mars and the Beach Boys; politicians as similar as Hillary Clinton and Al Gore; Hawaiian blessings and hula dancers; and Salesforce’s erstwhile mascots, Chatty and SaaSy. Beanbag chairs, giant chessboards, free pedicabs, and lots of liquor-fueled parties added to the carnival-like atmosphere.

But there were also many Salesforce-related keynotes, led by CEO Marc Benioff, and hundreds of Salesforce sessions. Of course, I was most interested in the SMB keynote, led by

The Technology Trifecta

Salesforce sees SMBs as being uniquely suited to use cloud, mobile and social technologies to create new business models and to win customers over from larger, but often slower-moving businesses.

As discussed in SMB Group’s Guiding Stars: Vendor Strategies to Bring Game-Changing Technology Trends to SMBs report, Salesforce is in violent agreement with other technology vendors. The nine major vendors we interviewed for the report (including Salesforce) all view cloud, mobile and social as providing SMBs enormous opportunities to gain business advantages. With customers and prospects racing into the digital future at breakneck speed, SMBs that use technology to stay ahead of their customers will thrive, while those that don’t face extinction.

Though many technology vendors offer SMBs solutions to capitalize on these trends, Salesforce’s SVP of SMB, Tony Rodoni, and Desk.com VP, Layla Sekla of course touted Salesforce as best positioned to help SMBs harness technology to:

  • Scale their businesses with one integrated system
  • Gain better visibility into data
  • Engage customers in new ways

The Salesforce worldview (and that of the customers that joined to tell their stories) skew heavily toward what they described as a “typical silicon valley startup.” These are companies that want to conquer a large market using disruptive technology–ones that will launch and soon face a “tidal wave of demand.”

In reality, this segment represents only a tiny fraction of the SMB universe. But, from my perspective, they zeroed in on how businesses of all kinds can think about and apply technology to improve business outcomes.

Differentiate With Great Customer Service

The heat is on for all companies to provide a great customer experience for obvious reasons. Unhappy customers are likely to stop buying and share their dissatisfaction, costing your business money. Happy ones are likely to come back for more and recommend your business to friends and family. Social media of course, amplifies the influence of customer experience.

muncheryWith this in mind, Munchery is bringing new meaning to meals on wheels. Munchery provides meal delivery of “wholesome prepared dinners, handmade by top local chefs using only the best ingredients, for same-day delivery to your home or office.” In 6 months, its revenues have grown by 400%. Munchery credits its success to using providing customer support “that’s as good as the meals.” The company uses Desk.com to:

  • See what social networks their customers are using, and what they’re saying. Are there trends in what foods people want, such as kale or quinoa (they are in San Francisco!)? Once Munchery spots these trends it integrates them into marketing and meals.
  • Intake cases from Munchery’ mobile app to adjust orders on the fly and respond to them. Munchery can provide great service, and happy customers can also add an extra tip if they’d like. This responsiveness is helping Munchery turn customer problems into opportunities, and create evangelists.
  • Streamline internal communications. The company’s 100 drivers use Desk.com to communicate back to headquarters to help optimize routes and deliveries.

Outsmart The Competition By Re-thinking the Problem 

Accessing, analyzing and acting on data can give SMBs a big advantage over the competition. But building and managing infrastructure to do this takes a lot of time, money and expertise–all scarce resources for SMBs.

zenpayrollAccording to ZenPayroll’s CEO, one-third of SMBs get fined for inaccurate payroll. The three-year old start-up the entered the payroll market, which is dominated by big players such as ADP and Paychex, with a strategy to differentiate by giving users “delightful modern payroll” that works right on day one. While competitors position payroll as a chore, Zen thinks of payroll as employees getting paid and employers showing appreciation. It provides SMBs with a paperless, cloud-based, mobile-first solution in 97% of the U.S. Its 60 employees use Desk.com to solve support issues once, and then take proactive measures to ensure they aren’t repeated. Zen also uses Pardot to automate marketing, sales and nurturing and grow its business, which now processes more than $1 billion in payroll annually. Reeves’ advice to other business owners is to rethink the problem you’re tackling.

