Monday, December 26, 2011

The Power-centric CIO

My marketing team is wresting part of my budget of customer facing applications and social media; at the same time funding for the new budgeting application is with my finance team. The IT budget is now almost 50% of what it was last year. How do I recover back control of my budget ? Wailed a CIO in a panel discussion, which was discussing amongst other things trends that are likely to be reality in the upcoming year.

The panel sympathized with the protagonist CIO and a few from the audience attempted to offer solutions. The debate threw up a interesting thoughts on how the budgetary control could be retained with IT. Ranging from bureaucratic rigmaroles to bullying and many other similarly trending behaviors, the suggestions were analyzed and discarded as untenable for either being against core values or not implementable without inflicting self-damage.

The IT budget has been a discussion point for some time now. It predicted the investments made by companies on technology enabled solutions. The industry created benchmarks around the investments linking it to the topline graded by industry. The maturity of IT usage was linked to this figure and anyone spending below the benchmark was seen as a laggard or highly efficient.

Then came research reports on innovation versus business as usual; ranging from 70% - 90% of the IT budget being consumed on keeping the lights on, while the remaining pittance being allotted to new projects or innovation. Anyone with BAU numbers under 60% was envied and deemed better aligned to the business. Models were created to turn the ratio upside down and reduce the operational budgets to strategic initiatives.

Economic cycles threatened available monies and CIOs were put under the scanner on every penny (or cent or whatever currency you like) they spent. Do more with less was the mantra and that is now the new normal. Every disruptive technology was seen as the next silver bullet to help the CIO in improving the dialogue on keeping the IT budget to a respectable ratio to the revenue. Cloud will save money, move everything to Operating Expense; virtualization will save the enterprise IT …

In one of the companies I worked the IT organization was empowered with the operating expense budget and incremental innovation on existing technology stacks. There was a discretionary budget for exploration of new trends and technology. New projects and initiative budgets were discussed with the business and IT advised the funding requirements which rested in the business P&L. This ensured that the accountability for the projects was an equal responsibility shared between IT and the function. The success rate was high and everyone loved IT. Since then I have followed this practice successfully in every company.

I believe that keeping the number in the CIO spreadsheet or the business spreadsheet does not take away the control from either. Mature enterprises and CXOs work together to solve real business problems and not bicker over where the budget lies. When was it about control or the power of the budget, large or small ? If the CIO is partnering with other CXOs and is focused on the corporate agenda, then it is about getting things done irrespective of where the number lies.

Does this insecurity befit the CIO ?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Unraveling BYOD/T

The one trend that everyone is talking about and which figures on every list (priorities, trends, technology, whatever) is Bring Your Own Device/Technology. It has had proponents and opponents from various quarters within and outside the enterprise. Opinions and views, recommendations and pitfalls, management tools and security concerns, the list is endless and continues to keep the CIO bewildered irrespective of whether s/he embraces BYOT or not.

From what I recollect, it all started with the iPhone and then extended to tablets, laptops, and what have you. Not that earlier personal devices did not connect to the corporate network; they did on the wire and then over the air, if you will remember devices with a technology called “activesync”. The early phones offered limited connectivity and as the network improved and so did the technology, browser based apps started appearing. The resident app followed soon enough.

I don’t remember all the devices that I used over the last decade and longer being provided by the company; which would imply that we did have a lenient policy even before the BYOT buzz appeared and started haunting every technology professional. The early PDA which eventually integrated the phone had limited use and was not widely prevalent due to unwieldy size and interface. Except for the early large form factor devices, it was not a statement to make.

Evolution of the device and the network created new possibilities and the scattered raindrops became a flood; apps for everything and power in the hands of the executive with no constraint on time. Business impatience became the hallmark of new technology deployment to swamp all available and unavailable time. The CIO built layers of infrastructure, applications and security to manage the demand. It did not matter who or how many used it; if it was possible, then it had to be available.

The democratization of information worried only the CIO until stories of compromise started spreading. Compromise not always by the external world, but bits of information scattered across slowly fading away with exits, ignorant employees losing devices or passing hands within the family. Enterprise liability driven by law and governance suddenly finds itself at loggerheads with BYOT.

Depending on the country of incorporation and most probably operation, the laws require stringent compliance. BYOT contravenes some with liability creation for not just the CIO but the CEO and even the global HQ. A cyber law expert thrust the fear of the law of the land to listening CIOs who cringed with every clause and interpretation of impact to the executives and the enterprise.

So what are the choices available ? Will the CEO not want the next new device on the block to be connected to the corporate infrastructure ? Does s/he not evaluate the ramifications to the enterprise ? Is ignorance a good excuse ? I believe that the CIO needs to raise the bar with heightened awareness starting with the Board and then cascading downwards. It takes only once incidence to create collective pain. CIOs can address the contingent liability with reasonable due diligence, control and documentation to dampen down the impact.

It is not going away, but what it means to you is up to you. BYOT = Bring Your Own Trouble, or BYOD = Bring Your Own Demise, or BYOD = Bring Your Own Destiny, or BYOT = Bring Your Own Tension, or BYOT = Bring Your Own Threat, or BYOD/T = ? You decide !

