Harvard’s Cyberposium

by Dave Michels

Harvard hosts an event called a Cyberposium where hundreds of business school students gather to hear from tech company founders and visionaries. I did not attend the event, but read a post at GigaOm by Barb Darrow where she identifies five surprising themes. I want to add my two cents to her five points.

  1. Founders who lack co-founders fail. I believe this to be true. Obviously there are exceptions. The famous examples are Microsoft (Gates/Allen), Google (Page/Brin), Apple (Jobs/Wozniak). and Polycom (Rodman/Hinman). Facebook  is a possible exception – perhaps Zuckerberg and Winklevoss twins?The problem is partnerships are very difficult. I hear far more about failed partnerships than successful ones. Partnerships are difficult because long term plans and goals shift, especially when set at a young age. I often caution against partnerships, and insist that founders be very clear including a prenup or plan for separation. It’s a rock and a hardspot – super tough alone, and success with partnerships is stacked against you.

    It is actually very similar to music groups, finding a group of teen or 2x year olds that can agree on a long term artistic, business, and inter-personal relationship like the Stones and Beatles is a very rare thing – as is making it alone. Many great bands don’t make it after they break up – there is power and risk in collaboration.

  2. It’s not just the software, stupid. The point here is elegant design, as with tablets, is still critical on hardware. This is an obvious correction to the over simplification that software is all that matters. Obviously hardware still matters – Apple has proved this, and now both Microsoft and Google are jumping into hardware for the first time.This isn’t Ketchup vs. Mustard, obviously the whole package is what matters. However, hardware is far less important than it once was as most (not all) problems are now solved exclusively within software. It’s called dematerialization, and it does matter.

    Newspapers were physical – they involved huge presses, huge inventory (ink and paper), and a distribution system. Faulty presses killed a paper, and sophisticated presses maintained a huge barrier to entry. Once the newspaper dematerialized, the game changed, and many newspapers didn’t survive the change. Similar stories for music and books. One airplane tickets when virtual, travel agents started disappearing.

    Dematerialization has not stopped, and it is relevant to enterprise communications as well. The UC/Telephony channel was built around hardware – connecting proprietary dedicated wires to proprietary dedicated computers that used more dedicated wires to reach proprietary dedicated endpoints. Dealers were local with inventory. Fast forward to the present, we have telecom services instead of servers (likely not local), or software that runs on industry standard (or virtualized) servers, using softphone endpoints. The game has changed. Try telling a UC vendor “it’s the not just the software, stupid” and get punched in the throat.

    On the other hand, tell a customer they can use their iPad or iPhone instead of a desk phone and you might win the deal. So yes, hardware is important, but in a different way than ever before.

  3. People love to love to electronic dance music. This point is really about untested assumptions about consumer preferences often miss the mark. Ok.
  4. Designers use badly designed design tools. This point is really about the age old problem that small markets (such as human factor and ergonomics or electronic design tools) can’t attract affordable quality software. Thus specialized solutions tend to be esoteric and expensive. No big deal here, but what’s missing is the key point:The answer to this is to use products designed for mass markets or what we commonly refer to as a consumerization. The iPad starts at $600 – it can do voice, video, mobility, and other apps. No desktop hardware in the UC space could touch that. Consider the Avaya Desktop Video Device at about three times the price and a fraction of the apps (ADVD is still available, the Cisco Cius was discontinued).

    Consumerization applies to software too – simple SaaS aimed at consumers – including services from the likes of 8×8 or Vonage – can often solve business problems quicker, easier, cheaper, and better than enterprise UC applications. There is currently a surge of solutions and innovation in new “consumer” collaboration services. I believe we will continue to see the pendulum swing toward mass market consumer stuff for a while.

  5. Enterprise social tools are great if the culture is right. This is my favorite. The article shares the occurance about getting fired for posting an opinion about the CEO on a corporate social network. That does happen. Social networks are powerful things was are email accounts and telephones. Social networks change the dynamics of inclusive and exclusive conversations (compared to email), and they better leverage weak ties.However, social tools are new – and many are not prepared for how best to use them (appropriate behavior). In grade schools they use a term called cyber-bullying. Officially, bullies don’t graduate schools – that is they don’t exist in corporations. Instead, the office has evil and manipulative colleagues. Organizations with lots of these, as well as unprepared or untrusted staff often impress me with immature practices: VP approvals on travel forms, blocking traffic to YouTube, restricted long distance on phones, and so on. If your company has a culture of trust and sharing – then social networks will work just great. Else, stick with email or carbon paper, or plan a major campaign on appropriate use.