Archive for the ‘IT Strategy’ Category

Integration is so easy, IT can’t do it!

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

I stumbled across Mike Vizard’s post, Managing Borderless Applications.  Mike’s contention is that IT is facing a support headache caused by integration that they don’t know about.  Integration carried out by business users using web based tools integrating web based applications.  Integrations and automations that will ultimately become mission critical, and then break, at which point the business will stare over at IT and ask for help.  And, as web apps race for ubiquity, this problem will inevitably increase.

It is an interesting conundrum that we spent a lot of time thinking about at Blue Prism.  The reason business users run off and do their own integration, is because IT takes too long to deliver in the context of the speed of business today. So the business gets its solution quickly, but this type of end user computing carries a high risk of failure in the medium term due to lack of documentation, security, maintenance and support.

We realised that end-user integration and process automation, whilst technically possible, needs controlling.  The trick is to find the balance between IT discipline and user freedom and flexibility.

We found that this works best if IT sets out a corridor of governance within which the business users can operate.  Some of the components of this approach need to be built into the integration/automation technology.  Some need to come from a new “light touch” governance methodology that both IT and the business subscribe to.

The business gets an agile response to rapidly changing business requirements, but IT knows about the computing initiatives and helps the business to deliver them within a supported environment.

Not easy to resolve, but worth the effort for the competitive advantage that comes from agile operations.

Public sector IT spending freezes

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

UK Government austerity measures continue to bite.  I see Computer Weekly reporting that HMRC is freezing spending on “routine improvements”  to systems.

But Operations still needs to operate right?  Taxes and NI still must be collected.  So are the systems merely going to be allowed to decay?  How can Operations adapt to challenging new requirements?

Public sector operations will need a new response and I think Business Led Computing may be coming of age.  Technologies that enable business operations to self serve some of their IT and process automation requirements, can release 20-30% of operational cost savings, with minimal impact on the IT cost base.

Otherwise the only solution is to increase staff, and that increases costs.  Hmmm….

Business Ops should have more control

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Do you remember the days of early websites?  Come on you don’t have to be that old.  I wrote a paper for my Masters in 1997 that recommended that banks, for example, ought to have more transactional websites even though, at the time, there was not a huge business case for the investment.  Hard to believe that was only 13 years ago.

In those days, if your organisation was lucky enough to have a website, you were starting to gain competitive advantage.  Especially if you could keep it up to date more quickly than your competitors.

However, that depended on your IT dept and an army of HTML programmers, who wanted a specification, a design document, a test environment, methodology, design authority, sign off procedures etc etc.

Then someone invented Content Management Systems.  The purpose of a CMS was to enable the business to make their own website changes in real time but, and this is a crucial but, within a corridor of governance enabled by the IT dept.  So it was possible to change the text, but not corrupt customer data.  It was possible to change pictures, but not corporate design rules.  It was possible to change the database contents, but not the database itself.  So business users can do a whole load of useful stuff without the risk of bringing down the site.

Of course, other governance is required.  Someone still needs to take responsibility for the content that, in an instant, is representing your organisation around the globe.  But without this level of flexibility how can your company compete with the speed of business today?

This type of flexibility (I prefer to think of it as agility) is now finding its way into the operational world.  Giving business ops a way of doing their own process integration, orchestration and execution for example is freeing the business to react to the daily challenges of the changing world.  At Blue Prism we call it Business Led Computing.  It is a growing movement.  People are used to being able to do their own computing at home.  The next big thing in corporate computing might just be self serve.

Complex IT programs need contingency

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

British journal, Computer Weekly, is reporting on a fallout between British Gas and Accenture over a billing system implementation.  I have neither fact nor rumour to comment on the legal case.  However, it is another example of how major IT programs carry inherent complexity and when things don’t work out quite as planned, for whatever reason, it is helpful to have some backup capability.

British Gas reported having to recruit “thousands” of staff at a cost of more than £180M.  Blue Prism works with a number of customers using its Operational Agility Software to help with projects that are de-scoped, re-scoped at short notice or where implementations are painful and require manual workarounds for periods of time.  Whether this be a conversion or migration issue, fulfilling incomplete scope, or coping with unforeseen last minute changes, Blue Prism customers have a back up plan.

I am interested in hearing other ways of insuring against major IT program implementation difficulties.

Agile Methods is still an IT project

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I was chatting to the Head of Change at a global energy company last week.  His view of Agile was that it was a good way of delivering “IT projects” but it is still constrained by many of traditional IT project costs and timescales, notably upfront costs of setting up the team, infrastructure, and working on the design.

