Monday, February 24, 2014

The 80% solution

It had been a long project with missed timelines and scope creep, the kind of projects that everyone dreads as they create difficult conversations in every review meeting while meetings are being conducted. The vendor was as frustrated as IT; the management wanted to stop funding to the project and treat it as a learning experience. The users wanted the project bad enough and managed to keep it afloat citing business need, efficiency gain and cost saving “when we go-live”. So the project survived despite odds.

Every enterprise had at some time or the other witnessed similar stories or projects that became unviable with all metrics: time, cost, resources and business value being busted; not necessarily software projects, but even hardware deployment, network upgrades, storage capacity enhancements or something as simple as the new projector for the boardroom. It is neither incompetence nor lack of rigor that causes such situations, everyone is committed to delivering the best result and that is where the problem starts.

Technophiles, well-meaning and conscientious team members want to provide the best solution which leaves no room for any kind of discussion or debate. They like to get the perfect solution in place that will win awards, accolades or in many cases just simple satisfaction of having done the best. The quest for the best keeps them busy exploring all angles including ones that don’t matter. They love debates on technology standards, finer aspects of architecture, the last exception condition the software will ever face, leading to frustration.

Searching for the best solution is indeed important for long-term success of any solution; after all you do not want your creation to be flayed within a short time. So try casting an eye over the 5-10 year horizon and postulate the future of the solution, technology, and the company. Shouldn’t the source code be in escrow or buyback of hardware at every refresh at predefined values ? How can we be sure of your wanting to continue with this line of business ? The questions get quite interesting as everyone wants to look good forgetting the adverse impact of sliding timelines.

Users living in a paper dominated manual or inefficient solution world want to make sure their problems are addressed down to every imaginable scenario. The evolving solution landscape wants to ensure the least change and the highest level of customization which unfortunately vendors are willing to acquiesce to; thus IT becomes the bad guys attempting to prevent the massacre of the solution. Trying to get it 100% right has become the nemesis of many projects and solutions; teams struggle unable to imbibe past learning.

Agile methodologies applied to software development provided a process for iterative evolutionary development where good enough is deemed acceptable to be refined over a period of time. It recognizes the impact of time on any project or need thus finding many business teams wanting to adapt to quick wins. The 80% mark is not cast in stone; the baseline is notional and varies by project. I believe that this can also be applied to hardware procurement or other IT disciplines with variations to the design.

The starting point for such a paradigm shift is the alignment of all leaders and managers to the new way of working. Don’t expect a solution that does everything of what the business wants and you can have it up and running in say 30-60 days. Refinement can continue over a period of time by the operational team working with part of the project team. Business can start using the solution to fulfill their need and everyone is happy. Off course this cannot be applied to ERP type projects which have different levels of complexity.

A good decision in time is worth more than the best decision if delayed; this maxim applies to the world of IT, IT project management, software development, and in many cases to hardware deployments too. Consensus is desirable but not critical unless the primary stakeholder is not aligned. If you have not moved ahead in your journey, then activity is of no consequence. So stop debating if you have all the data to make a decision, if you believe you have all the critical data, take a decision; that may separate you from being a manager or a leader !

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Corporate Social Media Network

The trigger has been the wilder than earlier predicted adoption of social media websites, applications and mobile apps by all age groups across geographies and social strata. Every new innovation, fad or me-too has caught the fancy of not just consumers, but also investors. After denial and prohibition came the acceptance within the enterprise and experiments on how to use it to the benefit of the company. Thus we see a new trend emerging that now has many players vying for attention; the corporatization of social media.

I am not referring to the numerous models that have been attempted to measure return on investment or to convert “Likes” into hard cash (fortunately not by selling personal details of customers). Many will point out a few popular success stories where a brand or product found exponential growth driven by social media campaigns; this number has not grown much in subsequent years. I am alluding to the attempt by companies to setup internal portals and sites that mimic behavior of the popular social media sites.

CXOs blessed this and agreed that while we prevent our employees from the internet on corporate devices let us give them a way to spend their energy on similar sites internally with each other. Let them channelize their time towards being more productive. CIOs with help from vendors cloned most of the functionality and put it on the intranet and waited for employees to start using it. Some did, they posted stuff here and there and then went away very quickly. How can I put up my private life on display inside the company ?

