Monday, December 27, 2010

Return on Investment, Intelligence or DR

Considering that almost everyone is at some stage of the next year’s budgeting process, ROI has been dominating mindshare. Amongst these were two discussions around return on Business Intelligence and return on Disaster Recovery. Both are fairly nebulous in their manifestation, and difficult to put a fix on the number that can satisfy the CXOs, especially the CFO and the CEO.

Business Intelligence is a discipline that as an enterprise orphan suffers from detachment from its real users and owners, largely due to the technology’s complexity. Thinking beyond conventional reports to analytics is a leap of faith, and the enterprise’s ability to formulate and use trends and associations that are atypical. In the flurry of operational activity, discretionary time is a luxury that many can ill-afford. Thus, most organizations end up with expensive automated reports which serve the same purpose that ERP reports did earlier.

Disaster is something that strikes others; so why put aside significant investments, time and effort that could be used to create new capacity or build additional capability? With a few exceptions, almost everyone has a disaster recovery plan on paper nominally funded, rarely tested end-to-end, and seen as an item necessary to pacify the statutory auditors. Should an untoward incident strike, the ability to retain continuity of business would not withstand the rigor of time and process.

In both cases, continued budgetary support is seen as cost and not as an investment. The discussion on ROI is thus fraught with danger avoided by the CIO, challenged by the CFO and others. Is there a way out of this predicament? Definitely yes, but it requires the CIO to approach the discussion a bit differently maybe play a difficult hand; conventional dialogue will not change the outcome.

One track that some have used is to debate the absence of these solutions, what it implies and the associated risks. Absence of BI may probably not be treated with the respect it should, as transactional reports are also possible from the ERP systems and the belief that everything else can be done in a spreadsheet. So a BI discussion has to be guided towards the benefit to different stakeholders and possibly transferring ownership to one of the business CXOs. IT should not be the driving force and implicit owner. After all, the starting point of BI is B-business.

The absence argument has better traction with DR; with the primary systems being out for a period of time, the impact with varying degrees will be felt by everyone, irrespective of industry segment. The time to recovery will decide the type of DR option to be executed. DR is also synonymous with insurance. No one wants to die, but almost everyone buys insurance. So if the data center were to pop it, DR does step in and take over (hopefully, and that is where the discussion went awry).

Are there any models that can be universally applied to formulate ROI on BI and DR? Unfortunately, even those that exist (perpetrated by vendors or consultants) are being challenged to shorten the payback period. Innovation is pronounced after success is evident else the debate will get ugly. We all know that “insurance promising ROI” is not insurance, we are paying more than we should.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why do vendors sponsor CIO events ?

It is a general belief that CIOs are a pampered lot, with every vendor equipped with a marketing budget vying for time of the CIO wining and dining them, or taking them to exotic locales under the aegis of a larger event organized by, say an IT publication. A destination’s lure or the fine dining opportunity is what the vendors believe attracts their audience to accept these invitations.

Now, the CIO is usually attracted by headlines promising to transform the business, strategies to enhance business value, getting ahead of competition or additions to the corporate bottom line, to just name a few juicy titles. It does not matter what product or service the IT company offers the titles are very similar in their stated intent to help the CIO in being a winner. Expectation mismatch?

The reality is more on the lines of a captive audience, subjected to what can be described as Auschwitz style torture by presenting presumptuous facts of a micro-segmented market that has no correlation to the reality (of the audience). They then propose the same old solutions around data centers, storage and server virtualization, wrapped on cloud computing enabling the business statements using logic defying rationale.

Recent times have seen the gas chamber (read conference room) pumped with cloudy trends and solutions suffocating CIO prisoners and adding to the confusion. The CIOs’ silent cries are lost in the din of the collar-mike-d speaker who avoids eye contact with the victims, so as to not be cursed by their souls. Sighs escaping occasionally are drowned by the amplified voice of the person standing a head above the rest (on the stage). Basic decency and courtesy prevents the CIOs from walking out; a few regularly pass out, even as their snoring disturbs those who seek solace.

This cycle repeats endlessly, with the CIOs hoping in vain that IT vendors have probably taken their last feedback. That they have changed their way of using the precious face time with a group of decision makers. But no, it is as if the basic principles of customer engagement have been thrown to the winds. Forget the customer or his needs, sell what you have; it does not matter whether the customer needs it or not. Twist the message adequately to make the square peg fit into a round hole.

The vendors’ defense is typically on the lines of, “Listen to the customer? How can I do that when I have only 45 minutes of stage time? I have to tell them my story (the story that my company wants to propagate). I will read the slides, take a few minutes longer than the allotted time, so that there is no time for questions”. After all, I have spent some hard money to sponsor the event.

Over the last year or so, many CIOs have started excusing themselves from these excursions and invitations, in many cases at the last minute, citing business exigencies. This number is growing, and such opportunities will just wither away unless the model changes to encompass “Engagement, Listening, and Empathy”.

Is anyone listening?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Holy Grail of IT, Operating Expense vs Capital Investment

IT budgets were never a great discussion; the CIO struggled to find the right balance between “Business As Usual”, or keeping the lights on, IT infrastructure, incremental innovation, new projects that business wanted, initiatives that IT wanted, and some that the CIO believed will have a transformational impact on the company. Over a period of time, the operating expense ran out of control to reach almost 90% of the total. Across the industry, this required a conscious effort to bring back the innovation budgets with BAU settling around 70%.

In the recent past (at least the last two years that is vivid in my memory), almost every IT solution, vendor, consultant, and CIO has promoted the idea of shifting capital investment to operating expense. Capital investments almost withered away, as the economic challenges dictated cash flow controls. Large initiatives found it difficult to get initial funding. IT companies turned around models to offer almost everything as a service, thus obviating the need for capital expenses. New business models liked payments to outcomes spread over a period.

The operating expense model helped forward movement; in success based engagements, everyone was a winner. For the CFO or the CIO, in the absence of success, it was easy to pull the plug, and stop loss. Yes, there was, and is, an inherent risk of the project or initiative not working, but we have not heard of any such anecdotes as yet — as if success rates now equaled the past’s failure rates. Is this due to the fact that the financial risk is now shared in a different proportion between the stakeholders? Or is there another angle to it?

The answer is probably affirmative when it comes to the shared financial risk. However, I also believe that the vendors now prefer the OPEX model, as it helps their profitability over the long term with continued revenues and the ability to spread their capital investments over a set of customers. The customer is probably paying more over the useful life of the product.

There is another angle as well. Once any process operates over a shared IT infrastructure, application, or solution, with the data too being stored in the service providers premises (sounds like the Cloud?), the ability to get out of such an arrangement into an independent model will be a huge, if not insurmountable, challenge. Everyone recognizes it, and believes that the changeover is executable, but I would be worried to be in a situation where I could be held to ransom — despite what the lawyers tell me.

I am not propagating the message that we all need to move back to the good/bad old days of big capital expenses. The CIO should be wary of the “too good to be true” deals, and safeguard the enterprise’s interests by reviewing alternatives to disruption of services, or the possibility of a shift should the service levels fall below acceptable limits; and in the worst case scenario, the service provider increasing the fee to abnormal levels. The time and cost of any change in this situation can be very high indeed.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Mr IT Vendor, grow up

A few weeks back, I was at a round table discussion organized by one of the big IT vendors which focused on “Virtual Desktop Infrastructure”, amongst other things. A gathering of about 15 CIOs was invited to explore the adoption of desktop virtualization, its associated merits, challenges and opportunities. It was an opportunity to engage, that once again failed to engage the IT leaders.

The group had a fair representation across industries from manufacturing, banking, insurance, retail, IT enabled services, and some more. The agenda was fairly simple, with the expectation to understand how different industry segments view VDI and what has been the journey thus far. Of course, it was about market sizing and qualifying leads that could result in some business from the vendor’s perspective.

Discussions started off with differing perspectives on filters that every CIO applied to their business operations to determine the suitability of desktop virtualization in their environment. Some amongst them included the kind of work undertaken (task, analytics, office automation, and graphics intensive work), volume of desktops per location, type of applications used, and not the least, ROI on such an initiative. In the same breath, challenges were also debated listing cost and resilience of connectivity (specifically in the Indian context), licensing impact, cultural issues, and again ROI.