Personally Engage Customers

Getting the right message at the right time to customers at the right time is essential in today’s multi-channel world. In addition, the more personal the message, the less likely it is to end up in the spam filter. Salesforce introduced both a B2B and B2C customer to illustrate the importance of personalized engagement.

firstmileFirst Mile told the B2B story. When it launched 2 years ago, U.K-based First Mile saw the recycling market as overcharged and underserved. Its mission is to displace entrenched, inefficient competitors by making recycling easy and responsive. First Mile sees customer engagement as its key to its strategy, and uses innovative business practices and technology to power it. For instance, established competitors require long contracts, so First Mile requires no contracts. While competitors never call their customer except when its renewal time, First Mile makes 100 calls a day to get feedback. The company uses the Salesforce platform and apps to get and analyze recycling stats and help minimize attrition. First Mile’s field sales people also recently began using iPads and Salesforce to directly enter leads into Salesforce, “quadrupling the return on investment from field sales,” over the former double-entry paper and pen to Salesforce method. First Mile’s advice to other SMBs? There are lots of free or low-cost cloud solutions out there. Try the ones you think will help you to find out which ones will give you the return you need.
georgestreetOn the B2C side, George Street is putting a new twist on wedding photos and videos by connecting photographers to brides in 50 cities across North America. George Street handles everything but taking the photos or videos. For brides, George Street creates a personalized experience to ensure they have a great wedding photography experience. The company uses several Salesforce and AppExchange solutions, including Pardot, Salesforce and Chatter lead generation, sales and contracts, photographer and shot selection, notifications and sharing photos. George Street has also created a community for brides to talk about everything from cakes to dresses. It helps facilitated last-minute requests, such as a new shot request, with Chatter. Before they used Salesforce, they did a lot of this manually, but by developing a Salesforce app to automate the process, they’ve sped up the process and can provide a better experience. For instance, it used to take 7 days from a bride’s initial appointment with George Street to close a contract, now the average close time is 24 hours. Automation has helped them scale, increasing the number of weddings they handle by 250%. And, they’ve reduced case incidents by 200%. George Street’s guidance for other SMBs is to focus on delivering an exceptional experience. Automate back-end so your people can spend more time with clients, make them happy and generate boost referrals. Finally, if you’re using Salesforce, find a good developer to help you make the most of it.

Perspective

The writing is on the wall for any business: With customers and prospects racing into the digital, mobile, and social future at breakneck speed, SMBs must proactively deploy technology to improve both business processes and the customer experience. SMBs that figure out how to use technology to stay ahead of their customers’ demands will thrive, while those that don’t will face extinction.

But there are lots of vendors and solutions out there ready to help you on your journey. Is Salesforce right for you? Read Part 2 of this blog series, Salesforce’s Strategy to Bring Game Changing Technologies to SMBs, to help you decide.

Disclosure: Salesforce paid for most of my travel expenses to attend Dreamforce.

What Is Workforce Science, and How Can It Help Your Business?

 

Smarter workforceEngaged, motivated employees can be an organization’s greatest asset. When employees are fully involved in, committed to, and passionate about their work, productivity rises, and more employees are likely to become brand advocates who can help you grow the business.

But many factors come into play when it comes to developing a more engaged workforce. While talent management tools are important to helping you attract, energize and retain the best employees, it’s only part of the picture.

In the last post in this three-part series, sponsored by IBM Smarter Workforce, I look at how companies are using applicant tracking systems (ATS) and assessment solutions to better address these issues, and new developments in this area that promise to provide further enhancements.

Why Should Companies Care About Workforce Science?

Intuitively, we all know that employees can make or break a company. When employees are productive and dedicated, they can propel business growth. Conversely, disgruntled or even apathetic employees can grind business growth to a halt.

Research confirms this intuition is spot on. IBM has found a strong correlation between employee engagement at the business unit level and key performance indicators, including customer metrics such as higher profitability, productivity, and quality, as well as lower employee turnover, absenteeism, theft and safety incidents.

But how much do most businesses really know about their employees? While many organizations are going to great lengths to understand and analyze customer and prospect expectations, most don’t really know much about what makes their employees tick. For instance, how does a person prefer to learn? What are their talents? How much do they care about their jobs?

The truth is that most companies still use subjective criteria to make many decisions in this area. For instance:

  • Only 56% of companies use an assessment as part of the hiring process. (Aberdeen)
  • 77% of HR professionals worldwide do not know how its workforce potential is affecting the company’s bottom line1 and less than half of organizations surveyed use objective talent data to drive business decisions.(SHL)
  • 86 percent of companies say they have no analytics capabilities in the HR function. Moreover, 67 percent rate themselves as “weak” at using HR data to predict workforce performance and improvement.(Bersin by Deloitte)

When you consider that businesses and their employees basically share a two-way profit relationship, it’s hard to understand why companies have been so slow to focus on this problem.

