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Top 5 things I learned from the biggest tech conference in the US.

Over the past week I attended a conference called Dreamforce 2011. Dreamforce played host to 45,000 people, all of whom are interested in running applications in the cloud. Since GovDelivery (where I work)has been all about cloud computing for over a decade, they were speaking my language!

There were plenty of big name speakers like Eric Schmidt, Executive Chariman of Google, Tim Campos, CIO of Facebook and Vivek Kundra, Former CIO of the United States. There were also plenty of other industry experts and people in the know. Even though there were hundreds of speakers and thousands of ideas discussed, there were 5 themes that continued to pop up. Let me summarize them for you:

1) The future of computing is Mobile, Social and Local
We’ve all heard the statistics that more and more internet browsing is being done on mobile devices, namely smartphones and tablets. As a result, technologists have to adapt new ways of formatting their information. Websites must begin to be created using HTML 5 and CSS3 in order to be cross-platform, cross-device compatible. Finding ways to deliver information that is relevant to you and the things you care about is now the norm, not the exception. Allowing people to get real-time information about what is in their backyard will determine whether or not they continue to consume your content. Fortunately, government has a leg up on this. It’s social and local by its’ very nature. Find ways creative ways to deliver content where people are. Smartphones and tablets are a great place to start, but not everything. Could you find ways to deliver your message about specific topics by email and social media? How about make an informative video and post it online? Maybe you implement QR codes for more information on all your printed material? Get creative about how to reach people where they already congregate (in person and online).

2) Getting data out of traditional, on-site silos allows more flexibility with what you can do with that data
Data is about the most valuable resource most organizations have. Having it locked away in proprietary, outdated databases hinders its’ ability to be used in new ways. For example, www.data.gov lists over 300,000 publically available geospatial datasets. This has allowed the development of thousands of web and mobile applications for travel alerts, weather, trivia, insurance estimators, student loan disbursement and many more. By allowing people access to data, creativity and technical aptitude can combine to create great new products. Think about ways you can make data available to the public and invite people to access it. You will be surprised with what they come up with.

3) Speed and agility in implementation of new solutions is a must
In software, there are traditionally two ways to do development: waterfall and agile. With waterfall development you spend a large amount of time planning every possible feature set you’re looking for. Then, once the spec sheet is complete, you develop the whole product (think Microsoft Office). Agile development works in short bursts called sprints. Developers focus on a small amount of features for 2 to 4 weeks. Once a sprint is over, the developments are released and a new sprint of features begins (think Google). This allows the development team to be very flexible in its response to problems or adjusting priorities. Agile development is becoming the new norm. Going beyond software, the principles of Agile development can be applied in accounting, communications or emergency management. The idea of making quick decisions, measuring the results like crazy and adjusting rapidly can allow any organization to move forward quickly. Think about how your team could adapt Agile programming techniques to streamline your workflow.

4) Measurement and analysis are more important than they’ve ever been
In order to be agile, you must collect a lot of data about what you’re doing and make decisions based on that data. Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into the trap of going with your “gut” because you have experience. Experience is great, but it should be used correctly. Your experience helps you see patterns and trends in the data. If the data doesn’t support your assumption, it’s time make adjustments to your assumptions. Simply ignoring the data (or not collecting any in the first place) is no way sustain forward progress. If you aren’t collecting data about everything that matters to your organization, find ways to start. If you are collecting data, make sure you encourage everyone to absorb it. When everyone has an understanding of the data, decision will be better and come quicker.

5) Those at the forefront of their industry need to continually evolve and improve or they will rapidly lose relevance
When was the last time you flew on Pan Am or logged into your MySpace account? Both started out as wildly popular, innovative companies. Now they are relegated to the annals of history. Through a series of mis-steps and stagnation in innovation, both of these major companies lost their prominence. No organization is immune to this fact. Right now we have cases where cities and counties are declaring bankruptcy. Major federal agencies are at the brink of collapse. Even the once mighty US credit rating has been downgraded. Find ways that you can help your organization evolve & improve and you will become a star.

6) BONUS-Imagination and risk-taking is vital
Speaking of Eric Schmidt, last year he stated that, “Every two days now, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.” The world is changing quickly. Organizations need to be open and honest about what’s going on. This opens up space to try new things. Trying new things leads to innovation. Without innovation you go the way of MySpace. Work toward unlocking data, developing quickly, measuring often and learning for successes and failures. It’s what keeps the Apple’s, Facebook’s and Google’s at the top of their game. Where are the areas you can begin taking risks, just to see the outcome?

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