Within some time, it was evident that the vendor and CIOs were talking different languages; the former talking about the technological innovation, and the latter focusing on business benefit. With no translator or moderator, the two conversations found it tough to converge on common ground. Thus, the anchor closed the discussion after about 90 odd minutes with some CIO doodles labeling VDI as Vendor Driven Initiatives or Very Dumb Idea!

Post panel networking had an interesting insight shared by the vendor CEO with the anchor; the CIOs today are not willing to discuss technology anymore. This is making the task of selling to them a lot more difficult as compared to what it was. For sales persons to get into the customers’ shoes and then have a discussion requires different skill sets than currently available.

My rebuttal to that is “Mr IT Vendor, what else did you expect from the CIOs?” Over the last decade, expectation levels from the CIO have shifted from a technology advisor to a business advisor. CIOs have seized this opportunity (not challenge) and many have gone over the tipping point to take on incremental roles in business. To expect this level of discussion from the same vendors who always have “IT business alignment” as one of the top 3 priorities reflects that they too need to embrace the same change that they have been preaching so far.

The IT vendor evolution is a paradigm that I think CIOs have to start contributing to, else they will continue to be at the receiving end of inane discussions and presentations around technology, not winning with the business. Get started and do your good deed of the day, so that the next CIO they meet will not go through the same pain.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Are you micro-apping ?

Mobile data services brought about email as the first (and probably still the biggest) killer application on the mobile. This is the opportunity that created Blackberry and its many competitors; almost all focusing on creating a better email experience for the corporate user.

Browsing was at best a chore with the small screen, and unwieldy websites struggled to fit on to the small screens. Corporate IT and the CIO were, and continue to be under pressure to enable business processes on the same handset that earlier provided email.

The same users demanded their personal emails on the handset that expanded the market to consumers, albeit in a small way, until iPhone came to the party and changed the smartphone market. Consumerization of IT ensured that corporate suits wanted the iPhone, while a large segment of consumers (who were earlier fringe data users) became a large force. This created an industry around micro-applications that did inane stuff at times, but mostly enabled the smartphone user with earlier unimaginable capabilities. Competing platforms played catch, while zillions of applications sought favor spanning across categories like utilities, travel, education, entertainment, productivity, and finance.

IT organizations on the other hand, continued to work on large projects with reducing timelines and budgets. Enterprises using and deploying monolithic applications have advertently compared the facile microapps with the clunky screen-based complex navigation to conduct business operations. Small applications made their way to corporate phones, largely enabling road warriors and pushing information to the real-time executive not that it changed business decisions in a big way. Sales force enablement was the quick (and in many cases the only) derived win. Another disruption arrived with the tablet demanding attention with better capabilities than the phone.

It is evident that the era of large applications as the primary interface to business process is on the wane. IT is expected to create mobile enabled micro-process automation. Its starting point may be on the fringes with quick tactical workflow approvals, graduating to complex processes on tablets. CIOs should be exploring options that are able to use the existing infrastructure with microapps.

With multiple competing mobile operating environments, transportability of applications will remain a challenge in the mid-term, but that should not restrict attempts. The multitude of form factors and devices that a corporate user now possesses, also poses a conflict of choice. Scan the various app stores, and endeavor to find a set of applications that may find favor within the enterprise. Security will of course remain a red flag as this trend gains momentum. So the CIO has to work with other CXOs to define “acceptable

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lists I don't want to see in 2011

It is that time of the year when everyone starts creating lists — of priorities, challenges, opportunities (which hopefully also get budgets allocated), new technologies, and so on. Everyone from analysts, researchers, academics, CEOs, CIOs, publications and anyone who has an opinion contribute to the increasing top three, five, ten (or in some cases a random number) based on their comfort of things that are a must do, must watch for, avoid, don’t even think about it, failures, every possible happening, news, people, the list is endless. I am tired

A lot of these are thought up while on the keyboard, some have inane research to justify, a few are meaningful too. CIOs and IT folks love these, and watch them like religion. Or hate and ignore them because the lists only add to the existing chaos. Adding to these is a set that creates lists for internal and/or external consumption.

Over the years, I tracked lists from major IT research houses and publishing companies to ascertain their alignment with what I planned to do. Like with every list (and that applies to horoscopes too), I found that the alignment varied from 10% to 80%. If you put together a list of current buzzwords, hype curve technologies, magic quadrants, waves, or similar research, you are bound to get a few that will resonate with the personal and corporate agenda.

Now the differences are always explained in context of industry, geography, size of company, maturity in the IT adoption curve; you could also include sun spots, solar or lunar eclipses, global warming, or any other metrics that you can think of. So why does everyone continue to invest significant resources, time and manpower towards the creation of such lists? My belief is that they need to pin up something on their (and others) soft boards, put in presentations, or just publish them for others to marvel at.

Reality is that the lists created by surveys and research are self-fulfilling, based on the asked questions. If a list (of say 10 items) is presented and the respondents are asked to prioritize them, that’s what you will get. Rarely does anyone ask for respondents to fill in 10 blank rows with what their priorities may be. That would be chaotic and statistically not tenable in a report, but would make interesting reading.

So here is my list of lists (and it is not 3,5,10 that I do not wish to see in 2011.
  1. Top 3,5,10 priorities/opportunities for the CIO/IT organization
  2. Top 10 technologies to watch out for
  3. Top (pick a number) business priorities/challenges
  4. Top (pick a number) challenges for the CIO/IT organization
If you have any others, do put in your comments. If you love the lists, enjoy them, or if you are cynical of them, join the party. However, if you are indifferent about these and have achieved a nirvana state, can I enroll as your student?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Justifying IT budgets and the bicycle stand syndrome

A long time back during a budget meeting, one of my CEOs narrated a story (or maybe a fable) on Boardroom discussions on budgets. This story has stayed with me for a long time, and the memory was refreshed last week in a discussion with some industry leaders. Here’s the story:

In the Board meeting of a large and successful company with multiple manufacturing plants, two agenda items were tabled; first to discuss $400 million investment in a new manufacturing facility, and the second the layout including employee amenities of the same manufacturing plant. The second agenda item was unusual for the board to discuss, but found its way into the chambers since the Employee Satisfaction Index at one of the older plants was low. The financial proposal was tabled by the Head of Manufacturing, with added guidance from the CFO. The resolution was passed unanimously, and done with, in about half an hour.

However, the discussion on amenities took almost two hours — with the longest time spent on the location, structure and type of the bicycle stand. Everyone had an opinion, and disagreements continued until the Chairman of the Board decided to put the debate at rest by appointing a committee headed by the HR Head to review other plants (including those of competitors) and table the recommendations in the next meeting.

Last week, the meeting with fellow CIOs and a few marketing heads veered towards budgeting and ROI. Snide remarks aside, the debate on how these distinct functions justify their million dollar proposals took an interesting turn. When the CIO presents a business case for an enterprise wide system that potentially benefits everyone but requires significant participation and change, it takes immense effort and documentation in order to get everyone to listen, review and agree. Multiple iterations are the norm, and a chain of signatures essential before the grant of even a tentative approval. Whereas, the CMO sails through in a jiffy citing brand building, customer touch and impact on sales, even when most of them are not necessarily attributable to the discussed campaign or idea.

Why is it so difficult for CIOs to get funding for new projects as compared to, say CMOs? The difference is, I would guess in many parts. To begin with, the language in which these proposals are put across. Another is the change that IT purports to create in a change-averse world. It could also be that marketing as a function always focuses on the end customer, while IT initiatives are predominantly inward focused (though that is changing fast now). The conversation initiated by CIOs when they connect to stakeholders and customers does find traction. So maybe peer learning has to be gained on how to pitch right the first time, every time, and win when every function is competing for the same precious resources.

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) in his unique manner put across the marketing formula, “It’s just liquor and guessing”. I have yet to find a good enough one on IT budgeting.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Communicating Success, Successfully

There is an old Hindi song “The peacock danced in the jungle, who saw it ?”; no one is the wise answer. Now what has this got to do with the CIO and the IT organization ? A lot !

