Monday, August 29, 2016

How can you expect returns if you are unwilling to invest ?

Business is hurting from the lack of the right tools and enablers, we need a good dose of IT to create efficiency. We acknowledge the need to transform and that is why we are talking; the team also agrees with the direction and the way forward. The benchmark results are well received and we would like to be in the top quartile of the industry. We should create the framework for evaluation of options to our specific requirements before we finalize on the best option and let’s work to an aggressive time line.

The CEO intuitively knew, to take performance to the next level, technology has to play an important role. Coming in of global competitors had started slowing growth and put pressure on profitability. Operating margins and other business metrics were lagging behind; survival was not at stake but to stay relevant to major customers, the business begged for technology. The absence of mature IT leadership posed additional challenges in execution of the strategy defined through a technology consulting engagement.

Early investments in technology solutions had not delivered to promise; early decisions were taken by the business based on promises made by vendors on business benefit. Business participation in the project waned quickly as technology formalized processes and exposed lacunae in operations. People on the ground resisted the change creating roadblocks – real and imaginary – towards deployment. The cycle repeated itself a couple of times leaving everyone frustrated and wondering if technology will ever deliver.

That was before global players invaded the market changing the way business was done, improving customer satisfaction and driving profitable growth became an urgency. Even with higher overheads and manpower cost, they delivered; in came Consultants offered a mirror to the business and helped them with a well-crafted plan and strategy; technology strategy followed. A new CEO added to the excitement with experience at competitors. Culmination of events necessitated that the company reach a decision rather quickly.

In a perceivably low margin business where the average margin was half of the best, it was evident that operational efficiency can gain significantly with the right IT interventions. Industry specific solutions and generic options competed on functionality and price with a wide variation in between. An all hands meeting agreed to the strategy and initial steps enthusiastically committing resources and time. With negligible investments thus far, in parallel the Management decided to approach the Board for budgetary approvals.

The Board members had diversified business interests with business operations of varied size; they were also parsimonious in their approach to investments especially technology which was seen as necessary but not essential. Thus while their companies had grown in size and reputation, they had not been able to realize the true potential while newer competitors had moved ahead. The minnow in the family thus started from a disadvantage when the CEO put his case across for investments in technology.

Discussions went back and forth on various technology options, merits of one over the other, cost of acquisition and support, TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) and business benefit; the figures appeared obscenely high even though they were competitive and in line with benchmark investments. For the Board reality was that other larger entities in their bouquet too had rarely invested similar amounts barring the initial stages for industry standard ERP solutions. They finally approved a significantly reduced number which turned the project into a non-starter.

The business case was clear in identifying the benefits – financial, customer satisfaction, growth, profitability – the ROI was less than a year; but past experience made the Board wary of committing to the investment. Ensuing “What if” had no answers beyond a point; there are no certainties, only probabilities of success. The sanctioned budget did not cover basic costs even if executed in phases to demonstrate potential success. Risk mitigation strategies can be created for most action plans, the keyword being “action”.

Except in cases of some of the new technologies and innovative digital models, most of the solutions – vertical or horizontal – have successfully established credibility to deliver business value with discipline of execution and leadership oversight and endorsement. Phases can reduce risk if logically broken down with continuity in the journey. Processes if left out of design consideration will fail to provide the end result. Analysis paralysis can miss opportunities that become clear only in the future, status quo breeds mediocrity.

Years have passed since the above happened; they are still at the same milestone the debate continues, they are yet to decide and the industry continues to grow rapidly !

Monday, August 22, 2016

Cloud based offerings encouraged Shadow IT, problems brought them back to Core IT

The launch of the new disruptive solution was well attended by CIOs and Business alike; some of the early adopter customers spoke highly of the solution, especially the business who claimed freedom from IT after integration was done with existing ERP solutions during implementation. Euphoric pronouncements elevated the solution to the next best thing since the spreadsheet came into their lives. The going was great until some of the audience started digging deeper into the success seeking clarifications.

Yes the solution was easy to deploy, it is Cloud based; we pay as we go based on number of users (aren’t most licenses like that ?) and there is also an app which I can download and use when I am traveling. There was some help taken from IT for integrating with the ERP and then with the CRM and yes they had to work on cleaning the data feed. No it is not complete freedom from IT as the system administration and user rights management is still done by the IT team; but I can build my own reports and workflows !

