January 10, 2011 8:39 AM
Posted by: S R Balasubramanian
, IT asset custodian
, IT leadership
, Ownership of IT
Many years ago, as I was submitting the summary of our findings of study to the CEO of a client organization, his remarks stayed on with me for long. Our assignment was to assess the efficacy of their IT program, and suggest improvements in its functioning. Amongst other things, we found that some of the IT assets like PCs, printers were bought but not utilized; similarly, some software solutions were not implemented due to disagreement with the users. As expected, the CEO was disappointed, and said that he expected his CIO to be more responsible.
The CEO considered his CIO to be the custodian of all IT assets —one who ensured that right solutions are bought and put to proper use. When the CIO asks for a budget and subsequent buys, he clears them in good faith with the expectation that he would look up to the CIO to take care of them. I thought that these were significant remarks which clearly demonstrated the CEO’s expectations and consequences of the CIO not living up to those expectations.
What I learnt in that exchange helped me immensely when I moved on to the corporate world as a CIO. Whenever I put up a plan to the Board, I did sufficient homework, and then proceeded to ensure that all spends were properly justified. Let me share with you some of the actions that I took.
In early days, desktops were provided to officers and staff based on their requirements. However, certain senior officers would often misuse this facility. They would get a desktop or laptop on their table (as a status symbol). They ended up not using it; or occasionally asking their secretaries/assistants to come and type out their emails or letters. Sensing this as the waste of an asset, I sent a message on behalf of the management saying that PCs that not being personally used by officers would be withdrawn. This worked like magic. Officers scampered to learn usage, and were home.
To cite yet another example from another organization, I found that the previous CIO had ordered for VSATs a year ago, but couldn’t somehow put the solutions to use. The first thing I did was to introduce enterprise wide e-mail and use the VSATs – that helped in developing an immediate rapport with the CEO.
Later on, I was put in charge of the ERP project. Instead of just attempting a successful implementation, I felt that the real success of ERP was when it starts to benefit the organization. So I worked relentlessly on process improvement in all areas (including manufacturing, materials, sales and finance). That proved to be a great experience. In such cases I feel that the best approach is to resist the temptation of putting the blame on users—instead, try to work with them and turn them around.
Assuming full responsibility for IT assets means due evaluation of requirements, proper selection, full participation to ensure success of each implementation, regular scanning of all areas to ensure that the assets are being utilized, and to keep looking for continuous improvement.
The bright side of this approach is that the management and users develop confidence in us as CIOs. Budgets and proposals for new projects are easily cleared. People start trusting us, and the famed user resistance reduces to a low and a manageable level. Vendors are also happy that their product/service is being utilized well and they come forward to support our initiatives. This really works.
December 14, 2010 6:39 AM
Posted by: S R Balasubramanian
, IT leadership
, vendor management
, vendor relationships
I recently attended a seminar, the topic of discussion being ‘Managed Support Services’. There have been too many seminars of late, and this was one of them. Organized by a technology media company and sponsored by a leading vendor, the seminar had the hapless CIOs come over and attend. I guess CIOs come in more because of their obligation to friends who are with these media companies or vendors, or also because of their need to network with peers. An evening of some talk followed by cocktails and dinner allows CIOs to socialize a bit.
Nevertheless, the program started off a little behind schedule as usual, and after a brief introduction of the subject, the topic was thrown open for discussion. The format of the session was in the form of a roundtable, and every participant had a chance to express his view. The initial discussion veered around the variety of applications that run in our organizations, multiplicity of platforms, and problems of managing them. Most said that it was difficult for the CIO to manage all these jobs effectively for ensuring continuous availability, and it was therefore prudent to outsource these support services. The difficulty stems from the fact that they need to develop expertise on multiple platforms, and at the same time deal with staff attrition which is common in the IT circles. Some CIOs were of the view that choosing all solutions from a single vendor would help reduce complexity, though many others disagreed with this view.
The conversation then slowly moved towards effectiveness of the outsourcing measures taken and the way to get them right. Many of the participants had their views to express about the pains they face. They complained that vendors have to be monitored very closely and need to be held them down brandishing the SLA document. The common refrain was that vendors promise something in the beginning, but act otherwise—deploy not so bright boys, and hardly ever monitor on their own. The second view was also not so charitable. The feeling was that vendor organizations do not work as partners, since they always have their billings and revenue in mind—that they hardly ever think of the customer pain points.
