Rave: A Gamer’s Look at Customer Relationship Management

June 18, 2007

By Richard Morochove

Customer relationship management can improve the way a business handles its dealings with prospects and customers. It helps a business keep the sales pipeline flowing to maintain a positive cash flow.

I’ve previously looked at 37signals’ Highrise, a simple Web-based CRM service, in an earlier column. Rave from Entellium offers a more feature-rich online CRM service than Highrise, though it’s pricier and requires more time to set up. Rave sports an interesting look and feel that’s inspired by what the company calls Gamer Influenced Design.

Rave’s lively “video game” look likely won’t appeal to the Willy Lomans in the sales force who still rely on their note-smudged index cards. Yet it could make light work of drudgery like entering contact details for younger sales staff who appreciate Rave’s bright colors and overall visual appeal. Priced at $400 per year per user, Rave offers reasonable value for a small to mid-sized business.

Rave’s Smart Client

Setting up Rave is a little more time consuming than using other online services that can be accessed using nothing more than a Web browser. In Rave’s case, you must first download and install Entellium’s proprietary client software on each PC that uses the service, then register for a Rave account.

Organizing a sales team is a little more complicated, but doesn’t require specialized IT support. Your sales manager can likely perform the customization and setup for other users in the business.

Once you log on to Rave, you’ll find plenty of online help available, including video tutorials. These aren’t structured as formal lessons, however. Rave is designed so that you can pick up tidbits of knowledge as you progress through the online application, a handy learn-as-you-go approach.

Rave makes liberal use of icons, such as star ratings for prospects, in place of text descriptions. Yet the user interface is not all play and no work. The payoff from installing Rave’s smart client becomes evident when you see how easy and time-saving it is to drag and drop information.

Online Service With Offline Option

Rave’s home page is like a dashboard that summarizes an individual’s sales activities, such as customer appointments, inbound and outbound phone calls, e-mails, tasks, and notes regarding contacts. Other main menu selections include the management of contacts, prospects, sales opportunities, activities, and reports.

Rave is designed to be used online; a broadband Internet connection is recommended for optimal performance. Entellium says its service provides 99.7 percent uptime. However, there’s also an offline mode that allows access to important data when you’re not online.

Furthermore, you are not limited to using only the data you enter while online. An import wizard steps you through the task of importing data from CSV and XML files. This can be useful for following up a list of trade show contacts, for example. You can also synchronize data with Microsoft Outlook.

Built-In Sales Activity Automation

Rave guides you through the process of turning a contact into a prospect with the aim of ultimately converting a sales opportunity to a customer. This guided process will assist most new and inexperienced sales staff, but the superfluous help may initially appear to be an albatross for the sales veteran.

Yet even the experienced salesperson can benefit from the automation of routine and repetitive tasks. Rave offers a number of built-in automation capabilities, many useful, others not so much. On one hand, you can easily schedule meetings and send e-mail newsletters to customers. On the other hand, consider the RSS Automator, which delivers newsfeeds with headlines relevant to your clients. I found most headlines irrelevant and saw the scrolling news links as more of a distraction than a selling aid. Thankfully, the RSS feed can be switched off.

Entellium plans to extend Rave’s utility by offering more integration with third-party apps and services from Google (AdWords and Maps) and Intuit (QuickBooks). I discussed Google AdWords in a previous column. Integration with AdWords can help determine which advertising keywords bring in the most customers.

Fresh Look at CRM

Rave is aimed at small to mid-sized businesses with 5 to 500 employees. Its engaging user interface offers a fresh look at CRM that will hold particular appeal to a younger sales force. Rave’s service costs $400 per year per user, though a free, limited capability, 30-day trial is available.

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Social Networks: Execs Use Them Too

June 18, 2007

Encover Chief Executive Officer Chip Overstreet was on the hunt for a new vice-president for sales. He had homed in on a promising candidate and dispensed with the glowing but unsurprising remarks from references. Now it was time to dig for any dirt. So he logged on to LinkedIn, an online business network. “I did 11 back-door checks on this guy and found people he had worked with at five of his last six companies,” says Overstreet, whose firm sells and manages service contracts for manufacturers. “It was incredibly powerful.”

So powerful, in fact, that more than a dozen sites like LinkedIn have cropped up in recent years. They’re responding to a growing impulse among Web users to build ties, communities, and networks online, fueling the popularity of sites like News Corp.’s (NWS) MySpace (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/12/05 “The MySpace Generation”). As of April, the 10 biggest social-networking sites, including MySpace, reached a combined unique audience of 68.8 million users, drawing in 45% of active Web users, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

Of course, corporations and smaller businesses haven’t embraced online business networks with nearly the same abandon as teens and college students who have flocked to social sites. Yet companies are steadily overcoming reservations and using the sites and related technology to craft potentially powerful business tools.

PASSIVE SEARCH.

