Tag Archives: Microsoft

Have we reached peak SI

Have we hit the peak for systems integrators (SIs) (just as we appear to have reached “peak oil”), and it’s all downhill from here? While SIs are doing well at the moment, structural changes in the IT market suggest that the long term forecast is not all sunshine and roses as some pundits are predicting. With IT spend migrating from IT departments (the SI’s traditional buyer) into the lines of business, the ongoing shift to smaller projects delivering on-demand (rather than on-premesis) solutions, and the replacement of traditional support arrangements with outsourced and managed services, it’s hard to see how SIs will continue to grow when demand for their services seems to be tipping into decline. Globalisation, software as a service (SaaS) and cloud computer are reconfiguring the IT landscape and SIs look like they will be the big losers.

Predictions for the continued growth of the SI market are based on the understanding that companies are consuming more IT today than they were yesterday, and the assumption that increased IT consumption will result in tidy profits for SIs. Predictions are a funny things though, based as they are on historical trends. Guess that the market will continue to rise when you’re in the midst of a bull market and you’ll be right, most of the time. That is until something happens, something you didn’t anticipate, something that catches you unawares. The assumption that SI revenue is tied to IT consumption might no longer be true. New tools such as SaaS and cloud computing are enabling line-of-business leaders to step around the traditional IT department and engage with technology directly, bypassing the SIs traditional relationships in IT and providing them with fewer opportunities to sell their wares. At the same time the shift from on-premises to on-demand solutions – solutions which the business is happy to rent rather than own – is slashing the effort required to install, configure and integrate these new solutions, often by as much as seventy to eighty percent. On-demand solutions also have much lighter support needs relying on self-help wikis, users forums and power users, leaving the SI with little more than a small help desk to manage. With only limited access to this new class of IT buyer, dramatically smaller projects, and lower support revenue, the SIs role as IT enabler seems to be in decline. All good things come to an end though, and you usually only realise that the end has come after it has already passed. IT consumption might be going up, but there’s a good chance that SI revenue could soon be going down at the same time.

SIs are fundamentally sandwich shops{{1}}. When we don’t have the time or money to maintain our own kitchen or make our own sandwiches it can be more efficient to head over to the local sandwich shop to pick up what we need. Their margins are thin and revenue is largely tied to the size of the sandwich you just bought, so they’d really like you to buy a larger and more expensive sandwich. (Notice how sandwiches have grown so much bigger over the years, and everything is now gourmet?) And, of course, pre-made sandwiches are always a lot cheaper than special orders. This sandwich shop model is something that was established early on in the history of business IT. How else could companies afford to access the rare (and expensive) IT skills they needed to create all the systems they need? This might be a payroll system, or stock management, sales pipeline reporting, or the dreaded enterprise resource planning (ERP). Consuming IT used to mean hiring an SI to build and integrate something for you.

[[1]]Business models for the old rules of IT @ PEG[[1]]

The world has changed since then. Back when I started in the industry my home computer couldn’t hold a candle to the beast I was given at work. Today, however, my shiny new 17″ MacBook Pro makes the locked down Windows XP laptops I’m offered seem like a bit of a joke. A new breed of business manager has crept into the business while the world has changed, these are people who grew up with technology and are comfortable solving their technology problems on their own. They know that there are alternatives to the expensive solutions proposed by the IT department (solutions that IT will engage an SI to deliver), and they’re happy to use these alternatives. Why spend a seven figure sum and wait a year for the IT department’s perfect, enterprise-wide project portfolio management solution when there’s one that is good enough, one you can buy on-demand via a company credit card, and one which you know will be up and running in a couple of weeks? We might argue about the regret cost{{2}}, but the art of business is to make a timely decision and then make it work; it’s not to sit on your hands and wait for the perfect solution which will be delivered sometime in the distant future. While demand for new IT solutions might be growing, every time a business manager steps around IT to engage and on-demand solution SIs have one less opportunity to sell their wares.

