Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Too many social media accounts? Not enough customers? Right size your business for success by encapsulation.

Eggistentialism I
One of the great problems of business management is to determine when you are putting in the right amount of work for the value that you get out. As a social media person running a few Twitter accounts or maintaining a blog, you may wonder why you spend so much time and don’t get a good response. Maybe you’ve just realized that having LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed accounts were keeping you from writing your blog. You can find an initial discussion of simplifying your business services in the previous blog post.

The last part discussed to simplify your business services is to get the right size of your business service. The first step is to estimate what you think the right size should be. The other steps that follow are easy such as:
  • test it out
  • figure out if it works and change scope if necessary
  • deploy the service
But it’s the initial step that is one of the toughest problems no matter where you encounter it. It’s the step into the great void of “I don’t know” that stymies the beginning analyst, inexperienced startup entrepreneur, or guy on the street who thinks he can become a social media expert by reading a Dummies book.

Estimating the initial scope

To understand how to create the best Twitter account, the best Facebook fan page, the best technology blog and so on, you must estimate the scope of the full service itself. The point of view from your customer is important because they don’t care about the way that you deliver the service as long as they get what they want when and how they want it.

The principle with the fifty-cent word behind determining the scope of your service is encapsulation. It is made up of three minor principles that govern the parts of a service:
  • clear definition of the parts
  • interchangeable parts, and
  • loose coupling of the parts
Using the three principles together gives you some grasp on how to test whether you are getting the scope of your business service right or not. This can work whether you’re launching a service to commit social suicide or adding a social network service to your plumbing business .

Clear definition of system parts

A business is made up of functional groups and connected through processes. You have Human Resources, Accounting, Manufacturing, etc. If you are just a personal information service, you blur them all together because they are not scaled up enough unless you’ve developed a working regimen that says e-mail at 7 am, RSS readers at 8 am, phone calls at 9am, etc. It’s not typical but it’s this disciplined work ethic that would produce the best results.

Outcomes are better when you specialize your capabilities and resources. It improves your health and well being when you concentrate on winter driving and don’t answer text messages at the same time. Not paying attention can put you in a snow filled embankment or sliding down Seattle’s icy hills. When you repeat your process over and over, you learn how to optimize it to achieve the best product, the fastest output or the most profit. Challenges and opportunities can be best matched up with the corporate assets that best address the issue whether that be a particular division or just a better data visualization service for Twitter like StreamGraphs.

There are several processes for business deconstruction analysis. You can define the parts by first identifying the persistent and recurring patterns of your activity. Are you a blogger that can reuse your copy for email newsletters, blog comments, magazine articles, etc.? Another set of tasks involves the separation of concerns principle which says that you should put the things that change in one pile and the things that stay the same in another pile. Maybe one reading topic of interest causes you to have a different workflow each time you research and all the rest let you use Google Reader. And another type of sorting involves identifying the ‘what’ and distinguishing it from the ‘how.’ What are topics that you want to be known for and how do the work processes help you do that?

Perhaps this would make more sense if you actually do the work. The words are simple but the thinking is hard. One difficulty is that the topics of study vary according to your size and direction of your business. Large businesses would concentrate on developing a clear data dictionary of business entities and a Business Process Model commonly developed before a large business reengineering project.

On a smaller scale it might involve a description of the ‘what’ of business commerce. These are the major business entities (nouns commonly used in business discussions) such as profit, account, sales lead, qualified lead, etc. The ‘how’ pieces are described in business use cases, Agile stories, or just done in a flow chart style that other people use and understand in the company. They are distinguished by verbs and actions.
By separating the pieces, the approach to a better service orientation is made clear. Demand can be characterized by common elements and then served by the best shared services that are available. A person who knows why they are blogging and then finds a better match for their needs will make a quicker decision when the boundaries of their service are known.

Interchangeable system parts

Just like Honeré Blanc and Eli Whitney who applied the principle of interchangeable system parts to military weapons, anyone can profit from a better way to manage complexity. By grouping pieces that are almost fully self-contained, you have a way to swap modules with other systems.

