Monthly Archives: July 2006

The Long Tail Wags the Dog

Dave Stephens, author of Procurement Central, isn’t the only blogger who likes to muse about Procurement’s “Long Tail”. As you may recall, Doug Hudgeon of Vendor Management prognosticated on the issue in Are your vendors the Spice Girls or Arcadia? and I wrote about some of my own musings last month in my post Build To Order.

However, for those of you who want some in depth discussion of the “long tail”, a new book about entertainment, technology and statistics that predicts that popular culture-and the business associated with it-will be transformed by the internet entitled “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of more” by Chris Anderson is now available.

Now I’ll admit that I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book yet, although I have read the original article that the author wrote back in 2004 a number of times, but I have read a number of reviews, including a great article in a recent edition of The Economist entitled What the long tail will do (subscription required). The article points out that one of the main points of Mr. Anderson with respect to entertainment is that the niche, the obscure and the specialist, will gain ground at the expense of the hit. As evidence, he points to a drop in the number of companies that traditionally calculate their revenue/sales ratio according to the 80/20 rule—where the top fifth of products contribute four-fifths of revenues. Ecast, a San Francisco digital jukebox company, found that 98% of its 10,000 albums sold at least one track every three months. Expressed in the language of statistics, the experiences of Ecast and other companies such as Amazon, suggest that products down in the long tail of a statistical distribution, added together, can be highly profitable.

Long-tail enthusiasts argue that the whole of culture will benefit, not just commercial enterprises. Although many people appear to be quite happy to watch and listen to what the mainstream provides, if individuals have the opportunity to pick better, more ideally suited entertainment from a far wider selection, they will take it, according to the theory of the long tail. For example, YouTube is now serving up 100 million videos a day.   (And I personally buy more music in mp3 form from AudioLunchBox, Mperia, and related sites then I do traditional CDs these days.)

Interestingly enough, Mr. Anderson, who developed the long tail theory in the aptly named Wired article The Long Tail back in 2004, has backed away somewhat from his original take in which he suggested that the long tail would be a bigger market than the hits. His book says, more cautiously, that “all those niches can potentially add up to a market that is as big as (if not bigger than) the hits.”

The article in the Economist indicates that one weakness of this otherwise excellent book is that it tries to apply the theory of the long tail to fields far beyond entertainment and e-commerce. The article notes that Mr. Anderson sees long-tails in labour (offshoring) and national security. Although I am inclined to agree in that the application of the long-tail theory to national security is too much of a stretch, I disagree with the author of the Economist article and believe that the long-tail theory does apply to labour. However, even though outsourcing is part of the distribution, I would classify Crowdsourcing as the long-tail of labour.

Even though I do not think that any one author, reviewer, critic, analyst, researcher, or futurist really understands long-tail in its entirety, and that no one can fully predict what the long-tail future will deliver, I believe that as time goes on, we will see it taking a greater hold of many marketplaces, not just entertainment and e-commerce. Furthermore, I think the open-source movement will continue to significantly contribute to the long-tail in the technology sector and redefine the sector as a whole as it contributes to the emerging “non-monetary economy” that seems destined to emerge at the end of the long-tail.

For more insight, you can check out CNet’s interview with the author in this article. I found the most interesting parts to be the following questions and answers:

What was the most surprising thing you came across in your research?

The most surprising thing was industries that understood the long tail that I hadn’t anticipated. When you think of the long tail, it’s basically a large number of niches that compete with one-size-fits-all mass-market products. There are so many precursors. You know, fashion has always had boutique and couture. And you can think of that of as a long tail of clothing.

In food, we’ve seen the rise of organic and artisanal food as the long tail of agriculture in a sense. It used to be difficult to have that in the supermarkets. But what I learned is that even in the supermarkets because of efficiencies and supply chains and stock management technology, there’s been more than a doubling in products on the shelf. Even Wal-Mart is now offering organic, which is a day many thought would never come.

Who are the most important people in the long tail?

The producers. I mean the long tail is made up of millions and millions of people who are creating content and finding an audience for it. Look at all the bloggers out there. They have essentially extended the tail of media a millionfold because it’s so easy to do so and they have something to say.

