Why SLAs fail
Service levels matter to everyone, the customer, the provider and the end consumer of the customer; I do not believe that deficiency of service is due to willful behavior or mal-intent. The exception to this may be in monopolistic scenarios where no incentive exists. When it is relatively easy to switch services or move business to competition, efforts are indeed put in by the provider, the end results may however not be aligned to expectations.
The reasons why SLAs fail could be many, ranging from ambiguous definition of service, staff involved in execution not being aware of quality of service expected, lack of skills on the ground, unrealistic expectations, or force majeure conditions, to name a few. Irrespective of the reasons, when things do go wrong, contracts come out of the closet again to review the penalties that can be levied or avoided depending on the frame of reference.
My belief is that ‘if-then’ motivation will not deliver world class service; i.e. if SLA is met you get paid, if you better the SLA, you collect a bonus, whereas if the SLA is breached, there is a penalty.
Placing the business impact first
SLAs are typically calculated on statistical data which fails to recognize business impact when the service is deficient. Creating complex SLAs that factor in all types of exception conditions makes it readable and enforceable only by lawyers and not CIOs.
An SLA should illustrate the intent of partnership between the two (or more) parties. Incremental innovation or improvements are expected as much as occasional failures that could be for any of the reasons listed above. Both parties need to work together towards ensuring that they understand the root causes and work towards prevention of repeated adverse impact.
Unfortunately, such behavior is rarely seen and everyone invests significant resources towards the scripting of a document that covers all bases. End result is that the parties involved split hairs with irrational discussions thereby leaving the spirit of partnership aside. Most successful relationships are based on simple few page documents that capture the intent with the managements investing time in frequent reviews not just when things go wrong, but when they are working too.
Over the years it has been a difficult journey on this path, but it has been worth the effort. The big companies (customer as well as provider) have however yet to learn.
The number of award categories had grown over the years from a handful to more than double score. Thus multiple juries consisting of senior CIOs were appointed and the task was split.
Absence of customer-inputs
We got started with the understanding of categories we were to judge and the time allocated for discussions of each award. Everyone agreed and we jumped onto the first category. The nominated and shortlisted names were not a surprise.
But as we started to scratch the surface, the question came up “where is the customer dimension? How can we assess the relative merits of performance without the voice of customer?” It was evident and confirmed that over the years there was no thought given to this aspect in deciding the winner. The sound logic stated that size and/or growth demonstrate customer confidence.
The jury did not bite that. Sometimes size is a function of regulatory play, incumbency factor or better marketing machinery. Progressing through the categories, the debates took many hues; at times the shortlisted vendors were not perceived to be market leaders or worthy of an award.
In some the selection criteria of the nominations made it appear that the award was pre-decided; the deliberations had the jury wondering if these were sponsored awards being played out to gain respectability.
Truth Vs. marketing babble
Not too long ago a CIO had used social media to highlight the farce behind one of the industry awards for CIOs. In the world of scams, anything is possible. Over lunch the discussion did veer to this doubt. We were animatedly appeased by the organizers that such was not the case. They acknowledged the shortfall in data and that some criteria needed amends.
CIOs listening to vendor pitches and presentations tend to believe awards cited by the vendor. They purportedly validate the technology, solution, or service as it is assumed that experts indeed evaluated objectively across formal KPIs that matter. A few dazzling awards may appear alien but are rarely challenged. If an exotic niche publication conferred the award, so be it. Micro-segmentation works to serve a purpose. Ho hum!
Importance of being prudent
Sticking to what matters to the business is always a good starting point while selecting any vendor. The other important factors include, and not limited to, cultural alignment, success in solving similar problems, industry/ domain focus, long-term development strategy, apart from size, growth, and the awards they have accumulated.
If you are an early adopter of technology, seek safeguard that shares the risk/ reward. For others, nothing works better than peer reference, i.e. talking to existing customers.
Back to the awards, we the jury were aghast at the invisible customer angle. The high point of the day spent was a category that was denied an award in the context presented and one that got away was a lone nomination to a category that at best had a start-up as a challenger.
So next time a vendor puts up a slide or gives you a brochure with glitzy photos of awards, acknowledge them, but do remember to exercise your right to references with or without the help from the vendor.]]>
The second was a question from an SME (small and medium enterprise) CEO to a panel of big enterprise CIOs in a seminar organized by one of the large office automation, unified communication, and collaboration solution vendor for the mid-market customers. Majority of the audience nodded to the question as if they all faced the same predicament and did not know how to resolve the situation.
There appears to be an inherent desire amongst us to crave the latest version of gadgets or software similar to the desires to keep up with the latest trends in fashion that vanity demands. The technology vanity also permeates organizations; after all the same individuals pride themselves flaunting the latest must have phone, music player, and camera, whatever.
Organizations can ill afford such a race and the break point has a direct correlation to the profitability of the enterprise and the contributions of the IT function. The enamoured CEO and CIO will also cite examples of how and why it matters and the benefit thereof to the business, customers, and off course themselves.