To me, somehow, the whole discussion sounded a little funny. While on one hand we talk of the need for working in a partnership mode, on the other we express such lack of confidence on the vendor who supports us. Is the vendor always wrong, and is it that leading vendors in India do not know their business? Isn’t the partnership always between equals? What if I wield the whip saying ‘customer is the king’, and hold down the partner because he is dying for my business? The question is, shouldn’t the CIO also feel an obligation to enquire whether the partner faces any constraint and take a step forward to help him, with a spirit of ‘helping him to help you’? It is always easy for the CIO to find fault with the vendor and replace him with another one at the earliest available opportunity, but I am not sure if that would solve his problem. Changing a vendor is again painful, and causes disruption during those periods of change over.
In my opinion, many CIOs need to understand the principle of partnership and seek to reform themselves before trying to look into the shortcomings of their technology partners. It may be fashionable to speak of their great bravado of taming vendors, but that doesn’t lead them too far. True partnerships often unleash creativity, and bring out solutions that are game changing–synergies from working together may be the real trick that could work wonders.
December 6, 2010 6:14 AM
Posted by: S R Balasubramanian
, IT budgets
, over capacity
Whenever I visited developed countries, I learned quite a few things about their general infrastructure. For instance, when I went to Switzerland a few years back, I found it very easy to travel by train from one city to another. We could board any train without a prior reservation. The trains ran at fixed intervals, and had enough seats available at all times. Initially, I did have a feeling that too much infrastructure was provided, and therefore wasted. But as I reflected on this arrangement, I realized the positive side of things. Since there was no shortage, they had completely done away with the booking infrastructure — entire booking office facilities, as well as the need for each passenger to pre-plan their travel and do advance bookings.
Similarly, I was amazed to see the network of roads, flyovers and bypasses in countries like USA, Canada, South Africa and China. The first thought that occurred to me was that such a huge investment was not necessary; it was a simply a hype and luxury. But let us look at the positive side of the story – this facility does away with road crossings, red lights and policemen manning the crossings — not taking into account the time wasted by each vehicle which waits at such signals. Isn’t that a huge cost incurred by us?
Now, we in IT can learn from such an observation. Many a time, we evaluate projects on the basis of costs and then provide for facilities that we think are optimum. We face constraints as soon as usage goes up. For example, in one of the earlier companies that I was with, we often got complaints that the network was slow. So my team started to evaluate packet shapers as well as other network tools to monitor and regulate traffic. However, inspired by a foreign visit, I compared the cost of monitoring versus doubling of bandwidth. I finally decided to overprovision network bandwidth. By doing so, I could avoid network monitoring tool investments as well as my infrastructure team’s time, which would otherwise have been spent on this daily activity.
I then used the same learning for provisioning other resources like servers and storage in our data centers. Despite our best efforts in sizing, I always found worked out configuration to be on the lower side, leading to further additions. Problems with provisioning server resources with increasing usage were common, till we had a solution in the form of server virtualization. Similarly, howsoever smart I tried to be with storage sizing, I always fell short. So I adopted a simple solution – to add sufficient buffer to the calculations.
Contrary to common belief, this practice really doesn’t add to much cost. In fact, it’s an incremental cost which takes away the headache without hindering business. By saying so, I don’t mean that you should dump huge facilities, but add sufficient capacity so that you are not constrained in terms of work. The cost of restraining people or asking them to wait is a huge societal cost, and should be taken cognizance of.
November 23, 2010 4:26 AM
Posted by: S R Balasubramanian
We say that the CIO is an important functionary in an organization — one who plays a significant role in business growth and prosperity. It is but natural that he should occupy a position of responsibility and power. As a result, he is able to execute various projects which help the organization meet its objectives. However, the status is often different in practice, and the management in many such companies needs to take a serious look at this situation.
It’s common to find that CIOs are recruited at the senior manager or general manager levels, and made to report to the CFO. This was perhaps appropriate during the EDP days, when most applications were for the accounts department. Times have however changed over the years.
Today, IT covers all functions and cuts across all organization activities. Hence continuance of this old practice looks totally illogical. The CIO’s position becomes vulnerable, as rest of the organization looks at him as a finance representative and an automatic bias sets in. IT plans get a finance orientation, with greater emphasis on accounting and control. Budgets are tightly controlled, and new technologies frowned upon.
Some organizations make the CIO report to the HR, operations head, or the sales & marketing head, but the story doesn’t change much. The CIO is not senior enough and has no access to the management committee. He is in no position to understand the CEO’s vision or the main business strategies and priorities. He is not powerful enough to drive new initiatives, or to enforce compliance to systems.