IT is one of those functions whose absence is felt a lot more than its presence. Whether it is a simple email or internet access outage or the impact felt on the enterprise users when billing fails, or an invoice does not get created or printed. The ripples across the organization can be heard louder than the thunder on a wild stormy and rainy day. And what about small incremental development or changes that IT delivers everyday helping the business do some activity or task better, faster, cheaper, more efficiently ? Do these get to the eye (or ear) of the management teams ?

CIOs and IT organizations do a good job of communicating big project kick-offs with a lot of fanfare; the project plans and progress is tracked on some dashboard or report at regular frequencies. They are discussed in management review meetings and focus on timeliness or budget depending on the progress report. User and IT teams debate functionality within the review and steering committee meetings which typically see senior management participation wane as the project progresses. Other priorities take precedence and the resolution of conflicts or issues is left to the project team comprising of a few IT folks, vendor representatives and middle management users present as they are nominated to the project.

If all goes well even with some timeline or budget overrun, the project go live calls for some back patting, an email from the CXO (could be the CIO too) to announce that we are now operational with the new system. In rare cases the Post Implementation Review is conducted by the users or the CIO to validate the base case and benefit if any.

Now the IT organization apart from managing the operations also contributes continuous improvements to the small and large systems working with various internal functions and vendors (hardware, software, development partners, etc.) to address the ever changing needs driven by market forces, internal changes, or sometimes by customers. Many of these could be changes that create significant internal or external impact, but they are rarely on any report or dashboard, leave alone corporate announcements. These typically take away almost 30-40% (figures may vary by company and industry) of the total IT resources. They are deployed and forgotten, moving on to address the never ending pipeline of work.

CIOs should communicate these across levels to demonstrate the benefit, new or improved capability, cost reduction or avoidance they have enabled. To sustain the message of IT enabled sustained enterprise advantage, it is imperative that the users or the IT organization create the visibility. The beauty of the peacock with its feathers in a symmetric formation is to be cherished and enjoyed. If no one knows about it then “IT does not matter”.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Padding up the enterprise

Recently, I had an interesting discussion with a handful of global CIOs from Korea, Japan, Germany, India, USA and a few others. It centered on the pains, acceptance and way forward on the much flashed about computing device — across all seminars, airports, lobbies and any other place that you want to be seen with it. It has created a range of wannabe devices, been written about by every type of media, physical, internet, business magazines, newspapers, leisure, technology … Sigh, you get the point? I am referring to the Apple iPad.
The iPad has taken the IT world by surprise. It started off as a consumer device, and stormed into the corporate world — taking the CIOs literally on the wrong foot, just as they were getting comfortable with the iPhone. A CIO recounted the story of his team being given the task to connect a new shiny device to the corporate network; when no one had ever seen such a contraption. While the IT team was able to get it onto the corporate network within the stipulated 30 minutes (an unreasonable demand from the Chairman’s son), others have not been so fortunate, and have later discovered employees happily connecting to the WiFi network.

Driven from the top, the iPad has infiltrated every organization, giving a hard time to many CIOs. Sales and marketing organizations are creating business cases for deployment, while the evolving market is pushing newer competing devices. The applications landscape is catching up fast with enterprise software vendors getting there. Although challenges around security exist, new opportunities are vying to offer game changing business propositions that did not exist earlier.

The convenience of this tablet device scores over the conventional laptop, but is a long way before it replaces it totally. As manufacturers experiment with the form factor and features, one thing is certain, the iPad or equivalent is here to stay. Globally, the iPad has been successful in Pharmaceutical industry for detailing. Market researchers now use it for interactive discussions, even as it becomes a convenient add-on to the CXO, and an alternative to e-book readers, amongst others.

CIOs should move into proactive mode to embrace the inevitability of tablet computers within the enterprise. It is time to redesign processes with the new device rather than replace current devices for existing processes as the benefits may not be worth the effort. The iPad is disruptive technology, and thus deserves different treatment. Challenge the enterprise across layers to explore how it can create new possibilities that did not exist before.

The global CIOs without exception agreed that they have to deal with this surge. Some are approaching it using policy, while others are taking it head on. So don’t wait around to get beaten up by the business, as it may just bypass IT to serve their quest for innovation.

Over the weekend, one of the new entrants splashed the newspapers with a global simultaneous launch of another device. I am sure this Monday, the calls from various parts of the organization would have reached a cresendo.

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 clichés, 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.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Aspiring CIOs

Last week, I was invited to speak to a gathering of IT Managers (CIO aspirants). The subject was of course “How to become a CIO”. With some confusion on the start time of my presentation, the audience had almost 30 minutes of waiting time, but in their desire to pick up some tips and tricks, they patiently waited for the session to begin. As I entered the room, the expectation written on the audience’s faces brought butterflies in my stomach.

The agenda included: timeframe to make the grade, domain versus technology expertise, degrees and qualifications, soft skills, management challenges and opportunities, managing teams, all the qualities that matter and what to watch out for. I decided not to use the standard slide presentations with bullets, process diagrams et al, or the usual stuff that most presentations are made up of. The idea was to engage the audience, and engage they did. With 40 minutes allotted, the hour passed quickly without realizing it–the questions took away another half.

Today’s aspiring IT Managers are well aware of the challenges faced by the CIO; they shadow their bosses. They learn by observation and try to understand the intricacies and finer nuances. The only thing that they lack is a playground to test themselves and a coach to hone their skills. It was refreshing to see the young talent raring to go, waiting for an opportunity to knock. Many are abreast with financial skills and also aware of how to justify hard numbers in the enterprise quest for ROI. Finally, the importance of networking and challenging status quo makes the well rounded personality that creates success.

Succession planning for the CIO creates a platform for the next level to demonstrate their acumen. Learning is real on the battleground; no amount of theory can substitute real experience. Mature CIOs are today working towards nurturing their teams to challenge them; this was evident in the post event networking where some CIOs of the IT Managers joined in. It was heartening to see the connect between these leaders and the potential leaders of tomorrow. As the current lot of CIOs plan their retirement by 2020, the next generation has to be ready to take on the mantle by 2015.

My takeaway from the session was that the skills that worked for current CIOs are required even for the next generation. Apart from this, the new CIO will also have to keep his antenna tuned to new developments like the cloud and mobility, the latter being driven largely by consumerization of mobile devices.

The Q&A revealed existence of comfort zones in what the IT Managers do — be it technology or business process enablement. Now the challenge is to give us their comfort zones if they want to move to the next level. After all, Trina Paulus in her book "Hope for the flowers" said it very well, “You must want to fly so much, that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar”.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Types of CIO and CIO longevity

My Sunday morning breakfast with a CIO proved to be quite an interesting discussion. He was wondering whether it is time to change now, since he will be completing almost five years in the current company. “Renewal is necessary to keep the learning going”, pronounced the person sitting across the table, as he mulled over his toast. It’s not that he was underperforming, or that the company had suddenly decided to defocus on IT spending. The diversified enterprise enjoyed healthy above market growth. It was recognized as a strong company on the leading curve of technology adoption. Curious, I dug more.

The CIO’s reminiscence of his journey proved to be very enriching and rewarding. Industry recognition and internal appreciation from across business units helped with continued investments and new initiatives. So there was no adverse impact in overall sentiment during 2008-2009’s difficult times. I could not uncover any recent or past incidents that may have even triggered the thoughts of movement to pastures unknown.

Global surveys generally indicate the CIO tenure to be between three to five years depending on industry, geography, and personality. There are some who move like clockwork every three to four years. Compulsions vary for most of them, while words imply, “no new challenges to address … or no new opportunities”. Analysis indicates the existence of a well defined pattern across these movements.

Now, I am not outlining the type who has spent over a decade in a company and done very well. They are a small breed, who are either cherished by their companies or work in public sector enterprises or equivalents (yes, there are many enterprises where the culture, urgency and behaviors are akin to a public sector enterprise). Nor am I including the IT Managers with CIO titles—people who are called upon (and indeed enjoy fixing) the board room’s faulty projector.

