Information Technology Management with a Purpose

April 9, 2012  8:45 AM

Taking an off for a vacation

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

Many years ago, a senior colleague of mine in the company was treated as a blue-eyed boy of the department, and a person who, people said, could be relied upon. He was considered the most sincere and committed amongst us all and some others proudly said that there could be none like him. He was always in the office on time, would sit late whenever required, and would never take a leave. Most of his leaves were usually surrendered at the end of the year. When his earned leave were to lapse, he would apply for a leave and claim leave travel allowance (LTA) but still would attend office every day.

It took me some time to understand this great officer. He perhaps felt insecure and therefore created an air of indispensability about him, for example, some wondered what will happen if he was not there on any day. He did not delegate and kept all secrets to himself. I had left the organization but later learnt that the officer had to quit four years before his retirement due to failing health.

Why you must unwind

The point that I am trying to emphasize is that it is important for us to take a break, unwind and relax once in a while. Some people take a long break once a year and some take two short breaks a year but the intention clearly is to break the monotony, recharge ourselves, and give time to ourselves and to our family.

I still see a lot of my fellow CIOs being stingy with their leaves and they postpone taking a break every now and then. I have heard their families complain: “For him work is more important than family….” There is always a false sense of importance and a feeling that work may suffer in his absence.

I have also seen some of my friends take a two-day off and utilize the weekend to take a quick, four-day trip to a nearby hill resort, as if to complete a formality. Such breaks do nobody a good and are best avoided.

There could be a variety of reasons for skipping a vacation. One could be our attempt to emphasize our loyalty and sincerity; it could be our feeling that something may go wrong in our absence or a distrust of our subordinates. The question is – are we harming ourselves in the process?

Advantages of taking a break

It is indeed a wise to take off some time for ourselves and not burn up in the hope of making it big. Many a successful people I have met disappear for a few days every year. Taking off serves us in ways more than one.

Let’s look at some of the advantages:

  • Repose trust in your staff: When we take a leave, we obviously ask our second in command to take over and manage in our absence. It shows we trust them to run the show. Even though there may be important projects running, we tell the rest of the organization to contact these people in your absence and in a way assure them that all matters will be taken care of.
  • Delegate and train: It is a wonderful opportunity for us to delegate work to our subordinates with clear instructions and let them handle matters which we otherwise manage in normal times. The staff is put to test and we assure them that we are just a phone call away. Imagine you are coming back and find everything in order – it proves that your people are capable and you can trust them with new responsibilities. In fact once when all of us (the seniors) went on a company-sponsored vacation for a week, the production and sales for that period were at a record high. People secretly shared the reason: they said there were no bosses around to disturb them in their work.
  • Rejuvenate and recharge: Constant work, day-in and day-out, wears us down even if we do not admit it. Our tired minds focus on day-to-day matters and troubleshooting, neglecting the long term measures and further development. Once back from a break, we can start thinking afresh and be different. Time away from routine work refreshes our body and mind, apart from the satisfaction of having spent a rich time with the family. That also helps in maintaining work-life balance.

So friends, take off your uniform and head for a place away from work for a well-deserved break. A vacation will do you a world of good.

April 3, 2012  8:20 AM

When will the cloud burst?

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

The ‘Cloud’ has been at the horizon for quite some time and is now slowly moving to the center stage. A lot has been written about this topic and spoken of at numerous meetings and seminars for long. Both business magazines and IT journals have carried stories on this subject and some have even put them on the cover page. Such is the importance that ‘cloud computing’ enjoys.

The cloudy outlook

CIOs have often been accused of ignorance or for resisting application of this new technological phenomenon. CIOs perhaps are not the only ones to blame, as technology vendors, service providers, and the media, all have played a part and have done their bit, to create confusion. The hype that surrounds this subject is phenomenal and perhaps equals or exceeds the buzz created on new technologies in the past. Articles in business magazines, discussions on television and direct mailers to senior corporate honchos touted ‘cloud’ as the single most important thing to happen and as a harbinger for all ills. Speakers were eloquent about the transformation that ‘cloud’ could bring to the enterprises.

While management personnel hardly knew of the subject, CIO knew little and the vendors were also unsure. This created a difficult situation for the CIOs and till not much time ago I saw them grappling with the subject not knowing how to proceed. Vendors were also not ready with their offerings and did not have clear answers to questions on application migration and software licensing costs. The situation is getting better now as some implementations are happening and as we see the technology getting mature and vendors more knowledgeable.

