Oh I See! Getting CIOs to view their jobs from a different angle

December 7, 2009  8:12 AM

IT-enabling the CXO

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

A close friend narrated this incident about a CEO who asked the IT organization for three laptops. The first one for use in the office, second during travel, and the third to be used at his residence! It was one of those unchallengeable CEO mandates. My friend thought of this incident as a compliance issue or misuse of power vested with the position. To me, it was interesting that the CEO even thought of such an arrangement without realizing the improbability of how it will aid his work.

Every organization endeavors to define and execute policy with minimal exceptions. These are discussed, debated and agreed upon by the management — signed off too, in a few cases. Everything works well until the first exception request. Such requests typically come from a high performer or a CXO who states constraints within the defined boundaries. Thus begins the dilemma which is normally taken as an acceptable deviation to aid the CXO/high performer, as no one wants to leave any room for doubt when it comes to performance.

The IT organization struggles to maintain normalcy, since the precedent is taken as the new norm. After a while, only two choices remain — change the rulebook or try to save face by diligently documenting each exception. The third alternative is really not an option, since it means that you have to take a tough stance and deny the request. Is there a way out of such a predicament, especially when you consider that powers vested with the CIO are not absolute and can be overridden by the “business requirement”?

Coming back to the story of the “three laptop” CEO, I asked my friend about how the CEO proposed to use this distributed computing to his advantage? Did he not realize that he was misusing his executive powers which may be challenged by the Board of Directors or may set an avoidable example for other CXOs to emulate? I was advised that the CEO was creating value, and by virtue of this, the Board may allow such small indiscretions and look the other way.

In such cases, I believe the relationship and openness existing between the CIO and CEO will play an important role (where healthy discussion and debate exists), as does a possibility of influencing the decision. CIOs should work diligently to build and sustain this relationship to remain relevant and successful within an enterprise.

What about you? Would you acquiesce to such a request?

December 1, 2009  12:04 AM

Sleeping with the enemy!

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Budgeting starts around this time of the year for most CIOs, along with the exercise of defining operations cost and investments for the coming year. This process typically lasts from four weeks for the agile to four months (in some cases). Almost every year, there is an expectation to do more with less, until you reach a scenario where “there is no more left to do more with”. During this time of the year, the CFO is at his peak of influence, since all the other functions which want funds try the level best to justify their investments and plans. 

Recently, I was asked to present to a group of CIOs on “How to make your CFO your best friend”. Such a subject can be a hair-raising experience for most seasoned players, as it requires a strong financial background and understanding of the business to put across acceptable metrics and KPIs for the management team. This is where a skilled CIO can get budgets approved without the proverbial scissor’s side effects — it’s possible to avoid typical across the board budget slashes (of, say 20%), especially on the operational side of things.

Long time back, I decided to separate the operational budget and the investment (read capital expense) budget. My intention was to let the business decide the projects that they wanted to invest in. This ensured that business created the P&L for their projects.

Obviously, IT had to help the business with the figures and merits of each solution. In most cases, business would choose the best possible solution and succeed in justifying them to the CFO and CEO. This shift signifies that we will help implement and execute the project from an IT perspective, but you (business) own it. Many cases required the creation of innovative KPIs rather than the conventional ROI or IRR models to help the business justify its investments.

While setting the operational budget is relatively easy, the expectation to reduce budgets year on year remains an interesting discussion. In one of the cases, I took a menu card approach to operating expenses. If you want good speed of response from your network, you have to pay higher, like a toll paid to travel faster. Hardware refresh can be analogous to replacing cars every five years, a common corporate practice. Why? Mainly since the cost of maintenance goes up, and availability of spare parts is also an issue.

It’s possible to have the CFO as an ally, if the CIO understands the compulsions and metrics that the CFO has to manage. After all, CIOs are also responsible for managing the cash flow and acting as conscience keepers for the company.

November 23, 2009  8:28 AM

What is the role of a CIO?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

At a recent social event, I got introduced to a new-age professional — one who hobnobs with CEOs and Boards, all the while talking about environment changes and the resultant impact on future climatic conditions. Post the introductions and a bit of discussion about carbon credits, she innocuously asked me the question, “What does a CIO do?

I was taken aback, aghast, and speechless for a few moments. Seeing my face, she quickly added, “Sorry, I have not come across CIOs in the past.”

And they talk about CIOs driving their companies’ Green agenda!

So I tried to give her some answers based on commonly accepted definitions and job descriptions loved by CIOs and executive search companies. She listened attentively as I started my discourse on the strategic nature of a CIO’s position and how the role has evolved over a period of time to now being recognized as an integral part of the C-suite. However, it was obvious after a few minutes that she was just being polite. She had no interest in the wonderful stuff that CIOs do — at least, not in what CIOs believe is wonderful.

The fundamental question nagged me for a few days after this fateful meeting. So I started asking a few peers that question —without exception, everyone wondered if I needed to visit a Psychiatrist. The more I thought about it, the more it haunted me. My Eureka moment arrived, by chance, while reading “The Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink.

CIOs are left-brained people pushed towards right-brained activities and they face a constant struggle. The CIO’s role involves a transformation from being the glass-house’s keeper. He has to mold himself to becoming worthy of the oak desk corner office and a seat on the management table. For most CIOs, this has been made possible by successfully traversing the path from being a technology person to a well-rounded professional. He has to be the person who is equally at ease with techie stuff, as well as balance sheets and customer engagements. The CIO is unique in his ability to contribute to all segments of the enterprise.

Now, that’s an unusual way to describe a CIO. But to me, it’s a very satisfying definition of a continuously evolving role.

November 16, 2009  7:58 AM

How much of IT do we use?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Every now and then, a familiar question comes up which IT and the business is expected to answer. “How much of the ERP/CRM/SCM/… solution’s features do we use?” How do we increase this to gain the most from our investment! As a result, everyone gets down to analyzing the feature set once again, painstakingly attempting to move beyond the standard 30% number in good implementations.

In the last year or so, many CIOs struggled to provide a rationale to this question, while others undertook the task to improve usage. This expectation needs some careful analysis to understand why this question comes up periodically — all the more so in difficult times, when other investments are scarce.

There are significant expectations to be fulfilled when organizations make large investments in commercially available software solutions. These expectations set by the vendors, IT team and occasionally the business project lead tend to indicate that upon implementation, the enterprise will undergo a transformation from its current state to a highly optimized state giving it a significant advantage in the industry. This overselling of benefits continues even today — many decades after three letter solutions entered the IT arena.

Any large generic solution coupled with industry-specific templates or add-on modules will be feature-rich in its endeavor to address all types of scenarios — irrespective of whether they occur within your specific organization or not. Some of these scenarios are executed based on every company’s specifics, while others are not deemed relevant. Thus starts the journey of partial usage, which is accepted during the project. Over time, the vendor continues to evolve his solution based on customer feedback and industry evolution, irrespective of whether companies adopt such incremental functionality.

I believe that CIOs should draw parallels from other commercial products to educate the business on why usage will always remain sub-optimal when measured as a percentage of all the available features. A handy example on this front can be the humble cell phone, which is bought by people based on new features that are added faster than most of us can comprehend. 90% of cell phone users (which includes the same corporate teams who berate the IT solution’s inadequate usage), do the same with these devices. Or move the lens towards television sets, which are bought after careful evaluation — only to be used for the most basic features.

We keep on upgrading office productivity solutions like word processors, spreadsheets and presentation tools, but rarely evolve beyond the earlier feature usage. So why do we have to run after every new version? To remain current and compatible, of course!

Can the same apply to our ERP/CRM/… solutions?

November 9, 2009  6:18 AM

Monday blues!

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

A recent news item caused curiosity; it said Monday blues are at its peak at 11:45 AM on Tuesday!

Till I entered the corporate world, “Manic Monday” (from the music band Bangles) was just a song for me. I was told that every day is a Monday in the world of IT, since the IT organization is always running to stay stable at the same place. During the initial years, I thought I was missing something. As I move up the ladder, the realization might happen about how bad Monday can be. I used to see many wrinkled faces with worry written all over — I was told that stress causes this phenomena.

IT was required to ensure that systems worked round the clock, week, month, year, millennium and IT did. Monday was a complex mix of weekly review meetings, MIS reports, higher loads on the system, and IT under pressure! Most CIOs bend backwards (often forward too) to meet the challenge.

Innovation has become a basic expectation. So has change management, business knowledge, and so on. Start running faster?

Why should Monday be any different? Is it only because Monday comes after a weekend of relaxation?

If so, people who work six days a week (there are still some enterprises who work six days a week — at least every fortnight) should be less stressed over Monday. But, that is not the case.

Or is it the case that stuff which piles up over the weekend requires quick attention on the first weekday? If this indeed is the case, in today’s age where smart phones, wireless laptops and many other ways help you to remain connected, events do not typically wait until Monday to seek attention.

So what causes “Monday days”?

As I moved companies and up the ladder, the Monday phenomena remained elusive until I attended a training course that helped me understand human behavior and how people react to different situations. Slowly, I began to realize that the Monday Blues are a self-inflicted disease by the corporate world — one which comes out of need for action, activity and attention.

Work pressure is here to stay, but stress is purely optional. This applies to the Monday phenomena too.

Whenever I fixed external meetings on Monday mornings, people wondered whether I had nothing to do or how I manage to “manage” Mondays. My comment to them has been, and still remains the same: When your process is set, and the team knows their roles as well as dependencies, the Monday chaos is minimized to a large extent. Do not focus on the activity, focus on the outcome — delegate the task, do not abdicate, or else pressure only rises. There is no magic formula or Holy Grail, but planning and discipline that helps you overcome the flurry of activity demanding your attention.

November 2, 2009  9:11 AM

To IT and its role in project failures

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

I recently read a report about the global annual cost of IT failures, wherein the author puts the figure at US$ 6.2 trillion based on certain assumptions. It’s almost half of the US GDP, and that is indeed something to think about. Never mind the assumptions or math behind the figures, but the reality is that this humungous number is being labeled as an IT failure.

A Standish Group report on reasons behind the failure of projects with significant IT components indicates that IT contribution to unsuccessful projects is less than 10%. So the number is closer to US$ 620 billion in reality. And that is about half the GDP of India!

Knowing a bit about IT, I would label this as a business failure to capitalize on the potential that IT could have offered to them. Why does every initiative have to result in painful change management (which the IT organization should drive)? What prevents business users from embracing new technology solutions despite their vocalization of requirements (in some form or other)? Are there any answers that provide a holy grail to the crazy figures out there?

My Oh I See moment happened many years back, when my obstinacy to not start a project without the business leader’s signature delayed project commencement by 11 months. And when we did complete the project within the stipulated time of six months, it was like delivering water to the desert weary traveler (who has stopped believing in mirages). So don’t push hard to implement the next SCM, CRM, or whatever TLA (Three Letter Acronym) technology that you believe will make the difference — because it will not, if no one uses it!

October 26, 2009  5:32 AM

The ever-elusive “business buy-in”

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

During a panel discussion involving a few vendors and CIOs, someone asked a question to the panel. “My business users do not seem to be interested in the project, even though I know for a fact that the
implementation will bring substantial benefits. How do I get business buy-in?” Such questions come up every now and then (words change, but the context is similar). It’s as if evolution will be denied to a few.

Isn’t it amazing to see that IT heads ignore the signs of discomfort or lack of interest in their enthusiasm to push ahead? Rarely do CIOs pause to reflect upon the message which comes across quite clearly — the one which says,

“No! We are not interested in this wonderful project”. In some cases, this rejection could be due to the CIO’s inability to clearly articulate the project. Thus the business buy-in case is not compelling enough, nor does the benefit statement truly reflect the real case.

Many a time, other priorities consume business users. Thus they prefer to have the CIO focus on these priorities rather than on the latest fad which an IT vendor may sell. In a few rare cases, the digital divide
between the CIO and the CXO may be the raison-d’être for the disinterest in moving ahead.

The basic principle in all cases is to listen first, and then talk. Communication is not about your ability to use your linguistic skills such that the other needs a dictionary to decipher it. Ensure that you understand the listener’s frame of reference. Effective communication always happens when the involved stakeholders share a common interest and are willing to listen to each other.

Finally, if you still face the same question of “How do I get business buy-in?”, then stop pursuing it. After all, you don’t want a scenario where the system is developed to sketchy specifications and no one uses
it. Why are you interested in the project when your customer is not? Sometimes, the answer can be no too.

Useful pointers to ensure business buy-in

Cheat Sheet: How to write a business case
Writing a business case
How to write an effective business case

October 20, 2009  8:45 AM

The mirage of client confidentiality

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

In not so distant a past, I had an interesting set of meetings with four of the top 10 global IT vendors and consultants who were bidding for a large engagement. Without exception, each party wanted the deal badly enough, considering the scope of work and the market expansion it may create. However, at the end of the evaluation process, I was feeling really nervous, not about the project, but about client confidentiality and what it means.

In the early part of the century after the recession brought about by dot-burst and 9/11, the IT industry had a lot going well for them. Many traditional industries started outsourcing and offshoring, and in one case, an inadvertent mention of a client name in a small newspaper column resulted in a written apology from the vendor CEO to the client PMO and VMO. It also resulted in a reduction in future business prospects.

Fast forward to the present, where vendors do not put in the customer name in presentations, but the words and context gives away the customer to anyone who can use a bit of market intelligence. This is obviously to protect the customer identity. So you may get referred to as “Top 3 FMCG company in India”, “Global 5 retailer” or “Large merchant banker in UK”. The case study that follows almost gives away the name, but still leaves a little room for guess work.

Pause to last month, all the above mentioned safeguards were present, and guess what! Without exception, each presenter mentioned the customer names, stating that it was confidential. Talk about various the non disclosure agreements that lawyers may have spent months preparing! Or warnings given by the CIO, PM or the business head!

Are NDAs worth even the paper they are printed on ? And in India, they are indeed printed on non-judicial stamp paper.

When I asked some of them on this “slip”, there were no convincing answers. I’m not sure if there are any measures that you can take to address this situation.

Have you seen similar behavior? How do you protect your and your company’s interest in such a scenario? I would be very skeptical in doing business with such vendors, especially if it was something that brings competitive advantage in the mid-term.

October 13, 2009  9:00 AM

Power of collective wisdom

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

It’s with a sense of excitement, gratification (and to some extent butterflies in my stomach), that I write the first post for TechTarget India. “Oh I See” started many years back as a mirror of my musings and beliefs. After the initial euphoria when everyone said “wow”, the posts became intermittent. This is when I realized the huge commitment required to sustain a diary, especially if there others want to read the entries. All the more so, since Oh I See moments do not happen with a regular periodicity; they just happen.

I have collected these thoughts for a while now, storing them for the right time. And then came along another Oh I See moment, since many of the thoughts were not relevant anymore. So I started asking others to share their “lighting the bulb” (reminds me of the clipart from early presentation days) instances. This seems to be a better way to sustain the momentum.

Collective wisdom is the promise of collaboration and sharing using the Internet as a medium. Irrespective of the X.Y version that anyone attaches to the Web, the fact remains that all of us can do better than just a single individual acting in isolation (of course, conditions apply here as well).

Virtual social media offers many benefits. So much so, that it now takes significant effort just to keep in touch with everyone. A long time back, I found myself a bit short of being classified as a “connector” when I read Tipping Point (by Malcolm Gladwell). Today, most teenagers influence many hundreds using the Internet. So does it mean that the new generation is full of connectors?

This forum should see an update probably once a fortnight, since I for sure will not want to read anyone more often than that. So do stay tuned …

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