Year after year enterprises engage in an exercise that is like a well-orchestrated dance of corporate executives, each playing their best role and they have to collectively also look good to the audience. Interestingly the audience is the executives themselves, the Orchestra Master (CEO) and Board of Directors who ask for changes to the storyline or approve the end result. At a broader level successful execution played to the stock market and analysts acknowledges work well done.
Like in an orchestra an ill tuned instrument can strike a discordant note, the collective sum of efforts needs complete alignment for an enterprise to work at as close as possible to its optimal level. This applies to the planning process as much as to the execution. Undercurrents during the planning process if ignored will come back to haunt the team during execution. All this is common sense, nothing new here, but we still continue to self-impose challenges and then find complicated solutions.
The silly season
Every year, give or take a few weeks, this is the time when the next year’s budgets are approved for most companies. The process begins many months earlier and after multiple rounds of discussions and negotiations, the final budget is presented by either the entire management team or select few (read CEO, CFO and maybe the CMO) to the Board. As boards have to “add value” they challenge the collective wisdom and either inflate the top-line or bottom-line or both or cut costs leaving the team perplexed or so it seems.
We all learn the game fast and keep buffers in the budgets for such eventualities. We offer the token protest and accept the fait accompli moving on with life. It is funny that this repeats itself in every department, company and everyone goes through the charade almost unthinkingly. The process leading into the D-day and thereafter is notable. But there are many who are challenged; let me reveal a few scenarios based on some direct, incidental and anecdotal data.
Budget planning is typically a function of planned capital investments and operating expenses. Most companies are CAPEX unfriendly and there is always pressure to reduce operating expense. For the CIO the two edged sword draws blood by moving hardware and licensing to operating expense and then the CFO wants to cut OPEX. Finance and/or business friendly CIOs know how to manage this, others struggle to keep their heads above water until one of the powerful CXOs throws them a lifeline.
Post “rationalization” by the Board, the situation gets even more interesting. Now that everyone has been given a say 15% operating budget cut, the un-buffered and bewildered CIO struggles to stay afloat. A frustrated CIO once commented, where do I cut without impacting service levels? I cannot go short on licenses, nor on bandwidth, and service providers want inflationary increase, AMC needs to be paid, travel and training are already down; do I go to the CEO, or CFO, or better the Board with a begging bowl?
In jest or otherwise the remark portrays the helplessness felt by many and not just the CIO. Is there a way out? There is if everyone went back to basics and stopped predicting the future based on the past and making unrealistic projections on what the business will be next year. It would help if all functions worked the budget together acknowledging dependencies for success rather than in silos. It is then up to the CEO to play the galleries or stand firm ground with the Board when s/he represents the team’s collective effort.
Where would you draw a line as the CIO/CEO? Will you accept the cuts? How will you ensure that realistically the company has enough cushion to react to market and competitive moves or the black swans that seem to be common now? Will you put your neck out for the team? I have always gone into a meeting with the maxim that budget is an intent to spend; we collectively determine the spend and own it up irrespective of which head or bucket it sits in. There are limits to cutting cost, let’s focus on the customer and how we can increase revenue. That is a better discussion!
I had heard this term a long time back and then forgot about it; in those days my team was small and the activity largely technical. I wore professional pride on my sleeve proclaiming that I could solve any technical problem, well, almost any problem, within the many technology domains that I specialized in. So whenever the team threw a crooked one at me, I would get my hands dirty and triumphantly bring out the solution. Many CIOs would refer to that era as ‘the good old days’, in reflection, I wonder.
As teams got bigger and the focus shifted towards learning the business ropes across functions, the technology prowess diminished and I started farming the problems to either my team mates who were passionate about technology or vendors who were always happy to help; however, partaking in their success still gave me highs. Time pressures ensured that these moments became far and fewer until I realized how easily I was goaded into taking on a challenge to find a solution, faster, cheaper, better!
Whose problem is it?
I became wary of opening conversation lines, “We have a problem …” We? But you just walked into my cubicle/ cabin and we still have not exchanged pleasantries, so where did I fit into the equation? You have a problem and you want my help in solving it would probably describe the situation aptly. You believe that my superior knowledge or problem solving ability or network of contacts could help resolve the sticky situation in which you find yourself. Such conversations were not always pleasant; my ego, however, needed the massaging.