Opening up the conversation in contrast another customer mentioned that many of the users don’t actually use the mobile app which was seen as a prerequisite for selecting the solution and paying a premium. The self-service model had started with a bang, but was floundering with users now wanting IT to generate the information and insights for them to consume. The novelty factor had gone down with other work taking precedence over extracting information on demand or accessing it while on the move.

Who wants self-service was a discussion that suddenly filled the room much to the embarrassment of the organizers who attempted to deflect the discussion and bring it back to the merits of their solution and why the prospects present should seriously explore their brand of snake oil. A senior CIO refuted the claims that competition did not offer the same agility, flexibility or feature set which was grudgingly accepted with a counterclaim that some existing customers had been transitioned from competition.

Conventional IT a score of years back did pose challenges to agile deployment of solutions and at times delayed success with challenged projects. A decade back the same IT organizations began to push the business to actively participate in creating mobile engagement models, pushing the realms of self-service across functions. Initial candidates were travel and expense, followed by Employee and Manager Self-service driven by Human Resource solutions, though some even today continue parallel paper processes.

Closer to the beginning of the current decade, service providers proclaimed victory over IT by wooing the business with solutions that could be bought with a swipe of the credit card. You can get anything you want without asking your IT folks who normally say NO to everything; the promise led to a smattering of success and large number of headaches for IT who were being called out for tasks like opening up ports on the router, data dumps (instead of integration with on premise systems) and rescue when something did not work !

The last bastion was management reports, dashboards, and analytics moving to the Cloud with a promise of self service; what they got instead was garbage in-garbage out ! Some power users did manage to hold on for some time, they succumbed when on-demand analytics and complexity of data across sources needed them to go back to IT for real-time integration. The shift to collaborative design of solutions between IT and Business brought back the success which alluded companies in solo forays.

Today most solutions are pushing the limits on self-service with mobile first strategies (browsers are pass̩ now). Leave & Attendance, Travel & Expense, Approvals of all kinds are all mobile; the rest require a login from a larger screen Рtab or laptop or desktop. Thumbing around is the new way of working with no time limitations; what started with email pings on mobile is a flood of notifications vying for attention. Everything is urgent and requires hyper speed and attention stretching the already extended work day.

IT has embraced the self-service culture even though it puts higher demands on resources; data security requires locking down devices and monitoring, and diversity of devices increases complexity of deployment and maintenance. CIOs are also innovating with new technology disruptions pushing the envelope to automate everything in sight. On the flip side, busy executives are happily delegating some of the critical and important work downwards compromising the quality of decision making and possible outcomes.

I wonder when the breakpoint will be reached !

Monday, August 15, 2016

Who wants self service ? Not employees or managers ! Customers ?

In the good old days before technology stormed the world, interactions were always in person; people met each other and remembered faces, names, salient points about professional and personal lives. Conversations were the way to engage, communicate, serve and ask for services. This was typically followed up with some paperwork to record the intent and agreement between the interested parties. Business was all about people connecting with people, building relationships and sustaining them over a lifetime.

Initially technology was all about automation, to create faster processes reducing execution time. It was followed by reengineered process automation with workflows to reduce paper movement between involved stakeholders and approvers. The internet revolution offered remote working capabilities extending the reach of technology enabled workloads; mobile data and smartphones broke the last barrier creating a mobile workforce that could work on the go anytime, anywhere, as long as they were connected.

First few deployments were selective with the devices being seen as status symbols to be proudly flouted when in meetings or with friends; as the price points dropped exception became the rule and almost every employee and manager was equipped with a device or connectivity. Expectations rose with every audible or vibrating message alert wanting to be attended to immediately intruding into life, breaking relationships, pushing the limits, creating compulsive disorders and medical conditions unknown thus far.

Technology continued to evolve, get better and smarter creating new possibilities; every manager now expected to know adequately every function that impacts their working. Start with Attendance, Leave and Travel, Vouchers, Expenses and Reimbursement, Delegation of Authorities and approvals, Budgeting and Expenses, Revenue and Profitability, Resource Planning, Manpower allocation, Hiring to Attrition Management, Outsourcing to Contractor Management, everything has converged in the new Digital World.

It was a matter of time that self-service became the norm, the default way of working; the rising bar continued to push the limits of workloads that could be transferred to the staff and reducing the “overhead” costs at Branch, Region and Head offices. The App world completes the delegation of work with no option; quicker, faster, cheaper being the mantra, the inflection point reached rather quickly with every new proposition adding to the checklist of the busy executive, manager and 24X7 worker, no option, no choices.