When this is weighed against the basic rules of conducting prudent business with rationale investments filtered using good governance rules, the decision shifts to what matters. Every organization has a set of rules for financial investments; these measure the results and provide a framework that applies in most cases to every decision. However, IT sometimes escapes this rigor with justifications ranging from necessity for security to lack of support on older versions, fear of obsolescence and many in between. In absence of tools to validate or ignorance, and the incessant push from the vendors, the SME customer faces devil’s choice.
Irrespective of size and compulsions driven by technology vanity, vendor threats, competitive scares, boardroom chatter, or peer pressure, the rules of good investment decisions should always stay in the forefront. My answer to the question from the CEO was, “We still think like the SME we were in the past. Every investment has to answer the following questions: Does it help the customer, employee, or shareholders? Does it create a new capability we require to differentiate? Is it required by law? If none applies, then the investment is not undertaken.
But then the thirst for the latest is irrational. We have become participants to a mega race to acquire the next. There is no justifying the next version of laptop with the latest processor, nor any rationale for the next zillion megapixel camera. Why do we need the latest version of communicator or the micro-app on our phone? I think the simple answer is because it is there!]]>
Over the years I have attended and conducted over a dozen such programs with teams―large and small―across organization layers. All of them were great experiences and opened up a new line of thought, provoking some action or reaction with me as well as other participants. Many companies conduct these annually by department or sometimes horizontally taking layers of management for team building, bonding and improvement of cross-functional dynamics.
In the last outbound program one of the participants posed a question to the moderator, how can we ensure that the learning from this program stay with us and bring about positive change? The volatility of learning defies expectation and evaporates by the time everyone reports back to their workplaces. Nonetheless this does not deter teams, companies and trainers world over from conducting such programs. The moderator promised to revisit the question before close of the program.
CIOs probably manage the most diverse teams with skills and competencies that are specialized in their own right. Be it infrastructure which can be subdivided into network, servers, data centers, or core application stacks that require technical, functional and architectural expertise; all of this and more form a typical IT team. Each professional equipped with ‘professional arrogance’ believes s/he is unique and better than the other. For the enterprise to function cohesively, these teams have to work in tandem like the machinery in a shop floor lest production come to a standstill.
The siloed nature of teams creates friction as well as competitive spirit that require the CIO to balance internal expectations with the expectations of the business leaders and customers. Outbound and offsite meetings thus serve an important purpose of breaking the ice, bringing together the teams even if for a short while, and provide a platform for exploration of themes that bring success to the team. It is foolhardy to expect everyone to create the same level of benefit for themselves; if some of them find their change agent, the event has served a purpose. It’s analogous to a classroom where all the students listen to the same teacher but hear differently.
Coming back to the moderator of the last outbound, in the final session, he said, “I am sure you liked parts of the program, participation level was great. I had nothing to give to all of you; it’s for you to decide what you want to take back.” Well said indeed, because no one can ensure what you take away from any program, discussion or stuff that you read; it’s a choice the participant makes based on his/her presence, participation (or lack of it), fiddling with the phone, or side talk.
On another note, Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing―that’s why we recommend it daily.”]]>
I wish that we can all evolve to a level of BI/DW tools such that any user within the enterprise can start using transactional data to convert to information that can assist informed decision making. Anyone who can use a spreadsheet should be able to extract the insights hidden within the sea of information. They should be able to intuitively understand what is expected from them to get to the next step with no prompting or help (online or otherwise). I am talking about Intuitive Analytics, a term coined by me a while back to refer to analytics that is intuitive in its interface; intuitive to the user the way s/he is able to open the browser on the PC, Smartphone or tablet and start the journey of discovery on the Internet.
In recent times there have been multiple initiatives around improvement of how information is presented to the consumers. Evolution from rows and columns to dashboards, drill-downs, pivots, multi-dimensional analytics has evolved; the evolution of mathematical models as well as technological advances on speed of crunching data have pushed the boundaries across enterprise data warehouse projects. Over the last three years, DW/BI has consistently been in the top 3 technology and business priorities.
The experiences are, however, inconsistent in their delivery of business value. Some of the barriers include data quality, data model deficiencies, bad ETLs to name a few. The biggest deterrent, however, has been the complex user experience which has seen lesser evolution as compared to the technological advances. All tools with no notable exception provide the basic building blocks to create the DW/BI foundation and analytical layer, standard templates. The internal IT teams and implementation partners have yet to breakout from the mold to provide a rich, consistent, and meaningful capability to the end consumer of information.
I believe that this is an opportunity for one and all, CIO, DW Architects, vendors, implementation partners, to take up this challenge on making BI as easy as getting on any social media site and get started. If you have already crossed this bridge, do write back, but the applause on the floor to my comments, makes me believe that the journey is still more like an uncharted expedition.]]>