So I think that the real lesson of “The Long Tail” is that that notion that professionals produce and amateurs consume is really being blurred and we’re realizing that amateurs often have as much as to contribute as the professionals do and there are so many more of them. Wikipedia, I think, is perhaps the best example of that.

In other words, the long tail is just about everywhere and each and every one of us is carrying it forward. Now that’s food for thought.

There’s No Such Thing as Spend Intelligence

For the last six weeks, I have been exploring problem solving methodologies you could use to help you with your sourcing problems. At a later date, I’m most likely going to take up six sigma and lean, but today I’m going to rant.

There’s no such thing as a Spend Intelligence Solution!

And before you start huffing and puffing about how wrong I am, please read this post in its entirety. Thank you.

A few weeks ago, Aberdeen released its study The Spend Intelligence Benchmark Report: Turning Data into Action. This study by Sudy Bharadwaj, Aberdeen’s new Vice President and Research Director of Global Supply Management, and Rick Saia, an Aberdeen Research Analyst, found that companies employing spend intelligence have reduced sourcing cycles by 19 to 25%, reduced the overall number of items they need to purchase by 10 to 15%, and reported contract compliance rates of 31 to 35%, depending on how long the program has been in place. These are some significant results, so there must be something to it.

Shortly after its release, this report sparked a considerable amount of coverage on the blogs. Jason Busch of Spend Matters challenged the thinking behind Aberdeen’s use of the phrase spend intelligence. The main points of his post were as follows:

Consider how in a recent study, Aberdeen adopted the term “spend intelligence” to describe the broader spend visibility and analytics market. The purpose of my post today is not to rip into the findings — the study itself is highly useful — but to challenge the thinking behind Aberdeen’s use and definition of the phrase, “spend intelligence,” which at this point feels dangerous to me, just as overly political language feels dangerous to Orwell. Why? As an attempt to shoot some Botox into a segment of the Spend Management market that can be challenging to explain and position, Aberdeen’s choice of language shortchanges and over simplifies a concept, potentially corrupting how the market will look at a key Spend Management business process. …

The problem is that spend visibility and analytics is much more complex, requiring data cleansing, rationalization, classification and other efforts which go far beyond what is needed to gain insight into basic HR, financials, IT and other internal information, which fall cleanly in to the BI camp. …

Fundamentally, “spend intelligence” should exist both inside and outside the organization, but Aberdeen’s usage might lead companies to think that everything they need lies within. The problem with this thinking is that supply market information changes all the time …

… by focusing too much on the final insight itself, “spend intelligence” conjures up images of the end-result, rather than the journey or path to get there (which can be as insightful as the data crunching itself). For example, in data gathering efforts, procurement can learn just as much about spend categories by talking with design engineers and operations team members as reading the SAP tea-leaves where dirty data resides.

Not long after, Tim Minahan, who used to occupy Sudy’s position at Aberdeen, of Procuri came to the defense of Aberdeen’s Spend Intelligence Moniker on his blog Supply Excellence. The main posts of his post were as follows:

As an analyst, every software vendor — … — touted their spending analysis capabilities. The caveat: you just needed to give them the data in a cleansed, classified, and structured format. … In short, most vendors pitched building a data cube or data warehouse from which you could run analyses and reports as spending analysis. They were wrong. And they confused the marketplace (possibly intentionally).

It is the automated and repeatable classification of spending information to a structured schema (e.g., UNSPSC, eClass, proprietary schema, etc.) and then the enrichment of this data with related business information (e.g., parent-child relationships, financial risk scores, contracts, performance information) that turns spend information from “dumb” data into true spend intelligence that a company can use to make fact-based sourcing and supply decisions rather than gut-based or hunch-based decisions.

The distinction between spend data and spend intelligence is an important one. Bravo Aberdeen for calling out the difference between dumb data and actionable intelligence.

