Death of programming?

December 12th, 2007

I think the reported death of the software programmer is a little premature but I admire Marks & Spencer for paying more than lip service to the role of business staff.

They have empowered “super users” to create their own applications using business friendly tools based on graphical, non-technical platforms.  Business Objects is quoted as one example of a tool that is in business hands.

M & S IT director, Darrell Stein is a convert.  Dr Nikolay Mehandjiev of the University of Manchester (arguably the spiritual home of computing) points to the reduction in misunderstandings citing the normal “transaction costs and delays associated with having other parties in the loop”.  Dave Cheeseman of Arista Insurance suggests that speed to market is the most important driver and that his insurance specialists will always be better informed, and therefore, more effective than programmers.

All good stuff so far.  But in a fantastic piece of balanced journalism, Computing’s Lisa Kelly has managed to unearth a naysayer from a surprising source.

Philip Virgo is a strategic adviser for the IMIS and he claims that giving users the power to “define their own needs and programme them directly often produces a result that is not fit for purpose”.

I wonder if Mr. Virgo can tell me how many programmer produced business applications are fit for purpose?  How many have delivered yesterday’s solution for tomorrow’s problem?  How many delivered a cart, when the user had asked for a horse?

He goes on to say that “many tools are as user-friendly as a cornered rat” and that a “super user is someone who was a competent user but is now an incompetent programmer”.

I could have learnt HTML but I elected to use WordPress to publish this blog (and what an excellent tool that is).  And I don’t even consider myself to be a “Californian liberal academic”, but one of the managers who Mr Virgo thinks cannot cope with a helpful business tool.

I wonder if Mr. Virgo and his IMIS colleagues may better promote their profession by supporting, rather than criticizing, initiatives that help end users enjoy the benefits of computing.  After all these tools would not have emerged had the traditional programming model been adequately serving end user needs.

Programmers are still needed to build the platforms, tools and solutions that enable end user computing.  As for business applications, we should be giving power to the users.

The high price of call handling times

December 11th, 2007

I was at a large telco last week chatting to the manager of a 1,000 seat call centre.

We were talking through the inconveniences that agents have to go through in terms of navigating through a variety of systems just to give the customer what they needed, in this case upgrading their contract.

The problems were obvious in terms of the corporate systems.  Like any other enterprise, these were divided into functional silos paying little regard to the business process.  However, additional difficulty had been added by the use of complex spreadsheets as workarounds for missing system functionality.  Am I painting a grim picture?  Not at all – I see this in every large call centre, not to mention back office.  This is the norm for operational managers – they come to expect it.

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The Banker: CIO of the year

December 3rd, 2007

I was idly leafing through my December copy of The Banker in which 2007 awards were liberally sprinkled upon the great and the good of the banking industry.  But for such an IT driven industry, I was amazed to find that only one award existed bearing any relation to technology.

José María Fuster of Grupo Santander won “CIO of the year”.  Even in the title, The Banker mistakenly named the award Chief Investment Officer of the year – oops!  I guess that getting some parts of the banking industry out of the old oak-panelled rooms and into the modern world will take another generation!

Meanwhile, no such delay for Grupo Santander whose SOA inspired “Alhambra” multi-channel core banking system (to replace the already successful “Partenon” platform) appears to be steaming ahead and if reports are to be believed, will be something of a kick up the banking industry’s behind.

Like HSBC, Santander’s reputation is to build rather than buy.  For Santander, this decision seems to be related to competitive advantage, not cost.  If one buys an external system, one benefits from all the experience that the vendor has gleaned from working with other organisations.  However, this can create a lowest common denominator.  This may be OK in non-core parts of an enterprise, if you just want to make sure that you are no worse than any of your competitors, and to do so at least cost.  This can free your corporate energy to focus on building competitive advantage at the front end, via marketing for example.

But if you are using your systems and processes as a route to competitive advantage then build is surely better.