Recruiters at Microsoft (MSFT) and Starbucks (SBUX), for instance, troll online networks such as LinkedIn for potential job candidates. Goldman Sachs (GS) and Deloitte run their own online alumni networks for hiring back former workers and strengthening bonds with alumni-cum-possible clients. Boston Consulting Group and law firm Duane Morris deploy enterprise software that tracks employee communications to uncover useful connections in other companies. And companies such as Intuit (INTU) and MINI USA have created customer networks to build brand loyalty.

Early adopters notwithstanding, many companies are leery of online networks. Executives don’t have time to field the possible influx of requests from acquaintances on business networks. Employees may be dismayed to learn their workplace uses e-mail monitoring software to help sales associates’ target pitches. Companies considering building online communities for advertising, branding, or marketing will need to cede some degree of control over content.

None of those concerns are holding back Carmen Hudson, manager of enterprise staffing at Starbucks, who says she swears by LinkedIn. “It’s one of the best things for finding mid-level executives,” she says.

The Holy Grail in recruiting is finding so-called passive candidates, people who are happy and productive working for other companies. LinkedIn, with its 6.7 million members, is a virtual Rolodex of these types. Hudson says she has hired three or four people this year as a result of connections through LinkedIn. “We’ve started asking our hiring managers to sign up on LinkedIn and help introduce us to their contacts,” she says. “People have concerns about privacy, but once we explain how we use it and how careful we would be with their contacts, they’re usually willing to do it.”

BOOMERANGS.

Headhunters and human-resources departments are taking note. “LinkedIn is a tremendous tool for recruiters,” says Bill Vick, the author of LinkedIn for Recruiting. So are sites such as Ryze, Spoke, OpenBc, and Ecademy (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/20/04, “The Perils and Promise of Online Schmoozing”).

Many companies are turning to social networks and related technology to stay in touch with former employees. Consulting firm Deloitte strives to maintain ties with ex-workers and has had a formal alumni-relations program for years. It bolstered those efforts earlier this year, tapping business networking services provider SelectMinds to launch an online alumni network.

Ex-Deloitte employees can go to the site to browse 900 postings for jobs at a range of companies. They can also peruse open positions at Deloitte. The online network is an extension of an offline program that includes networking receptions and seminars.

Deloitte makes no bones about its aim to use the network to lure back some former employees, or so-called boomerangs. “Last year, 20% of our experienced hires were boomerangs,” says Karen Palvisak, a national leader of alumni relations for Deloitte.

MARKETING NETWORKS.

Boomerangs cost less to train than new hires and they tend to hit the ground running. As the labor market tightens, alumni become an increasingly attractive source of talent. Last year, 13% of employees who had previously been laid off were rehired by their former employers, according to a survey of more than 14,000 displaced employees at 4,900 organizations by Right Management Consultants.

Not only do business-oriented networks help executives find employees, they’re increasingly useful in other areas, such as sales and marketing. When Campbell’s Soup (CPB) asked independent location booker Marilyn Jenett to select a castle in Europe for a promotion, she put a note on business networking site Ryze, offering a finder’s fee to anyone who could suggest the right place.

Jenett got seven responses, including one pointing her to Eastnor Castle. “It was the one castle that could suit us for everything which the others could not,” she says, adding that she was so pleased with the location that she booked it again for another event. Jenett says Ryze also helped her develop another small business, a personal mentoring program called Feel Free to Prosper.

Social networks also help forge community with, and among, would-be customers. In August, a group of MINI Cooper owners joined the company for its two-week cross-country car rally. Participants took part in company-sponsored events, such as the official wrap party overlooking the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline in New Jersey.

FREE HELP.

But they also planned their own side events along the way with the help of the community forums on the MINI Owner’s Lounge site, sponsored by MINI USA. Each month, about 1,500 to 2,000 new owners become active in the community. “Our very best salespeople are MINI owners, and they like to talk about their cars,” says Martha Crowley, director of consulting for Beam Interactive, which provides various Internet marketing services for MINI USA.

A handful of companies has found creative ways to harness social networks to provide customer service or conduct market research. Intuit tapped LiveWorld to start customer-service forums for its Quicken personal-finance software about a year ago. About 70% of all questions on the Quicken forum are answered by other customers, rather than Intuit employees.

“The most pleasant surprise in the Quicken community has been the desire of the members to help others,” says Scott Wilder, group manager of Intuit online communities. In November, Intuit plans to enhance member profiles and will add blogging and podcasting tools.

THE SECRET SNOOPER.

Social networking technology also can also help businesses search employee relationships for possible clients and other key contacts. Ed Schechter, chief marketing officer at Duane Morris, a law firm with 1,200 employees, estimates that about 75% to 80% of all employees’ relationships with possible clients are never entered into a customer relationship management system.

