Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Blue Oceans and Black Swans in the current economy

I have been fortunate to meet both the authors (Kim Chan and Renee Mauborgne though at different times spread over a year) of Blue Ocean Strategy, the much talked about book. Both authors present a contrasting style when discussing the book and the Blue Ocean Strategy and that got me thinking a lot about how does one go about creating strategies that can be indeed classified as Blue Ocean way of steering a company ahead.

When I met Kim in a high power talk, it was motivation enough to read the book. The book was a wonderful collection of facts presented together to justify the Blue Oceans v/s the Red Oceans or the competitive scenario in which all of us operate. But the question that remained unaddressed is that how many companies had their executives read the book, engaged consultants and then came up with a real Blue Ocean strategy which was implemented and found successful. I have yet to find any.

Almost a year later, the meeting with Renee was to that extent different, where I was a bit skeptical as well as started asking many within the audience whether they had read the book and found any of the principles making a difference in their strategic thinking. Reality is everyone who had read the book liked it, but had no answers to the question that continued to haunt me.

And then a few weeks back I read Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I found solace in the fact that most theories are created to justify what happened; rarely a theory has been applied to create the impact that it justifies by looking at the past.

Putting both of them together, the conclusion that I draw is that tactical strategies may bring short-term results, long-term strategies may work to a point, and then the unexpected comes along and thought leaders (?) will create new theories to justify them.

So what has all this got to do with a CIO ? Well IT organizations end up at the receiving end when Red Oceans and Black Swans come together as it is the case right now. Budget cuts, manpower pressures, outsourcing and vendor management, all of these are here to stay. What Blue Ocean strategy keep the Organization afloat and the CIO busy ? If I do find some answers, you will see them here. If you have any, do post them here.

Friday, August 29, 2008


Business Intelligence has been on the CIO radar for over 3 years now as per research reports from the major and respected IT research companies. Billions have been spent by companies and as a category, BI projects have seen the least success across almost all IT enabled initiatives. BI consultants will go about advising you that they "know" how to make it work for your enterprise and if and when things start faltering, it's always you and your users who are responsible. I happened to ask a VP turned consultant from a large bank, "How is it that consultants have all the answers, but employees do not ?" and got no answer.

Every organization aspires to create intelligent insights from transactional data and act upon them to increase revenue, optimize profits, retain customers or create efficiencies. In most cases, users are unable to think or visualize what they want to achieve any of the above objectives and thus end up defining extremely complex scenarios and reports with a hope that they will provide some kind of "Eureka" brainwave and they will be heroes. IT organizations takes limited steps to dispell such myths and takes on the task of creating models that enable the complex reports. Maybe because they are not in the bath tub !

Typically such operational data based reports provide limited insight since the insight is driven by humans and not systems. A report viewed by different people creates different inferences and that a technology cannot provide. Technology works on models created by us and is thus limited by the information gathered and understood by the developer. This indeed is the key to actionable insight and the experience and frame of reference of the person which makes the difference.

This is not a great insight, but it is based on the experience of seeing many business leaders responding with differing insights to the same analytical report presented. It comes out of a deep domain expertise and lateral thinking. Such individuals if enrolled into the program can make the difference between a successful and not so successful BI project.

Left to IT organizations, which is the typical case with BI projects, the end result is multi-dimensional reporting which is finally used to review business but with limited insights. It is evident and obvious that right people make the difference, but the right people are normally too busy to spend long periods of time to understand the possibilities and list them down. If by chance that were to happen, the adoption by the rest of the organization suffers and gets blamed on bad "change management".

So what is the conclusion ? A few "actionable insights" based on 3 BI projects.

1. Find the "right" person within the company who can help create insights. It may be your CEO ! If you cannot find such a person, don't start the project

2. Start small and scale up as you taste success; before you attempt to build the Taj Mahal, practice some smaller buildings

3. Tools and technology matter, but in the end, the data quality makes the difference

4. Do not be averse to restarting from scratch in case the first model or the second model does not deliver. It's quicker to recreate than attempting to patch a bad one

5. Keep on asking questions at every stage, "Why do you want this ?", "How will it help you or the company ?", "Who else can benefit from this ?", you get the picture .....

6. Whatever you do in stage 1 may need to be discarded by the time you are in stage 3 and that's okay.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Where to draw a line ?