The seminal changes
I was recently invited to be a co-panelist at a seminar to discuss ‘Application of Cloud’. My initial reaction was to stay away as I had attended many such events in the past, but the person explained to me that the occasion was for launching a book written on the subject. This book called ‘To the Cloud’ written by three senior Indian executives of Microsoft was meant to cut across the noise and clutter and address the Why, What, and How of enterprise cloud adoption based on the experience of implementing ‘Cloud’ within Microsoft.

The seminar was refreshingly different as it did not talk of the concept or the need for embracing the cloud but dealt with issues with respect to adoption. To me this indicated a shift in thinking, meaning that people now accept that ‘cloud’ is here to stay and are more interested in discussing how to go about assessing their requirement and understanding the steps needed for adoption. The moderator, the chief guest, and one of the authors spoke briefly about the need for a clear assessment, about deciding what applications to shift, the priorities and challenges faced with respect to application migration, assurances on service levels, vendor lock-in, and security.

The inflection point?
Towards the end, the moderator threw a question to the panelists asking them when, in their opinion would the cloud reach the inflection point with ‘cloud’ being adopted in very large numbers and becoming pervasive like the mobile phones of today. Panel members, of course, were varied in their opinion, but felt sure that the adoption would accelerate soon. I however stuck out my neck and said that I expected the cloud to start taking off in about two years and that it will become as popular as outsourcing of services is today.

I felt that as people become more aware, as technology gets more mature, partners more experienced and with more examples of implementation as references, adoption would be so much easier and faster. I may have been over optimistic but I do admit having been taken by surprise by the question. Later as I delved on the subject I felt that he question was very relevant. With so much being talked about the potential of this technology, it is but necessary that this technology or approach delivers its promise sooner than later.

March 26, 2012  9:18 AM

The culture of endless meetings

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

In the corporate sector, we cannot do without meetings. We have small group-meetings, departmental meetings, project meetings, review meetings, steering committee meetings, HR initiated meetings, task force meetings, budget meetings, strategy meetings, suppliers meeting, customers meeting, quality circle meetings, management committee meetings and so on.  On a day when there is no meeting there is a feeling of emptiness, a feeling that the day has been wasted. Whenever my wife would call me I would tell her that I am busy in meeting and will call back later. That prompted her to enquire that if I was in meetings all day, when do I really work.

So friends, here we are in a new world of corporate culture where meeting is the mainstay of corporate work ethos. Corporate pundits say that meetings are the way to demonstrate participation, sharing, collective responsibility, brainstorming, and widespread acceptability of decisions. They say meetings give a respite from the drudgery of work, draw away executives from their work bench for a while, make them socially acceptable, and also make them accountable to others.

Some companies go a step beyond by arranging such meetings in 5-star hotels or other exotic locations in the name of focused undisturbed attention and as a break from the routine. People enjoy such outings and obviously vote in favor of more such outings. Managements are happy that employees are busy and working together to achieve company’s goals. The human resources departments often facilitate many of these meetings and give an impression of being people-centric and of promoting a congenial work atmosphere.

The larger the time that one spends on meeting, greater is his acceptability and gives him a better chance of scaling up the corporate ladder. In fact, the more senior you are in the hierarchy, greater is the demand for your time and advice and so are expected to be benevolent enough to lend your valuable time and expertise to the group.

Types of meetings

During my career I have come across meetings of various types, some of these being:

Daily meetings: These are short review meetings held religiously every morning or the afternoon to have a daily account of happening of the previous day or plans for the day. These include the production meetings, quality review meetings, or the sales review meetings. These are usually half-an-hour to one hour in duration and may or may not involve maintaining the minutes of meetings.

Meetings called impromptu: It is usually the boss who decides to call for a meeting with short notice either to announce a decision, to review bad performance, to review customer complaints, etc. It is the boss’ call and usually the subordinates have to obey and leave their urgent work aside.

Project review meetings: These are useful when called with due seriousness and to a set agenda. If properly done, a tight control could be exercised on the projects and such assignments may not see delay or disaster.

