Monthly Archives: August 2015

Understanding the software market

I’ve been doing a bit of research into software tools which could count as ‘Software for Domain Experts’ and this is as far as I’ve got so far.

Microsoft Office must be the dominant ‘software for domain experts’ – for all the bad talk you hear about Excel, it is still a great tool for an individual to make an individual analysis (the problems start when you share with someone else).

E-mail – talking to other experts – and MS Word, writing reports to share with other experts – is great software.

But we’re trying to talk about something richer and deeper here.

Business Process Management software is still perhaps the closest to domain expert software. But fundamentally its role is to manage processes, not serve the experts. It is also very expensive, perhaps only suitable for very large companies. ‘Lite’ business process management software is available (often under the name ‘low code’) but seems usually limited to workflow management, which is perhaps the opposite of domain expert software. (Its managing your tasks but it isn’t helping you be better as an expert).

There are suites of software under the label ‘decision support’ and ‘decision analysis’. There’s a great list on Capterra’s website.

A lot of this seems to be very specific about supporting decision making – weighing up the options around a decision, supporting collaboration and helping you make the best choice.

Actual decision making is really the icing on the cake of an expert’s role though – most of it is endless gathering and sifting through information to understand the landscape.

This company – Host Analytics – seems very much a ‘software for experts’ but for financial planning, helping financial planners get the information they need and understand how money is working in the company.

Here is another interesting company I have known for a while – Caesar Systems or PetroVR – which makes a range of decision support tools for the upstream oil and gas industry.

Perhaps building software to support experts is so difficult it can only really be done for a specific field or domain such as financial planning – but that means it can only work in an industry sector large enough to support the development cost.

Is there anyone building broad expert software which can be customised to the needs of many different experts?



Software which supports the human – rather than tells her what to do

This is how I imagine it works:

WORKFLOW SOFTWARE – the expert shows up at work, logs into the computer, and the software presents her with a list of tasks which need to be done by the end of the day. She has to do something specific with all of them (for example approve mortgage applications, agree with something someone else says, or decide if something needs to be routed somewhere else). In other words, the software is driving the human and it sounds quite grim.

DOMAIN EXPERT SOFTWARE: the expert shows up at work, logs onto her computer, and is presented with all the information she needs to make sure the organisation which she runs is within safe parameters. There is an overview of the most important data, and a clear differentiation between facts and analytics. The software gently encourages the expert to look deeper in some areas to see what is happening.

The expert can see what happened last time in the company when the situation was like this, what decision was made and why, and what happened afterwards. it all helps the expert make a better decision about what if anything needs to be done.

The expert also feels valued – not in the monetary or ego sense, but in a deep sense – with a deeper sense of satisfaction of a job being done well. This makes it easier for the expert to form trusting relationships with colleagues (including colleagues from outside the company), have complex discussions about sensitive issues and share ideas. The whole company is more efficient and the investors have more chance of getting interesting returns.


What does an expert-centric company look like?

We are developing ideas about the ‘expert-centric’ company – as a contrast to the ‘process-centric’ company.

Clearly all companies need both processes and experts, but our idea is that the emphasis has maybe gone too far towards ‘processes’ and less towards ‘experts’, and we want to find ways to rebalance this.

One idea comes from BP’s restructuring after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. At the time of the accident, the management structure for offshore drilling was to have drilling engineers reporting to the head of drilling project, who was chiefly concerned with getting the project done on time (and in the Deepwater Horizon example, was concerned about project delays and increased costs).

BP re-organised (see this article) so that its drilling experts offshore would report to the company’s head of drilling – who would be far more interested in the company’s drilling safety than getting one of the company’s drilling projects completed on time.

It made other efforts to make sure “excellence” was encouraged via reward structures (ie money). The company’s CEO said that re-structuring of the upstream business into separate functions would foster the long-term development of specialist expertise.

So here are 2 ways to make a company more expert – centric – one is to structure it around experts (with experts reporting to the company’s top experts), another is to have more expert centric software. – what on earth do they do?

I have just spent 10 minutes on the website of Casewise, a business modelling company, and I have to say, I really don’t understand what they do, although it looks relevant to what we have been talking about on this website.

You can model business processes, they say

The software will understand the company in depth, they say

Your IT architects can use it, they say

That’s about as much as I understood.