[[2]]The price of regret @ PEG[[2]]

At the same time we find that these on-demand solutions – when SIs do get their hands on them – only provide a fraction of the revenue that a tradition on-premisis solution does. Time is money for an SI (literally, as most avoid risk by sticking to time and materials contracts) and fielding a SaaS solution takes only a fraction of the time required for a more traditional solution. There’s no hardware to commission with SaaS or cloud computing, nor are there disks to wait for or backup strategies to create. (You still need to worry about business continuity, but that’s another post.) There’s also little chance for customisation, and integration tends to be via standard APIs or pre-built adaptors. It’s not uncommon for a SaaS project to be eighty percent smaller than the more traditional solution. Fewer resources on ground and fewer billable hours means that that the SI can expect their revenues to head in the same direction: south.

We’re also seeing the erosion of SI support revenues. Support used to encompass both the application – in terms of application maintenance, patching and security – and the users – with training and a help desk. Many SaaS and cloud providers don’t want to provide traditional support services as it erodes their margins, margins based on huge scale and little human contact. One solution is to engage an SI to provide these services for them, either on a client-by-client bases or as part of some sort of alliance. A more attractive solution is to move – as much as possible – to a self support model where clients support each other via user forums or a Google search. We soon find that a much smaller help desk will suffice as it’s only required to be the point of last resort, or to support the more technologically illiterate users.

Taken together, these trends – reduced access to buyers, lower project revenues, and lower support revenues – seem to show that the future is not as rosy for the SIs as we first thought. Demand for IT might be growing, but growing demand for IT no longer implies growing demand for the services provided by SIs. The final nail in the coffin is the fairly recent move into SaaS by established IT application vendors. Microsoft has gone on record as wanting to capture a greater percentage of IT spend as license revenues, converting SI installation and customisation costs into licenses by providing clients with prepackaged configurations which can be turned on at the flick of a switch. Rather than pay for a SaaS CRM and then engaging an SI to configure it to your liking, you pay for the SaaS CRM along with a canned sales methodology (Miller Heiman{{3}}? Holden{{4}}?) which works out of the box (as it were). Integration between SaaS solutions is also being converted into a configuration option as SaaS vendors sign alliances – just as Google and Saleforce.com did with GoogleForce – enabling these alliances to offer complete application suites which work together out of the box.

[[3]]Miller Heiman: The Sales Performance Company[[3]]
[[4]]Holden International: Outsell You Competition[[4]]

Whichever way you look at it, now is not a good time to be a SI.

Innovation [2010-08-02]

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

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

What is innovation?

What is innovation? I don’t know, but then I’m not even sure that it’s an interesting question. The yearning so many companies have to be innovative often seems to prevent them from actually doing anything innovative. They get so caught up in trying to come up with the next innovation — the next big product — that they often fail to do anything innovative at all. It’s more productive to define innovation by understanding what it’s not: doing the same thing as the rest of the crowd, while accepting that there are no silver bullets and that you don’t control all the variables.

So, what is innovation? This seems to be a common question thats comes up whenever a company wants to innovate. After all, the first step in solving a problem is usually to define our terms.

Innovation is a bit like quantum theory’s spooky action at a distance,1)Spooky action at a distance? @ Fact and Fiction where stuff we know and understand behaves in a way we don’t expect. It can be easy to spot an innovative outcome (hindsight is a wonderful thing), but it’s hard to predict what will be innovative in the future. Just spend some time browsing Paleo-Future2)Paleo-Future (one of my favourite blogs) to see just how far off the mark we’ve been in the past.

The problem is that as it’s all relative; what’s innovative in one context may (or may not) be innovative in another. You need an environment that brings together a confluence of factors — ideas, skills, the right business and market drivers, the time and space to try something new — before there’s a chance that something innovative might happen.