Many CIOs are recognized as successful leaders who specialize in implementation of ERP solutions. Once these missions are executed, their interest in sustenance or alternative solutions diminishes quickly. These are the ERP specialists who get into enterprises with struggling legacy systems. They are masters in the implementation of a specific ERP that brings some efficiency, who then move on. They are extremely useful to set a foundation of technology; average longevity is in the range of three years.

Another type of CIO flirts from company to company. He is able to communicate effectively hide his ineffectiveness with a choice of phrases and jargon. Thus he impresses upon the CEO why he is their man Friday. With strong political skills, such a CIO uses the three envelope process quite effectively to last anywhere from two to four years in the organization (depending on how political the company is). With little to demonstrate as delivery, their networking and communication skills save the day with amazing consistency.

The last category consists of CIOs who are aggressive, consistent, demanding, and articulate. They get in, transform, create the next line of leadership, and move on to the next challenge—typically achieving this within a three to five year timeframe. It dawned upon me that the person across the table was such a leader who had completed the wave of innovation. In the pause that came after addressing all the discussed challenges and opportunities, he had a crisis of “What next?” These leaders grow from strength to strength, are not tied to any industry or technology, and are truly business leaders who understand how to effectively leverage the tool.

As the discussion progressed, it was evident that the question was rhetorical. It’s just a matter of time before the CIO finds another large enterprise to host his quest for innovation.

Monday, September 13, 2010

CIO Trilogy: last brick in the wall

Recently, a respected publication’s edit piece on CIOs highlighted the enterprise’s changing expectations from a CIO. This insight was gleaned from “CIO wanted” advertisements as well as discussions with headhunters or executive search companies. Some of these headlines were on the lines of “CIO with ABC ERP implementation experience”, “Full lifecycle ERP experience is a must”, “Should have worked in discrete manufacturing”, and “Strategic CIO with operational experience reporting to CFO…”. The last one especially is a paradox!

After an oscillating experience between East Asian and Indian leaders on their perceptions of the CIO this month, changing expectations from the enterprise brings up an important question, “Is the CIO role changing subtly by taking a direction divergent from where current and future CIOs want to be?” Yet another passionate discussion revolved around enterprises hiring CIOs from outside the IT functions. This trend may be positive or negative based on your frame of reference.

Enterprises have faced challenges in the execution of large cross-functional (or high-end technology) projects. Many of these adversely impacted operations or delivered limited value commensurate to the effort. Some were possibly due to oversell by the IT organization which led to inflated expectations from these investments. However, a large number of these projects have observed no correlation to technology (as has been consistently reported by the Standish Group in their tracking of IT project success over a decade). Instead of technology, management involvement has remained the primary influencing factor in these projects. Even if it seems irrelevant at this point, the final buck for effective technology adoption stops with the CIO. Thus, this has given rise to the hypotheses that “forget the strategic part of IT, let’s get someone who can fix the operational pieces first”.

Outsourcing of the support services, changes in educational structure, and consumerization of IT has demystified the technology black box. The new workforce has grown up with technology. As a result, they are unafraid of exploring new frontiers that current set of leaders and managers in their 40s and 50s may not always be keen upon. With the continuous thrust on Business IT alignment (BITA) and many commentaries on “IT is too important for the enterprise to leave it to techies”, the new business leader is emerging from non-IT domains. More importantly, he is reasonably equipped to get started on the journey towards becoming a CIO.

The current generation of technology professionals (either CIOs or those moving towards the role) must pay heed to this new trend. As is evident, the minimal expectation is to ensure operational efficiency from all projects and meeting of baseline business expectations. Industry knowledge now supersedes technology expertise for the leader, but well rounded experience matters at the next level.

After all, if the enterprise continues to remain challenged on effective usage of technology for any reason, even if not attributable to the CIO, the role will be downgraded to the position of an operational IT manager reporting into the CFO.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Another variation for the CIO (Chief Imagination Officer)

Last week in my post OMG …, I wrote about a CIO perception that was probably the lowest that I have observed in so many years. That was the perception of those who labeled the CIO a CDO. It rankled for a while, as I tried to put that experience behind me. As a result, I was wary while getting into a discussion with a veteran leader and yet another politician a week later.

I came away pleasantly surprised from the experience.

At the annual event of a large software vendor (held with no sales pitch, presentation or brochures in your face), the invited dignitary presented a keynote that focused on the positive direction most economic indicators appears to project. The audience enjoyed this rollercoaster ride based on the vast experience (that promised more than it delivered); but then, an hour can only give so much. As he regaled everyone with anecdotes connecting the past to the future, the CIOs lapped up everything that came their way. And then began his narrative on IT.

Having led industries and media houses, the speaker talked about how his earlier companies used IT and increase in the pace of advances in technology as he grew older. Meetings with EDP and IT Heads merged with the evolution of the CIO–making it sound like the natural evolution that universally applied to this species called the Chief Information Officer. Then he turned to appeal to the audience to give up this role and start imagining what the future can hold for them.

Almost like Isaac Asimov’s science fiction and Arthur C Clarke’s space odysseys, the CIO moved along this path made of dreams.

Déjà vu? Inception?

Dream within a dream, I pinched myself and so did a few others–wanting to wake up as if this was a dream, but hoping that it would never end. The words echoed and kept ringing much after I departed from the venue.

Imagine what the world can be, what you can make it into, let your imagination soar as the spirit does. You all have the talent and the knowledge; make the world a better place with judicious use of technology like no other can. The world will know you as Chief Imagination Officers”.

The warmth in the room rendered the air conditioning ineffective, but no one was sweating. CIOs rewarded the speaker with applause and the questions that followed had nothing to do with technology and kept the speaker thinking while acknowledging that the CIOs have a lot more than technology on their minds.

Gratified with this experience, I walked away comparing the contrast in experience from elsewhere in Asia to India, and that reinforced the generally accepted view that the Indian industry adoption of IT and the general management maturity contributes to higher success rates and growth for the CIO. I like the way it sounds–“Chief Imagination Officer”.

After I finished writing this piece, I read an edit in a respected IT magazine’s recent issue which wondered why the industry seeks IT specialists while labeling them a CIO? But that is another story for next week.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Oh My God not a CIO, but a CDO (Chief Disinformation Officer) !

The other day, I found myself aghast by the onstage passions of learned men—those who had absolutely no kind words for the CIO. I tried to get up from my seat in the audience with a wish to raise my voice against what was going on (CIO bashing), but something invisible pulled me back. The 400+ audience comprised largely business folks (with probably a handful of CIOs), and that was their reality. I felt sad, as I internally seethed with no avenue to vent my feelings. I wanted to tell the poor audience that the CIO does not stand for Chief Invisible Officer—or clarify that they are not CDOs (Chief Disinformation Officers). So I began to analyze their reality, hoping to catch some of them later during the event. But, let me start from the beginning.

The event was a leadership summit attended by a cross section of global CEOs, Board Members, CXOs from various functions, and a few invited CIOs who were categorized as business leaders—not just a technology CIO. The setting was a panel discussion between few thought leaders, a senior Asian government bureaucrat, and a couple of CEOs; the topic, the economy, growth challenges and opportunities. Everyone was enjoying the insights and the rich knowledge being shared, as the subject veered towards business analytics, IT and the CIO.

It was evident that for most speakers that the CIO was an inept technical being—rarely visible except when something stops working like the Boardroom projector or WIFI. Beings for whom the phrase Business IT alignment (BITA) is foreign, while IT feeds the hapless business with inaccurate information. They evidently experienced the CIO’s challenged ability to come up to a level of basic understanding of business drivers. The CIO contributing to business discussions was alien to them. Thundered a bureaucrat, “I have only seen Chief Disinformation Officers, not Chief Information Officers …” Others almost broke off into a spontaneous applause.

Though a CEO did appear a bit uncomfortable, he did not consider it prudent to disagree. The thought leader commented on the CIO’s ability to stay invisible most of the time, and thus christened him “Chief Invisible Officer”.

As I walked out of the auditorium thinking about this discussion’s various aspects, I reflected on my experiences within my multiple CIO roles, interactions with peer CIOs, vendor speak, and discussions with CXOs across enterprises big and small. My reality appeared a lot different from what I had heard from the Magi, who have seen more of the world than I have, but from a different frame of reference.