Managers attempted to create collaboration use cases; success was measured by number of people active or the number of posts. Structures around groups helped them find behavioral and psychological insights. Soon these became case studies and best practices to be touted by vendors and consultants. Within boundaries these worked adding to the momentum which forced almost every respectable CXO to leniency. All along employees continued to put on display their private lives on non-corporate social media via their BYOD smartphones.

Is corporate social media really a tool that can transform the way enterprises and employees collaborate ? Can it imitate the viral effect seen in private lives ? If we discount the generation X/Y who are just entering the workforce, are the 30 and 40 something employees going to embrace getting on internal social media to post their feelings and share brainwaves ? In a hypercompetitive and paranoid professional world, will the existence of a platform with adequate catalysts be the trigger that breaks the barriers ?

Social media fatigue is already setting in; the multitude of options from 140 characters to pin boards and friendly sites only confuses rather than compartmentalize the use. People realize the time demands in an ever connected world which expects instant responses to emails, tweets, SMS, chat messages, posts and whatever mode of socializing they engage in. Souring relationships due to or because of the face down thumb happy posture is changing the way we engage with each other. Peer pressure keeps some going, the rest follow the herd.

Coming back to corporate social media, there are opportunities if used well; any foray requires capturing the ethos of the company, department or group which will determine the character of the site and engagement. It requires a team of enthusiastic believers who infect everyone they come in contact with their exuberance and create an urge to try. The team needs no boundaries or censorship for engagement; let there be self-imposed discipline on what the group is willing to accept. Monitor you may, don’t be the police.

In a recent interview a journalist asked me the question “What is the future of corporate social media ?” I believe that there will be pockets of excellence from which people will learn only to fail until they are able to create the cultural ecosystem in which sharing can thrive without fear of retribution or rebuke. We need freedom to communicate, disagree, and be ourselves the way we are outside the workplace. Leaders and Managers have to walk this talk for it to work. Until then there will be case studies that we read and wonder why it does not work for us !

Monday, February 10, 2014

And they lived happily ever after !

I had this interesting debate with an aspiring CIO on my earlier blog “The Perennially Dissatisfied User”; he talked about some organizations not really having this problem where the users kept on finding faults with everything that IT did. They are a satisfied lot if not delighted; at least they do not berate IT on everything and there is an equilibrium and harmony between the teams. The camaraderie lends itself to discussing what works and finding opportunities to solving business problems or creating new ideas to explore.

Though far and few there are such organizations who have found peace and a process design to make things work collaboratively rather than be at each other’s neck all the time. IT is seen not just as a service provider, but as an enabler and partner who can help them achieve success. Not that they do not have conflicts, they are healthy debates and resolve them to move ahead or agree to disagree. There is mutual respect for the profession and competency each brings to the table. How does this state of being come into existence ?

The foundation of any such partnership is laid over a period of time; it is about creating an engagement process which outlines the boundaries and acknowledges expertise where it exists. The governance is democratized in a way that everyone understands the implications and there is a platform to resolve open issues. Across organization layers exceptions are discouraged and do not have to become you versus us; there is no across the table creating two sides, there is only one side which benefits the function and company.

Business processes and customer expectations are open to discussion and so are technology choices; the final decision and accountability are clear in their design. Sign-offs is achieved in time or if there is a delay everyone is agreeable to the rationale. It is not about whose budget it is or who is funding the project or purchase; it is about what is the value the solution creates for the enterprise. It requires consistent maturity on part of everyone to ensure that this works. Thus success rates are higher than industry benchmarks.

There is clear communication of expectations, be it hardware standards for new devices or restrictions on access to applications or internet. Decisions on solutions are based on merit and agreement on the metrics used with everyone collectively aligned. Thus everyone works towards the common goal and thereby leaving no room for fault finding should things not work out. Whenever priorities are competing with each other for budgets or resources, the group is able to reason it out and come to an agreement on the way forward.

