Monday, May 27, 2013

The Business & Technology Balance

The fact that IT is about business and that IT executives should be adept in business matters has been written and talked about a gazillion times by everyone who even remotely has anything to do with IT on this planet. It has been a discussion, debate, viewpoint, opinion, experience, coaching, mentoring, part of courseware and curriculum, published by IT media, books dedicated to, researched, pushed down the CIO and IT throats, for as long as I can remember; with my weak memory indexing that would be a decade plus.

Neither CIOs nor IT disagree with this postulation, they are however fed up of repeated ranting of this party line. It is not that IT folks do not practice this every day when they are in midst of their business teams or with others. I have observed that leaving aside a handful, every IT team member has a good view of the business even if it is narrow view of the function s/he supports. As you move up the ladder the articulation gets better and the view broader; some good CIOs could give a discourse about the industry too.

It is fashionable for most vendors to start discussions with the rhetoric what are your top 3 business priorities and then barely listen to the response. Every consultant or research report continues to talk about alignment and enabling the business. The message has remained the same; the words have changed to include the latest fad or trend – cloud, big data, mobility, security, and social media – as if these are critical components of business rather than technology.

I don’t know why but a recent post by a consultant got my goat and I went into my once in a decade murderous moods wanting to challenge this underling to a duel. What did he know about the CIO and his/her role when he has never been one ? He only had advice on what a CIO should be doing to stay relevant, and that included the usual stuff that is the norm now. After a brief attacking response, I tempered down to reach the stage we reach when we see a lot of dogs barking; we ignore them.

Ruminating over the state of affairs I wondered about the fact that one of the core competencies of IT is that they understand technology and are able to apply it to influence business outcomes. If IT did not understand technology, its pros and cons, the application of technology solutions would be like a game of roulette; you win some, you lose some. And if IT abdicated this responsibility, who would validate the efficacy of the solution and that it is being used to its optimal capacity or value or benefit ?

The technology team needs to engage the vendors and solution providers on equal terms getting into deep dives on every technology component as well as the integrated solution to understand how it will deliver to promise as well as coexist with the current technology framework and architecture. Things don’t work by chance when information follows with the material or process to generate goods and revenue. They have to be made to work with each other by design and that requires technology skills.

The diversity of technologies, hardware, software, applications, networking, storage, cloud, dashboards, analytics, reports and reporting tools, mobile devices, data management, security, and what have you, each requires extensive effort to understand how they impact each other and then manage them effectively. I have yet to sight a person who had expertise in all of them; a team can collectively represent a potent unbeatable combination which when married with business will always succeed.

It is a fallacy to expect the IT team to give away their foundation of technology and embrace business skills only. To me it would be like choosing either work or life. Life gives birth to work and work enables a life. Similarly technology innovation opens new opportunities for business and new opportunities give rise to new solutions. I believe that a balance has to be found such that the two sides of the coin give different views to whoever is looking at it without compromising each other.

Technology needs business as much as business needs technology today. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Is the CIO an Idiot ?

Congratulations on your new role ! We would like to come and meet you to understand your key priorities and challenges. We can help you in classifying your portfolio of applications, the technology landscape that you have, or consolidation and rationalization strategy, IT strategy and roadmap and help you align to the business. For multiple companies we have helped them optimize their IT operations and save costs. We can move dollars from BAU to innovation. Can we meet you in the next few days ?

Even if you are not new to the role, I am sure that all CIOs (at least I do) receive such messages from all kinds of vendors, consultants, research companies, and what have you with alarming frequency. They claim to have worked with companies who are highly successful in their use of IT; they make it appear that these customers would have remained in a challenged state if they had not come to the rescue with their frameworks and consulting practices that helped them get out of mediocrity to become winners.

They are aggressive in their approach and are willing to go across the layers of the company to get to you, as if the sky will fall by next week if you did not engage them. Some of them have retired or ex-CIOs as primary subject matter experts; most use decade old models as their base which were created by a few academicians. These frameworks can still be applied with reasonable success to most company’s IT portfolios throwing up opportunities for improvement or validating success for a well-run enterprise.