How Workforce Science Improves Talent ROI

talent lifeccyleWorkforce science helps businesses solve for this by combing behavioral science with normative data, analytics, consulting, and processes to determine what it takes to build an engaged workforce, and create the “systems of engagement” to execute on it.

Particularly as the recession wanes and the economy picks up, more companies are starting to get interested in improving their effectiveness through workforce science. With the competition for top talent intensifying, organizations are looking to use the predictive powers of workforce science to help ensure that their investments will pay off throughout the talent management life cycle.

For instance:

  • Predictive hiring. By looking for patterns across organizational, unit, HR, and external data, companies can hire more top performers by identifying the talents and skills that are critical to high performance in different areas, and creating a process to hire candidates that most closely align with these characteristics. In addition, analytics are also used to determine what characteristics are a better cultural fit with the company, so you can more readily identify candidates who will fit, be more productive, and who are more likely to stay with the company for a longer time period.
  • Predictive workforce readiness.To close talent gaps today, and develop the talent you need for tomorrow, you need to be able to accurately identify the talent you have, and take steps to fill the gaps. This starts with mapping talent requirements to key strategic objectives, identifying linkages between organizational roles and key competencies, assessing employee competencies, and determining what hiring, training, or actions you need to take to close the gaps. For example, a company may determine that the existing workforce supplies the electrical engineering competencies they need today, but much of the talent is concentrated in the baby boomer age group, and they will face a deficit in 5 years as these boomers retire. With data-based analysis, the company can take proactive steps well in advance to fill the gap.
  • Predictive retention. All companies want to reduce employee turnover costs. Being able to anticipate why top performers might leave, and taking action to stop it can help you reduce these costs. But how well do you really understand what’s causing employee attrition? For instance, a media company believed that long commutes were the key reason for high turnover in its administrative ranks. However, analysis showed that employee family obligations, such as caring for children or aging parents, was a much more important reason. By determining the real case instead of relying on a hunch, the company could take the right corrective actions to reduce turnover.

Perspective

Talent is the lifeblood of any organization, fueling the innovation required to grow and thrive in today’s hyper-competitive world. The truth is, however, that most companies are just starting to think about putting science, solutions and processes in place in this area.

Because taking this type of analytical, data-driven approach to talent management is so new, most companies will want to keep the following in mind:

  • Start with the basics. It is probably overwhelming to even think about standardizing your existing human resources data, bringing in normative data and applying new tools and processes on a corporate basis. Start by focusing on a few key problems, such as a skills gap you know exists but can’t quantify, or figuring out why turnover in a key function is too high.
  • Bring real people into the process. Don’t get so carried away with the science that you forget to talk to people in the trenches upfront in the process. This will help ensure that you are not overlooking any possibilities, and are testing the right hypotheses when you do apply analytical tools.
  • Keep the big picture in focus. Although it’s often necessaryand even advantageousto start small, continually reassess how more accurate insights into your human resources and talent information can help you improve business performance.
  • Find a vendor you trust to help guide you. Although this is still a relatively new area, best practices are emerging. Vendors with deep expertise and experience can help you avoid pitfalls and accomplish your goals more quickly and effectively.

IBM’s workforce science solutions combine 25 years of behavioral expertise, analytics and talent management solutions with the largest content library and normative database in the human capital industry. To learn more, visit http://www.ibm.com/smarterworkforce.

This is the third and final post in a three-part blog series written by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM. The series examines talent management solutions and trends.

 

International Game Technology: Winning At The Talent Recruitment Game

Smarter workforceWhether a business is large or small, identifying, qualifying and hiring the right employees is critical to innovation and growth. But, as the recession wanes and the economy picks up, more companies are hiring, and competitionespecially for top talentis intensifying. This makes it more difficult for many companies to find the talent they need to thrive.

At the same time, options to help identify and hire candidates are expanding. For instance, employee referrals, advocacy programs, social media and mobile apps are becoming more important recruitment tools, while the role of external recruiting vendors is diminishing. While these new recruitment channels can help companies access a broader applicant pool, it’s not easy to use, integrate and optimize across them.

As a result, many businesses are reassessing and refreshing their existing recruiting practices and solutions. They are looking for knowledge and tools to give them the agility they need to compete more successfully throughout the recruitment process. .

In this three-part series, sponsored by IBM Smarter Workforce, I look at how companies are using applicant tracking systems (ATS) and assessment solutions to better address these issues, and new developments in this area that promise to provide further enhancements.

