Monday, September 26, 2016

Dear CIO, Don’t just align, be the business !

More than two decades back starting my life as an IT leader, I had aspirations to be an industry first and transform the company and leverage the then technological innovation – the “Internet”. Consultants and vendors joined the rising crescendo – if you are not on the Internet, your survival is at stake ! FUD created by Y2K threat was a welcome diversion for Glasshouse dwelling IT. Neither the Internet nor Y2K lived up to the disruptive promise; the subsequent squeeze on budgets did challenge IT Heads to change the paradigm.

Driven by technology evolution, the IT function transformed itself into structures with centralized, federated and other models of governance. The CIO was advised to “Align to Business” and get out of the ivory tower; frameworks offered help to the challenged, smarter ones declared themselves aligned with self-assessments. IT created demand and supply organizations to address the needs articulated by business and IT projects shifted to being jointly owned by business. The harmony however did not last too long.

“Be a Partner” became the new mantra, necessitated cohabitation of Business and IT teams and clearly defined business accountability for IT enabled projects; Business Relationship Managers were implanted across. COTS, Self-service and Cloud created opportunities to dismantle legacy as business loved the new mobility solutions that created new opportunities to engage internally and externally. Internal structures and cultures did challenge many while breakaway groups became beacons of success much written about and to be emulated by others.

Martha Heller in her new book “Be the Business” has captured journeys of many Rock Star CIOs who lived their journeys – with or just ahead of the hype curve – validating some of the theories built around their modus operandi and success. Assimilating these into almost a step by step process, the book makes great reading for existing CIOs to benchmark and make adjustments as required. Aspiring CIOs would do well to use the text as a guide to shape their behaviors as they get ready for the seat on the table and not behind it.

Interspersed CIO experiences ensures that the book is not prescriptive in disseminating pointers and tips. Martha offers that CIOs should take the bold step and risk to fill in gaps in the ever evolving technology landscape which keeps throwing demand for new competencies and capabilities fueled by every new buzzword. She goes on to dismantle the fad the Chief Digital Officer became and how CIOs who seized the moment grew into larger business roles while retaining their technology foundation or passing the baton.

The “iceberg” of IT first acknowledged in the early part of the century makes welcome refresh for large IT budgets struggling to keep the lights on or business as usual. Dismantling icebergs is a complex process and requires continued support across the enterprise without which the CIO finds it difficult to create change. Real life examples validate the need for holistic and structured approach to change and becoming Change Agents. They echo my journey in a few organizations; I wish I had the benefit of the learning available now to readers.

From the famous “IT Doesn’t Matter” by Nicholas Carr, the CIO has come a long way with business gains from automation, disrupted a few business models, co-innovated to create new products and services. Traversing the milestones I find the book easy reading with insights that offer models for CIOs to improve their success rates as they lead from the front and work in sync with business teams. As a veteran CIO blogger, I find the content resonates with my experiences and complements the learning.

Being part of the CXO team is a privilege which comes with its own set of management complexities; managing peer groups, measuring business outcomes and cascading them to the IT organization requires deft handling and setting expectations. The CIO is expected to create interventions that cut across silos while helping each functional head win their battles while the war needs to be won by the enterprise. Being the business is an equal task for the CIO who needs to keep the technology roots strong while being an equal on the Management team/Board !

Get off from your comfort zones, take a cue from the leaders who made it, your own destination and journey could inspire your teams to excel. The book is worth the investment.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Internet of Things is invading our lives in many more ways than we can imagine !

Industrial sensors have been around for a long time providing data streams to measure effectiveness and reduce breakdowns in assembly lines; these specialized solutions over the last six decades apart from automation helped faster, better, cheaper production. A score years later RFID created new possibilities with anti-theft in retail, toll payments, building management systems, supply chain track and trace, and identity management with smartcards amongst other use cases that has sustained interest in the technology.

Another two decades passed for the advent of what we know as IoT which in the initial days had imagination run wild on use cases and potential; auto-replenish refrigerators, trashcans and garbage bags posting to social media on what you consumed, it has been a wild ride for dreamers and thinkers. Two decades later, price and technology improvements have started shaping some of the whacky ideas into reality. The possibilities are exciting and scary at the same time with traceability resulting in loss of privacy for individuals and society.

Today almost all of us are being tracked by virtue of our presence on the internet and mobile phones we carry; almost all websites now what to send notifications across devices, track our movement, maps store data of directions we ask for and travel we complete; loyalty, credit and debit cards store transactions creating personas that would probably scare the hell out of us. Finally our fitness bands and smartwatches gather vital data that can influence our insurance premium, healthcare costs and medical profiles.