Cost cutting and optimization continues to challenge enterprises and their constituents pushing the proverbial envelope continuously; enterprise solutions were never designed for self-service, functionality that was added with evolution and time. After the initial set of training conducted with operationalization of the system, people were left to their own devices to understand and use the systems. As time taken for self-service tasks kept increasing, exceptions too rose simultaneously casting shadows on efficiency and effectiveness.

Managers having the option reverted to paper and delegated the chore to their Assistants creating a gap in the process and eliminating benefits that could have been accrued with solutions deployed. Organizations continue to push the change agenda in the endeavor to keep elevating operational efficiency. With limited connect to ground realities, the seeping inefficiencies go unnoticed until a new wave is created to review why the business growth or profitability is challenged in a growing industry or market.

Industry is witness to the fact that today customers are being cajoled into self-service of all types; drop boxes, machines and kiosks, websites, portals, and mobile apps. Did they embrace it willingly and thanked the providers ? Probably yes in a few cases considering the people based services were minimalistic and did not create customer delight; for the rest it was initial euphoria of owning your destiny and controlling the way you are served which later turned into frustrated experiences with unresponsive unaligned backend resources.

Today technology providers are building systems that obviate the need for technical resources to build and deploy solutions. Business self-service is the new mantra where functional users are being egged to drop their dependence on IT resources and implement business friendly solutions. History again appears to be repeating itself with most Business Users enthusiastically wanting to take up the offer, again based on past unsatisfactory experiences from IT and technology vendors; shadow IT is being touted as a good thing !

Attending the launch of a new disruptive solution, the pitch was all about self-service by anyone who wanted to use it; their journey next time…

Monday, August 08, 2016

Data, data everywhere but what do we do with it ?

“Can we do something with Machine Learning, Neural Networks, Deep Learning, Artificial Intelligence, to be better than our competitors or disrupt the market ? We are growing faster than the average, but I constantly fear where the disruption will come from to our industry”. Thus spoke a technophile CEO of a mid-sized multinational company. They had grown inorganically acquiring brands, products, and small companies in growth markets to grow and increase their product portfolio to stay relevant to their customers.

It is an exciting time to be in the technology world with technology at the center of almost every disruptive thought and asset light digital business model. It is an exciting time to be a consumer with everyone bending over backwards wanting to provide offers and promotions on anything and everything. It is indeed an exciting time to be an entrepreneur with unimaginable ideas beginning to take root and come into the realm of possibilities with fast evolving technology allowing for rapid prototyping and success.

It is a mobile first world where everyone wants their App on your phone, send you notifications, read your address book, track your location, and gather petabytes of data to analyze to eternity. Data is everywhere, it always was, though not in a form that could be capture effectively, assimilated and explored. Technology has evolved allowing semblance of sense out of stray wisps of information in the large volume of data to form pictures and scenarios; newer insights, action items progressively improving outcomes.

Big data is getting bigger, analytical tools are evolving rapidly, compute is getting faster, storage and retrieval quicker, and business hungrier for data driven insights. Democratization of technology and availability of tools creates a perception of easy pickings which continues to add to shelf ware for the IT organization. CIOs are being pushed to create new centers of excellence or hire skills that will help make the business grow faster and more profitable; consultants are filling in the gaps across the value chain with limited value delivered.

Internal innovation and new ideas are nurtured in few enterprises, this was not one of those; the company had always rewarded subservient behavior with stray incidents of brightness escaping attention. With a cautious approach to every spend in the past, managers were unable to rise to the occasion fearing being snubbed. The technology organization had decent set of tools, they were well aligned to operational IT requirements, but limited expertise and ability to shift gears into a new level of thinking and execution.

The CEO threw the challenge to the management team to come up with a plan on how the company can break away from the normal. Two quarters later there had not made any significant progress or breakthroughs. The CEO thus hired a global top consulting company to help create the roadmap for digital disruption. After three months of Workshops, brainstorming sessions, offsite and many weeks spent in conference rooms, the exercise was declared complete and the management team invited to unveiling of the new strategy.

Sounds familiar ? This is the story of almost every enterprise where information is consumed in reports from traditional ERP systems or data dumps massaged in spreadsheets. Scores of reports with columns represented in different places or one additional data element make up the repository of analysis. Smattering of dashboards at Board Meetings, Investor Conferences, and external presentations represents the visual data creation and consumption. People love their prints but also want tablet computers !

