Irresponsible Retirement

A colleague recently described to me a professional meeting he attended for an industry that’s experiencing tremendous market pressures due to changes in technology. He characterized the attitudes of many old-school, late-career executives (who have been living in denial of the fundamental challenges) as “I just hope I can prop things up and keep them running for another 5 years so I can retire.”

Using retirement as an excuse for ignoring a challenge to your business is bad stewardship. If you’re in that kind of industry, you ought to either work to revive and/or redirect it (until the day you retire for the right reasons), or just be honest and quit now. It’s one thing to come to the end of your working career and retire because it’s time for you personally to do so. Industries change and die, and those kinds of transitions are normal too (though traumatic): maybe you need to acknowledge that and start moving your company to whatever comes next. But if you work for a company with customers, assets, and shareholders, you owe it to them to do the best you can with what’s been entrusted to you. Riding the train up to a washed out bridge, knowing that you can jump off at the last minute (even though all the other passengers are going down) is just plain irresponsible.

Good Enough Bible Software

Without really intending to, i wound up taking the summer off from blogging. But Wired‘s got me thinking with their article entitled “The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple is Just Fine.” Their basic point, illustrated with examples like inexpensive video cameras, the MP3 format, and the military’s Predator unmanned aircraft, is that Good Enough Tech often triumphs in the marketplace against clearly superior technology, because it capitalizes on the predominant value of several kinds of accessibility:

  • ease of use
  • continuous (ubiquitous) availability
  • low price

For those of us working on what i’d claim is the Cadillac of Bible software (dating myself with that standard of reference!), namely Logos, this raises the obvious question: what’s “good enough” when it comes to Bible software?

One answer, of course, is how many people are currently voting with their wallets and (even more importantly) with their attention: that is, no software at all. Many Christians simply don’t read their Bibles, and of those that do, many use the old dead trees format, perhaps the shining example of “cheap and simple”.

But clearly technology has gone well beyond paper in offering accessibility to Bible readers: so where’s the sweet spot? Let’s organize the discussion around several levels of capability, with increasing sophistication:

  • Free Bible texts available on the web (Bible Gateway, bible.logos.com, and many many others)
  • Free software, typically including multiple Bible versions, search, perhaps some additional titles: e-Sword, the Sword project,
  • “Entry level” packages for a modest fee: iLumina, PC Study Bible, QuickVerse, along with mobile software from vendors like Olive Tree and Laridian.
  • Software for professional-grade study of original languages, commentaries, theology, etc.: here i’m thinking of Bible Works and Accordance.
  • The library approach to Bible Study taken by Logos (my employer, so i’m not neutral on this point) offers packages at a range of levels and prices, so it both covers the spectrum above. But (to my mind) it’s in a class by itself because of the breadth and depth of its offerings.

(Just so you know, i took most of these from this survey of Bible software programs, rather than my own experience: i haven’t used all these packages.)

How do these systems stack up against Wired’s criteria for accessibility? Well, clearly free-on-the-web is the winner, as long as all you require is reading a Bible text. The cost is zero, it’s easy to find a passage (if you know the reference) with a search box, and it’s as available as the Internet. If you need genuine ubiquity (like on your smartphone) you can still get free software to meet that need, though with the added “cost” of installing and maintaining them. The entry level packages offer more functionality (other books, parallel translations, perhaps additional study helps), though they don’t really change the basic criteria. So you might wonder whether they’ll eventually get eclipsed by their “good enough” free counterparts.

The professional-grade software packages offer much more sophistication and many more resources than the free/modest cost packages, but those capabilities come with a significant price tag. Users with professional requirements really can’t get the same capabilities with a Good Enough alternative today, but such users represent only a portion of the larger market. The longer-term question is how the market for professional grade software will develop over time, given the continual pressure from free alternatives, and other general resources like Google Books and Amazon’s Kindle.

Social Communication in the Enterprise

These days all the cool kids are tweeting, twittering and telecasting their every thought and activity using services like Twitter and Facebook. While i’m usually willing to give new technologies a try, i’ve been hesitant to take the plunge into Twitter. It’s not like i need additional sources of distraction: i’m perfectly capable of losing my focus all by myself.

In some respects, Twitter seems like another replay of several earlier IT pyramid schemes: first bulletin boards, then websites, then blogs. The earlier adopters get the lion’s share of attention, and the people who follow them get the initial benefit of more information and (maybe) more access. But as the pyramid grows over time, the volume of communication becomes unmanageable. Then we evolve new schemes for managing the flood: bookmarks, feeds and feed readers, tags spaces (hash tags for Twitter), and other meta-schemes. At some point we ought to stop and ask whether the new communications services and the additional complexity and overhead they impose provide enough benefit to justify their cost.

I’m humble enough to acknowledge that many smart and productive people say they get a lot of benefit from Twitter, so maybe i really am missing something by remaining doggedly tweet-free. But the latest issue of eWeek (you may need to download their reader to access it) has a nice review of several enterprise-oriented social communication services (SocialCast, Socialtext, and Huddle) that’s making me rethink my position. These have several distinct differences from Twitter and Facebook that make them more interesting to me:

  • Narrower scope of communication: While broad services like Facebook and Twitter provide access to a universe of information, that can become overwhelming, particularly when the universe is talking back at you. Limiting the conversation to what’s happening in our company has a lot of appeal.
  • Better business information: getting the right mix between quantity and focus about what’s going on in your company has always been a difficult challenge in my business career. The people who have the most to say are also very busy, and of course they already know what they know: so there’s asymmetry, with a cost to them in producing information while most of the near-term benefits accrue to their listeners.At the same time, there’s no easy way to predict what information might be useful to whom, so generating lots of it makes sense provided there are effective ways to filter it.
  • Distributed leadership: personnel at all levels have useful things to offer your company, if you can just break them out of the stovepipes of departmental structure and management hierarchy.

Here’s how i might see this playing out at Logos. Our business structure is largely typical for a software company of our size: there’s a sales and marketing division with some people who travel a lot and who (along with inside sales) provide a lot of our revenue, a customer service group that deals with users and their problems, the programmers who make the application work, a smaller group (where i work) that’s developing new features and data sets, a variety of support and infrastructure people who keep IT, finance, etc. running smoothly, and of course a management team that’s steering the corporate ship. All of these groups have front-line access to information that might help the rest of us do a better, given the right kinds of access.

One of the challenges is to keep the information we all broadcast a little more targeted. While some amount of personal interest makes all the hours we spend at work more fun, too much information about somebody’s disappointment that their favorite team lost, or how much they hate paperwork, the lousy sandwich they had for lunch, etc. would start to make this just like Facebook (and i don’t think having employees reading Facebook during work time is a good strategy for productivity). But i’d love to hear:

  • from front-line sales people: a conference sales pitch that really hit home with people; the reason somebody just gave for purchasing our software (or not purchasing it); a complaint from a loyal customer
  • from customer support: the common problems that get raised over and over, and that would make make for a much happier user experience if we fixed them upstream
  • from support staff: the challenges that we can all help with
  • from programmers and from R&D: exciting new discoveries, tips and tricks
  • from management: new things we’re learning and thinking, big picture business issues, where we see our business heading

Many of these things get communicated now, just more formally, and therefore less frequently, and to a more selective audience within the enterprise. Moving toward Twitter-style microcontent, just a little more focussed, might provide the right mix to get me tweeting.