Monday, July 25, 2011

Cost of IT versus Value of IT

The CFO has traditionally controlled the purse strings ensuring fiscal prudence to keep the enterprise healthy with adequate financial safety net. As a part of the management team the discussion and debate ensured that investments stayed aligned to overall company direction. With adequate risk controls, only in rarest of rare cases the CFO could overrule other CXOs. Recent times have been full of analysis and news that the CIO is no longer in control of the IT budget, now the CFO purportedly controls IT investment decisions.

The CIO being the youngest CXO not always by age but the role has evolved only in the last decade or so and having typically grown from a technology background was perceived to lack business acumen and unable to take all aspects into account. The majority migrated and matured with ease working lockstep with other CXOs to the benefit of the enterprise. Post slowdown “new normal” changed organizational risk appetite and with finances being scarce the CFO rose to prominence. Now with growth back on track, why is it that the CIO continues to stay shadowed considering s/he demonstrated higher changeability and adaptation to the environment.

IT budgets have stayed stable over the years with mature enterprises focusing on bringing down IT operating expense leaving the capital investments open for discussion. Corporate and IT governance provided the necessary checks and balances on where to invest. So what gives rise to the new paradigm ? Does it indicate breakdown of the balance or has the CIO relinquished his/her responsibility now satisfied to stay in the back office ? Has the foundation and partnership set by IT crumbled with cost remaining the residual reality with the value being discarded on the wayside ?

IT does incur cost; everyone is aware and acknowledges that a significant portion (40-90% depending on the enterprise, IT maturity, CIO, Board of Directors, etc.) of the budget is allocated to “Business as Usual”. Where the IT organization and its leader is unable to clearly communicate the benefits or have a dialogue with other CXOs as an equal, irrespective of the good work done, IT gets labelled as a cost thereby nullifying the efforts.

IT also delivers value to the enterprise, customers, employees and the shareholders. Sustained differentiation and competitive advantage in the near term are typically IT enabled innovation. Multiple industry IT and CIO awards, and case studies validate success clearly illustrating value. New disruptions created by mobile consumers, social online engagement, analytics, and many more would find it difficult to survive without a good IT platform and sustained focus. Is the balance shifting ?

I believe that recent times have accentuated the value of IT and have created a wider role for the CIO that goes beyond technology lead interventions. Outsourcing the operational activities has also given the IT team an opportunity to focus on what matters. The task of managing the budgets and reporting has become even more important thus creating a stronger bond between the CIO and CFO. With increasing financial acumen, the CIO and CFO are on the same side of the table with the CIO deferring the financial decisions to the CFO. This is rebalancing the equation and not a shift.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Is divergence the new convergence ?

“I use 7 screens to manage my work and life” proclaimed a Silicon Valley high ranking geek working for a big technology company. It amazed everyone on the table who had challenges with two phones, one personal and other company issued, and a laptop. 7 devices, portable and fixed comprised the stable of computing assets used across various operating systems, capabilities, synchronization with multiple systems, providing segmented information to cater to specific needs of this executive. Asked a CIO in the audience, “How do you remember which device to pick up for what purpose ?” Quipped the multi-device juggler, “Oh it’s easy …” and rattled off the work distribution.

When Smartphones made their mark with the ability to push email and SMS, it ensured that the corporate worker had no option to 24X7 work. The small screen however posed limitations on what one could achieve on the phone. As screens became larger the phone got bigger and bulkier redefining the shape and size of what was once a small pocket appendage. The good thing is that the phone never aspired to replace the clunky laptop.

The advent of the tablet a few years back had researchers proclaiming the imminent demise of the laptop; déjà vu when the laptop made its appearance. Executives love the soft keyboard on the tablet, plus the ability to scrawl and convert to text but slowly realized speed limits imposed by this input method. Keyboards found their way back connecting to tablets and then everyone wanted spreadsheets and word processors compatible with their other devices. Reading on the smartphone has evolved to allow all types of documents barring few exceptions; the tablet had to compete with the phone and the laptop.

Manufacturers are experimenting with different screen sizes, 5”, 7”, 9”, 10” with justifications on why their version makes sense to the users, while the phones now have crept to 4”. Each has found traction with a set of users, segmenting the market by activity or deemed convenience. While initially WIFI was acceptable communication channel, now 3G/4G is a necessity.

One more connected device, one more data plan to manage, the growing monthly expense is not a discussion, the ability to traverse across the screens is insatiable, which are evolving faster than (Charles) Darwin or (Gordon) Moore thought possible. The want rate is keeping pace with this and suddenly the hapless executive has multiple screens not wanting to discard the earlier one as quickly as s/he is acquiring newer ones.

Will the phone and the tablet converge in the future ? Many believe convergence is the way forward between the capabilities offered by the phone and the tablet with the new device offering the best of both worlds. Does it mean we will be able to make phone and video calls, surf the net, work on documents and applications, talk to the device, type on it as fast as we do on the humble laptop, and use it for entertainment; all this with clear demarcation and ability to segment usage as well as official and personal data.