International Game Technology: Fueling Growth With Talent

HomepageHeroBanner_JurassicParkHeadquartered in Las Vegas, 34-year old International Game Technology (IGT) is the leading manufacturer of gaming machines. From Las Vegas to Monte Carlo, from Wheel of Fortune to James Cameron’s AVATAR, chances are you’ve played a video slots game on an IGT machine.

While IGT has been the long-time market leader, it does not rest on its laurels. In 2011, the company introduced IGT Cloud, an industry-first which lets casino operators dynamically deploy game content across multiple properties to optimize floor efficiencies, and also offer a seamless gaming experience across land-based, mobile and online devices. In 2012 IGT acquired Double Down Interactive LLC, a social gaming company and developer of DoubleDown Casino on Facebook, to fuel IGT’s expansion through new media. In 2013, IGT partnered with Casino Del Sol in Arizona to hold the AZ, to hold the Game King Championship, the first cross-platform video poker tournamentand the largest in the world, with more than 360,000 players.

To sustain this pace of growth and innovation, IGT must be able to identify and attract top talent.

Keeping Up With IGT Talent Requirements

Talent management solutions are still relatively new. Up until 2000, IGT had—like most companiesrelied on newspaper ads and human resources business partners for candidate recruitment. People would stop in to drop off hard copy applications, and everything was stored in physical file cabinets.

In 2000, IGT started using BrassRing’s cloud-based applicant tracking system. While the solution worked well, as the company grew, they needed more capabilities in the talent management area. When Laura Callender joined IGT six years ago as HRIS Staff Analyst, her job was to refresh and revamp talent management systems at the company to ensure IGT would be able to attract and retain top talent.

IGT’s first priority was to revamp the BrassRing ATS (which is now part of the IBM Kenexa Talent Suite) to keep pace with the company’s expanding global operations and hiring requirements. According to Callender, “It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day, and neglect new features. But it’s important to keep re-evaluating business needs and figure out what will really help improve the process.”

Callender took a fresh look at things, and extended the system to support IGT’s growing geographical footprint, and provide Chinese and Spanish language capabilities. She also added other capabilities, such as mobile functionality. “So many things that are cutting edge, like enabling mobile job applicants…five years ago, people wouldn’t have dreamed of job hunting and applying on a mobile phone. But now applicants might be at the dentist’s office and want to apply. We need to enable these new capabilities that will make a difference to our business,” says Callender.

Community and Support Are Key to Success

men with puzzle piecesIGT has found IBM’s “Kenexans” and the community of Smarter Workforce users invaluable in helping her figure out what changes will provide the most value to IGT. “IBM’s Kenexans help us stay ahead of these trends…they focus on helping us improve the way we do things and help us figure out what options will give us the biggest bang for the buck. Should we turn features on or off? What should we do differently? And how can we make things seamless for our users? So many things are cool, but what will we get the most value from?” observes Callender.

IBM’s Smarter Workforce Global Support Center helps IGT prioritize enhancements via an annual review. As important, IGT can call on their services as needed, not only for break/fix issues, but for new project tickets, and to get the “hand-holding” required to implement new functionality. “We’re in the middle in terms of what we need to implement, and they are there when we need them to help with the next step. It’s a closer degree of support than we get from other vendors,” notes Callender. “Out of all the vendors, in terms of support, I would choose IBM Kenexa any day.”

Callender is very active in user groups as well, which helps her learn from what others are doing, and what’s worked and what hasn’t for them. She’s attended six global conferences, and participated in user groups at all of them. As Callender puts it, “The user groups have really grown, from 30 to 40 attendees to over 100 at the last one. We don’t have an army of HR and IT people, but I can talk to users that do, like Pepsico, Time Warner and Disney, that we can really learn from. At the same time, there are companies smaller than uswith just 100 or 200 employeesthat we can help. It’s a really good way to exchange knowledge.”

The user groups also help facilitate conversations between the IBM Kenexa team and users. “We talk, and they listen. We sit in a roundtable, it’s very interactive, with experts and R&D engineers at each table to discuss topics such as referrals, triggers, etc. It’s very helpful and they act on our input.”

Getting Results

Since IBM Kenexa BrassRing is cloud based, upgrades are “very easy,” says Callender. “IBM rolls them out and turns them on. Some things you have a choice to upgrade or not. But they never break anything with an upgrade, which has happened with some of the other cloud solutions we use.”