Escalations for exceptions are pushed back to the business and IT leaders to resolve. Policies are simple yet effective in their intent and well understood by everyone. They are living documents which are frequently reviewed against changing business environment as well as dynamic technology landscape which shifts expectations and the way of working. This keeps IT infrastructure and environment simple to govern and manage. Shadow solutions are rarely seen in such organizations with high levels of engagement being the norm.

Sounds too good to be true ? Organization culture plays an important role in facilitating this. I have seen some enterprises embrace this so well that they become the poster boys of how to use a specific technology or solution. Business CXOs talk about success stories and benefits accrued acknowledging the role IT played in their ability to win. The CIO persona and behaviour plays an important role and s/he shuns pure technical discussions and focuses on how to help the company stay a leader. IT vendors love doing business with such companies.

Is a transition to such a nirvana state possible ? Can sustainable change be made for good ? I would say “conditions apply”. To begin with the organization culture has to be collaborative and progressive; the company should be profitable with the appetite to spend, else the discussion will always be on cost. The CIO should be articulate, know the business and have skills to keep his team cohesive and motivated. When all these factors come together then you have a recipe for success that everyone talks about !

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Perennially Dissatisfied User

This laptop is quite heavy; it gives me a pain in the neck and shoulder, I need something sleeker and lighter. Also the battery life should be at least 5 hours if not longer and minimum 1 TB of storage. You know an i7 processor would be great ! Why cannot we shift to the new Windows tablets which are so much lighter and also have a touch interface which makes life so easy ? I would love a larger screen but I am willing to compromise on the screen size if the tablet offers a full HD experience. Did you get what I want ?

This application is so antiquated ! Look at the user interface, this is really Jurassic; it would require a rocket scientist to use it. Why cannot the human machine interface be more like the social media sites which anyone can start using intuitively ? You missed the following key dimensions while capturing the data on the customer ! Where do you expect me to get so much data from ? I am required to sell and not just gather data about customers ! Why do reports take so much time to generate ? Can I see them on my mobile ? Is there an app for this ?

CIOs, software engineers, business analysts, hardware specialists, enterprise architects, for that matter if you are in IT and work with customers – internal more than external – every IT professional faces such questions every day; the above is just a sample of the discussions and challenges that get thrown in almost every interaction. It would appear that whatever you do, it never meets expectations. One interesting observation is that the critique increases with the age of the person and decreases with the tenure within the company.

Typically in the case of software solutions, when you approach your colleagues for inputs on what they want, they would normally start with a broad outline of what they require. You create something, go back for inputs, hoping to get closer to the end point; after multiple iterations you are either going round in circles or far removed from where you started. Do users of technology not know what they want or IT fail to connect to the need ? Every IT guy would vehemently say YES and the requesters would lament that IT guys don’t understand what we want.

Even if we assume that there is a chasm to bridge here, how can the same be extended to a simple request for hardware; can that be so complex ? A piece of hardware is a piece of hardware; differences between devices that organization endorses to the aspirational consumer devices incompatible with conventional corporate legacy systems exist for budgetary reasons more than any other. Mandate, as IT budgets are going up, buy cheaper devices. Yes off course, but why can we not get better battery life and bigger or better screens ?

Diagnosis attempted by wise and sundry professed theories that created industries to remedy the lacunae. Later and not sooner after spending inordinate budgets everyone realised that maybe there was no merit in the models. Evidently it had nothing to do with alignment between business and IT or the fact that the language spoken by the opposing parties has been classified to be incompatible. Then again, the efforts towards change have largely been lopsided. It is neither art nor science; it is to do with the unknown alien characteristic of IT users that IT professionals have been unable to master.

From Hollerith cards to Phablets and wearable technology, the pace of evolution has kept everyone guessing on the next shift. Unsettling yet consistent, the change has created an expectation that does not accept what is, but wants the unreasonable until it becomes reality. Shifting targets keeps everyone running only to find that they haven’t moved much. I do not believe that the game will change in the near foreseeable future. Users will keep asking for the moon, while actually meaning the light bulb and the description matches that of a CFL.

Keep playing the game while you can, sometimes you may hit the target in the dark !