Duane Morris saw this firsthand recently, after it began testing software from Contact Networks, which helps businesses study employee communications and other data to pinpoint relationships between staff and potential clients. Within a matter of days, the software uncovered a key connection that the existing CRM software had failed to capture. “It showed a senior relationship that existed in our firm with them,” says Schechter. Duane Morris subsequently won the business, thanks in part to the Contact Networks discovery, Schechter says.

As helpful as they may be, networking tools like these can also reinforce executives’ worst fears surrounding social networking technology in the workplace. Many employees will find themselves uncomfortable with bosses mining their e-mail and calendaring applications for potential ties.

SLOWER GROWTH.

Boston Consulting Group has gotten around potential problems by ratcheting up privacy settings. While the system still tracks individual e-mail communication, it doesn’t automatically reveal the name of the contact. Instead it points employees to colleagues who may have a desired connection.

The group has been using the software since 2002, and now has about 200,000 contacts in the database. Analysts use those names to make contacts at other companies, primarily for trying to find out about certain industries. “We’ve done surveys where users say that over 50% of the time they find a useful contact,” says Simon Trussler, director of knowledge management at Boston Consulting Group.

Other businesses don’t find the issues quite so surmountable. Business networking sites have been much slower to gain members than social networks catering to a younger audience. LinkedIn was founded in May, 2003, two months before MySpace, but as of August, it had fewer than one-tenth the number of registered users. MySpace boasts more than 100 million member profiles. Other business networking sites—such as Ryze, OpenBC and Ecademy—all fell below the Nielsen/NetRatings reporting cutoff in July of 355,000 unique monthly visitors.

“ALWAYS AT WORK.”

Some companies shun social networking sites and tools because, by encouraging user participation, they inevitably force executives to cede control over content. Not only do businesses shy away from creating their own sites, they also put constraints on employee use of non-work-related sites.

Last year, the Automobile Club of Southern California fired 27 employees for work-related messages they posted on MySpace after a colleague complained about harassment. Companies can mitigate risk by clearly communicating expectations for employee conduct online, says Scott Allen, co-author of The Virtual Handshake, a book about online business networking.

However clearly the expectations are spelled out, some employees will feel their privacy has been violated, especially if they’re maintaining profiles on non-work-related sites on their own time and equipment. “A number of companies are using public social networks to spy on employees,” says Danah Boyd, a social media researcher and graduate student fellow at USC Annenberg Center for Communication.

This is particularly a problem when it comes to social networks such as MySpace, where younger workers may spend quite a bit of personal time. “You have to act like you’re always at work, and it doesn’t necessarily make people happy nor does it necessarily make good workers,” Boyd says.

FINDING BALANCE.

Executives’ use of networks can backfire too. “I left LinkedIn because I found I was connected to people I didn’t really know,” says Richard Guha, a partner at The New England Consulting Group who estimates he was connected to 300 people. Guha later rejoined LinkedIn and is now linked to about 43 people, a number he considers much more manageable.

Encover’s Overstreet is another executive who has found a way to make the most of networks. He says LinkedIn gives him a better picture of a job candidate and lessens the likelihood a potential employee can hide past work experiences. The extra reference checks showed Overstreet that his vice-president for sales candidate was not only a great salesman, but that he also had outstanding character. When eight of the back-door references volunteered information that the candidate had high integrity, Overstreet knew he had found himself a new vice-president. Sometimes, online references pay off.

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When Your Social Sites Need Networking

June 18, 2007

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Thursday Bram had become a social-networking butterfly. The recent graduate of the University of Tulsa moved to Laurel, Md., to work as a freelance writer and used online communities to stay in contact with pals near and far. Bram had profiles on MySpace (NWS), Facebook, Twitter, Flickr (YHOO), and LinkedIn. But before long she tired of flitting from one to the next. “I was hoping to sign up for something to bring them all together,” Bram says. So she turned to ProfileFly and Tabber, sites that help people do just that.

Within the last year, at least a dozen such aggregators have cropped up. Others include ProfileLinker and Dandelife.com. In January, Henri Duong and brothers Sony and Hong Le started SocialURL, yet another site that helps Web surfers manage increasingly intractable online social lives. “Every other week, social networks were springing up for specific niches and market demographics,” says Duong. So far, 10,000 have signed up for the site. Among them is Tom Krieglstein, 26, whose profile contains links to his MySpace, Facebook, Flickr, and del.icio.us pages, as well as his two Typepad blogs. Krieglstein, founder of a startup educational company, Swift Kick, even imported his YouTube (GOOG) videos, including the one where he proposed to his fiancée.

Pulling Together Content

For people who belong to only one or two networks, signing up with an aggregation service may make little sense. But many people amass far more networks than that. SocialURL’s founders say females who use the service belong to about 10 sites, while males belong to about half as many. “The average human will be a member of five to seven different networks,” says Marc Canter, chief executive officer of Broadband Mechanics, which has a service called PeopleAggregator that connects various networks.

