Information Technology Management with a Purpose

May 14, 2012  5:54 AM

The insatiable demand for reports

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

The one user demand that has never ebbed has been the need for more reports. In every organization that I have been in, this phenomenon has raised its head and claimed attention. Users always demand reports either as a specific need or on a perception that they have not got enough out of the system. Some ask for those reports that have been in vogue for years even though it may be in a state of disuse, while for some it is a feeling of deprivation as they perceive their getting less number of reports as compared with other users at the same level. They are but our customers and therefore have a right to be heard.

The term ‘MIS Reports’ (Management Information System reports) has been in use for many years now for describing statements that gives out information. As systems grew, more and more data got stored and linked and managers sought greater detail as well as greater abstraction to generate meaning from the raw, stored data. ‘MIS’ came into being as systems that provided managers with information about sales, inventories, and other data that would help in managing the enterprise. This has continued as a legacy and in these days of instant reporting, online queries and intense analytics demand for more and more of these reports look a bit out of place.

Types of users:

It has been interesting dealing with users with respect to information reports. Frankly, this requires patience, persuasion, understanding, humor and several other skills to keep the users happy and satisfied with the reports they get. I would classify users into the following types:

  • Users who have no further demands: These users are a satisfied lot and think they have everything to take care of their requirements. When approached, they give a look of askance wondering why they are being asked for more. Life for them is stable and uncluttered and they certainly dislike anyone disturbing the serene environment.
  • Users who have a laundry list of reports they want: These ever demanding users strongly feel that the number of reports they have should keep increasing as they progress in their work. Sometimes I liken them to tribal head of yore whose power was gauged by the number of skulls displayed in his hut. Some of the reports may not be of current relevance but you wouldn’t dare to take them off their list.

Many years ago, I came across a report on manpower numbers which was being sent to the CEO every month. On enquiry I found out that the CEO wanted this report at the beginning, during the project stage when he monitored the progress personally. Later as the organization grew, this report was not really needed but his personal assistant continued to file this faithfully.

I stopped the report and no one raised the flag for six months and then as the PA discovered the lapse he made noise full throttle questioning as to how a report for the CEO could be discontinued. I had then to seek audience of the CEO to have the report formally withdrawn. Usually, legacy practices run deep into the work practices and users hold these reports as their lifeline. Persuading them to let go of these reports often require us to dig deep into our skill reservoir to find out the best tools to win the user over.

  • Users who have demands but know not what they need: These users are the most difficult to handle. They are evasive when it comes to defining requirements but still demand more out of the system. This is commonly experienced in organizations who implement ERP systems. Some such users make loud noises about ERP not delivering information reports for them. When asked to define their information needs they put up a counter demand asking us to showcase what the ERP can give them. They ask about the best practices we claim ERP brings and want those practices to be implemented rather than being asked what they want. Explaining to them that ERP has a large repository but that reports have to be tailored to address specific business pains faced by the organization, does not cut ice with them. In my opinion, the reason for such reaction, in most cases, is the fear of exposure or ignorance.

So here we are, trying to help users get targeted information so that they are able to bring in more efficiency and effectiveness in their areas of operation, but users keep raising their level of resistance or putting up a wall trying to ward off prying eyes from invading their domain. Tackling this needs our push, diplomacy and perseverance in order to succeed in our mission.

May 7, 2012  8:09 AM

Managing your day

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

This is a familiar scene each day. I walk into my office in the morning with a vague sense of what I want to accomplish. Then I sit down, turn on my computer, and check my email. Time moves on and a few hours later, after fire-fighting and troubleshooting, solving various problems, and dealing with whatever is flung at me through my computer and phone, I can hardly recall what I had set out to do when I first turned on my computer. I sit back, tired and forlorn, looking for a solution for such challenging situations.

This scene repeats each day and I am so consumed by these routine tasks that I start cursing the company, the environment, the people, the work assigned and so on, but lay no blame on myself. I try to reason and find justification for my actions. I retire for the day with a resolve to complete some of the tasks next day but do no better in the day that follows.