Unfortunately innovation has been claimed as the engine behind the success of more than a few leading companies, so we all wanted to know what it is (and how to get some). Many books have been written promising to tell you exactly what to do to create innovation, providing you with a twelve step program3)Twelve step programs @ Wikipedia to a happier and more innovative future. If you just do this, then you too can invent the next iPhone.4)iPhone — the Apple innovation everyone expected @ Fast Company

Initially we were told that we just needed to find the big idea, a concept which will form the basis of our industry shattering innovation. We hired consultants to run ideation5)Ideation defined at Wikipedia workshops for us, or even outsourced ideation to an innovation consultancy asking them to hunt down the big idea for us. A whole industry has sprung up around the quest for the big idea, with TED6)TED (which I have mixed feelings about) being the most obvious example.

As I’ve said before, the quest for the new-new thing is pointless.7)Innovation should not be the quest for the new-new thing @ PEG

The challenge when managing innovation is not in capturing ideas before they develop into market shaping innovations. If we see an innovative idea outside our organization, then we must assume that we’re not the first to see it, and ideas are easily copied. If innovation is a transferable good, then we’d all have the latest version.

Ideas are a dime a dozen, so real challenge is to execute on an idea (i.e. pick one and do something meaningful with it). If you get involved in that ideas arms race, then you will come last as someone will always have the idea before you. As Scott McNealy at Sun likes to say:

Statistically, most of the smart people work for somebody else.

More recently our focus has shifted from ideas to method. Realising that a good idea is not enough, we’ve tried to find a repeatable method with which we can manufacture innovation. This is what business does after all; formalise and systematise a skill, and then deploy it at huge scale to generate a profit. Think Henry Ford and the creation of that first production line.

Design Thinking8)Design Thinking … what is that? @ Fast Company is the most popular candidate for method of innovation, due largely to the role of Jonathan Ive9)Jonathan Ive @ Design Museum and design in Apple’s rise from also-ran to market leader. There’s a lot of good stuff in Design Thinking — concepts and practices anyone with an engineering background10)Sorry, software engineering doesn’t count. would recognise. Understand the context that your product or solution must work in. Build up the ideas used in your solution in an incremental and iterative fashion, testing and prototyping as you go. Teamwork and collaboration. And so on…

The fairly obvious problem with this is that Design Thinking does not guarantee an innovative outcome. For every Apple with their iPhone there’s an Apple with a Newton.11)The story behind the Apple Newton @ Gizmodo Or Microsoft with a Kin.12)Microsoft Said to Blame Low Sales, High Price for Kin’s Failure @ Business Week Or a host of other carefully designed and crafted products which failed to have any impact in the market. I’ll let the blog-sphere debate the precise reason for each failure, but we can’t escape the fact the best people with a perfect method cannot guarantee us success.

People make bad decisions. You might have followed the method correctly, but perhaps you didn’t quite identify the right target audience. Or the technology might not quite be where you need it to be. Or something a competitor did might render all your blood sweet and tears irrelevant.

Design Thinking (and innovation) is not chess: a game where all variables are known and we have complete information, allowing us to make perfect decisions. We can’t expect a method like Design Thinking to provide an innovative outcome.

Why then do we try and define innovation in terms of the big idea or perfect methodology? I put this down to the quest for a silver bullet: most people hope that there’s a magic cure for their problems which requires little effort to implement, and they dislike the notion that hard work is key.

This is true in many of life’s facets. We prefer diet pills and magic foods over exercise and eating less. If I pay for this, then it will all come good. If we just can just find that innovative idea in our next facilitated ideation workshop. Or hire more designers and implement Design Thinking across our organisation.

Success with innovation, as with so many things, is more a question of hard work than anything else. We forget that the person behind P&G’s Design Thinking efforts,13)P&G changes it’s game @ Business Week Cindy Tripp, came out of marketing and finance, not design. She chose Design Thinking as the right tool for the problems she needed to solve — Design Thinking didn’t choose her. And she worked hard, pulling in ideas from left, right and centre, to find, test and implement the tools she needed.

So innovation is not the big idea. Nor is it a process like Design Thinking.

