Tools of Engagement

April 30, 2012 · by Bradley Horst

Cloud, Mobile, and Social Platforms Enable Engagement

Information technology strategy increasingly means enabling engagement. The cloud, mobile, and social platforms can take you there. The A/E/C professional practice environment continues to change, challenge, and evolve our organizations dramatically.

Information technology strategy increasingly means enabling engagement. The cloud, mobile, and social platforms can take you there.

The A/E/C professional practice environment continues to change, challenge, and evolve our organizations dramatically. I often ask myself how this is changing us and where is it leading. Both are difficult questions to answer, although I think there are clues all around us, sometimes in adjacent industries. What was once considered impossible from a computational standpoint is now possible and affordable through modern technologies and innovations. Long-held assumptions about what a professional services practice could be or should be, how it should look, and how it should behave are changing, especially in light of solutions built around the cloud, mobile, and social computing platforms. If ever there was a time for your firm to have a clear and deliberate forward-thinking information strategy, this is it.

The connective tissue that ties together the cloud, mobile, and social platforms is information, or as some might call it, Big Data. I like to think of it as information rather than Big Data because information holds within it a degree of context that makes it more meaningful than mere data. To take this a step further, add expertise to information and you get business intelligence, which leads to even better customer experiences. The argument might look something like this:

Intuitively, I think we all know that the proactive management and strategic deployment of digital information (or intel) holds the potential to grow a firm’s knowledge and expertise exponentially throughout the practice over time. So what does it all mean and how do we use it to our business advantage?

In previous DesignIntelligence articles, I have conveyed the importance of creating, capturing, and sharing one’s digital project stories in a particular way using a specific set of solutions and strategies. Building on that information, we must push on and engage in ever more creative ways with team members, project partners, and customers using these newfound digital assets and business infrastructures. It’s where a significant part of our business happens. Not to be engaged means not being a part of certain key business conversations.

The engagement devices to be discussed include familiar desktop software applications, mobile device apps, and other pieces of software we regularly use. However, the real potential for engagement lies in the information itself and our ability to craft the policies, procedures, and programs that both create the information and allow us to leverage it in our organizations to engage effectively with others.

Looking ahead, information technology strategy is about actively enabling engagement that will help us drive our business and our clients’ businesses to greater levels of success.

Cloud, Mobile, Social

I was first introduced to the notion of cloud, mobile, social, and Big Data while listening to a recorded 2011 keynote address by Michael J. Saylor, CEO of MicroStrategy, a global leader in business intelligence technology. What struck me about Saylor’s presentation was the clarity and confidence he had about the company’s focus on cloud, mobile, social, and Big Data. I’ve since heard other prominent technology leaders discuss the same topics in a similar light, further validating them as key technologies for the foreseeable future. Intuition tells me that cloud, mobile, social, and Big Data will have a significant impact on how we drive our businesses in the A/E/C industry.

Of particular interest among MicroStrategy’s tools is its mobile platform, which allows designers to quickly create highly graphical, custom applications for mobile devices such as iPods, iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerrys without the need for programming experience. Using their tools, I could imagine creating robust custom mobile applications that would be of interest to design and engineering users. That said, one of the keys to building a useful mobile application is not just selecting the right technology platform (ideally a platform that integrates well with an existing content management systems) but, perhaps more important, identifying the collection, quantity, and quality of informational assets to be delivered by the mobile app.

Thinking about your own organization, where does this information come from? How do you know that it’s the right information? Is it being collected in an automated fashion or is it a manual process? What is the information you wish to deliver, and who are you delivering it to? Is it a one-way delivery model or a bi-directional transaction? How do you know the information is correct? These questions just begin to scratch the surface as to the multitude of considerations for a single mobile application.

The point is that information is itself the life-blood of any mobile app, and the same is true for cloud and social technologies. Without information, there is no mobile app, there is no need for a cloud, and there is no one participating in the social network. This brings us back to the need for robust internal information strategies and active engagement from the user base. What are some tools that can help promote the right level of engagement from the right people in your organization? What are some of the tools, techniques, and practices that can help get this type of dynamic interaction started? Let’s try to answer some of these questions by first taking a closer look at the cloud, mobile, social phenomenon.
Scaling Your Response

The cloud is the great democratizer of computing infrastructure. No longer do you need to be one of the larger firms to gain access to high-performance computing. Anyone can purchase computing time on a processor-by-processor basis for an hour, a day, a week, or however long you need access to these systems. Whereas it was once necessary to invest large capital sums in servers, racks, configuration of these systems, environmentally controlled rooms, and full-time IT staff, it is now possible to rent some of these resources as needed (albeit with very important caveats). Does this mean that there is no longer a need for internal IT staff and resources? Well, no. It means that if and when it makes sense to use the cloud in lieu of what was previously an on-premise solution, then there might be an opportunity to refocus IT staff time and resources — ideally, on more strategic initiatives.

