Tag Archives: Business

Three questions you need to ask

There's three questions you need to ask yourself before you invest a large chunk of cash in some enterprise application:

  • Can I use something, rather than configuring something, rather than customising something?
  • How will the solution support the (social) community who will use it?
  • Is there a reason why I can't buy the solution ‘on-demand’ via SaaS?

Continue reading Three questions you need to ask

The rules of enterprise IT

As I’ve pointed out before (possibly as I’m quite fond of games{{1}}) the game of enterprise IT has a long an proud history. I’ve also pointed out that the rules of this game need to change if enterprise IT — as we know it — is to remain relevant in the future{{2}}. This is triggered a few interesting conversations at the pub on just what are the old rules of IT.

[[1]]Capitalise: A game for the whole company to play![[1]]
[[2]]People don’t like change. (Or do they?)[[2]]

Enterprise IT, as we know it today, is an asset management business, the bastard son of Henry Ford’s moving production line. Enterprise IT takes the raw material of business processes and technology and turns them into automated solutions. From those first card tabulators through to today’s enterprise applications, the focus has been on delivering large IT solutions into the business.

The rules of enterprise IT are the therefore rules of business operations. After a fair amount of coffee and beer with friends, the following 4 ± 2 rules seems to be a fair minimum set (in no particular order).

Keep the lights on. Or, put more gently, the ticket to the strategy table is a smooth running business. Business has become totally reliant on IT, while at the same time IT is still seen as something of a black art run by a collection of unapproachable high priests. The board might complain about the cost and pain of an ERP upgrade, but they know they have to find the money if they want to successfully close the books at the end of the financial year. While this means that the money will usually be found, it also means that the number one rule of being a CIO is to keep the transactions flowing. Orders must be taken, products shipped (or services provided), invoices sent and cash collected. IT is an operational essential, and any CIO who can’t be trusted to keep the lights on won’t even have time to warm up their seat.

Save money. IT started as a cost saving exercise: automatic tabulation machines to replace rooms full of people shuffling papers, networks to eliminate the need to truck paper from one place to another. From those first few systems through to today’s modern enterprise solutions, applications have been seen as a tool to save time and money. Understand what the business processes or problem is, and then support the heavy information lifting with technology to drive cost savings and reduce cycle time. Business cases are driven by ideas like ROI, capturing these savings over time. Keep pushing the bottom line down. These incremental savings can add up to significant changes, such as Dell’s make-to-order solution{{3}} which enabled the company to operate with negative working capital (ie. they took your cash before they needed to pay their suppliers), but the overall approach is still based on using IT to drive cost savings through the automation of predefined business processes.

[[3]]Dell’s make to order solution leaves competitors in the dust.[[3]]

Build what you need. When applications are rare, then building them is an engineering challenge. You can’t just go to the store and by the parts you need, you need to create a lot of the parts yourself in your own machine shop. I remember the large teams (compared to today) from the start of my career. A CORBA project didn’t just need a team to implement the business logic, it needed a large infrastructure team (security guy, transaction guy …) as well. Many organisations (and their strong desire to build – or at least heavily customise – solutions) still work under this assumption. IT was the department to marshal large engineering teams who deliver the industrial grade solutions which can form the backbone of a business.

Ferrero Rocher
Crunch on the outside, soft and chewy in the middle.

Keep the outside outside. It’s common to have what is called a Ferrero Rocher{{4}} approach to IT: crunchy on the outside while soft and chewy in the middle. This applies to both security and data management. We visualise a strong distinction between inside and outside the enterprise. Inside we have our data, processes and people. Outside is everyone else (including our customers and partners). We harvest data from our operations and inject it into business intelligence solutions to create insight (and drive operational savings). We trust whatever’s inside our four walls, while deploying significant security measures to keep the evil outside.

[[4]]Ferrero[[4]]

It’s a separate question of whether or not these rules are still relevant in an age when business cycles are measured in weeks rather than years, and SaaS and cloud computing are emerging as the dominate modes of software delivery.

Business is like a train…

The following analogy popped up the other day in an email discussion with a friend.

Running a business is a bit like being the Fat Controller, running his vast train network. We spend our time trying to get the trains to run on time with the all too often distraction of digging the Troublesome Trucks out of trouble.

