This week I've been looking back over my Computing PhD thesis from 1999 and reflecting on what has changed over the past 18 years. At the time there was a major focus on the need to archive, manage and reuse paper documents within organisations, with the merest hint that people may in the future be able to do a full day's work away from the office. While my thesis is quite a dry read it was clear 18 years ago that the Organisational Memory Problem was a big challenge at the time and I believe it's as challenging now as it was then. It goes something like this...
I have this client - let's call him John or Paul or George or Ringo. He started running a one-man estate agency and running it very well. His paper records gave way to a few spreadsheets and his sole trader status became a small office space for four. The Fab Four. The Fab Four were rarely in the same place at the same time - busy, busy - something needed to be done to make sense of the madness.
Back in 1994 Microsoft ran an advertising campaign with the strap line "Where do you want to go today?" full of cheerful kids, stirring music and screenshots of Microsoft Excel v5.0.
The Internet wasn't really much of a thing back then. I was busying myself at the time running an online number plate search system for the DVLA and creating a few small websites for local businesses and schools. But with only 0.25% of the world's population using the Internet, it was more of a backwater than the 'everything everywhere' we're used to today.
From static pages to portals to chat rooms to content management systems (CMS) to customer relationship management (CRM) tools, we have seen it all grow and grow. People are now using the Internet to release themselves from the tyranny of old business software. And it's all as exciting as it ever has been...
Since the dawn of time (insert Brian Cox mountain-top sequence here) we have been developing our understanding of the Universe and creating tools to make the most of the world around us. Flints have given way to sharpened axes, log rolling seeded the creation of the humble wheel and the yoghurt pot telephone was the inspiration for the Internet. OK, that last one isn't true, although I'm strangely proud that I created the first ever indexed web page that contained the phrase 'yoghurt pot telephone' back in 1997 (that bit is true).
Whenever I write one of my rambling articles I'm tempted to put a question mark at the end of its title, conscious that for some people the traditional way of doing business works well. I'm a firm believer that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. So if you’re happy with how your business and customer information is managed, I’m delighted for you; there’s probably nothing to see here. That said...
Spreadsheets are great. A SUM(RANGE) here, a 'copy function' there, maybe even a bit of conditional formatting to see the brown wood from the green trees. And then another spreadsheet, to do something slightly different, and another to consolidate bits from the first and bits from the second. A circular reference, a 'checks and balances' subtotal and a graph to show that things are on the up. Lovely job, life is sweet and a little more under control. And then...
I've been reflecting this morning on one of the myriad straplines on our website: We believe that your organisation is unique and deserves a customised system.
Anyway, I've changed my mind. I don't believe that you <strong>deserve</strong> a customised system – I believe that you <strong>need</strong> a customised system. Whatever your business, the way in which you manage your data, team, processes, workflow and reporting is a key aspect of your business. If you don't get it right, you'll end up somewhere you never wanted to be.
We love integrating our systems with other systems, to give our clients the best of all worlds.
One of our clients recently came to us and asked how we might be able to help improve communications with their potential and existing clients. While keeping in touch by email is really useful for them, they needed a way to keep in closer contact when arranging appointments and viewings, which are often arranged at short notice.
So we quickly integrated their existing CRM with an SMS gateway and quickly saw a significant improvement in customer relationships. Providing both email and SMS notifications has resulted in a decrease in missed appointments and an increase in brand awareness.
It's sometimes the little things that help...
A while ago we were approached by Hayley Erner at High Flyers Business Coaching and asked to help her better manage the information, contacts and processes in her successful business coaching company. We started small by adding a free online test to her existing website which offered potential clients a free instant business assessment report. We worked alongside her existing web design agency to add this tool, which generates a custom PDF report for its users... but that was just the start.