Often the first IT service to find its way into a cloud solution is the email system. Email is essentially a utility these days, similar to how we view a phone service. Email is not a differentiator, and there is no significant competitive advantage to be had from hosting email internally. That said, a return-on-investment calculation still needs to be made should your findings show it to be more economical to host email on internal systems rather than outsource it to the cloud. Note that the findings will likely differ on a firm-by-firm basis depending on priorities and available resources. Another example: Organizations requiring high-end rendering can rent server time from cloud-based rendering systems rather than build an on-premise server farm. RenderRocket is an example of this type of cloud service. While this might make more sense for those who periodically need access to high-performance rendering resources, it might be more practical to host a rendering farm internally should you be in the business of providing such high-end services on a regular basis.

Back to our earlier discussions around the value of information — your intel. When working with cloud resources, it’s important to know where your information will reside and how it will be used by the hosting company. Consider, for example, that certain project types contain project information so sensitive that it can’t leave the bounds of your private corporate network. In this case, a cloud service is likely not an option. Consider another example with regard to the need to deliver corporate intel to mobile devices: If this information is on a cloud system or spread across multiple cloud systems, could you pull it together and deliver it as a unified experience to your mobile application? There are many cloud offerings available today with only more to follow. It’s even possible to virtualize entire desktop images and host them in the cloud.

Cloud vendors include companies such as Microsoft, Autodesk, Amazon.com, IBM, Apple, Adobe, RackSpace, LinkedIn, Facebook, Dropbox, and Google, to name a few. The question becomes, Where is your information, your corporate intel? In the context of your corporate intel, special care must be given to understand where and how information is hosted so that it will be available where you need it, when you need it, and in a condition that allows you to use it.
Extending the Perimeter

Mobile computing is about the consumer experience. It places massive amounts of information at your fingertips and makes consumption of that information a desirable and meaningful experience. It extends the reach of your organization well beyond the physical confines of what you once thought of as your office, the place where you conduct business. Mobile computing challenges long-held assumptions about where your office begins and ends. When you’re away traveling for the company, it keeps you connected to home base so you can continue to collaborate effectively.

The expectation is that work happens whenever and wherever it needs to happen and that the information required to perform the task will be available when and where you need it. Mobile delivers critical corporate digital assets in an efficient and secure fashion wherever and whenever it’s needed. That said, the default assumption is that you know where your information is, that it is well organized, that you have an ability to deliver it to its desired mobile destination, and that the right information is delivered to the right people. Obviously, much thinking and planning is required to bring all these components together into a unified and worthwhile mobile user experience, and it all begins with an information strategy focused on business objectives.

There are many technology solution providers that are incorporating mobile applications (as well as cloud and social applications) into their suite of offerings. The challenge for practitioners is to maintain a consistent and unified information experience for users amid this plethora of software. To make things slightly more complicated, technology vendors are increasingly creating collections of software offerings whereby the value of the total platform is potentially greater than the sum of its application parts. In this scenario, many applications are built to work together within a suite of products — a platform. In some cases, one solution provider might offer literally hundreds of products. Multiply that by the number of prominent solution providers in the A/E/C space and you begin to see the challenge offered by trying to build a consistent internal user experience that delivers the right information at the right time.

According to technology news website 148Apps.biz, as of this writing there are 588,492 apps available for download to mobile devices, with another 8,710 new apps being considered for release this month alone. In addition, website Wowmobi.net reports that more than 40 million iPads have been sold to date, with Apple expecting to sell another 48 million this year. Mobile devices are here to stay, at least in the foreseeable future. These statistics highlight the importance of having a clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish before you begin to think about designing your own app. It’s important to make your message clear, concise, and relevant so it doesn’t get lost in the crowd of available apps.