Over the years, I have tried to raise the level of IT in organizations that I was with. Apart from some stints during the earlier years when I reported to the CFO, I set the condition of reporting to CEO as a part of my joining agreement. In that position, I was able to bring about sweeping changes and added considerable value to various processes. I could often intervene and help resolve many a disputes relating to cross functional disagreements on business processes that I was trying to automate. I could enforce compliance to systems and seek the CEO’s intervention on matters that I couldn’t handle on my own. Since I was a member of the management committee I was privy to various discussions on organizational directions, goals and priorities, and able to align my IT plans to the organization’s needs.
In all forward thinking organizations, CIOs are normally at the level of vice presidents or equivalent, and at the same level of seniority as the other functional heads. The CIO should report to the CEO, thereby ensuring a total organizational view of systems, devoid of bias, and stand at an equal footing as the other organizational functionaries.
I have chosen to take superannuation in my current company. Now, I discover that the management has decided to replace the position with a relatively junior functionary; one who is being made to report to the CFO. Such examples explain the lack of understanding of IT in many organizations. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that old practices are still prevalent in the industry.
November 15, 2010 11:54 PM
Posted by: S R Balasubramanian
, CIO toolkit
, reduce attrition
, Secret tactics
, skill retention
, team management
All of us face attrition-related problems, more so when there is a boom or an economic revival. Though the problem is not unique to IT, it surely does get more acute in our case many a times. At such junctures, we get critical of the younger generation and accuse them of being greedy and non-committal.
Instead of such diatribes, we need to realize that whenever there are opportunities, people will seek greener pastures. Gone are the days of steadfast loyalty of employees to their masters or to their organization. We now have independent thinking individuals with high ambitions — people set their sights on bigger things in life. Staff attrition is here to stay, and we better understand how to deal with this situation in order to mitigate this risk.
Having said that, I admit that the task is easier said than done. Getting our tasks executed and at the same time ensuring that these blokes are taken care of, is an uphill task. I am often at my wit’s end trying to balance these factors. Stopping attrition sure is impossible, but we can try to reduce its occurrence to the maximum possible extent.
There are questions in our mind as to why people leave. There could be various reasons including inadequate pay, sad work environments, bad bosses, no growth prospects, insufficient work, or overwork. Although money is not the sole criterion for people to change jobs, it has to be realized that whenever people leave, it does impact the work environment. Separation is a big loss for the IT group and the organization. The time taken to identify a replacement to join, understand the organization, get trained and be effective, causes a loss in work during this period.
When faced with this problem, I had to take several steps which worked in some measure. Let me share the details of these efforts with you.
1. Standing of the IT department: Ensure that IT occupies a pride of place in the organization. The function should report to the CEO rather than to the CFO or commercial head. Staff feel reassured that they are important to the organization.
2. Participative management: Create a core group of seniors in the IT department to discuss and come up with ideas to effectively run the department. This gives them a sense of ownership, and they retain interest in work.
3. Maintain personal rapport with each member and take care of their career aspirations: It is important to treat each member differently, and be conscious of his competence and ambitions. We need to counsel them to fully apply themselves, and stay motivated. Appropriate work allocation and proper task assignment based on their aptitude and competencies plays a big role in retaining staff.
4. Keep on introducing new technologies: I was once advised by my seniors that it will be a mistake to adopt latest technologies, as people would learn and leave. I ignored their advice and upgraded the technology landscape; the result was a drop in attrition and the fact that we could get good talent from the market. There was one another great experience. As we were on the latest version of SAP and other technologies, some of our staff members who were selected by other organizations, refused to join them as these companies had older software versions. So during such processes of change, people keep themselves busy learning and pay less attention to opportunities outside.
5. User interaction on an equal footing: If not managed properly, users may at times weigh heavily on the IT folks. It is then important for the CIO to intervene and work out a proper work arrangement for collaboration with users. IT staff thus retains their dignity and feels good.
6. Express appreciation and recognize good efforts: It is an excellent idea to appreciate good work and give them an occasional award for outstanding work, or issue letters which go into their personnel files.
I have seen some of these measures work, and been able to retain staff longer than industry norms. So it’s worth experimenting with such initiatives in order make the environment a fun to be place.
November 9, 2010 4:37 AM
Posted by: S R Balasubramanian
, language of business
, risk tolerance
This is a question that I am not sure of asking. As of today, the CIO is an important functionary, and has a role to play in the improving organization’s capability to function in the market and beat competition. Companies, in an effort to grow and expand, take various business risks — an inherent process. As the CIO assists in this process, he may also have to take various steps that are out of the ordinary, and in line with the business’ expectation. This means that the CIO has to often take steps that help the organization leap frog in terms of efficiency, cost cutting, and seizing new business opportunities.
Does the CIO measure up to this task? Some CIOs may do so on several occasions, but many may not. I have generally found CIOs to be careful, playing safe, and generally risk averse. Let me share a few experiences to illustrate my point.
