Who says the tech world has no soul?

With a tip of the hat to Omar Gallaga at NPR's AllTech blog, check out these three very short videos. The first is of 1000 Vodafone cell phones playing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture in response to orchestrated text messages, and the others are the "making of", parts one and two.

Definition of Strategy

There is general confusion about the difference between an organization's vision, mission, long term goals, long term plans, strategy and even tactics. My approach is to acknowledge that different people use these terms in different ways but, in any given specific planning process, to require that we agree to arbitrary but shared definitions. I have, for many years, used a great working definition of strategy as "the decisions about how we will apply resources to objectives".

A strategic planning process starts with (or generates) a vision and mission, agrees on long term objectives, and identifies the resources available. It then makes decisions about how to apply resources to the objectives.

This is never as clean a process as it sounds, but working with explicit (if forced) definitions about each of these elements, really helps.

However, I now want to revise my definition, perhaps only subtly, having seen the TED Talk by Bjorn Lomborg, on setting global priorities.

In this talk he suggests that before you decide where to spend resources, you should know the cost-benefit ratio for the possible solutions. He notes that if there are a dozen key global problems, the decisions on where to spend the money should first be informed by the cost-effectiveness of the solutions, and not the size or even "importance" of the problem alone. This requires some agreement on a standardized notion of costs and, especially, benefits. In Lomborg's case he is looking at lives saved, or possibly QALYs. For a corporation, the costs and benefits are likely entirely financial, but at any given time one metric (e.g., revenue growth) may be more or less important than any other (e.g., profitability, or return on net assets). Ideally all the benefits of achieving each objective can be measured uniformly (for easy comparison) so you can show a dollar cost figure per unit of objective-achieving benefit.

Lomborg's examples are very clear (whether or not they are fashionable), and it makes sense to me to add this to my thinking about strategy ... considering the proposed approaches to achieving the objectives being considered, and the cost-benefit ratios of each - before deciding on resource allocation.

From fad to monopoly

The telephone, mainframe computers, microprocessor chips, and PC software industries have all spawned companies displaying enough monopolistic behavior to warrant penalties from the trust busters.

In England, the competition regulator used to be called the Monopolies Commission and one of my favorite comedic lines (attributed here to Nigel Rees) is "why is there only one Monopolies Commission?" Now we see the US and EU anti-trust authorities fighting over these issues, we wonder why there isn't just one!

For reasons about to become clear let me share this chart from a March '09 Fortune Magazine article which shows the adoption rate of new technology. (As Raif Barbaros pointed out, the Facebook comparison itself is misleading: Facebook is free, you have to pay for the others.)

Resolving the chain of reasoning connecting these two topics... I would love to see a chart showing the number of years from the introduction of a technology to the first investigation by competition regulators. I leave that as an exercise for the reader!

And, what, you might be asking, is the proximate cause for juxtaposing these thoughts? Just a few months after I noted cloud computing (Feb '09) as a new trend in our industry, the Economist newspaper has an editorial and feature article on the competition authorities starting to poke around the clouds. I bet this is a record!

Y chromosome genetics

With a tip of my hat to my wife and her colleague who brought this to my attention, and to the several websites who use the diagram, I bring you the latest knowledge about the genetic pre-dispositions encoded in the Y-chromosome (which we all remember is the male determining chromosome).

Saluting Techstars Boston 2009

This summer I had the privilege of being a mentor at the Techstars Boston inaugural program.

Techstars is a bootcamp for first time entrepreneurs and their startups. Participants apply and are chosen from the pool during the winter or spring. The program operated this year from May to September and participants worked in shared space in Central Square, Cambridge for the duration. As well as the benefits of learning together on the run, and the able full time leadership of Shawn Broderick, the startups had access to a large number of mentors with diverse backgrounds (entrepreneurs, investors, technology experts, marketing experts etc). Many of the mentors presented material on a huge range of subjects relevant to the group, and provided one-on-one coaching and advice to a subset of the startups.

Techstars originated in Boulder a few years ago under the visionary leadership of David Cohen and Brad Feld. Through Bill Warner's equally visionary leadership here in the Boston area, David and Brad were convinced that this was the right place for the first geographic expansion of the program.

As a mentor I got to spend time with a few of the companies and enjoyed it immensely. Although I work with startups all the time, this experience was the pure essence of young-entrepreneur and young-startup. Through the summer the teams developed their plans, their technologies and their pitches, and at the end they presented to a room full of investors at the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center (yes, NERD Center) right after Labor Day.

Here is a brief paragraph and a link for each of the 2009 Boston companies. A couple already have some early funding, and I know of a few more also now deep in discussions with angel or VC investors. Congratulations to them all!
  • AccelGolf offers mobile and online apps that empower 30,000 golfers today to improve their game via personalized content.
  • AmpIdea is helping new parents by creating valuable services through a web-enabled baby monitor.
  • Baydin is is a zero-effort collaboration catalyst that uses email context to take the burden of searching for information off of employees.
  • HaveMyShift is an online marketplace for hourly workers to trade their shifts, allowing them to create the best work schedule for themselves and their employer.
  • LangoLab is the most entertaining way to learn a foreign language.
  • Localytics provides a real-time analytics platform for mobile applications. Provides iPhone, BlackBerry and Android developers with the deepest user insights available to help them make smarter business decisions.
  • oneforty is the Twitter outfitter. It's the Twitter apps and services marketplace that helps you get the most value from Twitter.
  • Sensobi is Personal Relationship Management for today's mobile professional. Sensobi turns your contacts into relationships.
  • TempMine is an online temporary staffing marketplace that finds better jobs for temps, higher quality temps for employers, and new business for agencies.

No-one knows how much health care costs

There was a thought-provoking article by David Goldhill in the September 2009 Atlantic Magazine with his suggestions about how to fix the US health care system. One of his key suggestions was to provide price or cost transparency to consumers of health care services. He noted that, crazily, consumers don't know how much stuff costs, and that some hospitals and medical offices refuse even to provide such information ahead of time.

Interestingly, I spoke to a friend last week who mentioned that his wife is a physician (working at a hospital) and, tellingly, even she doesn't know the price or cost of the treatments she recommends and delivers.

Although obvious the moment I heard it, given this crazy health care system, this is shocking. It seems that medical school never touched on these issues, and certainly her employer sees no need to share such information with the physicians. Hmmm...

Whether or not your insurance will pay your medical bills, perhaps we should all start asking our physicians about costs and prices in advance. Just as Goldhill suggested, a stronger cost consciousness for both providers and patients will itself drive new patterns of thinking, and maybe even behavior, too.