Information Technology Management with a Purpose


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.


January 30, 2012  8:18 AM

When vendors bypass CIOs

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

This situation is not uncommon. CIOs deal with a host of vendors and take pride in their vendor management skills. While they successfully manage vendors that they are engaged with, it is some of these sly, fleet footed vendors who give them a slip. These vendors may be the ones whom CIOs are already in touch with, or new ones; but they find out ways to bypass the CIO and reach the top or get in touch with business managers to solicit business. They are smart and use their maneuvering skills to further their business interests. Well, they do what is the best for them; but let us look at such situations and find ways of tackling them.

Vendor tactics

Vendors find out different ways to approach the seniors and I have seen them adopting one or more of the following means:

a. Golf Buddies: What could be better than playing golf with the CEO or a Director? A short conversation telling the CEO of the great value that the vendor firm can bring to his company, could pave the way for a possible assignment. The CIO would then be told to give info to the vendor so that he can prepare a proposal. The CIO feels short charged.

b. Befriending in a seminar: CEOs and Business managers do attend conferences and seminars organized by industry bodies or global vendors and these vendors lurk around to exchange business cards and start a conversation. Through good selling skills, the vendor can easily win the client’s heart. CEO may see no harm in discussing a possible solution. The CIO then holds the tray as the vendors go through the motion.

c. Leveraging acquaintance: What if the CEO or a business manager happens to be his friend, his batch mate, or an erstwhile colleague? Shouldn’t he make use of that acquaintance? Requesting a meeting for old-time’s sake is not a bad idea and perfectly legitimate. The talk then will usually veer around the business being handled by both and how one can help the other. A known person is always a safe bet, and well, the vendor is on his way.

d. Pressure of targets: We all know that vendor companies usually live on quarterly targets and are known to be aggressive when they fall short of the numbers at the period end. Frantic efforts are then made, including attempts to trap the senior management and they often succeed. Business interests take precedence over propriety and short cuts sound most appropriate for such situations. CIOs, sometimes, are unable to weather this storm.

e. Requesting a review: Present vendors are also hungry for more opportunities and they know that for more business, they have to get to the big fish. So they suggest and strongly advocate a meeting with the top leadership to review the work done thus far, and to understand and capture management’s aspirations and vision. Talking of right things could certainly strengthen their relationship and hence an assured business.

Can the CIO fight back?

They are clever, aren’t they?  More than one such incident may make the CIO take a back seat and watch helplessly. His role may then slowly fade and instead of running the show, he may just be following instructions given. Now how does he fight his way through? Let us look at some of these options:

a. Be proactive: Be on your feet and look around for opportunities in business that you can address, and not wait for the users to come to you with a requirement. If you are already engaged with them, in all likelihood, the business manager will either direct the vendor to you or invite you to be a part of the discussion with him.

b. Be visible to the management: Be in touch with the management through active participation and sending updates as relevant. They would then ask the vendor to discuss with the CIO.

c. Be current with technology developments: Keep your eyes and ears open, be in the know of new developments and think of possible solutions. You will then not be embarrassed when the vendor comes up with his trump card.

d. Don’t give the impression that you are rigid and all for status quo: Vendors often approach the top when they get a feeling that you are an impediment and therefore not worth speaking to. They love progressive CIOs.

The challenge cannot therefore be wished away but be possibly handled well in many cases.


January 23, 2012  4:45 AM

Implement Enterprise 2.0 to improve collaboration

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

Technology that helps people collaborate is a necessity expressed by most organizations today. Managements want employees to act in synchronization and in coordination with one another. While collaboration can take various forms, Enterprise 2.0 is today an ideal medium to help the cause. Having discussed the concept in my last piece, let us look at ways to implement it in our organizations.
For implementation of Enterprise 2.0, I recommend deployment of three components, viz. enterprise portal (the framework), content management (managing info and access) and identity management (security and access rights). Let me explain these factors.

