Monday, June 29, 2015

CIOs need professional courtesy as a basic tenet

This one has been a long time coming though never made it to the top; and then an event triggered the compilation of thoughts which has experiences spread across multiple incidents collated over the not too distant past. It is an interesting observation made by minions as well as leaders on success and/or position (mostly latter, read hierarchy, corner room, and trappings of power) going to the head. Does this give a person the freedom and permission to be unprofessional, rude, disrespectful, insensitive, or simply put misbehave ?

1.      It was a high power meeting if there was one; CEOs from various group companies, corporate heads had been brought together for a common cause and objective driven by a globally respected research and consulting company. They had all assembled to listen to thought leadership that potentially could help them be the disruptor rather than be disrupted with innovation and new business models. The partner had put significant time, money and effort to ensure that the session connects with business leaders and their expectations.
Welcoming the arriving party, the CIO suddenly froze with disbelief seeing two senior ex-CIOs and now advisors to multiple entities as part of the group. Both had put in time in the industry – collectively almost 70 years – and were known to be the “go-to-persons” for any advice. Blurting out his surprise he turned to the organizing vendor CEO and made known his extreme displeasure on their presence wanting them bodily removed. Evidently he felt threatened and dispensed with civility in fear, not that he was known for good behavior.

2.      She was a CIO who had greatness thrust upon her by her mentor despite having no expertise nor experience; it worked well for her manager who she followed across companies as he could amplify his limited knowledge using her as a puppet to execute whatever took his fancy. Technology had given her a basic foundation on which she failed to capitalize instead focusing on managing her Godfather. Everyone speculated on her rise with oblique references to what she brought to the table and comparisons with stereotyped women of light colored hair.
Vendors big and small who were unaware of the reality would attempt to reach her directly, or through current and past team mates, via all modes of communication. Unanswered emails and phone calls were the norm; she would confirm meetings scheduled by her team and then fail to turn up. It was as if there was nothing you could do to catch her attention or be part of the partner ecosystem; and if she did get there, she rarely participated beyond the first few minutes, always called away by (too often raising doubts about it being engineered ?) phone call.

There was speculation and murmur that the positions these individuals (and many more whose behaviors are predictably similar) held were not gained by merit alone; in the years that ensued they had not gained enough depth to survive beyond using random buzzwords. The resultant insecurity and self-doubt made sure that they did not go into meetings alone and shied away from groups which would have exposed their ignorance and incompetence. The false bravado thus created personas that no one revered, the external connects were driven by business need.

Let’s take the first case of impertinent behavior; there was no perceivable threat from thought leaders who had taken the call to exit from employment to pursue entrepreneurial journey and give their collective experience to the industry at large. For a senior person (I desist from the word leader) who was well entrenched in his role and company, what compulsions resulted in what happened ? None of the participants could fathom the root cause or deep insecurities that caused the incident; after all they had rubbed shoulders not too long ago.

The lady in question shied away from all human contact with the external world simply driven by her ineptitude. As the titular head she had to fend for herself in the big bad world; her Godfather could do nothing to shield her from the barrage of requests. Soon the inevitable happened with an aura of an ignoramus surrounding her; vendors and partners belittled her whenever they discussed business opportunities with her company. People started taking bets on how long she would last without the shadow of her protector !

My coach taught me, “Leadership is a contact sport”; he also professed, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. I more than agree now !

Monday, June 22, 2015

New CIO dilemma: Build a foundation or create quick wins ?

He was excited when he joined the new company which had reached out to him to help them in their growth and transformation agenda. The company had struggled to grow in recent times; profitability pressures for a longish time drove the management to cost cutting and product portfolio rationalization. Their IT did what it was built for, automation of now disjointed processes with limited business benefit. They lived in dark ages of IT for more than a decade relegating the company to distant memory as one who could have achieved greatness.

Change of guard within the promoters resulted in induction of fresh talent from lateral and unconnected industries, all of them with some level of credibility. A quarter back he had taken the role of their first CIO followed by a few other CXOs who came in later. They were expected to revive the sagging fortunes of the company with magic from their collective experience. The CIO was a veteran of more than a score years behind him; having evolved with the changing technology landscape, he had the necessary credentials for the role.