Monday, December 12, 2011

Finding alternatives

The bewilderment was visible to everyone who even glanced at the face; not that too many people were in the room, but everyone could clearly see the expression on the face of the Chairman. The trigger was the suggestion that the big ERP that has worked well for almost a decade should be discarded in favor of another one. The animated voice and high throughput beyond the normal diction made it difficult to comprehend the entire story. So I slowed down my friend the CIO of a fast growing enterprise and asked him to begin from where else, but the beginning.

Over the last year or so there was a rumbling of discontent about the lack of adequate support and the rising cost of licenses and annual support. The problem was brought to the forefront when after a version upgrade necessitated by end of support announcement, the system started behaving abnormally with earlier functioning features now working differently. Stability took a long time to achieve.

On the other side another function was struggling to support the continuously increasing license and support costs. The thought of additional functionality and modules was abandoned upon hearing the new licensing norms. This indeed creates a difficult scenario for the CIO and the CXO to contemplate the future. As the company grows, how to ensure that the efficiencies gained thus far are not lost ? How to control the ever increasing burden of Business As Usual ? The ratios of BAU to new initiatives were in favor but slowly sliding.

So the CIO called his team and started exploring alternatives. Can the already good discounts from the vendor be improved upon ? Is it possible to move away from per user license to something better ? What if we exclude a section of employees from the technology solution ? Would the enterprise technology architecture become complex if multiple solutions were deployed ? Would the cloud make any difference to the outflow ?

That is how the recommendation came up that the current technology stack be replaced with a competing product which offered (at least on paper) better TCO. And the CIO decided to raise the question with the management which led to the scenario above. The CIO had done his homework by talking to the respective functions and gaining their grudging nods. But the scale of change scared everyone.

We all know that change is not something anyone likes despite whatever pains may be currently plaguing the process, function or enterprise. It takes a lot of effort to even get the idea to gain traction. We discussed the merits and pitfalls of the proposal and agreed that there is no easy way out. The change will be transformational also providing an opportunity to kill a few “this is the way it is done here” kinds of processes. The TCO over the next 5 years with the projected growth did indeed demonstrate more than 30% reduction.

Reinvigorated the CIO agreed to push ahead armed with confidence that he was on the right track and that the change agenda will indeed benefit the enterprise in the long run. Would you do the same if faced with this challenge ?

Monday, December 05, 2011

The list price conundrum

With the economy tightening again and uncertainty across geographies, enterprise spending is once again under focus; this is giving rise to some interesting discussions. Driven by the CFO, CEO, and CIO who are exploring deferred investments or the usual doing more with less, the discussions translate into unrealistic (as griped by vendors) expectations from suppliers, vendors and partners to provide goods and services at higher discounts.

Result is rounds of moaning and groaning from either side citing their versions of reality and pushing the limit beyond the last transaction. The promise of future and making up the deficit in the long term does bend most; few who do not oblige sometimes are rewarded and more often it is an opportunity lost. The resultant business creates suspicion if earlier everyone was enjoying higher margins than they should.

In the IT world, I never heard of anyone paying list price on anything that they bought. In normal times discount levels used to range from the nominal 10% to in many cases as high as 70%. It was a rare one time transaction that enjoyed higher numbers. The list price was a marker to decide whose need was higher and who had more patience. Month end, quarter end and year ends provide opportunities offering higher levels of business and discounts. Again almost everyone recognizes this and plays the game.

In the last slowdown or recession depending on which part of the world or which industry you belonged to, a few companies breached 90%. There are anecdotes about free solutions being provided to a few marquee customers either as an entry price or to sustain business. Free is a paradigm shift though the way some vendors are hiking their annual maintenance charges, free does not seem too unreasonable considering that in 3-5 years you have paid as much as the initial acquisition cost.

So why do vendors continue to print a list price which has irrational numbers and then offer a discount ? Maybe to acquiesce human nature which revels on a deal ? Purchase managers and CIOs work on reducing prices every year. Volume typically adds to the discount but is not the only determinant. Benchmarking across the geographies I find that the level of discount rises from west to the east and then again slides with India and China being the trough. Despite this trend, I haven’t seen a gold rush to shift license contracts from other countries to take advantage.

The current uncertainty has once again brought budgets into focus. Slowdown in customer spending is already impacting retail consumption and thereby every industry. Going into budget sessions, the expectation is to once again lower expenses and investments. We still have inflationary trends is many countries and wages are going up for some, while cost of living continues to go up. But the question that haunts me is if there is indeed so much of buffer that every time the challenge is thrown, people find a way of adjusting to new baselines, then how did the same people allow higher expenses in easier times?

As goes the proverb, “Mother is the necessity of invention”, I believe that with every challenge new opportunities are explored and leveraged on operational efficiency. Technology evolution with new disruptions contributes to improvements; return ratios are however reducing and we are reaching a point where the stretch will reach a break point. We will achieve the pit bottoms sooner than later; the list price will then have to change. Whether it will go up or down is another debate.