Monday, October 29, 2012
Last week I was at a panel discussion organized by one of the large global IT conference producers, the subject of the debate, “Creating Leaders”; the panellists some CIOs and some aspiring ones. It was a great interaction between the panellists and the audience; everyone had questions and everyone also had answers based on their experiences. The best parts of the session were the stories as illustrations and examples of what works; stories are always memorable (see The Story TellerCIO).
Everyone has their definition and opinion on what constitutes leadership and its development; the CIOs talked about the skills they look for in their teams to pick high potential performers. The key tenets were collaboration, empathy, articulation, communication, relationship building, partnering, business savvy, domain expertise, and attitude. No one talked about technology, educational qualifications or certifications; no longer critical once you are in the reckoning for the top job, these are a given.
On the other hand the aspirers wanted feedback, coaching, freedom to take decisions, allowing them to fail, engage with business independently. They wanted to work with the CIO and on represent the CIO in business meetings. In essence they wanted to get to the chair quicker than the CIOs believed they can. A healthy competitive spirit with young blood that makes you feel good off course with practiced restraint where required; failing fast is not equal to failing frequently said one wise CIO.
The surprise came from the audience when one of the CIOs who had evolved from the business made a point to the speakers on the dais and the audience. He talked about the professional expertise that came in the way of good going to great. The dialogue between the young turks and the business folks takes shades of impatience and arrogance; “you don’t understand, let me tell you how, here’s the solution and it’s so obvious …” it creates polarization separating IT, business and vendors.
He berated the I-factor driven by T with the IT teams and stated that the when IT teams talk about them versus the rest, it creates an invisible rift between the stakeholders. He mooted the idea that IT should stop working with the “I” (me and myself) and start thinking in “we” terms which improves the possibility of success with shared goals and objectives. Each person on the table represents different skills and dimensions of the problem and solution; it is not possible to work without any and achieve the same success.
Everyone was numbed into silence for a moment and then spontaneously the room burst into applause; I do not do justice to his eloquence or story telling here, it touched a part of everyone in the room. Reciting from ancient scriptures and connecting to the current IT context, he implored the collective to shed ego and success will follow. Having created magic in minutes he took his seat and the conversation continued from where it had left off strongly influenced by the sentiment suspended in the air.
The power of success weaved into a story always creates positive energy; the message clear and crisp, the actions unambiguous, the leadership lesson complete, the panel concluded. As I left the stage only to be surrounded by some to seek personal advice, the thought at the back of the mind lingered on; what can I do to transform my team to We(T). We Team is better than I Team or IT; I need to tell this story to my team on what we will do differently. Quick, you too do that before the moment is lost !
Monday, October 22, 2012
A sparse gathering of smart people in a small room were discussing an important business hoping to change the outcome in their respective circles of influence. These were seasoned players in industries big and small across diverse geographies and line of business. It was crowdsourcing at its best and that gave rise to the expectation that the problem will indeed find itself vanquished. No I was not the fly on the wall or a passive listener; I was called in to moderate the discussion.
When I joined the group, they had already listed down the facts and figures about the rate of success that they had captured from published research as well as search engines. Anecdotal references were discarded focusing on empirical data and reference case studies. They had also listed down challenges and issues based on their real life experiences. The consistent and clearly emerging message was how to get Business back into BI, while the “I” actually stands for Intelligence and not Ignorance.
One of the discussion threads went something like this: the CEO needed quick reports and analysis of business with the ability to drill down; he also expected the ability to slice-dice the data. The business head wanted control over her team and did not want the CEO poking his big nose. IT simply wanted to buy the best tools since they did not have control over the environmental and political factors. The CEO in a social meeting was sold on the merits of a frightfully expensive platform and that was that.
The tool was bought, the wish-list generated across different stakeholders top down, the scope defined and captured by the principal vendor, and the execution outsourced. The requirements were skewed in favour of reports and very few dashboards or analytical cubes and that was deemed okay; everyone agreed that the phase two will cover the rest. So with a lot of fanfare the project got started and everyone believed that the future holds a lot of promise.
Through the discussion no one challenged the ask, no one sought to understand the impact of the multitude of reports on the stakeholders, no one challenged as to why the operational staff was not in the room to define what they wanted. The executives in the room blissfully proposed the metrics and data that others should be seeing, reality being far removed from the proposals. The few dashboards that were to be consumed by the CXOs changed shape based on assumptions of what they would like.
Running through the discussion I realized that this specific case had all the ingredients across the various representatives, so the solution could be broad based to apply across. Good news is that it was not a technology project considering initial active participation from the business, however they had disappeared post initial discussions leaving the baby with the vendor and the IT team. With the sketchy picture the solution was unwieldy and unusable across the layers of management and operational staff.