In 1993, while looking for a good platform to develop applications in a GUI environment, I stumbled upon Gupta-SQL. Foreign IT magazines had spoken highly about this product, and therefore I decided to test out their evaluation copy. Impressed with the features, I placed an order, started work on it, and developed wonderful applications. A few of my CIO friends were also evaluating the Gupta-SQL, but decided to stay on with their Oracle environment saying that they felt comfortable with it and do not want to make a change.
During early 2000, when I wanted to add more disk space, the vendor suggested that I go in for a storage server. I thought he was crazy, but when he took me through my future projections for storage and the consequences, I got the point, and set up infrastructure to take care of the future. I learnt that I was one of the early ones to adopt this solution. For a few years thereafter, I observed that many of my friends did not take that step, and continued with their earlier arrangement — despite having checked with me.
Another interesting episode was in 2006, when SAP felt increased competition from Oracle. I decided to bet on DB2 as the preferred platform, after research on the topic, discussions with industry watchers, and advice from the Gartner group. There were clear indications that for a Greenfield site, it was better to choose DB2 over Oracle DB for SAP. I went ahead, but none of my other friends dared to do so — even though I shared my study findings with them. They preferred to stay with the familiar environment.
Finally, I would like to share my experience with server virtualization. We are on VMWare, but when we spoke about shifting our applications on Microsoft and Oracle platforms, we were strongly discouraged by these vendors. We were told that their software has not been certified, except for the respective virtualized platforms. They even went as much as to caution us that they would not be able to provide support. Despite these warnings, we have successfully implemented this, and been able to benefit from the shared infrastructure. I have shared the advantages gained at various forums, but I learn that CIOs still are averse to trying out this new step, preferring to stay safe with their current hardware arrangement.
So my take is that CIOs by and large are risk averse, and stay away from any adventurism. We are told in business that ‘no risk, no profit’ – perhaps that applies to business — not IT.
November 2, 2010 6:19 AM
Posted by: S R Balasubramanian
, Secret tactics
, vendor relations
Much of what I know about technology has been learnt from technology vendors. While it’s true that I have read about various technologies and also used them, at times the real understanding has come from vendor interactions.
Vendors know best about the technology that they deal with. Vendor representatives possess considerable literature, are trained internally by experts, and carry demo packs with them. They also have substantial amounts of experience when it comes to dealing with various customers, answering their queries, and also by being a part of their implementation — whether it’s a success or failure.
Many years ago, I realized about the fallacy of my approach while dealing with vendors. I would often call in the vendor and tell him what I wanted — say, hardware of a certain configuration, a software package’s latest version, a tool that I might have read about, and then ask him to submit his quotation. The poor sales representatives chasing numbers and targets would rush back with his proposal, hoping to cash in with an order. Little did I realize about the opportunity that I lost when it came to doing a proper evaluation and choosing the right solution!
I later changed my approach, and called in vendors to explain my requirement. After the detailing, I would ask them to suggest the most appropriate solution. Each vendor went head over heels, and used their ingenuity to suggest the best solution. This was revealing, as some of these were options that I could not have thought of myself. I used the suggestion of ‘A’ to confront vendor ‘B’, who came up with his own counter arguments. Vendor ‘C’ had his own story, and was critical of the other approaches. This interaction gave me an in-depth understanding of the subject. It was armed me with enough knowledge to make a decision based on facts.
I will talk specifically of a few incidents to explain my viewpoint. Faced with ever growing storage requirements, I asked our vendor to get me an additional extra storage box to bolster my storage. Those were the early days of enterprise storage. When the vendor suggested that I go in for a storage server instead, I blew my top. However, the vendor explained his stand. His suggestion was that given the projected growth, I would otherwise be continuously adding more boxes — a management nightmare. That made sense, and as I went about studying the details, I learnt a lot about storage technologies and the merits of using them.
Similar was my experience, when it came to introducing server virtualization. While evaluating servers, I would often ask for technical details. I was rewarded with considerable knowledge on IBM Power processors, HP’s Itanium, Sun Sparc processors, and other such platforms. The knowledge picked up on other technologies like UTM, digital asset management and unified communication also went a long way in developing a certain confidence.
I often ponder. I spent a lot of money over the years in getting myself educated and learning new tricks, but here I was picking up knowledge without having to pay any sum. Just turning a buying opportunity into one of learning — oh boy, what a reward.
