Let’s talk turkey or rather cloud

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First me let me make it clear that I am a fan of what cloud and internet can do for businesses of all sizes and have been “bigging this up” for at least two decades. I would risk shouts of Hypocrite were I not to say so. Having said that I must warn against jumping blindly onto a bandwagon without even asking about the destination.

You may say I am being reactive and hasty, but I promise you that my concerns are raised by the sight of intelligent and knowledgeable men and women blindly buying into arrangements that are often far too risky at the current time in their current form.

I won’t name names or even suppliers, but be assured I have been dealing with global clients and global suppliers and this is what, more than anything else has rung my alarm bells.

  1. What if you fall out with this cloud supplier? (We all have seen or been involved in deals worth tens of millions or billions that have gone horribly wrong, let’s not live in denial) .
    What does the small print say about your rights in this situation? What if your supplier goes bankrupt, or simply withdraws from providing cloud services? Have you asked how you can get your data out in any case? How long would it take you to get back to business as usual in the event of any of these situations? How central to your core business is this cloud service? What else depends on it? Need I go on?
  1. The cloud only works when you have connectivity. What guarantees do you have of connectivity for all the hours when you will be paying your staff and hoping for productivity? And waiting for customers to call. Are you in denial again about the “connected world”. Last month I touched down in 4 countries and only once did my phone behave itself. Google maps, forget that! Calling a cab, not unless there’s a courtesy phone. Internet, nothing doing.  Boarding-card on your phone, I’d never have got started if they hadn’t used the good old paper passport to look me up on the system. Two weeks ago in Western Europe I was barely able to load a web page let alone be productive at work. I won’t go on, but lets, just say, you might one day be the only one who doesn’t have access to your data.
  2. Who sees your data? Everyone who wants it is the simple answer. First of all, the US government accesses any data anywhere whether on US servers or not with very few exceptions and I suggest you google how many major data breaches occurred with US government data in the past year to work out who else can see that data. Check out the stories of private and sensitive documents from drop box and google drive available to anyone on the web. There are two takeaways. 1. If someone is doing it regularly, anyone can do it, theft is rampant. If your data needs to be private and it is valuable to someone, keep it off the cloud. 2. If they can take data out they can probably put data in, that could be even more problematic.
  3. Who said the cloud was good value? Start-ups needing to get off the ground without the big capital investment love it, anyone needing to rapidly burst to meet demand peaks can find a great deal, however, many who have made this jump are feeling nervous about the level of costs, and the direction it will take. Certainly unless you scrutinise the details of every potential charge and penalty, you could live to regret it. I have personal experience of this. Yes there are tempting deals, but they are not all what they seem ad there is a big picture regardless of what the salesman says.
  4. Loss of skills, processes and people is never trivial. Unless you are very confident indeed about your commitment to cloud and more important the cloud’s commitment to you, then you really have to consider the risk of finding yourself without an IT department or even the memory of how to set one up as you find yourself pushed further and further into a corner by a maturing oligopoly of big players gaming the marketplace.
  5. Poor APIs and expensive difficult integration.
    Let’s be realistic, many businesses bought into the ERP idea thinking it would solve all their integration problems and they wouldn’t need an IT department. What really happened was the exact opposite. The demand remained or grew and the time and cost and especially expertise levels to meet these demands now quadrupled. Integrating ERP with anything is an area of pain I often wish I had never got involved with, but at least we had low level access all the way down to database level when necessary. A cloud ERP I can assure you, just in case you have not experienced it is an altogether less flexible beast than the original and fills none of the gaps but if anything exposes more. ERP was just and example, one way or another your business requires a lot of specialist systems in order to function and these needs will continue to change readily, but more importantly these systems will need to share data and communicate at real time. This capability is a long way off for the most advanced cloud platforms. They are effectively islands, closed shops. Some APIs are better than others but none I have seen are adequate and API’s alone are not enough to provide the level of integration needed.
    A few vendors are attempting to bundle middleware as part of the offering, but they are rightly nervous about making big promises. In fact this aspect of your emerging cloud infrastructure is an even bigger and more expensive challenge in many cases than in the old regime.
  1. Lack of flexibility plus arbitrary updates and changes.
    Just like your new Widows 10 install, you log in to do something only to find your favourite interface has vanished without warning and you can’t do it anymore. This is the joy of cloud computing. Would-be Oligopolies flexing their muscles and gaining in confidence in the knowledge that there is nothing you can do about it. Perhaps I jump the gun, but experience tells us that if they get away with this for a little while, and who will stop them? The next phase is likely to be complete  disregard for the customer. Speaking of which, have you ever wondered which customer they talk to before they design the next feature for “YOUR” business.  Wasn’t productivity software supposed to be about gaining advantage and differentiation …?
  1. IT without a medium and long term strategic view is a train-wreck about to happen, I doubt anyone with argue with this. Business stakeholders and IT people do sometimes disagree and there are times when business demands are not realistic or safe and other times without doubt when IT stakeholders are in the “Not invented here” camp, but as long as the dialogue continues, things will work out. The problem often introduced by the cloud model is that pre-sales go right past IT to talk to technical amateurs in the business arena  only engaging when they have already agreed a large investment and with no regard for the bigger picture. This can never work out and should never be supported by business at any level, nor should it be encouraged or even tolerated by Cloud vendors with a longer term strategy. Enterprise architecture is more important than ever when cloud solutions are involved.

