New Patterns Emerge: IBM PureApplication Service Takes to the Cloud

ibmpulseEarlier this week, I attended IBM Pulse along with a crowd of about 11,000 other customer, partner, press, influencer and analyst attendees. Historically, Pulse has been the IBM event that focuses on service management and infrastructure. This year, the vendor positioned Pulse as “the premier cloud computing conference.”

Pulse followed closely on the heels of IBM’s acquisition of SoftLayer last year, and on its decision to put SoftLayer technology at the center of its cloud strategy. So it’s not surprising that many industry observers viewed the event as a great opportunity to reassess IBM’s cloud strategy at a time when customers are accelerating towards the cloud. How ready is 104 year-old Big Blue to compete in the cloud infrastructure and platform as-a-service (IaaS and PaaS) space against players such as Amazon, Google and Salesforce.com’s Heroku as technology transforms at a dizzying rate?

The sweeping range of announcements that IBM unleashed signal that it is now all in on cloud computing. IBM launched Bluemix, an open-standards, cloud-based platform to build, manage and run applications; announced its acquisition of Cloudant, a cloud-only database as a service (DBaaS) for building mobile and web apps; introduced Service Engage, which provides cloud-based subscriptions for systems management; and cited plans to bring Power Systems into SoftLayer’s cloud to support Watson-based analytics solutions.

In addition, IBM announced that it is bringing the power of its PureSystems patterns approach to the cloud. Extending PureSystem’s cloud capabilities gives customers and business partners tools to simplify and speed delivery of cloud services across both public and private clouds.

PureApplication Service on SoftLayer

First, IBM announced the beta of PureApplication Service on SoftLayer.  As background, PureApplication Service uses best practice “patterns” to rapidly deploy specific applications. In a nutshell, patterns are like tried and true recipes to set up, deliver and manage the infrastructure plumbing for a given application. Instead of having to piece together all of the ingredients, customers get pre-formulated virtualization, operating system, middleware, wiring, and installation patterns that dramatically slash the time it takes to stand up an application. Putting PureApplication Service on SoftLayer brings these portable, reusable patterns to the cloud, and opens up new opportunities for new use cases. As important, it makes it easier for businesses (and partners) to support a hybrid IT environment that’s consistent regardless of where the app resides.

This will make it easier for some tech-savvy SMBs to take a do-it-yourself approach. But by far, the bigger SMB opportunity is via business partners. For instance, with PureApplication Service on SoftLayer, partners can more quickly move SMB on-premise apps to a public or private cloud, and spend more time on higher value-added business process services.  It also provides the opportunity to quickly provision new services, with the ability to rapidly access a development and test environment, implement disaster recovery, or provide added capacity for peak use periods.

To provide the best experience during the beta, IBM has selected 8 key patterns that deliver mobile, web, database, analytics, BPM and Java capabilities to help clients create new applications on PureApplication Service on SoftLayer. IBM also has several partner patterns available for beta, targeting the financial services industry.  The goal is that all 200+ patterns on PureApplication System will become available as a service on SoftLayer by the time the offering is officially launched.

DevOps on PureSystems

Second, IBM announced a soft-bundle to help clients jump-start DevOps with PureSystems. IBM’s PureSystems integrate networking, storage, scalability, virtualized environments, middleware, license management and monitoring into one solution for cloud solution development and delivery. DevOps on PureSystems pulls together key components of IBM’s Rational tool set to make it easier for developers to plan, develop and test cloud solutions, and then to monitor and iterate to meet changing requirements or correct problems.

This means that programmers can access a development environment much more quickly and thus dedicate to actually building apps, iterating on the code, and  incorporating timely feedback from customers to deliver a stronger solution.

Today, DevOps on PureSystems is only available in an on-premise model, but I have little doubt that this too will become available via SoftLayer in the very near future.  Again, while few SMBs have internal development teams, this offering—especially once its available in the cloud—should help IBM woo more next-generation developers to its fold. For more on DevOps on PureSystems, see an IBM blog discussing DevOps at Pulse.

Perspective

IBM is betting big on software development for the cloud, with a $1 billion investment in cloud software development on tap through 2015, representing a double-digit percentage increase over the past two years.

The PureSystems announcements—in combination with those for BlueMix, Cloudant and Service Engage—underscore that IBM also intends to get out in front of the next generation of cloud development and delivery. More automated, integrated and accessible cloud delivery and development solutions will fuel new development and delivery options for IBM partners, and help more customers—including more SMBs—to benefit and get more value from the cloud.

For additional perspectives on IBM’s PureSystems announcements, watch my interview with Pete McCaffrey, Director of PureSystems Marketing, recorded at Pulse.

Disclaimer: I attended Pulse as an invited media guest.

 

Can IBM Make the Collaboration Connection With SMBs?

ibmconnectLast week, I made my annual pilgrimage to IBM Connect to learn about the latest and greatest developments in the company’s collaboration and talent solutions. Over the years, IBM has transformed its former Lotusphere conference to Connect, grown a portfolio of cloud-based messaging and collaboration solutions, and added talent and workforce management solutions into the mix.

This year’s Connect theme was “Energizing Life’s Work,” which plays across IBM’s collaboration and mail solutions, as well as Kenexa, IBM’s talent suite (IBM acquired Kenexa in 2012).  Here, I’ll focus on news in the cloud-based collaboration space, which is arguably IBM’s best possible route to the small and medium business (SMB) market.

What’s New?

IBM’s big news in this arena focused on:

  • The unveiling of Mail Next, IBM’s web-based, enterprise-focused email service: It combines mail, meetings, chat and content management systems, creating unified hubs for in which users can interact via email and create groups based on shared interests or projects, and track projects. For instance, users can mute email that doesn’t need immediate attention to view later. IBM intends to make the solution available in 2014, both on-premises and via the cloud.
  • A new name and enhanced user capabilities for IBM’s cloud-based collaboration suite: In 2014, IBM will rebrand IBM Smart Cloud for Social Business (which includes business-grade file sharing, communities, Web meetings, instant messaging, mail, calendars, etc.) to “IBM Connections for Cloud”. (In 2012, IBM renamed LotusLive Engage cloud suite to SmartCloud for Social Business.) IBM also announced several enhancements for the suite, including the new Mail Next web mail discussed above, as well as improved audio/video for meetings and chat, a better guest model experience, and “mobile everywhere” capabilities.
  • Automated, dynamic infrastructure capabilities enabled by SoftLayer: On the backend, the company is now running IBM Connections for Cloud in its recently acquired SoftLayer data centers. SoftLayer not only expands IBM’s data center footprint (an increasingly important capability as more countries legislate that cloud providers operate in-country) but also provides enhanced automation capabilities to get infrastructure and applications up and running much more quickly, allowing new images to be set-up in 15 to 20 minutes. This enables IBM to stand up a small footprint first, and expand dynamically as new customers sign on.
  • Added sales and distribution capabilities: IBM has done several things to fuel sales of its SaaS solutions, including its Connections for Cloud portfolio. First, the company has changed the SaaS compensation model for direct sales. In the past reps got bonus for selling SaaS; now SaaS sales are part of their quota. Second, the application programming interface (API) is now the same for both IBM’s on-premises and SaaS collaboration apps, so that older on-premises apps can now be certified to run in the cloud. IBM hopes that this will help ease the path for traditional Lotus ISVs and resellers to join the Connections for Cloud partner ranks (which currently have about 60 reseller and 100 ISV partners). Finally, IBM is working with Parallels to create an automated platform for telco partners to easily rebrand, provision, sell and bill IBM Connections for Cloud and other SaaS offerings in an integrated, streamlined manner.

IBM said that 2013 was a tipping point for adoption of its Connections for Cloud, touting triple digit growth in new customers and quadruple digit growth in new signings. Although IBM doesn’t release information about the number of active accounts using Connections for Cloud, it claims to have millions of users, and a 50/50 split between large businesses and midmarket accounts. In a breakout session, executives noted that some midmarket customers have replaced Office 365 or Google Apps with IBM Connections for Cloud. They cited IBM’s strong security and governance capabilities, and the fact that the company doesn’t sell ads or mine customer data as key competitive differentiators.

Missing the B2Me Connection

Judging from the demos, IBM Connections for Cloud is making headway in terms of creating a more user-friendly and SMB-friendly collaboration experience and developing lightweight, lower priced bundles. In fact, I have spoken with several smaller organizations such as Apex Supply Chain and Colleagues In Care that are very satisfied with IBM’s collaboration solutions (more customer stories can be read here. IBM’s growth metrics are also impressive.

In addition, IBM’s new design thinking philosophy puts the user experience at the center of its development and roadmap planning, indicating IBM’s recognition that  consumer-oriented applications have a big influence on user expectations. The vendor’s design thinking philosophy incorporates best practices from popular social apps, brings features such as activity streams, social feedback and network updates to the forefront, and use analytics to flag high-priority items for users. IBM is also putting mobile-inspired design first. For instance, event demos showcased tablet-optimized design principles for Mail Next even when accessed through a traditional web browser.

But IBM remains a distant third to Microsoft and Google in the SMB email and collaboration market. Given the company’s current position, its traditional B2B sales model, and the ongoing consumerization of IT, the odds look slim that IBM can dramatically grow SMB share.

Slide1Across the technology spectrum, and especially in the collaboration space, decisions are increasingly being made in a bottom-up instead of top-down manner. User preferences forced a massive corporate shift from BlackBerry to iPhone, and business users are signing up on Dropbox and Google Drive by the millions without IT’s blessing. I’ve dubbed this trend “B2Me.” As consumer technology gets friendlier and friendlier, people are increasingly likely to seek the same type of technology access and experience in their business lives as in their personal ones.

Therein lies the rub for IBM. Although it offers a self-service model, including a free trial, onboarding services and credit card purchase options for IBM Connections for Cloud, it lacks any presence in the consumer or prosumer space—a growing onramp for SMB technology adoption. In addition, IBM’s service and support model is geared towards making large corporate accounts happy. Shifting gears to serve far-flung issues and requirements from the masses presents another big hurdle for Big Blue and other enterprise-facing vendors.

Without the ability to create and a support a viral, bottoms-up business model, its hard to see how, no matter how good the solution is, IBM Connections for Cloud can make serious headway in the SMB Market.

Does It Really Matter Whether IBM Connects With SMBs?

IBM has an impressive stronghold in the large enterprise collaboration space. In fact, the company has augmented, reshaped and restyled the Lotus portfolio—which was once declared dead—into its now thriving Social Business division.

So why should IBM divert attention and resources to SMBs? Especially as Google, Dropbox and others drive pricing downward, many IBMers likely view this as a profitless tail-chasing game.

However, I believe that if IBM chooses to put SMBs and the B2Me phenomena on the back-burner, it does so at its own peril.  IBM needs to grow its SMB market footprint to fuel growth, especially after missing revenue targets during 2013. Furthermore, there’s the pesky fact that small companies grow and large ones go out of business. Consider that 238 of the companies that made the 1999 Fortune 500 list had slipped off the 2009 Fortune 500 rankings. Technology, generational and cultural shifts will only intensify this turnover. IBM needs to get a foothold in fast-growth companies while they are young.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, IT consumerization is not a passing fad. As evidenced by Apple displacing (crueler people might say killing off) Blackberry, consumer and B2Me can’t be ignored. Collaboration is the one activity that every person engages in every day, both in business and at home. Perhaps more than any other area, collaboration solutions will be adopted from the bottom up instead of top down. In fact, one of the IBM Connect keynote presenters noted that some employees are willing to pay for rogue collaboration tools out of their own pockets if those solutions make their lives easier. That makes collaboration the natural—and possibly the only—starting point for IBM to get in touch with its inner consumer.

SMB Spotlight: IBM’s New Midmarket GM Talks About the SoftLayer Acquisition

ibmsmarterplante-150x150Laurie: Hi, this Laurie McCabe from the SMB Group, and in today’s SMB Spotlight I’m speaking with John Mason, who is IBM’s new General Manager and VP for Midmarket. Hi John. Thanks for joining me on this two-part discussion about developments at IBM in the midmarket and SMB space. In our first discussion, I’d like to focus on the IBM acquisition of SoftLayer, which I understand provides dedicated hosting, cloud computing and cloud services offerings.

Before that though, I’d like to learn more about you and your background. I understand you’re relatively new to IBM. Can you tell us a little bit about where you’ve been and what kind of experience you bring to your role?


John: Thanks Laurie. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. I joined IBM three months ago. I started my career at Compaq in the 80s. I spent thirteen years there and moved to Cisco, and ran the SME and midmarket business with Cisco in Europe, Middle East, Africa.

Then, I ran global channels for Nokia’s Enterprise business. I also ran a mobile cloud service in eReading and News for a couple of years, and a white label mobile messaging service provider that had been acquired during my time there.

So, when the discussion started with IBM, it was an interesting combination of different hardware, software and services businesses in small and midsize enterprise and across mobile and social. It was the opportunity to combine that with IBM’s amazing global reach in over 170 countries and find ways to get that to the millions of small and midsized companies. Many are possibly not even doing any business with IBM today but can benefit from those solutions.

Laurie: What will you be focusing on in your new role as GM, John?

John: Finding new opportunities to grow the business and bring mobile and social and analytics, and particularly cloud solutions to small or midsized businesses. This means working very closely with our partner organization and focusing on MSPs as the key route market.

Laurie: Thanks for that background. So help me understand a little bit about the SoftLayer acquisition and why it’s so important. IBM makes a lot of acquisitions in general, and I think probably at least a dozen in the cloud area. What makes SoftLayer stand out for IBM?

ibmsoftlayerimage-150x110John: This is one of those few times in our industry where there’s an absolutely fundamental shift that changes everything. When client-server computing started taking off was one, and when mobile really went to a whole new level was another. Now, with cloud, we’re seeing a major shift, which is very beneficial to smaller and midsized companies. They may not have the IT expertise in-house to take advantage of some of the technologies that larger companies are able to use, but now through cloud, they can use more advanced solutions without having to deal with the complexities.

Laurie: Tell us about what SoftLayer does and how that will help IBM help SMBs? What does it give IBM you that it didn’t have in the cloud area?

John: The SoftLayer acquisition was driven by a change in the way that customers are looking to buy. I would say it’s as simple as answering these questions. Is this technology solution is going to be hosted at your place or mine? Is this something that I have to build and manage on my premises, or is it something that I can tap into through a web browser to connect to infrastructure that’s sitting somewhere else outside of my physical office buildings? Then, is that going to be dedicated to me or is it something that I share with somebody else? So, it’s really your place or mine, shared or dedicated, and what software brings is the ability to offer the full range of different deployment options.

That’s whether it’s a complete public cloud solution or it’s a private cloud or it’s some mix of some parts public, some parts private in a hybrid deployment. SoftLayer lets us accelerate our ability to deliver those pieces across a broad range of different businesses and different services.

Laurie: What about purchasing and pricing mechanisms for customers?

John: Yes, that’s really key. It’s really important to make it easy and simple to understand what the offering is, and how can I choose the combination that is right for me. Then make it really easy for them to purchase and deploy that solution.

The beauty of SoftLayer is they have a very simple credit card purchase capability. You can be up and running literally within the hour and choose whether you want to be billed monthly or hourly. It’s simple and flexible, and that’s as important as the underlying technology.

Laurie: One of the other things that I’m curious about is that it seems like managed services is another big part of the SoftLayer business. IBM has been heavily courting managed service providers (MSPs) for quite some time. Does this create a conflict with them?