My submission to the team was to go back to basics and start asking some tough questions and not to proceed if the answers were not up to the mark. Their lack of enthusiasm depicted their unwillingness and inability; with some persuasion they agreed to plunge ahead. As we discussed the questions and the approach their eyes gained the missing spark; the conclusions were agreeable to all present as the best way forward. Here’s a synopsis; report is used as a representation, it could be a dashboard or cube too.
- Why do you want this report ?
- How do you get this information today ?
- Who else could benefit from it ?
- What will change for you after you get it ?
- Which personal, group or company KPI (e.g. customer, employee, revenue, profitability) does it relate to ? How ?
As we closed the meeting, I realized that earlier some of these questions had got me into trouble from which I could extricate myself from with some effort. The project was however declared a great success and a case study by the company, vendor and the industry. I believe that it is a better place to be; ignorance to intelligence is a difficult journey. Educate the business; don’t get bullied into accepting inane requests for reports that can be fulfilled by transactional systems. Someone has to drive it, why not you ?
Monday, October 15, 2012
Recently I had interesting discussions with a couple of “technology experts” separately brought in by their respective companies to help us design the best possible solutions. There was no correlation between the two opportunities or the technologies that represented the solutions; the behavior of the experts representing very large companies was indistinguishable like they were twins separated in early childhood but grew up to mimic each other in their approach to providing a solution to an opportunity.
After months of “engaging” on various opportunities to create new innovative differentiators for the enterprise with many vendors, the narrowed down list comprising the two vendors decided to bring in their technology architects. They needed to hear the expectation from the horse’s mouth and clarify the requirement before proposing the solution. I do not believe the problem or the solution is relevant here but the overall approach, methodology and intent is the focus; so I will restrict to the human side.
Now when you have a set of experts in the room, the expectation changes; for the benefit of everyone I repeated the proposition and outlined the need and the want. Everyone nodded and the expert asked a few pertinent as well as tangential questions. Addressing them and moving on to the framework of solution design the patience level of my team started waning until the experts decided to present the final solution using a set of slides. Very quickly the dam broke and …
The experts knew the subject and how their solution works, its limitations in real life situations. The discussion and clarifications were to validate if the solution would fit in, which is fair. Having said this, the direction the dialogue took was totally different. Instead of working with the team to flesh out the solution, the experts started a sales pitch on why we should choose their solution ! Any interruptions were brushed aside with an air of “I know what is best for you and let me tell you why”.
The relationship managers sensed the total disconnect and tried to intervene without success. The experts in overdrive mode bulldozed ahead ignoring body language and voices of protest. It took some effort to close the meeting which was making no sense or headway. Trying some steps in damage control, the account managers separately mentioned that they will revert to the team with options to take the initiative ahead.
With no acceptance or alignment of the solution a discussion on the Bill of Material (BoM) is a sheer waste of everyone’s collective time. The ROI or TCO matters only when the customer acknowledges that the solution is appropriate for the enterprise. You don’t sell until you know that your solution has acceptance and that it meets requirements and business goals. Was the need to sell so desperate that they risked alienating a reference customer or professional arrogance that consummates such behavior ?
In the current economic scenario the pressure to sell is evident on almost every company; that does not condone such tactics and behaviors their pervasiveness scares me. I believe that vendors need to work with their customers to evolve any solutions and gracefully walk away should there be a stretch to fit their wares. It would be an undesirable situation where their key customer the CIO is not willing to come to the table or shuns these meetings. Maybe it is time to start exploring vendor-IT-business alignment ?
Stop Selling Part 2
Stop Selling Part 2
Monday, October 08, 2012
In recent times there has been a hue and cry that Corporate IT systems still need users to be trained on usage and functionality; the underlying hypothesis is that if one can adapt to all the social media sites, shopping portals and various mobile apps, why do corporate IT solutions require formal training as well as guides for users to struggle through them ? Why cannot the ERP, CRM, SCM, DW/BI and other systems be user-friendly enough for anyone to intuitively start using the application ?
Consultants, experts and companies have mushroomed claiming to help enterprises de-clutter and make friendly even the most complex transactional systems. They come in with variety of tools and review the problem from various angles and dimensions. These UX experts in many cases are able to create improvements with increased usability and thereby deliver the intended results. However these have been limited to websites, portals and in a few cases custom and bespoke applications.
Over the last 20 odd years of the existence of enterprise applications, the change in the user screens has evolved with changing functionality and technology. From green screen to client-server and then onto the browser, the change has been not too significant even when you consider all operating systems and platforms. The top 5 enterprise application screens today have changed only to incorporate different buttons and tabs, and maybe with a drop down or look ahead search; the rest remains the same.
