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

Slide1

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.

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.

Discussing SMB Tech Trends: Part 1, Social Media Marketing and Technology As a Game Changer

Recently, I was a guest on Act Local Marketing for Small Business with host Kalynn Amadio. Each week, Kalynn shares information and actionable tips to help inspire and motivate small and medium businesses (SMBs) reach their business goals.  On this episode, Kalynn and I discussed SMB Group’s 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends and what they mean to the marketing and running of your business. This, the first of a four-part series, summarizes our discussion of  “Social Media Marketing Stalls as SMBs Re-focus Marketing Practices” and “Progressive SMBs Use Technology as a Game Changer.”

Kalynn:Welcome back to Act Local Marketing for Small Business, Laurie. I just want to let you know that the show you were on last year, discussing the 2013 SMB trends was the most downloaded interview that I have ever had on the podcast.

Laurie:Thanks, Kalynn and Happy New Year!

Kalynn: This is a perfect time of year for you to be on the show again because SMB Group recently published its 2014 Top Ten SMB Technology Trends.  We won’t have time to go through all of them, and of course I’m more interested in the ones that are more relevant to marketing.

The first one I want to talk about is social media marketing. What you discovered might surprise a few people. Can you give some insight into that?

free social networkingLaurie: As you know, SMBs have been rapidly adopting social media as a marketing tool, whether building a presence on Facebook Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or some combination thereof. In fact, more than half of small businesses and two-thirds of medium businesses are using social media for marketing.

But, more SMBs are realizing that even though they don’t need to spend a lot of money to establish a social media presence, social has a voracious appetite for more and more content. There’s a lot of pressure to keep the content fresh because that’s what keeps people coming back. This is wearing on some businesses.

It’s also tough to keep up with changing social media preferences, for instance as millennials move from Facebook, for instance, to Snapchat or Instagram. So we predict that while social media marketing isn’t going away, it will stall a little as SMBs focus more on figuring out what really works and clicks with their target audiences.

Kalynn: Which makes a lot of sense. Google is a content monster; to get found you have to give it more and more content. But there has to be a happy balance between creating content and promoting your content. You need to promote your content more than once but you do have to find that balance.  All audiences will probably be different depending on what market you’re in, how often they’re willing to hear the message before they start to tune it out, and you do need fresh content.

Laurie: Absolutely, and at the end of the day it’s all about converting social connections that you’re making into customers and advocates. So the first step is to look at how you can repackage and reuse content in different ways to reach a wider audience.

I’ll give you an example. Today we’re talking about our 2014 top ten trends list. We initially published it in December and sent it to clients, prospects and press via email marketing, and got good traction with it.

As the new year started, we created individual tweets about each prediction, and that sparked more interest. Now I’m talking about it here on your show. It’s just not feasible for most of us to create fresh content every day, so it’s important to repackage it in different ways.

We also see more SMBs integrating social media marketing with their marketing and sales applications to get more insight into what’s going on, how what they’re doing is working and to make the information more actionable from a sales and marketing perspective.

free chess image 2Kalynn: Your very first prediction was another one I wanted to talk about: technology as a game changer for SMBs.

Laurie:That’s our overarching theme because of what we’ve been seeing since we started doing our surveys 5 years ago.

SMBs split into some clearly defined segments. One segment is what we call Progressive SMBs, who share a few characteristics. They’re much more likely to view technology as a business enabler; they invest more in technology; and they are also more likely to be growing revenue than other SMBs.

This gap has been widening and we predict it continue to do so. Trends such as generational shifts, the sharing economy and new technology fueled services that you may not even think about as technology solutions are accelerating this and reshaping what it means to be an SMB.

Kalynn: You talk about the generational shifts; I talk a lot about this with my primary audience, baby boomers, age 50 and over. There’s a drastic difference in communication styles between boomers and 20-somethings and millennials…people don’t retire early as often as they used to…that means there are many technologies and ways people are communicating. And also many ways that a business needs to be able to converse with customers and prospects, and it can be overwhelming.

Laurie: It can, and that relates to social media too. I think everyone should be spending at least some time with social media just to keep a pulse on what’s going on. It’s really important.

But we also see how Progressive SMBs are increasingly capitalizing on technology, cultural and demographic shifts to create new market niches and invent entirely new businesses. Just think about the businesses that have started up in the last few years and have been replaced in the last few years. I think the last Blockbuster finally closed. Now we’ve got Roku and we can stream everything whether it’s from Netflix or Hulu or whatever.  There’s also a shift in talent acquisition and management…with more use of outsourced services or Elance for contractors or freelancers instead of hiring salaried employees.

Or, in rethinking office space. Shared office space and shared IT infrastructure services are really growing in popularity. These are all ways to think about your business in a different light. And most often technology provides the fuel that businesses need to really get ahead.

