Monday, October 25, 2010

A year of active blogging

Many moons back, this column was conceptualized based on the intermittent musings posted on Oh I See. It has evolved with feedback from readers and critics in equal measure who keep providing me with feedback, headlines and thoughts that can be converted into a column. The weekly frequency has settled down to a couple of hours over the weekend — after many hours during the week has been consumed in figuring out what matters — amongst the many wanting attention.

CEOs, CIOs, students, techies and business readers have written back with their views; some in agreement, a few in disagreements. I learned different perspectives from both — views that added to the richness that I consume and try to disseminate across this column. The Gonzo approach (a la Hunter Thompson) to Oh I See appears to bring out the warts, moles and at the same time, airbrushed images that attempt to make them palatable. Until a few weeks back, I was ignorant of this branding, until it was pointed out by the editor at TechTarget. I am simultaneously suitably impressed and humbled.

Celebrating a year of Oh I See and reflecting back on the various topics that were brought up, discussed, debated, challenged, analyzed, I hope that you would have gained something; a laugh, a connect to the CIO reality. If nothing else, it’s a smile or a frown — hopefully not a grimace. But if your reaction was indeed extreme, did it stimulate you enough to write back? And if not, then you better do it the next time.

Last week was great. I managed to catch up with some old colleagues whom I had mentored. It was heartening to see them achieve new peaks in their career. The event that brought us together from different parts of the world was better than most, since it had limited product pitches (which were relegated to one-on-one meetings, though some did escape). The learning was indeed that irrespective of geography or industry (specific and additional challenges could be regulatory), experiences across the globe seem to mirror each other with fair consistency. Similar challenges and opportunities observed during discussions with peers from China, Japan, and other countries reinforced the belief that the human factor overrides all other forces.

Is there a Holy Grail for the CIO that can overcome the nemesis of IT? Something that manifests itself as one or more of “Alignment”, “Change Management”, “Budget pressures”, and “People issues”.… Someday, I hope to find the illusive mantra that CIOs can universally apply under most situations to overpower Medusa.

Back to Oh I See and the journey through the year, I hope the coming year will have a lot more to discuss and write about. Amongst the feedback, my favorite quote comes from someone who aspires to be a CIO. “I don’t need to read books or take management training from any business school any more. Your regular articles on different sites like STL center, Oh I See, IT Next, etc are enough to fill all the required skills and capabilities in me to get and justify with the position like CIO /Head IT.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

CIO speeches at Award ceremonies

"...and the award goes to ..." All of us have seen award ceremonies like Oscars or Grammies (on television or live). Some would have also received awards usually followed by the award winner being asked to say a few words. Almost all of them sound like clich├ęs, since they follow a predictable pattern.

Recent times have seen a number of awards (for the CIO and the next level) competing for the participants’ attention. Some of them have become prestigious and much vied for by the CIOs, while a few have lost their credibility, largely for want of effective communication and process management. Thus, CIOs have now started to choose between the awards that matter to them, and those that don’t. The natural selection process has thus differentiated the ‘Oscars’ from ‘me too’ awards.

Initial years saw the awkward CIOs on stage, as they tried to be graceful in their acceptance speeches. With time, they grew adept at being on stage. This also meant that the speeches became a lot more predictable. “I would like to thank my team, my boss, my users …” it could have been any award, CIO, or company, but the same spiel. After the ceremony, it was back to business as usual, with the accompanying cribs.

In 2009, I found changes. In one of the award ceremonies, the CIO was accompanied by his CEO to collect the award. The CEO stood alongside the CIO accepting the award — sharing the joy — telling the world at large about how the awarded IT initiatives transformed his organization. It was indeed inspirational to the recipient, as well as the audience.

Last week, I attended two award ceremonies, where the number of other CXOs made it a very different story. The CEO and CIO jostled on stage for airtime, and collaborated to tell their success story. Gone were the usual “thank you” messages, which were now replaced by what has changed for the enterprise, employees and customers. It was about revenue generation and profitability.

Reflecting on this change, it is evident that the CIO has evolved into an equal business leader who is not enamored by technology. He is self assured, confident of himself, and is able to hold his head high, while acknowledging the success of initiatives taken or supported by the IT team. I get this warm and fuzzy feeling as I hope that the future will bring better tidings for CIOs — not just in IT awards, but other CXO award categories.

P.S.: One of the CXOs in my organization pronounced that we now need a separate wall for all the IT awards we are rightfully getting. I turned the air conditioning to chill.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Doing business with startups, due diligence and lessons

Every CIO gets many calls from startup IT companies wanting to bounce their million dollar idea—to seek the CIO’s advice and understand whether it makes sense in the enterprise. Some of these are self-funded, while a few may have angel investors or private equity already in place for growth. The steady growth of such small startups in the recent past has created an interesting problem for the CIO. Why is it a problem?