John: SoftLayer is really complementary to what we’re doing with MSPs. In fact, we’ve had a number of key wins with MSPs for SoftLayer with service providers who have said, “I really don’t want to have to manage this infrastructure myself. It’s not my core business. My focus is on security services or hosted exchange services. So, rather than me scarce resources building and managing an infrastructure layer, I’d rather focus on the higher value services on top of that, and I’ll use SoftLayer as infrastructure.”

Laurie: Will they be able to resell SoftLayer?

John: Yes, there’s that too. MSPs can use SoftLayer themselves as part of their own infrastructure, or they can resell it to customers together with other value-add services that they bring to the mix.

Laurie: Where does SoftLayer sit in terms of IBM’s SmartCloud services?

John: SoftLayer gives us the ability to accelerate our own leadership position, scale out the smaller cloud service portfolio, add additional higher value services and solutions across mobile and data analytics, social–together with partners. It’s the combination of all of that into a solution that adds value for customers.

Laurie: What kind of experience in SMB and midmarket does SoftLayer bring that IBM can leverage, and how will you do that?

John: I mentioned this earlier in our conversation when we talked about what attracted me to the role at IBM. Frankly, the SoftLayer acquisition hadn’t closed but had been publicly announced. That was a real additional level of credibility that we could use to address the SMB market because SoftLayer had over 20,000 SMB customers already. They clearly have a very strong focus on that market and a solution that is very simple, easy for the smaller customer to understand, choose, purchase, deploy and operate.

So, to me that said IBM’s not just talking about the midmarket, but actually putting a significant investment in technologies, ease of purchase and deployment to enable this. SoftLayer convinced me that we very serious about this and that was a decider for me.

Laurie: What does the bigger go to market plan look like? Many SMBs still think IBM doesn’t have solutions that are relevant for them. How are you going to change that?

John: First, we need to be careful that we don’t hug SoftLayer to death. We need to give them space to continue to operate their own very successful go to market model. There’s always a risk when a big company acquires a smaller company that sometimes the big company process can slow down the smaller company. We will be very diligent about ensuring that doesn’t happen and that SoftLayer continues to operate somewhat independently with their existing go to market model.

At the same time, we need to take advantage of what they bring and combine that with IBM’s traditional business partners, managed service provider partners, and some of the ISVs that we work with. Really, this is more about connecting the ecosystem that needs to work together to deliver solutions to small and midsized companies. SoftLayer helps us accelerate that with a full range of all types of different deployment options–everything from bare metal dedicated servers, virtualized shared servers, managed private and public cloud through to a full range of storage and networking and managed services.

Laurie: So, what does success look like here if this all goes according to plan?

John: I think we’ll see continued acceleration of cloud adoption within small and midsized companies and SoftLayer will help to significantly accelerate the deployment of both hybrid private and public cloud solutions for small and midsized companies. I certainly expect the 20,000 existing SoftLayer customers will increase significantly without putting a specific number on it. Beyond that, it’s about helping MSPs to accelerate their offerings with more value-add services above and beyond the infrastructure layer. That way we really bring complete solutions for small and midsized companies that are simple to deploy and use.

Laurie: John, thank you for joining me, and I look forward to our next discussion, when we will talk about IBM’s other new plans for SMB and mid-market customers.

John: Thank you Laurie. I appreciate the opportunity to have this discussion and certainly look forward to future discussions we’ll have.

This is the first of a two-part SMB Spotlight interview with John Mason, IBM’s General Manager and VP for Midmarket, sponsored by IBM. In the second post, I’ll ask John about other new IBM strategies and developments for SMB and midmarket companies and channel partners.

How Zoos and Museums Use Big Data to Refresh and Reset Visitor Experience

3-kids_mFor most of us, a trip to the zoo, museum or an aquarium is a fun and interesting way to learn about animals, history, art and other cultural experiences first hand. Behind the scenes, however, these organizations must work hard to create the engaging, interactive experiences that today’s visitors want, and successfully market that experience to the public.

This is especially true today, when these typically not-for-profit venues must compete with an expanding array of theme and amusement parks, live and digital entertainment events and sports attractions. To remain viable and vibrant, zoos and museums must continually fine-tune their vision and exhibits to grow visitor traffic and membership. They need to be creative with concessions, and optimize use of their meeting rooms and cafes.

In this post, I discuss how Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and History Colorado Museum are using analytics and big data to better understand what visitors want and to deliver it.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium Refreshes Visitor Engagement and Conservation Initiatives

polar-bear-003_sAt the 100-year old Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) in the Pacific Northwest, Manager Donna Powell oversees all business, budget and visitor services. The 29-acre combined zoo and aquarium promotes and practices wildlife and ecosystem conservation initiatives, and attracts more than 600,000 visitors a year.

PDZA generates millions of data records daily on attendance, exhibit and event preferences and participation in conservation initiatives—but didn’t have a good way to pull information out of it. As Powell explained, “Staff generated a SQL sales report from our point-of-sale (POS) system each morning but it only gave us turnstile sales and didn’t include online and reseller sales. So staff had to pull this all together manually, which took days.”

“It also couldn’t tell us what customers do while they visit, or what they’re saying about us on social media” adds Powell. “We need to know things like, which exhibits visitors prefer, and what conservation initiatives they’re participating in, what they liked and what they didn’t like.”

Powell knew that PDZA needed to better understand visitor trends and feedback, but had concerns that an analytics solution might be too difficult and/or expensive for an 80-person organization with 2 IT staff to deploy and use. Then she attended a presentation from the Cincinnati Zoo, and learned about the analytics system that they had deployed. “They were using the same POS as we use. They introduced us to BrightStar Partners an analytics solution provider that did their implementation that really understands zoos. The light bulb went on—if they could do it, so could we.”

PDZA went live withIBM Big Data Analytics in 2012. “Everyone immediately made the connection of how they could use this to help. We can strip things out, and see how things relate. Now we can pinpoint how different weather patterns will affect attendance and exhibits, and change scheduling as required. We can also use it for marketing. For example, after analyzing sales data and open rates, we sent a promotion to members whose membership was about expire and offered them a discount if they renewed before the end of the day. We had a 6% buy in on that campaign compared to the typical mail renewal rate of 3%.”

Other benefits Powell points to include:

  • A 700% rise in online ticket sales over the past year, with an expectation that online sales will go up another 25% by the end of this year.
  • The membership team can pull the data they need in minutes instead of waiting days for IT to extract data from the POS system to create a mailing list for campaigns.
  • PDZA also uses social media and analytics to more effectively engage millennial visitors in its conservation initiatives.

Zoo employees now use iPads to access financial, attendance, membership and retail information so they can make decisions anywhere anytime. Looking ahead, PDZA plans to introduce a mobile ticketing solution. In the future, visitors will be able to “check in” at different areas within the zoo, providing zoo managers with more data to better understand which exhibits are most popular and how much time visitors spend at them.

History Colorado Center Resets To Attract a New Target Audience

HistColorado_FrankOomsHistory Colorado Center likes to think of itself as a brand new 134 year-old museum. Founded in 1879, the museum had shared the same block with Colorado’s State Justice Center for more than 40 years. “The location wasn’t ideal, and the museum wasn’t as interactive or engaging as we would have liked,” as COO Kathryn Hill explained. “Most of our visitors were senior citizens and children on obligatory school field trips.”

In 2008, History Colorado had the opportunity to build new, state-of-the art museum–and to bring Colorado’s history alive through storytelling and interpretative exhibits. According to Hill, “We wanted to understand how we could bring history alive, attract more families, and best sustain our mission over time.”

In conjunction with planning and construction of the new building, History Colorado conducted extensive audience research to test design ideas and stories. During this process, Hill “stumbled on the story of how the Cincinnati Zoo was using analytics to drill down into all aspects of visitor behavior so they could continually improve the visitor experience.”

“As a non-profit, we don’t have a lot of money for marketing, so we needed to find a strategic way to keep a close pulse on how we can best engage families. We hadn’t budgeted for analytics, but once we learned about IBM’s BIg Data Analytics, it was a no-brainer for us,” according to Hill.

In collaboration with IBM Business partner BrightStar, History Colorado deployed IBM Big Data analytics simultaneously with their new POS system. “I’m not a tech person, but I can go in and look at admissions, programs, merchandise, food, and membership data in real-time,” notes Hill. “We have a single view of the data, and can see patterns now, such as when retail sales peak and what exhibits attract the most traffic.” This helps the Center’s 125 employees fine-tune exhibit and marketing strategies.

The museum is also developing more personalized experiences for its visitors by analyzing social media commentary, and expects that this will boost engagement and repeat visits.

“We have a unique mission to help visitors understand the present in the context of the past so Coloradans are better informed in making decisions for the future,” explains Hill. “To make this happen, we need to bring people in and provide a compelling experience. Analytics helps us do this.”

Perspective

Chances are that your organization isn’t a zoo or museum. But these stories underscore the fact that big data analytics solutions are within reach for organizations of all shapes and sizes.

However, these experiences also reveal some important pointers for getting successful outcomes from an analytics investment that other SMBs should keep in mind. First and foremost, PDZA and History Colorado had clearly articulated what information they needed, and how they would use it. In addition, both organizations:

  • Selected a solutions designed for SMB requirements and for limited IT and budgets.
  • Worked with a partner that had experience in your industry, and could tailor the solution to best meet their specific needs.
  • Had input and guidance from organizations with similar requirements.

Whether you need to know more about visitors or customers, exhibits or products, with a clear vision, solid planning, big data analytics can provide the insights your organization needs to thrive in an increasingly complex and competitive world.

This is a fourth, additional post in the blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. You can find the first three posts at these links:

Collaboration and the Progressive SMB

Almost all businesses aspire to success–but not all achieve it. SMB Group has identified and written quite a bit about what we term “Progressive SMBs.” Progressive SMBs are more growth driven and invest more in technology than their counterparts. They also view IT as a tool to help the business grow, create market advantage, and level the playing field against bigger companies.

Most important, being a Progressive SMB pays off. In our 2012 SMB Routes to Market Study, 85% of SMBs that plan to invest more in technology anticipated revenue increases. In comparison, only 42% of SMBs that plan to decrease IT spending expected revenues to rise.

Personifying the Progressive SMB: Apex Supply Chain

apex logoI recently had the chance to speak with Karolyn Schalk, VP of IT Infrastructure at Apex Supply Chain. Apex designs and manufactures what it terms “Point-Of-Work Solutions”— vending machines, cabinets, and other devices, as well as software to manage use, inventory, and replenishment. Apex solutions can manage any supplies, tools or equipment that need to be tracked and controlled.

Apex illustrates the kind of attitudes and behaviors that make the fast-growth, Progressive SMB tick. Founded just seven years ago, Apex has grown to become the global leader in automated vending, supplying over 6,500 companies with vending machine solutions. Apex has fueled this growth with new employees, innovative solutions, new locations and acquisitions.

As the company grew, it invested in sales, marketing and service solutions to help increase sales and provide responsive service. But Schalk realized that Apex also needed a better way to collaborate. Sticking with “email collaboration” would eventually slow down innovation, time to market and customer responsiveness–and along with it, growth and expansion.

Cleaning Out the Collaboration Junk Drawer

junk drawer Apex had opened more locations, hired more employees, created new offerings, and made a couple of acquisitions. It’s network of external suppliers, partners, contractors and installers expanded.

But Apex was still using Microsoft Small Business Server and an assortment of email, file sharing and SharePoint for collaboration. Over seven years, Schalk explained, “this had turned into the equivalent of a big junk drawer. Whatever organization was initially in there had been lost.”

As a result, people had problems finding the information they needed, locating the right contacts to get a job done, and tracking tasks. With “end-users living in email, time was wasted and the risk of things falling through the cracks grew,” notes Schalk. “We needed something more manageable and useable to share information and track work.”

Crossing the Collaboration Chasm

Everyone wanted something better. But, despite its faults, end-users were used to the devil they knew–the junk drawer of email and shared files–and skeptical about if and how a different collaboration solution would work.

Schalk realized that successful adoption of any new solution would hinge on users understanding why improving collaboration was critical for the company, and how better collaboration tools would help to facilitate it. She recruited different end-user groups in the company to evaluate collaboration solutions. In the process, Apex evaluated or reviewed cloud-based collaboration solutions from three major vendors, which helped to get people thinking about, seeing and talking about better ways to collaborate and get work done.

Schalk also designated a technology advocate to help end-users understand how a new collaboration solution would help streamline tasks and make their lives easier. As she observed, “My biggest ‘aha’ was understanding we needed a technology advocate. We’re all creatures of habit. People need hand-holding and encouragement to believe that there is a better solution, and show them how it can make it easier for them to share and keep track of work.”

Selecting a Solution

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Apex had decided upfront that it wanted to deploy a cloud-based collaboration solution because, as Schalk noted, “We have a lean IT staff. So the cloud gives us a way to get more value, more quickly and easily than an on-premise solution.”

“Functionality was important, but so was simplicity,” explained Schalk. “We wanted all of the collaboration tools–instant messaging, meetings, community, wikis, blogs, email, etc.–but it needed to be integrated and easy to use.” Other key factors included flexibility, support, security and backup, an easy and secure way to bring external contractors and partners into projects, and mobile capabilities.

After evaluating different solutions, Apex selected IBM’s Smart Cloud for Social Business and deployed in March 2012. According to Schalk, “The initial solution was simple to use and the pieces were well-integrated. In addition, IBM gave us great access to the product team. We felt we’d have input into product development so we’d get changes as our needs evolve.” Since the initial deployment IBM has made several enhancements; in particular, Schalk liked the direction IBM was taking with its Mobile First design point, which gave her confidence that Apex would get the capabilities it needed for a more mobile workforce and world.

She also liked that support came bundled into standard Smart Cloud for Social Business subscription pricing, and that IBM provided “corporate-grade security and backup for highly confidential new product ideas and designs.” The Smart Cloud for Social Business guest model, which lets companies set up free guest accounts for external users, was another point in its favor. “The guest model would make it easier for Apex to collaborate with contractors, suppliers and partners in a secure way,” she added.

Keeping Up With the Speed of What Customers Want

Schalk reports that with the help of the technology advocate, end-users began to explore the tool set and found benefits specific to their work groups. Since then, they have quickly begun using more of the functionality in Smart Cloud for Social Business, because “they don’t have to install anything new, its easy to use, and its all integrated.”

Apex is now better able to “keep up with the speed of what customers want.” For example, the solution is easing the roll out of Apex’s new ERP solution. According to Schalk, “People are updating the task list every 20 minutes because it’s easy. They can do work from anywhere, from home, on a tablet. Almost every other day, someone says, wow, it’s so easy to get things done with a pop-up meeting or iPad app.”

On boarding new employees in this fast-growing business has become much simpler as well. Before, people had to “hunt around to find the right info for each new hire. Now we can just point new hires to the places where we’ve published information about projects, policies and procedures,” explains Schalk.

Schalk says that employees are also using Smart Cloud for Social Business as a complement to their Salesforce.com sales and service applications. Although she would like to see the IBM and Salesforce products more fully integrated, customer support and sales teams view them as complementary, and are sharing relevant conversations and tasks between the solutions.

Perspective

Social Business People Network  inside Speech BubbleProgressive SMBs that create and sustain rapid growth are defined not only by larger IT investments, but their attitudes about applying technology to help achieve business goals.

