Skating to where the puck will be

It was great to see the comments from people in Ottawa, Toronto and Waterloo discussing the strength of, and differences between each community. It’s a testament to the connection between the Ontario’s tech centers. What’s missing – beside Montreal – is this same discussion on core problems that affect all Canadian tech companies – like funding (tax treatment and education I’d say) and discussion of intercity methods of sharing knowledge and supporting innovation (camps and communication infastructure).

What’s happening is that the world (I’ve heard similar things from the London, Leeds, and Manchester) is beginning to recognize that if we are ever going to upset the dominance of Silicon Valley – an area that treats the world is as its innovation hinterland – we have to build on the strength and diversity of our regional communities – rather than surrendering the best to American investors
 
What I mean by regional is a strategy based on communities co-operating and upper levels of governments enhancing that co-operation with connectivity and funding.  Why for instance should Entrepreneurship 101 not be broadcast throughout Ontario using funding to enable web casting and a local partner to provide local instructional support and facilitate inter and intra community interaction? This builds local and regional community, entrepreneur’s knowledge while at the same time building a network of organizational relationships at the regional level. The same thing could be done with OCRI and Communitech programs – as well as DemoCamps and other industry events. The alternative is to spend $500.M of public money duplicating MaRS in Ottawa – an idea that lies at the heart of Innovation HUB proposal

We need to develop a sense of extended community that allows people and businesses to identify partners and opportunities outside their geographic area. This is important because economic benefit occurs is where problem knowledge, technology application and business insight intersect. At one time it could have been argued that this was the domain of cities – because of the density of interactions – however the emergence of community around blogs/forums/video has shown that technology can serve as an intermediary for connection instead of geography. At the same time the scale of competition has increased dramatically. Countries like China and India have massive population advantages that statistically increase the probability that it will be them, not us, who discover and exploit new opportunities. A single city is no longer big enough to form a global competitive advantage.

As I see it we these trends will guide many new business models.

– cheap and rich communication
– the adoption of networked business models  (outsourcing being but one example)
– a decrease of vertically integrated companies
– more innovation occurring at the intersection of fields of knowledge
– globalization (competition for customers & innovation) reaching into smaller and smaller market niche
– rising energy and carbon offset fees increasing the costs for physical travel and shipping  

They also provide a framework for regional economic development that can rival the world’s mega cities in terms of the diversity and connection – while being economically efficient, providing program excellence and diversity, and serving every company type – even if the threshold in a local are doesn’t warrant local provision of that service.

Of course the devils’ in the details, but the place to start is to explore how pervasive broadcast of local events through the broader region builds community and connections that wouldn’t occur otherwise.

Advertisements

No ‘sour grapes’ for OCRI

I admire the Toronto tech community because they’ve shown us what committed organizers, working at the grass roots, can to do. They look at cities like Ottawa, with its powerful economic development agency, wistfully – sometimes to the point that those of us who have questions about it are characterized as having sour grapes.

I’d be the first to admit that OCRI does many good things – but it has core structural problems that prevent it from being what either the city/province or itself want it to be – which is THE ONLY funded representative of tech business economic development initiatives in the Ottawa.

All levels of government have allowed OCRI to blur the lines between its member’s interests and those of broader tech community it receives funding to serve. That’s where I have a problem – the approx. $1.3 M of city money and potentially the equivalent in provincial funding that this “member based organization” spends in the name of businesses that are not members. This is a fundamental conflict. In OCRI we have an organization that must serve members interests first, deciding how public money should be spent to support all local businesses. To me this is no more right that the partial franchise (vote) was right it its day. It can’t work because it is not representative by its very nature.

And take a look at its membership. Of Ottawa’s approx 1819 ‘knowledge based’ companies only 35% are OCRI members. A closer look at OCRI’s membership shows that something like 42% are service providers (lawyers & consultants) and a further 21% are government agencies. Remove them and only 13% of what most of us consider ‘knowledge companies’ are OCRI members. And one has to ask how services designed for Ottawa’s largest taxi company, the British High Commission and Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, numerous Ottawa hotels or the Greater Peterborough Regional DNA Center (all members) jell with the needs of the far more numerous small tech firms that are not members but are expected by public funders to be served by it. It makes no sense.