Formal meetings: These are usually the ones which have a formal agenda and gives due notice to participants to make themselves free for the occasion. A senior person generally chairs the meetings and these are long duration meetings extending to half a day or a full day. Speakers are identified who make presentations and the proceedings and decisions are formally recorded as minutes of meeting.

Monthly review meetings: These meetings give an impression of a structured management process and form a part of the executive calendar. These are monthly sales, finance, production, supply chain or management committee meets and some of these are chaired by functional heads or the CEO. Formal minutes are drawn and circulated to the participants.

Miscellaneous meetings: These are the others held for operational purposes which include departmental meetings, meetings with vendors, customer, etc. These also have the value and gives satisfaction to the initiator of these meetings and the invitees.

So there are meetings galore which add color to the work atmosphere and ensuring we are never bored. Work gets done in any case and it is nothing wrong getting huddled in a group for discussion – after all it is a legitimate official activity.

March 19, 2012  8:50 AM

The need for standardization

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

Many organizations have heterogeneous set-ups with respect to the hardware installed, software deployed, or processes adopted. The reasons could be many. For instance, different CIOs manning the function over a period of time may have created an environment that they were comfortable with or brought in their favorite components. A new CIO wanting to bring about a change may like to do something different. Large organizations, which have diverse products and are well spread through their various divisions, may have different power centers wanting to take decisions based on what suits them. In merger and acquisition cases, organizations inherit units that have different IT environments. Therefore, we often come across cases where companies have variety of platforms that they have to deal with.

Consequences of heterogeneity

Dealing with a variety of systems is sometimes a situation that we may want to avoid. While individual systems provide solutions that are closer to what units or the users want, this approach often poses problems for organizations as they struggle running and maintaining different sets of platforms. Let us look at some of these problems:

  • Companies have to deal with multiple vendors making it difficult to juggle around trying to find out the vendor who provided the particular set of solution.
  • They lose track of equipment and software whose warranty periods are over or those that are due for AMC renewal as different products / vendors have their own cycles of warranty/ renewal periods.
  • They lose the power to negotiate based on the volume of business as the procurement is dispersed over a large number of vendors.
  • It is a nightmare trying to build expertise on various platforms that the organization owns and operates.
  • Exchange of knowledge and experience become difficult as different units run different systems.

Areas that need standardization

1. Hardware: I have seen companies struggle with hardware bought from various vendors, for example, servers procured from IBM, HP, Sun, and of different vintages. These may be with different business units but sometimes in the same data center. They then have to dabble with multiple operating systems making it so much more difficult for their staff to manage. As software packages have different versions for each operating environment, system administrators have to specify and designate servers with a certain operating system for each package. They are also unable to make use of technologies like virtualization, optimization tools, etc. Same is the story when people buy storage systems or network equipment from different vendors making monitoring so much more difficult.

2. Software: As far as possible, organizations should use a common software platform for the same application in various units and not have different software for any of the reasons stated above. For example, a company that I was associated with had three ERPs bought from different vendors. They already had Oracle Apps running when another business unit decided that SAP was best-suited to their line of business while the HR Dept decided to procure PeopleSoft for HR related work. As expected, the company suffered problems of integration and of consolidated reporting to the management.

3. Processes: The third element is methods and processes that are used throughout the organization. Best practices speak of standardization so that the entire organization works in a controlled fashion. Methods need to be well laid down and defined so that everyone understands it in the same way. It is best to have a few consultants and service providers who are empaneled after proper evaluation so that the business receives quality assistance on the services front.

While standardization is good, too much of it could be detrimental; it may result in bureaucracy and make the system rigid. The case being made out here is not for standardization alone but for reducing heterogeneity as well, i.e. moving into some kind of order, away from chaos.

March 12, 2012  5:38 AM

Implementing BI is not so easy

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

A lot has been said about Business Intelligence (BI) and many organizations have implemented it in the past and claimed success. Vendors who supplied solutions to them tom-tom the effectiveness of their products and methods. There is no doubt that many have adopted BI successfully and have gained many advantages but many others have struggled with it.

A magic formula?

BI struck the chords of many executives and they believed it was something that would give them what traditional IT had not provided them so far. “BI is the next biggest thing to happen in IT’ – so said the vendors as they tried to push their way into many an organization. While in some cases CIOs took initiative to introduce BI, in other cases it were the business heads took up the cudgels. Great stories were talked about the possibilities of achievement and it seemed immense.