October 22, 2010 7:22 AM
Posted by: S R Balasubramanian
, networking tips
We live in a dynamic world, and the environment around us undergoes change at a rapid pace. While we are busy putting out fires in our respective organizations, a lot is happening in the world around us. We do try to keep pace by reading various magazines, accessing information from the net, and subscribing to various news services on the web. I am not sure if that is enough.
There is a wealth of knowledge and experience that resides in the IT community consisting of CIOs, consulting professionals and vendor executives. There is a lot that can be learnt and applied for our benefit, and therefore a need to network with the IT community.
I have always been regular in attending events conducted by vendor organizations — introducing a new product or technology — or by professional bodies like the CII, Nasscom, CIO associations, etc. By doing so, I have picked up new learning and insights with these leads. I applied them in my own way for my organization. I have on many occasions shared my experiences in many of these forums, and also taken interest in taking sessions for students in management institutions. I call it ‘learning by teaching’, because I have to first read and prepare for these sessions. While teaching, my own doubts and partial understanding get cleared by itself.
If I were to pen down various ways in which I benefitted from these interactions, I would state the following:
- By attending vendor events, I learned a lot about new and emergent technologies like storage, virtualization, UTM, cloud computing etc. Through listening and asking questions, you can elicit answers to queries that remain unanswered based on reading articles.
- Through case studies presented by user organizations.
- Next is networking with CIOs. In our case, we formed an association of CIOs and met regularly. By doing so, we could exchange our ideas and experiences. We also knew whom to speak to when we are struggling with technology and applications.
- Interaction with vendors has been a rewarding experience. When I used to call a vendor for my requirements, I would pose my problem, and ask them to suggest a solution. For one, the vendor knows more about technology than we do. So when they come out with a solution, many a time it can be an eye opener. By letting vendors speak on the strength of their solution vis-a-vis a competitor, I could learn a lot from them – frankly, this is free education of sorts.
I would like to leave you with the experience of a colleague of mine — someone who shied away from networking with the community, and hence lost his edge. This nice chap worked with me, and I took personal interest in training him for higher level tasks. Impressed with his sincerity, I coached him to act like a CIO by asking him to do a few activities that I would otherwise do.
When I was leaving that organization, he wanted to make a change as well, and asked for my help in the process. My coaching helped him pick up a CIO position with a mid-sized company. He carried out that role, and then moved on to another organization. However, he kept to himself and tried to copy the solutions that he had learnt from his earlier organization. He did not network with peers or seniors in the community. Nor did he pick up new knowledge. After a while, I found him struggling for another job, at a loss to understand his career direction.
October 18, 2010 6:32 AM
Posted by: S R Balasubramanian
, networking tips
Gone are the days when the IT Manager used to sit securely in his glass cabin and manage back-end processing. Today’s CIO has to be a part of the business, and help in its effective management. He has to work alongside other functionaries and see that IT solutions fit into the business fabric. Therefore, the CIO has to interact with business heads, understand their plans, identify the constraints they face, and then try to work out solutions that help them execute their plans. He should also be in touch with the CEO to understand his vision and get a sense of direction of the business.
Having said this, CIOs should realize that they can’t always look serious — or talk shop all the time. Well, shouldn’t he be more open, jovial, sporting and social at times? I hate chaps who get somber after exchanging the initial customary greetings and start narrating their problems. I wonder what they would lose if they could smile and talk of general matters, before bursting out with their issues. Can’t they give me some breathing space?
Now, take it the other way around. If you were the serious looking CIO, wouldn’t the user look at you the same way?
The CIO will surely do better if he moves around the organization meeting fellow employees — asking if they are comfortable working on the systems and noting down their grievances (if any). He can meet the senior officials (say, over a cup of tea), and get into a general conversation. This is not only about developing a friendship, but also about stating the fact that you recognize his presence in the organization — that you value his company.
Whenever there are get-togethers or a party called to commemorate a success, the CIO should choose to join these (if invited). On, say a successful completion of a project, the CIO can throw a party. He can call relevant users and acknowledge their contribution. A good way of getting closer will be to call over a few close executives for a dinner at his residence on a week end. In many organizations that I have been in, I have seen a small greetings application which gives out the names of employees whose birthdays are due. It is always a great idea to wish these colleagues of yours.
All this is about networking with people within the organization. This improves your acceptability as a CIO, and become more approachable. You will be able to get a lot of information on the going-ons in the company and we can stay abreast with the changes. Access to the grapevine is yet another possible benefit, and nothing is wrong with it.
The biggest advantage is that your interactions with many become informal, though they remain official in nature. As the CIO, you will be able to cut across bureaucracy and resolve many a contentious issue in a friendly manner. When in a tight spot, these people may come to your rescue and offer help. After all, nothing is better than being in a place where you feel part of the family.