Operational Agility

July 9th, 2008

My previous post mentioned that Blue Prism’s new message is based on operational agility, so I thought I better explain what that means.

In today’s complex business world, front and back office customer service operations have to contend with a non-stop barrage of change.  Whereas traditional IT projects deliver systems against timescales measured in years, human beings on the front line have to react to events happening right now, today.

The long term IT strategy is generally based on what is known today with some future forecast factored in.  The business users, though, have little more idea of what is coming tomorrow than the poor EA faced with a blank sheet of paper.  Of course, the major systems still need to exist, CRM, core operational software, billing and collections etc.  It’s just that when these systems are conceived they have to be designed with a “best guess” of future requirements and this results in range of functions available to the front line that is then frozen in time.

The problem with this approach is that operational staff might need to do something new.  A merger or acquisition creates process duplication; a new product launch requires operational support with sketchy forecasts of process volumes; management want to push a certain product whilst sunsetting another; a processing error needs quickly reversing.

One of our customers had a processing problem caused by a mail strike.  Several thousand accounts were debited with a late payment penalty whilst the cheques really were “in the post”.  A decision was taken to refund these payments (very noble – glad I am a customer of this organisation!).  When the customer accounting system was designed, nobody thought that there might be a bulk requirement to selectively cancel debits applied to a range of accounts.  The traditional way of solving this problem is to take a few call centre agents off the phones for a few weeks to process these refunds manually.  With Blue Prism software the team was able to quickly piece together a new automated process flow that required no human involvement and the process was completed in one day.

Here’s the science bit.  Blue Prism retrospectively componentises the existing and legacy apps and allows you to re-purpose them into new operational scenarios and business processes.  Using point and click integration techniques (no code required), new methods can be clicked together into a process flow using a simple flowchart interface.  This gives operational staff the means to manage and react to short term change and therefore operational agility is enhanced.

Sounds like similar objectives to BPM/SOA?  Possibly some.  Except we are talking about delivery in days and weeks, not months and years.  I’ll go into more detail on this in a later post.

Blue Prism website

July 2nd, 2008

Blue Prism is about to launch a new website based on an operational agility message.

It’s amazing how much hard work goes into designing and building a website and, not least, writing the copy.  We have also taken some important design decisions such as dropping the prism widget from the logo:


Personally I quite liked the old prism and sorry to see it go, but I was the only one who held that view.  Democracy eh?

On more serious matters, working out who you are, who your customers are, and what the message that connects those two things is weighty stuff and takes time in the world of enterprise software.

We are not 100% there yet, but we are moving in the right direction and we are hopefully taking steps to look like a larger, more serious company as we are emerging from early stage into growth mode.

What used to worry me is that I expected to crack all these problems overnight.  Learning with our early customers, listening to them, getting independent people to listen to them, and taking a bit of time to think both introvertly and extrovertly has been most helpful.

Talking to customers teaches us not only about who we are and how to connect, but also enables us to examine how we deliver.

This is not just benefiting our sales team, but also our new customers coming on board, who can take advantage of previous experience, methodologies and working practices, and new ways in which Blue Prism software can be used.

The website is in final testing and should go live next week at www.blueprism.com.

Talking of website upgrades, I have moved this blog to a new ISP and upgraded to WordPress 2.5.1 – big improvement!

Are the young more rogue?

April 16th, 2008

I just did an interview with Business Week.  The thrust of the article was around the frustration of business users and the propensity for them to find their own solutions, bypassing IT and downloading their own software and services.  Sounds a bit like rogue behaviour?

The journalist was testing the hypothesis that the young were more likely to ignore IT rules, because they were used to Googling their required phrase and then downloading some freeware to solve the problem.  Now, we Brits are renowned for our love of queues and obeying rules, and that is my actual experience of enterprise life.  The pent up frustration of the users transcends genders and generations, but here in the UK we observe the rule book.

Where rogue IT is implemented, it is just as often an old school person who authorises it.  IT departments are getting more adept at clamping down on rogue IT like SaaS, social networking and Excel (I know more than one company that bans Excel).  But the well of desire from the business users is gradually tipping the balance of power in favour of the business.  This is, of course, unfair on IT who are measured on governance, resilience, security and compliance.

When the spat reaches the board room, more often than not, the business is winning the battle based purely on ROI.  Is this good in the long term?  IT argues that chickens will come home to roost.  As to the age gap, is there more likelihood of younger people to break the rules than older?  In my experience, not in the UK.

I regularly exchange emails with retired friends and relatives.  Everyone is becoming tech savvy these days.  IT needs to provide business agility or all business people will find it for themselves.

In praise of swivel chairs

March 26th, 2008

Sean McGrath wrote an interesting piece at IT World suggesting that use of swivel chair interfacing is often the best integration strategy available to an organisation.

I am not sure how many swivel chairs it would take before Sean would see an automated approach as more suitable.  I’ve certainly seen banks of people doing little more than this type of business process, inconsistently and with plenty of errors – in itself a very expensive way of doing things.  I do, however, take his point and this is not a criticism of what is essentially an excellent post that raises a number of important points.

For me, the most important point Sean raises is that “if you cannot build a new end-to-end business process that covers both systems manually then you do not understand the requirements sufficiently to start coding it.”

These thoughts are also picked up by Reg Braithwaite in an equally excellent post Is software the documentation of business process mistakes?  Reg argues that if your code represents the “user manual” of the business process, then if the code is too complex, this may well be because the process is too complex.  In other words, get the manual process right before you automate it.

The only reason swivel chair integration exists is because of the inflexibility afforded to the business user by the existing systems.  Business users are left with manual as the only option available to them.  It is the quickest, cheapest and most reliable way of getting a business process done – which is a sad indictment on the state of affairs in IT.

My interest in this subject is that innovative solutions like Blue Prism are trying to address these issues, bringing agility to the business, but without damaging the integrity of the underlying systems, or creating the need for new code.

There will always be some place for swivel chair integration but let’s keep it to a minimum.  Once a process can be done manually, the only things that should prevent it from being automated are the need for human interaction, or the need for human intelligence (e.g. expert judgement).

Stop selling SOA

March 25th, 2008

My feeds from the blogosphere are bringing a sense of the rise (again) of chatter around SOA and how to sell it to the business – oh dear, here we go again.

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Misunderstanding the CIO role

March 19th, 2008

Following on from my last post about CIO recognition in the board room I was excited to discover that relevant coverage had reached the mainstream press, notably the venerable Financial Times.  An article by Alan Cane titled “It’s much too early to write off the role of the CIO” looked right on the sweet spot…..until I read it.

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Is IT just the newest profession?

March 17th, 2008

I frequently muse on the relationship between IT and the business, so I was interested to read this WSJ article by Amit Basu and Chip Jarnagin, that dares to suggest that IT’s isolation is even greater than I thought.  Namely that a glass wall exists between IT and everything else.

The article is pretty balanced and does point out that it is not exclusively IT’s fault.  Indeed one of the problems IT often faces is getting appropriate representation around the board table.  I don’t buy the argument that CIOs bring this upon themselves.  It’s up to the CEO whether he wants IT on the board.  A secondary decision is who to appoint, and if there is nobody internal, then he can recruit externally.

I also like the fact that Amit and Chip point out that there is a responsibility on the business to embrace IT and try to understand its value.  Conversely there is clearly an onus on IT to focus on and demonstrate the value that it adds.

There is a need to speak each other’s language and IT people are frequently accused of using jargon, but how many IT people (or how many business people…) understand all the jargon used by accountants?  Senior officers are obliged to learn the accountant’s language if they want to get on, so why not IT language too?  Equally, accountants have had to learn a bit about marketing geek lingo too, and we are all at the behest of HR’s guide to political correctness – a language all of its own.