Krieglstein wanted a collection page for the links to his various profiles and other public content spread around the Web and has been testing aggregators to see which one best fits his needs. So far, his favorite is Dandelife because it not only lets him import all manner of links and media onto his profile page but it has added features, such as a timeline of his life.

As useful as these sites may be in pulling together information from other sites onto a single location, they’re less helpful when it comes to sending updates to those various sites. In many cases, that’s because social networks don’t want to share traffic and associated ad dollars with other sites, requiring users to log in before making changes or communicating with friends. “Will a profile aggregator siphon traffic away?” says Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst at eMarketer. “If so, the social networks won’t like it very much and will try to shut down the service.”

Networks Open to Aggregators?

MySpace tries to accommodate users who want to post content from third parties, such as video clips or other so-called widgets, but shows little tolerance when that content contains a commercial message (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/12/07, “MySpace Plays Chicken with Users”).

Facebook has shown a high degree of openness to working with other sites. Last year, the site opened its network to third-party developers and in May it introduced a system that lets outside developers create applications that can be integrated with Facebook (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/24/07, “Facebook Aims to Socialize All Online Services”).

ProfileFly recently took advantage of that new openness and launched a widget that lets Facebook users bring links from their ProfileFly.com account directly into their Facebook profile pages. It’s one of the first instances of a major social-networking site linking to a social-network aggregator.

Privacy for Some Profiles

Even if sites like ProfileFly succeed in winning over social networks, they have plenty of other hurdles, starting with privacy. For instance, a job applicant may not want Flickr photos of last night’s kegger a click away from a LinkedIn profile. “My LinkedIn profile is very different from my LiveJournal profile,” says Bram.

That’s a lesson she learned the hard way. When Bram worked as a managing editor for The Collegian, the University of Tulsa campus newspaper, she published an article critical of the way the student government was doling out funds to certain organizations. Some students took offense and retaliated by using her Facebook account to find a photo of Bram making what she calls “an inappropriate gesture.” A photocopy of the photo ended up being plastered all over campus. “I’m concerned about how much information a person can access about you,” says Bram.

Some folks are content to keep their networks separate for other reasons. As people move to different stages of their lives, they often move to new social networks, rather than delete old acquaintances, says Danah Boyd, a social-media researcher and graduate student fellow at University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication. “The only reason people delete each other from a network is because of a vicious breakup,” says Boyd. Old social-networking accounts are often like time capsules, akin to a high school yearbook, she says. In cases like that, it may not make sense to aggregate sites, she says.

Missing the MySpace Experience

About nine months ago Harrison Tang and three friends from Stanford started a social-network aggregator, Spokeo. The site acted like an easy-to-use “really simple syndication,” or RSS, reader for new blog entries, YouTube videos, photos, and other social-networking feeds. Yet it didn’t go as planned. “A social network is like a community and you can’t really integrate communities,” says Tang. “They have personalities. People who like MySpace don’t like Facebook, and vice versa.” In May, Tang and his colleagues shuttered Spokeo.

Indeed, people can have many different roles in their lives, some of which may be conflicting. Someone may be a mother, an employee, and a gambler, and people may not want to connect these roles, says Broadband Mechanics’ Canter. However Canter suggests that using personas for each of these roles might solve the problem and that people may choose to aggregate specific roles. “Maybe you will want all the mom and church Web sites to connect together,” he says, adding that the ability to have separate personas will eventually be included in his product.

Others say that social-networking aggregators, as they operate today, take people out of the immediate experience of a social-networking site such as MySpace or Facebook, which they may enjoy. While Spokeo was still operating, Rob Lindsey, 30, signed up to test it out. The freelance Web developer from Columbia, S.C., uses MySpace every day to keep up with his 120 friends there, but he also visits Friendster and Facebook a few times a week. Lindsey says 95% of his MySpace friends are actual friends and he uses it to catch up with people he sees in the real world and to plan real-life events. But he found that with Spokeo, he felt pulled out of the experience of the social network and missed the interaction. “You’re reading updates and your friends become news rather than being friends,” he says.

Next: Built into Browsers

Ultimately, Canter says that when we get to the point where open standards proliferate and customers can control their data and move them around however they want, there won’t be a need for separate aggregators. For instance, in the future, Canter says that users might want to create a direct relationship with someone who is on a different network, post content from one platform onto another network, or even create a group across networks. “The aggregation of the profile should be inherent in each system,” says Canter who adds that most of the social-networking aggregators on the market today are a temporary fix while the industry catches up. In the future, that integration could even happen in the browser, he says.

Williamson of eMarketer points out that Mozilla is developing a Firefox add-on called The Coop that will add social tools to the Web browser. The browser will let users essentially “subscribe” to a friend and easily keep track of that person’s pictures, movies, blog posts, and other new information as it comes along. The browser will show friends’ faces; to share a photo or other information with a friend will simply require dragging that item onto the friend’s face. Says Williamson, “You don’t have to visit a Web page—it’s all part of your browser and I think we may ultimately be headed in that direction.”