Kalynn: Right, and in case people are not aware, Elance and oDesk, who recently merged, are websites where you can virtually hire temporary staffing, either for projects, or on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis.

They serve as middlemen, but protect you because they help with any disputes if things weren’t done well or not to your satisfaction. And they make it easier to track everything and for somebody not to get taken advantage of; either freelancer or the business owner.

Laurie: Yes, it’s basically a technology platform to help you manage the projects, execute the payments. The take care of all of the transaction stuff for you. People bid on the jobs, and you can see the ratings of each Elancer or oDesker, and you pick the bid you like.

At a higher level, we see that these more agile, Progressive SMBs taking advantage not just of technology per say but of solutions that are built on technology and also the sharing economy. Whether it’s shared workers, shared office space or shared IT infrastructure in the cloud or shared workers, you don’t have to own all your resources.  As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s better not to.

Kalynn: Absolutely; there’s less headache often if you don’t own them.  And, you can adjust more quickly and scale up and scale down more quickly through projects, so it’s actually a really good thing.

In the second of this four-part series, I’ll recap Kalynn’s and my conversation about “Mobile Management Becomes a Priority as SMB Mobile App Use Soars.” You can listen to the complete podcast here

Sage Summit 2013: That Was Then, This Is Now

logoI’m a bit behind in getting my wrap up and thoughts on Sage Summit–Sage’s annual event for business partners and customers–together. But better late than never! As you can see in the related links at the end of this post, I’ve attended these events for many years. During this time, Sage North America has gone through many significant changes to bring sharper focus to its mission and more value to its customers. At this year’s event, I saw promising signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off.

That Was Then

Sage North America has been on a transformational journey since 2009, when Sue Swenson took over as CEO, made some tough choices, and began setting the wheels in motion to change the company’s downward trajectory. In the four years since, the company hired another new CEO, Pascal Houillon, in 2011. Under his leadership, Sage made some controversial (at the time) moves to unify the Sage brand and product names and divest Sage of seven non-core businesses, including ACT! and SalesLogix, which had large installed bases. To help streamline the company’s focus on its core business and on improving customers’ experience with Sage, Houillon also brought some fresh talent into the executive ranks.

This Is Now

The result of all this is a more focused, purposeful Sage. Gone are the days of trying (unsuccessfully) to rationalize an unfathomable number of overlapping products. On Houillon’s watch, it is unacceptable for Sage executives to position the Sage portfolio in different ways. At Sage Summit 2013, the executive team was singing from the same hymnal regarding Sage’s core positioning and messages:

  • Continue to focus on its core businesses (accounting, payroll, payment processing, ERP, etc) for very small businesses, SMBs and the midmarketSlide1. Key to executing on this is the company’s move to centralize R&D Centers of Excellence for cloud, mobility, customer experience. In the past, each individual product brand would undertake separate development efforts for new functionality. Now, Sage R&D develops new features, extensions and add-ons once (for mobility or analytics, for instance) that individual product groups can replicate across their solutions. Sage is also in the process (though not yet there) of standardizing service and support offerings. It launched Sage City, a new centralized online community for customers, business partners and employees, last month. And, Sage will make new acquisitions when needed to supplement its core solution focus.
  • Expand its connected services strategy and offerings. Sage is building more cloud services, such as SageExchange.com, Sage Mobile Sales, and Sage CRM, that connect to core financials and ERP solutions, as well as for partners to build and sell add-on connected services. The company’s big picture vision is to “liberate” data and services that had been locked into ERP so that customers can use them in the cloud, anywhere, anytime, and from any device. Sage is building a data cloud on Microsoft’s Azure platform with common connectors, bi-directional synch, multi-tenant storage and disaster recovery. This means that Sage connected services will work the same way regardless of the backend ERP/financials Sage customers use. This will all come together in the Sage Marketplace, slated to launch in FY14.
  • Going all-in on the subscription pricing and the cloud. Sage now offers subscription-based pricing for all of its solutions, and comps partners on a percentage of subscription sales over the life of a contract. It has also committed to developing cloud versions for its solutions, including a cloud version of Sage ERP X3, which will feature a user pure web experience when available in 2014.

Taking the Marketing Road Less Travelled

sage lisltensThe Sage commitment to putting customer experience first underpins these initiatives. Sage has several initiatives underway to up its listening game, such as the Sage Listens RV Relay, which is allowing Sage to also kick off a “Shop Local” campaign to encourage people to shop with local businesses.

In contrast to the “build it and they will come” tack that most tech companies take, Sage is taking its cue from the Proctors and Gambles of the world. It is getting customer input upfront before developing new products and functionality. Sage is hearing that customers want easy to use, flexible solutions, mobile capabilities and a low-cost of entry, and is concentrating resources on these areas. In fact, in one of the breakouts, when an analyst asked a Sage executive about social and big data plans, the exec said that customers are not calling these out as priorities. He added that while Sage isn’t ignoring these areas, it is prioritizing development and marketing based on customer input.