My understanding of Agile (which I admit is limited) is that the twin objectives are to increase the speed of delivery and to improve the match between business requirements and delivered functionality.  Anything that does that has to be applauded.

However, this is not enough for this energy company.  Extending the concept of IT delivery further leads inevitably to business self serve, and why not?  Almost everyone has a self serve capability in their private lives.  We can do our own bank transactions, make purchases, publish a website (like this one), engage in conversations and much more, all using software that is designed for ease of use and personal autonomy.

Yet in our business lives, to make the tiniest change in our working practice requires a Change Request, supported by a business case, submitted to change control, considered, categorised and prioritised, designed (if you are lucky), and finally built and delivered.

The energy co’s vision is to empower the business operation to build its own IT, quickly, cost effectively and tested to meet their exact specification.  The solution may stand the test of time, or it may be replaced, or it may be rolled into a later IT project.  But the operations teams get the chance to do something with incredible speed and negligible cost.

In one sense this should fill us with horror due to the lack of governance and control.  But if these things can be reconciled in the enterprise, imagine the organisational power that is released.

Most service organisations are trying to push decision making control, authority and execution out to end customers.  Whether you call it Straight Through Processing, Customer Self Serve, or Customer Empowerment the objective is to improve customer convenience whilst simultaneously reducing processing costs.

Aren’t we missing the guys in the middle here?  What about business operations?  What about their agility?

Death of Enterprise IT startups?

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

I had been mulling over writing a post about enterprise IT buying behaviour in relation to smaller vendors.  Then I spotted Joe McKendrick’s piece Why are enterprise IT startups vanishing?

Joe is bang on the money that enterprise IT has become so complex that startups are disincentivised.  With my CEO of Blue Prism hat on (we are not one of Joe’s big five), I thought I would add my thoughts to the debate.

Large enterprises like buying IT from large vendors.  Minimise the number of suppliers, and negotiate hard.  Reduce management and procurement costs.  Nobody really wants tangential relationships with small suppliers that might go out of business (or get bought by Computer Associates).

So enterprise activity, driven by corporate IT, has created rules and procedures.  A frustrated startup might think of them as guard dogs, fences, sentries and barbed wire, with the sole objective of keeping new vendors at bay.  IT calls this a supplier consolidation strategy and you can see why it makes sense on the face of it.

Even when a small vendor gets some limelight in a corporate account, they have to fund increasingly long and expensive sales cycles.  Free Proofs of Concept, deferred licence fees, an intricate (and near infinite) maze of decision makers to negotiate, and pressure from enterprise procurement to “recognise the reputational gain of working for us” – in other words drop price.

This is all bad for innovation because large vendors are not innovators.  They are not incentivised to innovate, nor agile enough to do so.  Quite the reverse.  So the enterprise actually loses out.  The lost opportunity of delivering real benefits by simply acting and delivering change quickly. Acting in this way may produce a small number of failures, but I believe that the overall benefit to the enterprise from increased agility and speed to deployment for the successful projects will more than compensate.

Nonetheless, startups need to acknowledge and accept that selling to the enterprise is much harder, much slower, and much more expensive than it used to be.  Investors have already realised this and diverted their funds towards companies in the Cloud, SaaS and virtualisation spaces because there is an apparent shortening of the sales cycle, partly by bypassing IT and selling straight to the business.  This leaves “traditional” enterprise IT startups struggling for funds, struggling for sales and struggling for recognition.

The good news for enterprise IT startups is, that it is now an underinvested space.  This, I believe, will create fewer but more exciting, and less competition bound, innovation opportunities.  In the end the economic case wins out.  If startups can find the most compelling of propositions, then corporate IT will ultimately adopt the innovation or have to find an alternative.  If I was investing right now, I would be looking for enterprise IT innovation.

Joe argues that most enterprises don’t have “anywhere near” the agility promised by SOA, cloud and Enterprise 2.0.  I agree that there is plenty of room for innovation and smart startups are the sparks that will create new fires in this space.

IT – Provider or adviser?

Friday, March 26th, 2010

There is an interesting article over at Outside the Box by Todd Biske.

If IT is providing less software and less hardware to the business as a result of industry trends towards SaaS, virtualisation, cloud etc, then what is left to “provide” other than advice.  Todd contends that whilst it is obvious that IT should play a more advisory role to the business, execution of that vision is harder than it first appears.

I happen to think that it is good for an organisation to buy SaaS et al through the IT function and that IT has a key strategic and advisory role.  I find it helpful to think of IT and the Business as a supplier and customer relationship.  For such a relationship to work, though, there needs to be a commercial element and competition.  In other words IT should have a clear recharging structure to the business – not just hide costs as IT overheads on the corporate P & L.  Equally the business needs to have the choice to buy IT elsewhere, if it feels that it can get better service or lower costs.

