I've spent endless hours angsting about 'social business' and 'social enterprise.' To me, these expressions of whatever the heck a mish mash of social networks and 140 character messaging plus mobile, gamification and g-d knows what else have always been too vague, too fluffy, too PR/marketing centric. Plenty of well meaning people have tried to make sense of it all, tried to offer use cases but no-one has convinced me how you put a stake in the ground and described clearly defined positions that can be generalised with any degree of meaning.
Even Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry standing on stage at Dreamforce 2011 declaring that all businesses need to be social businesses in five years time did little to help me have an ah-ha moment. Even the recent realisation and emphasis upon people and 'culture' rather than technology only leaves me thinking 'So what?' Why? Because there is nothing fundamentally new or revealing in what's been said.
For anyone with more than five minutes business experience, much of what is uttered, pontificated, PowerPointed and lauded at best demonstrates an astonishing lack of insight into how any of this 'stuff' is supposed to work. Unless you mean blowing up established business models. Neither has anyone truly expressed an understanding of how business really ticks. Almost no-one, with the notable exception of Sigurd Rinde acknowledges that much of what makes quantum difference means dealing with messy, barely repeatable problems. That was until last week when I was briefed on tibbr 3.5 and tibbrGEO.
Disclosure: I undertook a tiny advisory project for TIBCO last year. Beyond that, we have no commercial relationship.
Concrete, complex examples
Last week, the company showed me what they are doing with geo-location as the latest big addition to the tibbr solution. This is way more than mashing up Google Maps, although that can be done. How about bring your own maps for say drilling rigs in oil fields? More important to me tibbr is rapidly evolving into a real time enterprise level problem solving solution. It doesn't have the same grab you by the throat kudos as 'social enterprise' but then enterprise is boring - right? Wrong. Here's an example.
What if a merchandiser is walking through a store and sees that certain products are running low. Take a snapshot, include that as a message to the merchandising group to which she is subscribed with a request for replenishment. That might start a stock call off process either at the warehouse or at a supplier. Hang one. Doesn't the retail inventory system handle this? Maybe and maybe not. Even if it does, how do we know the inventory held in the books is accurate? Where the heck is that inventory? What if there has been a sudden run on a certain stock and the inventory batch systems are down or not up to date? And just to add spice into the equation, what if there were clusters of similar reports coming in? How do you coordinate efficient and effective deliveries? tibbr and now tibbrGEO can start to help solve these problems at both the systems and business levels. That is because TIBCO has understood the most important insight for these styles of applications: people respond to events and it is events that need capturing, understanding, analysing then pushed back into process in whatever way needs to work.
Here's another example. As passengers are boarding a flight, final external inspections reveal a dent in one of the wings. Is it critical or can the plane fly? Take a snapshot and broadcast to the on the ground maintenance teams for review and consideration of a possible solution. What if the dent proves critical - what do you do with the passengers? Can they be put onto another flight? Will they be substantially delayed? Can the plane be repaired in an acceptable amount of time? Where are the necessary parts and what about the availability of the maintenance crews? The answers to all these questions depend on the coordinated and collaborative actions taken between people and subjects from among cross functional and diverse groups. They all require the kicking off and execution of business processes which are barely repeatable in isolation but which impact business performance and customer satisfaction. Since tibbr takes advantage of TIBCOs many years experience in systems integration and can solicit instant feedback from other systems AND people, the likelihood of avoiding significant impact to both customers and operations is dramatically improved. Provided of course that the airline company has those systems interconnected in place. For what it is worth - that is a real life example I experienced but without the benefit of tibbr. It was pandemonium.
I could go on with more examples but you should be getting a flavor of what I'm seeing and how problem solving represents a much better way of articulating how the various so-called social technology threads are pulled together in both a meaningful and purposeful way. Is it a winning formula? On its face I'd say yes but if life was that simple the game would already be won.