But until the job is done by the Web browser or the networks themselves, many people will likely turn to other tools to manage their crowded social-network lives.


Social Networking Goes Offline

June 16, 2007

I started using MeetIn.org two months ago, having found myself a social butterfly with its wings clipped. My best friend had bought her first home and was busy caulking the bathtub and painting walls. Another buddy was getting ready for her first baby. Yet another was working two jobs. After spending one more Sunday weeding my yard, it dawned on me that I needed to find more friends to join me for hikes and concerts.

But making new friends is not easy, even in Portland, Ore., a superfriendly city. I am too shy to initiate conversations with strangers at my favorite bookstore, the gym, or lectures. At first, the Web didn’t look too promising, since the only new people who ever seem to contact me through my page on MySpace (NWS) are spammers selling Viagra. Then a friend told me about MeetIn.org, an online social network designed to help people find new friends—not the romantic kind—to do fun stuff with in the real world.

Millions Reach Beyond Cyberspace

Apparently I’m not alone in my quest for offline friendships. Social networking sites that attempt to go beyond the conventional, online-only services offered by the likes of MySpace and Evite Evite have been enjoying stellar growth. MeetIn’s user base has nearly doubled, vs. a year ago, to 75,000 people in 90 cities worldwide. Other sites focused on getting people together offline report strong growth as well. Launched five months ago, nightclub-oriented MingleNow.com already boasts 1 million users.

With MeetIn you set up a profile, which can include your photo, age, and brief sections on education and interests (MeetIn’s largest and most active chapter is in Portland, where more than 6,600 people have created profiles). Each member can post invites to events—dinners, concerts, salsa dancing, Frisbee outings—for others to join. The Portland contingent posts about 150 events a month. Promotional and singles events are a no-no. “I was very, very nervous and apprehensive,” remembers Joanne Couchman, who came to her first MeetIn event in 2005, after she and her boyfriend relocated to Portland from the East Coast. “But I walked in and these people made me feel like I’ve known them forever.”

The similarly named MeetUp.com, which helps people find events ranging from scrapbooking to lectures on social justice, has seen the number of RSVPs on its site double in the past five months. To keep up with the growth, MeetUp plans to double its staff this year to 60 people, says Scott Heiferman, co-founder of the site. “We are growing faster than ever.”

Finding the Right Niche

That this physical-world extension of social networking is catching on makes sense given the way members of the most popular sites are already using the services. In a survey of 3,357 people between 12 and 21 years old, 22% of those who identified themselves as MySpace users said they use the site to look for event information, according to Forrester Research (FORR) (BusinessWeek.com, 12/12/05, “The MySpace Generation”). So do 30% of Facebook users, even though neither site had well-developed event-planning capabilities. It’s not always easy to post and disseminate event photos or send out invites. And the events that are listed aren’t always appealing: When I searched MySpace’s Portland events, a marijuana party and several adult events topped the list, though there were some dance outings and parties that were more to my liking.

It’s also a bit overwhelming to search for new friends on such giant networks—the No. 2 reason, behind connecting with existing friends, why people join these sites in the first place. There are 183 million registered users of MySpace, and a search for members living within five miles of my home returned nearly 300 results. “MySpace’s biggest problem is its popularity,” says Emily Riley, an analyst at consultancy JupiterResearch. “There’s an opportunity for smaller, targeted sites.” Sensing that opportunity, MingleNow lets users register and log in using their MySpace and Facebook log-ins. Eventful.com allows users to embed its widget into other sites like MySpace to promote listings for events such as concerts and political gatherings.

Smaller social networks are starting to experiment with offline event planning as well. Eons.com, a social network for baby boomers, invited members to a spaghetti dinner and a lecture in Boston earlier this year. The quick flood of RSVP’s took up all 100 available spots within hours, so Eons.com is planning four offline events for the fall, says Jeff Taylor, the site’s founder and chief executive officer, and former head honcho at job search site Monster.com. “People can be a little skeptical about [an online network’s] value proposition,” Taylor explains. “Face-to-face meetings are very reassuring. People are feeling they are really getting to know each other.”

With event planning spread across the Web, legendary venture capitalist Esther Dyson has already invested in two such companies: Eventful.com, offering listings of 4 million events worldwide, and MeetUp.com, in whose headquarters she’s now established her office. “I am a big believer in face-to-face,” says Dyson, an early backer of hot Web properties such as the photo-sharing site Flickr.com, now part of Yahoo! (YHOO). “People still have hunger for other people. We are still chemical and not electronic.”

