Monday, April 23, 2012

Whine, Wine, Win a deal

I don’t know how I stumbled across this blog and hundreds of comments but it had me thinking with a gaping and wide open mouth. Not that the scenario I read about does not play itself ever so often in the corporate circles; it was an open discussion on strategies to entrap the CIO to meet the next target, to close a deal, to shorten the sales cycle. There were experiences shared, discussed, fortunately no names mentioned of the vendors or the CIOs. I did pick up some good recommendations on fine dining though.

Trappings of power bring with it responsibility; with large budgets and the ability to decide in favour of one against the other, the CIO sits in a position where every vendor big or small attempts to find the winning formula to gain a good book and business. The exalted chair is expected to make a fair decision (the loser may think otherwise) to award business to the deserving and not be swayed by the drama or influenced by ill means. CIOs I know across this globe practice unshakeable integrity in decision making.

From time immemorial those wielding financial power have been sought after for favours. In the old days, after the technical evaluation, the purchase executive could turn down a decision and no one could challenge that. The power of veto was a feared weapon. Over time driven by trust and increasing penetration of IT, a shift occurred with the CIO empowered to work independently. Economic cycles shifted the decision making to where the monies lie, and the elastic nature swinging it back and forth to equilibrium quickly.

So as I read through post after post, it was an uneasy feeling to see tips and trick that have worked to snare a deal. Golf course priority bookings, tickets to matches, free vacations, gourmet dining, you name it, they had tried it. Some more than others, they found what works for whom not leaving many who resisted all temptation. Feeling queasy about this, I called a few old colleagues to chat and discussing this with them, one toppled my wine by adding anecdotes of his own.

Are decisions so easily facilitated with the lineage and vintage of wine determining the steps and time required to close the deal ? Is this working at the conscious level or the sub-conscious even when there is no coercion ? Is it wider in its reach and influence than we believe it to be ? Are we becoming slaves to a system without realizing it ? Or have we become immune to the system and now factor it in to our decision making criteria ?

I love my red wine and some good food to go with it; I have enjoyed many evenings out with friends and family. Occasionally vendors seek relaxed meetings “outside of workplace”; I know many have been careful to take a few colleagues along for comfort and keep the meeting a strict business one. It keeps the discussions easier and the environment lighter with no obligations being created on either side. A few CIOs also pick up the tab rather than leave even an iota of doubt. I would assume that each vendor would have classified data on what works and what does not for every tagged CIO.

The play now is universal; every vendor uses some leverage or other to go beyond the normal decision making cycle. Direct or indirect, these influences are here to stay as long as there are multiple vendors offering similar solutions or products. Wine and dine is part of corporate culture, the CIO and for that matter other CXOs have to work the fine line between undue influence and socially acceptable behaviour keeping their personal and corporate values above everything else.

Monday, April 16, 2012

OMG = Outsource, Manage, Groan

My CIO friend was looking glum, really glum if you know what I mean; and he is not the type who normally gets harried by issues, always cheerful, and willing to help others. He goes around telling people about thinking positive and choosing your attitude. It was surprising to see this side of his demeanour. So I asked him about the root cause of his worries.

He has always been a proponent of outsourcing over his illustrious career spanning more than two decades, more like a trendsetter than a follower. In that he had worked with outsourcing companies large and small, local and global, structuring large deals that were acknowledged and appreciated by the companies he worked for as well as the vendors. When someone needed advice on managing tricky situations or contracts, he was the person they approached.

Building on an existing contract that did well he had extended the scope of services and support for a longer tenure. Considering that the outsourcing vendor had been working with him for a long time it was seen as a natural and logical extension. There was merit and value in the deal for both sides.  It was like a no brainer deal. Going into execution he did not foresee any challenges barring the initial teething troubles when any new service is commissioned.

The slip between the lip and the proverbial cup or intent to execution started going awry very quickly. Process review and tool deployment planned, the timelines slid with consistency that was expected of improvements. Existing services that had been working well for many years also started deteriorating. Monthly review meetings attended by increasing levels of management made the right noises but delivery failed to align to commitments. Whatever happened to ITIL led SLA and global best practice ?

I was surprised to hear of his misery considering that the relationship with the vendor preceded his arrival into the company and that successful outsourcing was child play for my CIO friend. Large deals have a way of coming to life on their own; they do not always follow a predictable pattern, instead they find their own lowest common denominator in which they settle down before improvements begin. He acknowledged this hypothesis and queried how should he respond to adverse business impact or disruptions to critical business processes ?

This was discussed in the review meetings and the team said they were committed to making amends. Reality being different, he was exasperated with selective and partial information sharing. It is not the way relationships are built and sustained. What causes this gap ? I do not believe for a moment that there is mal intent present; but how to bring the train back on track ? Was it about transition from courtship to marriage predicament where partners take the relationship for granted ? The nuptial agreement spelt out everything, but … Not wanting to proffer advice to the wise, I sought his game plan.

Forget the SLA, the contract, that can come back later; it is people who make things happen. For the situation to change, the people have to be brought back to the table with a rigour to the review that sticks accountability to senior leaders and individuals. Review and monitoring by the day on the plan by everyone and change people if they are unable to run with the required speed. Keep the pressure up until they deliver or want out of the relationship. It is critical and important to keep the end objective in mind, and that is linked to business expectations and improvements.