In the first month into the new enterprise, he met with all the stakeholders, understood the challenges and opportunities in front of him, conducted a SWOT of his team; essentially creating a map of the terrain he had entered. He welcomed inputs and engaged to assess how they could help create quick wins. As it happens with any new role, this also brought opportunities for the partner ecosystem who reached out to the CIO seeking to understand his agenda and direction, willing to help with technology solutions and strategic inputs.

Lack of IT leadership had led to no real investments in IT over the years creating disparate systems all over; the situation was such that wherever you looked there was a need for attention. The new CXOs wanted to see quick wins within their functions; the IT team was constrained by their skills to deliver. The CIO had to build a team, find some tactical wins, architect the future IT landscape and keep business as usual running. The grass that appeared green from the outside, suddenly the opportunity started looking like a problem.

Over the next few months he attempted to understand ground realities by visiting the manufacturing plants, spending time with sales and marketing, hobnobbing with the supply chain team, and talking to various solution providers. They had lost market leadership having lost ground to global players with large marketing budgets. Competition had deployed solutions ages back and were in the process of moving to the next level of maturity. It took time for the promoters to react to market forces that led to the decline.

All initiatives together would keep him busy for the next three years. His long experience across a few companies had not prepared him for the multi-tasking and agility requirements of creating a transformation agenda. To IT mature enterprises, incremental innovation offers fair return; disruption is rare, driven by shifts in industry, or technology obsolescence, or possibilities created by new technology. His staid progress posed a challenge for him as well as the company; eventually he decided to invest in the foundation against quick wins.

If the situation is opened to discussion and debate, there is enough justification for one direction over the other. The camp shall stay divided into three parts: the first advocating quick wins over long-term to build credibility and then embark on the longer journey; the second reinforcing the need to build a foundation before creating peripheral systems to ensure robust processes support the business; and finally the proponents of doing both simultaneously being the third group. The luxury of choice does not exist in a hypercompetitive world.

Quick wins come with an element of risk which people take based on past experience; unfortunately the business world does tolerate failure irrespective of the cliché “Fail faster”. Most take a conservative approach and attempt to walk “baby steps” towards progress; they reap what they sow. Walking the tightrope and crafting tactical strategies which are balanced with long-term goals and objectives requires confidence and a bit of risk with commensurate rewards. It is the best possible option and the lesser travelled path !

Monday, June 15, 2015

The CIO in 2020: Dead, Surviving or Thriving ?

I don’t like to make predictions, they have a habit of turning true; so I resist from making them. Having said that I do have a few weak points or triggers that get me animated and worked up when people give an opinion from the stands on how the play should be or attempt at emulating Nostradamus predicting dire future for the CIO (CIOs will survive), a role that I am passionate about; after all I spent more than two decades in that position across multiple industries, geographies, and helped my aspiring team members become CIOs in other companies.

In the recent past there were two triggers that pushed me into a corner; the first was a conference where I was invited to opine on the role of the CIO five years from today. The audience was a mix of, aspiring CIOs, providers, and an eclectic group of senior members from the industry. Collectively they wanted a view of what the future of the CIO would be. The second was an article in a respected IT publication on the death of the CIO as we know it now; Jack of all trades, master of some, operational and strategic, technical and domain expert.

The latter made some interesting points seeking to paint a scenario where CIO was not a career choice for most graduates majoring in IT or Management. Data behind the postulation was an informal show of hands in a class by a professor; in his class the result was consistent over the last few surveys. His analysis proposed that it is fallacious to expect the CIO to balance and excel in operations, technology, strategy, business and industry all at once (Don’t just survive…). While a few have been able to achieve this, majority have floundered on one or the other.

I tend to agree with the reality out there that very few CIOs have been able to balance the tightrope with uneven weights. Then like a good leader and CEO, the successful ones have hired great teams who have taken off the operational from the purview of the CIO and at the same time aid strategic thinking by contributing to the discussion and debate with collective experience bringing alternatives to the table. Leadership teams like this have been the foundation of success for CIOs as well as other CXOs in their respective domains.