Making Meetings Pay

In a jab at MySpace, Dyson adds, “There’s a fundamental difference between virtual spaces where people go to see ads and [Web sites] where people go to meet each other.” In fact, the big social networks may yet end up acquiring event sites to beef up their offerings, says Charlene Li, an analyst at Forrester.

The tricky part, as always, is making money from these services. Online advertising seems to work for some: MingleNow.com, making ends meet through sponsorships and ads from the likes of Virgin Mobile USA, is already profitable and on track to book more than $1 million in revenue in its first year, says CEO Gurbaksh Chahal. MeetUp.com is trying a different business model: It charges event organizers, such as community groups, to post events. The outfit, which facilitated more than 51,000 events in May alone, says its revenue is growing 10% a month.

And then there’s MeetIn.org, which scrapes by on some $8,000 a year in unsolicited donations from members. Mike Heard, who started MeetIn with a $500 Dell (DELL) computer, still manages to run and code the site while working a full-time job as a computer programmer in Washington, D.C. “It’s my way of giving back,” he says. “You kind of turn a big city into a small town.”


Create a Customized Web Portal With Netvibes

June 14, 2007

By Scott Spanbauer

Thanks to the timeliness and ubiquity of addictive community sites such as Craigslist, Digg, Flickr, and YouTube, not to mention the Web versions of newspapers, radio stations, and TV networks, Internet-connected computers are quickly replacing broadcast and print media as our primary source of information on happenings around the world. Walter Cronkite, we hardly knew ye.

But the Web’s wealth of offerings also presents a problem. Although tabbed browsers that support RSS permit you to stay current with a handful of feeds, the truly Web-addicted require more powerful resources to retrieve and present the latest updates of all their favorite Web sites. iGoogle, My Yahoo, Windows Live, and other personalized home pages do precisely that by combining RSS feeds, e-mail tickers, application widgets, and search tools into customizable screen layouts.

Personally, I prefer Netvibes, a service that allows you to share individual pages you’ve created with other people, and to publish multipage sites for the whole world to see. For a great example of how the Netvibes Universe service works, visit PC World’s Universe page.

Creating your own Netvibes page is a snap. Browse to www.netvibes.com, and click Sign In, then Sign up now. Enter your e-mail address (which the service uses as your log-in name) and create a password. Don’t use your e-mail account’s password; make up a different one for Netvibes. Your Netvibes page is now ready to customize as you wish.

If Netvibes doesn’t list a feed you’re interested in, you can add it manually: Visit the Web page containing a link to the feed, right-click the link, and choose Copy Link Location in Firefox or Copy Shortcut in Internet Explorer 7. Switch to your Netvibes page, click Add a feed, paste the feed URL into the Address field, and click Add. Individual feeds or modules may contain settings menus for adjusting how many story headlines are listed and other configuration details such as log-in name and password, if required.

Netvibes also lets you control the design of the overall page, and create additional pages. To maximize the space available for feeds and other content, disable your site’s title and redundant search field: Choose Settings in the window’s upper-right corner, select General settings, uncheck both Display page title and Display search area, and then click Done.

You can create your own Netvibes widgets if you know JavaScript, and those widgets will even work with iGoogle. Netvibes also makes it easy to customize the overall look of your page using the service’s Themes and Wallpapers options. Choose Settings, Themes to select a predesigned theme, or click Create my own theme to choose from a palette of colors available for the various page and module header backgrounds. You can also select Wallpapers to configure your Netvibes page to use an image from the Web for its header or main body background images, and to adjust the height of the header to accommodate its wallpaper image.

 

Feeling Creative? Go Nuts With Your Netvibes Hacks

Serious Netvibes customizers can create their own backgrounds for pages and feeds, as well as tweak other settings for their page layouts, using the Netvibes Customize module. To install it, click Get more modules to open the Netvibes Ecosystem directory. Next, choose the Modules tab, and enter its name in the search field. While you’re in the Ecosystem, browse the amazing clocks, calendars, games, cartoons, and other shared feeds, tabs, and Universe pages.

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Social Networking: Closer Than You Think

June 12, 2007

Personal or social networks are groups of individuals who are related to each other by specific types of relationships, such as school, work, family, and friends. Since referrals account for approximately 30% of external hires regardless of the size of the organization, you should start exploring social-networking sites as a way to expand your universe of contacts.

Social-networking sites, such as Facebook, MySpace (NWS), and LinkedIn, are among the most visited sites on the Internet—just behind the major search engines—according to Internet traffic-monitoring service Alexa.

The demographics of MySpace and Facebook are younger than those of the general population. Facebook, the leading site for college students, lists more than 3 million users ages 25 to 34, 400,000 users from 35 to 44, and more than 100,000 who are 45 and older. LinkedIn boasts a membership of 8 million professionals. Most user profiles are richer than any standard résumé in content and context.

Building a social network online is fast—you can click and e-mail your way to a large network almost instantly. Whether you are looking to hire people or for employment, such networks can be a future source of jobs and talent. Here are some guidelines for getting connected.

