Sunday, December 4, 2011

Microsoft, ultrabooks, BYOD and the battle for the business-consumer devices market

Apple has gained much market share with its iPads. People enjoy the power of a light and easy to carry device and have the power of the web at hand without the size limitations of the smart phones.

However a key criticism for many is that though it is good for information consumption and communication, it is not well suited for data entry and information processing. The new ultrabooks with which also Apple set the trend with its MacBook Air, are a good alternative. A laptop that is easy to use and easy to carry around.

I expect that the big thing for the future will be a powerful tablet that you use as the tablet as you do now, but to which you can add a lid as keyboard to turn it into a laptop.The ultrabook that you then have created has the benefit of making a data connection over the air (3G or 4G) where current ultrabooks only support Wifi. And when you connect it to your docking station and the larger monitor it has turned into a desktop.
Photo by intelfreepress

It will have some limitations with respect to data storage and devices such as CD drives. CD's are on their way out. Data will be available in the cloud or on separate storage devices at home or in the office. Besides the weight and size for data storage will continue to become smaller.

The only thing we need is something physical with dimensions in order to read or enter data. The question is whether we need to carry processing capacity with us or if that would move into the cloud as well.

A single device that transforms itself depending on how it will be used requires an operating system that adjusts itself to this context. I think that Microsoft is following the right direction and if they do this well, they might become a fierce competitor of Apple again in the smart phone and tablet market. Though the concept of an OS that either allows entry via a touch screen as with a tablet or entry via a mouse and keyboard and an OS that targets both consumer and business users is a concept that all manufacturers will have thought of by now, so they should not wait too long. Because people start merging business and private use, you see that Microsoft is slowly losing ground in the business space.

The benefit is that they have a strong foundation in the business space so if they can deliver the same or better experience as the iPad delivers without compromising capabilities for office use and provide all the integration required for business use, they might come back very strong.

Though we might not respect Apple always for its production practices, Steve Jobs and friends did us a great favour to push this consumerisation of technology ahead. A benefit of all these changes is that the operating system finally is becoming a good end-user tool (see also post "Why everyone should get a degree in IT"). We have exciting times ahead and every year we will have some great new toys for under the Christmas tree. What about the new Kindle Fire? The prices are just getting better.

There will always be room for a differentiation between pure consumer products and business products. But we don't want to walk around with two devices. Those people that would need to manage information for business use and like to be productive while away from their desk, they will want a device that can be used for work and privately. As is normal practice now, some people will get a device from work. However, personal preferences will need to be considered (see also post "Forget governance, I want iPhone"). But of those who do not necessarily need one and the company will not provide one, there will still be a group who want to be able to access business data while away from their desk or travelling. BYOD (bring your own device) is becoming a key strategy for businesses to implement.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why IT Managers are getting tired of "the Cloud"

I noticed recently that CIO's and IT professionals will roll their eyes when you mention the word "cloud" as if they had enough of the term and the hype around it.

Though most of us all acknowledge that these new technologies and services provide great opportunities, in general most feel that the term is overused and that in many cases reality is not as simple as vendors seem to make it be.

What the CIO's and IT professionals see is that the world goes around in circles and that they need to explain the hidden complexities of the reality of cloud computing. And this is not easy.

How foggy is the cloud?
The term cloud is used almost for everything and there are many definitions going around. First of all we see it being referred to as the Software as a Service solution such as Google Apps or Salesforce. But on the other extreme I heard it to being referred to as your internal virtualisation of your own servers in the context as private cloud.

Gartner defines "Cloud Computing" as "A style of computing where scalable and elastic IT-enabled capabilities are delivered as a service to customers using Internet technologies."

And it defines "Private Cloud" as "a form of cloud computing where service access is limited or the customer has some control/ownership of the service implementation."

How generic are those definitions? "Using Internet technologies"?  Yes, I can use Intenet technologies on my standalone computer network at home and have it disconnected from anything else in the world. Are we going to call that cloud computing or private cloud?

For example I have been explained that one organisation wanted to have a cloud solution but wanted to keep the data within its own walls. The vendor therefore placed it's own servers with the application in the datacenter of it's client and managed the application remotely.  Isn't that just a managed service? What's so cloudy about this?

Another definiton can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing

Personally, my opinion is that many of the cloud options are simply variations to the traditional outsourcing that probably already existed since the first computer was created. I remember when I just started at Uni in the 80's that the mainframes we did our programming exercises on were owned and managed by the Academic Hospital across the road. SaaS was probably also introduced immediately with the inception of the Internet.

What I call a pure cloud service is when you access it over the public Internet, that everything you provide is standardised and, except for configuration, it is all exactly the same for other customers. As soon as you start customising the standard offering, your service moves into a different category.

The question remains than what it is that you buy in the cloud: data center, servers, operating system, application, managed support services, development services?

So what is the issue with the cloud?
So far so good. We introduced a new term for something that existed already for a while. But why do IT people get this tired look in their eyes when you mention the cloud?

One of the main challenges IT professionals within end-user organisations face, is the expectations of the business and executives have of the cloud. They see and hear the great stories of the vendors and see how easy it is to use Google Apps or Gmail. They hear about success stories of organisations who put all their email and and document management in the cloud. So why can't we do this? Then they have the experience with some offerings for example with the HR or Payroll systems where the application was easily implemented, hosted and supported by the vendor. So why can't we put the ERP system in the cloud? Or not all our infrastructure?

It is not about the legal issues and in which jurisdiction the data resides. Though these are issues IT managers will need to chase up, in the end it is considered to be a legal issue that the business needs to resolve.

Security is of course another concern. But let's assume that those issues can be overcome.

Payroll is for many organisations a standard process. The system, except for some configuration, does not require customisation and in fact the whole business process for Payroll can often easily be outsourced. But for the other business systems it is not that easy. Yes, Oracle would like to take ownership of your ERP system and they can provide services for that. But your ERP hardly ever stands alone and you will always have customisations. Handing over your ERP system to a vendor is not per se about where the system resides, but it is all about the managed services.

Due to the size of many ERP installations, a shared infrastructure does usually not apply and if you would do this, it would probably require a signficant modification to your system to accomodate for that. What you are left with is a shared data center.

Due to the customisations, a shared software installation of the ERP system would not be feasible and much of the real cloud benefits cannot be achieved.

Due to the size, complexity, customisations and integration with other systems, the vendor would need to setup almost a dedicated team to provide the support and development services for you.

What you are left with is still a dedicated system, hosted in another location and with a dedicated team to provide the services. In the end you need to evaluate all options against its merits which is not much different as we've been doing over the many years.

Another key issue is, and that is more of a concern to me, is that if you put a of variety systems in the cloud, you suddenly have a large series of vendors to manage. And you might expect that these systems one way or the other integrate. But what do you do when vendor A wants to upgrade their system and the solution managed by vendor B then also needs to change? It means all the iniatives of the various vendors need to be synchronised. You'll need quite a team to manage all this regardless of all the contractual issues to be addressed.

