Monday, November 02, 2015

Why is IT so different from other industries ? A Customer’s perspective

We are amongst the largest construction houses in business for many decades; we have provided homes to tens of thousands of people, offices and commercial spaces to many companies. We build them to standard specifications with nominal deviations depending on customer requests. We also create custom commercial spaces for customers which we deliver within timelines and budgets; they love us for the quality and with some we have done repeat business too. We strive to stay the benchmark for the industry.

Why cannot the IT industry also follow similar principles when they build software solutions ? Take the case of our homes or standard commercial offering: they are like packaged software, you the base product and customize it with your own décor, furniture, and fixtures, to personalize the way it looks. Standard software products implementations are like this; Vendors offer AMC contracts to maintain and provide continuous support, we do that with our facilities management offerings in larger complexes and commercial offerings.

Our built-to-order or custom campus/buildings for large companies are similar to IT industry offering of bespoke solutions based on defined requirements. Requirements are signed off before construction starts; any changes post sign-off are expensive and follow change management process. IT does the same, right ? The difference comes after that ! Once we have built and handed over the building, we move off giving the customer the source code (drawings); they rarely come back to us after that for anything.

My IT project has been on for years; a large team has been working on it. They have delivered in phases though there have been many changes from where we started. The large team appears to have become a permanent fixture, always tinkering with the software, modifying it, tuning it, making changes at times unknown to us. I think they will be around as long as we use the software ! In my business nothing like this ever happens; can you imagine construction workers and others lingering on after residents have started staying ?

The comparison set me thinking about the differences and similarities not just with the construction industry but also drew parallel with other industries like automobiles, white goods, consumer products and even the service industry. There were many similarities like the above comparison, but none of the industries came anywhere close to the characteristics observed in IT. Why is the IT so industry different when compared with some of the long-standing behaviors that depict the way business is done by other industries ?

Let’s bifurcate the industry into two parts: the first which manufactures physical devices like desktops, laptops, mobiles, printers, networking equipment etc. These come from different manufacturers with their own brand identities and features; nominal change is possible, mostly using add-ons, rarely with change in core. Customers buy based on their preference and brand affinity; the industry competes on features and value added services, no different from the value proposition articulated by the CEO of the Construction Company.

The software industry again divides itself into 2 segments: commercial off the shelf (COTS) or custom solutions. COTS personal use solutions are easy to deploy and need little if any expertise to get started. COTS enterprise solutions on the other hand require armies of skilled resources to build a usable version; however this is changing with modular standardized process based offering on pay-per-use similar to renting ready to move-in office space. Most companies are beginning to see benefit in the new way of deploying such solutions.

Bespoke development is different and does indeed require continuous build and manage capabilities from IT. This is like the custom built office which is expected to adapt and keep changing based on multiple parameters like occupancy and attendance, male or female worker needs, external environment, day or night, seasons of the year, and do so with minimal disruption. This leads to a lag between requirement and delivery while requiring skilled resources to change configurations, test and deploy with herculean agility.

Comparisons thus create interesting scenarios to reflect on reality as others see it; as long as companies believe that their enterprise, processes, industry cannot be served by standard COTS solutions, the IT services industry will continue to thrive and grow to meet the demand. CEOs and CIOs will engage in the inane debate on optimizing IT while business has a free hand to create anarchic and at times necessary process change. The other factor being the survival of high maintenance prehistoric solutions which people have found impossible to dislodge. 

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