For instance, Sage recently launched Sage Healthcare Advisory Services , which includes a new “My Workforce Analyzer” tool to help SMBs understand plan for the Affordable Care Act. Analytics are under the covers, of course, to help SMBs develop what-if scenarios and optimize planning. But Sage isn’t calling it a big data solution.

Sage has often been knocked about for not keeping pace with the generational shift in the North American workforce. But it is now facing the facts–specifically that people born before 1968 will comprise less than 20% of the workforce by 2015. Sage is recalibrating its strategy to align more closely with different generational expectations. As Brad Smith, EVP of Customer Experience stated in his keynote, “We have to over-service the pre-PC guys but we also have to find ways to reach the ‘digital natives.’”

To that end, Sage demoed a voice-to-text initiative in which users can use voice-activated mobile technology to interface with ERP systems on mobile devices. It’s sort of like Siri, but within the context of the business and business workflows, so it appears to do a better job of handling user queries and requests. While the voice command initiative is in its infancy, it could be a key differentiator in the future.

Finally, Sage is putting its money where its mouth is, by tying Sage metrics and compensation for all Sage execs to Sage Net Promoter scores (NPS). The company’s previously shrinking North America business has grown 4% year-over-year.

Channeling The Channel

6a00d8345177fc69e20192ac233035970dSMB Group research shows that accountants/CPAs and technology business partners represent 2 of the top 3 influencer channels for SMBs selecting financials and related business solutions, with peers in other businesses rounding out the list. Sage has a large channel in both areas–with over 25,000 accountants in North America and more than 26,000 technology reseller partners worldwide. But over the past few years, cloud competitors have been trying to poach these very valuable resources.

Accordingly, Sage has several new initiatives underway to re-focus partners back on Sage. In addition to committing to provide cloud-based offerings across the portfolio to give partners a Sage cloud offering, Sage is:

  • Partnering with the Business Learning Institute to develop a curriculum for accountants to help them provide more competitive services to their SMB clients.
  • Planning to launch a new certification program for accountants focused on startup market, with a collaborative version of Sage One, Sage’s solution for very small businesses, to make it easier for them to automate tasks and take care of clients.
  • Introducing the Sage Advisor Partner Dashboard, which uses current customer data to help Sage reseller and accountant partners more readily identify new opportunities in the installed base, and provide a more personalized, consultative sales experience.

Sage is also recruiting new partners for midmarket Sage ERP X3, and new accountant partners to help it build traction among very small businesses for the Sage One solution.

Summary and Perspective

Minus ACT! and SalesLogix customers and partners, this year’s Sage Summit was smaller than in 2012. But, the energy level was much higher. Sage executives were more confident and relaxed, and the messages they delivered were consistent and crisp. Sage demos were more engaging, and even at times, entertaining.

Key metrics, including rising NPS scores, modest growth in its North America business, and a stock price that recently reached its highest point in 13 years are also good signs for Sage. As important, conversations with customers at the event led me to conclude that “Sage Listens” has moved beyond a slogan to put the programs in place to proactively engage customers.

However, there are a few areas in which I believe Sage needs to double down:

  • Sage One marketing. Worldwide, Sage has about 10,000 customers using this very small business management solution today. But most of the millions of very small businesses have never heard of it. Sage needs to significantly enhance awareness and demand gen campaigns to become more than a blip on the radar.
  • Third-party connected services . Sage has a big installed base, which should make it an attractive partner for third-party developers–especially now that developers can write just one connector and reuse it for all of Sage’s core products. But Sage has only about 20 endorsed connected partner services today. Again, many developers don’t know about this opportunity. Sage must raise its overall visibility in the developer community and launch a targeted recruitment program to get developers to build the apps that its customers need.
  • Clarity around CRM. After divesting ACT! and SalesLogix, the company’s sole solution here is Sage CRM. But other than discussing integration and a cloud version of Sage CRM that is in the works, CRM was very low profile at the event. Given Sage’s focus on core financials/ERP it leads me to wonder how committed is Sage to Sage CRM, and if will make the investments required to provide a truly first-rate CRM solution.
  • Innovation. Sage made a good case for its direction in the cloud, mobile and integration areas. However, analysts and press did and will continue to hound it on social and big data/analytics. While Sage customers may not have put these areas at the top of their priority lists yet, it’s only a matter of time before they do. Sage needs to get out in front in these areas.

That said, it’s challenging to do everything at once. The Sage leadership team has made the decision to move forward instead of standing still. All in all, I get the impression that Sage as a company has a better sense of who it is, where it’s going and how it will serve SMBs.