Barclaycard “joined-up” thinking

November 29th, 2007

There’s a mood of change at Barclaycard.  Once seen as the problem child of the Barclays Group, it appears to be much more loved these days.  A recent trading update advised of strong profit growth in the UK division and the US arm on course to make a profit in 2007.

It’s not just improvement in bad debt provisions.  A more independent focus and innovation (rare in financial services) is driving the brand forwards.

I criticised Barclaycard for lack of ambition when they launched the One Pulse card.  I feel absolutely certain that their recent decision to invest in mobile payment market testing, is a direct response to my post.  🙂

Of course, it is impossible for any organisation, no matter how large, to do this on their own.  But all the technologies already exist and it only takes some co-operation on the technical as well as commercial side between the different parties to make things work for the customer.  In this case the parties are Barclaycard (banking), Nokia (handset manufacturer), O2 (mobile network), TfL (Transport for London), Visa (card issuer), TranSys (consortium that runs the Oyster proximity payment system).

What a fabulous piece of joined up thinking!  I’d love to be one of the guinea pigs.  Furthermore, I am already a customer of every one of these organisations.  The bad news?  There are only 500 trial places available.  Anyone know how I can get on the list???

HSBC IT takes wind out of vendors sails.

November 27th, 2007

Friend or foe?  Ask any enterprise software vendor where HSBC sits on the Buy vs Build spectrum and the answer will be as firmly towards build as any enterprise you might encounter.  In that sense, if they are never going to buy your product, I guess they are a foe.  On the other hand, if you work in the business in HSBC, I suspect you may hold a different view, at least according to a case study published in UK journal, Computer Weekly of today’s date.  The study tells how HSBC has restructured its IT division and its relationship with the business.

Richard Dunlop, chief operating officer of HSBC’s technology services group in Europe is the architect behind the changes which started in 2004 and were clearly driven by the “competitive threat posed by external service providers such as outsourcing suppliers”.  Dunlop said “we were not getting the economies of scale that we should have from employing 2,000 developers in the UK”.

But before the cynics amongst you leap to the conclusion that this was just some artifice aimed at simply reducing costs at any cost, it seems there is more to the story.  The threat of external service providers also alerted HSBC IT to the need to service their own business colleagues.  They appointed relationship managers as single points of contact so their sole focus was on managing “the account”.  That put them in a position to “work in partnership with the business by proactively providing it with information that it can use to drive costs down and improve the bottom line”.

Hang on a minute, isn’t this the sort of language and behaviour normally adopted by the very external vendors HSBC IT are competing against?  To win business, external suppliers need to offer more than an in-house IT function can offer – better price, better product, better service, better relationship and you bet they need to look after their own costs too.

So it seems that HSBC are successfully competing against external suppliers by playing them at their own game.  This appears to be good practice and judging by the number of technology driven customer service innovations launched recently, I can only assume that the business is happy too.

If you followed the hyperlinks above, the alert amongst you will have picked up that some of the announcements were actually HSBC in partnership with an external vendor which only goes to show that there is no such thing as black and white when it comes to Buy vs Build.  But if, as an internal IT department, you want to maintain control over your own destiny, acting like an external supplier is probably a good weapon.

iPhone is too expensive

November 26th, 2007

Whilst on the subject of mobile technology this morning, I was not surprised to stumble across a piece reporting that the launch of Apple’s iPhone in the UK appears to be flopping.

I opened this weblog in Feb 2007 with a post extolling my disinterest in the iPhone.  Sure, Apple is a master of design, especially the user interface and experience, but price is a big buying factor too and, to be frank, Apple has overestimated how much people are prepared to pay for these advantages.

The deal offered to operators (only O2 was brave enough to take it up) was vastly over-priced and smacks of arrogance.  Apple is in danger of losing its cool image if it continues to expect its customers to fork out such huge sums for products that are, at best, marginal enhancements on existing technology.  And worse, although I haven’t used one myself, I hear that SMS text messages are really tricky, and the iPhone cannot even access 3G services.