This wouldn’t be so bad if other groups were getting funding – but if you’ve approached funders (which I have) the answer is always the same ‘have you spoken to OCRI?’ It’s the strangle hold on funding and program delivery that’s the biggest problem because it stifles program innovation and stops underserved groups getting an organized voice to offset the ear of funders OCRI’s members have. I would argue that it’s this funding stranglehold that led to the death of the Ottawa Life Science Council and its eventual decision to merge with OCRI. I’d be interested if any Life Science companies reading this think are they better or worse served since the merger.

Lets take a look at how OCRI supports the community. Sure there are a lot of events – but the preponderance of them are fee based, and fees for non-members are typically 80% higher than for members. This could be to encourage membership, or alternatively to discourage the participation of non-members. Either is a logical stance for an organization interested in serving its members, but I would argue neither meets the community serving objectives implied by the large public subsidy OCRI receives. 

It’s gets complex too. OCRI is a major advertiser, particularly to the two local tech focused papers. Whether this affects coverage is anybodies guess but I don’t believe the discrepancy between OCRI’s stated size of the Ottawa tech community (81,900) and the Conference Board of Canada’s numbers (46,000) got the coverage it deserved – especially because the size of Ottawa’s tech community gets to the core of the effectiveness of OCRI as the delivery and strategy vehicle for Ottawa’s tech economic development. It’s time we understood why these numbers are so different – and considered what that means for our economic development funding. 

Finally the notion that only a few people with ‘sour grapes’ have these concerns is simply wrong. I didn’t make the above list of issues up – I heard them from OCRI Partners, obliquely from previous and current OCRI managers, and from not a few small tech businesses. The issues are a lot more substantive than sour grapes.

If there were no public money involved these criticisms would be moot. As there is and it’s both fair and right to ask if we are getting the best value and the outcomes from the public investment we put in.

Talk

While talking about the Social Media Press release yesterday I mused about the need for real-time communications to be included in the system.

Actually the call is for a much broader inclusion of person to person or person to group communication in Internet services – direct discussion between people using a site and between users and the posters of content. Talk.

One of the things all sites do is to attract people who share a common interest. From time immemorial this has formed the basis for personal discussion and connection. It is how we meet other people – through a shared activity.

The internet has introduced a new type of shared activity that mimics its predecessors –while removing the requirement for temporal or spatial connection. In doing so it has both enriched some aspects of our social lives while leaving others unsatisfied.

It is hard not to believe the rise of services like Twitter and newsfeeds on social networks from FaceBook to Linkedin, which send out a stream of deeply human but typically mundane activities, is not a reaction to an unmet desire to connect around the ordinary activities that consume most of our lives.

For myself I cannot stand in line at a store, or contemplate some types of purchase without engaging in discussion with those around me. And it’s not just me who relishes in chance encounters. On the radio this morning a store owner was recounting how his store grew out of his interest to share his knowledge with customers. One of the things he regretted with the Internet store that remains was his business was reduced to availability and price.

It doesn’t need to be like this – the ability to personally connect either with individual users or connect users with each other is both easy and cheap. More importantly it provides a means to develop the rich personal connection between people that real time voice allows.

One easy way to start is to consider adding conferencing as a regular activity related to your site.  Check out Iotum’s free conference service as an example of one service to speak to multiple site users simultaneously. Use it to educate, understand, or to explore a specific topics and tangents. It reintroduces the personal onto your site.

Want more continuous connection? Add click to call buttons – but if you’re a small organization consider integrating with find-me applications so you’re not tethered to a desk. This is a great way to add value – especially if the goods, service or cause the site is dedicated to are based on something unique where sharing insights and discussion enriches everyone.

In time I love to see infrastructure that would notify me that other users were on the same page I was – and if they were open to a spontaneous discussion. Of course in this scenario Web shopping can again become the shared activity around which people meet which it is for many in the physical world.