And what will you do with a custom built solution that tightly integrates with your ERP system? Say, you put your ERP in the cloud and it will be located somewhere at the other side of the world. Your bespoke solution requires each time to request data with twice the latency across the globe which will signficantly impact the performance of the bespoke system. Besides, if this access needs to happen over the public Internet, you will run into some reliability issues.

Besides the many problems technically, I also see that it over time it might financially not turn out to be optimal.

So why were they rolling their eyes again?
The problem that CIO's and IT managers face is trying to explain the complexities to the business without being seen as too protective and too resistant to change. They expect the world to go around in circles again. We've seen it with the client-server technologies. First everything was centralised, then decentralised and now centralised again. We probably start working with many different cloud providers. This then becomes inefficient and we then need to bring that together again.

Is it all that bad?
A good option of the cloud offerings are is that many business managers can put the serves in place without support of IT. This can really empower the business and make businesses much more agile. The flip side of this, is that organisations will have many contracts with vendors and that the left hand will not know what the right hand is doing.  It might lead to a messy situation and subsequently over time a more centrally managed approach will be required.

But I do see a lot of good coming from the cloud services that emerge everywhere. First of all small and medium business have now access to solutions they otherwise would not be able to afford. I expect many niche solutions being developed and provided, that otherwise would not be marketable. For example when there is by itself a large enough group of customers but they are dispersed around the globe and in the traditionally way, it would not be profitable enough to market to them, they can now easily find you via an app in the iStore and viral promotion via social networks.

But also the services provided to larger organisations will benefit from this because in the end the existing offerings will become more efficient and cheaper. There will be economies of scale and there will be many standardised SaaS offerings that also large organisations can easily benefit from.

What will this lead to?
As a consequence, IT within organisations will change face (see also the article "The IT Jobs that Cloud Computing Will Create"). Technology itself will become more and more a utility and it will be much more about the business process, the feature or challenge that you want to resolve. The focus will be initially on managing the wild growth of various vendors and their services and to assure that these technologies will work in unison. I foresee changes in the IT roles required to manage all this.

Besides changing roles, I do foresee less technical roles within end-user organisations (I don't know whether the total number of IT staff will reduce, probably it will), a growth of roles with the service providers but this also will probably come with a concentration of those jobs in specific geographical locations.

For the techies amongst us there might be some hope that over time we will have so many mobile devices that the sheer amount of these might confuse the users and that they will need assistance with the use and configuration of those even if we can trust our vendors to improve the simplicity of it all. I just upgraded my OS on my iPhone but that process did not go that smooth and a less technical person probably would have given up or would have panicked. And the information that Apple provides at first hand about their iCloud offering is far from sufficient for me to decide whether I want to use it. I needed to go through some forums and blogs to get better insight.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

How I promoted agile and the cloud a long time ago

The other day I ran into an old article that I wrote in 1997 for the magazine "Informatie" in the Netherlands and for some reason, I also had an English translated version. The contents is still actual today, so I thought I publish this article here. The magazine does not exist anymore, so I hope that the publisher doesn't mind since it is now over 10 years old.

The first thing you will notice is that my English has improved over the years (I hope so!).This English version was never published and it seems to be more like a draft, but I left it as I found it even though it is a bit long winded. I promise you that the Dutch version was much better! A professional editor reviewed it anyway :-)

Click to enlarge
Secondly, the article is written in a period that many organisations still did not believe in the Internet or they wanted to do something but had no clue what. It was also a period that many people did not understand web technology.

The key thing what I promote here is what we call these days an agile development or project management methodology. Though for the purists it is better called an evolutionary or iterative approach. Central to the story is the pilot project which lays the foundation for the solution but is not complete and it might be clumsy with respect to features, commercial offering and technical implementation. But once you've gone live, you will have to gradually improve it through iterations where the IT team needs to work closely with the business team to progressively improve the system. I have limited myself to write this story for online systems but the agile vision tells us that the approach could just as well be taken for any application.

There is much criticism on the traditional waterfall methodology. I don't understand this. You need to use a methodology that is most appropriate for the situation and there are situations that the straightforward waterfall methodology works very well. Each iteration as I describe here goes through its own mini waterfall process.

Regardless how development will be done, I really prefer to have a very sold grasp on the scope of the project before I begin and that means ideally a full set of requirements. Though requirements can change during the project, it really helps to have a solid set of requirements to define which architecture you require and to give some expectations of time and budget. As we all know how it goes with budgets, once you mention one number, that is going to be it.

In her blog, Julie Zimmerman gives some good points regarding agile projects: http://projectmomblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/when-is-agile-not-agile.html

Over time, I have been successful running projects with an agile approach. But I must say that the success depends on the people you have and I am grateful to the fantastic people that I had in my projects. It all comes down to working well in a multi disciplinary team having developers, BA's and end-users working very closely together. In an agile project, they run the project much more than you as project manager.

Coming back to my article: Via an explanation of the technology infrastructure, I already promote the cloud  as an option to consider. At least according to one of the many variations of the definition of "the cloud". I used the old fashioned term outsourcing for it.

It is funny to see how some things have changed (e.g. the uptake of Internet and Mobile technology) and other things not that much (e.g. we're still debating the cloud and agile; and definitely we too often do our first implementation in a clumsy way).

PS: If you don't want to read the whole article, you still might want to scroll down for the larger version of the diagram as depicted above.


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The growing pains of Web-projects


Contents
Introduction
Characterizing Web-systems
Why does a Web-project differ from a client/server-project?
How many Internet-projects started
The forces that act upon and within the project
You have to go Live on the Net with the pilot!
The overall project structure
The pilot project
The system architecture
Outsourcing the project (or rather not?)
Conclusion

Introduction

Internet projects differ from projects that develop internal information systems in a few aspects. Generally they are just system development projects for systems with a constant exposure to (potential) clients. This last element introduces the specific flavor. The Web-site should constantly be attractive and change. Also the business goals and gains are not clear. In this article we discuss the development method for Internet systems that need a database and a Web-application to accesses the database. Internet-sites that serve only static pages or Intranets are excluded. Intranets don’t have the constant exposure to clients outside the company. An Intranet project resembles more to a ‘normal’ client/server project. The same thing counts for Extranets, but everything depends on how much more diverse and big the user group is and the impact on the organization and the business. Basically it covers projects for electronic commerce on the Internet.
This article treats some experiences with starting an Internet project for the first time and what problems and obstacles can be expected. I hope to show that you have to face these problems and should not take an defensive attitude towards Internet activities, but take the time to find your place in cyberspace. You’ve got to play the game if you want to win.

Characterizing Web-systems

Information systems using Web-technology can be divided according to some characteristics. A primary distinction can be made between public and private systems. Intranets and Extranets serve a limited and known group of users. You do not have to attract people to your site by adding new features and changing contents all the time. Intranets serve an inter-organization task and people need to use it according to their work-tasks. For Extranets this counts just as well, but when it serves clients it needs more attention. With an (open) Internet application however, you serve the whole Internet community. People are not forced to access your site and therefore you need to attract people constantly.

A second important distinction has to be made between sites that just display static HTML and images and the ones where data from a database is accessed. The typical Home-pages of companies are in general based upon static HTML-pages with images. It can be characterized as a form of advertising. It is general accessible on the Internet, the data is not based upon a database and it does not serve transactions. A search-engine or a Yellow Pages Web-site is on the other hand based upon structured data in a database and serves a combination of advertising (adverts of companies) and publishing (publishing the directory).

A third distinction is the distinction between just retrieving data from a database (e.g. the Yellow Pages) and supporting transactions. An example of the latter one is a Web-site where people can actually order physical products (Pizza’s, CD’s).
A fourth distinction can be made based upon the amount of data that can be accessed. Choices for investments and technology can differ a lot for cases where you have a large database or a small database. You get quite a different project when you want to make a product-ordering system for a company that sells 150 different products, then when you build a system for a publisher that wants to publish it’s 100 terabyte database with articles and books via the Web.
A last distinction can be made between advertising and actual publishing, although the difference might not always be clear. Most Home-pages can be seen as a form of advert (who are we, what are we doing, how can you reach us). When you start placing complete articles, magazines or books on the net, it will become some kind of publishing.
The method that is discussed here serves public and database driven Web-projects.

Why does a Web-project differ from a client/server-project?

As soon you make an application on the Web that is accessible to anyone in the world, you need to change it continuously without being off-line. Just as with the Intranets and Extranets, the first step is a small project that in only a very short time results in a first prototype. Often this prototype is then placed on the Net. From that moment, you started doing ‘business’ on the Net and so you can’t take it off-line anymore. The fact that it is a prototype and therefore has a limited functionality, means that you need to improve it quickly. This needs to be done with small pieces each time. You are doing maintenance and upgrades almost right from the beginning.  And you do it in a business environment where the goals and gains are not clear. Therefor you need to follow a true evolutionary way of developing. This situation creates a specific project structure. For such a project you need a new methodology and a different way of working.
There are already a couple of methods that describe the evolutionary way of developing. Because they are general development methods, it leaves you also with a lot of questions. Which modeling techniques do I use for Web-pages with frames and Java-applets? How do I control the project planning when priority for new functionality and requirements change every week? And, how do I transform this quickly built prototype into a professional system that can support our business? It is quite a challenge to manage and control the project, that is constantly changing in a constantly changing environment.

How many Internet-projects started

Somewhere around 1995 the Internet started to become the new technology in the IT-world. At least everyone talked about it and in 1997 most bigger companies had their Web-presence with an own domain. But still, for most managers, including IT-managers, it was not clear what you should really do on the Web. The Web and Web-technology evolved in an incredible speed. Although most managers had the feeling that they should get on board of this fast moving train, they did not have a clear idea what to do on the Web and how it would influence their business. Often it was the sales and marketing people who found the first practical uses for it. It was sometimes referred to by them, that this was finally a new technology for which they did not need the IT-department. The first Web-sites of companies were therefore often built by sales and marketing people with some whiz kids. The IT-department was only partly involved.
But as soon the Web-site became a success, it needed a continuation. This meant more hardware and software investments and the playground had to become a project of the IT-department. And now the trouble started. IT-personnel had to learn new technology and had to respond more quickly to the demands of the marketing people. Where before the difficult demands of the users within the organization could be fended off with arguments like the budgets and the ‘choices of the management’. Now serious demands came that needed to be realized instantaneously, because the Web-site influenced directly clients and thus business results.
Although the situation described here is not exactly true for all companies and Web-projects it is true that the takers of the initiative of the Web-site usually have to start with a limited budget and have to show in a very short time what they have in mind. And indeed, with modern technology you can create a Web-application in a few weeks that sometimes leads to completely new businesses or companies.  But the drawback is that this pilot system is often not fit for maintenance and forthcoming functionality. When new changes and developments come not as quickly as the first successes, the clients and the company directors get easily disappointed. However, it is a fact of life you have to deal with as a taker of the initiative. Unless you know exactly what is needed and get all the budget straight from the beginning. But as it happens a lot in the field of information system development, “users only know what they want when they see it”. The pilot system has to evolve gradually, although you would rather rebuild it completely. But you won’t get the time for it and you can’t take the system off line anymore. And more problematic, you don’t know exactly in advance what technology you need and what development effort is involved. So you can not make a reasonable estimate of the project costs.

The forces that act upon and within the project

Besides the fact that you have to find out how to use the new medium for your existing business, the Internet makes it also possible to get into new sorts of business activities. The Internet reduces physical distances and makes it possible, not only to acquire new clients, but also to let them browse through your products and services and let them actually order the product or services and even perform the complete (business) transaction including the payment. This changes the way of doing business radically. Also the Internet reduces differences between business activities. For example the differences between advertising and publishing is reduced.
These fast changing and unclear markets do not make it easier for the company’s management-team to define their new position. For the Web, companies need to redefine their ‘core activities’. What should you do and what should you not do on the Internet. How important is it now and how important will it be in 5 years? How is the world going to be in 5 years?
This unclear business-context of the project makes it, that the management is very reluctant in providing the necessary financial means (this is generally more true in Europe than in the North America). The Web-team needs to make the necessary investments while it might take some years before the Web-site becomes profitable. And there are surely no guarantees! 

 
Because you go live quickly with the pilot, you get besides positive reactions from clients negative reactions because the application does not work as perfect as they might have hoped. You must take account of the fact that your Web-application will be more off-line than you think you can afford. The technology is very new and changes every day. A Web-application uses different sorts of software of different suppliers. The Internet-software industry is the most unpredictable and booming industry of the moment. Suppliers will release software that is not as robust and tested (more bugs then ever before!), just to beat the competition. The project-team does not get the time to build a well defined, tested and modeled application; sales and marketing will have continuously new demands and wishes. It does not get the right means; too small computers, not enough people and not the right software. As far as you make a nice time and resource plan, you will find that it needs to be changed almost every day. You do not deliver the new functionality in time and you will find yourself spending more time in keeping your pilot-application alive, then spending it in rebuilding the system with a better concept and architecture. Although you have learned from the mistakes, you find that you don’t have the time and the means to rebuild the system with your new insights.

You have to go Live onthe Net with the pilot!


All together there are different forces working upon and within the Web-project. You can expect a lot of problems. This foresight might make you come to the conclusion that you better wait with the Web-project or do the pilot but not make it accessible on the Internet. But the contrary is advised. You need to do the pilot. And you need to make it live on the Net. This is the only way to evaluate and learn what kind of business you have to do on the Web. What technology you need, how the technology works and what kind of project-organization you need. If you keep it only local, for example on the Intranet, you will never experience what a real Internet exposure means. And you want to experience and evaluate this. The Web is changing business and markets dramatically. As sure as there are many threats, there are even more opportunities.  

The key factor here is to do some experience with the pilot on the Internet, but you need to have the discipline to introduce a break in the whole process and invest the time and means to rebuild the application according to the new insights. The IT-people as well as the marketing-people in the Web-team must realize that this is really necessary. If you are capable of getting the two disciplines in line even though there are so many uncertain factors, you will find that you get into a challenging market where your personal ideas and actions can have great influence on the companies well being.
The alternative, not doing the Web-project is probably no alternative at all. In that case you will not get the right experience and you will be too late to acquire the right position on the Internet-marketplace.