A recent conversation with another CXO, I came across an unusual observation from the lady, which lead to me rethink the question, what is indeed the role of a CIO in a company. Should it be limited to creatng technology projects based on business priorities and strategy or it should go beyond the "normal" definition towards being the "Change Agent" beyond IT.

The CIO drives change that is created with the creation and implementation of IT systems or lead by some technology deployment. Successful execution creates positive value for the company, whereas change when not managed effectively may result in technology lead expensive inefficient processes. The good CIOs do not wait for business to spell out the next system change or new initiatives, they create the need based on their appreciation of how the new solution may create value for the enterprise.

Some CIOs with dual roles, i.e. IT and another business function have lattitude in what they do and also the span of influence is larger. These individuals tend to have higher success with change as compared to technology only CIOs (with a few exceptions). As CIOs move up and sideways in the enterprise, their well rounded view of the functioning of each department and function creates many opportunities for being the "Change Agent".

During my discussion with the lady, I spelt out a few initiatives taken up by the IT organization towards creating efficiencies and adding to the bottom line (most of the initiatives had no technology), I was advised that in many companies other CXOs (respective function heads) would typically take up such initiatives and not leave it to the CIO. She also advised me that such initiatives will typically fail because of lack of ownership towards change by respective business units.

While some of the comments resonate with the past, I believe that the new age CIOs do not wait for such initiatives to be thrust upon them, but take on challenges and opportunities even if they may be disruptive to some. The success of such initiatives will ultimately depend on the CEO or the Management Board endorsing the actions of the CIO.

The future does promise to get exciting for an enterprise where empowerment is the norm and CXOs are free to constructively challenge each others domain to take performance to the next level. Afterall as Jim Collins says "Good is the enemy of Great".

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Are you creating IT leaders

I get asked the question many times by different people, what has been your contribution to your company or the IT industry at large ! Earlier the focus was on answering the question based on the projects executed by self or the team, then it shifted to measurable value to the business and the wonderful "IT-Business Alignment". Somewhere down the line when that came with ease and almost became routine (with some notable exceptions), I began to think about how have I and how can I contributed to the IT industry.

Thinking through my journey over the last 25 odd years, I am able to create 2 distinctive stages. The first was when I was learning and following instructions of other business and IT leaders. While I did contribute to the discussion and influence the direction, my contributions were in the realm of project management, technical disciplines, and execution.

The second stage in which I continue today and been in this role for the last decade or so is when I was driving the direction, creating influence across the IT organization and business adoption of IT. But that was only part of the role I played. The realization that teams can be effective irrespective of the mix of people and skills, with some mentoring and coaching, there was a subtle shift towards encouraging people to start working independently.

Over the years, this nurturing became a habit and the bright team mates started blossoming on their own. All they needed was the impetus and encouragement that they have the potential which can be tapped into to develop into leaders in their own right. A few took on the opportunity and a few viewed it as a challenge; most of them however dived in with some conviction created out of their self-esteem stoked with a mix of mentoring and some pushing.

The result after a decade is that almost a dozen have achieved success and become CIOs in their own right contributing well to their organizations. For most of these talented individuals, some of the influence of thought stayed. They have become business IT champions and not technology professionals attempting to get budgets sanctioned for every small project.

What have you as a CIO been doing ? Are you creating followers or leaders ? Do you acknowledge talent by providing them the platform to grow or like some hire people who will not threaten your existence or position. I do know of a few such individuals (not necessarily CIOs only, but even CEOs and other CXOs) who will by design hire mediocre staff so that they can be at their beck and call, and not challenge them.

It's an elongated period (rather than a moment) of pride to see them grow and take on leadership positions; some of them humble me by mentioning that I played some role in their ascent. I wonder where do I go from here ?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

CIO reporting: a non-issue

In the last one month, there have been a few surveys conducted by a few research companies as well as IT publishing houses attempting to find the CIO priorities for the future, what drives their agenda and does their reporting relationship has any bearing on the outcome. The research primarily focused on US CIOs. I came across these reports and findings courtesy of some IT newsletters and the editorial board of the publication on their visit to the mecca of IT outsourcing (India).