Betting on HTML5
On the technology front, TIBCO has placed its bet on HTML5 but is taking a hybrid approach to mobile. The idea is that the end user sees a consistent experience through HTML5 but that for certain functions, they develop as a native application. This is sensible given that mobile resembles the early days of Unix when you had to develop for many flavors. As a side note, I asked the company whether there are discernible patterns of OS emerging among their global customer base. The answer depends on which geography you want to discuss but the overall answer is no. RIM, OSX, Windows and multiple versions of Android can all be found in clusters but among its enterprise customer base you cannot simply argue that engineering should concentrate on one or other OS. hence the decision to go hybrid. The one exception is tablet where iPad is by far the most popular choice. That does not surprise given current global sales estimates.
One million active users in a year
Last year when tibbr was in its relatively early stages of development, the company let slip that Vivek Ranadivé, TIBCO CEO thought tibbr and its direction could represent a larger revenue stream than all its other solutions. That's a BIG statement for a company tracking $920 million in revenue. Where are they up to?
- In its first full year, TIBCO has signed some 60 customers and estimates it has around one million active users.
- It is signing multi-million dollar deals. Revenue rules do not allow TIBCO to give out precise information into the public domain. I'll give this a shot - if they're not close to hitting $50 million in revenue from this source, I would be surprised.
- The company is building a stand alone specialized tibbr sales force to augment the global sales force.
- It is providing the secure, socialised network application to world leaders attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.
- TIBCO has attracted 20 specialized tibbr partners who are starting to bring in deals.
- Deal cycles are relatively short compared to its traditional integration and tools business. This is helped by a free 60 day trial. In the last three weeks TIBCO activated over 1000 instances from companies as far away as Vietnam and Philippines alongside its traditional markets.
TIBCO is devoting increased resources to helping customers not only adopt tibbr but also co-create solutions that solve business problems. Many of those customers are active users of TIBCO integration technology. That gives TIBCO a natural market they can readily approach. It strikes me this is more likely to succeed than the more broadly drawn and consumer led approach characterised by Salesforce.com. It may be that TIBCO customers present problems that naturally suggest collaborative solutions. Providing an environment and support services that pulls together people and systems makes for an easier on-ramp to large scale use. Salesforce.com will argue that its partner network is achieving much the same thing through a combination of Force.com applications and its own CRM. I find that argument less convincing except for modest point solutions. There are plenty of those but are they capable of being productised? I have not seen a lot of evidence to suggest that is the case. TIBCOs history is one of application agnosticism. It is an inclusive technology. But there is something else in play which suggests much bigger things.
A tantalising future?
During our conversation, TIBCO showed me some of the leading edge work they are doing around what it calls multiple subjects. The best way to understand this is to think about holding a portfolio of customers that buy multiple products. Some of those products may require collaboration among colleagues in order to build an optimal portfolio sale. In these circumstances, decision processes will almost always require augmentation by a variety of other information and intelligence, perhaps from many systems. Pulling all that together into a real time feed that is coherent to team members and individuals is not trivial but it is something that TIBCO can manage. It means that reliance upon a CRM becomes less relevant, apart from the initial pipeline feed. TIBCO confirms that the way it sees usage reduces dependence upon traditional CRM. In other words, tibbr's evolution is leading towards a very different view of what CRM means at the technology layer but driven by new behaviors emerging from this technology use. Think about what this means. Database driven applications of the kind we are familiar start to go away. We don't lose the need for data but the database itself is nno longer the be all and end all of application design.
TIBCO has always impressed me by the way it quietly goes about its business, solving big business problems with almost no marketing budget to speak of. The company prefers to devote its resources to engineering. The speed at which they are building a problem solving solution business has surprised me. They are clearly onto something that is different to the usual fare. They have understood that while people are central to the effective use of socialised applications, it is by giving equal weight to surfacing machine and systems generated data that business achieves a higher order benefit. If my assessment is correct, then TIBCO is giving us a glimpse of what the business to business market for this class of solution looks like. It is a story well worth following.