Are CIOs living in illusions of grandeur in their castles far removed from reality or the experiences, especially of the government speaker as an exception? With some relief, I recollected many Indian enterprise CEOs talking positively about the contributions made by their CIOs and IT organizations. Of certain CIOs who have also took additional charge of business, as well as a few CIOs who have also led cross-functional enterprise projects that made a difference in difficult times.

I guess reality is multi-faceted and not bipolar. Everyone reflects their reality and experience; the world is full of diversity that cannot be captured into a stereotype. Many CIOs I know would react similarly upon hearing about the above discussion, while a few CEOs (hopefully none) may actually be able to associate with the panel’s experiences. As enterprises invest significantly in IT enabling the enterprise, they also recognize the importance of a CIO leader who can walk lockstep with other CXOs while working towards achieving excellence using technology driven efficiencies and innovation.

I believe that a consistent movement is required towards spreading the good work done by many CIOs in conjunction with their CEOs. The learning from these can be applied towards improving the kith and kin. It is also important to talk about and discuss the challenges faced so that everyone does not have to rediscover them as a part of evolution—not just in CIO events, but also in industry and other CXO events. After all, the wheel needs to be discovered only once, and then it’s about replicating success.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mobile computing and security paranoia

The last few weeks have seen many news and analysis items on the enterprise mobile market leader, a player that made ‘email on the go’ a way of life, in addition to creating sore thumbs and marital discord for many corporate executives. After all these years, now there are growing concerns around national security in many countries around the world, not just corporate data compromise.

A few countries have taken a tough stance banning the service or seeking the key to monitor all traffic. The European Union decided to totally shift away to a popular consumer phone for their state offices with 20K+ users. The phone’s largest users as well as the associated services are worried about whether they will be required to shift away within a short span to another option. They are scared about imagining life without the familiar buzz every few minutes (of another email) and business applications.

Today we cannot think of work life without access to email, corporate applications, sales data and many more on the mobile. These devices have made 24X7 slaves out of their owners. Expectations of instant response to a message (irrespective of the hour) are becoming the norm. This increased productivity is now factored into the workload. Apart from enabling the sales force with planning, reporting and sales data, mobile devices have provided even the typical desk bound executive an ability to stay connected at home. Thus enterprises have seen improvements that were not possible earlier. Suddenly, all this appears to be under threat.

Should the CIO be worried about this looming uncertainty? While a total shutdown is not imminent, restriction in services is a reality. This may extend in the future and cripple the basic functioning of these devices.

To me, the answer is a resounding yes. Country laws and regulations are paramount for every entity operating within the geographical boundaries. There is no circumventing these; so if applications depend on a type of service, they may have to be rewritten or discarded. Alternatives should be explored and options made available, should a switch be required to reduce the adverse impact. This should be discussed with the management and the level of impact (if any), be communicated clearly and explicitly.

With an ever increasing number of mobile devices deployed by the corporate or just connected to the enterprise (employee owned), it’s important to periodically assess and review mobility solutions and options. Work with the service providers to create an insurance policy. No one wants to die, but insurance always makes sense.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Strategic or Operational, the choice is yours !

Recently, I met a CIO who was berating the fact that whenever (which is infrequent in any case) a meeting was scheduled to discuss the strategic IT agenda, the gathering ended up discussing operational issues in almost every case. This was leading to a buildup of frustration, and the CIO was wondering if the business had no interest in pursuing the strategic alignment of IT for their enterprise. As I listened to these woes, I realized that the CIO had a remote possibility of getting there. This was not because the company did not understand or appreciate the value of IT’s contribution, but since the malaise had its roots in the way IT was engaging with the rest of the company.

Every CIO aspires (and rightly so) to create a significant impact to the company with the help of tools and IT enabled processes that give them tactical advantage many a times. IT organizations which are able to create several such initiatives sustain the benefits that IT provides, and creates IT advocates from within the business. However, this is possible only if everything else is working hunky dory, or at least has a jointly agreed review process that allows the organization to conduct a dialogue that focuses on the issues and challenges they face.

Periodic review meetings with different functions (like finance, marketing, sales and production)—singularly or jointly—provides a framework to list, review, mediate as well as track issues that are irritants to daily chores and operations within the enterprise. Over a period of time, as the IT organization resolves issues and engages in an open dialogue, these meetings become a regular way of exploring new opportunities that allow for mutual win-win situations. The assumption is that these issues are resolved to the satisfaction of “users” within the agreed to timelines. Where the formal review meetings are not the norm, any meeting that discusses IT in any shape or form becomes the ground to rage war with the CIO.

My CIO friend suffered from this lapse. He considered it inappropriate to engage the business in operational meetings, as he wanted to discuss only the strategic agenda. His team worked diligently to address operational issues when they were brought to their notice (normally when it was a crisis). As a result, the IT team was always fighting fires, without opportunities for an across the table discussion. This lack of a structured review mechanism ensured that the CIO rarely had an opportunity to table the strategic agenda which he was passionate about.

CIOs should balance the need for operational reviews, along with discussions that look at the long term impact created by innovation and new technology. Failure to engage the business across both planes will result in the strategic agenda being hijacked and loss of credibility to deliver business as usual. Such situations just end up further distancing the Business IT Alignment (See BITA).

Monday, August 09, 2010

Weather predictions and the CIO: enough of Cloud Computing

Last month, I was part of a two day gathering (attended by a little less than 100 CIOs) at a great beach resort in the wonderful locales of Goa. It had stopped raining after 20 days of incessant rain, said the lady at the Reception while welcoming us. The next few days were expected to be cloudy, with some sunshine bringing smiles—the CIOs were looking forward to rewind, relax, and network while exploring some serious thoughts on IT during the day. Weather stayed faithful to the prediction—apart from the occasional showers, the sun played hide and seek with the clouds. I could recognize cirrus, nimbostratus and cumulus.

As the conference progressed, it was evident that every IT services and product company (irrespective of what they had to offer), created some connect with cloud computing. We had power management, data center hosting services, servers, virtualization, software, telecom services and some of the global top five IT companies—all talking about cloud computing as the essence of IT. This herd behavior had resonance with hype seen in the late ‘90s around the Web and Internet. Words from the past echoed, “Any company who does not have a Web strategy will be dead in the next decade”. We all know that most of the companies which had only a Web strategy fell off the cliff into the chasm of oblivion. Predictions and promises of the cloudy set mirror the irrational exuberance that was pervasive in the dotcom era.

Do you know what cloud computing is? A rhetorical question; the speaker did not wait for the answer and began his 30 slide presentation starting with what is virtualization. The next speaker added to the misery with green data center and energy efficiency, while acknowledging that IT contributes to only 2% of the carbon emissions. If everyone did their bit, carbon emissions would come down by 0.4%. And, if all of us moved our entire infrastructure to the cloud, maybe that figure will go up to 0.7%. Save the world, move to the clouds. Over the next day, almost everything (from basic definitions to use case models and in between) was pushed down on the hapless audience, which braved the frontal attack while wistfully looking at the sunny sky outside.

Out of courtesy to the speakers and organizers, CIOs continued to field the inane presentations as well as panel discussions on clouds, clouds, clouds, and some more clouds. A resurgent CIO challenged the vendor’s wisdom (on stage) about treating the audience like kindergarten kids. They were challenged on solutions for the enterprise’s current ailments or help for the CIO’s real life problems; not just talk about irrelevant solutions. CIOs broke into spontaneous applause which would bring a politician pride, but evinced no answers from the speaker—again, like the politician. Sections of the audience wandered away after every break, leaving behind a thinning crowd for subsequent speakers. The sun too teasingly invited captives to come out, as the waves’ murmur tortured the spirit. The CIOs saw merit in discussing cloud formation in the skies—no connection with the conference room’s discussion.

With the ecosystem yet to evolve and create meaningful cloud transition strategies for enterprise users, the IT vendors will do a favor by not increasing the hype and aligning to reality. Privately, most vendors acknowledge the fact that clouds are as yet mature, since the concept is surrounded by a lot of questions that require hard answers like security, geographical data residency, privacy, licensing, and many more. Their organizational compulsions prevent them from being honest in a public forum—lest it be seen as them not toeing the party line. Thus, vendors and consultants will do well to listen to their customers before charging ahead on their favorite subject for now, cloud computing.

