Monday, April 25, 2011

The micro-app nemesis

If you have looked for an app on Apple’s App Store, I am sure you have faced a Google search kind of frustration with hundreds of applications purporting to do the same stuff, one better than the other, or many times just a me too. So some of us end up downloading more than one to try and then decide which one is better; many a times we don’t end up discarding the others. Check around with friends who would have downloaded say an “Alarm Clock” and it is quite likely you will find that their app is different. You may be tempted to download that one too, just to try !

I met a CIO who was showing his angst on the fact that there were more than a dozen applications within his enterprise for travel approvals. While some were a result of “forgotten” acquisition synergies, the others were created by Shadow IT for departments to address short term need. These sustained themselves even after the corporate version was deployed. And now to top it all, almost all of them had mobile versions for different mobile devices thereby multiplying the number of micro-apps that were floating around.

The resulting collection of travel approval micro-apps exceeded a number that crossed the tipping point for the CIO. There was an uneasy silence on the table as she described the chaos and now the support expectations when some of them failed to work with the clamp down or rationalization of applications. Sympathetic nods followed as new governance processes were discussed and general agreement that the actions taken were fair.

Most of the micro-apps on the App Store are written by enthusiasts and programmers wanting to showcase their prowess. They test waters with free apps, and then add features and a tiny charge. Some start-up companies too indulged in similar bunch of apps on the store getting a few hits and lots of misses. How did this suddenly become an industry with 10 billion downloads in such a short span ? Because you can !

The simplicity and ability to create such apps is I guess one of the reasons that contributed to this explosion. Consumerization of the handheld device has given rise to the opportunity that had to be capitalized upon. The slowdown/recession encouraged the blurring of the lines between work and life, while everyone wallowed in the need to stay connected 24X7. The pressure is now on the CIO to stay ahead of the game and deploy even more processes that can be accessed on the mobile. Even if you have already formulated a mobility strategy, review it frequently to stay on top of the situation.

But what about the increasing number of micro-apps that are being downloaded, sanctioned or otherwise ? No one knows what kind of vulnerabilities they create; what will they lead to in the future ? Are they the future support nightmare ? Only time will tell; until then tread cautiously, create the micro-apps required, test the ones you may want to endorse from the store, and pray !

Monday, April 18, 2011

Making it stick

An intense debate was on, on how we ensure team alignment across the different organizational units that form a workgroup within an enterprise. As the discussion moved towards pinning responsibility (read blame) when things go wrong, there was a palpable sense of unease across the group; specifically the team that manages the vendor relationships and is expected to deliver and monitor the service.

The discussion had started when one of the stakeholders had raised the issue of inter-dependency across other teams and his ability to influence how the team is rated during the review and appraisal. It is true that all of us are no longer islands with any connection to others. We use services from within and outside and similarly provide it directly or indirectly to internal and external customers. The work subdivided into interrelated tasks when performed in unison lead to a positive outcome (in most cases).

Adversarial attitude is the result when we are not satisfied with the result or our perception of the effort put in by others. The conventional solution is to create Service Level Agreements, cross-linked KRAs (Key Result Areas). Review meetings are often heated while everyone trying to pin the “blame” on the other. Such meetings are rarely productive and highlight the gap resulting in the “you” versus “us” stance. The meeting was headed for a showdown that would have been messy for everyone with skeletons tumbling out of the proverbial closet.

It was an eye opener remark from one of the participants in the meeting that had everyone hushed and staring at the person who uttered the words “But are we are all not on the same side of the table ?”. Could anyone have disagreed to such a profound insight ? Speechless everyone exchanged glances feeling generally uncomfortable without acknowledging the cause.

The acknowledgement of the fact that we all are working towards the same objective is a starting point not just for any collaborative endeavour, but for teams within the organization. Everyone contributes and brings a skill to the table that matters, even if in a small way. When we are in a challenged situation, we know that the best recovery strategy is to help the other overcome the challenge and not berate the lack of skill or achievement.

Great teamwork is always a result of shared goal and common objective; the acknowledgement of complementary skills within the team provides a framework that nurtures healthy collaboration and focus on what matters, i.e. the result, without compromising the quality of team spirit. Keeping this as the foundation of review helps ensure better outcomes. It is indeed difficult to sustain such a mindset when one is at the receiving end.

The hierarchical leader of the team and the CIO in this case has to play the role of setting expectations and resolve confrontations and conflict which will always be there. The matrix organizations of today are necessary; we have to learn to live in the rain.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Quest for a perfect SLA

I recently had a discussion with one of the respected global company that specializes in providing consulting around outsourcing and managing Service Level Agreements. My friend on the other side of the phone passionately tried to convince me why it is important to create SLAs that can tie down every aspect of the service that the outsourced service provider will deliver now or in the future. He cited many examples of how his company helped many customers “win”.