Having known some of their “subject matter experts” in their past avatars, I have never been too keen to connect with them with a bit of credibility crisis staring them in the face. Despite that, surprisingly the number of customers using one or more of these wonderful companies – who have answers to all the challenges faced by the CIO – appear to be overpowering with almost every enterprise that I know on the list. While I knew of some and their reasons, I found it hard to digest.

So I started connected with some CIO friends to ascertain what were their key drivers ? Did they face an identity crisis or they developed cold feet in putting forward their strategy, plan or take risks ? Behind the brave face that they put up in conferences and meetings, were they a bunch of scared or uncertain individuals struggling to figure out how to make things work ? I could not accept my own fears on this hypothesis and gingerly approached the subject lest I create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sigh ! The result was a mixed bag; in most cases the usage was to get endorsement or a stamp of approval from an authoritative source for higher credibility to the project or technology. In some I observed that the organization was risk averse or did not have the requisite confidence on the IT team and thus sought validation of the CIO proposals. Global and local research analysts and the models I referred to earlier give the requisite crutch or platform to the CIO to get endorsement and alignment.

The more interesting insight was with a few CIOs who did need the help to get there. They were bright individuals with technology expertise but limited ability to create a business case or put across a transformation agenda to the Management or Board. They were smart enough to work with these companies to find solutions thereby overcoming their limitations. I stopped applying my filter criteria for evaluation of the proposed engagements from this plethora of value providers.

Considering there is indeed a segment that finds value in engaging such companies (which is why they exist and continue to thrive, demand supply equation you know), my sincere and humble submission to all the wonderful companies is not to assume that everyone they talk to has a problem that they are unable to solve. All CIOs are not equally created, some are bigger Idiots than others, and others believe “I” stands for Intelligent or Innovation …. I think I was an Idiot for some time, and that will pass. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Taken for a ride !

By design, omission or inadvertently, all of us have faced the situation where the vendor has declared the product “end-of-life”. This puts at risk legacy applications, instrumentation, automation, or in many cases plain old processes that have survived all attempts to change them. CIOs and IT realize that upgrades are expensive and in some case not as good as the earlier working versions in terms of stability and/or functionality. But then they have to do it lest there be no support when the software fails.

Many CIOs succumb to the pressure quickly, only to realize that the deadlines have shifted and they could have avoided the nasty dialogue with respective functions (normally finance). They could have saved the unbudgeted expense in the upgrade which wiped out buffers that were provided for some innovation. Sometimes this leaves a feeling that this was a ploy to move everyone along reducing the support costs for the vendor, maybe some incremental licences (new versions typically may have different breakup).

A CIO friend bought a software package that fit business requirements so well that it appeared to have been developed using the requirement specifications of the company. She loved it as it implied very little customization and a deployment timeline better than what the business wanted. Everything went like a dream, the solution went live with celebrations and everyone was happy. The vendor was acquired by one of the big IT product and services companies; the new CEO promised to keep old customers happy.

As it was time to scale up, the CIO approached the new entity for new licences. The offer for upgrade had her fall off her chair; it was twice of what she paid earlier. Reaching out to the old team she found no help forthcoming with them citing new policies of the acquirer. The big guy sales team explained the new investments into the solution justifying the increase. Left with no choice in the face of the earlier business success, the CIO felt cornered and frustrated though had to accept the new terms.

In another scenario recounted to me some time back, a packaged vendor gave a demonstration of a specialized solution to the business team who loved what they saw. They approached the CEO and the CIO with a claim of higher productivity and ROI. The CEO endorsed the purchase and the IT team got down to creating the project charter, implementation plan and timeline. Quickly they realized that the solution required significant customization to work in their environment.

The CIO got together with the Business Head to provide the reality which was quite different from the short trailer and demo. Since they shared trust, it was evident that the solution provider had only revealed the surface; they had pressed the right buttons and given the messages that created empathy. The resultant in high expectations created a feeling of being short changed; while there was no false information, limited revelations created desire and expectations that were unrealistic.