Many SMBs recognize that effective collaboration is critical to building and growing a successful business. Taking steps to develop a more collaborative culture, such as Apex did, pave the way to getting the results you want from a collaboration solution. As the Apex story illustrates, it pays off to:

  • Focus on collaboration as a means to desired business outcomes–such as faster time to market, or faster decision-making.
  • Get people engaged in the process early on to elevate awareness and conversations about better ways to get things done.
  • Lend a helping hand–such as a technology advocate–to help users who are reluctant to change see how a different approach will make their lives easier.

This sets the stage not only for selecting the solution that will best meet your business needs, but also ensures faster user adoption and, ultimately, the outcomes you’re looking for from that solution.

This blog was sponsored by IBM Smart Cloud for Social Business to help educate small and medium businesses (SMBs) about how collaboration tools and social technologies can help their businesses.

Charting Your Big Data Journey

Slide1In the first post in this series, I examined the underlying trends driving the buzz around big data and its relevance for SMBs. In the second, I discussed how three IBM business partners (FYI Solutions, LPA Systems, Inc. and Waypoint Consulting) are helping SMBs take a pragmatic approach to successfully apply analytics and big data solutions to solve business problems.

In this third and final post, I’ll talk about how to determine business readiness for big data solutions, and considerations to keep in mind as you help your business move ahead in this area.

Big Data Readiness

Today, even small companies are generating and accumulating staggering amounts of data. The question is, can you turn this data into reliable, accessible and actionable information that you can apply to solve business problems and make better decisions?

Many SMBs rely on Microsoft Excel to generate information and reports. If you’re in this category, you can get ahead simply by taking advantage of analytics tools built into the financials, HR, CRM and other core systems that you use. Taking it a bit further, combining Google Analytics data from your website with CRM data can offer you fresh insights about who’s coming to your website, from where, and what they’re doing when they get there.

But as business complexity grows, data and reports are spread across more databases, spreadsheets and applications, and stored on servers, personal computers, mobile devices and in the cloud grows as well. Using disparate data sources and tools to answer key questions such as “what products can I price at a premium” and “what are the best ways to increase repeat sales?” becomes difficult, time-consuming and burdened with inconsistencies.

“When customers approach us, the top reason is because they don’t trust their data and reports. Too time-consuming always comes up as well. They are also struggling to get an enterprise-wide view of their data,” according to Joe Rodriguez, Software Practice Leader, FYI Solutions.

If you answer yes to the questions in Figure 1, your business probably needs to integrate key data sources into a central repository. As Brendan McGuire, Managing Partner, Waypoint Consulting puts it, “You need to pull data from the cloud and on-premise applications into an integrated, rationalized data store. You can do this on your own systems, or you can do it in the cloud in a subscription model.”

Figure 1: Big Data Readiness–Key Questions to Ask

Slide1With a core foundation of common, trustworthy and accessible data in place, you’ll be able to get deeper insights into operations and customer behaviors and preferences. Companies typically start out with “descriptive” business intelligence (BI) tools to dig in and get more visibility into key metrics such as those noted in Figure 1, and make better decisions. For instance, if you’re a retailer, these tools can provide analysis to pinpoint optimal locations for new stores, more accurately forecast customer demand, minimize inventory or negotiate better pricing from suppliers.

Moving Up the Curve

Until recently, having solid analytics capabilities for internal, structured data was enough to give many businesses an edge. But, with more data and different kinds of data pouring in from more places, companies are looking for new ways to help them access, analyze and use data to gain market and competitive advantages.

In broad-brush strokes, big data helps do this in two ways. First, big data technologies crunch through both structured and unstructured data exponentially faster than was ever possible before. Examples of technologies that enable this super-charged data crunching power include hardware with increased memory and parallel processing capabilities, and Hadoop and MapReduce, which harness the power of multiple, distribute computers for problem solving.

Using this kind of technology, you can run analyses that used to take days or weeks in minutes. This make it possible to analyze data that you may have collected for years, but were never able to analyze before, or to weave new, external data sources into your analysis.

In addition, new kinds of analytics tools and solutions make it easier to explore data in more accessible, actionable ways, including:

  • Mobile business intelligence. Nowadays decision-making is as likely to happen in an airport or at a customer site as in headquarters. Mobile solutions let users see, share, report, and analyze data on smartphones and tablets. They take advantage of native, user-friendly mobile interfaces, such as touch screens, and give users the ability to make smarter, faster decisions regardless of location.
  • Visualization. You may be able to look at a hundred of rows of data and make sense of it, but can you look at thousands of rows and figurer out what’s going on? Visualization solutions help people to see what’s happening across hundreds of thousands of data points quickly and easily.
  • Sentiment analysis. Social media and digital sites have given customers and potential customers a much bigger and louder voice. Sure, you can easily tell how many followers or fans you have, but do you really know what it means to your business? Sentiment analysis identifies the user attitudes towards a brand, product or event by using variables such as context, tone and emotion.
  • Predictive analytics. Using mathematical algorithms, predictive analytics helps you to spot what’s likely to happen next. With predictive tools, you can examine large amounts of historical data (internal and external, structured and unstructured) to identify hidden patterns to alert you to future trends and stay ahead of the market.
  • Prescriptive analytics take things a step further, actually guiding you to a course of action, via options for what you should do next. Prescriptive analytics solutions can fine-tune themselves as they take in new data to continually improve your decision alternatives.

Choosing Your Big Data Path

Where you go next depends on where you are today, and your business goals, as discussed in Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs. Often, explains Brendan McGuire, “the greatest opportunity is to make data more consumable…making it easier for the business person to have conversations with the data, whether its structured or unstructured, through better mobile solutions, or visualization.”

Meanwhile, LPA Systems is helping hotel chains use forecasting and planning solutions to get a better idea of expected occupancy rates based on historical transactional data mixed with external information about upcoming events and other factors to optimize pricing and marketing initiatives. As Jesse McNulty explains, “Now they can better assess if they’re going to be overbooked on a weekday in July, and charge more, or if they’re going to have occupancy issues, and need to do a promotion”.

Although prescriptive analytics is still further out on the horizon for most companies, Joe Rodriguez sees customer interest in this area growing. “Just like your GPS provides you with alternate routes, tells you where to go, and what turns to make in your car, prescriptive analytics can be like a crystal ball to help predict outcomes and improve decision-making for the business.”

Perspective

As revealed in the IBM Institute for Business Value and Said Business School, University of Oxford, three out of five midmarket respondents report that analytics, information and big data solutions “create a competitive advantage in their industry,” representing a 66% increase since 2010. Given the rapid rate and pace of change in business and technology, this gap will widen.

While turning information into insights isn’t easy, the good news is that vendors are increasingly recognizing that big data isn’t only for big businesses. Whether you are just starting to think about the relevance of big data for you business, or you have some of the basics in place, more vendors, including IBM, are focusing on SMB customers. Not only are they building more solutions tailored to SMB requirements, they are also developing educational materials to help you learn how more about applying big data solutions to real world business problems. As important, they are growing and training their business partners to help you get up the learning curve, implement solutions and optimize the value you gain from them.

So do your homework. Assess your company’s key challenges, we’re you’re at today, and were you want to go. Talk to colleagues and business advisors you trust. Start developing a strategy to get the wisdom you need to grow your business and stay ahead of the competition.

This is the final post in this blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. The first post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs? parses through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, and what is important and relevant for SMBs. The second, Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs looks at how IBM business partners are helping SMBs take practical steps to put big data to work for their businesses.

Putting Big Data To Work For SMBs

info you need photoIn my previous post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs?, I looked at the underlying trends driving the buzz around big data, and why big data is relevant for SMBs. I also discussed why “big” is a relative term–relative to the amount of information that your organization needs to sift through to find the insights you need, when you need them, and the widening performance gap between businesses that can find the right needles in the data haystack, and those that can’t.

