Tim Meaney

Noise-Canceling Headphones for Your Enterprise Software

Software product follows one strict trend: some common activity or function—formerly accomplished manually or offline—is systematized, a market is proven, and a handful of competitors rush in to solve the problem in similar but distinct ways. Quickly, this digitized activity, which is now the core function of the competing products, is commoditized. Once commoditized, higher-level functions emerge, because you can’t build a business writing software to address a commoditized function.

Wash, rinse, repeat and before long, these higher-level functions get commoditized, too.

This trend extends Marc Andreessen’s observation that “software is eating the world.” For as soon as software eats its offline counterpart, it immediately and relentlessly eats itself.

The trend of rapid commoditization is great for consumers, as it forces product teams into constant innovation. Progress may be quickly commoditized, but valuable adjacencies are there for the taking. The most adept product teams are aware of what aspects of their product/business have become commodity, and then quickly pursue new higher-level functions. Less adept product teams see their product commoditized rapidly, unable to climb the ladder towards higher-value activities.

This force is pervasive and constant. From point-of-sale systems to CAD drawing tools, from online commerce sites to HR systems, the never-ceasing grind of commoditization and innovation continues apace. In this way, software is much like evolution, where an evolutionary step immediately opens up the next adjacency, soon to be filled by another evolutionary step. It’s not surprising that these are the twin forces most shaping our planet: the evolutionary biological push and the creative destruction and rapid commoditization of software.

Hauling crates of peaches

Software is an evolutionary product not unlike the peach. Or the burro.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves with Kindling. Kindling competes in the idea management and innovation enterprise software market. The originating activity, systematized by Kindling and our competitors, is idea management: the ability to capture, refine, discuss, search and moderate ideas. When we see an RFP for an “idea management solution,” any capable vendor can check off all of the related features to this core function: Idea sharing? Check. Voting? Check. Workflow Reporting? Check. Commoditization at work.

So what are the adept product teams in my industry focusing on now that we’ve commoditized basic idea management? I won’t speak for my competitors (they have their own blogs for that), but I will share some thoughts about where we at Kindling believe the next wave of value-creation exists for our market.

We can divide that value creation into three categories: signal to noise ratio management, enhanced analysis and decision-making, and integration—each of which we’re pursuing aggressively. Eventually, I will discuss all three. But today, lets begin with the first, and most important: pulling signal from noise.

Signal to Noise Management

Our industry’s primary competitive arena is improving our users’ signal to noise ratio. Social business applications are capable of throwing off a tremendous amount of content, and we must be better at delivering relevancy.

It’s a problem space I’ve personally been interested in (OK, more like obsessed with) for 3 years. Back in 2009, Kindling launched a sizable campaign for the US Department of Veterans Affairs, where 5,000 users accessed our product to post, comment on, and share ideas for improving the services delivered to our nation's veterans. This was a really exciting time for our young company, and I can still remember sitting at my desk, wondering how any particular user at the VA could possibly make sense of the stream of content flowing past them. The firehose, in this case, had enough force to drown.

The challenge we recognized (and have obsessively been working on ever since) is how to learn enough from each user—through both explicit and implicit means—to make sure they never miss a relevant piece of content, all the while removing copious amounts of noise.

Delivering signal, that’s the business we’re all in. It's noise-canceling headphones for your enterprise software. Social business software products unable to help their users manage their information overload, and worse, those products that add to the problem, will be abandoned. People are too busy.

Kindling's Noise-canceling Headphones

At Kindling, we’ve built a highly capable engine that thoughtfully listens to every user action in order to create an internal model of them. Once informed, this internal model is used to identify relevant content for each user, just as Netflix does for recommending films (Netflix being a huge inspiration for the Kindling team’s work).

We’ve invested years building and tuning this engine, and currently apply it to the core content of Kindling: Ideas and Posts. Our roadmap for the future is full of enhancements to the engine itself—new ways to customize each user's experience, to optimize the time spent interacting with all of the product's content—and new ways to apply this model to new classes of content. Here are a few of the capabilities we're planning to add to Kindling:

  • Use our internal model for each user to tailor all feed views. Today, Kindling produces the main feed (‘the firehose’ of activity) and a more narrow, followed feed (activity for explicitly followed content). All user interactions with feed content, in the app or over notifications, will benefit from noise-reduction.
  • Finding people that can help with ___. Innovation is all about people. From being stuck on a problem to seeking an expert's feedback on a proposed invention to meeting a peer for coffee, Kindling will help find appropriate people that can help with specific tasks or activities.
  • Apply the internal user model and recommendation technology to new classes of content. We'll only add new content classes to Kindling with careful consideration (that pesky signal to noise ratio, again!), but we certainly will be extending our reach. And all content flowing through Kindling will benefit from our noise-canceling headphones.

So when you're evaluating software, particularly for your enterprise, it's just as important to research the product roadmap as it is to check off those features in your RFP. Discuss with the product team the next phase of higher-level problems that they're focused on solving—this is what you're actually buying.

Coming next week: How to enable better analysis and decision-making for innovation program managers.