Enterprise portal
An enterprise portal (EP) or a corporate portal is a framework for integrating information, people and processes across the organizational and with those outside. It provides a unified access point, often in the form of a Web-based user interface, and is designed to aggregate and personalize information through application-specific portlets. Enterprise portal software is usually a prepackaged software kit used primarily to aggregate information from a number of different sources, including disparate systems, and to provide this information to authorized users in a neatly managed single screen or system.
The portal design provides links for accessing various systems and content; i.e., the user can go to any of these systems from the main screen. This facility is normally referred to as  ‘single sign-on’. The advantage of EP is that it allows for customization and personalization (each user can choose the way his page should look like) along with other features like search (enterprise content) and security (no one can access other’s portal).
In the last EP project that I worked on, we built in an access to all in-house applications, ERP system, mailing platform, intranet, document management, and internet from a single page and the users signed in to their portal and worked on any of the systems that they had rights to. This facilitated employees to search information and also for using various tools for collaboration.

Content management
Content management (CM) is the set of processes and technologies that support the collection, managing, and publishing of information in any form or medium. The digital content may take the form of text, such as documents, multimedia files, such as audio or video files, or any other file type which follows a content lifecycle and which requires management.
Content management practices and goals vary and are determined by organizational governance structure. For example, digital content may be created by various authors and may need approvals before publishing. Therefore, rules would have to be framed to define roles including those of the authors, editors, publishers, administrators, etc. and also the rules for access by various users. A work flow system, therefore, is an essential ingredient to facilitate the process. A critical aspect of content management is version control when several versions of a document get created by different authors.

Identity management
Now with all content put at one place, it becomes necessary to ensure security so that the content is not accessed by unauthorized sources and that it is not tampered by anyone, while at the same time ensuring that authorized users are given access to without any trouble. This can be done by assigning an identity to each user with his clear defined rights to access different content. Identity management (IM), therefore, is a method to identify users, their authorization and authentication across computer networks.
Identity management systems are usually pre-packed systems incorporating several features that a user organization can customize as per its requirements. Users can be assigned standard roles or specific roles which define their rights to access different types of information. Since roles are defined and stored centrally, it is much easier to manage and control. Users cannot access more than what they have been permitted to and all permissions are well document for future reference.

Conclusion

This is an approach that I followed and it gave the desired results. While there could be several ideas and methods, it is important to act and use the technology for organization benefit. Users will certainly like this facility and it also becomes easy to administer.


January 16, 2012  10:13 AM

Enterprise 2.0

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

We keep hearing about Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 and often wonder what they mean. Various definitions are thrown at us and vendors do their bit to complicate matters with their high pitch selling. This technology was anyway in the making with the forward march of Web-based applications. The effort here is to simplify the subject to make it easily understandable.

Definition

Enterprise 2.0 is a system of Web-based technologies that provide rapid and agile collaboration, information sharing, emergence and integration capabilities in the extended enterprise.

Let me define it in another form. “Enterprise 2.0 is the use of ‘Web 2.0’ technologies within an organization to enable or streamline business processes while enhancing collaboration – connecting people through the use of social-media tools. Enterprise 2.0 aims to help employees, customers and suppliers collaborate, share, and organize information.

Features of Enterprise 2.0

Having defined the term let us get to understand Enterprise 2.0 a little more from the following features that describe it well.

1. It is a technology that enables people to collaborate and/or for online communities. For instance, internal community platforms provide an environment for corporate employees to create a virtual forum to share their opinions, knowledge and subject-matter expertise on topics of interest.

2. This technology facilitates application of Web 2.0 to the enterprise.

3. It is a new set of technologies, models and methods used to develop and deliver business software.

4. The next step is in terms of delivering knowledge management in the organization. For example, idea generation can be a form of creating knowledge – also known as ideation – can involve a structured business methodology for collecting and incubating innovative ideas that could mature with community participation. Large corporations use idea management systems to solicit ideas from their customers and employees. Idea generation in some cases fuels the product pipeline.

5. Enterprise 2.0  enables business agility by putting together the ability to deliver various software services in the organization.

