Monday, March 28, 2011

The vanity show of technology

“Apple announces iPad 2 with better, faster, newer ….. Bargains available on earlier version.”

“When software vendors continue to create new versions of every solution, there is pressure on us to stay with current versions; how do we manage such a paradigm with budget constraints?”

The first is news that everyone saw and reacted to depending on their reference point with the much coveted tablet computer that is a must have on many lists. Some queued up to get the new device last weekend, while others decided to capitalize on the available bargains on the earlier version. Few competing tablet manufacturers wondered on how they can keep pace.

The second was a question from an SME (small and medium enterprise) CEO to a panel of big enterprise CIOs in a seminar organized by one of the large office automation, unified communication, and collaboration solution vendor for the mid-market customers. Majority of the audience nodded to the question as if they all faced the same predicament and did not know how to resolve the situation.

Vanity Fair

There appears to be an inherent desire amongst us to crave the latest version of gadgets or software similar to the desires to keep up with the latest trends in fashion that vanity demands. The technology vanity also permeates organizations; after all the same individuals pride themselves flaunting the latest must have phone, music player, and camera, whatever.

Organizations can ill afford such a race and the break point has a direct correlation to the profitability of the enterprise and the contributions of the IT function. The enamoured CEO and CIO will also cite examples of how and why it matters and the benefit thereof to the business, customers, and off course themselves.

When this is weighed against the basic rules of conducting prudent business with rationale investments filtered using good governance rules, the decision shifts to what matters. Every organization has a set of rules for financial investments; these measure the results and provide a framework that applies in most cases to every decision. However, IT sometimes escapes this rigor with justifications ranging from necessity for security to lack of support on older versions, fear of obsolescence and many in between. In absence of tools to validate or ignorance, and the incessant push from the vendors, the SME customer faces devil’s choice.

Being prudent

Irrespective of size and compulsions driven by technology vanity, vendor threats, competitive scares, boardroom chatter, or peer pressure, the rules of good investment decisions should always stay in the forefront. My answer to the question from the CEO was, “We still think like the SME we were in the past. Every investment has to answer the following questions: Does it help the customer, employee, or shareholders? Does it create a new capability we require to differentiate? Is it required by law? If none applies, then the investment is not undertaken.

But then the thirst for the latest is irrational. We have become participants to a mega race to acquire the next. There is no justifying the next version of laptop with the latest processor, nor any rationale for the next zillion megapixel camera. Why do we need the latest version of communicator or the micro-app on our phone? I think the simple answer is because it is there!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Offsite Meeting effectiveness

Every leader at some time seeks to engage the team in thematic exercises that are personified as offsite or outbound programs. Most of these are facilitated by external trainers who engage the team in field or classroom exercises. Typically such events spread over 1-3 days in out of city resorts where the external environment entices the participants while they struggle with the agenda and expectations. Almost everyone looks forward to such a sojourn from day-to-day work.

Over the years I have attended and conducted over a dozen such programs with teams, large and small, across organization layers. All of them were great experiences and opened up a new line of thought, provoking some action or reaction with me as well as other participants. Many companies conduct these annually by department or sometimes horizontally taking layers of management for team building, bonding and improvement of cross-functional dynamics.

In the last outbound program one of the participants posed a question to the moderator, how can we ensure that the learning from this program stay with us and bring about positive change? The volatility of learning defies expectation and evaporates by the time everyone reports back to their workplaces. Nonetheless this does not deter teams, companies and trainers world over from conducting such programs. The moderator promised to revisit the question before close of the program.

CIOs probably manage the most diverse teams with skills and competencies that are specialized in their own right. Be it infrastructure which can be subdivided into network, servers, data centers, or core application stacks that require technical, functional and architectural expertise; all of this and more form a typical IT team. Each professional equipped with ‘professional arrogance’ believes s/he is unique and better than the other. For the enterprise to function cohesively, these teams have to work in tandem like the machinery in a shop floor lest production come to a standstill.

The siloed nature of teams creates friction as well as competitive spirit that require the CIO to balance internal expectations with the expectations of the business leaders and customers. Outbound and offsite meetings thus serve an important purpose of breaking the ice, bringing together the teams even if for a short while, and provide a platform for exploration of themes that bring success to the team. It is foolhardy to expect everyone to create the same level of benefit for themselves; if some of them find their change agent, the event has served a purpose. It’s analogous to a classroom where all the students listen to the same teacher but hear differently.

Coming back to the moderator of the last outbound, in the final session, he said, “I am sure you liked parts of the program, participation level was great. I had nothing to give to all of you; it’s for you to decide what you want to take back.” Well said indeed, because no one can ensure what you take away from any program, discussion or stuff that you read; it’s a choice the participant makes based on his/her presence, participation (or lack of it), fiddling with the phone, or side talk.