In the end adding voice to an Internet site re-introduces temporal connection to the relationships they build – making them more concrete and meaningful.

Social Media Press-Releases – part 2

Earlier I’d written on the social media press release – essentially a site designed as a repository for sharable clips, images and story components that can be used by journalists and bloggers.

A few days ago Maggie Fox released her company’s version, providing details of the internal lay out and the elements that should be included. That engendered quite a bit of insightful discussion (here, and here).

As a template Digital Snippets hit all the right core content notes – it includes extensive RRS feeds for easy dissemination of updated information, and interestingly includes embeddable widgets for the true fans to add to their sites. Each page includes contact information to corporate communication people giving story writers the contacts if they want to expand a story through a specific line of questions.

All this is good – but at I can’t help thinking that while this makes corporate PR more effective – it still treats PR as a separate part of communication strategy – at the very time that consumers are integrating messages where ever they find them – sometimes across brands. Just look at what is happening with Unilever over its AXE and Dove brands. (here and here)

It also doesn’t appear to leverage the knowledge of social media firms to design creative that builds on their understanding of viral transmission and social sharing. While it’s fine to centralize creative developed elsewhere for social media use I believe that the true value will emerge when social media releases can create their own creative to both tell the story and encourage viral spread.

While not developed as PR its hard not to think that creative like the Travelers IQ Challenge developed by Ottawa’s TravelPod (and seen on hundreds of blogs, papers and social network sites) hasn’t been contributed to stories about the company (it has) or driven traffic to both their brands.

It also would be nice to see these sites more fully integrated into the sponsor’s web properties – rather than echoing them as they do now.  Social media sites should also being promoted with conventional promotion techniques.

Finally having real time components such as live conference or video calls included would add to the immediacy of a release and creating urgency around spreading the news.

All of this is to say that by dealing with media releases as system – which the social media release and Digital Snippets does is an important step. The real value though is going to come from building the specific skills of social media experts into corporate communications – and empowering them with the tools and creative to tell the story in new ways and across more platforms.

A Local Radio Conversation

Last week I was talking to the sales manager of an Ottawa radio station about developing an online ad strategy and improving their online experience for listeners. It was an interesting discussion with someone I learned was the devils advocate.

First – and lets be frank – the stations current web site is horrible. Something the station (or at least the manager) freely admits. It’s not even at the level of the atrocious bunch that Mel Taylor links to in his post on bad radio sites.

I agree the stations demographic, 45+ isn’t the easiest target for web strategy, and Ottawa is a pretty conservative town. Still there are solutions that don’t cost a lot and can increase the stations connection with both advertisers and listeners.

First though you’ve got to have some targets for your stations web site – otherwise why even pay the hosting fee. Then you’re got to develop plans to reach those goals and choose metrics that reflect progress and monitor them – regularly.

For this station I suggested choosing one of the following for the ad side:

 increased revenue/client
 increased wins in competitive bids
 more requests for information from new advertisers

On the listener side you’ve got to build page views before you can hope for any dialogue or user generated content. Given the demographic of the audience and Ottawa as a tourist destination I’d focus on episodic events and festivals around which to build web presence and connection.

The advantage is that from a development perspective an episodic approach is easier to manage initially than the continuous release methodology used by seasoned web properties. The other reason is episodic events tie nicely to the site goals. They are major advertising events for merchants so the station benefits from this increased spending with a new property targeted to the event. On the listener side they tend to be time of high socialization providing numerous opportunities for information transfer, contest tie-ins and user comment. The key is to ensure that this web material becomes part of the on-air dialogue both to promote the site and to transfer the personal link between announcer and audience to the web.

The final advantage of this approach is that it builds evergreen material that can be used year after year – freeing the development team to concentrate on the inter-episodic period the following year – as the web property moves to a continues release model.

Of course the devils in the details. And to understand that stations need to become familiar with the trends and approaches that all media are using to integrate the web into their core property and the issues associated with them  – and that will be the subject of a upcoming posts.

