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.