Monday, March 27, 2017

Business is running faster than the rest of the enterprise in the Digitalization journey

We like what we have seen so far and the initial proof of concept reinforces that this solution will work well for us. The use cases are quite clear and we can work on prioritizing the four models that we have discussed and finalized. The pipeline of additional opportunities and use cases can be confirmed in the coming days; the teams should work to define these in the near term. You can work with IT and Procurement to complete the infrastructure requirements and the terms of reference. How quickly can it be deployed ?

The vendor loved the diktat like a dream come true; they had invested significant time and effort on their first big potential customer, the scale up opportunity validated their product vision. Business team pushing the deployment added to the excitement with the senior team members throwing their weight behind closure on both sides. The solution provided a significant boost to the digital thrust that the enterprise had embarked upon based on the vision of the Board; it also challenged existing legacy and conventional solutions.

Off went the mini delegation to the IT team designated by the CIO for the prestigious project; they completed their planning for the infrastructure, data integration, impact to other processes and systems, deployment and scale up. Dependence on other groups and vendors were acknowledged and their timelines incorporated into the project plan. The extended timeline did not please any of the stakeholders but was accepted as the most realistic plan which could be executed without any further delay or disruption.

Sequentially the process moved to Procurement, the last stage gate before the project starts rolling. True to reputation and their KPIs, they started with the contract, inclusions and exclusions, licensing models, and outcomes that the solution would deliver. Each tenet was discussed, debated, demands going from unreasonable to giving up some ground, as time rolled by, much to the chagrin of business who wanted the new technology to leapfrog competition with a differentiated offering that would take time to catch up.

The final step to get off the ground – financial negotiation – introduced a new element into the mix, the Finance team because the values were quite large and the vendor as yet small unknown entity. They started from the beginning to discuss what, why, when, who and asked for alternatives against which the solution was benchmarked. Other software that the company had bought were not as expensive, so why is this one ? How much is the discount over list price ? Are we really the first customer in this segment ?

It took some effort to get them moving towards closure; the business head and the CIO, both pushed hard to retain the early adopter advantage in their industry; there were others who were talking and that is where they risked leadership position. With the criticality that time represented, the Board nudged the team to expedite the decision; chastised suitably, the teams closed the deal grudgingly at a value that they believed was higher than what they would have agreed to if they had the time at their disposal to negotiate.

With time lost in the process, suddenly everyone wanted the solution implemented yesterday; the CIO hustled the team to take up the work on priority, the vendor allotted their best resources to the project, and business provided program management and domain expertise. Ancillary vendors were pressurized to deliver in unreasonable time, most obliged so as to not attract the ire of one of their premier customers; the solution was ready and began to churn out changed business outcomes that pushed competition to the edge.

Support from the Board and leadership team ensured that the rigor to monitor did not falter and the promise of deliverables was kept. The Board acknowledged the initiative and associated results, the support provided by the IT team as well as the leadership demonstrated by the Business Head. It was a case of good governance winning with results that mattered. Doubters if any did not raise their concerns or pollute the environment that was committed to putting their best effort to succeed, truly a team effort.

Today, business has taken over the reins of technology led transformation not wanting to leave their future in the hands of technologists. They are taking control and shaping their destiny in the ever changing and disruptive world of digital innovation. Every new technology threatens to challenge conventional business models and legacy systems which constrain agile movement to counter new startups who have nothing to lose. Acquisitions make up for the lost opportunities at a significantly higher cost.

Stay hungry !

Monday, March 20, 2017

Will bots kill the call center outsourcing business ?

I was at a conference where an animated, heated, passionate discussion was happening between members representing the technology players’ leadership team and some customers. It was quite obvious that there was a difference of opinion leading to a disagreement on the subject. There were multiple points of view which added to the liveliness of the debate. The conference organized by an independent organization was on one of the currently hot technologies – artificial intelligence and its manifestation in the form of bots.

The Structure of words determine segmentation methodology and parsing for semantic analysis, tasks that can now be done with higher accuracy though complete sentences require additional facts and external world knowledge. For written text in a chat session, the bot is able to hold fort quite successfully when addressing well-defined tasks and decision trees. Many online portals and businesses have already deployed chat bots to supplement agents who step in when the bot is unable to parse and respond to a question.

Eliza was seen as a breakthrough, so are personal assistants who respond to and act upon simple tasks using basic language parsing tools. While the technology is nascent, attempts to make computers chat with humans have been around for over half a century. Current experiments indicate that they can be purposed for specific tasks. Excitement revolves around automated interactions to improve efficiency and reduce cost in comparison to current models of humans talking to customers for customer support issues.