Improvement often means upgrading the tracks to create smoother, straighter lines. After years of doing this, any improvement to the tracks can only provide a minor, incremental benefit.

What we really need is a new signalling system. We need to better utilise the tracks we already have, and this means making better decisions about which trains to run where, and better coordination between the trains. Our tracks are fine (as long as we keep up the scheduled maintenance), but we do need to better manage transit across and between them.

Swap processes for tracks, and I think that this paints quite a nice visual picture.

Years of processes improvement (via LEAN, Six Sigma and, more recently, BPM) had straightened and smoothed our processes to the point that any additional investment has hit the law of diminishing returns. Rather than continue to try and improve the processes on my own, I’d outsource process maintenance to a collection of SaaS and BPO providers.

The greater scale of these providers allows them to invest in improvements which I don’t have the time or money for. Handing over responsibility also creates the time and space for me to focus on improving the decisions on which process to run where, and when: my signalling system.

This is especially important in a world where it is becoming rare to even own the processes these days.

We forget just how important a good signalling system is. Get it right and you get the German or Japanese train networks. Get it wrong and you rapidly descend into the second or third world, regardless of the quality of your tracks.

BPM is not a programming challenge

Get a few beers into a group of developers these days and it’s not uncommon for the complaints to start flowing about BPM (Business Process Management). BPM, they usually conclude, is more pain than it’s worth. I don’t think that BPM is a bad technology, per se, but it does appear to be the wrong tool for the job. The root of the problem is that BPM is a handy tool for programming distributed systems, but the challenge of creating distributed systems is orthogonal to business process execution and management. We’re using a screw driver to belt in a nail. It’s more productive to think business process execution and management as a (realtime) planning problem.

Programming is the automation of the known. Take as stable, repeatable process and automate it; bake the process into silicone to make it go fast. This is the same tactic that I was using back in my image processing days (and that was a long time ago). We’d develop the algorithms in C, experiment and tweak until they were right, and once they were stable we’d burn them into an ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit) to provide a speed boost. The ASICs were a lot faster than the C version: more than an order of magnitude faster.

Programmers, and IT folk in general, have a habit of treating the problems we confront as programming challenges. This has been outstandingly successful to date; just try and find a home appliance or service that doesn’t have a programme buried in it somewhere. (It’s not an unmitigated success though, such as our tumble drier is driving us nuts if its overly frequent software errors.) It’s not surprising that we chose to treat business processes automation and management as a programming problem once it appeared on our radar.

Don’t get me wrong: BPM is a solid technology. A friend of mine once showed my how he’d used his BPM stack to test its BPEL engine. As side from being a nice example of eating your own dog food, it was a great example of using BPEL as a distributed programming tool to solve a small but complex problem.

So why do we see so many developers complaining about BPM? It’s not the technology itself: the technology works. The issue is that we’re using it to solve problems that it’s not suited for. The most obvious evidence of this is the current poor state of BPM support for business exception management. We’ve deployed a lot of technology to support exception management in business processes without really solving the problem.

Managing business exceptions is driving the developers nuts. I know of one example where managing a couple of not infrequent business exceptions was the major technical problem in a very significant project (well into eight figures). The problem is that business exceptions are not from the same family of beasts as programming exceptions. Programming exceptions are exceptional. Business exceptions are just a (slightly) different way to achieve the same goal. All our compensating actions and exception stacks just get in the way of solving the problem.

On PowerPoint, anything can look achievable. The BPMN diagram we shared with the business was extremely elegant: nice sharp angles and coloured bubbles. Everyone agreed that it was a good representation of what the business does. The devil is in the details though. The development team quickly becomes frustrated as they have to deal with the realities of implementing a dynamic and exception rich business processes. Exceptions pile up on top of exceptions, and soon that BPMN diagram covers a wall, littered as it is with branch and join operations. It’s not a complex process, but we’ve made it incredibly complicated.

Edward Tufte's take on explaining complex concepts with PowerPoint
A military parade explained, a la PowerPoint

We can’t program our way out of this box, trying to pile on more features and patches. We can rip the complications out – simplifying the process to the point that it becomes tractable with our programming tools (which is what happened in my example above). But this removes all the variation which which makes the processes so valuable. (This, of course, the dirty secret of LEAN et al: you’re trading flexibility for cost saving, making your processes very efficient but also very fragile.)