 

Tomorrow, I could easily write you an article explaining why the cloud is a good idea as indeed it is, so please don’t assume I am saying that it is all bad, or suppliers are all bad, I am simply trying to impress on you the need to take reasonable precautions and think it through before jumping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is there still a case for IT strategic planning?

 The earth is flat in any case

Unless you’ve been asleep, in denial or on medication, you will have noticed, at some level at least, that in the last few months the key assumptions underlying our post industrial survival have been proven flat wrong.

To put that in content, the earth is not round but flat and the universe is merely mirror images of the earth reflected on a layer of slightly opaque gasses. The landing on the moon happened in a closed off section of MGM and hamburgers are good for you.

It no longer matters how much we borrow because we probably won’t be around to pay it back, only nobody will lend it of course because they are keeping it to line their pyramids with.

What’s the point in getting up?

You could easily be pardoned for asking the question and I can see some beginning to think like that.
That, in truth is what recession really is.
An end to economic growth is no big deal, we probably couldn’t survive without taking the odd breather. The bad bit is when sensible people suddenly decide that it’s not worth bothering, then we all suffer and what was a diet quickly becomes bulimia.
Read on and I will convince you that there bigger opportunities than ever, they just need a different approach

So how do you build a business case for IT investment and sell it to the board?

Realism
If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t base any investment on predictions of returning to normal in a few months or pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
You must recognise it and spell it out in terms of a clearly risk managed approach.
It’s unlikely that you are in a business where you can afford to make risky investments with long payback periods, so you need ROI fast, or even faster and you must prove that your eye is on the ball.

Prudence
Getting the financials right is critical, but that’s not the whole story by a long way, here’s a selected list of other issues in no particular order that are extra important.

· Make sure your initiative addresses the bulls eye in terms of business initiatives, not peripheral or even sort of important, but right up there.

· Make sure this is best deployment of scarce capital.  Remember it is no longer in unlimited supply.

· Time to market is very important and can easily be disguised behind impressive returns. Include timing in this calculation. Limping in a month behind your main rival is a great way to blow your big chance.

· Competitive advantage can be a critical factor that is easily missed. If all your competitors are cutting 20% off cost of sales and your initiative wipes 5% off, you might find the idea is less successful than you had hoped.

· Don’t suggest a major new 22nd century architecture if your goal can be achieved reliably with duct tape and scaffolding. This is about surviving today, not ideas or principals or fancy technology.