And then about a decade back or so it hit me that I was the perfect dummy being subject to upward delegation. My entertaining the protagonists gave them an opportunity with a few words to transfer the responsibility squarely onto my shoulders. With me telling them that I will get back to them, they did not have to work upon it. If deadlines were missed, it was my problem; if the problem was escalated, it was back to my table where the buck lay and I had no way of passing it back to the originator.
Reading through Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager Meets The Monkey had my life run before my eyes. That and learning from another management guru gave me the mantra that finally extracted me out of the self-created abyss. I tried practicing the techniques I had learnt from these wonderful texts and guess what? They worked very well indeed. They have now become a part of my working style and I guess that will continue to keep monkeys at bay.
The new approach
It would appear simplistic if I said that the dialogue now starts with, “You have a problem … and what do you propose as a solution? If you are at a dead end, here are the resources that should help you find solutions. Come back within the agreed timeline and we can discuss your recommendations on how to solve the problem”. I am not oversimplifying the issue, this works almost all the time; yes, there are exceptions or tricky ones which need a different and more direct approach.
“It does not require two (or more, if the issue is brought by a team) of us to solve a problem or get something done. Either you (find a way to) do it or give up the task and let me find someone more qualified to get the work done. I have not had anyone take up the latter offer as yet. They typically do find a way to solve the problem. It is not necessarily incompetence that gets them to this situation, occasionally it is laziness and many times their risk-averse nature (fear of failure or ridicule).
Upward delegation is easy for everyone when their manager/ function head lives in professional pride and arrogance. The true CIO leaders would do well to abstain and learn the art of monkey management. Be aware and careful in your retaining the problem with you, lest it consume you and a large portion of your time. Even if it gave you a kick or a high, it would be a very expensive way to solve something trivial for the company.
This is the third part of the series on improper selling-tactics adopted by vendors while engaging with the CIO. Read the second part, How to accept a ‘No’ and the first part: Stop Selling. Also read: ‘How should vendors engage with CIOs?’
The number of people who associated with the behaviors I wrote about in ‘Stop Selling‘ brought home the realization that the nemesis is a lot more widespread than I thought. Even more interesting part is the longevity of the issue; a few readers reminisced their younger days ranging from a few years to a few decades when they behaved like that. It would appear that learning on selling IT has not evolved in the last few decades while the roles of the buyers have.
Every encounter in recent times across multiple vendors selling diverse range of products and services demonstrates consistency. In a competitive industry where decisions are not just based on price but also on quality of service or product, the difficulty faced by the decision makers and the CIO is to give a clear and unambiguous decision. Vendors need to learn to accept clear communication and respect the decisions conveyed to them. Eons back, having spent some time in sales, I know it is difficult to accept a loss of sale.
When you have spent a long time in the decision making role, relationships between CIOs and Tech Company CEOs are formed. These are leveraged on both sides in difficult times and also to pitch for a good deal or going beyond the contractual obligations. The alignment of objectives creates win-win situations and builds healthy respect between individuals and companies. Conflict arises when multiple relationships vie for the same business and their attempt to leverage this with the team and the CIO.
In Business-to-business engagements, hierarchical selling is practiced by every company. Engagements start with Account Managers talking to IT teams defining the solution, the discussion progresses to involve layers upward until the CIO and someone senior (VP, SVP, BU Head, CEO) agree and sign off endorsing the deal. Companies that do not get the deal make desperate and largely futile attempts to influence the outcome. I am not against this, however, when a company overdoes it not willing to accept the verdict, they get the CIO’s irritation and look like bad losers.
More than 5 years back a company had me talk to their sales team on “What CIOs want” or “Selling to the CIO”. I repeated this discussion with many large and small companies over the years with good results acknowledged by the attendees. Recently I had multiple meetings with leaders from the same company who could not accept that the decision had gone in favor of a competitor. Somewhere along the way with attrition the learning withered away. Or is it pressure of difficult times?
I believe that for things to change collectively we all have to work together; the CIO will have to be consistent in the way they give the message of success or lack of it. Transparency in evaluation, engagement and stating decision making criteria upfront will create a better platform for everyone. Complementing this, the vendors need to not rue over one transaction that did not go their way and work towards bouncing back such that relationships do not feel the strain.
Let me share an anecdote: An Account Manager desirous of his CEO meet the CIO tries to schedule a meeting based on his CEO’s calendar. Attempting to influence the CIO’s Assistant he brushes aside protests on the CIOs unavailability on the proposed time. He pushes her to reschedule other appointments to accommodate his CEO. When that does not work, he calls the CIO to meet the CEO while the CIO is in the general area where the vendor office is located. Even when the CIO declines, he insists and goes ahead. When the CIO does not turn up, he chides the CIO to say he cut a sorry figure with his CEO. No guesses on where this relationship will end up!
Research Analysts from the industry keep finding excuses to put the CIO down; I have no idea which set of CIOs are on their panel or the ones they interview or poll for various reports that they publish. The data is not available to the audience who may want to challenge the conclusions. These reports almost always end up portraying the CIO in negative light. The effect that these “respected” industry analysts have on me is similar to the red flag in front of a bull and I end up taking the bait almost every time.
The CIO’s role is going to disappear; the CIO now has to depend on the CFO for approval of every spend or investment; the CMO is taking away a significant part of the IT budget; the future of the CIO is uncertain; the CIO has not evolved to becoming a business leader; the CIO cannot become the CEO; the CIO rarely gets a place on the management table; the CIO is being relegated to the back office; the CIO needs to give up being a hardware hugging IT manager. You get the point, I got high blood pressure!
In a recent conversation with one such analyst, he joked with the gathered CIOs that they seem to be getting themselves a new meaning to the acronym; he started describing his recent encounter where the CIOs were mortally afraid of letting go their infrastructure (hardware hugging CIOs to use his words). Maybe he made it up, maybe it was true, we couldn’t fathom, a few CIOs surrounding him were red and pink, waiting for someone to challenge him. Questioning did not reveal their location, industry or size of company.
Rechristening the CIO as Chief Insecure Officer, he stated that the CIO in the changing environment should be worried about his/her existence in the future. With the cloud becoming pervasive, the purchase power stands diminished; the licensing is being discussed with business teams he postulated. The CIO has to keep things running he concluded. My reality being different also echoed by most that I know, there was a clear disconnect to his qualified remarks.
What causes this situation? I believe that it is due to the fact that many CIOs are unable to discuss specifics of the initiatives they are driving for confidentiality reasons. That would be giving away the strategies driving business or profitability growth which would be counterproductive with competitive advantage being lost. It is also that most companies have stringent norms on who speaks to press and the level of disclosure allowed. Whatever the reason, the analysts infer what is convenient for them and what makes headlines.
Is it time to unshackle the CIO to provide a better understanding of their contributions and their leadership? The marquee-CIOs have been empowered by their enterprises and they are making headlines with case studies and speaking in various forums. That does not necessarily imply that the rest are not contributing albeit silently. Either way it is time to stand up and not be cowered by the statistical data thrown at us by the industry analysts.
There may be regional and industry-imposed differences across geographies on the role of the CIO; those pale on the face of the fact that almost every company today draws its operational and strategic advantage on the foundation of IT. The critics will attempt to undermine the borderline cases and sometimes also cast aspersions on the better ones; the CIO has a choice to take them as distractions or be influenced by them. Go ahead and make your choices and carry on the great work that only you can.
Jalebi is an Indian sweet (dessert) extremely popular in the northern part of the country though now available internationally in Indian restaurants. It has a complex circular structure; these photos represent what a Jalebi can look like. In recent times, Jalebi was made famous by a Bollywood actress with the character named Jalebi bai. I have always been fond of Jalebi though in recent times have reduced my indulgence.
The CIO had great expectations when meeting the team from the most popular tablet vendor in the world who were pitching for an innovative solution. The large team comprising tab vendor, sales partner, and solution provider looked brazenly confident and rightly so considering the aspirational value of their product. Rarely were they in situations where they had to discuss the merits and advantages of their device; everyone justified internally why they wanted their solution and they just made truckloads of money.