A big hole in the pocket, they had a document with multiple streams and action items; teams were created and tasked to generate new customers, markets, and disrupt competition. The consultants stayed on to oversee execution and find faults; they churned dashboards, progress reports, control towers, to keep telling the management why they had still not achieved the desired results. A year later and a bigger hole in the dwindling treasury, breakthrough success continued to elude them as competition grew fiercer.

A new age company CEO reaffirmed the hypothesis that data is the future lode mine proclaiming they generated and consumed a petabyte of information daily. His business added new revenue streams every quarter, evolving with consumer demand while shaping the market. His company had redefined the industry becoming the benchmark, taking calculated risks and staying close to the ground through the journey. He did not scoff at the old, he just decided to create a new path giving his team freedom to explore.

Can old age companies emulate such examples ? There are a few examples, but still a few; survival is not threatened for most, relevance probably is !

Monday, August 01, 2016

Harsh realities in a tender world, buying decisions gone awry

Vision of the company had received high visibility with an audacious plan and well-articulated fast track execution; everyone wanted to be associated with this new star which demonstrated some pioneering traits. Global consultants and local talent flocked to provide inputs to the team flooding them with goodwill and empowering them to create the hereto unknown foundations for similar future projects in the industry. The company had done well to define boundaries in which they needed to procure services and products.

Soliciting interest they were flooded with requests to partner leaving them spoilt for choices. They fell in the ambit of tender based selection which was run fair and square despite a few pushes and pulls from vested interests. As the project progressed, they also realized that success begets many leeches and catches attention of the unscrupulous; pressure from highly placed sources put the management in a spot freezing decision making. The grandiose plans which had brought them into the limelight now began to appear out of reach.

Rifts began to show between the well-meaning Advisors and the internal decision makers, who were finding it difficult to stay unaffected by the pressures. The goals had not shifted, path to achieving them now needed to traverse and overcome boulders and potholes that had suddenly appeared to slow them down. Each step required careful analysis of impact, outcomes and how to keep decisions fair with the highest levels of integrity. The friction started slowing decision making, bickering started and soured relationships within the team.

There are many types of enterprise buying behaviors; these are institutionalized based on past experience or driven by industry, geography and status of the company –private, public sector or government enterprise. Public and Government enterprise typically use tendering as a vehicle to evaluate potential vendors and solutions. They have fairly rigorous processes, documentation and compliance requirements which need to withstand pressures, regulatory scrutiny as well as challenges from sore losers.

Tenders were created as a process to bring in transparency and independence from biased buyers who may be influenced by various means – ethical or otherwise. Tenders require capture of detailed requirements, terms of reference and engagement, qualification criteria, timelines, definition of success and failure, and what have you. These voluminous and comprehensive documents also clearly define the process that will be used to select the final bidder thereby ensuring that no aspersions can be cast on the process or people.

Over a period of time the tendering scene became a vehicle to source the lowest cost services or merchandise for defined requirements or specifications. Technology led reverse auctions became a price discovery mechanism for the lowest cost after tender based selection for minimum viable product or service meeting specific requirements. Celebrations were short-lived with compromises associated with lowest price leading to even more rigor in the pre-selection stages with resultant delays in decision making.

To overcome the challenge, another stream evolved with Quality and Cost Based Selection or QCBS improving the decision making. Weightages could now be attached to quality and cost based on which mattered more. Typical scenarios ranged from 70-80% focus on quality to the advantage of the buyer to get better quality at a good price. The perceived highest quality provider needed to be competitive too to get the benefit of QCBS; similarly the lowest price did not guarantee business if comparative quality was low even if it met MVP.

The company had adopted QCBS with independent marquee advisors and evaluators providing their experience in the creation of the tender documents and subsequent assessment of MVP leaving the final decision to fate determined by price. Bidders big and small attempted no holds barred efforts to create high and low watermarks for their participation and leave out others citing highest value at one end to the lowest price at the other. Push, entice, threaten, cajole, plead, they tried everything and anything they could.

External advisors refused to put their credibility on the line, unwilling to bend or change their scores or dilute specifications; the dialogue broke down frequently, the outcomes now uncertain. Inaction was not an option; market reputation began to show signs of withering jolting into action some of the people who wielded power and influence over the direction the company could take. Mediating and helping the impacted stakeholders, they were able to fend off the undesirable elements paving way for an objective decision.

Myth or reality ? The story repeats itself every day in almost every organization attempting to stay above board, more so when there is a perception of incorrigible nature of the buyers created over a period of time.