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Tools for Thinking in the Moment

By Denis Pombriant
Mar 24, 2010 5:00 AM PT

I've recently been looking at a couple of applications that don't readily fit into the idea of conventional CRM but which are nonetheless valuable front-office tools that can make CRM a better purchase. They strike me as important additions to the front-office suite for sustainability reasons, too.

Tools for Thinking in the Moment

In common, each has a simple job and each accomplishes its mission by making data visible and understandable. For me, data visualization is something from the 1990s that had a burst of popularity then settled into the background, absorbed into larger products. The best examples in my mind were the entity relationship diagramming tools and relational data modelers that I used to diagram my first relational databases.

I don't think those tools have been much improved over time. Each took what was a knot of information and made it intuitively obvious for the user. They were definitely worth the money. I will never forget the thrill I experienced the first time someone showed me how they worked by dragging some data items onto the workspace and letting the system sort it all out. Very cool.

Who's in Need of What?

Today's visualization tools do something similar, though I might say the concepts they work with are more elaborate. The first tool I am thinking about, Asuret, helps organizations involved in large system deployments to understand the needs and motivations of all relevant constituents. It's one thing to say that an organization is on board with a new system deployment, but what does that mean, really, and what are the differing viewpoints of IT, the line of business and the consultants? Everybody on the same page?

I like Asuret because it doesn't assume we're all on the same page or even that we all know what that page is. It is open-ended and its purpose is to find out. In a large project, it's not unusual for everyone to have a different view of the drivers and desired result, and often that result is an outcome that gets a narrowly defined job done and covers certain anatomy. Asuret shows you to what degree everyone has the same vision of the solution. It's surprising when you find out how differently the stakeholders see the situation.

Asuret gathers input from all the stakeholders and renders it graphically so that managers can find weaknesses in their plan and potential disagreements before they materialize, then it paints a picture everyone can understand. Last time I checked, Asuret was in beta and doing well. It would have been nice if Asuret had been around, say, 10 years ago, but what the heck. There are still plenty of complex projects to worry over, and I think Asuret will find its niche.

Process Visualization

The second tool on my list has been around a while; it has been successful and garnered many customers. It has also been kept current -- a neat trick, because its owners don't believe in the "don't fix it if it's not broke" approach.

The product is MindJet, and it is used to visualize processes as different as selling, consulting, engineering or writing a book. A newer iteration focuses on the sales process, enabling salespeople to map out a situation quickly and efficiently.

In selling, it's a tool for improving collaboration with customers, optimizing the discovery process, and developing account plans. These are all things that usually take time and a lot of paper and pencil work. Often they are processes that we do in our heads or on napkins, with predictable results.

I am writing a book right now and am playing with MindJet as an outlining tool. It's a difficult process to capture ideas and put them together in the right order. There's a lot of experimentation, for example, and visualizing the information makes the process easier.

Better Than Hindsight

As you know, I have become a big fan of sustainability -- of removing the friction involved in many business processes in the front office. My definition of sustainability includes reduced waste and better use of available resources, and inevitably that means capturing and analyzing more data so that we can work with a richer information set. Analytic software alone is not the only approach we need. We can still get lost in a jungle of data if it is simply provided as reports or even as pie charts.

Analytics is also retrospective by nature, and while that's useful, it primarily tells us what to do next time. The tools I am discussing today go you one better. They can help you see how things are, while there's still time to avoid a problem, and that's incredibly valuable anytime there's a human factor involved.

Human-mediated processes often do not happen the same way twice, so often the learnings from the last instance are instructive but hardly definitive. These tools, which work in the moment, can be very valuable for this reason.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.

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