Personally, I may look into the price of an iPod Touch but I won’t be bothering with this version of the iPhone.

In the unlikely event that you were thinking of buying me an iPhone for Christmas, could I ask you to think again and perhaps bring a bottle of wine instead?

Mobile phone ≠ wallet…yet

November 26th, 2007

I am still not sure how I ever got onto this soap box, since there is no specific implication for Blue Prism. I just think it’s common sense that if I have to carry my mobile phone everywhere I go, why can’t I also use it as my wallet?

Membership cards, physical access, small payments, car key, house key, TV remote control are just some of the many applications my current mobile phone could probably already be adapted to manage, if only the interaction was enabled by the various vendors agreeing standards and commercial terms.

At least contactless small payments (surely one of the simplest applications) is finally on the way in the UK.  It’s good to see that Royal Bank of Scotland heard my plea and is starting to pilot this technology in Edinburgh.

Is SaaS a competitor to IT?

November 21st, 2007

I thought Software as a Service was merely another medium for delivering IT to the business users.  Increasing amounts of anecdotal evidence are leading me to conclude that many IT departments think of SaaS as a threat.

I was at a UK telco this week and chatting to the heads of the B2B operation, we chanced upon the topic of Salesforce.com.  I said I was considering switching Blue Prism’s lead generation, sales management and customer support to Salesforce.  I was surprised to hear that this telco had been using Salesforce for a number of months (and were pretty happy with the results).

My first surprise was that Salesforce.com is pervading the largest organisations these days – it’s not just a tool for SMBs.  The second surprise was the reason why this is happening.  I asked what the IT department thought of SaaS.  I was told that IT had proposed a different “traditional” CRM system, hosted internally, but that is was “simply not competitive” so the business adopted Salesforce.com despite the IT recommendation.

If IT is to be seen as just one of many competitors in the external market place, then on average they will lose.  Internal IT functions, it seems, are not set up to sell, to listen, to understand the business, to act quickly, or to focus minds on costs.

But most sadly of all, it seems internal IT departments are losing sight of what they should be doing best. Being an internal, trusted adviser, that leads the operational people to the best IT solutions for the business, whether the solution be internal or external, packaged or built, software or service.

Mashups, the new ETL?

November 15th, 2007

I suppose there are some similarities between mashups and ETL tools, as pointed out by Jacob Ukelson, in that they can extract data from a variety of different systems, play around with that data and then write it somewhere – a web page, an aggregated UI, another target application etc.  This offers a new perspective on data cleansing, process automation and orchestration, screen aggregation and much more, but without the need to access the back end systems.  No database transactions here, and no coding either.

Jacob wonders whether IBM can seriously launch into this space next year, as they state.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I welcome IBM’s efforts.  The very fact that they are even trying to enter the space, validates a market that it is very difficult for the smaller vendors like Blue Prism to build alone.

In praise of IT

November 15th, 2007

Despite numerous articles on this blog criticising enterprise IT for not understanding business needs, I am a staunch supporter of the IT function and I try to make my comments constructive so as to help IT and their business colleagues deliver greater things.

So, I am definitely in favour of promoting IT successes.  This is much more than perception management.  Remember that Accenture, IBM, Cap Gemini and the like will all be proudly shouting about their accomplishments.  If you are a CIO bidding against an external vendor, then you better be able to demonstrate some successes and not a procession of failures.  The vendors will have a huge web of triumphal yarns to spin.

So, why not publish internal case studies?  Why not set up an intranet site, with progress/info/updates/successes (and failures – honesty is good)?  Why not spend a bit more time telling people about the good things you have done?  I often see IT people and old style CIOs who seem afraid of selling themselves.

You get a bullet in the head when things go wrong.  Take some credit when they go right!

A word of warning though, you better make sure that what you promote is the truth and not thinly veiled propaganda, which business staff will see through straight away.  That is where you are at a disadvantage to the external suppliers…