Tread with caution

However, a few years down the road, the accomplishments were not as wonderful as they were made out to be. The question, why BI did not get the expected success, could have many reasons which can include creating unrealistic expectations, improper application of the tool, user resistance, inability of the organization to absorb change, etc.

If we accept the fact that BI gives us information that conventional applications fail to do, then we need to deal with this subject with a little more care. It is bound to raise hackles when we express our intention to generate revealing information on various areas of business. We unwittingly stir up the hornets’ nest and then expect the hapless individuals to sit up and cooperate. So the people are the most important part of the solution, which we sometimes, tend to ignore.

Types of users that resist BI

Users are of various types and have their own reasons to resist this new tool. Let me classify these users into a few types and look at their characteristics.

1. Users who don’t know what to do with information: When doing consulting work for a client, the client CEO told me that the trouble with some of his managers was that if we gave them information they would not know what to do with it. He said that they are so used to making decisions on gut feel that using information for decision-making is alien to them. So such people look nervous and lost when you speak to them about BI.

2. Users who dislike info: There have been occasions when these smart blokes, street-smart executives would stare at me and frown upon when approached for discussing information needs. They say they know well about their business and do not like the idea of us trying to invade their glamorous lifestyle. The very idea of information altering their ways of working disturbs them to no end.

3. Users who are happy and self-sufficient: These are those emancipated users who have attained nirvana. They are perfectly happy with whatever information they have and are not desirous of any more. You may make juicy presentations offering them the moon but they never are impressed enough. They want to be left alone.

4. Users who get scared: They are set of executives who are ever vigilant to ensure that nobody ever invades their territory. They fiercely guard their turf and do not let anyone seek data or analyze their performance. When approached they give a look of askance and wonder if you have nothing else better to do. If you ever persist with your efforts they are sure to hound you out. They don’t want anyone to probe their efficiency levels or unearth strong kept secrets which could just be suicidal.

5. Users who are happy with aggregates: These users are usually of royal origin and their interest lies in the overall aggregates. They are usually the senior management including some functional heads. They believe in taking a bird’s eye view of the state of affairs of the company and abhor details. As long as the overall picture is good, the underlying dirt doesn’t matter. They don’t like splitting hairs on common matters and for them digging into details is trivia.

When such a large segment of potential BI customers are not so well disposed towards it, isn’t it natural to see BI falter and stutter when being installed in many corporates. More than information system design, configuration and methodologies, it is the people and the change management process which are important. Imposing BI onto unwilling customers has been industry’s wrong doing.

March 5, 2012  5:34 AM

Honoring appointments

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

We meet vendors, consultants, service providers, media persons, or others, as a part of our work we do. Apart from the visitors who drop in impromptu just to say a ‘hello’, others do ask for an appointment. The purpose is clear; they want to ensure that we are available and to assure us that they would come in at the allotted time.
Whenever I had given appointments, I would complete my routine tasks or set aside others in order to keep myself free for the meeting. Whenever the person came in at the appointed time, it always was wonderful to have a focused discussion and end it on time so as to free myself for other tasks that waited for me. It would have been unbecoming of me to make the visitor wait at the reception citing urgent work. Both sides therefore have to honor the time committed by them.
Let us look at the actual scene encountered many a time. All are not so committed and many do not meet the timelines, the defaulter could either be the visitor or the host. In India we say a little delay is always expected, but that ‘little delay’ is left to one’s own definition. Some situations of delay could be genuine but we can always make any delay look genuine by cooking up wonderful excuses. That doesn’t cut ice, however, a delay is a time lost and that cannot be reversed. It will be good to consider situations covering both, the vendor and the CIO.

The vendor-side story
Some vendors/ consultants appear at the appointed time and create a good impression. I have often given additional scores for their punctuality and preferred them over others if they were suited for the work in question. Others, who don’t keep time, have their own characteristics. Some land up late either because they finished late at a prior meeting or miscalculated the travel time or failed to keep a buffer for unforeseen delay on roads. It is often difficult to justify such delays and therefore is a bad practice to follow. A few others are habitual defaulters, start late from their office and have their secretaries call up saying that the person has already started and is on his way. We are expected to condone this small delay and wait for him to come. Some walk in casually, though late, taking advantage of an existing relationship and expect to be excused. Peeved with such attitudes, I had sometimes called off the meeting when people turned up late and the results were dramatic, the same persons landed up on time for the next set of meetings. The lesson here was that we are wrong when we continuously tolerate such violations of time.