After reading a book, ‘First Things First’ by Stephen Covey, and a couple of workshops later, I realized the folly of falling into this do-loop. Starting the day with a vague sense of purpose, I understood, doesn’t get me anywhere as I start reacting to whatever scene that unfolds in front of me. I am therefore led by the events that occur rather than I determining how the day should proceed for me.

The task list

The best thing therefore is to start the day with a clear sense of purpose and lay down for yourself matters that you think are important to attend to. In simple terms what you need to do is to write out a ‘to-do’ list. Set a plan for the day. Spend five minutes before turning on your computer in the morning to write down what you want to accomplish that day. Be realistic. Schedule time in your calendar to get each thing done, putting the harder tasks at the beginning of the day.

Just preparing the list is not enough; the tasks have to be executed too. Every hour, take a minute to stop what you’re doing, look at your list, and reflect on your last hour. Was it productive? What can you do to make the next hour productive? At the end of the day, as you are closing down your work, review your day and ask yourself what you were able to accomplish. If you have been unable to achieve much of what you set out to do, ask yourself – what will you do differently tomorrow to be more productive?

Prioritize your chores

How we spend our time usefully during the day is the key strategic decision. You may end up doing a lot of unimportant tasks and leave out key tasks because you did not have time enough to execute them. It is natural to pick up simple and miscellaneous tasks thinking that once you get them out of the way, you can concentrate on the important ones that need time.

These include disposing off all pending papers, going through the inbox to read/delete/forward mails to keep the inbox clean and stopping at your colleague’s desk to exchange pleasantries. The truth is that before you realize, most of the day gets over leaving very little time to work on larger tasks that have been waiting for your attention. These tasks therefore are put off for the next day and the same routine gets carried forward.

The task list therefore needs to be split into those tasks that are large and critical and others that could be important but not urgent. It is better to address the critical jobs first and the smaller tasks can fill in during the time available in the day. Towards the end, as you prepare to wind up for the day and are relaxed, you could clear your desk and the mailbox and get back home with a good sense of having accomplished what you had targeted and come back the next day with new targets.

April 30, 2012  7:42 AM

CIOs seeking promotion

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

I have often found my CIO friends unhappy, worried and agitated about the apparent lack of recognition of their efforts in their organizations. They feel ignored and side-stepped when not considered for promotion to the next level. I too have felt grumpy many times during my long career and I therefore empathize with their feelings.

Every employee has his career ambitions and works towards his goals. He strives hard and sincerely pursues his objectives but sometimes doesn’t get what he aspires for. There could be several reasons for his disappointment and some of them may be genuine. His expectations may be realistic at times and not so at other times and that determines his reaction during such situations. Recognition of CIOs work can come through higher increments, express appreciation of their work or being given enhanced roles and not necessarily through promotions alone. Promotions are often times governed by factors such as organization’s priorities, the thrust and focus and moderation across the enterprise. However, promotions are also denied because of unfair reasons such as biases, political factors, superior’s incompetence, etc.

A few difficult situations
I will describe a few situations from my experience, some in which I was directly affected and others where my colleagues got trapped.

Of differing perceptions: CIOs feel good about their work and think they have done enough to warrant recognition. They express this in the self-assessment form that organizations have as a part of the process. Perceptions of the boss or other assessors, however, could be different and herein lies the great disconnect that troubles the CIO. Wonderful work carried out in installing and implementing new software or new network or security device may appeal less to the superiors who may want to know the benefit that has accrued to business. Irrespective of who is right, the CIO would do well to look at the other side of the argument and learn from it where appropriate. He could examine his orientation to business needs and goals and work in alignment of the needs.

Of relationships: Implementing systems and bringing in changes affect people and their work routine. The CIO therefore has to deal with people and get their buy-in. Often good systems fall short of their promise because of inadequate cooperation from the end users. These negative vibes then act against the CIO though the CIO may sometimes not be aware of this factor and would feel victimized.

