Organisational Culture and Tools

WSJ did an interview with Ben Fried, Google’s CIO, recently on how internal IT tools impact organisational culture. Several pertinent points were covered, and here are some that struck me, along with my 2 cents.

CIOs need to understand the cultural thing—they define the culture of their company by the technology they give to their employees. So much of the culture stems from how we work.

The statement of fact that culture is an outcome of how we work is not recognised enough. On one end management often wishes their teams were more nimble in their execution but do not provide the support structure and the tools necessary to accomplish it. In balancing between predictability and speed, traditional organisations often choose predictability. Of course, few modern enterprises like Netflix, Amazon and Google seem to have mastered being predictably nimble and it shows in the kind of tools they have built and even open-sourced. 

The right thing to do is to help people be as productive as possible, and the way to do that is…to understand the toolset that people who come to work every day know how to use…and want to use. To the best of your ability, you need to give them that toolset. When you do that, it creates a completely different organizational culture.

 When people feel like they aren’t part of the decision-making process, they feel treated like children, they feel resentful and you find examples of belligerent compliance. When people feel like they have had a say, like they have been empowered, you get collaboration and cooperation.

Could not agree with this more than I do now. Winning organisations aim to reduce friction, and tool choice is such a critical part of enabling people to executing on business goals. Just remembering SharePoint intranet portal gives me shudders! Or how many hoops we had to go through to get a space on the corporate data centre, as compared to situation in a start-up where virtual instances are made live on-demand on AWS in a couple of minutes. 

So how do these organisations support the technology diversity that emerges? 

We can’t afford to have technology support where there are cookbooks and rules and every possible change is documented in advance. The people we hire to do support are more like systems administrators in another company. The first responder closes the ticket over 90% of the time in my organization.

That completely nails it. Instead of hiring the resource you can get and having them follow documented processes, they hire people skilled enough to be systems administrators and have them address complexities that arise. There is minimal documentation but the skills make up for this deficiency! Am sure this approach would be shot down in a traditional setup. Of course it would cost more to hire such a person but the agility that results more than makes up for the cost. 

On a side note, in taking our CollabLayer product to market I have noticed this culture aspect cropping up. Traditional organisations, with investments in tools like SharePoint Portal, find it a culture shock to have our system bubble up semantic connections implicit within their content. Their first question often is whether we are secure! Our system obeys security rules in highlighting semantic connections in content but still older cultures take a little time adjusting to increased transparency.

As a contrast, smaller teams who need to accomplish more with less people love our approach to managing content & conversations around them and insight discovery. Guess it boils down to what Ben mentions, culture does stem from how we work, and tool choice is a factor in this equation. 

Check the whole interview with Ben Fried, worth mulling over whether your organisation can benefit from such an approach. 

Sparrow Acquisition and Mobile App Pricing Models


Sparrow, the much loved email client for iOS has been acquihired by Google. Congrats to the Sparrow team. Bad news is there will be no enhancements to the Sparrow app itself. The team will work on other projects at Google.

Sparrow Acquihire Reactions

Reactions from the internet ranged from how Google might have wanted to get Sparrow’s design skill to lend a hand on a Gmail client perhaps, or wanted Sparrow like app for Android and so on.

The reaction that I liked was from Nilay Patel, he talks about how Apple should support In-App subscription pricing models for apps.

An app developer can only charge a one time price BEFORE the user has experienced the app. This price must be low enough not to scare away users, yet high enough to pay for the operations of the business. In the productivity app space, we are seeing more of the former, not the later. (a) I only paid $9.99 for Sparrow years ago and yet it has added a lot of value to my life.

Subscription pricing for apps is an important point and am surprised its not getting much support from iOS developer community.

Popular Mobile App Pricing Models

One-time payment is the second most popular mobile app pricing model. Free is obviously the first approach. The monetization strategy for free apps are i)in-app purchases for additional features ii) Advertisement supported iii) Monetize through a primary app, on say PC or elsewhere, and subsidize mobile app.

Of course am not accounting for apps that are supported by factors other than revenue. Social media apps fall under this bucket, they use our collective attention to determine our interests and use these signals to serve advertisements etc.

Why subscription pricing for mobile apps?

Most pre-iOS mobile platforms were quite lame to build professional apps on. The iOS platform and then Android, and perhaps Windows Phone, changed all that. It is possible to write games on these platforms, leave alone business apps. Most functionality like email clients, games or simple productivity tools, requires minimal server infrastructure to keep running. So its possible to build a decent mobile product by adopting an one-time pricing model for these apps. Start with 0.99 cents to whatever $$ you can charge and be done with it. Assuming the app did sufficient numbers, developers can sustain themselves and perhaps even be profitable.

Some Problems Need Processing Power!

But the one-time pricing model does not always work. Especially if there is a server component that supports the mobile app functionality, and server components are not cheap to build, monitor and maintain. Why bother with a server at all? Well, if you are doing any significant feature that involves large data processing, it has to be done on the server rather than a mobile client. Without a server component you are limited by the kind of problems you can solve. Let me reiterate

This is not about pricing models but about the class of problems you can go after sustainably.

This would be no big deal if the iPad and its Android clones had not been around. With tablets you could do much more but the pricing model constraints are a serious roadblock. AppStore pricing restrictions are artificial constraints on the tablet ecosystem.

Options for Subscription Pricing

And if you want to focus on a purely mobile app then you have few options i) Charge heavily one time, and hope you do enough volumes ii) Adopt in-app purchases for new features, might not fly because of first point, which Nilay has pointed out too iii) iii) Adopt in-app advertising, might not work for non-consumer apps because of volumes iv) Or hope you get VC funding to subsidize the whole thing and look for exit via an acquisition!

Obviously none of the above options are desirable.

Web + Mobile Combo

Before you say anything, I know a web + mobile app combination will let you out of this conundrum, since pricing model on the web-end of the equation can be controlled. Issue here is your development costs just shot up. There are two apps to design, build, test, deploy and maintain for! Let us not even get into whether the product would be relevant on a non-mobile scenario.

With subscription pricing enabled for apps, Apple can truly realize its vision of a post-PC world. Right now, developers need to straddle PC and Post-PC worlds!

Why do I care?

Why am I getting all worked up about Sparrow and in-app pricing models? Well, for CollabLayer, the first product being developed by my startup Tataatsu, we have struggled with this question a lot. While CollabLayer will be on all platforms eventually, we could have gone to market with an iPad app first. But pricing model restrictions force us to build the web-app too, which of course delays everything.

Apple, help us realize your, and our, vision of  a Post-PC world, enable in-app subscription pricing!

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