Or we can try solving the problem a different way.

Don’t treat the automation of a business processes as a programming task (and I by this I mean the capture of imperative instructions for a computer to execute, no matter how unstructured or parallel). Programming is the automation of the known. Business processes, however, are the management and anticipation of the unknown. Modelling business processes should be seen as a (realtime) planning problem.

Which comes back to one of my common themes: push vs pull models, or the importance of what over how. Or, as a friend of mine with a better turn of phrase puts it, we need to stop trying to invent new technologies and work out how to use what we already have more effectively. Rather than trying to invent new technologies to solve problems that are already well understood elsewhere, pushing the technology into the problem, a more pragmatic approach is to leverage that existing understanding and then pull in existing technologies as appropriate.

Planning and executing in a rapidly changing environment is a well understood problem. Just ask anyone who’s been involved with the military. If we view the management of a business processes as a realtime planning problem, then what were business exceptions are reduced to simply alternate routes to the same goal, rather than a problem which requires a compensating action.

Battle of Gaugamela (Arbela) (331BC)
Take that hill!

One key principle is to establish a clear goal – Take that hill!, or Find that lost shipment! – articulate the tactics, the courses of action we might use to achieve that goal, and then defer decisions on which course of action to take until the decision needs to be made. If we commit to a course of action too early, locking in a decision during design time, then it’s likely that we’ll be forced to manage the exception when we realise that we picked the wrong course of action. It’s better to wait until the moment when all relevant information and options are available to us, and then take decisive action.

From a modelling point of view, we need to establish where are the key events at which we need to make decisions in line with a larger strategy. The decisions at each of these events needs to weigh the available courses of action and select the most appropriate, much like using a set of business rules to identify applicable options. The course of action selected, a scenario or business process fragment, will be semi independent from the other in the applicable set, as it addresses a different business context. Nor can the scenario we pick cannot be predetermined, as it depends on the business context. Short and sharp, each scenario will be simple, general and flexible, enabling us to configure it for the specific circumstances at hand, as we can’t anticipate all possible scenarios. And finally, we need to ensure that the scenarios we provide cover the situations we can anticipate, including the provision of a manual escape hatch.

Goals, rules and process: in that order. Integrated rather than as standalone engines. Pull pull these established technologies into a single platform and we might just be closer to a BPM solution inline with what we really need. (And we know there is nothing new under the sun, as this essentially a build on Jim Sinurs rules-and-process argument, and borrows a lot from STRIPS, PRS, dMARS and even the work I did at Agentis.)

As I mentioned at the start of this missive, BPM as a product category makes sense and the current implementations are capable distributed programming tools. The problem is that business process management is not a distributed programming challenge. Business exceptions are not exceptional. I say steal a page from the military strategy book – they, after all, have been successfully working on this problem for some time – and build our solutions around ideas the military use to succeed in a rapidly changing environment. Goals, rules and processes. The trick is to be pragmatic, rather than dogmatic in our implementation, and focus on solving the problem rather then trying to create a new technology.

Danger Will Robinson!

Ack! The scorecard's gone red!
Ack! The scorecard's gone red!

Andy Mulholland has a nice post over at the Capgemini CTO blog, which points out that we have a strange aversion to the colour red. Having red on your balanced scorecard is not necessarily a bad thing, as it tells you something that you didn’t know before. Insisting on managers delivering completely green scorecard is just throwing good information away.

Unfortunately something’s wrong with Capgemini’s blogging platform, and it won’t let me post a comment. Go and read the post, and then you can find my comment below.

Economists have a (rather old) saying: “if you don’t fail occasionally, then you’re not optimising (enough)”. We need to consider red squares on the board to be opportunities, just as much as they might be problems. Red just represents “something happened that we didn’t expect”. This might be bad (something broke), or it might be good (an opportunity).

Given the rapid pace of change today, and the high incidence of the unexpected, managing all the red out of your business instantly turns you into a dinosaur.

Is the market for IT services and solutions shrinking or growing?

Here’s an interesting and topical question: is the market for enterprise IT services (SI, BPO, advisory et al) growing or shrinking? I’m doing the rounds at the moment to see where the market is going (a side effect of moving on), and different folk seems to have quite different views.

  • It’s shrinking as the new normal is squeezing budgets and OPEX is the new CAPEX.
  • It’s growing as companies are externalising more functions than ever before as they attempt to create a laser like focus on their core business.
  • It’s shrinking as the transition from on-premsis applications to SaaS implies a dramatic reduction (some folk are saying around 80-90%) in the effort required to deploy and maintain a solution.
  • It’s growing as the mid market is becoming a lot more sophisticated and starting to spend a lot more on enterprise software (witness Microsoft Dynamics huge market share).
  • It’s shrinking as SaaS is replacing BPO, in effect replacing people with cheaper software solutions? (Remember when TrueAdvantage, and Indian BPO, laid off all 150 of its workers after being purchased by InsideView?)
  • It’s growing as the need for more mobility solutions, and the massive growth in the mobile web, is driving us to create a new generation of enterprise solutions.
  • It’s shrinking as cloud computing and netbooks remove what little margin was left in infrastructure services.
  • It’s growing as investment in IT is a bit like gas, and tends to expand until it consumes all available funds. (Remember integration? As the cost of integration went down, we just found more integration projects to fill the gap.)

Like of a lot of these questions, it depends.

Update: Gartner finds that the worldwide IT services declined 5.3% last year, while Computer World UK tells us to expect another year of decline. How much of this is cyclic, and how much is due to a definition of “services” which could be more inclusive?

Updated: It appears that some organisations are not happy with the size and dominance of the IT services industry.

Innovation [2010-04-26]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

Innovation [2010-03-01]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

Consulting doesn’t work any more. We need to reinvent it.

What does it mean to be in consulting these days? The consulting model that’s evolved over the last 30 – 50 years seems to be breaking down. The internet and social media have shifted the way business operates, and the consulting industry has failed to move with it. The old tricks that the industry has relied on — the did it, done it stories and the assumption that I know something you don’t — no longer apply. Margins are under pressure and revenue is on the way down (though outsourcing is propping up some) as clients find smarter ways to solve problems, or decide that they can simply do without. The knowledge and resources the consulting industry has been selling are no longer scarce, and we need to sell something else. Rather than seeing this as a problem, I see it as a huge opportunity; an opportunity to establish a more collaborative and productive relationship founded on shared, long term success. Sell outcomes, not scarcity and rationing.

I’m a consultant. I have been for some time too, working in both small and large consultancies. It seems to me that the traditional relationship between consultancy and client is breaking down. This also appears to be true for both flavours of consulting: business and technology. And by consulting I mean everything from the large tier ones down to the brave individuals carving a path for themselves.

Business is down, and the magic number seems to be roughly a 17% decline year-on-year. One possible cause might be that the life blood of the industry — the large multi-year transformation project — has lost a lot of its attraction in recent years. If you dig around in the financials for the large publicly listed consultancies and vendors you’ll find that the revenue from IT estate renewal and transformation (application licenses, application configuration and installation services, change management, and even advisory) is sagging by roughly 17% everywhere around the globe.

SABER @ American Airlines

Large transformation projects have lost much of their attraction. While IBM successfully delivered SABER back in the 60s, providing a heart transplant for American Airlines ticketing processes, more recent stabs at similarly sized projects have met with less than stellar results. Many more projects are quietly swept under the carpet, declared a success so that involved can move on to something else.

The consulting model is a simple one. Consultants work on projects, and the projects translate into billable hours. Consultancies strive to minimise overheads (working on customer premises and minimising support staff), while passing incidental costs through to clients in the form of expenses. Billable hours drive revenue, with lower grades provide higher margins.

This creates a couple of interesting, and predictable, behaviours. First, productivity enhancing tooling is frowned on. It’s better to deploy a graduate with a spreadsheet than a more senior consultant with effective tooling. Second, a small number of large transactions are preferred to a large number of small transactions. A small number of large transactions requires less overhead (sales and back-office infrastructure).

All this drives consultancies to create large, transformational projects. Advisory projects end up developing multi-year (or even multi-decade) roadmaps to consolidate, align and optimise the business. Technology projects deliver large, multi-million dollar, IT assets into the IT estate. These large, business and IT transformation projects provide the growth, revenue and margin targets required to beat the market.

