Monday, March 26, 2012

Business driving IT driving Business

Everyone agrees that business priorities define the IT agenda for any enterprise; the starting point is the organization business strategy, in the creation of which the CIO participates and then gets down to formulating the IT strategy that is aligned to the business objectives. It is also well understood that there are no IT projects but only business projects enabled by IT. There is no disagreement to the fact that if there is business ownership and buy-in, initiatives have better success rates when compared to projects owned and led by IT. Companies working in this framework claim higher business IT alignment or BITA.

In the current context with disruptions and changing business paradigms driven by technology, social media, mobility, every day brings new challenges and opportunities for every CXO. All of these link back to IT in some way and the responsibility rests on the CIO to help unravel the quagmire. Referentially there are many instances of wins though they do not provide the same results when replicated by others. So where is the gap ?

A recent survey on the balanced scorecard of the enterprise cascaded to CXOs revealed that in mature organizations it was difficult to differentiate between the CMO, CFO and the CIO scorecard. They appeared to mirror each other with the collective agenda being customer acquisition and retention, growth, and profitability. There was appreciation of core competency but there were no silos. Everyone had to work together to create success.

Then is the hypothesis on alignment above still relevant ? Why some of the innovation does not work with copy and paste ? What makes some organizations successful and some challenged ? In the past some of the scenarios were termed cultural or political and brushed aside; sustained success is a function of how the management team works together to support each other. When any of the functions is perceived to be first amongst equals or of lesser pedigree, then the effort required for success multiplies.

CIOs leading from the front can drive new business opportunities and models. In the case of FMCG industry, the solutions transformed the way orders were logged into the system from the field; the Pharmaceutical industry gained prescriptions using planning, targeting and reporting by the Medical Representatives on the field; retail and airlines improved customer service with queue busting. These are just a few examples of innovation driven by IT. I do not in any way take away the credit from others without their collaboration this would not have worked.

I believe that the era of alignment is passé; many CIOs have already moved beyond focus on alignment to creating new business opportunities. It is not about how IT can solve a problem but about the next leadership step driven by IT and business adapting to the new paradigm. Business no longer drives IT alone; IT has broken free of the age old postulate and is now also leading business direction. BITA and ITBA are two sides of the same coin. It does not matter which side you look at, the value remains the same.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Agile development, elongated deployment

Exchanging notes with some old friends, reminiscences of long drawn ERP or similar projects and some quick wins took us on a rollercoaster ride. Everyone had been through a couple of implementations that stretched patience and planned deployment timelines that now seem unreasonable. In those days 5-year multi-geography deployment was acceptable; after all the first implementation/deployment had to stabilize and learning imbibed before taking the next steps. Baby steps before running you know !

I remember my first ERP implementation almost two decades back that lasted almost a year; that company was the size of today’s small medium enterprise. But in those days business agility was measured in years and not in quarters or months or for that matter weeks. A decade later I was involved in a global deployment of a large back office system; we were at the tail of the global project spread over 5 years. Since the business impact was considered nominal, no one saw any issues with the 5 year cycle.

A debate then ensued attempting to answer the question that in the current uncertain world how long is long indeed and untenable ? In the age of SCRUM and hyper time sensitivity towards every change in business process or new business idea, what is an acceptable implementation plan for a project that spans multi-countries ? How long should it take to replace an ERP system or a financial accounting system across say 50 locations, each with some variances or country specific regulations or statutory reporting ? No easy answers here, I have not come across less than 3 year plans for such deployments.

It is an acknowledged fact of IT implementations that they bring about change; when we look at large scale projects, the change is always disruptive (the level of disruption varies from positive to extreme negative). The subject matter experts from the business end up with pressure of maintaining existing operations while dividing their time to project led improvements. Setting expectations and constant communication that is the hallmark of large projects rarely finds its way into the smaller innovation projects. But can this be sustained over 3-5 years ?

What about systems that are created with urgency portrayed by the business but languish in their use ? Many times IT organizations work under undue pressure to create solutions deemed critical towards continued success or to react to competition, but they end up as shelfware. Unanimous in their reality this thread triggered reactions on or lack of sign-offs. Can the CIO in such cases cite past instances and refuse to toe the line ? Probably not, the backlash of such behaviour would be extremely negative to IT.

When cloud based solutions deploy new releases, some offer customers options to use earlier versions for a short while. Not so in the case of consumer apps; when a change occurs, everyone is impacted and learns to live with the new. Why is it that we are willing to accept the change in our personal space but abhor it in the corporate environment ? Is it because that the stakes are higher or the risk averse nature of the corporate world ?

I believe the answer is in our ability to switch off and move to another in the personal space, which is not even a dream in the enterprise. If the production planning or financial accounting were to face issues post an implementation or change/upgrade, our ability is limited to rollback and not to explore new options at that time. But I am hoping there will be a day when what applies to our personal needs will also be good for the enterprise. Then the CIO will have to work harder to stay in the same place.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Story Teller CIO

Last week I was at a CIO conference with 80 odd CIOs representing junior and senior CIOs across verticals. Amongst other sessions, fun and networking, some vendor sales pitches, the big draw was a small contest run by the organizers titled “My success story”. It was more than elevator pitch but less than a full presentation with each CIO allotted six minutes to talk about their learning on value creation, innovation, strategy, transformation, BITA, leadership lessons or anything else.

The breadth of options provided enough latitude to the participants to choose anything they would like to talk about, the idea being that success has no one formula but everyone achieves success in their own way. The participants had to send in their briefs in advance with a panel shortlisting six CIOs. Given the average work experience being over 20 years, the audience anticipation level was quite high. Selection of winners was based on an audience vote.

The second (I will come back to the first) one got off the ground talking about leadership and teamwork stressing on the qualities the CIO needs to imbibe. He acknowledged team contribution but stressed that the CIO makes the difference. The key message a good team with a bad leader will fail where a bad team with a good leader has a better chance of success. Ahem. A credible start with a weak finish sans examples did not get him many votes.

The next set of CIOs took a different approach. They struggled to create the magic moment and talk about their winning formula; everyone knew that all the speakers had achieved reasonable success in their long and illustrious careers. So where was the disconnect ? These CIO leaders presented specific project success stories, a point technology solution in the recent or distant past that they were proud of.

Few were almost like a vendor sponsored case studies. Slide after slide talked about technology and benefits accrued from the projects. Can the implementation of unified communication or video surveillance or for that matter business process management even if they contributed to savings or productivity enhancements, be classified as great success ? The stories faltered to bring out leadership aspects of the individuals and portrayed them as good IT CIOs falling short of the benchmark business CIO. They failed to capitalize the opportunity.

So let me come back to the first speaker with no slides or presentation; the CIO spoke with a conviction that had the audience in attention. He spoke about a journey through the years graduating from IT Manager a long time back to the title of the CIO. He discussed many milestones crafted with the help of the teams, not just IT teams, but business and vendors too. He provoked the audience with questions. The extract below based on my notes from his speech is given below.

Over the years I decided to let go, the team was given responsibilities that helped them grow; in their initial years they needed handholding, or feedback, or just a bouncing board to help them understand how they are doing. Not all initiatives succeeded, the team took the learning and shared across to fail faster. This approach has seeded many leaders who are today successful CIOs in many companies across the globe. I can count more than a dozen such team mates who worked with me who have been able to also pass this learning within their own teams thereby multiplying the talent pool.

Success is always a result of teamwork; the leader needs to give the team freedom to take decisions. When they succeed credit goes to them, when they do not, the leader takes the responsibility for lack of success. Such teams rarely need to be reminded of what matters, they rarely let the leader down. My legacy today lives with most of such team members who are shining bright.

No guesses for who won the contest. Maybe everyone is doing this; however, we need to be better story tellers.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Reskilling for future

Every so often I read about the CIO role becoming redundant or the exigent need to adapt to the changing world. These thoughts and hypothesis are triggered by some disruptive trend in enterprise IT or some research house or professor based on their data arriving at conclusions. A lot of discussion and debate ensues with many CIO rebuttals and an equal number running scared to save their positions. Is the CIO placed in such a fragile footing that can be dislodged with such ease ?

So I started some research of my own reaching out to many peers to find out if they know anyone within their circles extending all the way to the famed six degrees of separation who was ousted due to any such tech or social trend which creates the hoopla. Spanning the globe and attempting to create correlations between technology lead trends and CIO movements, over the last year I have not yet found even one occurrence.  My conclusion was that there could be two hypothesis based on the data.

First, the CIOs took the challenges in their stride and integrated the disruptions in their own ways into their ecosystem. Depending on the industry, geography, size, market standing, profitability to name a few attributes, the CIOs adapted to the change and created equilibrium. Not too many CIOs of today are from the COBOL/Mainframe era, but many have traversed from Client-Server and 14.4 kbps modems to the current multi-screen hyper-connected mobile world.

The second hypothesis is that all the propaganda is created by attention seeking paranoid people who either want to make some money out of selling prescriptions to cure the nemesis or just hate the CIO. Umpteen attempts are made to sell their version of snake oil; and unfortunately a few end up succumbing to the FUD factor. This adds fuel to the noise until a new black swan is found and the cycle repeats itself.

Every role evolves with times; the triggers differ depending on the role. In the same period in which the CIO role evolved, the CFO role too changed from pure accounting to treasury management, compliance, and investor relations. No one discussed ad infinitum expectations or created models for change. In fact some CFOs also transitioned to becoming CEOs and so have a few CIOs in recent times. The factor by which pages have been filled with advice for the CIO to the CFO would surprise even the most outrageous guesstimate.

Darwin’s theory of evolution applies to every species; the same applies to a role or function too in the corporate world. Everyone has to adapt to change; for survival the species has to learn to embrace the new environment. Like the CFO did, the CIO has learnt to thrive in the chaos, sometimes revelling in it. Recent economic upheavals endowed the role of change agent on many CIOs. A few exceptional ones who did not live up to the challenge withered away into obscurity.

I believe that irrespective of the theme of the month, season or year, the perennial skill that will always stand good with every CXO is dexterity with business. Whether it is the internet, mobile, social media or commerce, micro to nano blogs, fads will come and go. Enterprises and business will acclimatize to some, sidestep a few, and struggle with the rest. The adaptive CIO will endure the onslaught, the unyielding will fade away into ignominy. The choice is there to make.