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12:40 PM

Hiring a Consultant

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A priest, a rabbi and a consultant were all sitting in Row 12 on an airplane. There was a problem with the plane and it was clear that it was going to crash. The priest began to pray the Rosary. The rabbi began to read the Torah.  The consultant? He was up and down the aisle trolling for product liability clients clients.

Consultants get a bad rap. Sometimes deservedly so. I thought about this recently amid the revelations of the government’s failed website. It appears that rather than hire a consultant to manage the development of the site, the Department of Health and Human Services allowed one of its own agencies to oversee the development and testing of the website.

This is not a rip-on-ObamaCare riff. But it is about what happens when a technology project goes awry. And it’s about whether you should hire a consultant and when it makes sense to do so.

Here are just three examples of when hiring an outside consultant makes sense. First, hiring a consultant makes sense if you have a lack of staff time to allocate to your project. I know of few organizations that have time on their hands. Bringing in a consultant makes sense if you have a one-off project and not enough time. If you have a continuing project it makes sense to hire your own staff.

A second reason to hire a consultant is if you or your staff lacks the expertise to get the job done. This takes some soul-searching on your part. But be honest. Who has the time or inclination to do everything? If you’re a technology-driven company and you need a sales portfolio prepared, it makes sense to go to a sales consultant.

A third reason to hire a consultant is to put “another set of eyeballs” on the problem. In business we often spend so much time on a project that we develop what I call a proprietary interest in it. We built it; we own it. Having employees invested in a project is good. However, being so invested that you can’t see the flaws in your baby isn’t so good. A consultant can come in and give you an honest appraisal of where you are in the project and how to bring it in for a landing.

These are basically the three reasons people hire us. There are others, but most of our calls come when nobody on board has the time or the expertise, or the objectivity to bring a business development project to conclusion.

For example, for several years we were retained by a think tank called the Center for Health Transformation. CHT was at the time a think tank based in Washington, that provided thought leadership on how to use healthcare technology to improve the quality and lower the price of healthcare.

Our job was to interview and report on notable uses of cutting edge technology in the healthcare industry, including accountable-care organizations, health information exchanges and healthcare analytics. Our job was to produce a series of white papers on health IT for the client.
CHT didn’t hire us because of a lack of expertise. There were more health IT policy experts in their hallways than the hallways of Congress.

But CHT lacked one thing: time. In the fast-paced DC environment they lacked the time to methodically dig out the necessary information and produce attractive crying-to-be-read white papers. That’s what we did, bringing the objective eye of a reporter and the sharp pencil of an editor to the job.

Some of those white papers are available for viewing on this site.

Not all jobs have the crushing deadlines, technical complexity and inbred proprietary design require a consultant. But a lot do. (DHHS, are you still reading?)

So here’s some free advice from the consultants: If your job is in that category, stop going around in circles and start looking for help.
Now start the meter.
7:48 AM

Data Security Takes a "Quantum" Leap

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Data Security Takes a "Quantum" Leap

Cyber warfare. NSA. Data breaches. Americans may be safe from someone’s tank divisions landing in Cape May. But that feeling of security doesn’t necessarily extend to our credit card data, a tech-savvy opponent in an asymmetrical war, an unfriendly government, or even a 30-something gamer living in his mom’s basement.

The fact is that if you have electronic data stored anywhere, eventually someone you don’t want will get his hands on it.

This threat has spawned a cottage data-security industry hawking products that may make you feel better, but not necessarily keep you that much safer.

But now comes word that Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit R&D outfit based in Ohio is testing a network built on the mother-of-all anti-hacking technologies. In fact, it’s supposed to be virtually “unhackable”—a sort of Maginot Line for data security.

Battelle is piloting this program with a short network linking its Columbus headquarters with other company facilities in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, about 20 miles away.

The driver of the system is something called “quantum key distribution.” To explain it would take more intelligence than I have and more information than you want. But typical secure data transmission relies on what are called “keys” that are exchanged between the sender and receiver of data so that the encrypted data can be de-encrypted.

Keys are complex mathematical formulas that are pretty tough to break. But the degree of security depends on how much time and computing power a hacker has. It also depends on the value of the data. Obviously a hacker will throw a lot more time and computing power against a system safeguarding battle plans than he will a booklet of your Aunt Tilly’s tarragon recipes.

What makes quantum key distribution scheme different from your garden variety public key encryption is that the sender encodes the key in a single photon—the smallest particle of light. This encoded photon is transmitted through a normal fiber-optic cable to the receiver who uses the key to decode the data.

Since the photon travels at the speed of light, to intercept the key would require a hacker to observe the single photon at exactly the right moment. And even that wouldn’t necessarily work, given quantum mechanics.

Right now the downside of the technology is that it is distance-limited. But Battelle is planning within two years to link its facilities over a 400-mile range.

Right now applications for quantum key distribution appear to be high value data. And the cost can’t be cheap. But most technologies we take for granted now—from computers to air travel—were once thought to be the play toys of the rich. Eventually costs and applications come down with time. Perhaps someday there could be relief for businesses for which current data-security technology has proven inadequate.

The saying in data security is that if you build a ten-foot wall, the hackers will build an eleven-foot ladder. Quantum key distribution adds the element of speed, which may be a new dimension in the security wars. 
11:59 AM

Market Globally, Sell Locally

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Market Globally, Sell Locally

Virtually since the birth of the Internet retailers have been trying to find ways to market globally, sell locally. And there has been no shortage of tech companies trying to develop products that would help them do just that.

Google has become the latest of the market-globally-sell-locally enablers. Their Product Listing Ads, or PLAs, have been updated to offer local product availability. The purpose is to allow you to pinpoint a product marketed on a company’s World Wide Web site at a retailer near you.

Local product availability is itself available through your desktop or smartphone app. The application takes you to the local store’s storefront where you can check inventory before heading out to buy. PLA is also available through voice search.

The engine driving this application is Google’s merchant center. The merchant center allows retailers to offer price and availability of items at bricks-and-mortar stores in close to real-time.

In online retailing this is the Holy Grail: the ability to connect actual inventory in stores with consumers’ online product searches.

Some consumers will turn their back on such an arrangement. Some consumers see the primary benefit of e-commerce as not having to drag yourself down Main Street or to the mall or avoiding sales taxes, if not shipping charges.

But economists would term such an arrangement as Local Product Availability as a two-sided market. This means that both consumers and retailers will benefit equally from such an arrangement.

Merchants have tried for years to find ways to ring up sales using the a global tool, the Internet, rather than just having their websites serve as informational portals. By connecting consumers to inventory they may have made the sale.