Operational Agility is here

April 5th, 2010

I have renamed this site to align more closely with my current thoughts and with Blue Prism’s proposition.

I don’t think this will confuse too many people since the weblog was idle for some time during which the traffic dissipated greatly.

This is not just another vendor CEO selling his wares.  I am more interested in exploring related, tangential and broader industry ideas.  I am interested in hearing from people with similar (or opposing) views.

If you want to read about Blue Prism you can do so at www.blueprism.com.

Death of Enterprise IT startups?

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?

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

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?

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.

IT too clever? Not half!

May 18th, 2009

I’ve just read an interesting opinion piece in British Computing mag by Martin Butler.

He contends that the IT industry has “lost sight of its primary goal of reducing information management costs” and allowed IT estates to become way too complex.

I agree and I know countless operational people, the customers of IT, who are exasperated not only at the complexity of their IT, but perhaps more importantly the amount of time and money it now takes to make even the simplest of changes.

Martin’s anecdotal evidence of people resorting to spreadsheet management, or “passing around bits of paper” is depressing and as he points out, not the answer.

The reason I am interested in this subject is that Blue Prism is pioneering a new concept in computing aimed at simplifying corporate IT and the way it is interpreted and used by the business.

Freeing the business operation to fulfil its own integration and automation needs, and start hammering the growing IT change list is one thing.  But doing that with workarounds like spreadsheets or bits of paper or hiring temporary staff is ungoverned, insecure and not exactly scalable.  Blue Prism proposes an IT supported software platform, supported by a thorough methodology that business users can work within to make sense of the complexity, improve service, manage ongoing change, and above all reduce costs.

We call this an Operational Agility Platform, but the idea of operational agility is far from limited to Blue Prism.  As Martin suggests, there is evidence of a movement emerging “a revolt is under way”.  I prefer to think of it in the passive voice as a revolution as I don’t support the notion that operational people are revolting!

Streamline.net plumbs new depths

April 15th, 2009

The former ISP of this blog is not 100% well regarded in this part of the world.

I sacked Streamline nearly 12 months ago but now they are trying to debit my account for another year’s fees.  I have been forced to change my debit card to stop them.

I enquired about how to cancel my account using the customer service support ticket system on their website.  This is the system that, as a customer, is the only possible way of getting any response out of Streamline.net.

Now I no longer want to be a customer – guess what?  To close my account I have to call a premium rate number where, surprise surprise, I sit in a queue that costs me more than next year’s subscription.  No reply in 20 minutes.

Am I the only one that thinks this is shoddy?

Rock IT guides British Government policy

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.

SOA bleeding heavily but not dead yet

April 1st, 2009

I saw an article in British Computer Weekly this morning by Jim Mortleman “SOA in the cloud”.

The basic premise of the article is that whilst the hype around SOA is overblown (no, really?!) the fundamental concept is good.  So the solution is…….change the name to cloud computing and press on.

I have been pretty right wing in my views on SOA in the past but I do genuinely believe that the concept is brilliant.  It is delivery that is flawed and there are two good reasons for this:

1.  Organisations take on too big a challenge in trying to deliver a service oriented architecture.  Grand vision = grand design = big bang = big cost = big risk = failed project.  There has to be a more incremental way of getting to SOA.

2.  SOA projects are almost always run by IT people.  No wonder they never meet business requirements.  Put business leaders in charge and watch the priorities change.

I spend a large portion of my life talking to senior customer service professionals.  The common story is that they are tired of IT projects that don’t deliver, and IT departments that cannot respond to change at the speed of business.

Change happens!  New product launches, regulatory change, product promotions, merger/acquisition, processing errors.  Shouldn’t SOA be enabling the business to provide appropriate responses to such change?

If the principles of SOA are to succeed, it is not going to happen by nomenclature, or adding more layers of complexity.  IT professionals need to distil SOA into simpler, more incremental, more business focussed chunks, and empower the business with platforms that enable them to react to everyday change without the usual lead times.

I believe that the ability to make a business operation truly agile will be one of the defining competitive advantages of the next decade.

2008 Predictions – how did I do?

December 12th, 2008

Last year, just for a bit of fun, I joined the ill advised forecasting fraternity and soothsayed my way through 2008 making wild guesses about UK enterprise software trends.  Looking back, how did I do?

  1. The credit crunch will continue to affect IT spending for 2008.  This will mean a trend away from major IT projects and smaller more incremental projects will be more in vogue.  A new born baby could have predicted this one but I certainly didn’t envisage the scale of the problem caused by Lehmans in September!
  2. The length of time senior people stay in post is ever reducing.  This will continue to drive short termism and this will strengthen the enterprise resolve to look for incremental, rather than big bang change.  Executive bonuses are frequently paid against cost/income ratios or short term profits.  Major investments in large capital projects do not pay back in the required time period to fulfil bonus aspirations.  I don’t have any data on this but I sense it is even more pertinent right now as we stare gloomily into a “short term or bust” depression.
  3. Software as a Service (SaaS) and the like will become increasingly adopted by the enterprise as business users vote with their feet on offerings from the internal IT department that are too slow, too expensive and too capital hungry.  Not sure about this one.  I probably expected more of my customers to move to salesforce.com for example.
  4. Despite this, Web 2.0 technologies sold as Enterprise 2.0 (wikis, social networking, mashups et al) will be slower to take off despite the buzz.  Still agree here although very recently I’ve seen one or two people thinking a bit harder about internal social networking/KM etc.
  5. SOA will continue to be hyped by the big vendors but successful case studies will still be slow to emerge.  Anyone who has a real genuine success story where a meaningful ROI was derived, please ping it over.
  6. Enterprise IT departments will start to realise that they need to align themselves more closely with the business.  They are ideally positioned to advise the business on how to use all IT, whether internal or external, built or purchased, collaborative or silo based.  The IT function will hopefully start to be seen as a trusted adviser rather than an obstructive gatekeeper.  I have sadly seen little evidence of this in the UK.  I have sincere hopes for 2009.
  7. The percentage of IT budget spent on compliance issues will increase, especially in UK financial services where CCA 2006, MiFID, TCF (Treating Customers Fairly) and SOX, for example, will all feature.  In retail banking right now, compliance/legal seems to be the only reason for budget approval of a project.
  8. Security will remain a critical issue and automatically features right at the top of every CIO agenda. Because of various high profile customer data leaks in 2007, data protection will be a big ticket initiative in many large organisations.  Another one that anyone with damp ear behinds could have predicted – related to compliance (above)
  9. The green agenda will gather momentum with all organisations attaching increased importance to social and environmental responsibility. “Green computing” will be one of the hyped phrases of 2008.  The phrase was hyped but once the credit crunch started to bite, green credentials slip down the list behind business survival.
  10. And finally, I hope Blue Prism will continue to grow rapidly, serving and adding value for all its stakeholders: Customers; staff; business partners; investors and government (taxes).  Happy to report a record year of profitable growth.