The Natural Language Processing (NLP) journey that began with SHRDLU has improved significantly with Machine Learning and Deep Learning. The ability to pass the Turing Test (the test investigates whether people can detect if they are talking to machines or humans) is still some time away, though we are getting closer to the milestone. Though some may claim that Eugene passed the test a couple of years back, many do not agree with the results. Artificial Intelligence barrier is yet to be crossed convincingly.

As bots mature and they are evolving fast, their ability to manage specific tasks is already giving organizations the benefit of consistent responses to basic and mundane queries; use cases around query and response of HR systems on leave balances, tax options, and others have been successfully deployed. Externally airlines and hospitality industry have taken the lead while inside our homes personal assistants are making an appearance; the biggest driver however has been the smartphone listening, responding and taking actions.

Call centers and IVR systems continue to drive customers crazy with long decision trees and stupid obvious questions; wait times add to the woes of the frustrated customer. Offshore call centers did reduce the cost but faced backlash on other social impact it created. Bots promise to take up the challenge and address the customer with agility and surprisingly improved outcomes. The rich repository of information and past interactions helps the rules engine train effectively and take decisions objectively.

As the cost of deployment continues to fall with mass development and niche players, companies are slowly embracing this revolution. Which brings to fore the point that will they be able to replace humans in call centers as the bot learns and graduates to the next level of interactions ? Recent times have seen the rise of hullabaloo about jobless growth and the disappearance of low end jobs to be replaced by machines; as the gap to the Turing Test reduces, the probability that they can starts staring us in the face.

The job loss is indeed going to impact destinations that build their business models around calls and low end business process outsourcing (BPO). Many existing players have already started upgrading skills as well as retrain staff for other roles; enterprises will ruthlessly choose efficiency over distant loss of employment even if it involves initial high investment. Are there options available to current players ? It is a race against time for incumbents to move up the value chain or become irrelevant to their customers.

Unless, unless they embellish their services with bots and attack their own business before someone else does. A handful of providers with strong technology backing from within or their parent companies are beginning to offer value added services using bots thereby changing their customer acquisition and retention strategies aligned to the new reality. They are using their rich knowledge repository to train the technology solution towards addressing existing and new problems thus opening up opportunities.

A system is as good as the people who build it; in the end it will be humans who will continue to create the differentiator !

Monday, March 13, 2017

Flashback ! 15 years on, security breaches have only gotten worse

Rummaging through my archives I came across a presentation I had made in a large IT conference fifteen years back to the date. The subject line had me wondering if I had made a fool of myself in the gathering considering that the topic was not my core expertise, though I was a bit enamored by the discipline. Memory is kind and there is no recollection of being booed off stage or being in an uncomfortable position. The presumptuous title of the presentation was “How to protect your enterprise from being hacked”!

Organizations get hacked for many reasons, though most of the hacks in recent times were attributable to human error, lapse in controls, malice towards existing or ex-coworkers or bosses and finally social engineering resulting in compromised data which allowed nefarious elements to gain access and control of information assets for potential future misuse. There were also few brute force attacks as well as skilled hackers who could break the firewall and other technologies that protect the digital ecosystem.

The past decade and half has seen exponential growth in devices connecting to the internet; what started as basic email on mobile, extranets and the surge with the dotcom bubble has grown beyond the predictions of all kind of futurists and consultants surviving the blips due to dot bust and many years later the subprime crisis. M2M, IoT and connected consumer devices have already added to the exposed digital fabric available, vulnerable to attacks as well as errors and omissions by people who configure and monitor.

Back then before the turn of the century reported security incidents were a handful; current reality is 10X of that and for clarity these are reported numbers. Guestimates on the actual number portray a similar multiplier on the reported number. The difference lies in BYOD which has removed the mobile end user compute from purview of the enterprise subduing the number. Smartphones and Tablets, wireless hotspots, public internet kiosks and free terminals at airports, all have helped in accessing information anytime, anywhere.

For IT organizations threat vectors multiplied sending them on a quest for better security and balancing the demand and need for access to corporate systems. Controls and checks soon became bureaucratic with everyone wanting to connect as a result of undue corporate pressures. The number of breaches continues to rise with IT security playing catchup. MDM anyone ? Locked USB ports, containerized phones, IRM enabled documents, the world has changed while we continue to stay exposed with cookies/mobile app trackers.

Globally, Governments have giving a thrust to digital e-governance and citizen services; identities and records of interactions with Government, tax filing, health records, bank statements, what have you, almost everything is digitized across most countries with varied degrees of information security policies, processes and technology. Access via mobiles and apps is the base expectation which needs to be fulfilled; feature phones too have been enabled using USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) which can be compromised.