Current hype is all about transportation which has already seen aggregation and disintermediation on a large scale globally. Add autonomous to that and suddenly it starts impacting a large number of ancillary industries as the world moves to conveyance as a service. No more car loans or insurance, or scares with crude prices fluctuating, or breakdowns; no worries about parking slots at work or when out with friends or shopping; no traffic violations to worry about, toll payments, or upgrading the car ever so often.

The most beneficial aspects of Internet of Things come to life with Smart Cities where the number of use cases keeps increasing. Smart energy management, traffic monitoring, water management and leakage detection, waste disposal, and citizen services. Protection of energy grids or control of emissions and gases, and monitoring, surveillance of public infrastructure, law and order round up the IoT enabled services. Smart Cities also promise ubiquitous wireless connectivity to offer services and track tagged individuals.

Another benefit that the industries across have garnered is in temperature controlled logistics; food chain definitely benefits from IoT enabled trucks and vans, the bigger beneficiary has been the healthcare industry with medicines and pharma products retaining efficacy when transported and stored in defined controlled environments. The industry has boomed with the availability of efficient and reusable technologies that now dominate across use cases; though a decade after the world’s largest retailer mandated use, unit level tagging still to take off.

Irrespective of industry, IoT promises to provide new found opportunity to improve internal operational efficiencies or the way customers interact with the company. Industry wise use cases are plenty with Consultants willing to provide useful to harebrained ideas. Startups are also beginning to impact this space with innovative technologies and use cases that challenge conventional wisdom. The challenge to enterprises is to weave these into the exiting organization fabric without disrupting business as usual.

Symbiotically linked to mass adoption of IoT is the ability to analyze and mine insights from the vast pools of data that is flowing in with ever increasing speed. Our ability to store and analyze data has kept pace with the data streams that threaten to flood storage space if not managed effectively. The ability to separate the real stuff from the noise will differentiate the grades of success enjoyed by companies and their customers. Newer data sources and correlations make better actionable insights fueling the IoT wave.

It is contingent on business and technology teams to continuously explore new IoT technologies and use cases; the potential to disrupt is not always obvious at face value. Driverless cars will put out of earning more than a million people directly and many more indirectly. Smart energy sensors have already started slowing down the increase in energy consumption; IoT has also improved efficiency factors in linear production facilities and warehousing. Smarter, cheaper, and relevant is the way for IoT to keep everyone on their toes.

Don’t sit on the fence, start exploring, keep in touch, stay connected, IoT is all pervasive, use it !

Monday, September 12, 2016

Blockchain is here, where are you ?

Bitcoin has revolutionized the financial world with almost every bank, insurance provider and financial institution taking initiatives to understand the impact of the cryptocurrency and purported disintermediation of sovereign currencies as we know it today. Just a couple of years back, the big crash of the most sought after virtual currency led to the emergence of alternatives that have gained favor of cybercriminals and the likes. Today there are interesting startups leveraging the underlying technology for various use cases in the real world.

Skyrocketing valuations of these startups offering lending services threaten to take away the conventional business of banks who thrived on arbitrage between the borrowing and savings pools. It is forcing banks to review their centralized model of managing information, settlements and transfer of deeds. Other industries are being pushed by FUD factor to incorporate blockchain somewhere within their technology landscape; experiments thus far have not provided clear use cases on how they can benefit.

With limitations on physical scalability of any business, CIOs and CDOs are being pushed to create non-linear scalable architectures to support networked business models for the future. Disruptors in transportation and hospitality space have given impetus to other industries to get out of the box and engage in network centric thinking. It is moving away from infrequent sales or provision of services to an asset lite subscription based digitally enabled models co-created by customers, fueled by big data analytics.

Simplistically blockchain is a cryptographically secure tamperproof distributed set of blocks organized into a database or ledger offering non-repudiation and immutability for any transaction. Implementation is complex involving a network of nodes created by public or micro-consortium, which may be geographically distributed across political boundaries with limited jurisdiction by governments and enterprises. Thus cryptocurrencies are the first choice for anonymous transactions as no central authority tracks or has the ability to track ownership data.

Stock markets, smart contracts, authentication data on copyrighted material or physical goods tagged with data verifying its source by recording milestones of its journey are some of the innovative experiments using blockchain. Some global companies have started experimenting with the security features with protection of assets of national interest like power plants and distribution networks, clean water supply, and finally creating a digital trust network enhancing existing solutions like federated PKI.

Experts and Insiders have always dismissed disruptive opportunities, starting from the horse-carriage, Personal Computer, mobile telephony, Internet, and the smartphone ! This time around the rapid evolution and rise of blockchain’s most popular implementation Bitcoin in less than a decade including falls has brought this technology to everyone’s attention. Money is chasing opportunity and none dare conservative predictions on the potential future impact or ignore its disruptive nature driven by increasing global interest especially in Fintech.