They have case studies showing that they sold software into a market sector I understand very well, oil tanker shipping (Total). They helped Total model its processes, although I have no idea why Total would need that.

Their CEO (on the video) doesn’t speak English as a first language – perhaps the company is French so they can sell to Total.

They have a London office and have chosen perhaps the world’s most expensive real estate for it, in Mayfair close to the US Embassy.

There is a video from a corporate manager of quality and processes with oil company YPF, another industry I know quite well, saying that he used Casewise to help the company map and understand its processes.

There is also reference to Microsoft Visio, which I understand reasonably well as a process mapping tool.

Is this what Casewise does – help people map their business processes – like drawing a big flow chart about how your company works? This would make more sense – but it isn’t something they actually say about themselves?

Looking at Decision Lens

Decision Lens, based in Virginia, USA, is a company which promises to help experts to make decisions.

Particular areas of focus are pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, energy, and government.

The company promises to provide a “complete process for identifying, prioritising and analysing resource investments”.

Particular areas are researching spending, capital assets, IT and government.

For example in government it can help you to focus resources to where it can create the highest value (it suggests in defence agencies, state government, city and local government).

For IT, it can help you work out how to prioritise projects, select which features you need, choose vendors, so you are selecting what to buy and implement based on the value it generates.

In “capital assets” it will help you build your portfolio – and is particularly applicable to mass transit, water, public works, and infrastructure in general.

The “Intelligent Portfolio” software is a cloud based tool for gathering ideas, deciding how to choose between them, analysing and measuring the results.

The “analytics” module has tools to compare expected results from different options, optimise how you are using your resources, pick projects which provide the best return on investment, and look at the different sources of value. You can view your options in different ways.

Underneath everything is a special process the company calls “Analytic Hierarchy Process”, which is based on both mathematics and psychology, where you put your priorities into a ranked hierarchy.

Customers include Boeing, Amtrak, Department of Homeland Security, US Drug Administration, US Federal Aviation Administration, University of Delaware, US Coast Guard, the State of Washington, the US Navy, and GlaxoSmithKline.

The company offers associated consultancy and training.

Harnessing the expertise

Many companies talk about challenges building up a ‘corporate memory’ – or in other words, what to do when the only person who knows how to do something leaves.

In our business process management orientated culture, there is probably an unstated drive to be less dependent on experts, since they can always leave.

Is there a better way to do it?

A culture which places the expert in the centre might mean experts are more enthusiastic about sharing what they know, rather than resisting it, for fear of making themselves easier to release from the company.

Ideally the company should be gathering stories – when something unusual happens, the person in the centre of it writes the story down, and indexes it, so it can be easily retrieved the next time something similar happens.

Companies try to harness expert knowledge in the form of ‘business rules’ – but that’s quite an inflexible way to do it. An expert might make millions of judgements he doesn’t even understand himself. This is quite hard to harness in a business rule which someone else (or some other computer system) needs to follow.

An expert – centric business would be entirely organised about helping the expert make better decisions – gather better information, present it better, collaborate with the right people, see what happened last time – and then record all the details about the decision for next time. Who is doing this?

“Making the Most of Mess” by Emery Roe

A book which provides some good ideas for Software for Domain Experts is “Making the Most of Mess” by Emery Roe, a professor of catastrophic risk management in Berkeley.

The book presents the idea of a manager of any system (Dr Roe starts by talking about electricity control rooms, but it could be a school, police station, company, anything), by describing them as ‘mess managers’.

What he means is, in a role like this, you never get completely on top of anything. There’s no such thing as a perfect school on a perfect day, or a perfect company, or a perfect electricity control room.

But this isn’t the job of the professionals who run systems like this. Their job could be described better as keeping the overall system within acceptable parameters.

For example, for a school, it is manageable if a teacher turns up late once in a while, but if the problem gets bigger steps need to be taken to address it (I’m not sure what the right step is to address a problem of too many teachers arriving late in a school, but I’m pretty sure an expert school administrator or headteacher would know).

Dr Roe uses the analogy with electricity control room operators, who turn up to work every day not knowing if there will be a black-out. A blackout (cut off of electricity) will simply occur if the demand for electricity is more than a 5 per cent more than its supply. People can’t have electricity and the system breaks down.

There are various measures electricity operators can use to adjust supply of electricity (turning stations on or off, using stored supply) and in extreme situations they can adjust demand (asking people to use less, eg in a hot day when everyone wants air conditioning).