I wished him luck and promised to connect back in a few weeks again.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Hyperconnected Executive

We live in a world of information overload, information thrust at us across all mediums; print, hoardings, building facades, transport buses, taxis, email, SMS, chat, social media, and now multiple mobile devices that wake up and stay with us until we go back to sleep. In bed, while traveling, at work, at home, with friends, in a meeting, relaxing by the beach, even while in the washroom, we are now connected, consuming, creating and contributing information to the ever growing heap.

Information overload was a term I heard long time ago when dial-up internet connectivity was just beginning to get into our homes. Suddenly the world of information opened up; over the years the quantum of information just continued to grow exponentially while technology folks created new terms to encompass the new paradigm. KB to MB took longer than MB to GB did and GB to TB to PB happened in a jiffy. Suddenly it appeared to be more than we wanted. Nostalgically, we did enjoy occasional moments of privacy with sparse cellular coverage, unaffordable handsets and obscenely high tariffs.

So when along with a few CIOs I met a learned senior consultant talking about the disruptive nature of technology innovations, it provoked an interesting debate. He outlined his theory on hyper connected information overload that every executive faces today. He postulated a world of hyper mobility where devices connected or disconnected from people receive information on the go. People consume this information and take decisions that influence business and personal outcomes. Everyone agreed and sought to look at the future. The wise man smiled and refrained from making any predictions.

The phenomenon today is driven by multiple location-aware mobile devices all connected to an ecosystem of corporate data and applications and personal/business social media interlaced with multiple apps. Thus corporate decisions are no longer only dependent on transactional or analysed data within the enterprise. This trend is increasing exponentially with buzz around Big Data which encompasses all the data. It however does not factor in the speed at which information is disseminated to the consumer of information. Are we burning the wires, read wireless, faster than we can process it ?

I do carry 3 devices (almost) everywhere with me; my laptop, my tablet and my smartphone. Across these almost all the information I need on the go is synchronized over the air. They are interchangeable and yet serve different purposes. From one line responses on the phone to approvals, dashboards and longer responses on the tablet, the laptop is still the device for writing posts like this and doing a lot of figure work with formulas or creating presentations. I know many would jump up and say all this is doable on the tablet; I personally find it easier on the laptop.

With divergence being the new convergence, it is certain that we will continue to waddle between screens; a recent study talked about multi-taskers using two or three screens connected to the same desktop computer for enhanced productivity. Really productive ? Velocity of information will continue to increase and our day will continue to shrink. We are doing more everyday thanks to technology. Our world is more productive, our companies more profitable; as individuals we see ourselves evolving faster, achieving goals quicker than we did even a decade ago. Will we ever stop ? I don’t know.

What will be the next disruption in this space ? A connected device to keep us busy while we sleep ?

Monday, April 02, 2012

Fragile relationships

Over the years CIOs and vendors have worked to forge relationships that go beyond transactional and contractual obligations. This decade long trend has strengthened some bonds in such a way that irrespective of the companies that the CIO or the vendor representative worked for, they continued to do business over the years. It reflects the adage that people do business with people.

CIOs in new assignments replace vendors with their preferred partners from the past based on comfort and the proposition that they know the people within the company; they are comfortable with the management hierarchy and the finer nuances of the organization way of working. However, such changes are occasionally disruptive to the enterprise as well as the incumbent vendors who may have enjoyed good relationships and business with the earlier CIO.

An interesting situation played itself when the sales head of a large hardware vendor (A) moved to their larger competitor (B); the customer used the solution of vendor A and the CIO was planning an upgrade or replacement. The sales head had to come back to the CIO to work in her new avatar with vendor B to sell the competing solution. Earlier as a representative of vendor A, she had advised him of the demerits of moving to the industry leader’s solution. The predicament that switched over a weekend close to signing the deal created some amusing but discomforting moments for both the CIO and the vendor.

While they enjoyed a great relationship, the CIO demonstrated maturity with fair evaluation, and technology taking precedence in the decision making criteria. In the end, the CIO did buy vendor B solution but with a clear message that the decision was fait accompli before the movement of the sales head. It was a lesson in humility for her being a large order for a marquee customer for which she could claim no credit.

In another case I found business to business connect stronger surviving changes in relationship managers over the years. The foundation was built on long standing relationship though the delivery was of acceptable quality. This relationship sustained itself while the sales team played a facilitating role managing renewal of contract and extension of service. Why do some relationships survive beyond people or organizations ? What makes some shift while others stick ? Does one have merits over the other ? How does the CIO break the chains of inertia or comfort keeping business interests paramount ?

I believe that relationships sustain themselves in a symbiotic way when the end result is win-win. When either is in a position of compromise, survival instincts will drive the path ahead. This may result in breakdown of existing relationships. Vendors need to keep a watch in such signs before they reach a breakpoint; go beyond transactions to engagement. The CIO on his/her part should constantly engage in an open dialogue with service partners to provide feedback and discuss challenges and opportunities.  It is almost like managing internal teams.

Coming back to fragility of relationships; a bird told me about a vendor warning a CIO for publicly washing dirty linen ! Now that’s a story for another day over a drink.