Many would disagree on the “Empty Chair” phenomena predicted that the role of the CIO would be irrelevant and unnecessary as the responsibility would have been split between multiple stakeholders leaving only operational IT under the control of the technology function which is easily outsourced. What about strategic intent and IT as a differentiator with orchestrated services across the innovative and legacy systems ? How about disintermediating the Marketing function as most of the activity would have moved to the Digital world ?

Would five years hence the CIO be a broker of services ? Even today this is managed by the application team who ensures that the old and new coexist and talk to each other. Will corporate data centres or remote servers become redundant ? Consistent ubiquitous connectivity challenges coupled with newer geographic regulatory requirements and privacy laws would ensure their survival. Clouds and Social media are already weaved into technology strategy; Big Data is part of analytics where required and IoT requires integrating the technology into the enterprise framework.

Contextually I believe that there will be a shift in the engagement that CIOs have been able to create; newer generation IT Managers and MBAs will gain prominence and work with the IT team and CIO at times in the drivers’ seat. Some of the CIOs (1-4%) would continue to lead their enterprise IT led transformation and growth story; they would also be the key opinion leaders on technology and influence adoption of new disruptions. Value add would not always be linked to IT projects or interventions, they would be business leaders in their own right.

The big middle would comprise of IT Managers (50-70%) aspiring to emulate success described above while they see-saw between operations and strategy mired in organizational politics. Promise of the future lies here and this is where the trough is also likely to be seen. They will continue to be subjected to theories and predictions of their rise or demise. Wannabes (the remaining 30-50%) will struggle to gain toehold; occasional escapees will add to the middle or rise higher, and some will find alternative careers outside of IT.

Anyone wants to bet ?

Monday, June 08, 2015

A vitriolic CXO exits, what next for the team ?

The Hindu scriptures and mythology teach that in the end good always wins over the bad or evil; I am sure that other religious books and local historical tales give the same lesson to one and all. Sayings like “You reap what you sow” or morals from fables such as “what you give comes back to you” are timeless and have been seen and experienced. The corporate world has also seen its share of rise and fall of corporate heroes and villains who rescued or trashed a company with their antics, not counting the indelible scars on the culture and people.

He was flooded with messages when one such malevolent head rolled recently; congratulatory, and messages laden with relief and happiness, calls for rejoice, and finally voices of hope for the future. The team had suffered the tyranny for what appeared to be an eon, giving up hope of salvation; some left for whatever options they could fine, some without. Emerging from the oppression the team called to seek his interest in returning to lead them once again to pinnacle of achievement and glory that they had dreamt of during his leadership.

The havoc created by the malicious being had infected the entire company across layers and had also spread to some of the partners who were bewildered by the unilateral and at times irrational decisions. No one knew his source of power which seemed absolute with no observed opposition to the bullying leading to speculation. His large coterie of spineless and visibly sub-optimal talent revelled in derived supremacy despite their lack of results. Casting aspersions and restricting every move, he ensured the exit of the leader who had brought respect to the team.

Heads rolled when the business failed to benefit from the random decisions of the nepotistic person; it was easy to blame the old team labeling them incompetent for the new strategy that he had outlined. Survival instincts of remaining members made them shed personal and professional pride acquiescing to the absurd while waiting for salvation. With passing time the famine of results began to surface the shallowness and lack of domain knowledge or skills; buzzwords and bravado were inadequate cover for performance that made mediocrity look good.

Karma finally catches up and it did in this case too validating folklore and restoring faith in the defeat of nefarious elements ! Eventually the Board and shareholders saw through the façade albeit after much damage was done; he was stripped of self-bestowed powers and side-lined from various functions he had taken under his wings. From the shadows emerged some of the trusted members who had given their entire working lives to the company with sweat and blood that raised a sense of balance and relief among the survivors.

On their request, he met some of the team members privately and advised them to forge ahead with the plan that he had set for the enterprise; after all it had the endorsement of the management and the Board. Nothing had changed on the ground; some of the projects that had begun during his tenure had seen success, others taken up by ardent followers of the fallen had nothing to show except excuses for what did not work. He asked them to realign to the new old leadership and their work ethos to create magic that they were capable of.