Me thinks that it will take longer than we believe it will; maybe there are individuals who will happily put a 7” or bigger device to their ear or use it with a Bluetooth speaker, the majority will manage the convergence or divergence with multiple and live with its associated challenges.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Achieving business agility between ERP and Cloud

An intense debate between two CEOs ensued while I was listening with concentration to them; there was no debate on the need for every business to leverage technology to stay ahead of industry growth curve. Both had experienced success, but there was indeed a bone of contention. One of the leaders vehemently recounted the inability of ERP solutions and vendors to address the market dynamics. He cited many instances where the ERP vendor as well as his IT organization took longer time than business could afford; small solace that his competitors also used the same solutions and thus had similar issues.

The other CEO countered with an equal number of scenarios when the specific ERP had indeed been ahead of others. Now every ERP solution provides a complex array of parameters and settings that can be manipulated to provide functionality for most business processes. This complexity also becomes a bottleneck when any change is required. It is rarely as agile as other smaller solutions that can quickly be customized. CIOs have had difficult discussions on this aspect with Business and Vendor alike. The monolithic nature of the solutions indeed poses a challenge. Not that there are too many options, so the technology ecosystem has created multiple layers to manage the agility requirements.

Grudging acknowledgements later, both glared at me as if to validate their arguments and then turned back to each other. Before they could continue, I pitched in with thoughts on the new opportunity that has everyone confused and wondering with benefit statements ranging from better ROI to TCO, time to market, productivity, and the panacea to all ills that face every enterprise that uses technology.

This brought a smile to the face of the second CEO who began to lecture on the future being cloudy and why current IT models will no longer survive. He elucidated the benefits of the new disruptive paradigm the Cloud is and why enterprises should be embracing this. Now the other looked imploringly at me to help him and I could not refuse the request. After all I had broached the subject so I had to provide a perspective.

Differing flavours of clouds offer different value propositions; the viewpoint put across by the CEO related to Application and Software as a Service. Both offer an easy way to deploy and get started on any new business area or process. The most widely accepted scenarios are sales force automation and collaboration; for SME the benefit is limited upfront investments and no worries about managing complex technology. Beyond these mainstream business process remain firmly grounded in corporate data centres.

Irrespective of their physical location, the big ERP remains the same animal, big monolithic and complex. Separating processes like sales force or collaboration (read email, chat, etc.) does not in any way create an opportunity for agile business process alignment for the rest of the enterprise. In fact with the cloud, the base expectation is that business processes are standard and can thus be uniform across multiple companies. Clouds provide faster start points, but the change ability remains similarly constrained. A question from the audience inquired about ROI models for evaluating Clouds; that is another story for another day.

The two CEOs representing a large business house and a leading global ERP vendor acknowledged the reality and it was time to move on. The CEOs and CIOs listening to the interaction went away with both sides of the coin clear (?) to create their own agenda and discussion in their enterprises.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Preaching to the CIO

The other day I attended a congregation of CIOs with a dozen odd vendors sponsoring the event. It was a gathering of 100 odd CIOs who took time off on a Saturday to amongst other things patiently listen to the spiel. With representation across industries and a mix of senior and evolving leaders, the learning and networking potential was expected to be high. The investment of time from these leaders carving out a portion from their personal time was expected to yield reasonable value.

Now every sponsor vendor always seeks to disseminate information on their offerings and pitch their wares to every target segment. Traditionally this has taken the form of slide presentations that no one wants to hear; at times even the presenter is struggling to do justice to the content as s/he is not the creator of the slides which have in many cases lost relevance. Futile attempts to change this model of engagement have left the participants numb as they grace such time with their physical presence but rarely with the mind.

Before embarking on the merits of doing business with their company, setting the context with the audience has always been seen as a good idea; and this is what they started off with. The first one off the ground started with data from respected research companies.

What is the business reality today ? Not necessarily in order of priority, they are: expectations of growth, exploring new markets or products, driving operational efficiency, cost containment, IT lead innovation, and customer centricity. How do these impact the CIO ? The CIO is expected to be a business leader shedding off the technologist skin; s/he should transform and work with other CXOs, overturn the iceberg of IT expense by reducing the operational expenses and allocating higher amounts to new initiatives. Slides titled “Changing Role of the CIO” advised the need to wake up and get going. However, the best part was how their old offerings now enable this shift.

Storage solutions, Security service providers, system integrators offering RIMS, data centre solutions, virtualization solutions, and even network solution providers found a way to connect the dots and make the CIOs appear like cretins and kids in school who needed to be reminded of how their performance will be measured. Best part was the repetition of content with the context lifted from the same reports.

We all know that CIOs are a patient lot and do not ruffle feathers easily. But when speaker after speaker repeated the cliché, the unrest in the room began to take the shape of a mutiny. Half way through the program, sparsely occupied seats greeted the incoming speakers; those present had no interest and thus engaged each other on the table in discussions detached from the proceedings in voices loud enough to send a clear message across. Over coffee the vendors were chastised for their immature behaviour with a clear message:

We know our reality better than you ever would; we transitioned to being business leaders a long time back; however you are still trying to sell to IT Managers believing that the past is frozen. We did impact the expense line and it was not about IT expenses only which is why you believe that we are not connected to the reality. Our CEOs and other CXOs do not look at us the same way they did a decade back; they partner with us, seek our advice and work together towards the common business objectives. We are not enamoured by hardware, software, new technology, we seek to solve real life business problems, sometimes with help from technology. So, stop debating the changing role, it happened while you were busy trying to figure out why there is no traction any longer with the CIO. It is you who need to change to align to the new age CIO.