In quite a few cases, there is not much to differentiate one startup from the other. So how does the CIO separate the chalk from cheese? What is the due diligence required before getting these vendors on board?

A majority of these startups are seeded in institutes like IIT and IIM (globally pertinent equivalents may be the Silicon Valley or MIT kind of institutes), where the idea takes shape fuelled by the entrepreneurial bug. Most such ideas take a while before they gain traction with their target audience. These are the real gems, and being an early adopter of such startups provides an immense advantage.

Having worked with a few such companies, I realize that it does take a lot of effort to get the product/service aligned to enterprise processes and direction. As the first or amongst the first few customers, the value proposition is almost always attractive. Their reference checks largely depend on their mentors (professors or others) who are able to provide the details behind their continued support to the new entity.

The second category of startups comprises breakaway groups from existing companies, where a group of people have decided that their ideas have higher value than what they currently see within a large entity. This group typically specializes in services for a specific technology, domain or application. Such companies do well to begin with as they are patronized by existing customers (supported by them) who see a price advantage with a smaller startup. Such entities pass the tipping point within 12-18 months by either reaching a steady state, or falling apart. The due diligence is thus largely dependent on the team’s leader and its past track record as they continue to offer similar services.

A variant of the second category is a group being lured by an investor who believes that unlocking the potential has good upside for everyone. The service offering is thus no different from the above. A private equity institutional player invests in existing entities that needs funds to scale up or laterally, but in this case the carving out was initiated by the investor. How does one ensure that the entity will survive and make it to the tipping point? The team comes with impeccable credentials; the unknown factor is the investor who may pull the plug. In such a case, it is critical to conduct diligence on the investor and his past track record. Search engines come to your rescue in such cases, as past footprints cannot be obliterated.

Either way, put in safeguards to protect your enterprise’s interests with financial, legal or even escrow accounts to address sudden disruption. Work with your legal team for once, ask all the questions even if they make the other queasy; at least you will be able to sleep with ease.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Strategic vendor meetings, slip between intent and execution

I met the CEO of a global market leading hardware and services vendor recently – he’s from an organization which has been engaged with us for many years. He was earnestly seeking customer feedback on how is his company contributes to the success of customers and what is required to sustain or improve the mutual value. My submission to him was that all is well and hunky dory; we think of their company when we needed something. Once the transaction is over, the Account Manager as well as my team part ways until the next requirement comes up.

As a purely transactional arrangement, this works well, but many other value added opportunities get missed as this vendor is not our first recall. The CEO was aghast and promised to remedy the situation quickly through a strategic meeting with solution heads and domain experts; this was to be repeated every quarter, or on demand.

Six months passed, and nothing happened. Another chance meeting, and this time the CEO turned crimson on hearing the progress. In the interim, some more business went to their competitors. The chastised managers began the chase attempting to fix this meeting, which materialized after another three weeks. Time requested and granted — 1½ hours, scheduled start 2:30 PM.

D-day arrived, and this is how events unfolded:

2:30 PM came and went with no sign of the delegation; No call, no SMS, nothing. The audience comprising of the CIO and a few General Managers waited with some concern and amusement.

3:00 PM: Account Manager turns up. After 10 minutes, the second person ambles along. Meeting starts at 3:15 with a presentation on how the vendor sees the current market. They shared their beliefs about our challenges, and thus the opportunities for engagement. He talked about services that we have tried unsuccessfully with the vendor as the key unique selling points.

3:30 PM: The Sales head joins the meeting while the discussion was on an organizational matrix—a model that would support us in the collective quest to take engagement to the next level. As we started tabling issues, the vendor team had reasons for all that had nothing to do with them. An ERP upgrade, change in account managers, shift of support personnel, I am sure you get the point. But there were only fleeting regrets that they did not update us on open issues or orders despite multiple reminders.

3:45 PM: “What are your priorities and projects for the next 12 months?” and we quipped “To explore new and alternative vendors”. My colleague whispers that this meeting is worth a mention on Oh I See. Saving grace for them came in the form of an urgent phone interruption.

4:00 PM: The reception announces arrival of the last person who was to join the meeting. I get up and walk out of the meeting.

I wonder whether the vendor realizes what they (did not) achieve with the strategic meeting scheduled by their CEO with intent to enhance business with our company. Why does the IT vendor fraternity not teach its sales force to listen, engage, empathize and show some patience – the four tenets of retaining your customers? All of them (except a handful) are interested in talking, or presenting the great slides provided by their local or global HQ with inane survey data that normally has no connect in the local dynamics of business. Like every other business, retaining customers is all about creating a differentiated experience, unless you always compete on price.