Interestingly time to uncover a breach has now increased from weeks to many months and in rare cases more than a year; this rise is despite availability of plethora of solutions. Software is getting bulkier, crammed with features; integration with other solutions is now the norm exposing solutions with potentially unfixed or insecure APIs (application programming interface) from third parties. Unfortunately security wrappers and multi-factor authentication make solutions unwieldy or complex to end users.

Fifteen years back the discussion was about security policies, management endorsement and budget allocation; it was about protection from insiders – disgruntled employees and contractors. One of the key elements of an information security strategy was education of involved stakeholders, their responsibilities, dos and don’ts. Today is still about security policies, more controlled that clearly separate the personal from enterprise; earlier digital access was controlled by hierarchy and exception, today exceptions to the rule for business is the norm.

I wish I could give a presentation today with the same confidence and aplomb that I did decade and a half back; technology has swamped our lives with blurring boundaries between technology at work and personal use. The continuum with high dependence on devices and tether to the internet for almost everything, logs our daily activities in the background only to be used against us. Enterprises struggle to create a balance between storing data on the cloud and enterprise vaults only to discover that neither are safe.

Reality is that most of your data is out there available for pennies to whosoever wants it whether you like it or not !

Monday, March 06, 2017

One step forward, two steps back, managing change with new software implementations !

The need was dire, the staff wanting and IT team willing, but the company management for some reason did not take a decision to approve the project. Almost everyone in the industry had the tools required for the tasks, it was basic hygiene to say the least; growth despite not having the tools set in a belief that they did not need them. When a new IT head came onboard, he was pushed into a corner to take up the cause on behalf of the Sales & Marketing team and try his luck in getting approval for the investment.

It is not that they did not have any technology solution running; they were among the early ones to deploy laptops for majority of their teams though the solution they were using required replacement yesterday. Everyone had given up on the solution which was supported by a small time vendor who had built it about a score of years back and had continued to patch it just enough to keep it alive and going; rumor had it that he was related to someone at the top. The newbie decided to take a shot and worked to gather the data meticulously to support his case for change.

He stepped out into the field to first-hand experience the angst and pain, validate the hearsay and the extent of change required. Spending time with the young and the experienced, walking the streets, having a cup of coffee on the streets, quickly the empathy built and he heard stories of long hours spent, favoritism and management apathy, the dam had broken – he was flooded with their emotion. He was informed that it is probably the first time in a decade that any CXO had descended to the trenches.

Upset but in a controlled way he presented the facts to the group in the Boardroom seeking their flirting eyes to make contact and press for a decision. Outlining the stark reality he appealed to the Management to wake up and face the reality of slowly diminishing market share. The S&M head added his weight and sought resolution to the long standing impasse. He did manage to get a conditional approval, the condition surprisingly to involve the Finance team in the evaluation ! Finance for a S&M solution ?

So they set together a team to formulate the functional selection criteria – more of an aspirational list of functionality in comparison to current reality and in-line with external reality. The options were known and well understood, so the run through happened quickly, the recommendation based on market leadership and ease of use and deployment. The Finance team reviewed the cost against current outflow and found it to be higher, unwilling to take into consideration the better capability, efficiency gain and superior technology.

Escalation to the CFO brought in a new dimension to benchmark with global systems; the team turned around the evaluation in record time and presented the same. A fashion parade followed with lofty claims and global metrics, some of which did not matter, but in the end based on extraneous factors the CFO declared the evaluation closed and selected a global solution with a much higher budgetary allocation and timeline. This was finally presented to the Management as the best course of action.

The decision disconnected from reality was shot down, the CFO smarting the turndown attempted to gain an upper hand by taking the popular choice and setting unreasonable demands on time, functionality and cost. The IT Head and the S&M team could see through the charade; no one however dared to raise the red flag and to whom ? Despite this adversity, the project started in earnest, everyone giving it their best effort; usage increased as the new was far superior to the old and offered succor to the underserved.

Fault had to be found in the unwelcome success, and the Finance team did by challenging the data, the authenticity of inputs, denying the outcome, the project started losing credibility. Repeating a lie consistently sowed the seeds of doubt and put to rest an initiative that could have succeeded overcoming all challenges. They reverted back to the old faithful shoe with holes, hobbling back to their painful existence and journey. An opportunity to regain market leadership was lost in egoist behavior and lack of protest.

One step forward, two steps back; a year and more spent in the entire exercise, precious time and resources allotted for a naught, the loser was the enterprise in the war of the old versus the new, misplaced metrics for business and project that would have brought in business transformation. Many years later the organization has continued to remain under the shadow of the failed venture, the will broken, confidence missing, and the experience bitter. The CFO and IT Head have moved on leaving behind a case study !