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.