All things being equal, all but the most inept internal IT functions ought to be able to deliver IT services to the business most efficiently:

  1. because they are not under pressure to make a profit – merely break even
  2. because they have zero sales and pre-sales costs
  3. because they have intimate knowledge of the organisation

External suppliers (and I include SaaS and the like) do have some advantages, of course, such as providing a more flexible resource pattern to manage peaks and troughs, and being able to share expensive specialist resources (human and capital) across accounts.

One step at a time, though, and addressing Todd’s point about executing against the vision, I guess I am trying to argue here that if IT thinks of the business as a customer and starts acting as a supplier (with or without any commercial implications) then the advisory role is automatic.

This is one subject where I am in rare disagreement with Nick Malik.

Why IT and the business don’t trust each other

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Ask any business operations head what they think of their IT department and they will moan about IT being too slow, not connected enough to business strategy, too focussed on its own goals, too expensive, not addressing everyday business needs etc.

In truth, most experienced business heads are a bit more pragmatic than that.  They understand the IT side of the argument.  The importance of data integrity and security, system stability, centralised procurement of technology, coherent architectural strategy.

Whilst these are all very plausible and necessary requirements, the fact is that the speed of modern business requires operational responses measured in hours and days, rather than the months and years associated with traditional IT projects.

IT people are not dumb.  They recognised this ages ago.  Initiatives like SOA and BPMS are designed to provide business flexibility, speed of response, agility.  But these are major IT programmes in themselves and in business eyes can take too long to deliver even small benefits.  They can also be disproportionately costly, so the economic case only makes sense for major business requirements.  What about the 750 item (and growing) change list?

The business is coming under ever greater pressure to reduce headcount so the old option of simply recruiting a few more operational staff is no longer available.

The result is that well intentioned business ops people create their own solutions under the guise of “end user computing” but more likely referred to by EAs as “Rogue IT”.  Spreadsheets, local databases, emulator macros, even amateur VB programming.  All delivered without any control, governance or thought for future maintenance.  So, guess who gets called in to fix a “mission critical” system when the creators have moved on?

No wonder IT doesn’t trust the business to do IT.

The last thing IT needs is maverick business users creating their own solutions, so maybe they clamp down on end user computing, causing further frustration in the business.  A spiralling circle of distrust is normally masked by a resigned acceptance of “that’s just the way things are”.

Random quote I’ve heard from an operational head “IT have slowed the organisation down to a pace where we can’t react to business opportunities and it takes an age to get anything done”.

Random quote I’ve heard from an EA “Business Ops are continually doing their own skunkworks initiatives with no regard to data protection laws, system resilience, disaster recovery or central IT strategy and yet when they fall flat on their face, it becomes our problem to fix”.

As an external vendor interacting with business and IT, I can genuinely see both sides of this argument.  I also think there are ways of reconciling the two views.  More in a later post.

Hard times inspiring IT innovation?

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

I picked up this from James McGovern’s excellent blog today:

“In case you haven’t noticed, we are in a recession and modern CIOs aren’t struggling with how to purchase SAP or other large dollar multiple year packages.  They are however struggling with how to optimize their processes, how to leverage the technology they already have, and novel ways to innovatively deploy products they have installed in their data centers.”

In my opinion hard times bring out the best in people.  Another way of saying this is that necessity is the mother of invention.

Innovation is not, however, the exclusive domain of the IT function.

I hope that what emerges from the current economic climate is a more harmonious relationship between IT and the Business.  One in which innovative ideas are shared and not owned by one side or the other.  One in which collaboration, delegation, responsibility and ownership are not dirty words but positive statements of adding value to the enterprise.

As you will see from older posts on this blog, the relationship between IT and the Business gets me fired up, so it has prompted me to start blogging again.

Rock IT guides British Government policy

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

I’m a bit behind the curve on this story but it is incredible to think that the decision to nationalise Northern Rock was influenced by the inflexibility of its IT systems.

According to a National Audit Office report, the Government considered winding Northern Rock down but IT systems would have struggled to return funds to savers in an appropriate time frame which could have caused another run on the bank.

This is a classic unplanned event.  A major change that requires a super rapid response.  In today’s world where the only certainty is uncertainty, how does a business plan for events that it cannot even contemplate or conceive right now?

A new level of flexibility is needed from tomorrow’s IT systems.  At Blue Prism we are delivering an Operational Agility Platform to various leaders in customer service helping to create an operational capability to manage change – both planned and unplanned.