But, charting the course from information overload to actionable business insights isn’t easy, especially for resource-constrained SMBs. In this post, I’ll draw on my conversations with three IBM business partners to discuss what they are seeing, and how they are helping SMB analytics novices chart a course to a successful big data landing. They include:

  • FYI Solutions is an IT consultancy based in Parisppany, NJ. FYI specializes in business analytics solutions for financial services, insurance, life sciences, media & publishing, and automotive companies. In business for 29 years, FYI Solutions takes pride in creating lasting value through lasting relationships–the average FYI Solutions client relationship is 15 years.
  • LPA Systems, Inc. is a business analytics and business intelligence company with deep roots in the healthcare, hospitality, finance and insurance industries. Founded in 2001, LPA’s main office is in Rochester, New York, with additional offices in Houston, Dallas and Cleveland.
  • Waypoint Consulting is a business analytics and financial performance management consultancy based in Newton Square, PA and a 2012 Philly 100 company. Waypoint combines proprietary methodologies, partner products and certified consultants to help customers deliver analytic solutions. Waypoint’s Project Management process provides clients with full transparency into a project while ensuring solutions are delivered on time and under budget.

Houston (or Parsippany, Rochester, Newtown Square), We Have A Problem

SMBs rarely seek out “big data” solutions. Instead, they’re looking to solve a business problem. They may need guidance to understand what data they need to solve the problem, where the data is that they need to use, and how to capture and use the data to address challenges and meet business goals.

Trying to solve business problems is nothing new. What’s changed is that they are dealing with more data, located in more places, and created in different formats. The other big thing that’s changed is that they need to get information and insights faster.

As Joe Rodriguez, Software Practice Leader, FYI Solutions states, “They can be coming at it from different angles. They may have delivery people in the field telling them that it’s too slow to do queries to check on inventory–they are waiting too long and losing money. Or their information is stuck in different silos, and it’s a time-consuming, laborious process to try to pull it into an enterprise wide view.” Or as Brendan McGuire, Managing Partner, WayPoint Consulting puts it, “With more external and internal data available, companies can no longer effectively leverage and use the data with the tools they’ve been using.”

The Right Stuff for Successful Outcomes

Most SMBs that come to these solution providers are just getting started down the analytics path. They come in frustrated with ever-more complicated Excel spreadsheets and pivot tables that take too much energy to create and update, and that propagate too many errors to trust.

Some are also coming from industries, such as healthcare, that have undergone a rapid transition to digital records due to new regulatory requirements. All of a sudden, they are swamped with data.

Few have in-house experts that are well-versed in analytic best practices and approaches, and many don’t even have business analysts. As Joe Rodriguez puts it, “We often have a brand new customer who will come to us because they have a problem to tackle. They may have limited knowledge about analytics, and need us to help them understand it and how it can help them.”

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So what does it take for these novices to successfully navigate up the curve? The solution providers I spoke with shared common views on the essentials for good outcomes.

  1. Start with smarter decision-making, not tools. Start with a close examination of the business drivers for a more advanced analytics approach–not with the tools. As Brendan McGuire noted, “The first and most important part of the conversation is working with the client to understand what processes do they have and what decisions do they need to make, and how can better data insights support this? Or as Barbara Schiffman, Director of Technology Solutions, FYI Solutions says, “We don’t start out by talking about the tools. In fact, the tools are incidental. We start with what business problems are you experiencing? Where do you really want to be instead of where you are today?”
  2. Get on the right entrance ramp. As mentioned above, many SMBs are just getting started up the analytics curve. With so many bright and shiny objects under the big data umbrella, it can be tempting to bite off more than you can chew. Jesse McNulty, Account Manager, LPA Systems summed it up this way: Most SMBs are just getting started and have enough to do with getting good basic functional reporting in place. They can get enormous benefits just from getting the foundation in place, then build on their analytics competency from there. But some are already farther along, and ready to move into location analytics, forecasting, predictive analytics or other more advanced things–like prescriptive analytics.” On the flip side, they may not have given much thought to mobile analytics right out the gate, but could benefit from it. According to Brendan McGuire, “Most SMBs don’t initially think about it. But once we end up talking about it, many of them realize that their executives and business users are using tablets and smartphones, and that mobile needs to be part of the plan upfront.”
  3. Create the right roadmap for your business. I know I just said to stay focused, but at the same time, you also need to create a roadmap that will serve your needs as things evolve in your business, the market and with the competition. As Barbara Schiffman advises, “You shouldn’t just put a tactical Band-Aid on the problem. You need enough detail to figure out the real problems, solve for those today, but also look ahead to the future, and the types of problems that could arise.” Keep in mind that this is your roadmap, for your business. Just as there are many different entry points, the roadmap for each business will be different. “At the end of the day, it’s all about what solution will deliver the best business ROI for your company,” notes Schiffman.
  4. Decode data requirements. Take time up front to think through what data your business needs to enable better decision-making. What data are you drawing on today for decision-making and business processes? Where is the data, and how can you make it more accurate and usable? What data are you missing that you need, and how can you get it? Once you have a clear picture of the key data sources you need to pull from, you can start to figure out which tools you’ll need for the job. If you’re like many SMBs, you probably have data in different “silos”, such as an internal financials application and a cloud-based HR or CRM solution. Integrating these data sources is likely an investment you’ll need to make. As Brendan McGuire advises, “Data silos are inconsistent, expensive to support, cause errors. When you have an integrated data store, and you use that for analytics, it doesn’t impact your transactional systems. You use that to do any level of reporting, build dashboards, create mobile interfaces.”
  5. Evaluate industry-specific solutions. While horizontal solutions may fit the bill in some cases, tailor-made, industry-specific solutions and a solution provider with expertise in your industry can often save time, money and a lot of aggravation. As Jesse McNulty explained, “There is tremendous change occurring in the healthcare industry as payment models shift from fee-for-service to pay-for-performance or full risk. There are many nuances, for instance, to areas such as managing chronic disease populations, and healthcare organizations have very specific metrics that they need to monitor to improve business performance against them.” Having a pre-configured solution that integrates the internal and external data, structured and unstructured, into one location, and addresses specific healthcare needs with healthcare terminology and business practices helps save clients time and money. According to McNulty, “This enables us to get a client’s electronic medical records (EMR) system connected to and running on our Chronic Disease Management analytics in as little as two weeks.”
  6. Find a partner that provides comprehensive services. Because most SMBs will take an incremental approach, it’s important to seek out comprehensive services in this rapidly evolving area. Look for solution providers that offer consulting, and implementation and support services, and demonstrate a deep commitment to establishing ongoing relationships with their customers. However, since no one provider is ever likely to be able to do it all, in this volatile space, selecting a vendor that’s part of a strong ecosystem is also important. Being part of a bigger ecosystem gives solution providers the knowledge and training they need to stay ahead of the big data learning curve, and improve the offerings and services they provide to you.

Perspective

As all investment literature warns, past performance in not a guarantee of future success. Just ask Blockbuster, which was blindsided by consumers’ shifting preferences for renting movies; RIM BlackBerry, which underestimated how much the bring your own device (BYOD) trend would impact its smartphone sales to businesses; or Energizer, which missed the boat on how fast the sales of single-use, disposable batteries was dropping.

For most SMBs, being able to mine untapped data for business benefits is still at the aspirational stage. But now is the time to seriously consider what impact big data and analytics will have for your business, your customers and your industry. Think about trends you see taking shape–and even about the ones that you can now only imagine. What information and insights would help you capitalize on these trends? Likewise, what information are you missing that puts the business at risk?

Clearly, the perfect storm is taking shape as data volume, variety and velocity continue to soar ahead, almost guaranteeing that the businesses that can harness it to their advantage will benefit, and those that don’t will be blindsided.

This is the second of a three-part blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. The first post, Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs?, parses through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, and what is important and relevant for SMBs. In my next and final post in this series, I’ll talk about ways that you can get the conversation going and the questions you need to ask to help your business move ahead.


Is Big Data Relevant for SMBs?

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????There’s little doubt that “big data” is the latest “big thing” in the IT industry. But for many small and medium business (SMB) decision-makers, big data is a somewhat fuzzy term. Ask any number of them what big data means, and you’re likely to get different definitions. Making matters worse, the “big” in big data, along with endless discussions of petabytes and zettabytes, make many SMBs skeptical that big data is relevant for their businesses.

So it’s not hard to make the case that “big data” is has become an over-hyped and poorly understood catch-all phrase. What does big data really mean, and what are the implications for SMBs? When we parse through the underlying trends and hype surrounding big data, what’s left that is actually important and relevant for SMBs?

The Realities Driving Big Data Buzz

The big part of big data is easy to understand. Basically, the volume and variety of digitized data is increasing exponentially. Think about how much and how many kinds of information have moved from physical to digital form just over the last several years. Doctors have moved from paper charts to electronic medical records; merchants have moved from paper credit card imprinters to POS terminals to virtual terminals to mobile payment devices. Movies have moved from Blockbuster to Netflix; and photos have move from Kodak to Facebook and Instagram. “Smart” machines–from traffic sensors to seismographs–are creating entirely new digital data streams as well.

As a result, researchers report that we have already created 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, and that 90% of it has been generated in the last two years alone. While quintillions are hard to wrap your head around, these facts make the concept more accessible:

  • 150,000 new URLs are created each day.
  • Twitter sees roughly 58 million tweets every day, and has more than 554 million accounts.
  • 160 million emails are sent every 60 seconds.
  • Over 20 billion credit card payments are processed annually in the U.S.
  • Power companies are moving from physical meter to digital “smart” meter readings, and going from monthly reading to gathering meter information every 15 minutes. This adds up to 96 million reads per day for every million meters–or a 3,000-fold increase in data.

The term “big data” refers to having the ability to dig in to this growing data avalanche more effectively and quickly with tools that make it easier to store, manage, analyze and act on information.

Big is Relative When It Comes to Big Data

According to findings from the IBM Institute for Business Value and Said Business School, University of Oxford, most large enterprises define the “big” in big data as databases with more than 100 terabytes, while most midmarket companies (less than 1,000 employees) consider anything more than 1 terabyte as “big”.

The fact of the matter is, “big” is a relative term–relative to the amount of information that your organization needs to sift through to find the insights you need to operate the business more proactively and profitably. Basically, if the data set is too big for your company to effectively manage and get insights from, then you’re facing a big data challenge.

This isn’t just a large enterprise problem. In SMB Group studies, SMB decision-makers repeatedly cite “getting better insights from the data we already have” as a top business challenge. SMBs may not be dealing with terabytes of data, but many are finding that tools that used to suffice–such as Excel spreadsheets–fall short even when it comes to analyzing internal transactional databases.

Welcome to the Insight Economy

info you need photoWith the amount and variety of digitized growing exponentially, these challenges and requirements will only increase.

Business that can find the right needles in the data haystack more quickly, easily and reliably than competitors can reap enormous market advantages. SMB Group’s 2012 Routes to Market Study shows that SMBs that have deployed business intelligence and analytics solutions are 51% more likely than peers to expect revenues to rise. Likewise, in the IBM-Oxford University study, three out of five midmarket respondents using business and analytics solutions reported that they are realizing significant advantages, most notably to “identify new opportunities in the marketplace” and to “understand and respond to customers better.”

Take the example of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. With one of the lowest public subsidies in the U.S., the zoo needed to increase attendance and boost food and retail sales to operate profitably. But the zoo was unable to easily access the data–which resided on different systems–so it could plan how to do this. The zoo implemented a business intelligence solution to get better insight into customer trends and its own operations, and answer questions such as, “How many people spend money outside of admissions costs?” and “What time of day do ice cream sales peak?” By answering these questions and others, the zoo was able to increase retail and food sales by 35%, save more than $140,000 per year in marketing dollars through more targeted, successful campaigns, and increase overall zoo attendance by 50,000 in one year.

Unfortunately, many SMBs are lagging large enterprises in this area. The IBM-Oxford Study revealed that the gap between large enterprises and the midmarket is increasing, and the SMB Group 2012 Routes to Market Study shows that the smaller the company, the less likely they are to use or plan to use BI solutions.

Perspective

Businesses have always needed the ability to measure critical success metrics and make sound business decisions. Big data solutions are designed to help businesses to do this in a world where the volume and variety of data is growing at breakneck speed.

When you look at the realities that are driving the big data bandwagon, its clear that long after the buzz fades, these realities will have a long-lasting impact on how businesses of all sizes operate. Over time, the performance gap will widen between businesses that can readily get the insights they need, when they need them, and those that can’t.

That said, figuring out where and how to start isn’t easy, especially for SMBs who are often resource-constrained. The good news, however, is that this is definitely an area where you want to take small steps first. In the next blog of this series, we’ll draw on conversations with IBM business partners to learn how they are helping SMBs to chart the big data journey.

This is the first of a three-part blog series by SMB Group and sponsored by IBM that examines big data and its implications for SMBs. In the next post, I’ll discuss how IBM business partners are helping SMBs take practical steps to put big data to work for their businesses.

CollaborHaitian: How CIC Uses Social Business to Crowd Source Medical Care in Haiti

Logo-For-ThumbnailWhen small business owners and entrepreneurs think of IBM, they often mistakenly assume that IBM’s sophisticated solutions are only affordable by large corporations. And IBM sometimes lags the competition in garnering SMB mind share. But some of its offerings are actually a great fit for small and medium business (SMBs). A perfect case in point is IBM’s Smart Cloud for Social Business, which provides an online, integrated collaboration solution for file sharing, communities, web meetings, mail and calendars.

I recently had a detailed conversation with Marie Kenerson, Chief Collaboration and Learning Officer at Colleagues In Care (CIC) to learn how Smart Cloud for Social Business helps CIC achieve the effective collaboration that is vital to the organization’s mission.

Sometimes It Takes More than a Village

CIC is a nonprofit dedicated to building a medical knowledge database and volunteer network to help address the healthcare needs of Haiti. Even before the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, medical needs clearly outstripped available resources. Dr. Lisbet Hanson, a Virginia Beach OB/GYN, was in Haiti providing ultrasound training for OB/GYN practitioners when the quake struck. Just a few miles from the epicenter in Port-Au-Prince, the hospital she had taught at collapsed and all of the nurses there were killed.

People in Haiti needed help, and as we all recall, there was a worldwide outpouring of aid, including that from healthcare experts around the globe that wanted to volunteer. But, connecting the dots between far-flung doctors, nurse and other professionals to create and establish sustainable practices in Haiti posed a difficult collaboration challenge. Each expert has unique areas of knowledge to contribute in areas such as treatment options, clinical pathways, and best practices, but the real value comes from putting these puzzle pieces together in a way that can be shared and replicated.

Without a system to manage and collaborate on care, even the most knowledgeable people with the best intentions were unable to realize the outcomes that they had wanted to achieve. The experts would come in, and the destitute population became dependent on them. Then the experts would leave, and take their knowledge with them. A new group would come in, and the cycle would start again. There was no way to share or build upon best practices to improve care.

Crowd Sourcing Care

This was the impetus for CIC. Upon her return to Virginia following the earthquake, Dr. Hanson and her cardiologist husband, Dr. John Kenerson, decided that there had to be a better way. Hanson and Kenerson established CIC to create a more collaborative, replicable way to catalyze the global network of healthcare volunteers that wanted to assist Haitians. Their goal was and reamains to establish a navigable social network to bring expertise into Haiti–and provide the professional development that those staying in Haiti so desperately need. To help enable this, CIC applied for and received an IBM Trailblazer grant for IBM SmartCloud for Social Business (then called LotusLive) to help facilitate collaboratiotn.