The CIO’s tale
He is in most cases, a customer and hence the king. He is the master on such occasions and has the privilege to act pricey. Those who want to be morally right, keep themselves free for the meeting, and receive their visitors on time. I have seen some of them even asking their CEOs to wait for some time as they had already committed time to someone.  In case of any emergency a good CIO would call up the vendor, offer apology and make one of his colleagues to meet the visitor in his absence. Some others however may not go to such great lengths – they hold a view that vendors should understand. Some prefer to attend to issues on hand and make the vendor wait at the reception. Some others pretend to be busy and try to emphasize their importance. I don’t think that is a productive exercise and vendors are not really impressed with such moves.
Honoring appointments, in my opinion, is the reflection of our character. It speaks of the one who keeps his word and is worthy of being trusted. If we are not one of them we would always struggle to make others believe in our good credentials.

February 27, 2012  9:03 AM

The ever busy CIO

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

The CIO is an important functionary. He is one of the most sought-after executives and is most remembered when things go wrong. At other times he is given importance and is befriended by many when they want their PC or printer to be replaced, or when they want a new system to be developed or existing system modified.
He has a team of a few professionals to support him in delivering various services to business. He is sometimes told to downsize staff and go in for outsourcing. During difficult times he is asked to work on a slashed budget outlay, yet he is expected to maintain the level of services that he gives to the organization.

Let us also look at the positives:

  • Outsourcing has helped him in shifting a lot of routine tasks and the resultant headaches to a third party that is bound by strict clauses on service level agreements (SLAs).
  • He has a lot of automated software tools that are available for server monitoring, network monitoring, diagnosis, etc. which let him identify faults and to rectify them.
  • Reliable hardware and software ensure fewer failures.
  • Increased availability of hosting and cloud services makes his task easier further.

Sorry, I’m busy!
I have found some of the CIOs quite stuck up with their office work and go home late every day. Vendors find them hard-pressed for time and take several days to get a meeting fixed. People look for them at various seminars and other professional events but are told that they couldn’t make it because of work pressure. Some poor souls call up to cancel their participation at the last minute regretfully citing important meetings, such as those with their Directors or the CEO, as the key reason. There are, of course, others who state very clearly that they are not available during the month-ends and month-beginnings because of the accounts-closing and for generating MIS reports.
I feel sorry for them. Sometimes I reckon there cannot be more unfortunate victims than them and that the industry should do something to improve their lot.

Professionals of wage slaves?
I have often wondered what makes them the most victimized set of professionals. I remember those days when the IT head used to supervise data entry and processing and was answerable for generating various reports to the management. He couldn’t then leave office till the processing was completed and reports were handed over. Today, however, users do their own tasks and reports are available online. Users are made owners of the systems and are custodians of the data quality. Routine IT tasks are outsourced and the CIO plays only a supervisory role.
But he is still busy and an overworked executive! He slogs and still feels he doesn’t get his due.  His evenings are not his own and sometimes misses important social functions.

A possible way out
It is very difficult for any expert to prescribe a solution. Every situation is difficult; some are genuinely difficult, especially if in an organization maintains a high pressure work environment.
One solution could be to delegate and initiate some succession planning so that the incumbent starts taking additional responsibilities and frees up the CIO’s time. Another way could be to stop accepting random / ad hoc requests. He could work on a long term plan in conjunction with the business heads and work as per an agreed plan only. It may not be a good idea to try to impress management with our late sittings – it doesn’t work in many situations.
I had once angered my CEO by closing work in my department at the evening closing office hours but later he realized that no work was affected and admitted so to me. Our difficult position, in some cases, is perhaps of our own making.

February 21, 2012  5:38 AM

Speed up your ERP implementation

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

My first tryst with ERP happened in 1996; the project took seven months to implement then and another three months to address errors and desired changes to give the system some stability. Later I moved to a larger organization in the automotive sector and was given charge of the ERP project which had six main modules and was to cover the entire organization. This project again took eight months for completion followed by two months for stabilization. Same was the story in the next two organizations. In addition, for measures like adding new modules or upgrading the ERP to a newer version, one had to go through a similar process.

Why ERP takes that long to implement?