The internal customers were already sold on the device not the solution despite its shortcomings for the specific business need which required significant internal change. The business head had been aligned to the device (not the solution) and the meeting was expected to be a cakewalk. Despite the iconic nature of the device, the technical team was wary going into the meeting; not many enterprises had deployed on the scale that was envisaged and in challenging environmental conditions.
The meeting started well with a summary of the proposed solution, similar deployment in developed markets though on a smaller scale and how they can change the way business is done. The technical lead started asking a few questions which the vendor team tried to brush aside. He persisted as the support burden would fall upon him and he had to be sure. With amazing clarity of thought he laid down the questions that would determine the fate of the project in the long-term.
The vendor sales head started to justify the value proposition by talking about how the device has gained popularity globally and caught the imagination of the consumer. Their dominant market share is a validation of how well their device works. The number of solutions available on the device outnumbers all other competitors put together. They have been continuously innovating on making a better device. He went on and on, on the merits of the hardware sidestepping the pointed questions.
The discussion was going nowhere so the CIO intervened and sought specific answers to the specific questions. He clarified that the decision was contingent on the ability of the overall solution including the device to work as expected. If there are no workarounds or ready solutions, then they will have to explore alternatives. The long stories cut no ice; come straight to the point and stop going round in circles. After moments of silence, the meeting proceeded to its logical conclusion quickly.
In the post meeting debrief, many in the room almost in unison associated the past hour spent to the vendor making Jalebi. He avoided giving straight answers to most questions, instead, preferred to remain vague in his responses. Any love for the vendor by association to the device soon evaporated leaving everyone impatient to get over with the charade. Business does not and cannot accept the nebulous and imprecise when working to solve a determinate problem.
With tolerance levels reducing and options increasing to solve real business problems, vendors have their task cut out for them; the business and the IT teams are working collaboratively to arrive at solutions. The discussion is focused on what matters, the scenario is the same internally too; no more beating around the bush or running around trees. The Jalebi is great to eat not considering the calories it adds; go on a diet, keep it away from the meeting room.
This is the second part of the series of articles on the improper selling-tactics adopted by IT vendors while engaging with the CIOs. Read the first part, ‘Stop Selling!’. Also read: ‘How should vendors engage with CIOs?‘
The solution expert across the table looked crestfallen; his manager besides him attempted to calm his frayed nerves while the account manager to his right did not know where to look. The CIO had advised them that the solution was not relevant to his future needs and the discussion was over. Breaking the uncomfortable silence, the manager sought to find a silver lining in the cloud, a sliver of hope that there may be a faint opportunity in the future? Firmly declined the CIO; then things started going out of hand!
The starting point of the meeting was the aspiration of the incumbent solution provider to retain the customer who had decided to move to a competing solution. Over the years that the company had been using the solution, the relationship was managed by vendors’ partners with the principle staying hands off. Challenges with the implementation and support were largely managed by the partner. As the company started feeling the pinch of a suboptimal deployment and support, they sought alternatives.
The alternative solution was not really an alternative but an industry leader with now a dominant local and global market share. After multiple futile attempts to reach across the teams of the incumbent provider, the CIO gave up and started working with layers of his enterprise to gain their support for a disruptive transformation and go with the market leading solution. As the news reached the incumbent, their leaders started arriving in droves to rescue the situation; this was one such meeting.
Unwilling to accepting “No” to his plea, the expert started challenging the decision, making criteria stating his solution was as good if not better than the competing product which had a higher TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). While the number of customers today may be lower, the new upcoming product would compete head on. All other things being equal, why did the CIO not get this? Why was he insistent on going with the other expensive solution with significantly higher license and implementation costs?
The exasperated CIO raised his voice a notch and stated that ROI and TCO were not the primary factors for the decision; the company had lost faith in the incumbent solution and the vendors’ ability to support the new business requirements. The company needed a better and globally accepted solution. Their solution has not found favor within the industry after so many years and neither has the vendor engaged with the company in a way that induces confidence; so no point continuing the discussion.
Desperation defying logic, the red in the face expert could not face the ignominy and wanted to know what he or his company could do to retain the business. How can he prevent the entry of the competing product and solution? He was now clutching invisible straws. The account manager wished the earth would swallow him, while the boss-man tried to pacify the agitated expert. The amused CIO simply said, “I don’t have to answer your questions; this meeting is over” and walked out of the room.
Selling is an art as much as a science. Peter Drucker postulated: “A customer never buys what we sell”. The transaction completes when the need to sell is aligned to a need to buy. In the absence of a balanced equation, the relationship sits on a weak foundation; then the possibility of successful execution is reduced leaving everyone vulnerable. Unfortunately an open dialogue is rarely understood or appreciated today in our target pressures driven by monthly, quarterly, or annual budgets.
I believe that vendors should learn to accept “No” as much as they like to hear good news. Every time every one cannot get a favorable deal; someone will be deprived of success. Don’t push beyond the break point, lest you end up compromising relationships. The CIO too should not be swayed by these tactics, pressure from other CXOs, or end-of-season sale kind of deals. The relationship is based on demand and supply as much as on trust and respect. Any change in the equation will have an impact.
Last week I was at a panel discussion organized by one of the large global IT conference producers, the subject of the debate, “Creating Leaders”; the panelists some CIOs and some aspiring ones. It was a great interaction between the panelists and the audience; everyone had questions and everyone also had answers based on their experiences. The best parts of the session were the stories as illustrations and examples of what works; stories are always memorable (See: The Story Teller CIO).
Everyone has their definition and opinion on what constitutes leadership and its development; the CIOs talked about the skills they look for in their teams to pick high potential performers. The key tenets were collaboration, empathy, articulation, communication, relationship building, partnering, business savvy, domain expertise, and attitude. No one talked about technology, educational qualifications or certifications; no longer critical once you are in the reckoning for the top job, these are a given.
On the other hand, the aspirers wanted feedback, coaching, freedom to take decisions, allowing them to fail, engage with business independently. They wanted to work with the CIO and on represent the CIO in business meetings. In essence, they wanted to get to the chair quicker than the CIOs believed they can. A healthy competitive spirit with young blood that makes you feel good; of course, with practiced restraint where required; failing fast is not equal to failing frequently said one wise CIO.
The surprise came from the audience when one of the CIOs who had evolved from the business made a point to the speakers on the dais and the audience. He talked about the professional expertise that came in the way of good going to great. The dialogue between the young turks and the business folks takes shades of impatience and arrogance; “you don’t understand, let me tell you how, here’s the solution and it’s so obvious …” it creates polarization separating IT, business, and vendors.
He berated the I-factor driven by T with the IT teams and stated that the when IT teams talk about them versus the rest, it creates an invisible rift between the stakeholders. He mooted the idea that IT should stop working with the “I” (me and myself) and start thinking in “we” terms which improves the possibility of success with shared goals and objectives. Each person on the table represents different skills and dimensions of the problem and solution; it is not possible to work without any and achieve the same success.
Everyone was numbed into silence for a moment and then spontaneously the room burst into applause; I do not do justice to his eloquence or story telling here, it touched a part of everyone in the room. Reciting from ancient scriptures and connecting to the current IT context, he implored the collective to shed ego and success will follow. Having created magic in minutes he took his seat and the conversation continued from where it had left off strongly influenced by the sentiment suspended in the air.
The power of success weaved into a story always creates positive energy; the message clear and crisp, the actions unambiguous, the leadership lesson complete, the panel concluded. As I left the stage only to be surrounded by some to seek personal advice, the thought at the back of the mind lingered on; what can I do to transform my team to We(T). We Team is better than I Team or IT; I need to tell this story to my team on what we will do differently. Quick, you too do that before the moment is lost!
A sparse gathering of smart people in a small room were discussing an important business hoping to change the outcome in their respective circles of influence. These were seasoned players in industries big and small across diverse geographies and line of business. It was crowdsourcing at its best and that gave rise to the expectation that the problem will indeed find itself vanquished. No, I was not the fly on the wall or a passive listener; I was called in to moderate the discussion.
When I joined the group, they had already listed down the facts and figures about the rate of success that they had captured from published research as well as search engines. Anecdotal references were discarded focusing on empirical data and reference case studies. They had also listed down challenges and issues based on their real life experiences. The consistent and clearly emerging message was how to get Business back into BI, while the “I” actually stands for Intelligence and not Ignorance.