Job Seekers: Start Getting Connected

First, identify a social network that you feel comfortable joining. For example, MySpace has different “networks” such as Technology and Marketing that facilitate access to people in these fields. When deciding which site to join, browse the sites’ different networks and subfields to determine which have areas that meet your needs or interests.

Next, build your profile carefully, making sure that the information is accurate. Profiles are generally considered public, so don’t include anything you wouldn’t want everyone to know, such as information that could hamper your job search efforts (e.g., salary information or excruciating detail about social activities). Review other profiles and match their style and content when building your own. A strong word of caution: The Internet has a long memory. Confidential or inappropriate information can be unearthed easily by a recruiter, supervisor, or anyone else with an Internet connection—often for years to come.

Once you build a profile, start connecting with other members and invite your current contacts to join. The more connections you make, the more likely you are to reach someone of importance to you. Just one contact can lead to thousands of networked contacts without a single phone call. This is one of the reasons LinkedIn has more than 100,000 recruiters as members.

Build relationships by regularly sharing information, such as commenting on a person’s profile, article, or blog. A deeper online profile enhances your importance to the community, increasing the likelihood a target employer will notice you. If the profile shows depth of experience and expert opinion on relevant topics, it can help differentiate one candidate from another. Recruiters regularly Google candidates and check social-networking boards to find out more about an individual.

Even if you are not looking for a job, recruiters may be looking for you. By demonstrating your expertise in certain industries, you may be presented with better job opportunities. Also, by frequently sharing information, you can potentially build an industry reputation that may benefit you when job hunting in the future. College students can use social-networking sites to develop relationships with professionals that may assist them in finding jobs after graduation.

Employers: Start Building Communities

The ability to get in touch with the right person at the right time is important to employers as well as job seekers. Online communities—people with like interests, demographics, and backgrounds—are a recruiter’s dream. The ability to target an employment opportunity and tailor the message to a specific demographic is very powerful.

Targeted messaging and searching are only the beginning, however; employers need to start building their own online social networks for the hard-to-find talent they want to attract to the company. For example, by building a networking site for accountants, a company in this field could become privy to relevant information and potentially become an industry leader. Having a ready pool of specialized talent interacting regularly with the company is the electronic equivalent of employee referrals. As new positions open, the exclusive pool of talent is easily accessible, profiled, knowledgeable about the company, and probably interested in discussing employment opportunities.

Although building a social-networking site may not be for every company, simply using existing networking sites can offer much. Employers should look at online profiles much the way they view résumés—considering work experience and duration, education, group memberships, location, and so forth. However, online profiles can provide more information to determine industry expertise or qualifications for the position, such as blogs, posts on discussion boards, and various communications with other members of industry networks.

Don’t Throw Out the Rolodex

Job seekers and future job seekers: Get online and get connected. MySpace might not be the right place to build your professional profile and relationships, but there is a social-networking site that’s right for you.

Employers, your recruiters should be networking online and you should evaluate your own social presence. Job boards are not going to disappear overnight, but recruitment is moving rapidly toward social networking. It has always been about who you know; now you can know a lot more people.

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Transformation is the first step in outsourcing

June 4, 2007

At the age of 25, Marco Cullen has just joined the global sourcing revolution. He graduated this summer from King’s College London with a degree in electrical engineering and is one of a group of 25 graduates from 12 UK universities who will spend the next six months in Mysore, India, on the Global Talent Programme run by Infosys, the Indian outsourcing specialist.

They will learn first-hand how their new employer uses its considerable global network to deliver IT services to multinational companies such as Boeing, DaimlerChrysler and Philips.

Naturally, Mr Cullen is excited. “Working for Infosys and being part of its Global Talent Programme will open doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. The people I will meet through this programme, the relationships I’ll foster and the internationally recognised skills I will gain will stay with me for life,” he says.

Plus, he adds, he’s never been to India.

For Infosys, meanwhile, the programme is a vital element of its aggressive global expansion plans. “In joining a global 8,000-strong community on the Mysore campus that includes trainees from India, the US, Australia and Japan, the UK graduates will be exposed to new cultures and ways of thinking,” says BG Srinivas, head of its EMEA region operations.

“Over time, that community will enable Infosys to become more embedded in the wide range of countries and communities we operate in.”

Infosys is just one of a number of Indian outsourcing providers that have seen their fortunes rocket as companies worldwide have looked to offshore providers to achieve the rapid business transformation that they themselves failed to achieve for years via process redesign, enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations and shared service initiatives.

It took Infosys 23 years, for example, to reach total sales of $1bn, a milestone it passed in the financial year ending March 2004. This year, it is expected to add $1bn in sales in a mere 12 months, to reach total revenues of $4bn.

And it is not only Indian suppliers that have benefited from global sourcing trends.