There is no doubt that ERP integrates all functions and takes care of the most organizational needs. It’s a comprehensive package and is designed to cater to companies of all sizes and  from various industries. Therefore to make this package run in any organization, one has to configure various parameters as per the defined needs. The package being complex it requires people with knowledge and skills to undertake this task.

Most ERP vendors have prescribed clear methodologies which are field tested at various companies across the world. If we follow these diligently we can be sure of success. The methodologies speak of several stages which include as-is process documentation, designing to-be processes, configuring testing, conference room pilot 1, conference room pilot 2, go-live preparation, go-live and post go-live support. It is therefore natural for ERP implementation to take that much time. It also requires considerable effort of people in the form of skilled consultants (from the implementation partner) and internal team members who are competent.

What’s wrong with this?

Times have been changing; companies now face a lot of challenges in the market and expect IT to help their organizations in overcoming them. However talking of six or eight months puts us out of sync with the management. I had to face such embarrassing situations more than once. In one of our management committee meetings, we had discussed and decided on a few strategic steps. The attention then turned to me asking for a solution. Knowing fully well the ERP processes, I asked for a few months. That didn’t go well and I had to face a barrage of questions. Though I explained the situation well, I did feel sheepish and sorry for being a drag in the company’s quest for progress.

I realized that implementation of ERP in its present form was unfit for the world of today. Whether for extension or upgrade when ERP takes months, its efficacy and effectiveness is called to question. My dilemma was for real and I wished that there was a solution which could accelerate this process.

Some solution

It was just last week that I met my friend, director of a well-known IT Services firm who mentioned to me about his plans of bringing in a software tool designed to help expedite ERP implementation and asked for my opinion. When I expressed my thoughts on this subject he was glad and asked me to share my views with the audience at the seminar that he was holding to launch this product.

I attended the seminar and shared my views, which was then followed by an exposition of the product features and demonstration. I liked the product and I felt that there was at last a solution that I was looking for. The tool called Rapid e-Suite; it sits on top of Oracle Business Suite and automates a lot of steps and helps simplify the process by making it possible to work in an off-line mode and then transfer changes to ERP. It has various other features like a knowledge repository, feature mapping for upgrades, the configurator engine, data migration, replication of instances, etc., which help in quick implementation and rollouts. Based on the roll outs in various countries, the company claims to reduce implementation times by over 50%. I am sure there would be other solutions that are available for different environments.

Final view

I strongly suggest that CIOs/ CXOs should look for solutions to implement ERP projects in much shorter time and help IT stay relevant in their organizations. The conventional way of implementing ERP solutions is unsuitable for the current environment in which our businesses operate.

February 13, 2012  8:50 AM

Succession planning by CIOs

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

This term has been talked about for a long time in the corporate circles but has been practiced more in breach than in compliance. This subject has got attention again as a part of risk management process. This essentially speaks about continuance when a key resource in an organization is lost because of his switching job, demise, or due to any other reason.

There have been so many instances of activities coming to a stop because of the CIO leaving the organization and projects resuming only after the new CIO is recruited and is firmly in place. Isn’t this detrimental to the organization and shouldn’t we do something ourselves to mitigate such risks? Irrespective of whether the organization formalizes succession planning or not, CIOs should, in my opinion, take initiative in implementing this good practice in their environments. But just to mirror what happens all around, adoption of this practice by CIOs has been very low; we can perhaps count such CIOs with fingers.

It is probably easier said than done. I too have moved from one organization to another and in spite of giving enough notice of leaving, companies had not been able to address the take-over formalities and had taken several months to recover from the disruption caused. Now let us discuss the subject a little more to understand it fully.

What is succession planning?

Succession planning is a process of identifying and developing internal people with the potential to fill key business leadership positions in the company. Succession planning increases the availability of experienced and capable employees that are prepared to assume these roles as they become available. Taken narrowly, “replacement planning” for key roles is the heart of succession planning.

Succession planning is an organizational process and is one which is driven from the top and usually handled by the Human Resource department. In a few cases, it is an initiative taken up by a department or a business division and endorsed by the management. Isolated initiatives however do not help and fail to deliver the result.