Uneasy relationship with the boss: The old saying ‘the boss is always right’ cannot sometimes be overlooked. Notwithstanding the fact that the boss is less competent, we still have to carry him along. We need not necessarily bend backwards to please him, but we could do without picking up a fight with him. Criticizing him may not get us far and we could do better to stick to our work. Some situations may really be difficult and CIO has to exercise his discretion in dealing with such situations.

The status of IT: Conventional organizations or traditional CEOs sometimes never grow up and continue to view IT as a sub-function not giving IT the desired status in the organization. I had once faced this situation and was not promoted in spite of having done well. My boss couldn’t explain but then I had a heart-to-heart chap with the CEO and he admitted that he was not in favor of giving IT a status equal to those of Finance, Sales and Manufacturing. I then had to look for greener pastures.

Dealing with the situation

I know such situations could be unfair on us but this is a reality and happens sometime or the other during our careers. However, on being denied a promotion it would be wrong of us to sulk and recede into a corner. I have seen people doubling their efforts in the following year, forcing the hands of superiors to give them the promotion they richly deserve. The opposite case was in my last organization, where the aggrieved person reacted negatively and hence has been languishing at the same level for the last two years.

It may be staid throwing in the towel and start seeking a change. We can’t always run away from a problem, can we? We have to face and fight the battle. I have often found CIOs jumping out in a hurry but regretting later akin to the popular phrase ‘from frying pan to fire’. It is better live to fight another day.

April 23, 2012  3:33 AM

Importance of documentation

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

I realized the importance of documentation many years ago when I joined an organization to head its IT function. The previous IT head had left the organization a couple of months ago. The managing director called me over and voiced his expectation. He told me that all ground work had been done for ordering new set of servers and application packages and that I should act upon it soon. I promised to take a look at the situation and revert with plans.

However, when I sat in my department and rummaged through papers, I could not find much except notes on discussions with the vendor and details of configuration. For instance, there was no document showing an IT plan, applications to be developed / bought, functional areas to be covered, priority of tasks and justification for the equipment and software to be bought. When I went back to the boss expressing my helplessness in the absence of documentation, he was visibly annoyed and refused to discuss further. I then spent the next three months drawing out fresh plans and submitted them for approval.

Having learnt the lesson, I made it a point to always submit a handing over report to the management whenever I left any organization, which carried details on the IT set up, current status on various tasks, pending work, and the matters that would need attention in the following six months.

Consequences of poor documentation

Proper documentation is essential at every stage of our working and it doesn’t have to wait for a specific occasion. Documentation is simply a habit and a discipline and contrary to what many think, it does not require great effort. Good practices speak of creating documentation alongside and not to wait for the entire work to be over. I have faced several embarrassing situations due to lack of documentation. In one case, my assistant misplaced documents relating to approvals and vendor negotiation thus attracting auditor’s comments for loss of control.

Failure to record discussions and agreement with users has often lead to damning arguments during implementation stages. Not documenting system specs has got many of us in trouble. Absence of software specifications or incomplete specs makes many a developer code again rather than trying to rectify an earlier program. Lack of proper recording of approvals for user rights in the user profile can be a serious lapse and may cede ground for frauds to be committed.

What constitutes documentation

Documentation involves creating documents to record details / specification / events or storing and preserving documents that are relevant. They are important for the purposes of recording details of various activities, for retaining as evidence, for documenting policies & rules, for exercising control, preserving for posterity or as instruction for work to be done. Documentation can be on any medium including paper, on disks, DVDs, or on common repositories accessible on the net.

Types of documentation

I would classify documents in the following few categories:

General: Information systems plan, IT strategy, yearly budget, and the spends against the budgets, proposals for projects and their approvals, minutes of important meetings, periodic reports to management, etc.

Commercial: Request for Proposal (RFP), Record of talks / negotiation with vendors, PO copies, correspondence, etc.

Project documents: Requirements, statement of work, scope of work (SOW), software design and functional specification, system design and functional specifications, change management, error and enhancement tracking, user test and acceptance (UTA), and end-user manuals.