I could go on and on with many examples on how every day we face situations which leave us with a negative gut feeling and a sense of having been taken for a ride. Some of these are a result of our own naivety, inexperience, or overenthusiasm; also in many cases due to intentional concealment of facts and/or our interpretation of what is said. There are rare cases when mal intent has been the driver too; it is largely taking advantage of the gullibility of the buyer. And every time I hear of an incident, I feel restless.

I do not believe for a moment that this situation is unique to the CIO; at times all CXOs face situations that leave a feeling that we are being taken for a ride, sometimes during the journey, sometimes after we have been gypped. Is there a solution to this ? I do not have a silver bullet to resolve such situations; I believe that tactically the CIO has to work on each case to address the issue at hand. Due diligence and contracts go some distance, the rest falls into risk zone and have no easy answer. 

Monday, May 06, 2013

Making hybrids work

When the phenomenon called Cloud made appearance on the IT landscape, it promised to disrupt many existing paradigms. You don’t need to buy any server hardware and storage, capacity is available on demand and you pay for what you use. Applications with licencing models that can adapt to business cycles, Everything-As-A-Service (SaaS, PaaS, IaaS and many more), no capital investments, only operating expense. It was touted to be the silver bullet to solve all the budgeting challenges of the CIO including getting rid of the CIO.

Evolution brought competition and a hysterical wave that caught every Vendor, System Integrator, Research Analyst, and the CIO alike. New terms were coined to depict the key attributes that the cloud promised: agility, flexibility, resilience, scalability, and on-demand. Alliances of hardware, software and networking vendors vied for attention; everything was cloud-enabled or ready. When corporate data centres could not be classified, the term “Private Cloud” came to rescue.

It brought some comfort to the CIO that s/he was not seen as “not doing the in thing”; almost everyone now had a cloud, private or public. From there rose the challenge of making them work together. After all if some apps are on the public cloud while the transactional systems or other apps are still in the corporate data center  they need to inter-operate  Tools and technology solutions attempted to bridge the chasm; everyone had a variant that did something better than the other confusing the heck out of IT teams.

Someone christened the new reality of the coexistence as “Hybrid Cloud” and the term has stuck on. For simpler solutions, applications and processes like collaboration, sales force automation and the likes of Human Capital Management, the challenge was easily overcome by most. Pervasive challenges of security, data residue, service levels, interoperability between different clouds, or difficulty in migrating from one service provider to another, cut across every offering.

Evolution of the services and technology has not been uniform; a few still struggle to offer a consistent experience straddling between the data center and the public cloud. A CIO narrated a harrowing story of his journey towards making a hybrid cloud work to offer a consistent and uniform experience to his users. The vendor in question either due to ignorance or over-enthusiasm promised everything to be possible and the delivery team struggled to get even the basics working.

Step by step through the early stages of making things work, they did not just lose time, the arduous journey had the IT team struggling to explain to the CIO why the project was running totally off target. Most were not technology challenges but oversell to the CIO on what would work and how it would. Straddling the physical and cloud world to offer a seamless and uniform experience to users did pose a few challenges. I guess all clouds are not created equal as competing solutions did offer to expectation.

The CIO called for a review and experts from all over the world joined in to rescue the situation. It was a one-sided affair with no real solution emerging to the problem at hand. The CIO concluded with the pilot being disbanded. The resultant credibility loss alienated the vendor in no small measure undoing a lot of the good work that they had delivered in the past. It was almost like the nursery rhyme in real world “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put the vendor back on track again”.

I guess when it comes to hybrid, cars work and have achieved a maturity level that brings consumer confidence; with clouds I guess there are still challenges to overcome and technology to reach stability and interoperability. Until then stay cautious and don’t bet on everything to work the way it did in a pure cloud or in-house model. The user experience with hybrids can be a dampener on the enthusiasm that vendors and system integrators want you to feel while they experiment at your cost.

P.S. it would appear that the next wave promises Autonomic Computing, anyone game ?