The control room operator can also keep track of times when they got close to blackouts. They can try to spot patterns (times when electricity consumption is likely to rise). Over time they build up expert knowledge of the system.

How could software potentially help here?

Automatic analytics tools could look for patterns in current consumption and compare them with previous patterns, and see what they led to

The software can use other data (eg outside temperature) together with electricity consumption data to help the expert manager build up a picture

The software can keep track of events where the system got close to a blackout, what the conditions were, and warn you if these systems are happening again.

The software could store ‘stories’ of what was happening on a certain day (eg a Royal Wedding so lots of people watching TV – or a major outage in a certain power plant) – to explain data in future – and give advice about what might happen when a similar event happens in future.

The software can’t replace the human expert but it can offer the expert a great deal of support.

I don’t know if anyone has done this in electricity control rooms – or for schools. It sounds interesting.


Figuring out a business opportunity

How do you figure out a business opportunity with Software for Domain Experts?

This is too hard a question to answer, but let’s try to dance around it.

We can start with an observation that just about everybody who runs something could benefit from better information, displayed in a more manageable way.

That probably doesn’t mean gathering more information (although it might) but it does mean a better way to work with it.

But this isn’t describing any specific business opportunity. To sell software you need to find someone who wants to buy software or can be persuaded of this.

That might mean someone who has software but they really hate it, they’ve got money to spend on software, you can convince them you have something to offer, their company doesn’t have an IT department with preconceived ideas about what is needed, or something they want to build themselves.

Meanwhile there are so many software companies in the ‘company modelling’ or ‘business process management’ or ‘analytics’ or ‘decision making’ space, and it is virtually impossible to figure out what any of them do from looking at their websites, let alone understand what they do.




Building an enterprise around the expert

It is so easy to get excited about business processes. Reduce your company to a well oiled machine.

But unfortunately we’re starting to see the limits of this now. Feeling part of a machine is not great for people’s sense of self worth. People with a low sense of self worth find it harder to trust each other. It means one company is similar to another one. And there’s limits to how well oiled the machine can be. And it isn’t very exciting to invest in such a company, with competition driving all the returns (including the investor’s) right down.

Warren Buffett is a famous proponent of process driven companies, famously saying that he would like to invest in companies which an idiot could run, because someday, one will. But he is not a starter of companies, and his own expertise has proven something very different to a process – otherwise plenty of people would have copied it.

So let’s start thinking about an alternative. Can we have a company driven by its experts?

Start with a law firm. It has its business processes, yes, but its success comes down to whether its lawyers can win cases, a task requiring enormous expertise.

Then look at any company where expert decision making is required. Any small manufacturing company needs to decide which sales to chase, where the future market is likely to be, how to make the market work to its advantage, which products are likely to be most viable in future, and that’s just a small part of it.

Public managers – people who run public services, or administrate regions – need to make enormously complex decisions and could benefit from better information. What happened when we tried this last time?

Actually, anybody who runs anything, needs to continually weigh up how the organisation is moving – there are always problems, but the expert needs to figure out the difference between a problem which can be ignored, and a major crisis.

How do we build software to make all of this?


Expert software and how people see themselves

Modern society is not very good to people’s character – if you define character as what someone has, besides their ego.

Ego is how we work in the real world – our interactions, how we place ourselves, how we respond. Character is what’s left – what we see as our purpose on the world and what we are doing in it.

Psychologists use the term ‘narcissist’ for someone who has more ego than character – or perhaps no character at all. A narcissist is someone who works incessantly to prevent others reminding him of his (as he sees it) inferiority, worthlessness and inadequacy.

Our society has a growing number of narcissists in it – and its not surprising when you consider how our business and consumer culture does not reward people for having feelings, and makes us feel like our value as a customer depends on our money, and makes employees feel like they can be easily replaced.

What does this have to to with “Software for Domain Experts”? The answer is we see domain expert software as a solution to all of this.

Domain expert software places the person and her expertise at the centre of the company. She feels more valued, she is happier, she is more likely to trust the people around her, and the companies around her.

This leads to plenty of business advantages. Aside from a happier workforce, it means that people can work with each other being less reliant on lawyers and procedures, thus massively improving efficiency. And it means that companies are more differentiated, creating interesting opportunities for investors.