As the conference was coming to an end, a tweet escaped the room, “Cloud in the sky, cloud in the room, my mind is cloudy too after listening to so many speakers on cloud computing”. Personally, I enjoyed counting the clouds outside than the utterances inside.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

IT Chargeback, gain or pain ?

Every so often, the subject of chargeback raises its head, and challenges (un)conventional wisdom. In the recent past, it has been in the news as a critical requirement for deployment of cloud computing. Many reports have been written on why IT chargeback makes sense—especially in a diversified enterprise, with multiple business units using IT services provided by a corporate function. Almost everyone uses the rationale that chargeback helps IT allocate fair (?) cost to consumers of these services, and thus possibly provides the budgeting framework for KTLO (Keeping the Lights On) or BAU (Business As Usual).

I looked up IT chargeback on Wikipedia, and found the paragraph below as the closest definition:

“IT Cost Transparency is a new category of IT Management software and systems and that enables Enterprise IT organizations to model and track the total cost to deliver and maintain the IT Services they provide to the business. It is increasingly a task of Management accounting. IT Cost Transparency solutions integrate financial information such as labor, software licensing costs, hardware acquisition and depreciation, data center facilities charges, from general ledger systems and combines that with operational data from ticketing, monitoring, asset management, and project portfolio management systems to provide a single, integrated view of IT costs by service, department, GL line item and project. In addition to tracking cost elements, IT Cost Transparency tracks utilization, usage and operational performance metrics in order to provide a measure of value or ROI. Costs, budgets, performance metrics and changes to data points are tracked over time to highlight trends and the impact of changes to underlying cost drivers in order to help managers address the key drivers in escalating IT costs and improve planning.”

A mouthful indeed! Now, I agree that IT cost transparency matters, but chargeback? Having been part of enterprise IT across industries and IT models that included chargeback systems or none at all, my perspective:
  1. Chargeback systems are important if IT is a “service provider”, and needs to justify every expense; innovation will have limited scope in this context
  2. Chargeback systems will always be challenged by the majority of business units, as being an unfair practice
  3. You will be required to reduce costs year-on-year irrespective of volume, and especially when business goes through recessionary cycles
  4. Even after automation, the effort required for maintaining and managing data can be humungous. This will have the IT team on a defensive stance, churning out unusual associations of metrics in reports
So why is chargeback coming back again? Does virtualization, cloud service, or the next disruptive technology suddenly turn the tables in favor of chargeback? Does it really matter which specific function or business unit pays for the service, considering that it’s a zero sum game for the enterprise? So why should you bring in the complexity of managing unit costs for transactions, memory, CPU, storage, bandwidth, man hours and licenses?

When IT shops struggle to get incremental budgetary support, the practice of chargeback is typically seen as a vehicle to justify the high cost of KTLO or BAU. This is evident if you consider that with the exception of manpower cost, all other metrics have been on the downward spiral over the last decade. Thus, marginal reductions in these KPIs help in sustenance of inflated budgets, while keeping the attention away from metrics that matter (like contribution to business growth, profitability or customer retention).

CIOs should carefully evaluate why they need to implement IT chargeback mechanisms. After all, if they have aspirations to move to the next level of evolution, they should be enamored by business, and not expend energies counting pennies.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Outsourcing travails

Almost every mid to large size organization now outsources the basic maintenance of desktops, laptops, printers and other end computing devices to service providers under the broad framework of facility management. Some have also given away the tasks of managing servers, backups and networks. As far as I remember, this practice is definitely more than 15 years old, considering that the first time I came across this concept was in the early ‘90s. So by now, one would assume that the vendors and service providers (along with the CIOs), would have fine tuned this basic support activity to a level where it does not require significant management time and attention. However, recent discussions bring out a different story.

Essentially, outsourcing of the basic break-fix and first level support (typically personified as the IT Helpdesk), broadly constitutes a centralized number, email or web based form for users to log their calls. The person at the other end is expected to acknowledge the call, and attempt troubleshooting via phone or remote control of the computing device. If this is not feasible, he’s then supposed to provide desk side support through an Engineer. Track progress of the call until completed, repeat ad infinitum. Sounds simple enough!

Add a dash of best practices, frameworks like ITIL, service level agreements, and periodic reviews—everything should be hunky dory?

As computers get ubiquitous, cheaper, sturdier, and easier to use, the expectation levels have also risen. Today the expectations veer towards near instant resolution, which reflects the high level dependence as well as time pressures that are typical of today’s workplace. Mobility adds to the complexity, while security concerns mount—new and old threats challenge existing solutions, and compliance add to the challenge. To add to this, budgets are shrinking, and attrition is on the rise. So is it fair to expect service levels to sustain and improve, quarter on quarter?

CIOs with reason are right in their expectations from facility management, as this is what the enterprise demands in a hyper competitive environment. On the other hand, service providers have been struggling to rise up to these challenges and seize the opportunity. A few CIOs mentioned that they were reviewing alternatives, even though the contract period was far from over. In these circumstances, root cause analysis points towards many reasons that contribute either singularly or collectively.

Key amongst these factors remain people (See Challenges of an upturn), where service providers did not plan for attrition, with growth coming back; thus the pipeline dried up, and customers saw an adverse impact. If the person exiting is a Project Manager, it can take up to six months to recover. And we are not yet talking about quality of resources on the ground, which is deteriorating slowly and surely. Most new hires were fresh out of institutes, with very limited or no soft skills orientation. Customer service is not just about fixing the problem, but also with respect to addressing the person behind the computer and his downtime.

The second big issue is process compliance, with or without ITIL. Every outsourcing engagement has a plethora of checklists and processes which need to be rigorously followed to ensure success. However, for the person on the ground, this is a distraction, and sometimes seen as policing. Inconsistent data and incomplete checklists lead to increasing grievances with the users.

Weekly, fortnightly or monthly review meetings are at best a post mortem of the issue; instead, daily exception management between the vendor and customer Project Managers is required to ensure that these do not get discussed at the Management table. CIOs need to conduct periodic assessments to remain connected to the process, a practice which also keeps the teams’ focus on deliverables.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cyber Commute on a day the country decided to shutdown

I wrote this a few weeks back sitting at home on a Monday, when a Bandh was declared by the Opposition parties to protest against the rising food inflation and the hike in petrol, diesel, LPG cooking gas prices.

Every Monday, the chores begin—to get up a little earlier, get ready and off to the place of work. Every Monday, the average person gets the blues as he thinks about the week ahead and its pressures, timelines, political issues, performance, and many more. These are worries that are unique to everyone, but common in a way that they manifest themselves universally. But, this Monday is different. The majority of us did not travel, and decided to stay at home rather than risk a limb or broken glass on the vehicle. This Monday, there was a call for strike, bandh, and disruption; all to evoke the response of empathy.

Establishments either declared a day off with compensatory working on another weekend, or left the choice to employees just for safety. Rail and road transport saw very few utilizing the facilities, thus running almost empty. News channels searched for news on empty roads, and declared the empty roads as news. Impact to productivity in a blue collared environment was moderate to high; however, the white collared worker was not to be denied.

Armed with a laptop, Netbook, Blackberry or a smartphone, Wifi at home or at the least broadband, the road warrior was prepared for such exigencies. Finish the morning cuppa and settle down in the corner office with the device of choice connected to his corporate network on a high speed line; working similar (if not better) to the corner office at workplace, with no disruptions caused by the ringing phone. Churning numbers or making presentations, productivity barriers were unshackled, and deadlines appear a thing of the past.

In many countries and companies, working from home is a well accepted norm. This helps reduce the operating costs of space, power and other entrapments associated with office facilities (apart from offering flexibility to the employee to work from their cozy environments). Added benefit is accrued by the green nature of “no travel by hydrocarbon fuel driven transportation”. Many Indian enterprises have provided facilities to their workers—normally for after office hour exigencies and weekend support activities by some functions. The middle and senior managers are driven by compulsions to respond to the next mail, react to the next crisis, no crisis? Then let’s create one for the adrenaline rush.