So how come other disciplines are always accepted and IT often isn’t?  Is Information Technology just the newest profession?  Can we look back at accountants and learn from how they gained recognition?  What about marketeers?  Didn’t they all just prove that they added value at some point in the past?  In the absence of recognition from the CEO, maybe the CIO is the only person who can raise the profile of IT in their own organisation.

Will I look back on this post before I retire, and wonder what on earth I was talking about?  By then, surely IT will simply be an accepted profession in every organisation, like Finance, Sales, Marketing and HR are right now.

Contactless Payments at Man City

March 11th, 2008

My daily newsfeeds bought me some mannah from heaven in the form of news that Manchester City Football Club is going to trial contactless payment technology in conjunction with its season tickets.

Access to the ground is already by contactless proximity card so making the leap to contactless payment is just like Oyster and Barclaycard really.  I criticised that one heavily for lack of ambition which just goes to show the power of fans eh?

I am not currently a season ticket holder at Man City but I do go to many of the home games using my contactless Access Card, where I merely ring up, ask for a ticket and access is authorised.  I turn up for the game and hey presto, my card let’s me in.  I won’t go into the number of times two people have been allocated the same seat but I tolerate this as a “fan”.  If that same access card could be used to buy a beer (for which I tolerate queuing for ages), a pie (ugh!), and my programme this would be great.  I then shuffle my way through to my seat amongst the thronging masses and watch City play out a drab 0-0 draw and go home to kick the cat.

A major energy company in the UK, npower, has a corporate strategy of turning customers into fans – no wonder….  At Man City, I am happy to pay for poor service again and again, and I never ever switch “suppliers”.   Btw, I am an npower customer and sadly I must report that I cannot make a valid comparison since I have never had a service problem with them.

I hear there are similar trials in the US too – I wonder if Man City fancy twinning with the Seattle Seahawks?  They had a service problem at Green Bay in last season’s playoffs – it snowed wildly – home advantage hmphhhh!

Buy vs. Build – is there a 3rd way?

March 4th, 2008

The age old CIO dilemma.  Buy vs. Build.

On the one hand, you buy in a package from a vendor.  They bring industry “best” practice.  They guarantee that your administration is as good as your competitors.  The trouble is that it is equally as bad as your competitors.  So it puts you in an equal position, not an advantageous one.  The lowest common denominator?  At the very least you are making your business subservient to the vendor’s view of the world.  Sometimes this can be good, sometimes it can be bad.

The traditional alternative is to build your own system.  For the purposes of this argument, I am placing this in the same category as buying a package from a vendor and then trying to tailor it to your environment.  The former can be very rewarding and can differentiate you greatly, but can also be very expensive.  The latter is almost always the worst of both worlds and creates expensive and long term projects, contorted business solutions, and a support headache long into the future.

So is there a third way?  I think so.

Your existing systems can adapt to changing business requirements if there is a process management layer capable of making sense of the existing infrastructure.  This can lead to business agility on a new scale if you implement it properly.

With the right tools and methodologies, new horizons are possible.  New standards in customer interaction, faster service, better compliance, process adherence, first time resolution and other desirable customer outcomes are all possible….in the short term.

Is the end of off-shoring nigh?

February 21st, 2008

Is anyone else getting the feeling that the mood is really changing against off-shoring?

Based on anecdotal evidence from my own range of contacts in enterprise sized companies, I am starting to notice a trend towards bringing business processes back in house.

In fact this is not just about off-shoring.  Even local outsourcing is being affected.  Companies are starting to realise that most business processes can be done more efficiently in house, especially with the aid of technology.

This is leading to a new wave of efficiencies, and just as importantly, local control of business priorities.  It is leading to a new ability to manage the ever changing business landscape.  This is leading towards the nirvana of increased business agility.  Powerful stuff and I am happy to say that Blue Prism is playing its part in delivering the vision.