Engaging the User: Challenges and Opportunities at FASTForward

Feb 13, 2009

FASTForward, held in Las Vegas, NV, February 9-11, began amidst a sound and light extravaganza. Jared Spataro, director of enterprise search for Microsoft was the emcee for the "Engaging the User"-themed conference and summed up the event’s focus over three days as "people, search, and the future."

Don Tapscott, returning after his keynote at FASTForward ’08, started the conversation about people by discussing how a new generation is driving an age of engagement. With lots of slides and charts, he talked about his new book, Grown Up Digital, and how he disagrees with claims that the net generation or digital natives (also known as millenials and Gen Y) is the dumbest generation. Tapscott says this generation is a powerful force for change in the world. He gave lots of examples including sixth grader who went after financing for his business Playspan. He described the net gen attitude as "work=collaboration=learning=fun" and cautioned organizations that do not allow the use of social tools like Facebook to be accessed in the enterprise. He cautioned that those sorts of policies can lead to this response: "I won’t go onto Facebook during work time or on work computers if you don’t expect me to answer company emails after hours or on weekends."

The next keynote, Clay Shirky, is the author of Here Comes Everybody; The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Shirky talked about how group action "just got easier," and is changing how people find and take action with one another. One example illustrated how UK students mobilized on Facebook to stop an unwanted change in policies affecting student accounts at HSBC. They not only used Facebook as a platform for information by posting instructions for sharing solutions to account issues but also a site of coordination which rallied a great number of students leading to HSBC reversing their unpopular policy.

The last speaker of the day, futurist Daniel W. Rasmus, director of business insights, for Microsoft’s business division, talked about the company’s use of long-range scenario planning and focused on the workplace 10 years from now. Rasmus says the workplace of the future will involve working in a blended environment with blended languages, personal and work life, data, and more. He also laid out a list of core skills for the business of the future: information and media literacy; critical thinking; interpersonal and collaboration skills; creativity and intelligent curiosity; accountability and adaptability.
Day two of the conference focused more on search with a series of Microsoft executives, customers, and partners. Walton Smith, senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton talked about search as the key to enterprise 2.0 and getting "the right information to the right people at the right time." He talked about customizing SharePoint and deploying integrated enterprise 2.0 tools for employee profiles, blogs, and wikis to facilitate communication and collaboration within the organization, for capturing and sharing explicit knowledge, and for finding the right available employees for proposals or projects.

Charlene Li, author of Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, former VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research, and an independent analyst on emerging technologies talked about building relationships and engagement. She gave lots of examples of companies using social technologies to engage and transform user experiences: marketing by H&R Block on Facebook, customer support by Comcast on Twitter, and innovation by Starbucks with the use of customer feedback and input My Starbucks Idea.

The last day of the conference looked forward to the future of search: turning information into business outcomes through engaging experiences. Microsoft illustrated its idea of engaging user experiences on Microsoft Surfaces, its tabletop touch-screen computer, where two people can work on a table interface at the same time.

One theme that emerged among attendees, however, was that there needed to be more focus on content, and the back end enabling search. Lynda Moulton, an analyst with Gilbane commented that more exploration of where content reaches the point of search was needed as it is the rich content, metadata, etc that enables good user experiences.

Microsoft made a few announcements during the conference: FAST Search for Internet Business will be released in beta this fall with full release coming with Office 14 (no date disclosed) and roughly annually after that. FAST Search for SharePoint is FAST ESP tuned for SharePoint at a lower cost. It will be released with Office 14 but Microsoft is also offering a simplified licensing agreement, which can be put in place prior to the release of the product.

After buying FAST last year for $1.2 billion, Microsoft established a blended team of FAST and Microsoft personnel to create the enterprise search division, with 300 engineers worldwide. About 15% of all the projects in Microsoft Research are focused on search; there is a dedicated sales organization for FAST products and the number of partners has doubled in the last six months. The message was clear and was reiterated over the three day FASTForward event: Microsoft is committed to search.

(www.fastforwardblog.com, http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23FFC09)