How buy-in happens
One of the discussion threads went something like this: the CEO needed quick reports and analysis of business with the ability to drill down; he also expected the ability to slice-dice the data. The business head wanted control over her team and did not want the CEO poking his big nose. IT simply wanted to buy the best tools since they did not have control over the environmental and political factors. The CEO in a social meeting was sold on the merits of a frightfully expensive platform and that was that.
The tool was bought, the wish-list generated across different stakeholders top down, the scope defined and captured by the principal vendor, and the execution outsourced. The requirements were skewed in favor of reports and very few dashboards or analytical cubes and that was deemed okay; everyone agreed that the phase two will cover the rest. So with a lot of fanfare the project got started and everyone believed that the future holds a lot of promise.
The impact on the stakeholders?
Through the discussion no one challenged the ask, no one sought to understand the impact of the multitude of reports on the stakeholders, no one challenged as to why the operational staff was not in the room to define what they wanted. The executives in the room blissfully proposed the metrics and data that others should be seeing, reality being far removed from the proposals. The few dashboards that were to be consumed by the CXOs changed shape based on assumptions of what they would like.
Running through the discussion I realized that this specific case had all the ingredients across the various representatives, so the solution could be broad-based to apply across. Good news is that it was not a technology project considering initial active participation from the business, however, they had disappeared post initial discussions leaving the baby with the vendor and the IT team. With the sketchy picture the solution was unwieldy and unusable across the layers of management and operational staff.
Back to basics
My submission to the team was to go back to basics and start asking some tough questions and not to proceed if the answers were not up to the mark. Their lack of enthusiasm depicted their unwillingness and inability; with some persuasion they agreed to plunge ahead. As we discussed the questions and the approach their eyes gained the missing spark; the conclusions were agreeable to all present as the best way forward. Here’s a synopsis; report is used as a representation, it could be a dashboard or cube too.
1. Why do you want this report?
2. How do you get this information today?
3. Who else could benefit from it?
4. What will change for you after you get it?
5. Which personal, group or company KPI (e.g. customer, employee, revenue, profitability) does it relate to? How?
As we closed the meeting, I realized that earlier some of these questions had got me into trouble from which I could extricate myself from with some effort. The project was however declared a great success and a case study by the company, vendor and the industry.
I believe that it is a better place to be; ignorance to intelligence is a difficult journey. Educate the business; don’t get bullied into accepting inane requests for reports that can be fulfilled by transactional systems. Someone has to drive it, why not you?
This is the first part of the series of articles on improper selling-tactics adopted by vendors while engaging with the CIO. Read the next part, How to accept a ‘No’. Also read: ‘How should vendors engage with CIOs?‘
Recently, I had interesting discussions with a couple of “technology experts” separately brought in by their respective companies to help us design the best possible solutions. There was no correlation between the two opportunities or the technologies that represented the solutions; the behavior of the experts representing very large companies was indistinguishable like they were twins separated in early childhood but grew up to mimic each other in their approach to providing a solution to an opportunity.
After months of “engaging” on various opportunities to create new innovative differentiators for the enterprise with many vendors, the narrowed down list comprising the two vendors decided to bring in their technology architects. They needed to hear the expectation from the horse’s mouth and clarify the requirement before proposing the solution. I do not believe the problem or the solution is relevant here but the overall approach, methodology and intent is the focus; so I will restrict to the human side.
Now when you have a set of experts in the room, the expectation changes; for the benefit of everyone I repeated the proposition and outlined the need and the want. Everyone nodded and the expert asked a few pertinent as well as tangential questions. Addressing them and moving on to the framework of solution design the patience level of my team started waning until the experts decided to present the final solution using a set of slides. Very quickly the dam broke and …
The experts knew the subject and how their solution works, its limitations in real life situations. The discussion and clarifications were to validate if the solution would fit in, which is fair. Having said this, the direction the dialogue took was totally different. Instead of working with the team to flesh out the solution, the experts started a sales pitch on why we should choose their solution! Any interruptions were brushed aside with an air of “I know what is best for you and let me tell you why”.
The relationship managers sensed the total disconnect and tried to intervene without success. The experts in overdrive mode bulldozed ahead ignoring body language and voices of protest. It took some effort to close the meeting which was making no sense or headway. Trying some steps in damage control, the account managers separately mentioned that they will revert to the team with options to take the initiative ahead.