A little audacity goes a long way
Take a look at tiny little Porche and compare them to giant GM. Porche are busy taking over VW, to create the third biggest car manufacturer in the world and asking nobody for help, but using the downturn to make it possible.
If you are good at what you do and you can improve costs and capabilities, then watch out for all the leftovers of those overweight beasts that are shedding customers and reputation and be ready to take advantage of the opportunities that a downturn creates. In a ten horse race there are nine opportunities and one risk for the bookmaker. Don’t focus in on the risk and blind yourself to the opportunities.

Outside the box

There’s a great awkward purple elephant sitting on the board table and let’s stop pretending he’s not there.
The GAPE I’m talking about is the contradiction between thinking out of the box and following the strategy, the corporate plan and the processes, those things so beloved of civil servants and Ops directors. Let’s just say it:
How the hell can you be a process man who works to the plan and also think outside the box?

Well of course you can’t, it’s that simple, so you have to come out from behind whatever you are hiding behind and take a chance or two. Be up front about it that acceptance of your new proposal means revision of the agreed strategy and the current plan. That’s why they are there, not as straight jackets.
Delivering benefits on the cheap can upset lots of people, especially some members of the IT department, preferred suppliers and business analysts who have carved out cosy corners for themselves, but if that is the price, then accept it and pay it. Here’s a few examples:

· Be prepared to ignore the Enterprise architecture and do it the cheapest way.

· Be prepared to bypass the developers in the corner and buy something a bit scruffy and poorly documented, but supported from outside the business.

· Be prepared to find a few freelancers in Russia and get it done cheaper.

· Learn about mashups that can deliver the same result as an enterprise bus for a tiny fraction of the cost and get your show on the road.

· Get to know someone who knows about opensource solutions that are a bit ugly in places and awkward to install but are FREE and once you get them working they eat no corn.

· If you don’t know about agile methods, speak to someone who does and consider it for appropriate situations.

· Look for SaaS products that can start delivering returns in days rather than months

· This is a no brainer, but rarely done. Make sure your people know how to get the most out of the systems you already have.

So there is a new strategy after all

Yes there is a strategy for the current climate and I believe it has a valid legacy to take forward into the good times also.
Don’t stop looking for opportunities, but look harder, look outside the box and examine them more closely before committing. That usually requires an external input, but it is well worth it.
Don’t plan for a decade, but for this year, who knows what next year will be like, but this strategy will still be serving you whatever it looks like. That means dumping or revising much of the strategy and plans you are currently strangling yourself with. Do it sooner rather than later and free up your thinking and your energy.
Look for silver linings until it becomes a habit
Remember not to get complacent in the next bull market
 About the author

The Bridger

“Bridger” A person who acts as go between or translator between the management of a business and it’s IT department or IT partners.

The background

Since the arrival of computers in the enterprise there has been an unfortunate and counterproductive power struggle between IT departments and other areas of the business.
IT professionals share a great deal with other professions such as law and medicine in that they have their own impenetrable language, they are critically important to their clients and they simply can not be substituted with amateurs.

The difference between IT and other professions is that systems and IT tools, especially systems are right at the heart of the every day operations of the business and a fundamental part of every aspect of the business operations.

Naturally it is a source of very serious concern for business that such a critical function as IT is managed by people who are more often than not detached from the business functions and often lack very much understanding or training in business issues.

The key problems faced by a Bridger

Problem one – The Business versus the IT department

In order to create and maintain a competitive advantage for the enterprise it is essential to combine deep understanding of the business, enlightened leadership and a thorough grasp of what IT can achieve.
The business leadership are custodians of business strategy and direction and hold the deep understanding of the business.
The IT department or partners hold the deep knowledge of how existing systems work, the impact of changes to them and what new technology is capable of.

Almost without exception, the two areas create and maintain their own plans and strategies in isolation and believe at some level that they can exist successfully in silos. This standoff when it occurs to any degree, is destructive and robs industry of billions annually in lost opportunities and wastage, mostly surfaced as failed projects.