For me, innovation is simply:

  • working toward a meaningful goal, and
  • being empower to use whichever tools will be most beneficial.

If I was to try and define innovation more formally, then I would say that innovation is a combination of two key concepts: obliquity14)Obliquity defined at SearchCRM and Jeet Kune Do’s15)Jeet Kune Do, a martial art discipline developed by Bruce Lee @ Wikipedia concept of absorbing what is useful.

Obliquity is the simple idea that the best way to achieve a goal in a complex environment is to take an indirect approach. The fastest and most productive path to the top of the mountain might be to take the path that winds its way around the mountain, rather than to try and walk directly up the steepest face.

Apple is a good example of obliquity in action. Both Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives are on record as wanting to make “great products that we want to own ourselves,” rather than plotting to build the biggest and most innovative company on the planet. Rather than try and game the financial metrics, they are focusing on making great products.

Bruce Lee16)Bruce Lee: the devine wind came up with the idea of “absorbing what is useful”17)Absorbing what is useful @ Wikipedia when he created Jeet Kune Do. He promoted the idea that students should learn a range of methods and doctrines, experiment to learn what works (and what doesn’t work) for them, “absorb what is useful” while discarding the remainder. The critical point of this principle is that the choice of what to keep is based on personal experimentation. It is not based on how a technique may look or feel, or how precisely the artist can mimic tradition. In the final analysis, if the technique is not beneficial, it is discarded. Lee believed that only the individual could come to understand what worked; based on critical self analysis, and by, “honestly expressing oneself, without lying to oneself.”

Cindy Tripp at P&G is a good example of someone absorbing what is useful. Her career has her investigating different topics and domains, more a sun shaped individual than a t-shaped one.18)T-Shaped + Sun-Shaped People @ Logic + Emotion Starting from a core passion, she accreted a collection of disciplines, tools and techniques which are beneficial. Design Thinking is one of these techniques (which she uses as a reframing tool).

I suppose you could say that I’ve defined innovation by identifying what it’s not: innovation is the courage to find a different way up the hill, while accepting that there are no silver bullets and that you don’t control all the variables.

Updated: Tweeked the wording in the (lucky) 13th paragraph in line with Bill Buxton’s comment.

For every Apple with their iPhone there’s an Apple with a Newton. Or Microsoft with a Kin.

References   [ + ]

Innovation [2010-07-05]

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

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

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.

With cloud computing, the world is not flat

Does location matter? Or, put another way, is the world no longer flat? Many cloud and SaaS providers work under the assumption that where we store data where it is most efficient from an application performance point of view, ignoring political considerations. This runs counter to many company and governments who care greatly where their data is stored. Have we entered a time where location does matter, not for technical reasons, but for political reasons? Is globalisation (as a political thing) finally starting to impact IT architecture and strategy?

Just who is taking your order?
Just who is taking your order?

Thomas Friedman‘s book, The World is Flat, contained a number of stories which where real eye openers. The one I remember the most was the McDonald’s drive through. The idea was simple: once you’ve removed direct physical contact from the ordering process, then it’s more efficient to accept orders from a contact centre than from within the restaurant itself. We could event locate that contact centre in a cheaper geography such as another state, or even another country.

Telecommunications made the world flat, as cheap telecommunications allows us to locate work wherever it is cheapest. The opportunity for labour arbitrage this created drove offshoring through the late nineties and into the new millenium. Everything from call centres to tax returns and medical image diagnosis started to migrate to cheaper geographies. Competition to be the cheapest and most efficient service provider, rather than location, determines who does the work. The entire world would compete on a level playing field.

In the background, whilst this was happening, enterprise applications went from common to ubiquitous. Adoption was driven by the productivity benefits the applications brought, which started of as a source of differentiation, but has now become one of the many requirements of being in business. SaaS and cloud are the most recent step in this evolution, leveraging the global market to create solutions operating at such a massive scale that they can provide price points and service levels which are hard, if not impossible, for most companies to achieve internally.