On another note, Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.”

Monday, March 14, 2011

Intuitive Analytics

It was a packed house listening to a panel discussion between two CIOs, a CEO, a vendor and an academician. After almost an hour of discussion on various aspects of Business Intelligence challenges and opportunities, the session end requested final words on what they would like to see from vendors in the future ? Leaving aside the Oscar-ian twist on being good to customers, better decision making and paying more attention to talent, the crowd applauded unanimously to the CIOs wish list. The CIO representing a “mature” user of solutions from the sponsor BI vendor, made a passionate appeal:

Has anyone in the audience attended a training program on how to use Facebook, or any other website or messaging system ? If no, then why do we require everyone even with above average intelligence in the corporate world to be provided training on usage of internal systems ? What makes these systems so complex that they cannot be used without handholding ?

I wish that we can all evolve to a level of BI/DW tools such that any user within the enterprise can start using transactional data to convert to information that can assist informed decision making. Anyone who can use a spreadsheet should be able to extract the insights hidden within the sea of information. They should be able to intuitively understand what is expected from them to get to the next step with no prompting or help (online or otherwise). I am talking about Intuitive Analytics, a term coined by me a while back to refer to analytics that is intuitive in its interface; intuitive to the user the way s/he is able to open the browser on the PC, Smartphone or tablet and start the journey of discovery on the Internet.

In recent times there have been multiple initiatives around improvement of how information is presented to the consumers. Evolution from rows and columns to dashboards, drill-downs, pivots, multi-dimensional analytics has evolved; the evolution of mathematical models as well as technological advances on speed of crunching data have pushed the boundaries across enterprise datawarehouse projects. Over the last three years, DW/BI has consistently been in the top 3 technology and business priorities.

The experiences are however inconsistent in their delivery of business value. Some of the barriers include data quality, data model deficiencies, bad ETLs to name a few. The biggest deterrent has however been the complex user experience which has seen lesser evolution as compared to the technological advances. All tools with no notable exception provide the basic building blocks to create the DW/BI foundation and analytical layer; standard templates, internal IT teams and implementation partners have yet to breakout from the mould to provide a rich, consistent, and meaningful capability to the end consumer of information.

I believe that this is an opportunity for one and all, CIO, DW Architects, vendors, implementation partners, to take up this challenge on making BI as easy as getting on any social media site and get started. If you have already crossed this bridge, do write back, but the applause on the floor to my comments, makes me believe that the journey is still more like an uncharted expedition.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Retiring CIOs

Recent months have seen quite a few CIOs retiring; many of them started their careers a really long time back, growing from technical beginnings and successfully transitioning from the role of EDP Manager to a CIO over more than last 3 decades. The next few years will see many more ready to handover to the next generation of younger aspirants. The subject of succession planning suddenly comes to fore raising questions where the transition had some impact on the organization. We discussed that some time back in “Succession Planning for the CIO”.

So what do retiring CIOs do ? Do they just fade away from the limelight gradually or in a jiffy just like that as if someone pulled the plug and in an instant from the next day there is a blackout? Or there are opportunities they can pursue to continue adding value to enterprises, younger CIOs, academia, may be consulting? Probably all of this and a lot more; what are the options a CIO can pursue after putting in 30+ years into the industry ? Should we just let go of the rich experience?

Almost 8 years back, I met a retiring CIO from within the CIOs I knew, a few months before his D-day. The conversation naturally veered towards plans post retirement. His face lit up as he talked about his plans post retirement from the 9-6 grind as he described his passion and involvement in a NGO close to his home town to contribute to the education of the underprivileged. There was obviously a clear vision of the future and that had nothing to do with his current role in a large Pharma company.

Beginning of last year, I came across a surprise New Year message from a CIO who had disappeared from the scene quietly and no one had a clue where he might me. He was running a small consulting organization focusing on specific technology and domain thus working with a few customers providing them with the insights gained from his experience. It became evident that he had planned for this day and was satisfied with the continued usefulness and revenue/income it generated.

Then there are many who pursued academic interests joining institutes as full or part time faculty; some decided to become freelancers on specific subjects like ITIL, COBIT, etc, which require experienced hands to bring out the context for the students by relating instances and anecdotes from experience.

Retirement is another phase of life which requires planning and preparation; you cannot stumble upon these opportunities after reaching the milestone which says “Stop”. It’s almost like a new job; except, in this case, there is no formal job (there are exceptions where CIOs have continued as consultants in the same company or joined other enterprises); but the accountability is to self first and then to the task.

The ranks of the new age CIO are raring to go with new skill sets for the new era of computing with a fabric of social media and clouds linking these across the ecosystem internally and externally. They are ready to challenge the grey hair with less technology, more business, and say what matters, effectively. If you are contemplating retirement in the next 5 years, and if you have not yet started, get started now!