Can retail industry embrace blockchain in the as yet evolving omni-channel world providing trust of authenticity and guarantees to the customer ? Is it possible for manufacturing to move away from low cost mass production to unit level customized products assured by blockchain delivered to consumers with flexible manufacturing and 3D printed products ? Can distributed information using blockchain change the way information is stored, consumed and protected, allowing only rightfully permissioned access ?

The question remains when blockchain will see the S-curve of that most technologies see after initial trials and tribulations. The charge needs to be led by technology leaders considering the not so simple nature of implementation; it was heartening to observe a group of CIOs who have already started dabbling in cryptocurrencies and how it could if at all impact their respective industries. Another group hit by ransomware was forced to figure out payments using bitcoins, one of the popular cryptocurrencies.

Beyond the Proof of Concepts, I believe that enterprises need to create cross-functional teams from compliance, risk and internal audit to assess impact on internal process and customers. Blockchain benefits accrue within groups or micro-consortiums participating together; however large groups can reduce collaboration effectiveness and decision making. Speed of execution still remains a challenge with blockchain; having said that technology is evolving rapidly to bridge the gap from current transactional technologies.

Reality is Blockchain will become mainstream sooner or later; where are you ?

Monday, September 05, 2016

If you are a CIO, you better know your domain and industry, else …

For every industry regulatory compliance is a given with no exceptions; these are local to the enterprise home country or in the markets they operate in, and dependent on products and services. In such situations there is always a choice of vendors who offer solutions to solve the problem at hand. These vary from local providers who grow with the industry and tailor their offerings to evolving needs; and then there are global providers who offer deep and wide solutions for large enterprises.

The conversation started by stating the problem the industry was facing and how it was expected to impact revenue and profitability in the near term followed by the standard sales pitch on how they were better than competition and why the assembled companies should consider their solution. The audience comprising of potential customers represented by CIOs, IT teams and few business folks agreed with the problem statement in varying degrees based on their frame of reference and charted journey which was their reality.

We started working on the problem three years back with the Board endorsing the strategy and approving the investment. We have almost completed the project and are now auditing what we have done. We comply with current requirements and are ready for the upcoming regulations deadline. We welcome your team to review our current state of readiness and highlight lacunae if any so that we are sure of our status. Please ask your teams to get in touch with me so that we can work together on this initiative.

Our business operations are not very large in the markets that require compliance to upcoming regulation; they have scaled down a bit in the last year or so due to some issues. We did start a couple of years back and took a step by step approach to solving the problem; my colleague here leads the initiative. There are a few gaps in our current readiness and we would be happy to explore your offerings to evaluate the value proposition. Let’s connect back after a few weeks and take the discussion forward.

Local vendors have given us the solution that complies with current requirements; they have offered to continuously develop the product based on evolving needs and deploy when we want it. Our Management has taken a decision not to deploy any solution until absolutely necessary. My team leader would know the exact status, I am not aware of the details; I will speak with them and revert on where we are in the journey. Once I have the status, I will reconnect if there is a need; in the meanwhile send me some information.

Three different perspectives from seasoned CIOs, each had spent over a decade in the industry; their respective companies were market leaders and competed fiercely with each other. Their journey towards compliance were spread across the spectrum with varied strategies and solutions – local and global. What was surprising though is their level of involvement, understanding, preparedness and attitude to critical business process that could adversely impact revenue, market share, and profitability.

The conversations also depict domain expertise and connect within the enterprise to the business and its challenges and opportunities. The first company is clearly a leader in usage of technology which the industry also hails. The second has experienced some trials and tribulations which has left the company losing market share, profitability and reputation. Progressively you will surmise that the last would be in the most disadvantageous position ! At least not at the moment, though their current stance may result in such a position.

Gigabytes have been written about the evolving CIO, role, opportunity in the digital world, CIO 3.0 and what have you ! CIOs have also been threatened by disruptions and the opinionated passing judgement on their future. The role has survived, evolved and many have thrived; unfortunately with the multi-dimensional nature of rising expectations, the numbers are beginning to dwindle. It is not that CIOs have lost touch or ability to make IT work, it is just that they are not in a position of influence when it comes to business.

Leaders are expected to not just make a difference internally but also be seen as beacons of light for others to follow; they need to shape opinions and outcomes for the industry while leading from the front. CIOs who achieve this are the ones that get written about in magazines, have case studies, and are seen in seminars and conferences on the dais, while the rest make up the audience. I believe that the true CIOs will continue to forge new paths while the rest of the industry will wait for early adopters to follow.

Where are you in the journey ?