The growth of the U.S. enterprise application market
The growth of the U.S. enterprise application market (via INPUT)

Despite the world being laser levelled within an inch of its life, many companies are finding it difficult to move their operations to the cost-effective nirvana that is cloud and SaaS services. Location matters, it seems. Not for technical reasons, but for political ones.

Where we store our assets is important. Organisations want to put their assets somewhere safe, because without assets these the organisations don’t amount to much. Companies want to keep their information — their confidential trade secrets — hidden from prying eyes. Governments need to ensure they have the trust of their citizens by respecting their privacy. (Not to mention the skullduggery this is international relations.) While communications technology has made it incredibly easy to move this information around and keep it secure, it has yet to solve the political problem of ensuring that we can trust the people responsible for safeguarding our assets. And all these applications we have created — both the traditional on-premesis, hosted or SaaS and cloud versions — are really just asset management tools.

We’re reached a point where one of the a larger hidden assumptions of enterprise applications has been exposed. Each application was designed to live and operate within a single organisation. This organisation might be a company, or it might be a country, or it might be some combination of the two. The application you select to manage your data determines the political boundary it lives within. If you use any U.S. SaaS or cloud solution provider to manage your data, then your data falls under U.S. judicial discovery laws, irregardless of where you yourself are located. If your data transits through the U.S., then assume that the U.S. government has a copy. The world might be flat, but where you store your assets and where you send them still matters.

Country-specific regulations governing privacy and data protection vary greatly.
Global data protection heat map (via Forrester)

We can already see some moves by the vendors to address this problem. Microsoft, for example, has developed a dedicated cloud for the U.S. government, known as BPOS Federal, which is designed to meet the government’s stringent security and privacy standards. Amazon has also taken a portion of the cloud it runs and dedicated it to, and located it in, the EU, for similar reasons.

If we consider enterprise applications to be asset management tools rather than productivity tools, then ideas like private clouds start to make a lot of sense. Cloud technology reifies a lot of the knowledge required to configure and manage a virtualised environment in software, eliminating the data centre voodoo and empowering the development teams to manage the solutions themselves. This makes cloud technology simply a better asset management tool, but we need to freedom to locate the data (and therefore the application) where it makes the most sense from an asset management point of view. Sometimes this might imply a large, location agnostic, public cloud. Other times it might require a much smaller private cloud located within a specific political boundary. (And the need to prevent some data even transiting through a few specific geographies – requiring us to move the code to the data, rather than the data to the code – might be the killer application that mobile agents have been waiting for.)

What we really need are meta-clouds: clouds created by aggregating a number of different clouds, just as the Internet is a network of separate networks. While the clouds would all be technically similar, each would be located in a different political geography. This might be inside vs. outside the organisation, or in different states, or even different countries. The data would be stored and maintained where it made the most sense from an asset management point of view, with few technical considerations, the meta-cloud providing a consistent approach to locating and moving our assets within and across individual clouds as we see fit.

Innovation [2009-07-13]

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

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

This issue:

  • Neuromancer turns 25: What it got right, what it got wrong [Macworld]
    It’s been 25 years since William Gibson’s groundbreaking book. 25 years is an extremely long time in the technology world. What did he get right? And what did he get wrong?
  • 10 Products and Innovations from Recessions Past [Bill Shrink]
    We all associate recessions with negative things. Unemployment, slowdowns, and lost profits dominate the headlines and color most every recession-themed discussion. But this is only part of the story. Desperation breeds creativity, as many know. And as a testament to this timeless axiom, a number of the world’s foremost innovations came about during recessionary times. From increased convenience and food products, to formidable technological advances, the following represent some of the most noteworthy recession-borne innovations.
  • Six Myths of Innovation [CIO insight]
    Innovation has us often questioning our assumptions. Why not questions our assumptions about innovation?
  • How Nintendo Delights Its Customers [Peter Merholz]
    How did Nintendo come from a long way behind Microsoft and Sony, and end up dominating the industry?

Innovation [2009-02-23]

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

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

This issue: