Monday, May 28, 2012

IT, BT, whatever, does it matter ?

Almost a decade back I remember a company that after spending a large amount of money with consultants going through the whole nine yards and then some more recommended rechristening the IT department Business Technology. It was a move driven out of the aspiration to stay ahead of the crowd and differentiate. The BT group was different from Corporate IT and a few other IT groups within the enterprise; they were the elite. This was in the era when IT was just beginning to gain acceptance.

This large and diversified company was written about; the bold move spawned research papers and everyone acknowledged that the future belonged to Business Technology. Slowly over a period of time the internal customers of this group started asking the question, old wine in a new bottle still tastes the same; where is the change in attitude, delivery, partnership, innovation, all the good stuff that was promised and expected. Whatever happened to the Vision and Mission ? Interestingly the leader retained the title of CIO and not CBTO. Maybe she did not want to tell a story.

Then I met another IT leader of a successful company who gave me a twist in the story. He had named his function STT. With me lost trying to decipher the TLA, he proudly unveiled the mystery with the logic: we create solutions; they are a lot more than hardware, software and networks. However whatever we do has a common underlying Technology framework. Solutions are holistic and do not constrain the thinking process. So our team is aptly known as Solutions & Technology Team. Ahem ! Many years later the poor chap is lost in wilderness; he stressed more on the middle T than the first S.

In recent times there have been many discussions and debates on the changing role of the IT leader; some of them concluded with recommendations that the title CIO is no longer relevant and the role as it stands today will no longer exist in the next XX years (fill in whatever number you like). So, the name should be changed to reflect the new reality. Suggestions cover the entire alphabet soup with rationale based on not the CIO but the proposer’s frame of reference.

Does it matter what the function is called ? Do semantics make a difference ? Will the reality be different for the involved stakeholders depending on the nomenclature ? How much does the name contribute to reality and success ? Can an IT department transform itself with a new name ? Is a change required with every changing technology trend and business evolution (would you like to be called Chief Cloud Officer) ? I am not proposing going back to the historical EDP, but IT today represents to a large extent the sum of the parts that make us.

Success is a result of great attitude and not the other way around; I believe that individuals and leaders portray themselves based on past track record and the engagement that they are able to create. The IT team collectively mimics the behaviour of the leader. This paradigm is true for all functions and no different for IT. CIOs should stop getting distracted by these irrational and irrelevant thoughts and focus on what matters to them, their teams, their customers (internal), and their customer’s customers (external).  

After all the best measure of success is success itself.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Legally Illegal

Last year was a very difficult year for most software companies with slowdown in new licence sales that brought in a negative trend in new business revenue. This happened very quickly after the globally experienced slowdown a few years back compounding the issue. This had all software vendors almost like acting in unison deciding to engage their existing customers in licence audits. If you cannot get new revenues, let’s squeeze some juice out of existing lemons.

So these engagements began to look all over the place; the data centres, servers hidden under tables, desktops converted to servers for a simple test or proof of concept, users created though inactive, resigned employees not deactivated, it did not matter what the event was, if there was an user identity or a database, or an instance of the application, it needed to be licenced. Office automation and other fringe app vendors joined the fray and added to the already harried CIOs blood pressure.

No debate that licence compliance is non-negotiable; licences for software or product or package used for the enterprise that in any way impacts a business process. Most vendors allow disaster recovery to be setup at nominal or no extra investment as long as it is not used conjointly with the production environment. That looks like a good principle though some complicate matters based on number of days used even when the primary was down and not operational.

Some also allow test and development instances to be setup; interestingly most do have a licencing policy that charges the customer, however most sales teams shy away from highlighting this fact during the pre-sales discussions or even when the purchase order is received. Instead they give the CIO a fine printed legal document to sign without pointing out to the salient points that the customer needs to be aware of. I don’t know of CIOs who read those wonderful documents; it’s like pressing “I accept” when we enrol to a new website or app.

So far still so good as each instance expects the customer to get into an engagement with eyes and ears open; the principle being we gave you the full documents, you read and sign or you don’t read and sign, that is a choice. The discussion gets interesting when new or additional licences are required even if a line of code is changed or added to any screen, form or report or an add-on deployed. This now attracts additional investment, sometimes a lot more than bargained for. Now that is hitting below the belt !

If I may add, the same vendors participate during the pre-sales gap analysis and bid and quote for customizations through their consulting arms vying for implementation business. But no mention that if the customer did end up customizing, then … This aspect of licencing is rarely discussed if at all and mostly comes up during licence audits leaving the CIO gasping for life. The management demands that the CIO know all this as it is his/her job to know and manage the vendor.

Page number XX, clause YY, sub-clause ZZ in the sales agreement is cited as the reference for the new demand. Read it and if you can figure it out differently let us know; else here is the bill of material and the timeline in which you need to buy. Consequences you know are not something you want to talk about. Sheepish acceptance and wows to be more careful and read all the fine print is normal behaviour; the management takes a not-so-kind view but goes ahead with the devils choice.

Why does this charade repeat itself globally with many vendors, some more than others ? It does not matter which industry, which country or geography, size of the customer (in fact the bigger the better as they are averse to the publicity it draws), this is becoming one of the relationship breakers between the impacted CIO and the vendor. Stories of these are rarely published by publicity shy individuals and enterprises. Is there a way out ?

I believe there isn’t an easy way out; negotiating from a compromised position does not get any great deals; neither does it do wonders to CIOs careers. Whether they like it or not, CIOs have to get more diligent in their approach to legalese and contracting. As the markets saturate and mature, read changes to changing end user contracts and/or licensing terms. You never know what impact it has on your company.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Being Busy

I was recently reading a survey on how CIOs divide their time between activities; internal customers, external customers, vendors, management and business meetings, staff review meetings, fighting fires, responding to emails, learning new technologies, and attending a host of IT events. CIOs are a busy lot, they have to balance all this with some time also to be allotted to their families.

So I started talking to a few CIO friends to understand what keeps them busy through the day. It was an interesting revelation; the CIO keeps business running as usual, the networks, the servers in the data centre, distributed architecture in many cases, information security, and plethora of applications that keep the business alive, new projects that business wants and some that the CIO feels are necessary even when business does not care. There are off course the urgent yet sparsely defined requirements for changes, the IT team and finally the IT vendors.

I am not even getting into new trends that promise disruption to the existing landscape; the flavour changes frequently. Not in any particular order they have been the Internet, Business Intelligence and Datawarehousing, Mobile computing, Thin Clients, Work anywhere, Cloud Computing, Social Media, Big Data, Virtualization, Advanced Persistent Threats, mobile commerce, ad infinitum. Educating and managing expectations across all the hype along with running IT operations; all in a day’s work !

So one of the pet peeves that I heard is that there is no time for any discretionary work, little time to sit back and think about the strategic direction IT should be taking, no time to engage with other CXOs and end customers to work on the innovation agenda, no time to mentor/coach the team which looks up to the CIO for direction, no time to educate self on what could be the next disruption to their business. No time for the stuff that they enjoy.

Are CIOs any different from other CXOs who also have to balance variety of similar but dissimilar tasks ? Every leader within the enterprise has to stay abreast with the industry, the economy and how it impacts the company’s market position; what interventions will make a difference. At the same time they are expected to manage internal and external perceptions while leading and managing the team to create success. Successful CIOs I know do this every day.

A very large conglomerate CEO abhors the lack of time cited by every busy executive; his group of companies are well respected for their market leadership and value creation. Almost everyone in his companies leaves the workplace before the sun sets. His mantra ? If you cannot complete your work within the stipulated time, then either you are incapable, inefficient, or your manager/boss does not know how to allot and divide work within the team.

In many companies, busyness is also a well fuelled perception; culturally these companies encourage activity and spending time beyond working hours. It then becomes a race to be seen late evenings and even nights to say I was busy; don’t leave before the boss is a way of life. Perpetual state of motion does not guarantee outcomes. Don't tell me how hard you work; tell me how much you get done. I have lived by this maxim and it has worked for me.

I believe that every leader including the CIO needs to empower, delegate and let go of tasks and focus on outcomes. In the end what matters are results ! Manage time and don’t live by the clock. Prioritize the important and the urgent based on the impact. Your becoming indispensable to the company is bad for you and the company. It will stunt your growth opportunities and also give you no time.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Business ready to invest

I liked the rhyme in the words as I read the headline; it is poetic in a way that in contrast many research companies are telling us CIOs that one of your top 5 priorities is to save cost. I still cannot figure out who collates the results and what kind of solutions they use to determine the results, there has always been an outlier that no one agrees with; this includes many who participated in the survey. So when I saw the news about business wanting to spend on IT, it was like an oasis and the heart wished it was real and not a mirage. After all many businesses I know have been investing extensively.

Over the years we have been hearing the maxim, “Do more with less”, almost to the extent that it has become “the normal”. I cannot remember a year when the CEO and/or CFO did not repeat the phrase chiding the proposed budget for being irresponsible. The banter is part of the negotiation between the CIO and the custodians of profitability. The underlying assumption was and now in some cases still is that CIOs are far removed from reality and they leave stuff like profitability and ratios to other CXOs.

Reading through the lines it was evident that the data points that went into the writers’ hypothesis were of strong foundation. She had industry slices and geographical splits with numbers that were plausible. Interviews with stakeholders validated her statistical inferences citing willingness to invest in IT solutions that provide market advantage or capability needed for growth or to stay where they were. Melodious music to ears with slowly creeping nagging cynicism; if it is too good to be true, then probably …

So I dug deeper, followed the links, unearthing the evidence that has continued to elude respectable research companies professing the contrary, save or die. Having got conditioned to a message, it was hard to believe that there someone has been brave to talk about reality the way it is. The sample size more than adequate to withstand scrutiny, the data irrefutable; some may wonder if she connect with CIOs and CEOs from another planet ?

The conclusion was associated with a reasonable set, there were many who still lived in the old world of cost. Progression of CEOs showed IT investment trend line going north. The winners subset depicted converging thoughts between CEO, CFO and CIO, the bulging middle some alignment, and the laggards a big divide. The number of believers in IT is growing and they are happy to talk about their success. The author had decided to focus on good news with a positive bias that was growing than the statistically larger group which is shrinking, albeit slowly. Hallelujah !

We all live under the same sky but have different horizons. Over the last decade and more across industries surviving a rollercoaster economy, many CIOs have been able to create a perceptible shift in thinking wherever they go. These are the business savvy, technology aware, articulate and confident set of CIOs who bring success like the Midas touch (if you prefer a more contemporary analogy, I would compare them to X-Men). The tribe of these outliers is increasing; shortly they will be the majority and it is evident they will shape the future.

Are you a part of this assertive movement ? Come join the joyride !

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Risk is a 4 letter word

It was a conference of supply chain heads who had gathered to discuss and debate their collective future. The themes revolved around agility, efficiency, constraints and opportunities; all in a day’s work for a CSCO or a Chief Supply Chain Officer. I was invited to talk about IT lead supply chain innovation and why CSCOs need to partner with their CIO to be successful. It was a good feeling that other functions are looking at IT and their CIO to help them win.

The conference agenda was similar to what CIOs typically see in an IT event; a few vendor sponsors who want to sell their wares, in this case warehouse automation solutions; select IT vendors pitched in to discuss Warehouse Management and Transport Management Systems. Then there were a couple of luminaries from the supply chain world who were looked upon as beacons of success to share their winning formula. And finally a few odd men like me not from the domain to talk about collaboration and synergistic success.

The half day ended quickly enough which happens when you are having fun; the evening transitioning into an informal gathering of the speakers and the participants. CSCOs are a smart lot who know what they are doing and how to get there. They also acknowledge internal and external dependencies that aid or curb their success. IT is one of the key tenets to their capability to execute; thus there were a lot of questions to probe how CIOs perceive the partnership.

We all know that most CIOs are always willing to partner with other CXOs to create change; when there is equal or more commitment from the other side, it is a recipe for a winning team and results that matter. As the discussion unfolded I heard some good stories and some filled with angst and agony. A mixed bag if there was one with fingers pointing in all directions. So I started digging deeper.

A CSCO began narrating his journey towards creating improvements in warehouse processes with some IT enabled automation; the journey took twice as long as promised and thrice as long as expected. He also talked about his struggle in getting his CIO to agree to evaluate a warehouse management system. The CIO kept throwing back questions and never took the steps forward to understand the challenges on the ground. He had almost given up his quest to use IT for competitive differentiation and then budget not being a constraint started creating shadow IT organization to fulfil his need.

Another one talked about his CIO being the best partner creating quick and dirty solutions to solve every business challenge despite budget constraints; he praised the IT teams pragmatism and alliance with the supply chain team and warehouse managers to improve inventory turns and reduce labour required. Analysing the situation with some additional questions, it was evident that the two CIOs approached the opportunity differently.

Apart from everything else that includes alignment, business understanding, etc. that everyone talks about as qualities that a CIO should imbibe, the risk ability of the CIO has direct correlation to how often s/he is able to create a WOW! moment. Everything safe equals no risk; and no risk also mean that innovation takes a back seat. As long as the CIO plays safe, s/he is bound to slip on everyone’s perception. Business will find a way to overcome; the CIO can decide to be a part of it or will sooner or later find him/herself relegated to the background.

I believe that CIOs should give up inertia and work on their risk ability to stay successful. I close with a collectible quote from Keith Johnstone: Those who say 'yes' are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say 'no' are rewarded by the safety they attain.