Monday, February 27, 2012

Strategic sourcing, pathetic delivery

The poor fellow was looking harrowed after week long meetings sans his CIO with the big global IT services company with whom the company had entered into a long-term strategic services contract. Six months having passed since the signing of the contract, he was wondering whether the decision can be changed or penalties levied for not meeting commitments, the contract protected the vendor in the transition phase. The presales team which was a permanent fixture in the office earlier was now trying to avoid coming to the meeting very well knowing the situation not being favourable.

Over a year of courting, discussions, negotiations and going over a long legal contract, it was a sigh of relief for the vendor and the enterprise when they did sign off the deal. As all strategic sourcing deals go, there was an expectation of maintaining business as usual with improved efficiency and lower cost; then move on to transformation driven by tools and technology which was the investment promised by the vendor. Over the decade of relationship, it was expected that there would be efficiency of scale, savings on the table, and investments in innovation with global benchmarking.

The big team arrived soon enough to transition services and fit or change existing processes into their framework, which they managed with some difficulty. Within a few months unable to scale up to diverse needs across locations, changes in the management team were enforced and that brought welcome improvements though not commensurate to expectations. The first big review meeting was a shocker for everyone. Some milestones achieved, lot of work in progress way past due dates, a few endpoints seemed a long way off; the CIO who was well known for his patient handling of crisis lost his cool.

To begin with interpretations of clauses done by the execution team were in conflict to understanding while drafting them into the contract. Stretched timelines became super-stretched timelines; senior consultants attempted to provide solace with no Plan B in case success eluded the team. The High tension meeting resulted in change of pace and “compromise” in favour of the customer. With new timelines cast, the pressure was on everyone; avoidable pressure as agreed by everyone present.

Why does delivery rarely match presales promises or timelines ? Are sales teams preconditioned to sell unreasonable timelines or commitments to bag orders from unsuspecting and gullible customers ? No, I am not calling the CIO names, but admiring the ability of the sales teams to sometimes get away with untenable contracts. I am also bewildered at the ability of delivery teams to squarely make a hash of even normal service delivery expectations. What causes history to repeat itself in almost every engagement ?

In this case, the CIO summed the case up with one phrase “lack of consistent communication across the ecosystem”. The presales team did not spend adequate time taking the transition team through each and every clause and expectation. The delivery team found significant differences on the ground to their assumptions which required change. The project lead busy fighting fire every day forgot that consistent communication is essential to setting expectation, managing perception and finally success.

I believe that it does not always matter what you do; what matters is how you communicate what you have done or planning to do. No news is not good news when everyone is expecting some change. Otherwise strategic sourcing will become a big tactical pain where real life experience defines success.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hyper or Mediocre IT ?

The number of IT professionals taking on to consulting after multiple changes are increasing. A lot of them were considered high potential when they worked within corporate IT functions. Some of them were also CIOs who chucked their cushy jobs to explore entrepreneurship. I started tracking down some of them to find what made them take such a step. The answers were surprising and not so surprising when analysed rigorously.

Now consider that in recent times the lament gaining popularity is the inability to find good talent; with global competition and willingness to relocate, good professionals are always in demand. And the good ones always find it easy to bag the next opportunity. That being the case, why is it that CIOs are struggling to hire and retain good talent ?

Every manager or leader has one key benchmark when interviewing people; it is they themselves. We hire people based on our own competencies. Most (fortunately not all) managers want to hire staff with equal to or lower skills than themselves especially for senior positions. Maybe it is their perception of threat to their own positions; maybe it is a low risk model when you know that the person will not be disruptive by challenging the managers’ decisions. This manager wants to know everything and be part of every meeting thereby becoming the bottleneck to progress. S/he feels insecure when new solutions are presented by others which impact his domain.

A great way to maintain status quo or keeping the lights on; in this case the CIO will perennially be challenged and discuss BITA (Business IT Alignment). The team at best delivers mediocrity and is relegated as a support function with limited participation in activities outside of their function. Organization culture too contributes to this state compounded by the CIO not reporting to the CEO. I have seen good CIOs get out of such companies as soon as they could.

Now, when you look at high performance teams, the leader acknowledges the need for diversity and challenging status quo. S/he has always hired different skillsets and encouraged open innovation. One of my observations was that these leaders define the direction and then get out of the way leaving the teams to soar to new heights. They do not micro-manage, they facilitate and encourage the team. Making mistakes is acceptable, repeating them is not. Attrition is normally low.

I believe that to create a winning team and not an also ran, the CIO needs to balance command and control with empowerment. Everyone does not need close supervision; neither can everyone be left to do their own thing. Delegation is good; however delegation does not imply abdication of responsibility. Incorrectly delegated work can lead to challenges and success denied; the CIO should own up to equal share of success and failure. After all you cannot be the father of success and know no failures.

An old adage, “People join organizations, people leave their bosses” holds true today more than ever. It is not an Oscar award speech but many leaders acknowledge their teams as the reason for their success when felicitations come the way of winning teams. The team too holds no grudges against the leader who is held high in trust and respect. The new age CIO is making these choices, are you one of them ?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Long tail of IT apps

For most companies that got started with their IT journey in the era of the mainframe, their journey through the evolution of technology created problem of the plenty. Client-server was a favourite for department apps, and the browser made proliferation easier beyond the department. With X-base it was easy to create small specific purpose apps; even users could churn some code that soon turned mission critical. The ERP attempted to consolidate all processes and apps, but most survived the onslaught citing unaligned ERP processes or mission critical status. The cloud now adds to the complexity by making it easier for new apps to flourish.

Every company thus maintains consultants (sometimes ex-employees who developed the apps or maintained them before retiring), vendor relationships, or deadweight to sustain the process these apps enable. Esoteric technologies requiring some antiquated infrastructure continually escapes the axe whenever renewal is discussed. Proportionately, larger the company, bigger the number of apps it has. Examples that I have observed include more than 40 instances of core ERP; another proclaimed build-up of 8000 apps over a 25 year legacy. Many did the same thing for different people using different technologies, but neither wanted to change to the other.

How do these apps defy all attempts at eradication and survive even the strongest attempt to weed them out ? Their patron saints are strongly entrenched in the corporate labyrinth and any change is touted as disruptive to the business. The CIO after a few attempts gives up in favour of bigger battles to fight with higher business impact thus leaving the long tail of applications wagging the IT function more often than pleasant. Thus many people within the enterprise continue to exist to keep the machinery chugging despite options of a better way of life.

An interesting phenomenon was recently narrated to me by a much acclaimed CIO of a well-known and progressive company when his users started defending a not so good a system. This app was a sore point with the functional owner as well as the IT folks with an unusable interface and complex execution of processes. Everyone hated it and it attracted jest and ire in every management meeting. With no change being pushed from the function, the CIO finally decided to do something about it and started an initiative to replace the solution. This is despite the fact the new app offering a significantly superior experience and ease of administration.

Is this only about change management or is the issue much larger ? I believe that the CIO should task some of his/her team members to systemically go behind the hidden long tail apps to wipe them off. When they are working, no one is complaining; they give sleepless nights to IT when they fail. Is there an easy way out ? No, so keep on pushing, nothing good came out of staying put and maintaining status quo. Change is always difficult, but change is the only constant.

If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Rotten Eggs

The craze for new gadgets and devices appears to be growing day by day. Emotions run high for some iconic devices and brands where people are willing to endure cold nights and mornings waiting for the store to open. The queues are visible across countries, so it is a global epidemic. These are normal consumers vying with the technophiles to be the first to own the product !

I own multiple devices including a few from the company in discussion, but never stood in queues to be amongst the first, though I know a few who did. I have always waited for a couple of revisions or generations to pass by before acquiring the new iconic device; the primary purpose seems to be to be seen displaying it prominently or announcing it by the footer in the email.

I get carried away; this is not about new devices or the long queues, but about rotten eggs. In China, fans threw rotten eggs at the stores when the company announced to teeming crowds who queued up for long hours that they will not be selling the much awaited device; for the security of their customers who turned up in large numbers, proclaimed the announcement. Did they come armed with eggs waiting for the store to open ?

The incident triggered many wild thoughts. Is the idea extensible to other irritating behaviors from say IT vendors who take the community for a ride ? What if every time there is a breach of trust, can I shower the vendor sales or support teams with choicest tomatoes (I am vegetarian you know) ? Is this a feat worth emulating when projects do not meet timelines or when basic requirement misunderstanding by ignorant consultants becomes a change request ?

It does have finality to the statement it makes. If I don’t like the outcome I am going to demonstrate my ire.  Sil-vouz plait, it may aggravate the situation, but it does create a warm, fuzzy and a lighter feeling to have vented out the frustration and anger. Will the slinging match create a better relationship between the CIO and the other parties ?

Last week, working on a post contract changes to some service delivery benchmarks, I had an urge to pelt a lot of stuff on the negotiating party. My primal fantasy had to be suppressed to stay within defined corporate behavior and work on the issues step by step steering it towards desired outcomes. Civilized acceptable behavior does not provide latitude to hurl objects when events do not take the turn we desire; even when the consumerization of devices brings unwelcome distractions.

Relationships are built over a period of time, but they can be strained for a long time in an unguarded moment. This applies to any relationship, peers, bosses, team, vendors, family, and friends. CIOs forge relationships possibly with a larger set in comparison to some of their peers. Success is highly dependent on setting and managing realistic expectations. Service delivery and change management are key tenets of the IT agenda.  

After all we don’t want to be at the receiving end of the rotten eggs.