In another setting a debate was set off between CIOs on how they ensure that their service providers deliver what they promise consistently that meets the promise to the business. For more than a year, one of them has been unsuccessfully trying to get a bunch of vendors to come to the table for a discussion on creating effective SLAs. Not that the vendors are shy of the subject but collectively at the same table with multiple CIOs is not a viable proposition.

Service levels matter to everyone, the customer, the provider and the end consumer of the customer; I do not believe that deficiency of service is due to wilful behaviour or mal intent. The exception to this may be in monopolistic scenarios where no incentive exists. When it is relatively easy to switch services or move business to competition, efforts are indeed put in by the provider, the end results may however not be aligned to expectations.

The reasons why SLAs fail could be many ranging from ambiguous definition of service, staff involved in execution not being aware of quality of service expected, lack of skills on the ground, unrealistic expectations, or force majeure conditions to name a few. Irrespective of the reasons, when things do go wrong, contracts come out of the closet again to review the penalties that can be levied or avoided depending on the frame of reference. My belief is that “if-then” motivation will not deliver world class service; i.e. if SLA is met you get paid, if you better the SLA, you collect a bonus, whereas if the SLA is breached, there is a penalty.

SLAs are typically calculated on statistical data which fails to recognize business impact when the service is deficient. Creating complex SLAs that factor in all types of exception conditions makes it readable and enforceable only by lawyers and not CIOs. A SLA should illustrate the intent of partnership between the two (or more) parties. Incremental innovation or improvements are expected as much as occasional failures that could be for any of the reasons listed above. Both parties need to work together towards ensuring that they understand the root causes and work towards prevention of repeated adverse impact.

Unfortunately such behaviour is rarely seen and everyone invests significant resources towards the scripting of a document that covers all bases. End result is that the parties involved split hairs with irrational discussions thereby leaving the spirit of partnership aside. Most successful relationships are based on simple few page documents that capture the intent with the managements investing time in frequent reviews not just when things go wrong, but when they are working too.

Over the years it has been a difficult journey on this path, but it has been worth the effort. The big companies (customer as well as provider) have however yet to learn.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Industry awards for ICT Vendors

I had the privileged invite to judge ICT vendors; from a respected enterprise that gives away awards every year. This was their first attempt to form a jury to decide the awards. Earlier years the awards were decided based on size, growth, market share, and in some cases new innovations added during the previous year.

The number of award categories had grown over the years from a handful to more than double score. Thus multiple juries consisting of senior CIOs were appointed and the task was split.

Absence of customer-inputs

We got started with the understanding of categories we were to judge and the time allocated for discussions of each award. Everyone agreed and we jumped onto the first category. The nominated and shortlisted names were not a surprise.

But as we started to scratch the surface, the question came up “where is the customer dimension? How can we assess the relative merits of performance without the voice of customer?” It was evident and confirmed that over the years there was no thought given to this aspect in deciding the winner. The sound logic stated that size and/or growth demonstrate customer confidence.

The jury did not bite that. Sometimes size is a function of regulatory play, incumbency factor or better marketing machinery. Progressing through the categories, the debates took many hues; at times the shortlisted vendors were not perceived to be market leaders or worthy of an award.

In some the selection criteria of the nominations made it appear that the award was pre-decided; the deliberations had the jury wondering if these were sponsored awards being played out to gain respectability.

Truth Vs. marketing babble

Not too long ago a CIO had used social media to highlight the farce behind one of the industry awards for CIOs. In the world of scams, anything is possible. Over lunch the discussion did veer to this doubt. We were animatedly appeased by the organizers that such was not the case. They acknowledged the shortfall in data and that some criteria needed amends.

CIOs listening to vendor pitches and presentations tend to believe awards cited by the vendor. They purportedly validate the technology, solution, or service as it is assumed that experts indeed evaluated objectively across formal KPIs that matter. A few dazzling awards may appear alien but are rarely challenged. If an exotic niche publication conferred the award, so be it. Micro-segmentation works to serve a purpose. Ho hum!

Importance of being prudent

Sticking to what matters to the business is always a good starting point while selecting any vendor. The other important factors include, and not limited to, cultural alignment, success in solving similar problems, industry/ domain focus, long-term development strategy, apart from size, growth, and the awards they have accumulated.

If you are an early adopter of technology, seek safeguard that shares the risk/ reward. For others, nothing works better than peer reference, i.e. talking to existing customers.

Back to the awards, we the jury were aghast at the invisible customer angle. The high point of the day spent was a category that was denied an award in the context presented and one that got away was a lone nomination to a category that at best had a start-up as a challenger.

So next time a vendor puts up a slide or gives you a brochure with glitzy photos of awards, acknowledge them, but do remember to exercise your right to references with or without the help from the vendor.