How the Bridger can help

In the short term, a Bridger can mediate between IT and the business translating between IT and Business language and negotiating win/win agreements.
In particular the business needs to understand impacts and costs of sudden demands for change on the IT infrastructure.
The IT department needs understand clearly the real life drivers that have potential to place unwanted demands in their inbox unexpectedly. Speaking both languages and understanding the underlying problems on both sides makes the Bridger ideally paced to forge this understanding.

In the medium to long term, a Bridger can help forge an understanding by helping to establish sustainable frameworks that see joint plans and strategies developed by the business and IT jointly to forge new partnerships in place of the silos or misunderstandings.

Problem 2 – Business analysts are trained in IT

The most important element of every software project is what it delivers to the business. How clever the technology is, whether it was delivered a little early or late or slightly under or over budget, are all relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but if the system fails to deliver value to the business, it will be a costly failure.

Whether or not the system delivers value is down to understanding the needs of the business, optimising processes for automation and implementing the accompanying cultural change to make it work. These are all business and people centric skills.

This critical job normally falls to a business analyst, but there lies the problem.

With a very few exceptions, business analysts are not trained in business analysis or indeed in any other business discipline. The majority are programmers who went down the analysis route and see their role as designing systems and working with IT delivery. In recent years some have been emerging form universities with degrees in business analysis, but even then they are quickly sucked into the existing culture and still lack the business knowledge to understand the issues and the gravitas to engage senior management.

It’s hardly surprising then that there are frustrations, communication difficulties and disappointments as the enterprise attempts to manage its it investments.

The alternative to this business analyst route is when the business, in exasperation appoints someone from the business to gather requirements. This is an even bigger mistake because the non it person has no idea how to extract or record requirements or how to communicate them to IT people and especially he/she has little chance of monitoring the accuracy or quality of the deliverable.

Another very common error seen more and more in recent times is to react to this problem by appointing a non IT trained Project Manager to deal with the business and systems sides of the project. While business stakeholders may enjoy better communication in the short run, their holiday is generally short lives as this strategy lets IT off the hook and leads to a catalogue of poor decisions and a high proportion of failed software projects.
Government in particular are guilty of this mistake as they place too much trust in partners and maintain little, or often no internal skills and knowhow to oversee these huge projects.

How the Bridger can help

The Bridger is by nature a business person with the ability to explore, understand and improve processes as well as the training to explain and present them to the IT department, or to work in tandem with the IT department making sure that they get the business viewpoint right.

This approach ensures that the business goals are represented by the new proposed system and the level of change is understood and accepted by users so that a system can be designed and implemented with confidence.

Problem 3 – Stakeholders, Users and Technologists, the tradeoffs.

Stakeholders (define here as the people providing the investment and expecting the rewards in productivity) are all powerful within the project team and all things considered, this is how it should be.
Users, even for an in-house system, are still key. Unless you understand their needs and serve them, the system will not deliver value.

Technologists are the people who know how to deliver on your needs and to make it reliable. Nobody notices them when everything is running smoothly, only when it goes wrong so you can’t do it without their help and goodwill.

When it comes to defining the final feature set of a system, stakeholders will have a detached and uninformed view of what happens on the shop floor and will want to dictate how the system should be. If they get all own their way it will almost certainly be a disaster.

Users will resist change and will not want any new system so their feedback important as though it is must be understood in context and then interpreted at the right level to deliver achievable changes.

IT will want to dictate the system based on what fits comfortably with that they already have and will have no empathy with users or stakeholders.

How the Bridger can help

The Bridger can help by forging and maintaining the right flows of communication between IT, Users and Business so that ultimately the Business gets what they want through ensuring that IT works with the User to maximise process and pitch cultural changes at a level that is achievable and lends itself to a successful implementation.

Ed Taaffe