How to make it work

Clear objectives are critical to establishing effective succession planning. These objectives however need to follow some well-established practices, some of these are:

  • Identify those with the potential to assume greater responsibility in the organization
  • Provide critical development experiences to those that can move into key roles
  • Engage the leadership in supporting the development of high-potential leaders
  • Improve employee commitment and retention
  • Meet the career development expectations of existing employees
  • Counter the increasing difficulty and costs of recruiting employees externally

Implementing it at our workplace

The common refrain is, “Why should we take efforts for identifying a successor when the organization itself does not show interest?” Secondly, it is a feeling that grooming a successor would endanger our own position. On the contrary, driving succession planning projects can boost our confidence and may set us up for bigger tasks. For instance, when I had a clear line of succession, the CEO started engaging me in various business-critical projects knowing fully well that IT work could be managed without requiring me to be present in the department all the time. My role therefore got enriched.

The plan need not be limited to CIOs alone and we also need to plan succession for various critical positions in our department. There are times when we are seriously handicapped due to a critical resource deciding to move on giving a short notice. Succession planning at the department level provides a career path to staff and improves our chances of retaining them.

Succession planning is a process which de-risks the organization and need to be practiced. Even if not prevalent in some organizations, CIOs there should take a lead and make it happen in his area of influence.

February 6, 2012  3:44 AM

When your vendor sneaks in from the top

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

In my last article I had written about vendors who sometimes bypass the CIOs to connect with the CEOs or business managers to solicit business. It was wonderful to receive a few responses and views and that really enriches the debate on the topic. They agreed that this phenomenon is prevalent and they too have experienced such cases during their careers.

There were mixed reactions to such action of vendors. Whereas some said that vendors, in the interest of short term gains spoil their long term interests by straining their relationship with the CIO, some others in the IT services fraternity shared that they are often constrained as CIOs sometimes are not responsive enough.

A concern was also expressed by some that CIOs often get into a balancing act, trying to go as per their conscience and better judgment taking the interest of his organization into account, but at the same time risking their position by taking a stand that is contrary to the interest of some in the management. Sure, this is a valid concern and is a real-life situation that need to be addressed. A CIO should not behave like an activist trying to reform everyone, but has to use his art of persuasion and be convincing. He cannot overrun the powers of superiors and has to act within the authority he possesses. From an idealist he has to turn a practitioner who understands the limits of his powers but who is not afraid of raising questions.

Let me talk of a few instances from my experience:

CEO’s prestige on the block

I was once caught in a peculiar situation quite a few years ago. Egged on by a vendor, our CEO wanted video conferencing facility to be installed in three of the main offices which were within a 30 KM radius. The requirement was unclear but the CEO perhaps wanted it to hold his head high in the circle of CEOs. I certainly thought this was uncalled for and was sure this would not be used as people moved around between offices every day. I held back the proposal for over a year but the CEO told me in clear terms that he wants it to be installed and I had to obey his command. My senior whispered into my ears ‘you can’t be more loyal than the king’. I learnt a lesson.

Use persuasive skills

During days of the internet boom, a wily vendor met our CEO and convinced him to have an e-visioning study done paving the way for e-commerce. Our CEO mentioned of his CIO telling him to stabilize systems with ERP first before embarking on e-commerce. You can trust the vendor to argue his case and sow seeds of doubt in the mind of the CEO. The CEO therefore held back approvals and wouldn’t let me proceed. It then took me a lot of effort and couple of months to convince him that even if we were to go for e-commerce, we had no reliable internal systems to efficiently process orders received through the internet and that such instances may actually tarnish the company’s image. Fortunately I had my message through and was able to tackle the problem created by the vendor.

When unconvinced, pass off the ownership

I faced an instance when a vendor made a direct contact with the marketing and sales head, making him pitch for introducing sales force automation to tackle competition. On enquiry, I found that adequate study was not carried out to evaluate the extent of data to be captured, people needed for deployment, the process changes and the intended analysis of data for decision making. However, the marketing head went ahead and obtained approval of the CEO telling him that his expectations could be met only through such a system. Knowing that it was futile to resist further, I convinced marketing and sales to take on the ownership of the project assuring them of full IT support. Though the system was implemented successfully, the management was still asking for the benefits being delivered by the project.

I am sure there will be several such experiences which others can share. The fact is that it is never too easy to handle situations created by clever vendors who sneak in to solicit business. Organization culture, power equations, hierarchy status and competitive politics are factors that we have to tackle, but if we manage to cut across these factors and to have our way, it would give us that extra sense of satisfaction.

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