The overall project structure
Because with the Internet most companies step into a new world and because they have to use new technology and start doing business in a new way, it is wise to find out what is involved and get some experience with it. If it is not for this reason, it is for the earlier mentioned reasons that the Internet project starts in the form of a pilot. The pilot that actually is placed on the Net and that is being accessed by Internet users, is no pilot anymore. It is a live system. From that moment all new developments are in fact maintenance. The ‘owners’ of the system (most often product or marketing managers; from now on they are referred to as the product manager) are demanding new features and changes continuously. It is “not done” to keep a Web-site completely unchanged for a longer period. At least the visual look and feel should change every once in a while. To be able to serve all these requests, you need to treat each request as a little project. The system evolves in a real evolutionary way.

The requests are evaluated and processed by the project manager (the Information Architect). With his knowledge of the technology and the business needs, he can see how and when the requests can be realized. Together with the product manager he analyzes the request. When needed, he asks assistance of project members who can add their specific skills. To realize some requests, new IT-means have to be acquired. When he has a clear idea about all that is involved in realizing the new functionality, he sees which project members can do the job, acquires the optional needed hardware and software, defines a plan for executing the request and adapts the project plan.
The project plan will be changed constantly. For each new request it is decided what priority it has. New high priority request delay other requests. You can expect that there are times that the plan is changed every week.

The pilot project

The first initiative for the Web-application will usually be in the form of a pilot project that has to result into a pilot system. The goal of the pilot is to find out more precisely what functionality is needed, to find out what kind of user interface (layout, look and feel) is appropriate and to get acquainted with the technology.

The pilot will give the product manager an idea how the system will work and look like and gives an opportunity to get some practical experience and input from end-users or clients. Also some experience has to be obtained with merging editorial elements within the application and Web-site. The editorial elements are the ‘static’ text and graphical elements that completes the Web-application. Within a Web-site there will be places that give information that is not obtained from the database per se. This is for example some advertisements, some ‘hot news’ or some articles. They are added, changed and removed by hand by the editor of the Web-site.

An important goal of the pilot is to get acquainted with the technology. Because the technology is very new (and it will always stay new because it changes so quickly) you need to get some experience with it. You have to find out what components (hardware and software) are needed and what actually is involved. Sometimes you need to acquire new hardware systems with which you do not have any experience yet and you might want to obtain a new database management system and programming tools. Also you have to find out how you want to protect your Web-system and your corporate systems from the outside world. All these things will become more clear after the pilot.

You might want to put the pilot system live on the Internet and actually use it commercially. You can do this for various reasons, like being the first on the Net with this kind of service or application. As mentioned before, this has some implications. The system is probably not optimal. The code is probably not very clean, due to the fact that the programmers needed to learn the new programming language and tools and had to build the application as quick as possible. The developers might have lots of problems on maintaining the system. You also might have come to the conclusion that the chosen technology was not the best and maybe you want to use other hardware or software for the next releases of the system. This can mean that in spite of the fact that the pilot was developed in a very short time, improving the system and making a second release will take much more time then first expected. From a technical point of view it is sometimes best to redo just everything. From a product marketing point of view it might be really necessary to spend all the efforts in creating new features and add-ons to the pilot system. The trick is to find a good balance between the two forces and putting all arguments into the right perspective.

The system architecture

The pilot system was build with some technology of which you did not know if it would be the right one. Also the architecture (components; how they are put together; installation and parameters of the hardware and software; database structure; program structures; etc.) of the system is probably not optimal. Most companies do not know in advance what the benefits of the Web-site will be. Usually you will have an idea that it is important or that it will become important in the future, but you do not know exactly what it actually will mean in financial terms. Therefore you start the pilot with a limited budget.
The project starts with the minimal number of components that is needed. But what is minimally required? You need a connection to the Internet. This is usually a rented line with a modem of some kind of some network provider (for example a telephone company). Second you need a router that performs the network switching service. But you can also let your provider perform this task. Besides the router, you need a Domain Name Server (DNS) that translates logical names of nodes in the Internet (like www.antares.nl) to IP-numbers (like 123.456.23.2). The IP-numbers are the actual identifications of computers within the Internet. Then you need at least the Web-server itself. Your Web-application is located on the Web-server. But when you publish a great amount of data on the net, you might need to place all this data on a separate machine: the database-server. And also you need a Mail-server. It is required because your network provider and the domain name registry need to be able to contact you (at least this is the case in the Netherlands). However, all these server-functions can be merged into one single computer. But it very much depends on your specific situation if this is advisable. Altogether you might need to invest in more than one computer.
Then you need some software. The router has its own particular software. The Web-server needs a program that supports HTTP, the protocol for the Web. Then you need some system to manage your application data. For this, it is best to use a commercial available relational database management systems. And at last, you need a programming tool with which you make the application that can be run via the Web and that can perform transactions on the database.


Most often you want to have your Web-application perform on a selection of your corporate data. And you want data obtained by the Web-application to be available for your corporate application (for example to send invoices). But because you don't want to expose your corporate system to the outside world, you will have to secure it. This can be done by a firewall. This means that the Web-application is not completely integrated in your corporate system. It has to be done by a secure interface. The configuration that results will look something like what is shown in the next figure.
Your Web-server, Internet Mail-server and domain name server (DNS) are located in a section outside the secure area (demilitarized zone). The outside world has read and controlled write access to these machines. Behind the firewall is the corporate local network. The firewall protects the corporate network form all access by the outside world. But from within the secure area, you are able to access the Internet. You can send Email to everybody on the Internet and you can access the World Wide Web. You can of course also access your own Web-server.
By means of the Web-application on the Web-server, you can give your colleagues access to the data that is obtained from the outside world. A part of all the functionality that you need on this data can be done with the Web-application. Another part needs an actual integration with your corporate system. For example, orders placed by clients have to be processed by your financial and stock management systems. This can usually be done in the safest way by regular downloads of data from the Web-server to the corporate database inside the firewall.
Another issue to be dealt with, is the fact that you want your Web-server 24 hours up and running. This means that you cannot afford any downtime. Therefore you need to make your Web-server failsave by doubling components. But it is also wise to have a (almost) complete mirror of the system. When you have to perform some maintenance tasks on the Web-server, you can quickly replace it by the mirror system. This mirror system can be the development machine on which you place a copy of the database of the Web-server on a regular basis. Even better is to have a separate test and backup server for this purpose.
In cases where your Web-database contains large amounts of data and you need to update this data on a regular basis, you might get into the situation that you cannot perform these updates on the same database that is accessed by the surfers on the Web. In these situations is the corporate database available for such updates outside the office hours. But because the Web-system is used 24 hours a day, this is not possible. A second server can be used to achieve a 24 hours availability for large databases with large updates. There are different technical solutions to do this. One is to do all the updates on the second machine and to do a backup and restore action to move the database to the Web-server. The Web-application is in that case not available for a short period of time. Another solution is, to perform the updates on the ‘disconnected’ database, then to switch the Internet access to this server and disconnect the not yet updated database. Then you perform the same updates on this database.