And just a few days ago, Purchasing Magazine sponsored a webinar on the report where Sudy presented the main findings of the report and Brett Mauser of NCR, a corporation that recently implemented Zycus‘ spend management solution, discussed how spend intelligence has kicked NCR’s spend management program into overdrive. (Note that Zycus was one of the sponsors of the Spend Intelligence Benchmark Report.) The webcast has been archived for your review.

According to the study, and reinforced in the webinar, companies with best-in-class spend intelligence solutions have a process maturity that is twice that of their counterparts, and those processes are almost twice as likely to be aligned company wide. In addition, those processes are twice as likely to be automated. And mature, automated, processes get results. So why am I insisting that there is no such thing as a spend intelligence solution, when it appears that these solutions not only exist, but get great results?

Let’s start with the definition of intelligence.

Intelligence is a most complex practical property of mind, integrating numerous mental abilities, such as the capacities to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language, and learn.

And since spend management solutions are software, let’s review a definition for software.

Software is the (collection of) program(s) that enable a computer to perform a specific task, as opposed to the physical components of the system (hardware), where a program is the collection of source code and libraries which have been compiled into an executable or otherwise interpreted to “run” in (active) computer memory, where it can perform both automatic and interactive tasks with data.

Simply put, intelligence is a property of mind and software is a property of machine. And despite the efforts of the artificial intelligence community, I do not expect the property to cross the chasm anytime soon. Artificial intelligence is simply a collection of very sophisticated algorithms processing large data stores, instruction sets, and probabilities very quickly to come up with reasonable responses to queries – it is not thought, although it might appear to be thought since today’s computers can perform billions of calculations in a second. And that’s where my beef with the term spend intelligence lies.

Furthermore, as Jason Busch of Spend Matters points out, the term is very misleading and overlooks the fact that results from enhanced spend visibility and analytic efforts require data cleansing, rationalization, classification and other efforts which go far beyond what is needed to gain insight into basic HR, financials, IT and other internal information, which fall cleanly in to the BI camp.

So if you want to call it spend visibility, actionable spend, or maybe even spend knowledge, I’m all for it. But since the real intelligence lies in the user of the tool who takes the actionable data and uses it to get results, there is no spend intelligence software, only spend intelligence enablement software. And when you get right down to it, that’s what you really need as an expert power procurement user – software that helps you make the right decisions, not software that purports to make those decisions for you.

However, regardless of what you call it, check out the The Spend Intelligence Benchmark Report: Turning Data into Action while you have the chance. Just like the On Demand Supply Management report, it is top notch research, whatever you want to call it.  After all, as Tim Minahan pointed out, the distinction between spend data and spend intelligence is an important one, and the Aberdeen report is one of the first reports to call it out, even if I may take issue with the impreciseness of the terminology used.

A burrito, an angel, and a shovel

Sometimes even bloggers are cursed by writer’s block, and sometimes even the witty rhetoric of other bloggers is not sufficient to get the creative gears moving again. So what’s a blogger to do? Where can a poor blogger turn for inspiration for that critical first line?

No longer will I need to ask that question when a plethora of delightful options await to stimulate the neurons at the San Jose State University Department of English & Comparative Literature, courtesy of generous submissions to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest!

If you ever feel a bout of writer’s block coming on, start with the 2006 winners, after all, how can you not be inspired by a sentence that so flawlessly integrates a burrito, an angel, and a shovel into one awe-inspiring lucid thought?

Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.

     Jim Guigli
     Carmichael, CA, USA

I was right, wasn’t I?

Cambrian House: Crowdsourced Software

Not long after my Crowdsourcing post in the Purchasing Innovation series went up over at e-Sourcing Forum, JR posted a comment letting me know that a company up here (North of the Border) was already doing it commercially, in one of Canada’s IT hotspots (although you might not know it if you visited during stampede week). Cambrian House, located in downtown Calgary, has been up and running since February and has already turned out some revenue generating products. To date, they have launched CVR for Parents, AdWord Alerts, Pod Blast Video, Prezzle , Renoworks Homeowner Edition, Desktop Playground , and Cambrian Code.