The survey clearly demonstrates the skew in the responses from CIOs based on whether they report to the top honcho (CEO/Chairman/Board) or to another CXO (even within this there were some variations, though not significant). It was amply evident that CIOs reporting to the CEO have priorities better aligned to business outcomes whereas the others were struggling with operational IT issues and continued to remain technology focused.

The meeting of about a dozen odd Indian CIOs with the publishing house editorial team was a big surprise for them. Some way through the presentation/discussion, it was evident that the Indian CIO has climbed the maturity curve quicker driven by the fact that the CIO reporting into anyone apart from the CEO is almost unheard of (yes, there are exceptions). Turning the US CIOs priorities almost upside down, it was an eye opener for the guests that a show of hands on who the audience reported to, it was a unanimous CEO/Board.

What is the underlying message to the Global CEOs ? If you believe that you do not have the time, energy, or disposition towards spending time with the CIO or managing his/her portfolio, then IT will deliver exactly what you deserve. Innovation will rarely be seen and the IT organizations will continue to suffer, thereby not providing the competitive advantage or even sustained advantage that IT can deliver. Yes, there are exceptions even in the US, but that's what they are even in todays hyper competitive age with slowdown written all over.

The key message to CEOs and CIOs is to stop looking at IT as just a technology play, when your business cannot even imagine working without it. Your business deserves a lot more, so do your employees, shareholders and customers.

Concluding on a lighter note, an executive search company recently attempted to interview a few marquee CIOs for a role in a large conglomerate. All of them declined since the position reports to the CFO !

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

That alignment thing

Last week in a gathering of CIOs and IT heads (more on the difference later), the editor of a large magazine talked about the issues that we are grappling with. And like it or not, amongst the top 3 was "Aligning Business & IT" ! While a few in the audience nodded their heads in agreement, this raised a hue and cry with many present. One CIO pointedly asked the question, which industry and segment is facing the issue today in this part of the world (India to be precise).

Most CIOs have evolved in their roles and maturity model (can we categorize them by a scale akin to SEI CMM ?) such that this is no longer an issue. The CIO is today actively involved in taking decisions shoulder to shoulder with other business leaders. The discussion has shifted from which technology to deploy to how does it impact my topline, bottomline and the customer. Despite this transformation, the old flogging horse continues to be flogged even though it's long dead. Or maybe it is not !

My interactions with peers internationally specifically in the western world provides interesting glimpses on where time has stopped for many and they have yet to figure out the evolution curve. Even survey results on strategic IT appear to demonstrate that fewer CIOs are now reporting to their CEOs, which indicates that they have not delivered to their promise. Thus it was heartening to see the strong response back home with CIOs refuting the existence of the digital divide.

I am not offering any magic formulae for curing the nemesis of the CIO, as the cure in almost all cases lies within. The CIO needs to start thinking beyond the terms IT is a given. The CEO and the organization may provide the platform; in most cases, the CIO has to build this brick by brick and earn the coveted position on the management table.

Do you see this problem within your enterprise ? Write in with your magic formula !

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Vendor Feed Forward (not feedback)

I have been inactive for a while, wondering what is it that I should write about. There were a few instances when a burning issue or something I felt about strongly, but that urge passed quickly.

Surprise (not really), corporate blogs are becoming big with companies putting up blogs which talk about their products and services. These use broad based trends to promote their solution and why you as the CIO/decision maker should be running to them to help solve your problem.

After attending a few events in the last 3 months and having been subjected to a barrage of vendor pitches, I wonder why they never learn from their past mistakes ? Almost every event has a technology vendor as a sponsor and by virtue of the money spent, they get a few slots to address the audience.

Guess what do they do with their valuable time ? Talk about their products, which anyway everyone in the audience knows about, wasting precious time which could have been used to engage in a dialogue or seek their participation to explore opportunities. You will find 80% of the audience busy with blackberry phones or doodling away; some brave ones walk out while a few interrupt the speaker with their snores ! And to add to the misery, they want feedback !

So I requested a few organizers to create a forum for feed forward (as opposed to feedback) to help the poor things understand what we want to hear from them. It would be a great service to the IT fraternity if vendors listened and used the information gathered in their planning on what to do with the timeslots.

But then we are not rewarded for going against conventional wisdom. Marketing and Sales organizations will want to make presentations on what they have or will there be wind of change ?