Making your Web-site have a good performance is a delicate matter. There are many aspects and components to consider when you want to improve the performance. First of all, there is the experienced performance by the people on the Web. But this is influenced by the performance of the Internet itself.
Second, you need to investigate what type of system you have. Is it a large database through which the Web-surfers browse but do not insert or update data? Or is it a system where people continuously perform database-updates. For example, in the case where people place orders to buy your products. And of course, the most important thing is to use the right hardware. Investing money in hardware is always cheaper then investing it in people (hours). Sometimes installing some extra memory, disk-space or buying a faster computer is the easiest and smartest thing to do. Also you need to configure your operating system and database management system the right way. All efforts have no use when this is not done properly. And then you have of course the application and data structure. With a good designed application and database, one can improve the performance enormously. It is very important to analyze the properties of the database management system and the programming language. Every SQL implementation is different, so study the effect of your queries and indexes. Also study how data manipulation (insert, update, delete) transactions with respect to locking mechanism is organized. When exploiting large databases, one can learn from theories in the field of Data Warehouses. In a Data Warehouse you introduce data redundancy to improve the queries. Because the data in a Data Warehouse is quite static, the extra costs during updates are accepted.
All this analysis must be done with respect to the number of page requests per minute that are performed on the server. Each page view can result into multiple database queries or transactions. What is acceptable in terms of milliseconds that are needed to generate the page, depends very much on the number of requests that are expected on your server. Is your goal to serve the whole Internet community like the popular search-engines such as Alta Vista and Yahoo, then executing a page request must be served more quickly then in the case when you expect about 10 visitors per hour. In the last case, you must place the page generation speed in perspective of the overall Internet performance. In the first case, you must make sure that each page request is dealt with within a fraction of a second, to be able to serve as much requests parallel as possible.
When your server gets bombed with requests, you can duplicate the system and distribute the requests equally over the servers. For really complex Web-sites that server different applications and tasks, it is wise to use dedicated server for each tasks. An advanced implementation of these kinds of Web-sites are called Web farms. A Web lets a corporation use all of its Web-sites as though they were part of a single system while at the same time letting each individual Web-site stay under the control of its local owner (from “Harvest profits from Web farms”, in: Datamation, march 1997).

Outsourcing or insourcing?

Besides new technology, you might be faced with new working hours and aspects in the field of human resources. Due to the fact that the Web-applications have to be up and running outside office hours, you need your system manager and web-master to do work on any time of the day. This means changing labor agreements.
All the new aspects on technology and organization together, make companies feel that they should outsource the technical part of the Internet activities. There are two aspects to this. First, is the outsourcing of the hardware, software and the Internet connectivity. Internet providers seem to be the most appropriate parties for this. This might be very well the best choice if you have a simple Web-application and easily to standardize services like email and newsgroups. When the focus lies on a complex Web-application you must be aware of the fact that the system management of the hardware and software are very intertwined with application development. And application development is again intertwined with business activities. These things have always been the case, but for Web-applications this is even more true. You cannot deny that business on the Internet is very much IT-driven.
An alternative is, to outsource the Internet activities to consultancy companies. They have traditionally focused on application development and business analysis. They can more easily support your specific business needs.
Outsourcing might be a very good option. However, if you do this in an early stage, your organization misses the experience of all that is involved. You get too easily in the situation that your partner needs to spend more money and time to serve you, than you think is necessary. And when you want to change your requirements constantly the partner will protest because it does not fit in the agreement. As long as you do not have your Internet activities well defined, you should be careful with outsourcing it. Insourcing, to get the right expertise in house for the moment, is a better option for the initial phase. If you do want to outsource, make sure that you do not lose your flexibility.

Conclusion

The Web is becoming the new medium for exploiting your business for the near future. Although the Internet is still slow, the necessary bandwidth will become available soon. This means that people and organizations will be surfing the Net daily. You have to prepare yourself now and get the right experience for electronic commerce on the Web. The challenge is to learn to manage the new technology and in the same time to find out what business activities you need to exploit on the Web and how to do this. Because there are too many variable and uncertain factors, you have to accept the growing pains that follow Internet projects. You have to learn while doing. This means that you have to go live with a pilot application on the Web of which you know that is far from optimal and that will raise expectations that you cannot meet. Most often, you can achieve in the beginning great results in a very short time. But the trick is to manage the phases that follow the initial pilot project. You will be faced with more and more investments in hardware, software and people, while the profits of your Web-application are almost zero. A clear view on a strategic level for the companies business on the Web is necessary, but is very hard to achieve because the Web is only there for a short while and nobody exactly knows what it will be and what it will do in a few years time. You need to organize your projects in a flexible and adaptable way. The technical and marketing people have to learn to work together, even though they might feel that they are frustrated in their work every now and then. A good understanding of the technical concepts of Web-applications is essential to be successful. Keep in mind that your business depends more and more on information technology. The (Informix) slogan “If you can imagine IT, you can manage IT” has basically been valid already for the last decades.



The author
Drs. H.D.Bouman RI is a consultant of Antares Informatisering B.V. in the Netherlands. He was and is involved as a project manager in different Web-projects, where amongst the Dutch Yellow Pages (www.goudengids.nl).


References
1.    Bouman, H.D., OTIF - Een ontwerptechniek voor informatiefuncties in een 4GL-omgeving. Antares Informatisering B.V., Nieuwegein, 1996.
2.    Tolido, R.J.H., IAD - Het evolutionair ontwikkelen van informatiesystemen. Academic Service, Schoonhoven, 1996.
3.    Eskrow, D.,Harvest profits from Web farms. Datamation, martch 1997.
4.    Bordeware Firewall  - http://www.kaon.co.nz/border/border.html





Thursday, September 1, 2011

Marketing for the management of IT


In this blog post I will outline briefly how the management of IT can benefit from applying concepts used in marketing. Though many concepts are already used in one way or the other, it makes you think differently and address your challenges from a different angle.

One of the key challenges of managing IT for an organisation is the alignment with the business and achieving a satisfactory evaluation by the internal customer. In the past we used to say that we needed to do our own internal marketing when we felt undervalued. The big mistake we made then (as many do), is to equate marketing with promotion.

Many IT teams have taken it upon themselves to promote the reasons why they have to do things and to promote their achievements. However marketing is more than promotion and by studying the complete marketing processes, there are certain aspects that can help making IT more successful in an organisation. Though I must say, some challenges will remain since there are some specific aspects to IT management that are not easily addressed from the marketing lessons due to the fact that you are simply an internal department of the organisation. Your customer is also your boss.

As a reference relating to marketing, I will use the book “Marketing – an introduction” by Gary Armstrong and Philip Kotler published by Pearson and this defines marketing as follows:

Marketing is the process by which companies create value for customers and build strong customer relationships in order to capture value from customers in return. For your IT organisation you would need to substitute “companies” with “the IT department”.

This definition raises some issues. “Create value” is easily understood but in essence the objective of marketing is to create “customer delight”, “build customer relationships” and “customer equity”, meaning that you should go beyond just satisfying the customer. The customer really should like your services but not only that, your customer should actually like engaging with you and even wants to invest in you. Just look at the loyal fans of Apple. They really like the products, not merely for its technical capabilities but also for its brand and to express to the rest of the world that they are an Apple user, and they enjoy engaging with the company and promote the products and the company to others.

