Monday, March 28, 2016

Are custom solutions really a viable option in the current state of IT applications ?

Being a market leader has its advantages; you can get away with a lot of things, customers tolerate a lot more than they would with startups or mid players. The market looks up to you for direction and whatever you do gets imitated quickly. Even if you are not innovating or creating new products, your copy outsells others by virtue of base effect. After all reaching the pinnacle of success and building a reputation takes a lot of effort and you have to do the business better than everyone else in the same business.

That is how it appears from outside to the external world and to a large extent from within to partners, employees and customers; because most of them don’t get to see the machinery that runs the business. In the background the robust technology solutions keep the business running with every transaction for every customer across products, geographies and hype waves that keep appearing with regular frequency. Inefficiencies if any surface as customer incidents and get addressed efficiently.

When news emerged that a top 5 leading global company wanted to engage domain and technology experts for their planned technology refresh, it was big news in the consulting industry. Everyone who had any experience in the industry wanted to pitch for the business, at least part of it if possible. It was well known that the company had a collection of all kinds of technologies somehow intertwined and operating together; being early adopters during the mainframe days, they had custom developed everything they used, well almost !

With the evolving software solution market, many younger and smaller competitors had embraced the COTS world (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) and successfully keep moving ahead of the technology curve. Thus they enjoyed the benefits of automation with faster and cheaper processes which did give them the advantage of being able to react fast to market. On the other hand, the company continued to stay with their legacy bespoke solutions serviced by a large contingent of people who had spent decades in the company.

Innovative products by the leader were quickly copied by the nimble with a technology edge; the reverse too happened fairly quickly which belied imagination of the market considering the size of the company. It was fairly evident that custom tech solutions did not slow down the leader. People poached by competitors talked about tight alignment of objectives between business and IT as the secret sauce; legendary leadership and culture had sustained the business through difficult and good times.

A century of existence ensured they were miles ahead of their nearest competitor, but the gap was slowly and surely being bridged. Retirement of first and second generation of IT leadership brought some doubts about sustaining continued success. The next generation technology leaders had grown with COTS and found it challenging to continue the existing paradigm. Since the company had gained leadership position and sustained it well, and status quo was not an option, they approached the predicament with kid’s gloves.

And that is how the market went abuzz with an opportunity that sought qualified expert opinions on the future path. Should they move to a COTS model ? Sustain their existing seemingly crumbling monolithic yet fragmented solution ? Rebuild a replacement solution ground up with the experience and domain expertise within, or take a hybrid approach with parts of the legacy being chipped off and replaced with COTS ? And there was the Cloud and what not to consider in their new reference architecture.

Debates grew with every consulting company worth a name throwing their hat into the ring; some approaching the situation directly with the new IT leadership, few used Board level contacts and many pitched to different parts of the business; each had an opinion and pushed a viewpoint based on their frame of reference and comfort. Consensus eluded them with the landscape confusing them even more than where they began from; finally they decided to engage a few individual experts and go at it themselves.

My view: re-architect with best of breed COTS, prioritize investments and set a stretch timeline. Involve people across layers, make sure that quantum of change and potential disruption is known upfront. Execute with chip and consolidate actions while leveraging core domain expertise that runs the business. That part of legacy would be the last piece to change. COTS offers one key advantage that the solution becomes people agnostic, which custom solutions don’t. So the journey moves from legacy to hybrid to COTS.

If you were the CIO or Advisor, which approach would you choose ? How would you strategize ? 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Graduating from a good Manager to a good Leader

There is always the excitement in moving up the ladder, moving to the corner office, getting a C role and title, professional and personal achievement of making the grade. In recent times there have been many first timers getting there with the earlier guard making way by virtue of retirement after a full term or decision to get off the treadmill and focusing on life. Both way the new bunch is full of excitement, charged up and raring to prove their mettle in the cutthroat corporate world of one-upmanship.

Newbies start with a lot of enthusiasm and desire to make a quick impact with low hanging fruits. They push hard at times exposing their naivety while go soft in situations where they could have gotten away. Balance comes to them over a period of getting tossed around while they understand the group dynamics and their impact on the team where they are a new entrant. Most of the older folks are happy to help, coach, mentor, be a buddy should the newbie approach them with due humility of inexperience.

For first-timers, survival in the management group comes relatively easily in comparison to own team especially if the person has come from outside and even more so if team members have had long tenures. Teams can be visibly hostile to the newcomer if internal candidature was ignored though deemed adequate. Such was the situation of the bewildered newbie CIO who approached me for help to get the team to start cooperating and listening to him; even after spending seven months, he was struggling.