6. E 2.0 takes us to a higher level of collaboration. For example, you can have corporate wikis provide an easy-to-use environment for subject-matter experts to publish their interpretation on any subject.

7. It facilitates transparency by making information available to all who need it and for development of content-centric systems. Information is readily available and with suitable search engines, the users can locate the information they need.

8. Enterprise 2.0 adopts an approach that is user-centric and facilitates developing and accessing content.

9. It enables the use of social networking platforms either within the organization, company to company, or company to outside. You can have personal blogs, corporate blogs or social blogs depending on the community being served.

10. It gets us to the next level of enterprise content management. We can have a set of active contents required for regular access or archived information available on demand.

11. Enterprise 2.0 leverages collaboration to include not only employees but also business partners and other stakeholders in a seamless fashion. The net can be cast far and wide to enable collaboration across boundaries for the benefit of business.

To sum up

E 2.0 enables information assets to be kept in a structured way so that it is available to the users in a transparent manner. Content is kept in a non-hierarchical mode and those who have rights can access them directly with their allotted user names. Since the content is opened up for use by different communities, it becomes extremely important to ensure security and to make sure that it prevents contents from unauthorized access.


January 9, 2012  11:54 PM

The essence of speed

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

Times are changing. Gone are the days of slow and steady progress. Markets hardly changed then and everyone had time to attend to any issue. What couldn’t be finished today could always spill over to tomorrow. We were told that heavens wouldn’t fall if work was put off by a day. Markets could wait and customers too would not complain.

The situation has taken a different turn now. Markets are changing rapidly and customers are more demanding. Companies have either to quickly react to market changes or to get there first, and take the first mover advantage in order to capture markets and stay in the reckoning. The issue could be growth or just protecting market share; but entails a need to act and to do so without taking much time.

Delay here would mean opportunity lost, which could be detrimental to business. Leaving aside unreasonable demands made by users, it becomes important for the CIO to ensure that he is in a position to address business needs in the shortest possible time. The question therefore is ‘how does the CIO make himself and his team capable of delivering the required services?’ Let me put forth a few actions that CIOs can consider acting on:

Chart out a clear plan

It is extremely important for the CIO to draw out an information systems plan or a clear roadmap, in line with the organizational strategy and business direction. This obviously has to be done in consultation with the company’s management. It is a good idea to pen down thoughts and share it with the management to ensure that your understanding is right. If the IT plan is based on this document, constant deviations could be avoided.

Involve business users

Participation of the business managers from various functions is important not only in the making of the plans but also during the execution time. Let him be involved at various stages right from concept finalization, drawing specification, system testing to the ‘Go Live’ stage. Ownership by users reduces the chances of taking a wrong direction and in encountering ad-hoc changes.

Make systems flexible

It is advisable to get away from in-house tailor-made systems as they tend to be rigid, developed for certain circumstances, and sometimes not of the latest technology platform. Adopting standard packages may accord flexibility as good packages incorporate several possible business scenarios, which we can configure according to our needs. Care should be taken not to customize the package too much to make it inflexible.

On demand infrastructure

Of late, a lot has been said about flexible architecture and of terms like virtualization, flexible storage, SaaS, cloud computing, etc. Even if you have already invested in servers, storage, and networks, it makes sense to consider and slowly move towards such architecture so that the infrastructure does not become a limitation when you want to roll out new services. With falling prices, it is advisable to provision more or have resources on-demand so as to address various business contingencies.

It is good to be prepared and be in a position to facilitate business growth and to be a participant in the company’s moves to counter competition or in the roll out of new products and services. I am often asked about methods to counter funny demands of users or of unplanned ad-hoc changes or new demands not thought of earlier. While each case has to be considered on its merits, much of the madness can be reined in through proper forward-planning and the involvement of the management and business users.


