December 2013
Interview

AutomatedBuildings.com

Babel Buster Network Gateways: Big Features. Small Price.
Control Solutions, Inc. - Minnesota

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Steve JonesEMAIL INTERVIEW Steve Jones and Ken Sinclair

The S4 Group, Inc
Steve Jones, Managing Partner

The S4 Group is a developer of gateway technology to integrate disparate technologies and systems in the building automation industry and other non-IT vertical markets.  This interview was originally conducted in October, 2012. This is a refresh in preparation for the 2014 AHR Expo sessions and the addition of some new questions.



The S4 Group and the Connection Community Revisited


The Connection Community is member directed, member moderated, very agile, and can frequently morph itself to meet the needs of its membership.


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Sinclair: What do Connection Communities mean to The S4 Group?

Jones: Let’s talk about traditional industry associations, trade groups, etc. first. These traditional communities differentiate themselves through technology, communication strategies, and the membership experience. These communities sustain themselves through membership dues and volunteer resources. The community administration sets the rules and standards for the industry to follow within the community. The very fact that the association makes the rules ensures that it becomes a closed community, so that it begins to look very proprietary even if its mission is to promote open and interoperable systems.

Jones (Update): Traditional industry associations, trade groups, user groups and similar organizations have had to change to remain relevant. The almost instant communications provided by Internet forums and social networking puts pressure on these organizations to deliver value to their members and subscribers.

Sinclair: OK, but what makes Connection Communities different?

Jones: Connection Communities can do everything that these traditional communities have been doing, but they go a very important step farther. They empower every member to be an active participant and to drive the direction of the Connection Community. In effect, the Connection Community is member directed, member moderated, very agile, and can frequently morph itself to meet the needs of its membership.

Jones (Update): I don’t think this situation has changed other than the fact that Connection Communities have continued gaining in acceptance and recognition.

Sinclair: Are you saying that traditional associations should change into Connection Communities?

Jones: Not necessarily. The traditional associations are a good place to start collecting information about the challenges and opportunities that exist in different aspects of the Building Automation industry. When I founded The S4 Group 10 years ago, I contacted BACnet, LON, and OPC communities to seek guidance in market data and directions that were being pursued by all of the industry‘s leading manufacturers.  They were willing to help me and offered a great deal of information in print as well as in conversation.  While the focus of each community was predominately one dimensional, I kept that in perspective and appreciate everything I was able to learn.

Jones (Update): I think the traditional associations that are surviving are becoming more effective and providing better services to their members.

Sinclair: So, how should traditional communities change?

Jones: I think they need to recognize that the “one size fits most” approach does not serve their membership appropriately. A perfect example of breaking out of that mold is the work that BACnet International is doing in proposed addendum Add-135-2010al to the BACnet standard, which specifies best practices for gateway design and is currently undergoing public review 3.

Jones (Update): BACnet International continues to demonstrate that the organization, and the BACnet technology, can continue to change to embrace new requirements such as Cloud-based services. Historically, all of the orders for our products were for on-site integrations. Now, we are seeing frequent requests for our products to act as on-site agents for cloud-based services without impacting the legacy system in any way.

Sinclair: Wait a minute, you drifted off into talking about technology. We were talking about Connection Communities.

Jones: I agree. But they are intertwined. If you look at most of the traditional communities in our industry, each one is focused around a technology. What the BACnet community is very quickly embracing is the fact that there are legacy systems that are still very serviceable, there are evolving technologies that perform very specific tasks that BACnet is not suited to address, for instance the EnOceanŽ wireless and energy harvesting technology, and there other industries that the BAS community in general needs to interoperate with. Gateway technology, such as our S4 Open Appliances, is the enabling technology of interoperability. Even more important are the cultural changes that have to happen within the traditional communities. As technology advances, it encourages discourse between community members and facilitates open communications between the standards bodies and the trade association that supports the technology on the other side of the gateway. Open communication is vital to the success of both.

Jones (Update): This is truer than ever. As we have seen larger integration projects taken on by our integration partners there have been many cases where the success of a project hinged on knowledge about the legacy system as well as the target system and our gateway technology. There is a growing community of both freelance subject matter experts as well as recognition by the major BAS manufacturers that gateway technology and integrations as a transition strategy have become mainstream solutions.

Sinclair: Since you opened up that door tell me what role technology should play in Connection Communities?

Jones: The emphasis on particular hardware or software needs to be subordinate to problem solving and improving life’s experience for the participants. That is, hardware and software should be looked at as tools, not as the end goal.

Jones (Update): Again, we have seen our integration partners maturing and approaching integration projects with all the discipline normally used when designing a new building installation or major software development project. The first steps are to identify and agree to project goals and deliverables. Then determine what resources and skills are needed to be successful in meeting those deliverables on time and within budget. Finally, is execution and verification, and end user training.

Sinclair: Does The S4 Group have a Connection Community?

Jones: No, and I don’t think we ever will have a dedicated Connection Community. We have a web site, I host a blog, we publish FAQs and case studies, we periodically publish articles on Automatedbuildings.com, and we utilize social networking to reach out to our partners and their customers. In all of these efforts we aim to facilitate two-way communication.  I think we are best served by supporting the existing communities and helping them to become more responsive to member needs and more receptive to working together with other communities.

Jones (Update): There is no change in direction here. However, it is important to note that our gateway technology is always used as enabling technology for a solution, not a solution in and of itself.

Sinclair (New): Do Connection Communities need to have a formal organization and structure?

Jones (Update): Many don’t and actually function better in the virtual world. Retaining the flexibility to morph and change as required by the members and participants is one of the ingredients that make them successful.

Reliable ControlsSinclair: Can you point to an example of an ideal Connection Community?

Jones: I don’t think the ideal exists. However, I think that the HVAC-Talk site is leading the pack. They don’t call themselves a Connection Community but they certainly function as one. One day you might respond to questions other people have posted, the next day you might be on the other side asking for help, and at some point in time you might find yourself acting as a forum moderator. DIY questions are discouraged, so it really is a Connection Community of HVAC professionals working together for the benefit of each other and their customers. Notice that I didn’t say anything about technology. There are a lot of technology-based questions posted and answered about many different manufacturers’ products. But, the key is that members can look to the various forums for information or advice on almost anything- be it technical, business, marketing, and so forth.

Jones (Update): In the last year I’ve gotten more involved with the LinkedIN community. It provides an on-line one-stop service for finding, and sharing information about companies, technologies, and people. It acts like a magnet for bringing people together with common interests and needs. What I really appreciate about LinkedIN community members is the self-discipline that keeps discussions focused on the needs of business.

Sinclair: As the Connections Communities model unfolds, what changes do you anticipate in making in order to fit?

Jones: I think that as a company the S4 Group is already there. Because of the functionality provided by our S4 Open appliances, we support multiple proprietary, de facto, and open standards and promote open systems. Success with the technology necessitates active participation in multiple communities, facilitating communications between our partners, and getting people, as well as technology, working together for a common cause.

Jones (Update): I think we got this right. We are staying the course.

Sinclair: Do you think that Connection Communities are a good thing?

Jones: Absolutely! I think that just as our S4 Open Appliances have opened up the closed and propriety world of legacy BAS systems, Connection Communities can do the same thing for the business and personal side of the HVAC industry. Any time that you break down barriers to communication, and get people openly sharing ideas, everybody wins.

Jones (Update): We’ve seen connection communities gaining momentum. The value proposition is there when participants are willing to both contribute and receive benefits from the community.


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