It’s true that a couple of their projects have already been suspended due to lack of interest, but its also true that some are going stronger than ever. One of the advantages of the crowdsourcing model applied to software is the ability to greatly accelerate initial development lifecycles and get working betas to market really quickly. Instead of waiting months or, more often, years to find out if a new product idea is going to fly, you can now have the answer in months, or sometimes even weeks!

Furthermore, they’ve also proven that when crowds of like minded people get together, they can have an impact on communities, locally and globally. They’ve already made charitable donations as an organization, including one to the local Mustard Seed (a non-profit, Christian humanitarian organization that responds compassionately to the needs of the inner-city’s less fortunate) and fed Google worldwide.

So how does Cambrian house work? It’s simple. An idea is submitted, be it from an employee, an advisor, or a random individual who stumbles across the site, the best ideas (as judged by the team) are thrown out to the crowds (through the world wide web) to test and comment on, those that get traction are then built by development crowds constituted of those individuals interested in seeing the product brought to market, Cambrian House handles the sales and marketing, and those who worked on the product (including the idea generator) get royalties. And for those who like graphics, Cambrian House has a nice assembly line graphic (Flash 8 required) for you.

Right now, most of the projects are pretty small – but there’s nothing stopping crowdsourcing from working at the enterprise level. After all, viewed the right way, it’s just a logical extension of open source development, the difference being that the contributors get paid (allowing them to develop the software they want to work on full time, instead of in what hours they have left after fulfilling the requirements of their full time job, since we all need to pay the bills) and there is a support organization to help them market and sell the product, allowing them to do what they do best – develop great products!

In my crowdsourcing post, I predicted that “the view of sourcing will slowly shift from that of a reactive business unit that aggregates needs and demands into a proactive business unit that is looked upon as an enabler, problem solver, and even forecaster of future trends and consulted by the other units of the business“. In software terms, where many professionals now work as contractors and independent consultants, I believe that the innovative organizations will shift from outsourcing projects to big traditional consulting firms that throw whatever warm bodies happen to be on the bench at the time at the project, with varying degrees of success, to using crowdsourcing firms that specialize in large-scale and distributed project management and bringing together the right resources for the task under the crowdsourcing model.

Coupa Cabana Cafe: Open For Business

And to celebrate, they’re having the sale of the century! They’re practically giving it away. You can try it for free! You heard me! For Free! Now that’s a price that can’t be beat!

The reality is that Closed systems are dead. From software to supply chains, open is the new standard. And Coupa is making it reality, with the first open source eProcurement system designed to revolutionize your procurement process.

As printed in this month’s issue of Wired, it’s an All-Access Economy. Openness is a fundamental business principle. It’s what the internet is built on. Progressive software companies are taking the software-as-a-service model to the next level by exposing the API’s. You can tap into and eBay servers to create your own storefronts, Google to create your own maps, and Flickr to create your own montages.

And now, in addition to rolling your own Content Management System (CMS) with OpenCMS and Customer Relationship Management System (CRM) with Sugar CRM, you can roll your own eProcurement System with Coupa with its built in catalog management, adaptive “tag-cloud” indexing, and zero-click shopping cart. (Beat that Amazon!)

For those of your following along, I offered a glimpse of what was to come in my Procurement Independence at the Coupa Cabana Cafe post earlier this month. In this post, I’m going to dig a little deeper, but try to keep it short since you can now check it out for yourself at

The new site is pretty slick – and the one minute introduction video is all it should take to catch your interest. The video highlights ten key features of Coupa. I discussed half of these last week, but I’m going to list them all because most of them are innovative.

  • RSS Feed for the latest news from the procurement department.
    Every news site and blog should have a RSS feed!
  • Toolbar that ensures all actions are a click away.
  • Ask an Expert … where answers become part of a dynamically evolving FAQ.
  • Dynamic Adaptive Tagging.
    After all, no static classification scheme is ever complete.  This allows the classification scheme to evolve into what you need, not what someone else thinks you need.
  • Catalog items are accompanied by average employee ratings.
    This is awesome. When I go to Amazon or eBay, I do not care what John or Jane Doe think, I want to know what like minded people think … and in business, I want to know if it works for my like-minded co-workers.
  • Enterprise Policies are included in search and always available.
  • Drag and Drop Buying.
    This is the most intuitive shopping cart I’ve ever seen – as it captures the real-life usage of a cart.
  • Automatic population of ship to address and account information.
  • Graphical Approval Chain so a buyer always knows what the process is.
  • Attachment and Supplemental Document Support.