You can see this principle at work with many of the Twitter services. Instead of asking you to create a separate account on each of the helper services, they reuse the Twitter authentication so that the benefit to you is that you only have to remember your Twitter name and password. The user identification process has been made a reusable module. The service that implements it understands the public Twitter interface.

A car engine can be replaced with little work compared to hand crafting a completely new engine. All that has to be done is to lower the new engine into place, hook up the connections (the interface), and bolt it in. Is your blog host starting to give you bad mileage? No problem. Remove your blogs, pick up your domain name, and drop them into a new host. Hook up the connections and you’re driving smoothly again.

By allowing the pieces to be bundled up into a well related grouping by another fifty-cent software principle called cohesion, you can increase efficiency and economy through reduction of duplication, administrative overhead, and costs of changes. A cohesive set of tasks provided by an all-in-one Twitter shared service like HootSuite eliminates the jumping around to multiple services when you are concentrating on your networking or public relations.

Loose coupling of system parts

The interface is the key item in the service module or, in software development, the component. It must be simple and easy. This is where the KISS principle is most important. The fewer the connections you have with other modules the better. The less you have to stop and go get something in a business process, the more you can concentrate on the task at hand.

When you need to swap out a module, it’s the number of connections you have to unscrew and screw back in that makes the job easy or difficult. An electrical device has a great interface because the wall plug is easy and simple. It is a three prong connector that can only be plugged in one way and gives you access to a power generation system that you mostly forget about. Most people don't think about the coal furnaces they keep burning as they use their computers.

How easy is it for you to walk away from your office and do business at home or on the road? How many different pieces of hardware, software, files, books, resources, and comforts do you need? The less connectors you need, the more cohesive and less coupled your office module becomes.

By altering your workflow into a simpler module, you have less coupling. Let’s say you work on your laptop with a word processor, a spreadsheet, your e-mail client, and need a dictionary for translation and spelling. Let’s assume you have to use a client’s computer now instead to do the work and can’t use your laptop for security reasons. So now you need to move all your data files on to a separate portable hard drive. That’s a lot of dependencies or couplings.

Use Google apps to get looser

Instead you could set up a workflow that uses Google's free applications like Gmail and Google Docs as well as the rest of the free services on the web. You store your data there, and don’t have the need for a separate hard drive or any fees to Microsoft. This greatly simplifies the coupling and is going to be a trend in 2010 and beyond as the free services become more integrated into business workflows. New add-ons like MailBrowser for Gmail will increase the speed at which adoption takes place as familiar processes like contact management and document management are added to a market leader like Google's email process making for looser coupling.

You may eventually need to switch over to another service like Zoho apps because Google may still follow through on their promise to destroy all the data that they can’t index . When that happens, you will reap the benefits by having a loose coupling to the Google apps. OK, that’s not really true. But still, Google apps are now the 2010 favorite of Michael Arrington of TechCrunch over Zoho. Arrington decreased his personal coupling by dropping Zoho from his tech products he loves because he finds “that centralizing as many services as possible at Google makes things easier for me as a user.”

Google has followed the loose coupling principle completely by educating you about how they are transforming their services into the most decoupled they can make them with a site called Data Liberation. The anti-lock-in site explains how your data is not held hostage by their services and therefore builds the best system by using their free and paid services. I’m enhancing the fairly dry technical explanation here, but the net result is a more resilient system.

Apply encapsulation anywhere

These three encapsulation principles can apply to any system including business, software, hardware, or organizations. The plug-and-play systems on modern computers boosted replacements of parts and adoption of new peripherals quickly. Skunk works teams in business as well as Special Weapons Assault Teams (SWAT) in police forces use the encapsulation principles to their advantage. In technology, Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) is the big buzz for distributed systems and has all the same words and concepts as any other system described here.

You’ll find that by knowing and setting your boundaries of your business that you can get higher returns due to less time wasted. Your customers will be happier as they are able to find things with less clutter. And you will be more focused in 2010 on your business leading to greater success.

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