He had a good track record as a Project Manager who had managed and successfully delivered complex cross-functional projects. Over a dozen years of work experience demonstrated growth path and ability as he had climbed the ladder to start knocking the door aspiring for the corner office. At his last workplace, he was part of the team that managed an outsourcing contract playing an important role. Overall his resume stacked up on the capabilities required and thus he was hired as the CIO.

Settling down within few weeks, he took some time to understand the business which was new to him; his team was a mix of old and new with a couple having long tenures. Not that any of them would have made the cut, they recognized their limitations for the role they did not get. They found the CIO unsure of himself but easy going and good to get along with. He had played roles similar to themselves until he came on board – excited and wanting to prove himself with all the knowledge he had gathered by association to his CIO.

So he talked big words, Governance Risk & Compliance, IT Maturity Model, Economic Value Add, a language that was alien to the team. His reporting manager took kindly to the young star who he had hired, indulging him in his use of jargon waiting for him to start creating change. Discussions with the new CIO were interestingly filled with possibilities which could have created better outcomes than what the business had experienced thus far. The team however did not know what is that they needed to do differently.

As time passed by, review meetings had better information on progress than observed before, the CIO was a good communicator and spoke with fair conviction. His team continued to toil as usual waiting for some of the new initiatives to take off. They wanted their situation to change, they wanted the respect of the business; they wanted to explore the technology landscape to create better solutions for the business. They did not see any path breaking ideas that they were expecting from their new leader.

With better reports creating visibility on IT activity and projects, he was seen as a good manager who was able to keep the team focused on the tasks at hand improving delivery timelines to some extent, while adding resources to increase the speed of delivery. His persona was efficient, articulate, but someone who had not been able to charge the team to leap forth beyond incremental efficiency. The business needed a different level of leadership that was invisible thus far, the team wanted a leader to lead the way, not a better manager.

With the team, building trust is the foremost task for a leader; the team needs to share the vision and believe in their leader to themselves leapfrog performance to the next level. For the leader it is important to approach the team with an open attitude, listening skills, and empathy. Teams are ready to follow the leader in adversity spurred by a dream and nothing else. The transition from Manager to Leader happens for few, the rest continue to partake a journey that keeps them wedded to acceptable performance.

Monday, March 14, 2016

None from the new generation want to be the CIO ? I wonder …

Someone forwarded me a link on the finding that no one in the current lot of fresh job seekers is excited about CIO as a career. The writer of fame and an opinion leader went on to predict that the role has been short lived in its amoebic existence getting pulled and pushed in all directions with every change in technological wave which threatens to change the technology landscape and value proposition for enterprises. Unable to resist a rejoinder, I decided to provide an alternative view to the sustainability of the CIO role

CIO’s role is complex, everyone agrees to this fact, even the antagonist acknowledged the fact. CIOs manage infrastructure, business applications, and communication from the enterprise to customers, suppliers, regulators, and interested stakeholders. They help run the business efficiently or what is now referred to as “Keeping the lights on” or “Business as usual”. They are also responsible for information security, business continuity, disaster recovery, governance, risk and compliance, and contribute to business success.

Barring the recent fad driven CXOs with X = Digital, Cloud, Social (media), Innovation, Mobility (?!), and many more to come, the CIO is the youngest of the C-suite. S/he has seen a lot more discussion and debate around the role, responsibilities, accountability, KPIs and importance. It is probably in focus because every other CXO is now dependent on the CIO and the IT team to provide them with basic standardized and secure infrastructure to conduct business and consume information to stay successful in their roles.

This situation elevates insecurities and spurs demand for breaking away from the shackles that IT has bound the business in; restricted End user compute devices with lower juice and freedom in comparison to their home devices; lock down mobile phones with containerized security or locked USB ports and unrestrained internet access (I am a responsible manager of this company !). Revolt thus stoked attempts to surface with errant behavior (as seen by the CIO) and deployment of islanded cloud solutions.

The resultant angst creates perceptions of IT rigidity and bureaucracy which business users hate and seek approvals for exceptions to the rule book. Enterprise IT needs to be simple that does not require training; I don’t need a training program or manual to use technology for personal consumption; then why is enterprise IT so complex ? They forget the fact that enterprise solutions are limited by budgets, require structured data that lends itself to analytics, correlations, and associations for transactions, payments, and other business processes.

Everyone would however agree that all the applications can do with a dose of simplicity which is not an unreasonable ask. Does this imply that UI/UX should be a separate portfolio with the creation of one more silo CUO or Chief User (Interface/Experience) Officer, a person who shall be tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that systems remain idiot proof ? Or the task can be done by a specialist in the IT or any other team ? Such has been the rationale for slicing away the role of the CIO to create new micro but super-sized heads.