Then how is it that new generation applications have broken this paradigm such that they have been embraced across geographies, age groups, user communities, and consumers and corporates alike. What makes these web and mobile apps so intuitive, easy to the eye and deft of click or touch ? No one ever provides training nor does anyone ask for it. Have the big name vendors no interest in easing the pain of using their apps ? I do not for a moment believe that they are immune to this phenomenon.
So I did my bit of research talking to the vendors attempting to unravel this mystery. Without exception, all of them acknowledged the problem and cited special interest groups, advisory committees and even empanelment of experts to solve the problem. I also got myself invited to a couple to ascertain the steps and direction, and with a desire to help. Using eye ball trackers, cursor followers, semantic parsers, and a horde of techniques beyond my comprehension, they attempted to sweeten the pill.
We all know that the gap continues to exist, the unrest with the user community increasing and the helplessness maintaining status quo. None the wiser after a few years of participation, I parted ways and started challenging my team and developers to create intuitive interfaces to apps. Easier said than done; while I did not like what I saw, with no bright sparks for improvement, the teams soon ran out of ideas and enthusiasm to pursue the nebulous goal. We did create some improvements, but they were nominal.
Only recently I had my Eureka! moment that the twain shall never meet, the usability mountain will remain unconquered for some time to come, and we will continue to struggle with training for every app, big or small, custom or off-the-shelf, that we deploy within or outside of the enterprise. The reason is obvious but not staring you in the face until you think hard about it and then some more. It will not come to you intuitively (at least it did not to me).
With tablets and mobile becoming mainstream compute screens and apps for specific processes connecting to corporate apps, the dependence on the conventional corporate IT solutions will reduce. Does this put off the pressure to simplify the usability of systems from the vendors ? Yes and no; most have taken on the opportunity to create their own apps retaining the customer and the corporate security needs.
Corporate apps expect structured data inputs for business with defined boundaries and validated masters; they are input heavy and work in secure environments. Whereas consumer “friendly” apps mostly deal with unstructured public domain data which is viewed by many, input by few. The divergent needs keep them independent and their evolution following different paths. The CIO has to manage expectations at all levels and educate the enterprise on what reality will be for a long time to come.
Monday, October 01, 2012
A heated debate ensued between the two project managers, from the development vendor and the customer respectively on change in scope of the project. This was not a late stage discussion or changes requested during UAT; in fact the project was just a week old with the Requirement Specifications still being formulated. The key user who was also the subject matter expert sat through the charade wondering where she should step in. With no resolution visible, they all decided to go to the CIO for arbitration.
It was supposed to be a quick win project that typically delivers what everyone refers to as low hanging fruits. The project brief was a working model on a spread sheet of the solution to be developed. So it was assumed that the solution should be easy to create and scale up. The timelines and costs were agreed to and the vendor team arrived on site to finalize the project scope and integration points. So what could be the reason for the conflict ? If something is working, how can requirement change ?
The CIO heard the point of view from each stakeholder, the user, IT project manager, and the vendor. For the user, she had clarified how the model worked and what was expected from the system that the spread sheet was unable to deliver; the IT project manager stressed upon the integration to various masters and the scalability expected of the solution; and the vendor project manager completed with a complaint that some of this was not in the original scope that was outlined prior to commencement.
So what was the issue asked the CIO ? Wasn’t the current discussion to clearly define the functionality expected from the system ? Where is the conflict in the integration definitions ? Does expansion of the concept and explaining in detail qualify as scope enhancement ? They had an advantage over a standard software development model that a working prototype was available. There was a discomforting silence for a while until they all decided to go back and close the discussion amicably.
So when I bumped into the CIO many months later, I enquired about his story from our last meeting. He mentioned that it had gone live but did face challenges in the initial days. This was discovered during deployment that the system needed elaboration. The functionality was evident common sense but missing from the system (I shall not get into the details here which my CIO friend explained to me to my surprise). He quizzed the team for the missing parts of the whole; the user said it was obvious, the PM agreed, the vendor did not.
It is not in the system since you did not ask for it. Technically correct but does not solve the problem. So now that the system is accepted, deployed and support phase over, this is a Change Request and will have to be managed as such. The ineffectiveness of any argument was evident and the only recourse was to give in to the demand in the interest of the project and the business. That vendor has not been welcome to new initiatives since then; even the support has been moved to other partners.
My friend the CIO had no recourse ! Do we ? With the outsourcing trends taking the direction that they have, everything has to be now explicitly stated and included as a part of the Requirement Document. If you do not have an internal team of business savvy IT team members actively involved through the cycle such outcomes are quite likely. Invest in your team, keep them actively involved in the project and not just to manage at a high level. Keep a watchful eye open. Assumptions hurt; try “ass u me”.
This is hopefully the last post in this series. If you would like to see the earlier ones, they are linked below: