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

March 4, 2014  10:11 AM

Software Asset Management

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

You know it is a funny fact, we know where the hardware is (at least most of it) and what it is used for. It is tagged, classified, part of the asset register with clearly defined depreciation rules and possible refresh when it reaches end of life. The same does not always apply to software licenses; software is bought in varied forms, box packs, paper licenses, and enterprise agreements, downloads, handed over on a disk or thumb drive. It’s all over the place with most clueless of where, what, how much, and changing licensing conditions.

We help companies save license costs, manage their software inventory effectively towards compliance and ensure that there are no surprises during renewals or audits. Said so a representative from a large global IT advisory company to an audience of CIOs. He offered data and metrics to the disbelievers on how they helped many companies. Consulting companies have been pitching that everyone has a lot more licenses than they need; rarely anyone creates an inventory of all the software they buy, deploy and retire.

Software vendor representatives in the room nodded away through the sales pitch adding that most CIOs do not look at license compliance actively; it is an afterthought and enterprises need to deploy tools to manage the process of license management. Collectively they incited the CIOs to deploy SAM or software asset management. While a couple of CIOs from IT and software development companies talked about the benefits of SAM and how they were able to improve margins, rest of the CIO audience could not connect.

A FMCG CIO interrupted: when IT is your business and software the tools of the trade, they are managed as well as the machines that define the assembly line in a manufacturing organization.  We know where the finished products that move across the supply chain are the same way you know about your tools and services. We are users of IT to run our business; IT is not our business and we need simpler licensing when compared to the current complexity that makes it impossible to keep track of the ever changing environment and terms and conditions.

Life in the software industry started with the simplest of forms such as enterprise license for the entire company which gradually moved to concurrent users, named users, and then by server. Later arrived licenses by CPU which soon changed to Core based licensing. Advent of Virtualization created some confusion which was compounded by the Cloud. My software is licensed to run only on physical servers; if you want virtual servers you can only run it on my technology stack. Some innovative guy added memory based licenses.

Mergers and acquisitions in the software industry made life even more interesting with products morphing from one avatar to another, SKU changes, changes in terms and conditions, or licensing models. In many cases these were updated on respective websites and customers expected to periodically check! Refer to clause on page 179, sub-clause … you signed that enterprise user licensing agreement agreeing to this. It would be good for you to also take cognizance of the inflation clause which raises annuity payments every year.

Unable to stop himself, a veteran CIO asked the audience: I am sure all of you have account managers from the software companies who meet with you frequently; has anyone of them ever engaged with you or offered help to stay compliant with the licenses? Is there role only to sell more solutions or also to help you leverage what you have and work collaboratively to keep the relationship going? Why do we CIOs have to face audits like criminals and then get cornered for small aberrations or use beyond the licenses?

Acknowledging the gap the vendors and the consultants in the room mentioned the need for SAM and why it is important for companies to stay abreast of their licensing. I believe that depending on the size of the enterprise and the complexity of the architecture it would be worth getting hands dirty on SAM. Until the industry learns and decides to work with CIOs on managing licenses, the onus shall remain with the IT teams to stay compliant with process driven provisioning and frequent internal assessments that rationalize use.

February 24, 2014  10:26 AM

The 80% solution

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

It had been a long project with missed timelines and scope creep, the kind of projects that everyone dreads as they create difficult conversations in every review meeting while meetings are being conducted. The vendor was as frustrated as IT; the management wanted to stop funding to the project and treat it as a learning experience. The users wanted the project bad enough and managed to keep it afloat citing business need, efficiency gain and cost saving “when we go-live.” So the project survived despite odds.

Every enterprise had at some time or the other witnessed similar stories or projects that became unviable with all metrics: time, cost, resources and business value being busted; not necessarily software projects, but even hardware deployment, network upgrades, storage capacity enhancements or something as simple as the new projector for the boardroom. It is neither incompetence nor lack of rigor that causes such situations, everyone is committed to delivering the best result and that is where the problem starts.

Technophiles, well-meaning and conscientious team members want to provide the best solution which leaves no room for any kind of discussion or debate. They like to get the perfect solution in place that will win awards, accolades or in many cases just simple satisfaction of having done the best. The quest for the best keeps them busy exploring all angles including ones that don’t matter. They love debates on technology standards, finer aspects of architecture, the last exception condition the software will ever face, leading to frustration.

Searching for the best solution is indeed important for long-term success of any solution; after all you do not want your creation to be flayed within a short time. So try casting an eye over the 5-10 year horizon and postulate the future of the solution, technology, and the company. Shouldn’t the source code be in escrow or buyback of hardware at every refresh at predefined values? How can we be sure of your wanting to continue with this line of business? The questions get quite interesting as everyone wants to look good forgetting the adverse impact of sliding timelines.

Users living in a paper dominated manual or inefficient solution world want to make sure their problems are addressed down to every imaginable scenario. The evolving solution landscape wants to ensure the least change and the highest level of customization which unfortunately vendors are willing to acquiesce to; thus IT becomes the bad guys attempting to prevent the massacre of the solution. Trying to get it 100% right has become the nemesis of many projects and solutions; teams struggle unable to imbibe past learning.

Agile methodologies applied to software development provided a process for iterative evolutionary development where good enough is deemed acceptable to be refined over a period of time. It recognizes the impact of time on any project or need thus finding many business teams wanting to adapt to quick wins. The 80% mark is not cast in stone; the baseline is notional and varies by project. I believe that this can also be applied to hardware procurement or other IT disciplines with variations to the design.

The starting point for such a paradigm shift is the alignment of all leaders and managers to the new way of working. Don’t expect a solution that does everything of what the business wants and you can have it up and running in say 30-60 days. Refinement can continue over a period of time by the operational team working with part of the project team. Business can start using the solution to fulfill their need and everyone is happy. Off course this cannot be applied to ERP type projects which have different levels of complexity.

A good decision in time is worth more than the best decision if delayed; this maxim applies to the world of IT, IT project management, software development, and in many cases to hardware deployments too. Consensus is desirable but not critical unless the primary stakeholder is not aligned. If you have not moved ahead in your journey, then activity is of no consequence. So stop debating if you have all the data to make a decision, if you believe you have all the critical data, take a decision; that may separate you from being a manager or a leader!

February 17, 2014  8:23 AM

The Corporate Social Media Network

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

The trigger has been the wilder than earlier predicted adoption of social media websites, applications and mobile apps by all age groups across geographies and social strata. Every new innovation, fad or me-too has caught the fancy of not just consumers, but also investors. After denial and prohibition came the acceptance within the enterprise and experiments on how to use it to the benefit of the company. Thus we see a new trend emerging that now has many players vying for attention; the corporatization of social media.

I am not referring to the numerous models that have been attempted to measure return on investment or to convert “Likes” into hard cash (fortunately not by selling personal details of customers). Many will point out a few popular success stories where a brand or product found exponential growth driven by social media campaigns; this number has not grown much in subsequent years. I am alluding to the attempt by companies to setup internal portals and sites that mimic behavior of the popular social media sites.

CXOs blessed this and agreed that while we prevent our employees from the internet on corporate devices let us give them a way to spend their energy on similar sites internally with each other. Let them channelize their time towards being more productive. CIOs with help from vendors cloned most of the functionality and put it on the intranet and waited for employees to start using it. Some did, they posted stuff here and there and then went away very quickly. How can I put up my private life on display inside the company?

Managers attempted to create collaboration use cases; success was measured by number of people active or the number of posts. Structures around groups helped them find behavioral and psychological insights. Soon these became case studies and best practices to be touted by vendors and consultants. Within boundaries these worked adding to the momentum which forced almost every respectable CXO to leniency. All along employees continued to put on display their private lives on non-corporate social media via their BYOD smartphones.

Is corporate social media really a tool that can transform the way enterprises and employees collaborate? Can it imitate the viral effect seen in private lives? If we discount the generation X/Y who are just entering the workforce, are the 30 and 40 something employees going to embrace getting on internal social media to post their feelings and share brainwaves? In a hypercompetitive and paranoid professional world, will the existence of a platform with adequate catalysts be the trigger that breaks the barriers?

Social media fatigue is already setting in; the multitude of options from 140 characters to pin boards and friendly sites only confuses rather than compartmentalize the use. People realize the time demands in an ever connected world which expects instant responses to emails, tweets, SMS, chat messages, posts and whatever mode of socializing they engage in. Souring relationships due to or because of the face down thumb happy posture is changing the way we engage with each other. Peer pressure keeps some going, the rest follow the herd.

Coming back to corporate social media, there are opportunities if used well; any foray requires capturing the ethos of the company, department or group which will determine the character of the site and engagement. It requires a team of enthusiastic believers who infect everyone they come in contact with their exuberance and create an urge to try. The team needs no boundaries or censorship for engagement; let there be self-imposed discipline on what the group is willing to accept. Monitor you may, don’t be the police.

In a recent interview a journalist asked me the question “What is the future of corporate social media?” I believe that there will be pockets of excellence from which people will learn only to fail until they are able to create the cultural ecosystem in which sharing can thrive without fear of retribution or rebuke. We need freedom to communicate, disagree, and be ourselves the way we are outside the workplace. Leaders and Managers have to walk this talk for it to work. Until then there will be case studies that we read and wonder why it does not work for us!

February 10, 2014  7:46 AM

And they lived happily ever after!

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

I had this interesting debate with an aspiring CIO on my earlier blog “The Perennially Dissatisfied User”; he talked about some organizations not really having this problem where the users kept on finding faults with everything that IT did. They are a satisfied lot if not delighted; at least they do not berate IT on everything and there is an equilibrium and harmony between the teams. The camaraderie lends itself to discussing what works and finding opportunities to solving business problems or creating new ideas to explore.

Though far and few there are such organizations who have found peace and a process design to make things work collaboratively rather than be at each other’s neck all the time. IT is seen not just as a service provider, but as an enabler and partner who can help them achieve success. Not that they do not have conflicts, they are healthy debates and resolve them to move ahead or agree to disagree. There is mutual respect for the profession and competency each brings to the table. How does this state of being come into existence?

The foundation of any such partnership is laid over a period of time; it is about creating an engagement process which outlines the boundaries and acknowledges expertise where it exists. The governance is democratized in a way that everyone understands the implications and there is a platform to resolve open issues. Across organization layers exceptions are discouraged and do not have to become you versus us; there is no across the table creating two sides, there is only one side which benefits the function and company.

Business processes and customer expectations are open to discussion and so are technology choices; the final decision and accountability are clear in their design. Sign-offs is achieved in time or if there is a delay everyone is agreeable to the rationale. It is not about whose budget it is or who is funding the project or purchase; it is about what is the value the solution creates for the enterprise. It requires consistent maturity on part of everyone to ensure that this works. Thus success rates are higher than industry benchmarks.

There is clear communication of expectations, be it hardware standards for new devices or restrictions on access to applications or internet. Decisions on solutions are based on merit and agreement on the metrics used with everyone collectively aligned. Thus everyone works towards the common goal and thereby leaving no room for fault finding should things not work out. Whenever priorities are competing with each other for budgets or resources, the group is able to reason it out and come to an agreement on the way forward.

Escalations for exceptions are pushed back to the business and IT leaders to resolve. Policies are simple yet effective in their intent and well understood by everyone. They are living documents which are frequently reviewed against changing business environment as well as dynamic technology landscape which shifts expectations and the way of working. This keeps IT infrastructure and environment simple to govern and manage. Shadow solutions are rarely seen in such organizations with high levels of engagement being the norm.

Sounds too good to be true? Organization culture plays an important role in facilitating this. I have seen some enterprises embrace this so well that they become the poster boys of how to use a specific technology or solution. Business CXOs talk about success stories and benefits accrued acknowledging the role IT played in their ability to win. The CIO persona and behaviour plays an important role and s/he shuns pure technical discussions and focuses on how to help the company stay a leader. IT vendors love doing business with such companies.

Is a transition to such a nirvana state possible? Can sustainable change be made for good? I would say “conditions apply”. To begin with the organization culture has to be collaborative and progressive; the company should be profitable with the appetite to spend, else the discussion will always be on cost. The CIO should be articulate, know the business and have skills to keep his team cohesive and motivated. When all these factors come together then you have a recipe for success that everyone talks about!

February 4, 2014  9:51 AM

The Perennially Dissatisfied User

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

This laptop is quite heavy; it gives me a pain in the neck and shoulder, I need something sleeker and lighter. Also the battery life should be at least 5 hours if not longer and minimum 1 TB of storage. You know an i7 processor would be great! Why cannot we shift to the new Windows tablets which are so much lighter and also have a touch interface which makes life so easy? I would love a larger screen but I am willing to compromise on the screen size if the tablet offers a full HD experience. Did you get what I want?

This application is so antiquated! Look at the user interface, this is really Jurassic; it would require a rocket scientist to use it. Why cannot the human machine interface be more like the social media sites which anyone can start using intuitively? You missed the following key dimensions while capturing the data on the customer! Where do you expect me to get so much data from? I am required to sell and not just gather data about customers! Why do reports take so much time to generate? Can I see them on my mobile? Is there an app for this?

CIOs, software engineers, business analysts, hardware specialists, enterprise architects, for that matter if you are in IT and work with customers – internal more than external – every IT professional faces such questions every day; the above is just a sample of the discussions and challenges that get thrown in almost every interaction. It would appear that whatever you do, it never meets expectations. One interesting observation is that the critique increases with the age of the person and decreases with the tenure within the company.

Typically in the case of software solutions, when you approach your colleagues for inputs on what they want, they would normally start with a broad outline of what they require. You create something, go back for inputs, hoping to get closer to the end point; after multiple iterations you are either going round in circles or far removed from where you started. Do users of technology not know what they want or IT fail to connect to the need? Every IT guy would vehemently say YES and the requesters would lament that IT guys don’t understand what we want.

Even if we assume that there is a chasm to bridge here, how can the same be extended to a simple request for hardware; can that be so complex? A piece of hardware is a piece of hardware; differences between devices that organization endorses to the aspirational consumer devices incompatible with conventional corporate legacy systems exist for budgetary reasons more than any other. Mandate, as IT budgets are going up, buy cheaper devices. Yes off course, but why can we not get better battery life and bigger or better screens?

Diagnosis attempted by wise and sundry professed theories that created industries to remedy the lacunae. Later and not sooner after spending inordinate budgets everyone realized that maybe there was no merit in the models. Evidently it had nothing to do with alignment between business and IT or the fact that the language spoken by the opposing parties has been classified to be incompatible. Then again, the efforts towards change have largely been lopsided. It is neither art nor science; it is to do with the unknown alien characteristic of IT users that IT professionals have been unable to master.

From Hollerith cards to Phablets and wearable technology, the pace of evolution has kept everyone guessing on the next shift. Unsettling yet consistent, the change has created an expectation that does not accept what is, but wants the unreasonable until it becomes reality. Shifting targets keeps everyone running only to find that they haven’t moved much. I do not believe that the game will change in the near foreseeable future. Users will keep asking for the moon, while actually meaning the light bulb and the description matches that of a CFL.

Keep playing the game while you can, sometimes you may hit the target in the dark!

January 27, 2014  7:22 AM

Unbranded value

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Out of the blue I got this call from a friend who I remember was doing quite well as CIO of a large company where he had spent more than a decade. He had decided to hang up his boots and get off the corporate rat race and treadmill to become his own master. Curiosity getting better of me, I asked him about his decision and what prompted him to leave his well-settled and visible corporate avatar? When did the entrepreneur bug bite him? How had the first few months been ? He promised to meet and catch up.

We met over a cuppa; he had been asked this so many times that he started narrating his story. His planning had started almost a decade back with financial goals and family commitments post which he had his succession plan executed and made a clean break. I admired his long-term planning; consciously he took no extensions, no being a consultant and lingering on, no special assignments and no burnt bridges too. He wanted to pursue his passion and thus took the plunge; early results had been a mixed bag.

His new venture focused on a vertical which did not have too many people focusing or investing on; his early meetings got him good traction and agreement to work together with almost every stakeholder he met. He had chosen well and used his expertise and knowledge to create options and solutions. He had also thought of offering his experience as CIO to work with other CIOs towards research and analysis, benchmarking, and KPI review or aid any other activity where CIOs needed additional capacity or bandwidth.

Most CIOs he met knew him or knew of him and the success he had created; they would hear him out, agree they needed help but were reluctant to sign him up. The story repeated itself with the same outcome until one CIO candidly mentioned to him: I know you and I know the quality of work you can deliver; but how do I convince my team and management of the value proposition? They need a credible brand which can withstand scrutiny from any quarters. It is not about where you have been or what you have done or can do.

Many moons later I met another CIO who had trained to become an executive coach; he too had sold his Ferrari and followed his desire to coach and mentor people. He was successful as a CIO and being highly vocal about his views, it made him a popular fixture in conferences. He was getting along with some training, workshops and coaching for aspirant leaders for a couple of companies. His branding was strong and as a mascot for his chosen industry, he wanted to encash the branding. He too had met with similar fate.

Quickly he realized the reasons behind the lack of conversions from proposal to projects. His CIO brand was well known, his consultant skills not so; his potential customers wanted a management consultancy or a research organization to provide the required respectability and branding. Most of them took his inputs and then went along to the tier one providers to provide the slideware that they could use within their organizations. He was disheartened and was mulling the option to join hands with one such firm; if you can’t beat them, join them!

Is branded advice such a big thing that differentiates it from what an independent consultant would offer? Is the person offering his/her expertise reduced when there is no stamp of endorsement? The reality is in almost all cases is yes! Consulting and research houses have wealth of knowledge gained over hundreds if not thousands of engagements available to all their consultants. They are able to use this and also bounce ideas of a group of experts that gives them an edge over a lone ranger. This cannot be replicated by the individual.

If the strategic parts were to be separated with the operational, tactical and execution, there could be some traction that individual professionals branching into consulting could leverage. Collectively some individuals representing a company, their own outfit has a story, alone it’s a nonstarter. There are some who have done this and are gaining traction in the small and medium enterprises; they are not pitching to big enterprises. If you are on your own, think about joining hands with someone.

January 20, 2014  9:03 AM

How to make presentations

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

I became a fan of presentations from the time office automation tools came into existence a couple of decades back. It was exciting to be able to put together slides so quickly when compared to the earlier chore of writing everything on transparencies with permanent markers or sketch pens only to realize that any change required the entire slide to be recreated. Later, I could print my slides using inkjet printers or laser printers if I was careful of the sheet quality. They looked better than the handwritten stuff.

The advent of projectors changed the paradigm again though initial quality was far removed from the current high definition displays, the software evolution provided the bells and the whistles which people used effectively and ridiculously depending on their fancy. Soon presentations became the standard way to conduct a meeting. And with the ability to add loads of text, images, animation, transitions, charts, videos, and what have you, the presentation puts an Oscar winning director to shame.

Then why is it that now the general reaction to presentations is far from enthusiastic? Why have they become torturous to sit through? It does not matter where the presentation is, what the subject is, and in many cases who is presenting (conditions apply); they have reached the limits of endurance for a normal person. Every time you see someone on the stage or in a meeting opening up his/her slide deck, an audible groan emanates the room. Having been subjected to zillions, I have kind of become an expert on analyzing grueling presentations.

Here are some quotes that bad presenters use during their time in front of their audience:

1.       I know it is a busy slide, but let me ….

2.       I think the people in the back may not be able to see clearly …

3.       I believe that the font is a bit small for you to read …

4.       The colour combination is not how it appears on the screen …

5.       Let me skip some of these slides in the interest of time …

Now I am sure if they made the slides themselves, they knew the lacunae to begin with; then why did they go ahead with not clearing the slide or making it visible or for that matter reduce the number of slides to fit the available time. What were they thinking when they allowed the above to happen? Is the audience going to sleep through the time or that the audience is too dumb to notice the difference. Glaring at the laptop screen or turning the back to the audience and playing with the laser pointer on the large screen is another irritating trait.

If they did not create the slides, then it gets worse as they have no clue what the content is about or what is coming up next. They just read the bullets and get off the stage quickly. This happens a lot of times in conferences and events where the original senior presenter decides his/her priorities lie elsewhere and passes on the mantle to a junior colleague thereby insulting the senior audience as well as creating a situation that the time, effort and money spent by his/her company is totally fruitless and a waste of time for everyone.

Coming to the exceptions where the audience is in rapt attention and soaking in every word with their eyes glued on the person in front of them, what has changed? In most cases there are no slides, or just a few pretty looking pictures, or clearly visible few words or bullets that convey a thought or a clear message that connects with the listeners. The body language is confident, their tone of voice crisp and clearly articulated, their eyes connected with every person in the audience, their mastery of the subject clear, and their passion visible.

Is it difficult to make the transition? For many the answer would be yes as they do not understand the impact they create on the audience. Those who seek feedback or are able to perceive the connect with their subjects do improve over time with practice. Keep it simple, rehearse the presentation many times, have someone listen to you present before the D-day. Don’t use the slides as a crutch, work upon the subject and research it thoroughly. Those who stumble through the motions because they were pushed on stage will need to conquer stage and content fright.

January 6, 2014  7:04 AM

Seasons’ Greetings and a Happy New Year!

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Last week I met with two old friends who I had not met for a long time; one for more than a decade, the other a little less than that. The first was a successful technology entrepreneur; the second had made a successful global sales career. After the nostalgia was behind us, the dinner conversations ended up exchanging notes on attracting and retaining good talent. Across different geographies and specialties, both berated the fact that finding good people had become even more difficult with passing years.

We agreed that the situation had deteriorated with increased competition and changing aspirations of the newer generation. Not too many were thinking of long-term careers, most worked like mercenaries willing to change allegiance for an additional few pieces of silver amongst other things. The new talent pool does not want to wait for grass to turn green; they look at the other side and whenever the grass appears greener, with no thought except of them, off they go gallivanting leaving their companies in a lurch.

Ruminating over these thoughts it also occurred to me that there are a few individuals in the industry who are never short of talent and are able to retain their teams with ease. They took on existing teams changed a few ingredients, added some fresh blood and within no time had a great team working like Swiss clockwork and delivering to promise. Whenever they needed resources, skills or expertise, magically they found the right people. In almost all cases, attrition within their direct reports was tending to zero.

What makes these individuals better leaders equipped with an ability to create success oftener? Why are people willing to join their teams leaving behind whatever shade of green their grass was ? How do they keep their teams motivated as to not look for alternatives? Their teams consistently deliver and are seen as a cohesive unit which knows where they are going. Do they do things differently that the team is always charged and willing to stretch? What is it that makes them talent magnets?

Talking to many such motivated team members over the years I found the big difference was the aura of credibility these leaders had carefully developed around themselves. They were themselves highly motivated, principle-centred and self-driven. Across companies they were able to engage CXOs in meaningful discussions around outcomes and then disseminate the messages within their teams. The resultant momentum between their peers and teams rarely found budget challenges or reluctant users.

The team members were coached and mentored by the leaders with continuous feedback and feed forward connecting them to the vision, the goal and the tasks. With freedom to take risks and fail, the teams found themselves pushing their performance with rigor that they did not know they possessed. Thus they found success more often with lesser bottlenecks because they knew that their leader would always stand alongside. They respected their leader’s ability to help them find answers when they needed.

Their ability to sell a vision and the direction they were taking the company and the function was unparalleled; they created excitement with their stories; industry case studies validated the fact that these were not fiction. The message that I got consistently was that they were passionate about what they did and the passion was infectious. I was surprised by the commitment levels and connect with what the team members were doing and the fact that without exception they looked up to their leaders as role models.

Can this be emulated? I believe so as many such team members have risen to become leaders in their own right and practice the same principles that they were subjected to. The multiplier effect is not yet high; the roots are taking shape and they are themselves becoming talent magnets. Picking some of these learning I have been fortunate to find hidden reserves within teams and attract talent from outside over the years. I hope that the force of attraction and cohesion is stronger than another force applied by someone else.

December 31, 2013  12:48 PM

Working on Vacation

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

I switched on my laptop to check on my holiday resort reservation and a message popped on my screen, an accusing one at that: “What are you doing online on vacation? Checking email or responding to some crisis that requires your intervention? Or just that you cannot get work out of your veins?”. I tried to justify to her that I was not checking mails, nor facing anxiety or withdrawal symptom disconnected from my mail. I was just checking on my bookings and that’s that. “Then why is your corporate IM on?” she chided.

It’s that time of the year when everyone, well almost everyone (travel and hospitality industries excluded) is on vacation. Whichever part of the world you look at, across cultures, companies, industries, everyone is on vacation as evidenced by their “Out Of Office” messages. It’s like the entire world shuts down for a period of 2-3 weeks going out on trips, spending time together with family and/or friends, enjoying snow or the sun, and to that extent business for most comes to grinding slow motion if not fully shut.

Over the years OOO (Out of office) messages have increased during festive seasons and less frequent for rest of the year. Immediate conclusion would be that people are working harder through the year and then taking a good long well deserved vacation. It could also imply that irrespective of travel, vacation, weekend or time of the day, everyone gets their hands on their mobile devices and feel gratification giving attention to whatever came in or responding to mail, or just checking out or updating social status.

Our need to constantly check our smartphones has resulted in a situation that we compulsively want to stay connected all the time. It is now psychological and nothing to do with work or life or the balance that was a discussion in the past. To check my hypothesis I sent messages to about 600+ people in my list; CEOs, Head of business, friends, relatives, and loads of business acquaintances. I received about 200 odd out of office messages telling me that they were on vacation and not likely to respond to messages.

The subject line clearly indicated “Seasons’ Greeting” and thus was not urgent, important, a crisis or life threatening to merit immediate attention or response. Despite this, within 24 hours I received about 70 responses to my messages from those who had set OOO status! Most messages carried a “Sent from a …..” footer. Was it an acknowledgement of the greeting or my hypothesis that we have become slaves to technology? I now know which smartphones they use or service provider they have subscribed to.

There was a time when I would respond to every message that needed a response or I had a view on as soon as it landed in my inbox. Everyone loved it and commended my quick response; I was on 24 hour clock, not that it helped my life at home, I was thumb happy. Is it more to do with the way the stimulus response is changing rather than just work or life? Are there any remedies available beyond old and simple willpower? Is there a way out for the corporate bonded labourers armed with technology that keeps them in chains?

Reality is that this is self-imposed nemesis of time, energy and expectations; if anything indeed merits response, do it, in most cases the urgent or critical will not land in your inbox, people will call you. Messages with scores in “To” or “cc”, rarely require critical review or immediate attention. A 24 hour cooling period is equally good in most cases and works well enough. Exceptions could be individually marked messages that may come to you from your Boss or a peer CXO for information or action.

Driving back from a vacation with the family comprising two teenaged kids, I noticed that both were constantly glued onto the small screen with rapid thumb movements and fleeting expressions as they deftly switched from screen to screen and application to application. There was little communication between us as I maneuvered the traffic and they sent updates ad infinitum. I wonder how the new generation would behave during their vacations or work; would it be in anyway separable for them?

October 21, 2013  7:26 AM

Process or Relationships?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Within a span of a week, twice I was asked the same question in different forums by different people. I don’t know if that was pure coincidence or what is due to the fact that both belonged to different parts of the world and thus had different perspectives. In both cases they were curious to get an alternative view of how CIOs succeed in culturally diverse environments with dissimilar work ethics and realities. What if anything separates the modus operandi and style of the CIOs in the East and the West?

I am not sure if this is a fair comparison or should we be listing the divergence in the approaches; both adapt well to their realities and both have had share of success and challenges. Neither can be said to be better than the other as they address similar opportunities a bit differently. One way of working cannot be transplanted as-is into the other world and expect success; even if the second is a part of the same organization in another geography. Thus global best practices remain good to read, not always workable on the ground.

What separates the CIOs between the West (read US, Canada, and EU) and East (mostly Asia, though the comparison set is largely India). You will hear this from almost every vendor doing business in East, and so will you get a similar message from the CIOs of Indian enterprises or CIOs of the Indian entities of global companies with business interests in India. Despite the recognition I have not come across a formal analysis of such differences in the way of working across markets and geographies.

Everyone agrees that India is a value conscious market; products and services vend at lower margins and discounting is normal. The outsourcing boom in India driven by wage arbitration did not leave too much behind for the Indian companies who had to pay higher wages to get quality skills. Due to this the services play for the Indian market was taken up by mid-sized companies who out-priced their bigger brothers who were happy to take the higher margin business from the West until recession dried up their pipeline.

Software vendors realized that to gain market entry and sustain business, the discount levels had to be different from their home markets. For hardware manufacturers the margins stood squeezed to low single digits, enough to cover marketing and administrative costs, not to make too much money. System integrators and consultants fared a bit better though not by too much; only the subject matter experts and high technology professionals could bill at global rates, in many cases reduced to advisory roles.

CIOs in the West are process driven, like standardization, drive scale though tools and technologies and create predictable outcomes with great contracts and Service Level Agreements between the parties. This is fairly well accepted as a way of doing business and everyone internally and externally aligns to the order and discipline. There is limited flexibility and exceptions are indeed rare. Thus everyone knows where they stand and what the terms of engagement and governance are likely to be.

The East shuns order that takes away individuality; everyone believes they are uniquely different. Standard solutions are frowned upon as they take away the flexibility that casts everyone into the same mold. While contracts are drawn up and SLA signed, they are rarely followed if at all irrespective of the size of deal or financial implications. If there is a change in reality, the first thing customer wants is a change in terms of engagement. If there is an adverse event, SLA is damned, immediate service is expected.

People do business with people and that is reality. Standards can change because the relationship manager changed jobs; who you know overrules contracts or SLA. A call to the right person will get you right resources or help resolve a problem. Relationships score over process every time. Value is paramount and cost is always expected to go south. It is a delicate balance which everyone learns to sustain their business interests. So SLA is measured, penalties rarely enforced; contracts are fought over until signing, rarely referred to afterwards.

I believe that for a global business to sustain, these differences are acknowledged and adapted to. There is no other recourse. For the leader, the CIO, s/he continues to wonder about the debate over the different realities. I am sure there are nuances to each country, market and culture; a global entity takes all in their stride. Employees who work across borders get used to this. For management consultants and their elk, they want to create untenable uniform models as global best practice. All the best to them!

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