January 2, 2012  8:15 AM

The enigmatic end user

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

When we develop and introduce systems, we need people to use them — the end users. We have always been told to win them over, so as to receive their cooperation and to take our systems ashore. I have spent a lifetime trying to understand them; but they (the end users) have been an enigma. I have tried all tricks in the book but have not succeeded in wooing them enough. I would smile at them, wish them in the morning and at the end of the day, greet them on their birthdays, take them out for a drink and dinner and would even applaud their unimpressive work. Though I had learnt to deal with the Board members and CEOs, I never could conquer this last frontier – the abominable end-user.

Profiling of end users

I had initiated a research to understand this segment of humans but couldn’t get very far. I will submit my thesis some day but for now I will share the profiling of end users that I have drawn based on my experiences with them. The user types are based on their behavioral pattern:

1. Users who oppose due to force of habit: There is a class of users who are generally unhappy with the world. They have problems with the company’s vision and mission statements, the work style, and ways of the world. A new system therefore sounds very alien to them. Befriending them is a losing proposition as you will have to stay put listening to their woes but they would not oblige you in return.

2. Those who bargain for a new printer or PC replacement: Very clever users these, who clearly set a precondition suggesting that they need a printer or that their old PC needs a replacement. Even if you inform them of these not being due for replacement as per company policies or practice, they wouldn’t budge and expect you to find a way out. When you think you have struck a bargain, they would come up with additional demands for their PA or an assistant. This battle has never been won.

3. Ideas have to originate from them: These users have very ripe minds and may have attended a course or two on breakthrough thinking or innovation. All ideas put to them are not palatable as their mind factory is busy thinking of new ideas. All your suggestions therefore hit a wall and bounce back at you. In fact, after such experiences, I had often felt like going through a counseling session myself.

4. Dislike for anything desi: We have heard of the ‘phoren’ craze. Such people go head over heels to acquire something that is imported and take pride in showing off their possessions to mark their status in the society. Similar are these users to whom in-house solutions appeal little and they always look for help from large IT service companies, and are also fans of the outsourcing model. When they move around with other professionals in the industry, they proudly announce their moves and stake a claim of being pioneers. May God save them!

5. Opinions of their spouses and children matter: It is not uncommon to find users who have their spouses working in an IT company, with a service provider or in the IT department of an end user company. Recommend whatever you may, but it is the ideas expressed by their spouses/ children that matter. Spouses/ children often speak from their own context and what has worked for them may or may not be suitable, but the user is always steadfast in his stand and can’t let down his own people at home. Poor fellow, his dilemma is understandable.

6. Have a friend or relative as a vendor: This vested interest is generally not apparent on the surface; but a sustained line of his thinking is often discernible. The end user of course will be unhappy with the technology you have chosen, the hardware/software bought or the service provider appointed. Even if we bulldoze and get through the first stage, we face hurdles at every step with complaints pouring in on every issue and the user would want a replacement. The hidden agenda then gets clearer but in the absence of evidence, the matter is put to rest.

7. One-upmanship: Some users are very smart; some of them are from premier management institutes and some are those who have worked with blue chip companies. You may not be listened to; but will have to sit and hear them out on what they think are the best practices and how IT is run in X, Y, and Z companies. Your passionate explanation of the proposed solution and possible outcomes get intelligently deflected and you come back bruised and battered.

The end-user story therefore is very significant and needs adequate thought and care. I am not talking of organization politics here; but of great characters that loom large in our work environment. We give the issue various names such as user resistance, user involvement, change management, empowerment etc., but the battle still remains unconquered. As someone said, human behavior study is still an imperfect science.


December 27, 2011  11:02 AM

Thinking beyond routine business operations

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

During our tenure as CIOs, we try our best to serve the organization that we work for, through the deployment of IT solutions. We consider the company’s strategic direction, business objectives and goals, and we help achieve these ends.

Our effectiveness often depends on the quality of the business strategy and plans drawn, and the focus provided by the business. If the business guidance is clear and the CIO is also senior enough to participate in the strategy discussions, a meaningful IT plan can emerge. However, more often than not, such situations are a rarity and the CIO has to chart out his own path.