IT enabled processes and employees with connectivity become a boon in such times of force majeure, when travel is a constraint. CIOs and enterprises which recognize the benefit of mobility and benefits thereof are able to reduce operational impact within the internal ecosystem. The larger environment (if it is cyber enabled) and the connected pieces can work with some efficiency, thereby reducing the potential adverse impact. Business continuity and disaster recovery plans should factor in productivity losses due to such events. So push forth and enjoy the fruits of boundary-less connectivity and empowerment.

One thought troubles me though; what will we all do if we face a cyber bandh some day?

Monday, July 12, 2010

What's in a name ?

In recent times, there have been many consultants, research entities and academia discussing the IT organization’s transformation. The proposed concept seeks to rechristen IT to BT to reflect the new nature of the expected role. The rationale is largely around the fact that business drives technology within an enterprise. So the function should be called business technology (BT). Many CIOs like the new nomenclature, and have attempted to adopt this new symbol that represents their purported evolution and alignment.

Flashback to 2002; I interviewed for a Fortune 50 company’s Indian operations. The process progressed well, and I joined the company (which had a federated IT organization). The corporate IT organization was responsible for standards, infrastructure, architecture, and many applications that were supporting the operations. Then we had Manufacturing IT, which focused on the requirements of the manufacturing plants, connecting to suppliers, managing the manufacturing process, and running the warehouses. The company also had an R&D IT function that empowered the large and globally spread research teams with enabling technology solutions that were critical towards maintaining the company’s leadership position. Each IT organization head reported to the respective function head with dotted line to the global IT head; they had the flexibility and independence to create solutions or choose vendors. Last but not the least was the function called Business Technology, into which I was inducted.

Business Technology worked with the sales organization. It existed in almost every country that the company operated in, and reported to the CEO. It was the largest group and also the most powerful, since the sales teams connected with customers, and thus also had the power to garner larger IT budgets. Thus this name signified a closer relationship with business. It provided technology initiatives that impacted life everyday on the field connecting with customers, while competing with others in the industry. Not that those other teams were not aligned to their respective business folks, but the impact of changes was slower, and largely created internal efficiencies or benefit. Thus, every introduction to an outsider required a five minute discourse on why we were called Business Technology.

Was BT any different? We still had our challenges around vendors, change management, new initiatives, budget approvals, technology adoption, political issues, everything that a normal IT organization experiences every day. As the CIO, my role was acknowledged with a seat on the management table, but like every other CXO, it required consistent performance to keep it there. The basic expectation from the CIO was to create business value, challenge status quo, and participate in all discussions around the table that influenced the company’s future direction.

So, what about the role today? The CIO is required to do all of the above, sometimes even fight to get a seat on the management table; in a few cases where the CIO does not report to the CEO, they are dependent on other CXOs to be their voice in the management team meetings. Will the change in name to business technology bring about the transformation and fast track the evolution and acceptance of the function better than when it is plain old IT? I guess not–the enterprise, the IT leader, and the culture largely contribute to its success. BT happened almost a decade back, evolution is catching up.

After all, as the bard said it a long time back, “What’s in a name; that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”!

Monday, July 05, 2010

IT Annual Report

Almost a decade back, I met the CIO of Intel, who talked about an Annual Report of the IT organization— similar to the Annual Report published by the company for its shareholders. This report made good reading, which at that time presented metrics around availability of systems, uptime of links, number of problem tickets, budget performance, and a few others. At the turn of the century, a lot of these were indeed deemed relevant, and accepted by everyone. The report’s interesting parts depicted ’Voice of Customer’, discussed projects undertaken with their status, impact to business, and customer quotes. It was a slick report, similar to what a company would create with help from Marketing and Advertising.

Fast forward to 2010, when I was listening to a presentation on “Why should IT create an Annual Report”. The examples quoted were from Computer Associates (CA) and Intel. The audience of about 40 IT leaders listened in rapt attention, made notes, consuming the speaker’s insights, who mesmerized the audience. The KPIs were largely different, reflecting evolution of the IT organization and IT leader. Post the presentation, a debate started off on how many in the room did anything similar in terms of KPIs, reports, transparency, or even the basic weekly or monthly presentation at the management meetings; and if they did, what did they report?

Almost everyone had some kind of report being tabled, though not an Annual Report akin to the one that was presented. These hard copies were typically printed and distributed to the stakeholders, with help from an Advertising agency or Marketing department. A large IT company’s CIO mentioned that he has started working on something similar (with external help). He hopes to emulate the success that we all listened to. The thought that crossed my mind was that are CIOs of IT companies a step ahead of the rest of us in the room who represented other non-computer related industries. It was a disconnect, considering that a fair number of IT companies did not provide a seat on the management table to their IT heads.

Thinking for a long while after that, I kept wondering about why I never took the step (despite having the benefit a decade back) and when it was rekindled from memory again. The thought also wandered around as to why the representative Annual IT reports were only from the IT industry. Where were the examples from the large and successful marquee CIOs as well as IT enterprises (of success stories that everyone talks about)? Don’t they need the Annual Report to publish their success story and present it to their shareholders (CXOs and Board)?

I believe that success does not need an anniversary to present, but is shared within the enterprise on occurrence, during frequent management meetings, and gets acknowledgement. The Annual Report is a vehicle to tell the rest of the world what we do well. But maybe, I am totally off the track.

Monday, June 28, 2010

It's monsoon time again and raining clouds

Yes, it’s raining, and the country is covered with rain clouds for which everyone is thankful; after a year when everyone was worried. It’s as if the economy’s slowdown and lower budgets had a link with the reduced rainfall. You must be now wondering about the relevance of monsoon for a CIO. Please have a bit of patience for the ‘Oh I See’.

Someone is launching a book on the support models and delivery on a specific cloud (amongst the oldest service offerings globally before the term ‘cloud computing’ was coined). This book is derived out of thousands of support threads from customers, analysis of response times, efficacy of the model, and the pitfalls in putting your business on the cloud. No, the book is not about cloud bashing, but more about the reality of what customers faced—either in their ignorance, or due to lack of definitions and omissions.

With enough being said about why everyone (CEO and CFO included) should go cloud watching or about CIOs being beaten to death about adoption of cloud computing, the proponents of this disruptive technology are growing. This often leaves the CIO wondering about why he doesn’t get it and looks up for insight from Almighty—only to see some more clouds!

Recently, I met up with a cloud evangelist from the world’s largest cloud company. He was patiently explaining to the CIOs in a step-by-step way—on how to get started, where to get started from, and what to realistically expect. Now that made everyone sit up and listen with attention! Following the discourse getting into a debate with selected CIOs, the reality dawned on everyone that various XaaS models (where X = application, platform, and infrastructure, for now) do have limitations and challenges for any large enterprise to function in a hybrid model using cloud and internal capability.

Almost everyone who has adopted the cloud has used it for non-critical applications, test and development environments. In many cases, organizations use the cloud on fringes to connect road warriors or partners. Concerns remain around security, manageability, data retention, geographical statutes, service levels, and the evolving experience around how clouds behave. One point that had me jumping out of the chair after reading the above mentioned book’s synopsis was the gap between perception (and reality) around turnaround times for issues, patching and security management in an IaaS model. With 20+ hours to resolve issues and no patch management service, I would not even bet my test or development environments to the cloud.

Every industry evolution goes through the hype curve, and for now, cloud is still on the rising edge. With the number of companies announcing cloud based services (which do require large investments), I wonder if the future will see a cloud burst akin to the dotcom bubble burst that we experienced a decade ago.

I would stay cautiously optimistic until then, and learn to live in the rain !

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Market Capitalization and Customer Satisfaction

Recent front page news pieces in many dailies, online media, (and almost everywhere) claim that a tech company’s market capitalization has overtaken the long standing leader on this metric. It’s being written about by many business publications, tech journals, writers, edits, and discussed by everyone as an important event. Now, even as the displaced leader CEO retorted, “We are still the most profitable”, customers like me cringed. Analysts are now creating theories around the dark horse’s upsurge, about a company which was written off by the same analysts—not too long back, if memory serves me right.