This desire for large projects is packaged up in what is commonly called “best practice”. The consulting industry focuses on did it, done it stories, standard and repeatable projects to minimise risk. The sales pitch is straight-forward: “Do you want this thing we did over here?” This might be the development of a global sourcing strategy, an ERP implementation, …

Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set
Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set

This approach has worked for some time, with consultancy and client more-or-less aligned. Back when IBM developed SABER you were forced to build solutions from the tin up, and even small business solutions required significant effort to deliver. In the 1957, when Spencer Tracy played a productivity expert in The Desk Set, new IT solutions required very specific skills sets to develop and deploy. These skills were in short supply, making it hard for an organisation to create and maintain a critical mass of in-house expertise.

Rather than attempt to build an internal capability — forcing the organisation on a long learning journey, a journey involving making mistakes to acquire tacit knowledge — a more pragmatic approach is to rent the capability. Using a consultancy provides access to skills and knowledge you can’t get elsewhere, usually packaged up as a formal methodology. It’s a risk management exercise: you get a consultancy to deliver a solution or develop a strategy as they just did one last week and know where all the potholes are. If we were cheeky, then we would summerize this by stating that consultancies have a simple value proposition: I know something you don’t!

It’s a model defined by scarcity.

A lot has changed in the last few years; business moves a lot faster and a new generation of technology is starting to take hold. The business and technology environment is changing so fast that we’re struggling to keep up. Technology and business have become so interwoven that we now talk of Business-Technology, and a lot of that scarce knowledge is now easily obtainable.

The Diverging Pulse Rates of Business and Technology
The Diverging Pulse Rates of Business and Technology

The scarce tacit knowledge we used to require is now bundled up in methodologies; methodologies which are trainable, learnable, and scaleable. LEAN and Six Sigma are good examples of this, starting as more black art than science, maturing into respected methodologies, to today where certification is widely available and each methodology has a vibrate community of practitioners spread across both clients and consultancies. The growth of MBA programmes also ensures that this knowledge is spread far and wide.

Technology has followed a similar path, with the detailed knowledge required to develop distributed solutions incrementally reified in methodologies and frameworks. When I started my career XDR and sockets were the networking technologies of the day, and teams often grew to close to one hundred engineers. Today the same solution developed on a modern platform (Java, Ruby, Python …) has a team in the single digits, and takes a fraction of the time. Tacit knowledge has be reified in software platforms and frameworks. SaaS (Software as a Service) takes this to a while new level by enabling you to avoid software development entirely.

The did it, done it stories that consulting has thrived on in the past are being chewed up and spat out by the business schools, open source, and the platform and SaaS vendors. A casual survey of the market usually finds that SaaS-based solutions require 10% of the installation effort of a traditional on-premsis solution. (Yes, that’s 90% less effort.) Less effort means less revenue for the consultancies. It also reduces the need for advisory services, as provisioning a SaaS solution with the corporate credit card should not require a $200,000 project to build a cost-benefit analysis. And gone are the days when you could simply read the latest magazines and articles from the business schools, spouting what you’d read back to a client. Many clients have been on the consulting side of the fence, have a similar education in the business schools, and reads all the same articles.

I know and you don’t! no longer works. The world has moved on and the consulting industry needs to adapt. The knowledge and resources the industry has been selling are no longer scarce, and we need to sell something else. I see this is a huge opportunity; an opportunity to establish a more collaborative and productive relationship founded on shared, long term success. As Jeff Jarvis has said: stop selling scarcity, sell outcomes.

Updated: A good friend has pointed out the one area of consulting — one which we might call applied business consulting — resists the trend to be commoditized. This is the old school task of sitting with clients one-on-one, working to understand their enterprise and what makes it special, and then using this understanding to find the next area or opportunity that the enterprise is uniquely qualified to exploit. There’s no junior consultants in this area, only old grey-beards who are too expensive to stay in their old jobs, but that still are highly useful to the industry. Unfortunately this model doesn’t scale, forcing most (if not all) consultancies into a more operational knowledge transfer role (think Six Sigma and LEAN) in an attempt to improve revenue and GOP.

Updated: Keith Coleman (global head of public sector at Capgemini Consulting) makes a similar case with Time to sell results, not just advice (via @rpetal27).

Updated: I’ve responded to my own post, tweaking my consulting page to capture my take on what a consultant needs to do in this day and age.

Innovation [2009-12-14]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.