Related posts:

Sage Streamlining Takes a Major Turn With the Sale of ACT! and SalesLogix

Sage Turns a New Leaf: Top Takeaways from Sage Summit 2012

Sage’s Rebranding: More than a Name Change

Sage Summit 2011: Tackling the Sage NA Branding Challenge

Impressions from Sage Insights 2009

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.

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.

Sage Streamlining Takes a Major Turn With the Sale of ACT! and SalesLogix

sage imagesLast week, The Sage Group announced that it is selling its Sage Act! contact manager and SalesLogix CRM to Swiftpage. Swiftpage is a U.S. based digital marketing software vendor and has been a Sage partner supplying Sage E-Marketing as a connected service for three-plus years. The move is part of Sage’s strategy to streamline its business software portfolio and focus on its core application areas, accounting, ERP and payroll. Sage is also selling Sage Nonprofit Solutions to Accel-KKR, a private equity firm.

In addition, Sage is unloading four solutions sold in Europe. Combined, these sales amount to about $145 million, and result in a loss to Sage. Accel-KKR and Sage provided Swiftpage with significant capital to help finance Swiftpage’s SalesLogix and ACT! purchases. Sage will retain 16.1% ownership in this deal.

The sale affects about 1,000 of Sage’s 13,000 employees, with about 250 people from Sage ACT! and SalesLogix moving to Swiftpage. In my conversation with Himanshu Palsule, Sage’s North American support group is working with Swiftpage to put an escalation process in place for customers.

Sage isn’t exiting the CRM market, however. It is retaining Sage CRM (which it acquired as part of its purchase of ACCPAC several years ago) as its core CRM product.

Following Through On a Strategy to Streamline

Sage’s announcement doesn’t come as a big surprise. At Sage Summit 2012 last August, Sage North America management revealed its strategy to concentrate development on what Sage termed core solutions areas–namely financials, ERP, and payroll, as discussed in my post, Sage Turns a New Leaf: Top Takeaways from Sage Summit 2012.

At the event, Sage North America CEO Pascal Houillon set forth Sage’s strategy to move from a heavily decentralized product management and marketing approach to one that is more centralized and focused—and to put the company on a stronger growth trajectory. By streamlining its offerings, Sage intends to provide customers and partners with a more integrated experience and more flexibility to take advantage of new cloud-based connected services.

Shedding CRM Solutions That Weren’t Keeping Pace with Market Trends

Over the years, Sage has been very acquisitive. But many of its acquisitions haven’t really paid off. This has been particularly true for Sage ACT! and SalesLogix, both of which Sage acquired in 2001 when it bought Interact Commerce. Sage bought these products when desktop and client-server computing were at their peak–but about to wane. Since then, of course, the likes of Salesforce.com, Zoho CRM, Nimble and many other CRM cloud offerings have come to the forefront. Meanwhile, Sage has struggled to make the cloud transition with its CRM products. In addition, Sage hasn’t been able to keep pace with developing the new social capabilities that customers want in CRM solutions. These limitations have made it difficult to sell these products to new customers.

While Sage did develop integrations for ACT! and SalesLogix with its financials solutions, its attempts to cross-sell CRM to its installed base of financials and ERP customers met with limited success. The partner channel and end-user decision-makers for CRM and financials solutions are very different, and Sage was unable to develop an effective method to bridge the gap. As a result, there is very little customer overlap between the two.

With ACT! and SalesLogix off the plate, Sage intends to increase its focus on its core financials and ERP products, including Sage 50 (formerly Peachtree), Sage 1oo ERP (formerly Sage ERP MAS 90 & 200), Sage 300 ERP (formerly ACCPAC), and Sage ERP X3, and provide a richer set of connected services for these solutions.

Moving Forward

For a very long time, Sage has looked to acquisitions as a way to fuel growth, acquiring scores of business software products over the years. Sage has had a hard time rationalizing its strategy, sparking much criticism for having a cluttered portfolio, too many products and not enough focus.

Now, Sage is taking a 180-degree turn to sell off surplus solutions, freeing up development and marketing resources to create cleaner, more integrated solutions and messaging. While it’s too early to tell if this new strategy will result in the growth Sage is looking for, the move does give the company more bandwidth to concentrate on its core financial solutions, and give its remaining Sage CRM product the types of cloud, social  and mobile capabilities that it needs to be competitive. In addition, Sage no longer has to contend with the politics of competing product lines and partner channels.

While the move may be a bit emotionally jarring for current ACT!  and SalesLogix customers, they shouldn’t experience too much change in the short term. Over time, they may in fact see an upside, if Swiftpage, which has a strong focus in the digital marketing space,  can infuse the former Sage solutions with the updated cloud, social and mobile capabilities that they will need to attract new customers.

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