Over the last couple of decades, I watched the new leader with interest—wondering why they never had mainstream commercial success, despite having products which almost everyone loved. In the meanwhile, the displaced moved from strength to strength creating a monopolistic era. Everyone hated this practice, but continued to embrace its products as if there was no choice. Choices came and withered away like the autumn flower; a few showed promise, but could not sustain themselves in a hyper competitive world where big brother came down guns blazing on any who dared a challenge. All along, our new leader continued to innovate, gaining a small but steadily growing breed of followers—never big enough to raise an alarm, but shunned by IT organizations as too esoteric.

The erstwhile leader spawned many factions seeking alternatives, never really succeeding enough to threaten. Fan following and hate groups alike embrace every news, release, solution and acquisition. Corporate customers experimented, but left with no real choice, continue to grin and bear it. Governments’ attempt to leash the giant bore puny results, as the alternative movement around open source has remained just that—an alternative that few are interested in.

Did customers love this ‘choice’ of one, and the price it came at? A survey will probably show the number of naysayers touching highs on product quality, price, support, or any other parameter that you may want to explore. The challenger scores on all these parameters, but surprisingly continues to receive no traction.

With guaranteed revenues from the ever growing corporate market and almost 90% market share, the fruits of such labor remained the envy of everyone in the technology world. At least, that was the case till a couple of weeks back, when surprise, the giant was belittled. Did the CIOs suddenly realize the value of embracing the alternative and shun the “standard”? Have analysts become wiser, or did the company create a game changing product (or service) that swept the world off its feet?

We all know the answer; the new leader was created by the end consumer, not the corporate world. With the exception of a few industries that discovered its efficiencies, enterprise shops avoided these technology solutions, or allowed it at the fringes with multiple caveats, despite the pains of managing existing solutions.

With increasing consumerization of the end computing device, the future will displace the old and boring, though deemed standard and secure devices of today. Our personal choices indicate that there is a very small place for the past leader. The new hero of today has consumers raging upon every new innovation that has come from its stable.

Over the next few years, I believe that this rapidly growing mindshare will put pressure on IT organizations and the CIO to be inclusive of this trend rather than fight it. The only spanner in the works could be situations where the new found success becomes an anchor round the neck—one which drags down the innovation pipeline or consumer connect that has become the hallmark for the industry. After all, market capitalization has limited (or nill) correlation to customer satisfaction.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Online Customer Service in a connected world

In the last few weeks, I attempted to reach out to various service providers—organizations whose services I had availed in the past via their websites. The objective was to seek help with unsubscribing from their mailing lists, as well as for assistance in resolving problems I faced with a few purchased goods, respectively. While I thoroughly enjoyed the services and products, when it came to problem resolution, the process fell through the gaps (with no resolution).

We know that every business selling services or merchandise has had online aspirations since the Internet and World Wide Web came into existence. These aspirations skyrocketed with the mobile market growing at a fast pace and phones becoming smarter. Today, every business irrespective of size, geography and market potential, has a Website providing information. In many cases, these Websites even provide transactional capability, as they experiment with mobile based engagement models.

Customers have lapped up these offerings, as they have offered convenience (apart from discounts) over conventional modes of buying in many cases, or facilitated anytime anywhere commerce. Information enabled customers are also making smart choices by comparing offerings from various retailers. The industry has grown faster than conventional retailing in developed markets, and in the developing world, growth via non-brick-and-mortar model is higher by multiples.

Now, here are a few examples of my experiences with these organizations:

Case 1: Tried to reach a portal offering match making services to unsubscribe after my nephew found his match. However, the email ID for unsubscribing from the newsletters was incorrect. With trial and error, found the right id, and guess what? The mailbox was full, so the message bounced back. Not giving up, I wrote to the Webmaster and feedback email ids. Three weeks later, I still continue to receive offers to get married!

Case 2: Bought a leading brand’s stereo Bluetooth speaker from a store. All was well for 2 years, until I wanted to install the device on another computer. Unable to find the driver, I found that the website was not helpful. Emails to customer service, the CEO, and Web-forms have gone unanswered for a month now.

Case 3: Used the services of a large domain registrar. The payment gateway failed four times, prompting me to reach out to customer services, which helped me with the process. On the payment gateway screen after providing my credit card details, I get an error! Customer service says in an online chat session that the transaction is successful, and disconnects. I am left wondering if that last the unsuccessful attempts were also charged. Email sent to them evinces no response.

What do you deduce from these incidents? Technology can enable processes, but people have to execute them. If staff does not recognize that a customer is to be served through the Website, email or chats as well as they are served in the offline world, the customer can choose to take the business elsewhere. I am reasonably certain that I would do business with these sites or their associate sites only if I had absolutely no other options. Do they care about the outcome? I don’t know. Can CIOs and IT do anything to improve such a situation?

For starters, CIOs could be the process’ co-owners in the virtual world. The CIO can use his network of friends to periodically test efficacy, provide feedback, or fine-tune the process to achieve desired outcomes. Technology enabled blackholes (such as the outlined cases) are a negative reflection on the organization’s brand value and customer perception. Every customer counts—more so in a connected world when social computing influences consumer behavior; the ripple effect needs to be addressed before it becomes a big wave rushing down.

So, do you know what are consumers tweeting or blogging about your company?

Monday, June 07, 2010

Are you "Open Sourcing" ?

Couple of weeks back, I had the privilege to meet international thought leaders from different parts of the world. A large number of them worked with ministries, governments, or educational institutes after having spent decades with the industry churning patents for the companies they invested their time in. As the discussion progressed through a myriad of technologies, it was seen that for almost every commercially available technology solution, they had explored, experimented, and in many cases deployed “open source” solutions. Amazed at their ability to implement these solutions, I started digging deeper to understand how I could leverage from their experiences.

Across countries, almost every government function and government funded organization has made bold statements and commitments towards the open source movement. They believe in not promoting or getting tied down to proprietary and expensive solutions to enable processes, citizens and overall functioning of the government. The belief is that tax-payers’ money should be saved to give the biggest bang for the buck. So forget the hugely popular operating systems, office productivity tools, virtualization, management solutions, and almost everything in between, that does not have the open tag. This is a topic that has taken a lot of vendor and system integrator stress levels north in the past.

The luminaries interacting with me had a lot of experience with a variety of open source solutions. We discussed open versions of office productivity tools, open source virtualization, learning management systems, database solutions, operating systems, and many more. They advised that most open source solutions had been adopted by quite a few large IT companies to create their version, and bundled them with charged support services. Thus, corporate entities should not have concerns around support. They work equally well as compared to commercial solutions; maybe in a few cases, the user interface may not be as user friendly—but that should not deter the strong hearted to push its case through.

There were too many questions in my head, so I started what appeared to be an interrogation. Can such solutions still be called “open source”, or should the nomenclature be “originated from open source”? How does the ROI or TCO model change from pure open source to adopted open source? Are these deployed for critical or core functions as well or they are still around the fringes? What is the level and quality of support from either the open source community or the vendors? Did they struggle with or face any interoperability issues? How did they manage the infrastructure and applications? Were there any performance or scalability issues? And so on I kept on rambling (to the group’s embarrassment), which started looking uncomfortable with most answers having a “conditions apply”.

The big realization was that the criticality of applications, infrastructure, service levels, performance parameters, expected resilience, and turnaround times were all dissimilar to what the enterprise CIO is typically expected to deliver. Even in such scenarios, it was evident that critical applications were procured from, and deployed on, commercially available environments—though not always discussed in gatherings. Quiet acknowledgements were also provided on the ROI and TCO cases—as not been significantly attractive for open source solutions.

The reality is that for almost every enterprise solution, there exists an open source alternative. The adoption and usage of these has been to typically support non-core or non-critical activities depending on the industry segment (including government departments and public sector enterprises).

When business depends on any technology, the risk appetite is low to negligible. Is this likely to change as the numbers increasingly inch up for open source solutions being deployed?

Well, my belief is that we will continue to see this divide for a long time. Everyone will talk about it—some will deploy in non-core functions, and the rest will debate.