With no acceptance or alignment of the solution a discussion on the Bill of Material (BoM) is a sheer waste of everyone’s collective time. The ROI or TCO matters only when the customer acknowledges that the solution is appropriate for the enterprise. You don’t sell until you know that your solution has acceptance and that it meets requirements and business goals. Was the need to sell so desperate that they risked alienating a reference customer or professional arrogance that consummates such behavior?
In the current economic scenario the pressure to sell is evident on almost every company; that does not condone such tactics and behaviors; their pervasiveness scares me. I believe that vendors need to work with their customers to evolve any solutions and gracefully walk away should there be a stretch to fit their wares. It would be an undesirable situation where their key customer the CIO is not willing to come to the table or shuns these meetings. Maybe it is time to start exploring vendor-IT-business alignment?
In recent times there has been a hue and cry that Corporate IT systems still need users to be trained on usage and functionality; the underlying hypothesis is that if one can adapt to all the social media sites, shopping portals and various mobile apps, why do corporate IT solutions require formal training as well as guides for users to struggle through them? Why cannot the ERP, CRM, SCM, DW/BI and other systems be user-friendly enough for anyone to intuitively start using the application?
Making business apps user-friendly
Consultants, experts and companies have mushroomed claiming to help enterprises de-clutter and make friendly even the most complex transactional systems. They come in with variety of tools and review the problem from various angles and dimensions. These UX experts in many cases are able to create improvements with increased usability and thereby deliver the intended results. However, these have been limited to websites, portals and in a few cases custom and bespoke applications.
Over the last 20 odd years of the existence of enterprise applications, the change in the user screens has evolved with changing functionality and technology. From green screen to client-server and then onto the browser, the change has been not too significant even when you consider all operating systems and platforms. The top 5 enterprise application screens today have changed only to incorporate different buttons and tabs, and maybe with a drop down or look ahead search; the rest remains the same!
Then how is it that new generation applications have broken this paradigm such that they have been embraced across geographies, age groups, user communities, and consumers and corporates alike. What makes these Web and mobile apps so intuitive, easy to the eye and deft of click or touch? No one ever provides training nor does anyone ask for it. Have the big name vendors no interest in easing the pain of using their apps? I do not for a moment believe that they are immune to this phenomenon.
Inadequacy of efforts?
So I did my bit of research talking to the vendors attempting to unravel this mystery. Without exception, all of them acknowledged the problem and cited special interest groups, advisory committees and even empaneling of experts to solve the problem. I also got myself invited to a couple to ascertain the steps and direction, and with a desire to help. Using eye ball trackers, cursor followers, semantic parsers, and a horde of techniques beyond my comprehension, they attempted to sweeten the pill.
We all know that the gap continues to exist, the unrest with the user community increasing and the helplessness maintaining status quo. None the wiser after a few years of participation, I parted ways and started challenging my team and developers to create intuitive interfaces to apps. Easier said than done; while I did not like what I saw, with no bright sparks for improvement, the teams soon ran out of ideas and enthusiasm to pursue the nebulous goal. We did create some improvements, but they were nominal.
The problem and the opportunities
Only recently I had my Eureka! moment that the twain shall never meet, the usability mountain will remain unconquered for some time to come, and we will continue to struggle with training for every app, big or small, custom or off-the-shelf, that we deploy within or outside of the enterprise. The reason is obvious but not staring you in the face until you think hard about it and then some more. It will not come to you intuitively (at least it did not to me).
With tablets and mobile becoming mainstream compute screens and apps for specific processes connecting to corporate apps, the dependence on the conventional corporate IT solutions will reduce. Does this put off the pressure to simplify the usability of systems from the vendors? Yes and no; most have taken on the opportunity to create their own apps retaining the customer and the corporate security needs.
Corporate apps expect structured data inputs for business with defined boundaries and validated masters; they are input heavy and work in secure environments. Whereas consumer “friendly” apps mostly deal with unstructured public domain data which is viewed by many, input by few. The divergent needs keep them independent and their evolution following different paths. The CIO has to manage expectations at all levels and educate the enterprise on what reality will be for a long time to come.