We're really proud to announce the launch of a new website and CRM system for a market-leading property business in Leeds. Although we're bound by a non-disclosure agreement, we're very proud to have become part of our client's team and delivering this project on time and on budget. It's the sort of project we love at Thirdrock - a cloud business system which automates many parts of our client's growing business and delivers both the back-end CRM system to our client's team and the front-end website to their end users. The result is a complex business system and website which embeds property data, business rules and a heap of other features that will help the company grow.
We have no excuses, and it's a fair cop - we've not updated our website for over a year. Where have we been? What have we been up to? We're glad you asked. Over the past 12 months we've been developing web-enabled business systems for two great companies and we're delighted with the return that they're giving to our beloved clients.
There's nothing we like more than a custom web development project that calls for way more than an off-the-shelf content management system can, erm, manage. We're really excited at the moment because we're working on a marketplace-type website for a client which combines a great business model with some really nice design work and some nifty integration with PayPal Adaptive Payments too.
Thirdrock has been laying low over the summer getting up-to-speed with the latest and greatest technologies in the web development world. We remain committed to bespoke web development and have taken a few weeks out to learn the Symfony2 web development framework, which we now feel is stable enough for the production environment.
Thirdrock is delighted to announce the launch of two new websites which we've been beavering away on over the past few months. Due to a non-disclosure agreement we're not able to say too much, but that doesn't make us any less proud to be part of this project.
We've been beavering away all summer on a great project for The Lighthouse Group (TLG) and are really excited to announce that we've recently delivered a significant new intranet for the Bradford-based education charity. Developed from the ground-up using Symfony and JQuery UI web development frameworks, the new Lighthouse intranet covers many aspects of TLG's internal business processes. We've spent the past 6 months working with TLG to understand how they currently work and identifying the good, the bad and the ugly. We've modelled the good, analysed and fixed the bad and replaced the ugly. The result is a clean and easy-to-use interface which gives everyone within TLG access to the information they need to get their jobs done.
The world is full of trade-offs. You might want a car which is both sporty and fuel efficient, or you might want a website which is both low-cost and fulfils your company's exact needs. There is certainly a wide range of off-the-shelf web products which offer a wealth of features at a low-low price. As the Internet has grown, the number and range of these products has grown, each one created to cater for a wide range of uses and scenarios. You may be lucky enough to find one or more low-cost off-the-shelf web products which suit your current needs. However, in our experience, all but a few of these web products expose their users (ie you) to risks which can jeopardise your company's ongoing online presence.
Managing the content of your website sounds as if it should be a simple affair. Word processors have been helping us to manage document content for many decades now, and have undoubtedly increased our productivity in the workplace (in a way that Facebook and Ebay never seem to have been able). Understandably, you want to be able to manage your website content with similar ease, but the demands on content management systems differ somewhat from the demands you're ever likely to put on your computer's word processor.
Looking back on the early days of web development, security was not much of a concern because the web started out as an almost entirely read-only medium. Thankfully (and interestingly) this soon changed and websites quickly began to offer increasing levels of interaction with their users. With increased interaction came an increased risk of hacking and accidental mis-use by the website's end-users, and web development had to grow up, quick-smart.
We sometimes forget that the web development industry is one of the fastest moving and exciting of all business sectors in the world. Where once a basic understanding of HTML entitled anyone to call themselves a webmaster, today a successful web development agency needs to master a wide range of technologies, understand how websites can change the business they serve and manage end-users' ever-evolving requirements and expectations. It's clear that no individual can any longer offer the range of competence that's required to create and support modern business websites.
The term web development is very broad, covering a great deal of ground from simple websites to complex ecommerce sites to the development of a web based intranet for internal use. Some companies have large teams of web developers who spend their days writing lines and lines of code for just one single application. Other companies have a single dedicated resource for web development that may look after everything from security to the online website to fixing a printer.
We've been working on web application development since the mid 1990s when the web was a fairly flat read-only medium. As websites have become more complex, businesses have started to realise that they have an opportunity to expose increasing amounts of information about their products and services to their end users