Today, IGT hiring managers, external recruiters and applicants are all using the system. Last year, IGT used BrassRing to hire about 600 employees for mostly technical positions, with an average of about 50 applicants for each position. IGT has integrated BrassRing ATS with its SAP ERP system, so that when someone is hired, they are automatically moved from BrassRing to SAP. “Instead of having a person digging through emails to find candidates, ATS can do this for us much faster and more effectively with Boolean searches, and tagging,” states Callender.

IBM Kenexa’s BrassRing ATS also helps IGT answer important questions that impact recruitment strategy, such as:

  • What is the tipping point for the number of applicants for a certain position?
  • How can we do a fill requisitions more quickly?
  • What’s the best way to deal with counteroffers, or higher rejection rates?
  • How can we recruit people that aren’t currently looking for a job?

“We get our money’s worth from BrassRing ATS. We don’t have a formal measurement system, but we know we are saving a lot of time, which saves us money. There is no way we could function without it.” In addition, BrassRing pricing is based on the number of requisitions and applicants, so “what we pay for it aligns with our actual use, which we appreciate,” explains Callender.

Perspective

Talent is the lifeblood of any organization, fueling the innovation required to grow and thrive in today’s hyper-competitive world. Many cloud-based ATS solutions available, but as the IGT story illustrates, it’s not just the nuts and bolts of the software that matter. Being part of an active, engaged vendor support and user community can help you to:

  1. Map out a more effective strategy. Look for vendors and user communities that are collaborative, and can help you assess your requirements and how they are likely to evolve, and provide you with scalable solutions that you can deploy in an incremental manner.
  2. Get things right the first time. Your company benefits when the vendor facilitates knowledge sharing of best practices for things such as reporting considerations, workflow and underlying database structure that will take the most time and pain out of different processes. For instance, how do you set things up so applicants don’t need to fill out a new affirmative action form every time they apply for a new job, but can just edit information they’ve previously entered?
  3. Prioritize next steps. Your business is constantly evolving, and so is the hiring environment. But few organizations can do everything. Strategic prioritization is essential to figure out what new functionality will provide the most value.

The world of recruitment and talent management is changing quickly. This sets the stage for not only selecting the company and solution that best fits your immediate needs, but one that will provide a strong support experience to help you gain the best outcomes as your business and the recruitment landscape evolve.

This is the first post in a three-part blog series written by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM. The series examines talent management solutions and trends.

How The Cloud Can Help SMBs: A Conversation

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 12.27.13 PMLast week, I had the opportunity to be a panelist on IBM’s first virtual influencer event on Spreecast, (a great new platform that connects you with people through video conversation) about how the cloud can help small and medium businesses (SMBs) to build their businesses from the ground up, compete more effectively with big businesses, and grow.

Paul Gillin, veteran tech journalist and social media expert at Profitecture (@pgillin) moderated the panel, which included me, IBM General Manager, IBM Midmarket John Mason (@jcmason), and Subbu Balakrishnan, CTO and co-Founder of Good.co (@backslash0), a career platform built on SoftLayer that helps people find best-fit workplaces and jobs. 15-20 other SMB thought leaders also joined us via Spreecast’s chat function.

You can watch and listen here for the full conversation, but here are a few of the key perspectives I took away from this lively and interesting discussion:

  • All panelists agreed that the momentum for SMB adoption of cloud services is rising rapidly. SMBs increasingly see that by using cloud solutions, they can focus more of their resources and money on their core business, and leapfrog slower-moving competitors.
  • With the help of SoftLayer, Good.com went from idea to over 100,000 users in a year and a half using a credit card to pay for cloud infrastructure. According to Subbu, this is something the 15-20 employee company would not have been able to accomplish if they had to build out their own cloud infrastructure.
  • Many startups are forgoing on premises software entirely, opting to do as much as possible in the cloud. The cloud removes technology and capital barriers to get up and running. They can skip a whole generation of software to get their companies off the ground more quickly. The cloud is quickly becoming the preferred way for startups to go.
  • Once you’re up and running, the cloud gives you a flexible infrastructure to scale and grow the business.
  • The rate and pace of technology change continues to increase. The cloud not only provides SMBs with the benefits of infrastructure scale, but with access to the increasingly specialized technology skills and expertise that are necessary today.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the cloud. Public, private, hybrid, shared, or dedicated—each company will have different requirements for different solutions.
  • Business partners play a critical role in helping many SMBs take full advantage of cloud services by fully understanding the SMB’s business requirements. Skilled and trusted partners can translate SMB business requirements into the best-fit cloud solution so the SMB doesn’t have to parse through all of the cloud variants on their own.
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