D-Link(ed) customer support

Some time ago I bought a D-Link DI-524 to use at the local DemoCamp I organize.

First time out the thing wouldn’t work. No wireless connection! No LAN connection! It wasn’t because of lack of trying or expertise, as we had a room full of network engineers. I should have returned it to Futureshop then and there. I didn’t and that was my first mistake. 

Last night in preparation for another event I dug it out to configure it so we wouldn’t have the same problem. It was toast!

And that’s when I learned what D-Link Canada calls customer support – and I call “D-Linked customer support” because it seems designed to D-Link the customer from the support.

First, calling the technician. I’m not sure if it’s possible to spend less on phone lines and call center infrastructure but doubt it. Almost every statement had to be repeated several times to heard through the fog of dropped packets on the VoIP connection and over the the background din of the calling room.

Having tried first line support I was transferred to second level support – and promptly disconnected. (A Google search indicates this is common)

Call back and get to second level support – and an ALR number to be told that Customer service would call me in an hour – so sit around and wait. No thanks – so I get to make my 3d support call the next morning – and that’s when the fun really starts.

Fax or email us the receipt and your shipping address. Great I think – they’ll send me a new router and I’ll send back the old one in the same box.

NO! Not with D-link. They’ll eventually send me an RMA number. Which I can write on the outside of the box when I send a router that was DOA back to them. Only when they’ve received it – processed it, and dugout my shipping info do they send me a new router. 

This could take 3 – 4 weeks and cost me five bucks in shipping on top of the purchase price. 

What could they do? Start by understanding that I bought their product, and it doesn’t work. Getting me a new one ASAP is the fastest way to restore my confidence in my purchase decision, treating me to hassles and additional costs is not. In fact the longer I’m without a working unit the more my nose is rubbed in the fact that I made a bad purchase decision.  At a certian point that’s what I remember – D-Link = a bad buying experience. All to save a few bucks when a unit fails.

3 calls, one email, a $5.00 shipping charge and 3 – 4 weeks delay doesn’t cut it in my mind and isn’t customer service – and is something to factor in if you’re considering buying a D-Link product.

 UpDate: I got an RMA with the following terms:

2. D-Link Products that are being returned to D-Link Networks must be properly packed and sent to D-Link Networks with the assigned RMA number clearly written on the outside of the package and/or shipping manifest.
3. The customer is responsible for all shipping costs and proof of delivery when sending any items to D-Link Networks.  
4. If there is physical damage to unit, there will be a service charge regardless of the purchased date.
5. Replacement products will be reconditioned (refurbished) or NEW (only if unit was purchased within 30 days)

I’ve decided not to send good money after bad – especially when the RMA includes open ended billing rights and the replacement unit was previously busted.
 

Success Disaster – shaping the next Internet

I’m not a network person in fact I can hardly get two devices to share files – yet I found this 18 month old talk by Van Jacobson incredibly compelling and though provoking.

What Mr. Jacobson does is make an arcane subject – Network Typology both easily understood and relevant.

What becomes clear is that network architecture is shaped by initial business or conceptual issues and then shapes the business opportunities that are built upon it.

From the circuit switched phone network – with an initial problem of how to describe a wiring path between two devices we get a network that is concerned with mapping paths without concern for the conversation (data), and a fetish for reliability of every component in the circuit (because any failure could break the connection) at the expense of call set-up time. 

The IP network takes an entirely different approach. It breaks up information into small packets and lets intelligent points decide each step to the destination. The result is a network that gains its reliability through system growth not device reliability. Embedded in that protocol are a series of choices however that are contributing to many of the problems we face today – from limitations for pervasive connection, net neutrality and authentication and spam.

The solutions to these problems have implications for everything from IP to social media and broadcast industries.  As network engineers start to tackle the cracks that are showing in the IP network they will make decisions that will impact business models far removed from the networks core.

This talk gives some interesting and easy to understand insights as to the problems and solutions that network designers face and for that it’s worth the hour and half. You may, like me, come away with the conclusion that these are more that technical issues – they will shape how the Internet changes as it moves into every corner of the earth and our lives.