If you look into the marketing processes, you will see that there is much overlap with IT management processes. The overarching marketing process as defined by Armstrong and Kotler is as follows:



I will briefly go through each process and how this can be applied to IT management.

Understanding the marketplace and customer needs and wants
The first step is to understand the customer needs and wants. And here it already gets difficult. Sure, we can go around the organisation and identify what they would need or want. The problem becomes more difficult with the fact that you can’t give each user or each department exactly what they want. From the top you will have been given directions to reduce or at least control cost. Besides this, each department and user will look at their individual needs and will not look at the overarching organisational requirement. You would want to avoid a hotchpotch of technologies to be managed. The C-level managers will have different requirements and objectives than the individual users of the systems. The discrepancy is quite often not one that is part of IT but is present within the business. The question is then what you can or should do about that as a CIO, IT manager or IT department.

Life is always easier if you have a single business owner for a specific system – for a specific need. It becomes more difficult if you can’t really identify a single business owner, for example as you have with a CRM system or the more abstract need of something like “security”.

Sometimes the needs and wants seem to be irrational. When the iPhones first came on the market, the CEO was the first to demand an iPhone. But the IT department had issues with iPhones to be connected to the network and in the end it is also the CEO who is responsible to assure that security of critical data of the company and the continuity of the business is warranted. The trick is to find the logic behind the requirement and to find the right balance in the service to be provided. And part of this service is assessing the risk and informing the CEO of the associated risks.

But in general, there is much similarity between marketing and IT with respect to this first step. IT has various processes in place to understand the needs and wants of the customer and the level to which this happens will vary per organisation. For example, when we commence a project, we will come with a vision document and perform a business requirements analysis. But outside the initiated projects, are we always proactively researching the business needs or do we wait until the business comes to us with a request?

One aspect of this is also “understanding the marketplace”. Sometimes the IT department gets caught out with new developments in the marketplace while the customer has already picked up on it and is ready to use it while the IT department is not ready for it yet. It happened when the Internet emerged and now with social media we see a similar thing. We see more and more that the business is bypassing the internal IT department and shops for IT services themselves. The question is then whether this is a bad thing or not. And this comes than down to what the role is of the IT department is. In marketing terms: “what product do you provide and which customers do you serve”?

Marketers spend quite some time to understand customer buying behaviour and dive into the psychology of their target market. They have models for consumers and for business customers. Maybe we should research better what makes our internal customers tick so we understand their drivers better.

Design a customer driven marketing strategy
This is the process that should give the answers to many questions. The marketer asks himself for this the following two questions which is all about market segmentation, targeting, differentiation and positioning:
1. What customers will we serve?
2. How can we serve these customers best?

At first sight, you might think that the first question does not really apply for the IT department. But you should put that in the context of specific systems and services you might provide.
For example, a clinical research department might need some specialised equipment that also comes with relevant specialised computer systems. In many cases the vendor will provide a complete set of managed services for the equipment and computer systems. There is not much use for the IT department to get too deeply involved in this. If these systems are rather isolated, you see in reality that the respective business unit will maintain the relationship with the vendor and IT only needs to provide some infrastructure services.

Another example could be payroll. A payroll system and its support are in many cases outsourced and in many cases also a big part of the business process is outsourced while this is all managed by the HR or Finance department.

With the emergency of more and more business systems being offered as Software as a Service (SaaS) in the Cloud, we see that there are more and more situations where the business can organise their own IT needs via vendors without too much involvement of the internal IT department. So as an internal IT department you definitely have choices of services you will provide and to which customers in the organisation. And with the emergence of the Cloud, the IT department will have to rethink its strategy. What role do you play?

Though I don’t see any issues with the business units engaging Cloud providers themselves for those utility solutions that really can be obtained “off-the-shelf”, the risk is that over time the organisation will have a hotchpotch of various cloud solutions and that information will not flow between the systems. As a consequence, data needs to be manually re-entered in the various systems with the risk of all the errors that we have known for so many years. The IT department has for this a marketing opportunity to provide consultancy and integration services.

In many cases, the IT department will have systems in place that everyone in the organisation must use. The customer is given a choice for one product only. In marketing terms, the IT department uses a “selling concept”. You have a product and now you are trying to convince the customer to use this one product. Marketers in contrast prefer to use the “marketing concept”, which means you look at the needs and wants of the customer and adjust your offering accordingly.

This is not always easy. To keep costs low, you like to standardise. For example, your email client will preferably be standardised across the organisation. The same applies for your CRM system. You might have invested already in an enterprise license of a certain product which means you can service other business units cost effectively. Leaving the option open can be risky in the sense that you will need to promote the benefits of your offering which can be lower costs and better data integration. Selling lower costs of course only works if the respective manager actually will notice this on his budget.

But giving the people the option will change the way they perceive the value of the option you provide even though you will run into cases where a different choice is made and your warnings of higher costs and other draw-backs are ignored.

It all comes down to choose your value proposition: What is the role of the IT department in the organisation which results in the many discussions around the (changing) role of the CIO. Are you an enabler of technology or are you the strategic partner? And this role could vary for the different customers you have and it can vary per customer over time.

Construct an integrated marketing program that delivers superior value
A marketing program is about the well-known 4 P’s Product, Price, Place and Promotion and the additional 3 P’s People, Process and Physical Evidence. This is pretty much everything that IT processes revolve around. Product and price are obvious items. Place is also extensively discussed. Outsourcing, off-shoring and also the Cloud relating to the physical location of your systems are items that are always intensively being reviewed. We also known that people and processes can make or break your customer experience and the value you provide. I found it always invaluable to have support staff and service delivery managers on the floor with the customer. The direct face to face interaction and the ability to sit down together behind a monitor cannot easily be replaced by over the phone or email interaction.

Many IT departments work on promoting themselves, but for many others it is an opportunity for improvement. A big part of this will need to start with internal marketing such that IT staff can be promoters of the total offering of the services that are provided. IT staff need to think customer first and that might require some changes to the way the team has been set up. A condition for transforming staff to successful promoters of the products and services is that they need to enjoy working in the team and for the company.

Another consideration is branding. Our outside world competitors and partners have a clear brand. But should we develop a brand as well? The definition of "brand" that I think best suits is "a recognisable and trustworthy badge of origin and also a promise of performance". (From: Feldwick, P (1991), "Defining a Brand," in Understanding Brands, D Cowley, Ed. London:
Kogan Page.) Defining a brand for your IT department, or if you have a large IT department multiple brands, could assist with better positioning your role and services within the organisation.

Physical evidence is an interesting item to consider since much of what IT does is a service. A project can deliver a new system and at times you deliver new hardware. But once systems are in place, your primary product is a service. Strategic advice is also a service. We struggle regularly to quantify the value of IT and we try to make this visible through reports and numbers such as "cost savings" or "reduction in number of service calls".