History bears the fact that the fancy and irrational paranoia to rechristen or create parallel roles has borne no fruit and almost all of them have been relegated to oblivion. The Internet, Cloud, SMAC, Security, Digital, and what have you fancy, have all disappeared after the title ran out of vogue with realizations that they were too small a role or responsibility to sustain standalone. The willing or grudgingly magnanimous CIO has taken them in his/her stride, not just surviving, but thriving and growing from strength to strength.

So when I see proclamations and hypothesis put across by the learned and opinionated, I wonder why do we get anxiety pangs ? Does postulation of such theories make them the reality for the CIO ? I have seen discussion, debate, instigative behavior, challenge, and provocation from peers and outsiders but never felt threatened in my role or tremors in my foundation of trust build brick by brick with credible delivery and dialogue. I believe that CIOs have nothing to be afraid of except their own fears towards their longevity.

And talking about no one wanting to be a CIO ? Probably the institute in question is going to have a big miss in the digital world !

Monday, March 07, 2016

Running IT like a business is good but are you prepared to lose your customer and money ?

I received a phone call from a CIO friend wanting to talk over a drink, which I agreed to since he was good company to be with. When he arrived I could see he was internally raging; he looked shades of red I did not know he could. Without asking he started: What does he think ? Asking me to justify why I am getting paid what I am getting ! Cut cost, reduce expenses, my business does not want expensive IT and highly paid staff ! This is even when we benchmark against the industry with lowest cost of providing IT.

He had been in a meeting with one of the business unit heads who had given him the run down on the annual IT costs that were charged back to each business unit. Within the diversified group for which he was the CIO, chargebacks were a way of life; for every support function, there were different metrics based on revenue, headcount, transaction volume or profitability. Every year there was a negotiation with the business on support costs; the previous year not having gone well, the discussions now were loaded.

In the early days of evolution of IT and the CIO role; few companies had broken out by carving their IT departments into separate entities; it became a fad with many attempting to replicate success. Entrepreneurial spirit fueled by case studies gave a ray of hope to aspirants. Quickly the trend disappeared with boom and bust giving fertile minds an opportunity to create a new goalpost. Run IT as a business – became the new mantra and it caught the fancy of some CIOs who otherwise struggled to stay afloat.

How do you run IT as a business ? The hypothesis created by some consultants revolved around charging a fair price for all the services, solutions, technology, business as usual, keeping the lights on, running the innovation lab, providing training, fixing the printer, any touch point that required parts of the IT organization in whole or bits to take any action, triggered by an event or otherwise. Charges were calculated based on simple and complex formulae depending on the creativity of the CIO and indulgence from the CFO.

Chargebacks became a discussion, debate, and topic of angst for many customers of IT (even though internal). Quality of service and Service Level Agreements became the metrics for measurement putting some IT teams in a spot. If I am going to pay (even notional), then I am fair in demanding not realizing that before it became explicit, they were anyway paying in adjustments done by the CFO for all support functions. Negotiations started on why the price is not lower, expecting justification for every line item as experienced by my friend.

Consultants then convinced Management to outsource the entire IT organization to experts offering efficiency of scale, repeatability and predictability to process, tools and technology enabled remote support and fix, again shrinking cost per unit. The big wave of outsourcing promised the moon with numbers that convinced Boards to give it a serious look. IT is not your business or core, so create complexity to manage; give up to the experts, focus on what matters. CIOs struggled through this phase balancing cost and deliverables.

Downturns offered reality check; long-term contracts became sparse, enterprises reflected on the gains which were not as rosy as they had been painted in the beginning. The CEO of IT services or the CIO suddenly had a crisis at hand with ever demanding but dissatisfied customers; changing technology landscape, evolving and opportunistic business models threatened the uneasy balance, with the realization that neither had a choice of providers or customers. It was fragile truce which required maturity rarely observed in corporate world.

The devils choice extinguished the discussion for many enterprises though a few continued to tread down the uneven path. Changing business dynamics have now redefined the platform from running IT as a business to running business with IT. The new paradigm led by the now mature business savvy CIO is raising the bar; they are not interested in running IT or taking a subservient position,  they want to run the business and they are succeeding. I believe that CIOs can safely drop the games and achieve heights they truly deserve.

My CIO friend wiser after the discussion offered services from external large providers as an alternative and benchmark to the CEO, willing to give up his team should there be commercial gain for the business. Accepting the offer the CEO wholeheartedly supported the exercise and participated in the discussions investing time and effort as he learned about the complexity of managing IT. Three months later he signed the paper with the CIO realizing that he had a good deal to begin with.