Others: List of IT assets, network diagram, security policy and other policies, disaster recovery policies, and action steps, etc.

When to start

I am told by many, that Indians are poor in documentation because of the legacy of the old Vedic period when thousands of lines of verses were carried through generations just by word of mouth. I do not however believe on that theory and strongly suggest that it is matter of habit. All IT service companies and consulting houses are immaculate in their documentation as it is a requirement dictated by the contract of services they have with their customers. It is however in the end-user companies that we face this problem.

The question, when to start: well, it is ‘now’. It doesn’t matter where we begin but we have to make a start and slowly build up our repository and should not be found wanting when any crisis strikes.

April 16, 2012  4:56 AM

Are you ready for in-memory computing?

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

Over the last few years we have seen phenomenal changes in the technology landscape. New technology breakthroughs keep taking place every now and then; either in the hardware space or in new software and process ideas and these have been altering our approach to computing. I am now talking about the latest move to exploit computer memory to store and process data.

The concept

In the conventional form, we typically store data on the hard disk, and when we want to perform a task, we pull out the relevant data and applications for the purpose on to the computer’s main memory, which is where computations happen. The time taken for the entire process therefore depends on the access time for reading data on the disk and the speed with which the data is loaded on to the processor and memory. Though disk and channel speeds have been enhanced over time, they still are much lower than today’s processor and memory speeds. With computing needs of enterprises on the increase, accessing data from disks has become a bottleneck.

Going down the memory lane, I remember storing data on tapes and cartridges. Then as disk costs (cost per GB) reduced, came the concept of use of disks as tapes. Now as memory costs go down further, it has become possible to store larger chunks of data in the memory.

The concept at work

With the emergence of multi-core processors and the sharp decline in prices of processors and memory, a few vendors have developed a technology that makes possible for even large enterprises to dispense with hard disks and store and perform all operations in the main memory. This boosts performance enormously as compared to systems based on retrieving data from hard drives. The pioneers in this area have been German Software vendor SAP and TIBCO.

Curious to know more about this approach, we, at our CIO Association, invited SAP to hold a seminar explaining the concept and their offerings. The seminar was well-received by the audience as SAP gave an introduction to its new BI product, HANA (high-performance analytic appliance). HANA is a composite solution comprising the software solution and an appliance. SAP has tied up with various hardware vendors including IBM, HP and others, and such servers come to customers pre-configured. With complete data residing in the main memory, computing gets very fast; SAP claims increase of speed by a factor of 10 on data loading and by a factor of 100 on reporting. That makes real time reporting and ability to take faster decisions possible. The data is stored in a compressed form using a horizontal format (compression ratio of 6+) and the data split and stored with check bits to ensure recovery in case of failure of the system.

Use cases

While it is always good to hear about new technologies and their breakthrough capabilities, it is the questions of its relevance and usefulness to user organizations that come to fore. So let us take a look at the possibilities where a product like this could be of help:

  • Significantly faster processing: This could be useful when you want to do a quick profitability analysis in a complex organization with multiple products – you can process in seconds which would otherwise take a few hours. You could analyze the sales performance during the day and take appropriate action before the competition wakes up. Similar use cases can be for production scheduling, logistics, etc.
  • Replacing complex data warehouses with in-memory data storage: Data warehouses aggregate data in various different aggregates in order to have the answer ready when the question comes. With in-memory computing, you don’t need to do the aggregates but can just calculate on the fly. That means less cost for infrastructure to run large-scale analytics systems.
  • Run features that you could not do before: You may have been constrained in the past from running complex iterations including linear programming models and other optimization solutions as they took enormous time and resources. Various what-if analysis and future scenarios calculations can also find a use here.

Should we take a plunge?

Well, the technology is here and it works. However as in the case of all new introductions, organizations would do well to assess their requirements and work out a justification for adopting in-memory computing. The technology will get further fine-tuned as it matures and we would see more applications getting on to the memory. The technology is truly transformational and need to be watched closely and adopted if the situation so demands.

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.

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