Making it Personal

We’ve all heard the phase, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” With regard to social computing, the opposite is true. It’s personal, and that’s one factor fueling widespread adoption of social platforms. Social platforms provide users a sense of uninhibited entitlement to manage their digitally connected relationships and say what’s on their minds. Consider a few recent statistics. The Purdue Exponent reports that Facebook has upwards of 800 million active users and anticipates 1 billion in 2012. LinkedIn is reported to have 147 million active users as of January 2012, and is still growing.

What is it that drives such high levels of interest? For starters, the personal experience and the perceived advantages and opportunities available to the individual are a few of the many things that motivate hundreds of millions of users to participate in and contribute to these environments regularly. Every individual has a voice and every individual has access to a global fabric that allows him or her to share their thoughts with little effort for virtually no cost — all without needing permission from anyone to do so. At the same time, every individual can freely collaborate with others around common areas of interest to collectively generate even better ideas to the benefit of the group — again, all without having to ask permission from anyone to do so. This begins to sound like a worthy model that could encourage a robust design discourse within a professional services organization.

There are positives as well as areas of caution with online communities. Even though many social networks had their roots as non-business environments, we are beginning to see increasing interest from the business community. Microstrategy, for example, provides a free app called Wisdom, which provides profiling insight into Facebook communities. Obviously, this could be a useful resource if you’re trying to tailor your marketing efforts to a particular group. As you participate and contribute in these online environments, you’re building an online history about what you once thought, what you’ve done, what you’re interested in, and who you’re connected to. This evolving digital persona might ultimately affect the way your employer views your abilities or how a potential client comes to understand what you have to offer.

As social communities continue to identify strategic intersections with business communities, it will become that much more important to understand your digital persona as a company and the digital persona of your employees, especially as viewed by others. This can have a positive or a negative impact on your business. Consider carefully what information might be worth sharing about your business and who might be doing the sharing on your behalf. The unspoken assumption here is that you have ready access to key business content and are well positioned to share it with relative ease. Are you prepared to do so?

Better Intel for Everyone

Better intel for everyone is an idea and an exercise at EYP Architecture & Engineering that grew out of implementing the tools I wrote about in previous DesignIntelligence articles (“IT for Strategic Advantage” and “Writing the Digital Project Story”). The phrase is a direct descendant of the name of our internal SharePoint site: EYP/intel.

What’s so significant for us about the site is its ability to generate and capture high-level content dynamically via myriad interconnected technology solutions provided by Microsoft, Axomic, Newforma, Deltek, Knowledge Architecture, and others. To take things a step further, we combine these automated high-level views inside EYP/intel with a collection of carefully selected knowledge communities that are driven by our in-house practice experts. Overlaid into a single personalized Web experience, intel presents a rich assortment of qualitative and quantitative content that collectively begins to tell a compelling digital project story about our ongoing design efforts for the benefit of all our users.

EYP/intel is one of many tools we use to drive firm-wide engagement and pull together vital business intel that can then be leveraged in other places and within other systems such as those offered via cloud, mobile, and social solutions. Collectively, these solutions offer a capacity to help us make the right content available and actionable to the right people at the right time. The need to deliver increasingly better visibility at a personal level is vital for our ability to turn Big Data into information and information into increasingly better business intelligence.

The good news is that these technologies are available today to help drive the creation of better business intel on both a local office scale and a global scale. It doesn’t require endless resources or extensive in-house expertise to get it up and running. What is important is having access to information that matters, the desire to be engaged with other experts, and an entrepreneurial spirit that drives the engagement process forward. Having a clear idea about what you’re trying to accomplish doesn’t hurt, either. Better business intel can be achieved through better partnerships, better collaborations, and better engagements, which should result in better ideas and better design solutions. It seems to me that this is fundamental to how social networks work and is the spirit within which we can perhaps best leverage the cloud, mobile, and social platforms.

I suspect that for this vision to be fully realized within a professional services context, your business intel must also take on a sort of “fully federated” state such that all project stakeholders and contributors ultimately come away from the shared experience with a superset of knowledge and digital assets appropriate to their level of involvement and contribution. The cloud, mobile, and social technologies can likely play a central role in making this possible and practical.



Bradley Horst is chief information officer and a principal at EYP Architecture & Engineering. He is responsible for driving the technical and strategic vision of the firm’s IT organization. A practicing architect, Horst is uniquely qualified to develop and implement strategic direction and supervise all information systems for the IT department as well as to lead initiatives such as sustainable design, building information modeling, and integrated project delivery.

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