Build profitable relationships and create customer delight
Profitable in monetary sense is not directly an objective of the IT department. However, if you have a charge back model and your customer is happy to come to you and spend his budget with you, you can consider this profitable. But profits can also be measured in terms of respect and positive evaluation of your services or in clear results of business improvement.

One thing is to put technology in place for the customer. Another thing is the customer to be delighted about it. First of all it means that the technology itself must meet or exceed expectations but secondly it means that the ongoing experience must create this delight. And this is achieved by creating excellent customer support services and relating more deeply and interactively with the customer. Many organisations will have business relationship managers or service delivery managers to maintain this ongoing customer relationship. Their role is to assure that the customers achieve most out of the systems and also identify new needs and wants that you can respond to.
The delivery of the services is something that goes across the whole IT department. Though you will have a designated service desk (helpdesk), we tend to say that everyone in IT is part of the service desk.

At some moment in time, you can assist your business customer strategically and jointly work on business improvements and put a strategic technology solution in place. Over time this solution is just there, it simply works and just requires support. It has become a utility. What initially delighted your customer later became a basic expectation. The Kano model explains how this works.

It means that at one moment in time you can be a strategic partner for a customer while later you have become an enabler. And you will need to adjust your product and service level to the expectations and the needs of the customer. As Lou Ehrlich says in his article, if you ask your stakeholder what's on their mind and they respond with issues around their PC or mobile device, they are probably not ready for you to act as strategic partner.

The concept applies to all features of your products and services. For features of business systems, of your infrastructure such as speed of the network and storage capacity and for features of your services such as speed of addressing service desk calls and internal consultancy services. In order to excite the customer you will have to improve on your features which subsequently will become basic expectations.

One thing that we should not forget is that in order to excite the customer, at least all the basic features must be provided. You can try to be a strategic partner as much as you like, if your systems are not reliable, the customer won't be excited.


Capture value from customers to create profits and customer equity
The end result of your marketing process is to have obtained the respect and positive evaluation of your customer and with the challenge of meeting both the needs of the individual users and the C-level managers. Marketing concepts will not give an answer to all challenges that the CIO or the IT department face. The IT department has a governance role and this can stand square with with a service provider - client approach. But I believe that by looking at your services from slightly different angle can improve the value that you can create for the organisation and the way your customers value your achievements. Customer equity means that customers are loyal, achieve the maximum out of the technology that is provided and will call upon your services effectively that optimally benefits the organisation as a whole.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Be careful with judgements and decisions if you don't know the full picture!

People often make judgements with only partly information. This is often a necessity and this ability makes the human race going, but sometimes it can make you look very dumb and in other circumstances it can have serious detrimental effects.

For example when you have obtained insufficient information about the capabilities of a new product or about your needs. When buying a new car or house. Or when buying a new ERP system. If you are going to spend the money, you better assure you get the right thing. Strangely enough, people tend to spend proportionally less time analysing the needs and the specifics of a product for major purchases compared to the time they spend considering the purchase of a $5 product in the supermarket.

In many other cases the consequences are less obvious and impact more the social situation.

I usually buy my lunch at the same place and have a given variety of options I pick for my lunch. But I will be served by different people. If someone new comes in to serve and the coincidence is that that person served me twice or three times in a row with the same thing, they tend to think that I always order the same thing. They are really surprised if I order the next time something different. I just smile back.

The other day when we had some issues with one of our systems and had problems identifying the cause, one of our other colleagues listened to what was going on and suddenly spoke out in a loud voice: "Well I am not going to say anything, but if someone would have bothered to look at this report you would get a clear indication of what happened!". In other words, we were dumb and he was smart.

Unfortunately for him, he would have found that if he would have looked closer that the information presented on the report was misleading. You wonder who was the dumbo. But he had a fair point that it is good practice to look at the report even though in this case it did not help much.

Years ago, I was sitting next to a help desk that was servicing external customers. On one of the calls, the customer was requested to put the floppy disk of the software in the computer. It did not help and the conclusion was that the disk was corrupted. A new disk was sent over to no avail. So an engineer went over and he found that the first thing the customer did was punch two holes in the disk to file it in a folder. Pretty dumb huh? We had a good laugh. But if you have never been explained how a disk works and how computers work in general, you might think that the disk is just some carton on which the information was written with invisible ink. In those days many people would not have the slightest notion that a disk could contain information or have the slightest idea what software was.

Many of the help desk calls we receive relate to the users not knowing how to use the system or due to business processes insufficiently been defined. Regardless of the cause, the user can't proceed with his work. This is frustrating and it becomes a technology problem. In a case at hand that I dealt with, I had myself insufficiently informed and advised the customer that this was an unfortunate limitation of the system. Customer far from happy as you can understand. After consulting an expert in my team, I found out that the cause was data related and that another party had failed to enter the relevant data due to lack of knowledge of the system and how the data is used throughout the system. I informed the customer of this but did not want to hear anything of it and did not care who caused it. As long as I would resolve it. Which we did of course. But who had not him or her self properly informed and who was judging or deciding too quickly?

I think this applies to all three people involved and I think all three of us had to sigh deep. As it should be, we kept it all professionlly and this is the requierd mechanism to deal with frustrting situations. But it is easy to see how such a simple thing could have escalated. Specifically if you don't have the option of direct communication and immediate assistance from experts to help out.

It is easy to say that you need to know all the facts. However, how do you know that you don't have all the facts? Unfortunately we can't live without a certain amount of uncertainty and this also creates many of the good things in life.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Computer systems health problems are sometimes not much dissimilar as that of humans

Treating health problems of computer systems is sometimes not much dissimilar as that of humans.

You probably have experienced yourself a health problem (or if not you will know someone who had a health problem) that didn't want to go away and for which the doctor couldn't find a cause. It could have been a serious problem or it could have been one of those little annoying things that seem to come and go.

Computer systems sometimes have the same problems.

Recently we upgraded our Oracle databases and as a consequence one of the systems that ran for a long time without issues regularly stopped working. We knew that the problems was database related, but what? Log files analysis did not help much. We found also hanging locks in the database but how did they get there? The database itself did not reveal much of it's secrets. We found one hint in some blogs relating to foreign key indexes and created a few of the missing indexes. We asked Oracle whether the specific behaviour could have been caused by the missing indexes. But no clear answer from Oracle.

We expected that it was something like the missing foreign key indexes. Probably we did something that was tolerated by the older releases of the database but not by the new one.

Going back to the old release is not really a good option but this could be necessary if we wouldn't find a solution.

The difficulty with these type of problems is that it can depend on user behaviour. At one moment in time, people need to do a certain series of tasks and if a few people do certain things in parallel, then the problem can occur. But that might happen at one moment in time and before this happens again, it can be weeks or months. This is not much dissimilar as finding out whether a certain health symptom is caused by a food allergy or not.

But at least then you deal with only one person. In our situation it is difficult to go back to all the users and ask them exactly what they did and at exactly what moment in time.

Our problem has not occurred anymore for a little while and we just hope that it was caused by the missing foreign key indexes. Otherwise we can expect it come back again to bite us.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The management secrets of Barcelona Football Club - by Schumpeter (from the Economist)

Barça’s management style chimes in with the thinking of two admired theorists. Boris Groysberg, of Harvard Business School, has warned that companies are too obsessed with hiring stars rather than developing teams.