The CIO draws out his plan of action, and acts within the limitation that he faces in the organization. Many a time, he ends up addressing issues of cost reduction and enhancing efficiencies as the immediate needs of business and feels happy if some of these measures are successful. These measures no doubt remove bottlenecks and bring benefits to the business in the immediate scene; but may not be enough to help the business in the long run. For example, these measures may help the company in making the processes faster and better and improve profitability in the short term; but it still would be an inward looking measure reviewing ourselves, without considering various stakeholders that we serve.

Where is the customer?

Sharing an experience of mine may help driving home the point. I had once drawn out a comprehensive IT plan for my organization, and shared it with all the senior management personnel. While others did not have anything significant to say, our MD wasn’t satisfied and said that he read a lot of pages but did not find any mention of the customer, the one who is the key for the future of our business. Though I took an initial dislike to his critical comment, I realized it a little later, and then expanded my thought process to include what he expressed.

Now if we look at the business the way a CEO would view, we would realize the importance of considering the entire eco-system in which the company operates. We may make the company efficient; but unless we take care of the markets, the customers and their needs, our efforts may be inadequate.

Is your IT plan comprehensive?

Companies do not work in isolation and have to deal with a number of outsiders like suppliers of raw materials, other vendors, dealers, customers, etc. Instead of looking at efficiencies at our workplace alone, it would be better to ensure that the entire chain works efficiently.

Therefore, the IT plan would not be complete unless it explores the best way for getting all these constituents to work together to achieve synergy. For example, if we connect with our suppliers to let them know of our plans in advance, they would be ready with the supplies, obviating the need for follow ups and also that the suppliers will be able to manage their stocks better.

Similarly, the dealer can send his requirements on time and can view availability to modify his orders. If such a synergy could be achieved, it will not only make the materials move smoothly, it will help reduce costs and ensure timely deliveries of products in the markets. It is important to pay attention to the customer and winning his loyalty, by providing the facilities of online ordering, or online viewing of status or recording of grievances.

The CIO therefore should shed narrow focus and look at the broader canvas of business that he can run his brush through. It is not just about enhancing business profitability but to ensure constant growth and longevity of business.


December 19, 2011  8:05 AM

Futility of partial computerization

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

Whenever we start with a mission or with an objective, we are bound to face hurdles. Every journey is an adventure and we need courage to go through and win at the end. We undertake similar journeys when taking up systems for computerization. When doing so, we look at various steps in the process and try to automate them and also look at modifying the process or to eliminate certain steps that, in our opinion, are redundant. You may call it process reengineering or process improvement; but the fact is that processes do need to undergo changes when automated.

This is where the real test of the CIO comes to the fore. Resistance to change is normal and many reasons are usually put forth by the users to justify it. There are two ways in which the CIO can deal with this situation. He can either take an aggressive stance, take risks and push for full automation of the processes; or succumb to pressure and compromise on the solution and automate partly leaving some of the steps in the process to be done manually.

I have seen such situations often, either being directly involved as a CIO or having observed as a reviewer or consultant. It is very often that these difficult situations are evaded and an easy non-controversial path is followed that tries to accommodate the objections of persons who do not want things changed. The result is a compromise. When that happens, parts of the process are fast and efficient yet interspersed with manual and ineffective steps. The full process chain is therefore affected and the benefits of automation are not realized. I consider these partial automation cases as bad examples and not really worth emulating.

Let me cite a few examples of partial automation. As a CIO I initiated the work of automating the process of expense reimbursement to employees through vouchers. The manual process involved the employee preparing the voucher, getting it okayed by the head of the department and then forwarding to the accounts department for verification. Whenever the voucher was ready, he would go to the cashier to collect the money. Automation of this process involved the employee preparing the voucher on the system and forwarding it to his superior for approval which then would automatically flow to the accounts for verification. But it still required the employee to physically go the cashier to collect his money depending on the timing of the payment window. I then had to put my foot down and convince the accounts department to transfer the payment amount directly to the employee’s account with the bank.

Similar was a case in another company where the process of approval of special discounts required approval of the vice president – marketing. Since the VP himself was not comfortable using the system, he insisted on this part to be a manual process as he did not think approval through the system was secure enough. It needed considerable convincing to bring him on board.

I was recently reviewing a few processes in the Government bodies as a consultant. As it happens in most places, some departments were very good and some others tried to compromise. For example, there was a department that went for complete automation, in which papers needed to be sent from one section of the government to several others, but the responses could be received directly through the system. In order to ensure security, they introduced digital signatures and officials were reminded about their responsibility to keep their accounts secure. In contrast, another wing of the Government preferred to automate all processes within their department; but when approvals and responses were to be got from other departments, they were asked to take a print from the system, sign and then deliver.

Systems, when automated fully, run smoothly and provide the much needed efficiency; and the environment is devoid of papers floating around. Partial automation cases however are inefficient and carry along many of the problems associated with manual systems.


December 12, 2011  7:43 AM

Inappropriate use of technology

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

There is no doubt that technology helps bring efficiencies in our operations, decreases turn-around time of transactions, brings transparency, helps exercise control, etc. The right use of technology, of course, gets us all the intended benefits and makes our life easier. However, a wrong choice of technology or an inappropriate use defeats the purpose, and besides delaying the project, it causes loss of morale and financial loss which could be hard to justify. I have seen these situations occur in the following circumstances:

1. When the CIO gets enamored with a new technology and decides to gamble without adequate study and/ or invests in it a little too early—before the technology matures.

2. Inappropriate choice of technology; getting carried away by vendor’s sales talks.

3. Under pressure from users who cite examples from other places and thrust a decision down the CIO’s throat.

Let me cite a few real business cases that I have observed as examples of failures:

(1) Implementing Bar Code: In an automotive company, we had users who had just returned from a visit to the collaborator’s plant abroad. Keen to prove their smart ways and of having learnt something new, they proposed implementing bar codes for monitoring material movement in the paint shop. When they approached us for PCs, we raised a few questions on the process suggested. Unable to answer, they went back and procured the PCs separately from their project budget. Since the whole process was misconceived, it died its natural death and the PCs had to be diverted to some other users in the plant.

(2) Thrusting RFID solutions: When RFID came into the scene a few years ago, it was touted as the next big thing and many organizations were tempted to adopt it. I too experienced this pressure from our manufacturing wing who wanted to track movement of materials and vehicles in the plant. When confronted with the fact that any material entering the manufacturing process completed its cycle in 36 hours, the users beat a retreat. But I am aware of many organizations who tried various pilot projects only to shelve them after a while. I am laying emphasis on the fact that a detailed study should precede the final decision on the project.

(3) VOIP phones: On joining an organization, I was surprised to see a VOIP phone placed on my table which did not work. On enquiry, I was told that my predecessor had got installed a dozen phones to bring down STD costs. Well, the connection never worked well, and the users too did not find it convenient to use. Later, as the telecom charges dropped, the project was quietly shelved, though not formally closed.

(4) Mobility solutions: Under pressure from the management to bring innovation in the markets, the sales department decided to implement sales force automation system. The objectives were, however, not very clear and the whole purpose was shrouded in generalities. They went full hog and collected a lot of data from the field; but the use of data for reporting and analysis left much to be desired. They were at a loss, explaining to the management the justification of the investments made and the benefits that they could demonstrate. The money and resources spent did not yield appropriate results.

(5) GPS: I came across an instance of a transport company wanting to install GPS based monitoring system in all its vehicles which numbered a few thousands. When asked about the specific objectives and advantage that they thought would accrue, answers were vague and packed with several long winded explanations. As some of the earlier technology projects went off well, the CIO wanted to do more and impress, but I thought that was a pure gamble.

Any technology project therefore needs to be taken up with due care. Clear definition of objectives, detailed study of the processes, consultation with all stakeholders, and a clear assessment of the intended benefits versus cost are absolutely essential before starting on any such adventure. Well implemented systems succeed in creating an impact and go further building on the gains, but inappropriate use puts the organization in big trouble and should be avoided.


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