He had attempted all that he could, appealed unsuccessfully to the leadership who were cowering due to the acidic lashing from the vitriolic power hungry person. It had taken huge effort to emotionally detach from the dream and vision that he had nurtured to life; it was anguishing and painful to see the plan being shattered, the team being bullied by minnows, their spirit broken. He had stayed connected to the team through their travails. His heart wanted to go back and finish the broken unfinished castle, his mind chastised him not to.

The team needs a savior; should they seek their mentor or find their own way through the broken path ? The team can survive without him though they would thrive with him on their side. Organizations have resilience which allow them to bounce back most of the time. Does the saviour need the team to bring back days of glory for the team, the company and himself ? What if the demons of the past were still not fully exorcised ? History teaches us that Organizations have recalled past leaders to revive themselves and they have recreated the magic !

Monday, June 01, 2015

I need a Digital Vacation

A popular B2C eCommerce marketplace announced that it will shut down the website and engage customers only on the mobile phone; the news had everyone wondering about the wisdom behind such a move. Various views prevailed on the trigger towards this unusual step; speculations did not stop despite press releases that outlined the rationale behind the move. Everyone watched with abated breath when D-day arrived; a few days later a small dip in traffic and revenue was reported with an optimistic view that they will bounce back.

It is published statistics that number of smartphones is increasing globally; the personal device is also becoming the primary means to access Internet, browse, check email, communicate, socialize, and do some personal and official work. Phones are also getting smarter, larger, with higher compute capacity now beginning to rival computers of a not too distant past, offer reasonable mobile storage and increasingly better cameras. Conventional wisdom says that mobile is and will remain the primary device of choice.

Then the latest hype and hoopla is around wearable technology; it all started with glasses (the kind you wear on the eyes) mimicking some of the futuristic movies of the 90s depicting humanoids with special powers. Next came fitness bands which offered alternative ways to view limited information while they monitored body vital functions; these were followed by smart watches wanting to change the way you consume information. Seesawing between screen sizes, each device competed for attention by offering notifications of all types (see Divergence is …).

Did I forget tablets which now masquerade as mini-laptops or phablets that disguise themselves as big sized phones or handy sized tablets ? Crossovers of all types have attempted to bridge a perceived gap until they either became the standard or irrelevant. Case in point as an example, laptops with touchscreens or tablets with keyboards competing for bag space. Depending on need and at times driven by corporate policy, there are cases where both have won and coexist as personal and work device.

Are we obsessed about staying connected or is technology pressurizing us into compulsive behaviour for the next notification or alert. Who benefits from connected devices and alarms that keep us on our toes ? Is our life changing for the better or worse with guiding forces that we no longer control ? From a closed society that valued privacy we have moved to an open world where almost everyone has access to life events that we decided to share and then exercise control on who can see them forgetting that it has been cataloged for data mining !

Coming back to the Thing that could/will be the primary information creation and consumption device(s), it is quite likely and highly probable that contextually there will be separation. We will have the choice on how we would like consume; willingly or inadvertently we will be broadcasting data into the servers of service providers, marketers, and feed analytical engines through the various Things that on or off us will monitor what we are up to in our lives and the feedback mechanism will to nudge our choices subconsciously.

Information consumption shall extend beyond visual interactions to encompass auditory as well as kinaesthetic experience. I think the phone as we know it today will probably retain a large share while other form factors (may be integrated into the phone or discrete) will complete the experience. Change contextually will be driven by where we are, what we are doing, who are we with, time of the day, at work or home or leisure, traveling or stationary, and finally personal choice based on peer influence and personal comfort.

There will also be forced or chosen moments of disconnected bliss (let’s call it Digital Vacation) until withdrawal symptoms give way to the craving or we time out the detached life. Extreme cases would undergo Digital detoxification camps and participate in support groups (not digitally but in person) and be monitored actively ironically by digital devices. Does this situation sound too dramatic, hypothetical or out of science fiction ? Well I believe that the future is already here for some while others will catch up sooner than later.

Blessed would be a few who can at will detach themselves and have no impact on professional or personal life.