Information Technology Management with a Purpose

March 5, 2012  5:34 AM

Honoring appointments

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

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

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

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

February 27, 2012  9:03 AM

The ever busy CIO

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

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

Let us also look at the positives:

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

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

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

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

February 21, 2012  5:38 AM

Speed up your ERP implementation

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

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

Why ERP takes that long to implement?

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

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

What’s wrong with this?

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

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

Some solution

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

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

Final view

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

February 13, 2012  8:50 AM

Succession planning by CIOs

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

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

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

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

What is succession planning?

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

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

How to make it work

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

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

Implementing it at our workplace

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

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

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

February 6, 2012  3:44 AM

When your vendor sneaks in from the top

S R Balasubramanian Profile: S R Balasubramanian

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

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

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

Let me talk of a few instances from my experience:

CEO’s prestige on the block

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

Use persuasive skills

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

When unconvinced, pass off the ownership

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

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

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.


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.


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.

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