A large part of the success of British outsourcing provider Xansa, according to company chairman Bill Alexander, is due the fact that in the late 1990s, it was the first UK supplier to realise the potential of carrying out much of its client work in India.

Today, while 99 per cent of Xansa’s business comes from UK clients, more than half its 8,000 employees are based in India, from Pune to Chennai. “As a result, we’ve been able to tap into a great talent pool, where the quality and skills of the people available never fails to impress and delight me,” says Mr Alexander.

For many outsourcing customers, meanwhile, the term “labour arbitrage” has become common parlance as they have sought to locate business functions with providers working in geographies where wages are lower.

Now, many are reassessing labour arbitrage as the main driver of their outsourcing decisions, says Ian Marriott of industry analyst company Gartner. “They’re realising that basing outsourcing decisions on nothing more than cost reduction doesn’t tend to result in good outcomes,” he says.

For one thing, says Clive Longbottom of analyst company Quocirca, global economic trends mean that labour arbitrage is a moveable feast and, as wages have spiralled in more established markets such as India, outsourcing companies have been forced to look to new territories in Asia and eastern Europe to keep costs down.

“But a strategy based on following arbitrage dynamics as they move around the world can negate any cost savings that could possibly be made, and this has a direct knock-on effect for clients, in terms of both cost and quality of services provided,” he warns.

This does not mean an end to the popularity of offshore outsourcing, he adds: “Far from it. All it means is that, for customers, it must be done for the right reasons, and with the right controls.”

That view is echoed elsewhere. In July 2007, management consultants at Deloitte warned that their research into the offshoring strategies of financial services companies suggested that a rethink of global sourcing strategies was long overdue.

“Most organisations [in our survey] have taken advantage of offshoring, but the key challenge is to optimise operations. In other words, they need to progress beyond pure labour arbitrage benefits by re-engineering business processes to make them world-class,” they said.

Companies in the survey that had successfully done that, they said, had achieved savings equivalent to 3 per cent of their total cost base. But those that had failed to apply best practices had, in some instances, experienced a decline in their operational performance. In many cases, the legacy inefficiencies of older, onshore processes had merely been transferred to an offshore location.

What is needed is an approach in which business processes are re-engineered for improvement before they are taken offshore, says Joel Roques, managing director of Hackett Group, a strategic advisory firm that assists global companies in their sourcing strategies.

According to Mr Roques, while the potential for companies to reduce costs by offshoring back office operations is dramatic, European companies can potentially increase these savings by 40 per cent by selectively integrating transformation and process improvement efforts into their global sourcing initiatives.

That is based on information kept in Hackett Group’s vast database of performance metrics captured in more than 4,000 benchmark studies of the best-practice business processes used by market-leading companies.

That information is made accessible to Hackett Group clients, who then work with the company to remodel their business processes along the same lines as world leaders, often before signing an outsourcing agreement.

Using data held in that repository, analysts at Hackett Group recently estimated that Europe’s 500 largest companies could generate annual cost savings of more than €67bn, or an average of about €134m per company, by opting for “transform and shift” initiatives, where processes are optimised and then taken offshore, instead of “lift and shift” efforts, where existing processes are moved overseas.

As this change in thinking takes hold among prospective clients, and their demands become more sophisticated, outsourcing companies are adopting a different language to engage with them, and at the same time, looking to deliver an increasingly broader range of business consulting services.

“These days, we don’t use the term ‘outsourcing’ much with our clients – it suggests to them that they are throwing a business over a wall for someone else to carry out on their behalf and they just don’t want to do that,” says Ross Perot junior, chairman of US outsourcing companies Perot Systems.

“Instead, we talk to them about business transformation, about how we can work with them to make them world-class.”

“We’re definitely seeing a greater level of maturity among our customers,” agrees PR Chandresekar, president of the Americas and Europe at Indian outsourcer Wipro Technologies.

“The size, scope and complexity of contracts are all changing to reflect more mature needs and demands. Smart companies now ask us not how much we can save them, but how we can improve their processes and their productivity,” he says.

According Mr Marriott at Gartner, companies considering offshore outsourcing should closely scrutinise an outsourcer’s track record in delivering business process improvements and seek out relevant customer references to back up their claims before signing any deal.

In addition, he says, they should establish a formal country selection process, with the three top criteria being quality and availability of skilled resources; language proficiency and affinity; and infrastructure quality and reliability for business continuity.

Those who do not take a rigorous approach to global sourcing run a serious risk of disappointment, adds Mr Longbottom of Quocirca. “Any outsourcing contract should be signed for the right reason and that’s because a provider can perform a task more efficiently and more effectively than the client can itself.

“Companies should be offloading such functions only if it allows them to become more flexible and if the deal leads to corporate value being increased. If the only reason behind a deal is cheaper cost, then the company involved deserves the level of service they may well receive.”

By Jessica Twentyman

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