In addition, the web site points out the following capabilities:

  • Self Service Requisitioning
  • Goods and Services Support
  • Local Catalog Management
  • CSV Data Upload
  • Powerful Global Search Capability
  • Punch-out Support
  • Email Notifications and an on-line inbox
  • Requisition History
  • A How-To-Buy Policy Framework for integrated user education and always up-to-date document access
  • Contract Creation and Maintenance
  • Flexible PDF Purchase Order Generation
  • ERP integration APIs

And if you are willing to shell out a reasonable amount for the enterprise system, you also get:

  • role based access control
  • power user direct requisition entry forms
  • business groups
  • quickforms for special requests
  • REST ERP synchronization methods
  • no click requisition email templates … Beat that Amazon!

Essentially, employees use the interactive web interface to select items and submit for required approvals – the system determines the best price, the preferred supplier and the right contract, and then sends the purchase order electronically to the supplier. The company gets a standardized solution, which saves money and improves compliance, and employees get a system that they can actually use to get their work done.

In addition, Coupa provides support and implementation services. Open source users can buy per incident support packs and enterprise users get a full-featured support package that includes:

  • issue determination and bug fixes
  • updates, maintenance bundles, and patch support
  • issue diagnosis and resolution
  • performance tuning advice
  • exclusive support forums

In addition, Coupa offers implementation services, primarily through integrators and value-add resellers, that include eProcurement Deployment Best Practices, customization guidance, and integration assistance.

But let’s get down to business. This is an open source solution, being released to the community, which will, hopefully, improve upon it and return the improvements to Coupa and their customer base through the LGPL license. Coupa is starting off on the right foot by having a Wiki and a Forum, partitioned into general topics, open source, enterprise, and developers all ready to go from the beginning.

The wiki, which tracks updates, documentation, the coupa roadmap, and technology choices, allows you to report issues via tickets, which can then be searched using Coupa’s powerful search technology, or reported on using any one of the following reports:

  • Active Tickets
  • Active Tickets by Version
  • All Tickets by Milestone
  • Assigned, Active Tickets by Owner
  • Assigned, Active Tickets by Owner (Full Description)
  • All Tickets By Milestone (Including closed)
  • My Tickets
  • Active Tickets, Mine first

Coupa is built using Ruby on Rails and designed to work with just about any standard relational database (MySQL, SQLLite, Oracle, SQL Server, PostGreSQL, and DB2), web server(LightTPD, Apache, Mongrel, and IIS), and web browser (IE, FireFox, and Safari so far … I’m hoping Opera, which was the first to introduce many of FireFox’s key features, although it is not open source, is next) and runs on Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux operating systems.

Dave Stephens explained why Coupa Technology uses Ruby on Rails in a recent post on Procurement Central. And for the most part, I agree with the choice. An open-source project needs to be built on efficient open-standard technology that is easy to use, penetrating the market, and appropriate to the task at hand. For the most part, Ruby on Rails fits those criteria.

However, I should note that I do not agree with Dave’s assessment of Java. Although Java is not a suitable choice for UI development (let’s face it, Swing is a real pain in the backside, JSP is a mess, and JSF is not intuitive to even a relatively experienced Java developer), I would still strongly consider Java for the application backend of an enterprise application. Java’s extensive libraries make the development of complex business logic, data structures, and persistence layers relatively easy. Java’s JIT compilation makes Java code as efficient as C++. Furthermore, XML, which is supported in Java by DOM, SAX, and JAXP, is development language independent and supports your language of choice for front end development. (And even though Dave is right in that many IDEs are bloated and overkill for many tasks, some, such as IntelliJ, actually make developing in Java a simple pleasure.)

All in all, Coupa has set the bar high for eProcurement applications.