CIC SchematicSizedforBlog2Using the SmartCloud solution since early 2011, CIC has built its “Social Collaboration Cloud Solution,” which is a collaborative learning system dedicated to transforming healthcare delivery in Haiti by fostering “CollaborHaitian.”  CIC is building a medical knowledge and volunteer service database and Best Possible Practice models (PPBMs) that practitioners in Haiti and other resource-constrained areas can use. CIC’s approach is fundamentally different from the traditional approaches to international development efforts because it relies on mutual collaborative learning in solidarity with Haitian colleagues.

Today, the program enables over 200 registered users to source, co-edit and share best practices information so that they don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. CIC fosters collaboration between the different communities of providers integral to this type of environment, including:

  • ·Micro volunteers, who share specialized expertise to provide care such as screening for cervical cancer without equipment, or to build a clinic.
  • ·Peer networks of practitioners, who are focused on specific areas, such as pediatrics or hypertension. Some are physical volunteers, who train Haitian healthcare providers to embed evidence-based quality standards into the practices and curriculum in Haiti, and others contribute online.
  • ·Macro volunteers, who create and nurture mentoring relationships between practitioners on the ground in Haiti and vetted mentors.

With SmartCloud file sharing, a peer network of Haitian and international physicians can co-create training for how to take blood pressure without cuffs, a micro volunteer can translate it into Creole and French, and then share it with the peer network–all via SmartCloud. CIC is committed to making all programs openly accessible though the governmental ministers of health to anyone interested in customizing or replicating these BPP’s anywhere, thus reducing waste, redundancy of efforts, etc.

CIC also uses the meetings capability to conduct meetings between practitioners in Haiti and remote volunteers, and activities management to ensure ideas are documented, negotiated commitments to future tasks are managed and completed. Example templates for scheduling and managing travel and training program logistics make project management visible to all. Recently, CIC has also begun using IBM Docs to create and collaborate on documents.

As important, SmartCloud has been easy enough for SmartCloud users, predominantly a culturally diverse group of very busy volunteers who donate time and expertise in incremental chunks, to learn and use on a sporadic basis.

Perspective

SMB Group research studies indicate that teamwork and collaboration–or lack of it–effect an organizations’ financial performance as well as employee (or in this, case, volunteer) satisfaction. Organizations that are more collaborative have a decided edge over less teamwork-oriented counterparts.

This is not surprising. Whether you’re the CEO or a doctor, an accountant or a volunteer, you need to share and manage information, ideas, resources and connections to get the job done. Cloud-based, integrated collaboration tools such as SmartCloud for Social Business help organizations share knowledge, streamline processes, and keep everyone in the loop to gain that edge. This is more important than ever, as digital information continues to grow at an exponential rate.

CIC may face more urgent challenges than most private-sector small and medium businesses (SMBs) or even other non-profits when it comes to harnessing, applying and replicating knowledge-based practices and communities. But SMBs, as well as other non-profits, have just as much to gain by adopting a more integrated, collaborative approach to meet their challenges and gain their own unique edge.

This blog was sponsored by IBM to help educate small and medium businesses (SMBs) about how collaboration tools and social technologies can help their businesses.

IBM Global Financing Antes Up Another $4 Billion to Fuel SMB and Business Partner Growth

IBM Global Financing (IGF) recently announced that it would make an additional $4 billion available to help SMBs finance technology purchases through IBM’s partner channel. While this sounds like a very large amount of money (and it is), consider that in less than one year, 7,000 SMBs took advantage of the $1 billion in financing that IGF offered up in late 2011 . In fact, IBM had underestimated pent-up demand—IBM had expected the $1 billion to last 18 months.

IGF is quadrupling its initial commitment to help SMBs finance new cloud, analytics, mobile and infrastructure technologies to help grow their businesses. The program also makes it easier for IBM business partners—including managed service providers (MSPs), who are often SMBs themselves–finance the infrastructure investment they need to build the hosting environments they need to serve customers.

Some of the details include:

  • Deal minimums start at $5,000 U.S., and the maximum tops out at $500,000, with a 0% payment plan for 12 months, making the program relevant for both small and medium businesses.
  • Typical financing contracts last 3 years, but no specific time frame is mandated.
  • IBM business partners sell the financing. These business partners can size the solution and financing required to individual customer requirements, and execute the contract via IBM’s Rapid Online Financing widget, which is designed for non-financing experts.
  • Credit-qualified SMBs can get an approval in just a few minutes.
  • Financing options range from simple loans to tailored leases to total solutions including hardware, software and services (both IBM and non-IBM) in one contract with one predictable monthly payment.
  • IBM is rolling out the program on a worldwide basis.

In addition, IBM has created a new mobile app to further streamline the process. Business partners can quickly provide their clients with price proposals and generate credit approvals using an iPad, iPhone or Android mobile device.

Access to Capital–the Fuel for Progressive SMBs

As discussed in The Technology—Performance Connection for Midmarket Businesses, technology has become a critical lynchpin for business success. Businesses of all sizes increasingly view technology as an essential to improving customer engagement, raising employee productivity, and creating innovation and differentiation—all necessary to building economic value.

SMB Group research reveals a distinct correlation between SMB investments in technology and their business performance. “Progressive SMBs,” who invest more in technology much more likely to anticipate revenue gains than peers whose tech investments are flat or declining. For instance, our recently completed 2012 SMB Routes to Market Study shows that while 85% of SMBs that plan to invest more in technology anticipate revenue increases in 2013, only 42% of those planning to decrease IT spending expect revenues to rise, and 38% that planning for flat IT investments are anticipating growth.

Figure 1: IT Spending Current and Planned

SMB Progressive growth

Source: 2012 and 2011 Small and Medium Business Routes to Market Study, SMB Group

Meanwhile, as more SMBs come to view technology as key enabler to create market advantage, level the playing field against bigger companies, and adapt to new business and market requirements, the percentage of SMBs that are planning to increase IT spending is growing, as shown in trending analysis of 2011 and 2012 SMB Routes to Market Studies (Figure 1).

However, access to capital remains tight, and many SMBs find it challenging to get the capital required for the technology investments they need to grow their businesses.A July 2012 survey by the National Small Business Association (NSBA) found that 43 percent that needed funds for their businesses over the past four years were unable to find a lender. As important, 53 percent said they’d been unable to grow their business or expand operations due to a lack of capital—and almost one-third had to lay off workers.

A Virtuous Cycle for IBM, SMBs and MSPs

IBM isn’t a charity or governmental agency. As a for-profit organization, one of IBM’s key goals for the program is to fuel sales of IBM products, including PureSystems, which offers a new, integrated platform to tune hardware and software resources for data intensive workloads, and gain more flexibility to configure applications for either an on-premise or hosted environments, and a multitude of infrastructure, cloud, mobile and business intelligence solutions. If past success is an indicator of future performance, IBM will certainly achieve this goal with its new round of financing.

Furthermore, this fresh pool of financing should helps MSPs to build scalable infrastructure and hosting environments, and provide more innovative and differentiated offerings to SMB customers. As I discussed in MSP Cloud Challenges in the Midmarket–and How IBM Helps Meet Them, top MSP challenges are to: procure and deploy the resources they need to scale and grow; stay ahead of the technology curve, and to provide the end-to-end services their customers want.  Since IBM financing will cover both IBM and non-IBM content in one contract, it will make it easier for MSPs to build out a more comprehensive, end-to-end infrastructure.

The result? IBM can attract new MSP and other partners, and get them outfitted with the solutions they need more quickly. The net-net is that MSPs and other IBM business partners will be able to speed up and scale their ability provide new solutions that SMBs need for business growth and agility, and help SMBs finance this investment.

Finally, IBM isn’t just throwing money (albeit a large amount) at the situation. The new round of financing is additive to several new global initiatives for MSPs, which IBM launched in September. IBM has put together an integrated program that provides the money, expertise and solutions that both MSPs and their Progressive SMB customers require.

This is the fifth and final post in a five-part blog series by SMB Group that examines the evolution of midmarket business technology solutions and IBM’s Managed Service Provider Channel programs.

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