Basically I suggest to read this article in the Economist by Schumpter and additionally Great People Are Overrated by Bill Taylor on then Harvard Business Review website.



 

 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Are you in it for the ride?

A long time ago, someone told me the analogy that people in society, a business or a project all sit on a wagon. Most people just sit on the wagon and are there for the ride. However there are a few people that are in front of the wagon and actually pull it forward. And then there are always a few people behind the wagon to slow it down.

Over time I added that there are a few people standing on the wagon shouting and giving directions to the laborers upfront. These are the "important" people.

I think everyone can easily recognise the people that make the world go around. And you probably also know some people that are there just to slow things down without a good reason. You might think those bosses on the wagon shouting the directions would be politicians. Not directly my intention but yes, amongst politicians you will find those people as well. And those 'bosses' do not directly correspond with the bosses in the real world. Bosses are on the wagon, in front of it and also behind it.

Talking about bosses right now, one of the mothers on the football field last Sunday complained about her boss at work; how impossible it was to work with her, how incompetent she was and how she only seems to frustrate things.

I recognise this. In the past I have seen more of those people of whom you think "how on earth did they ever come into that position?". I explain that this is due to the lack of 'weight'. This makes them float to the top. People who are there for the ride and just make a lot of noise.

A little while ago I read an article ("Competence: Is Your Boss Faking It?" by Jeffrey Kluger, Time Magazine, Feb. 11, 2009 ) that people tend to think that people who make the most noise (talk the most) probably will know more. Why not? If you are not certain about something, wouldn't you listen to others instead of speaking up? The psychology of human nature makes them to become the "leaders" while unfortunately (as per article) there is no direct correlation with actual knowledge or skills.

As managers we are expected to have a broad range of skills. Take for example people skills. I am however still surprised that there are so many people in high places who lack any form of people management skills. It is so obvious, how could you have missed it when you appointed the person?

Unless you do a psychometric test, these aspects are always difficult to assess during job interviews. But even more problematic, how do you identify that a manager reporting to you has issues with his team? You might get a team member complaining to you about the manager, but how do you know that this is a valid complaint? Maybe the person is not performing well and this is his way to put the blame on his boss? Other people might not speak up because they're too afraid that this will negatively impact their own position. It is not always that people are incompetent in all aspects of their job and that can make it even more difficult to assess the situation.

The football mum unfortunately will have to deal with her boss for a while.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Make all content on websites editable

I have now again a few cases at hand where my team had to support a website originally developed and supported by vendors where content updates require software developers to make the changes.

In principle you should build a website so that all text and images, maybe a logo and buttons for submitting a form etc excepted, can be modified by the web authors. If you don't have this, you will rely on the developers to make content modifications to the website. This is far from ideal because this is very costly, requires planning and when you have urgent cases at hand it will just lead to stress between the business and technology team.

Unfortunately this ideal situation requires that you architect the site accordingly and accept the extra effort, time and costs upfront. When you are aware of these issues, you can plan this in but you need to look whether these upfront costs are warranted. If the website is expected to have a limited life span and during this time only certian sections of the site require updates, you can consider to leave the other parts as static HTML or hard coded in software. It will only become a problem if the website will live longer than originally planned or if more sections of the site need to be updated than as originally planned.

When you have outsourced the development, support and maintenance to a vendor, you will not have good insight how they will have built the website. If the vendor also is responsible for making the content changes, you will only see how they have resolved it once you take over the support and maintenance in-house. This can be a shocking experience.

The way around this is to QA the vendor's work regularly, not just at the end or when you get the handover. You can put clauses in the contract but it is far from ideal to involve lawyers when it has gone wrong. And it will. Involving lawyers and going to court will only be a lose-lose result. So you either you need to accept extra upfront costs or accept the risk. And since money is a scarce resource ...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Are CIO's becoming like CFO's or is it the other way around?

I received an email from one of our team members following an article in Delimiter he read and asked whether the IT managers were becoming more like the Finance manager or the other way around. 

The article was about the observation that CIO's at a round table conference were talking more about the business and business issues than about tools and technologies. 

My answer to this question would be that IT managers have changed. 

CFO's have managed IT and the CIO for decades now and not always that successfully. I don't say that a CIO can't report to a CFO but as we have been able to read now already for years it is important for the CIO to have a good direct relationship with the CEO. 

Finance has morphed over the ages from pure number crunchers to general consultants and the CFO has become one of the key figures in any organisation. 

IT is a younger profession and is heading the same way. As the article says in Delimiter,"it is a coming of age".

I think that there is too much specialism in both areas that it is important to have on the top leaders coming out of their own specialism. Both areas are critical to successful management of a business and both areas need have good knowledge of the business in order to be successful. CIO's are simply catching up. 

But as I wrote before, it depends on the context how you organise this:

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Kate's wedding dress and why we always will agree with those in power

The most noticeable comment on TV from the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William was for me the question whether "Kate got it right with her wedding dress". Of course everyone will agree that the dress is stunning, especially on the day. As commentator on TV you are not going to spoil the party by criticising the wedding dress.

In my opinion most wedding dresses are all the same and most I don't like anyway. I don't even think that how the make-up and hair is done for these formal occasions make a woman the most beautiful, but I have lost these arguments many times. Even with men. I prefer a more natural look. Though for a wedding dress, I think Kate definitely got it right. Go Kate!

However, my opinion about this is not relevant. What I observe is that everyone will always consider the bride stunning and beautiful, definitely in case of a royal wedding. People need the fairytale story and will colour reality in according to their needs. Some don't like the royal family and will protest against the money spent.

A similar process happens when senior management in an organisation come with an initiative and gather the troops to go left or right. Or implement a new system for that matter. If the person in power brings this initiative as fantastic and important, most people will follow that perception and copy the excitement about the initiative. You don't criticise and definitely not in public. We all will happily preach that it is the right thing to do.

But sometimes we actually think that they got it wrong or that they have the wrong leader for the initiative or selected the wrong software or whatever. Are you going to express your concerns when your managers and colleagues are so enthusiastic about the initiative? You could, but it is risky. What are you going to achieve with criticism when everyone else seems to have a different opinion? (But do they?)

Before you start criticising the wedding dress or the project, you need to question yourself if matters that much. Sometime yes. Wrong insights with your leaders and of the masses can in specific cases lead to loss of life. We have seen that with the many disasters lately in the many countries. There were always people that foresaw problems but were not heard (not including those people who always see problems and always are against anything).

On the other hand it is by far always that dramatic. In many cases management just needs to assure that the organisation moves from A to B and it is not always the biggest deal to have it done in the most efficient way. I don't always take the shortest route when driving through Sydney. Quite often I just take the easiest way or just they way that I am most familiar with.

What is technically more efficient does not need to mean that it is more efficient from business management perspective. What makes technical sense does not always make business sense. But when does it become important to see if you can steer the organisation in a different direction? This is not always clear.

But I would say enjoy the wedding and the royals.