Tag Archives: Quality

Our brand is worth everthing

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that statement. Too many, I expect. Unfortunately it usually means that engaging with the root cause of the problem we’re trying to solve is too awkward or uncomfortable, so it’s time to reach for the magical (technological) pixie dust. The glib, absolute statement thrown onto the table is a flag that the root cause of the problem is cultural, or even a leadership issue. Solving the problem is going to require a bit more than a little technology delivered by smiling consultants.

Every couple of years I seem to come across another glib “Our brand is everything”. (Though, at the moment the rise of cloud computing is providing more “but its not secure” glibness than anything else.) I’ll be sitting around a table with some senior IT and business folk talking about a broken manual process. More often than not it will involve a workflow based on emailing spreadsheets around the team.

The risks are fairly obvious. Aside from the double entry problems and the risk of lost orders, there’s always the chance of litigation over an implied contract in some casually sent email (or tweet). There’s also the risk for a disenchanted insider sending something they shouldn’t to someone they should not.

After wandering around the issue for a little while, we start discussing possible solutions. My first question is usually something like “What resources are you willing to commit to solving the problem?” It’s at this point that the comment is thrown onto the table; usually in earnest. “Our brand is worth everything.”

Rather than go to the effort actually trying to engage with the problem we’re dealing with, the statement indicates the desire for a magical cure-all. If we sprinkle magical technology pixie dust over the problem then it will just go away.

Technology can only ever go so far to solving a problem. We can use technology to speed something up (swapping paper shuffling for bit shuffling). Or we can use technology to stop specific things from happening (i.e. enforcing governance policies). We can’t use it to prevent something we never imagined.

Most interesting problems — like the manual workflow example — are rooted in peoples’ behaviour, and only have a small technology element. While the action, the bad event might change in each instance, the intent behind the action is probably the same. Even if we were given a blank cheque (which is probably the next thing I should ask for), we can’t hope to make more than a small dent in the problem. It’s like squeezing a ballon in your fist. Each time we push in one bulge, another one (or two) pops up in a different gap.

If we want to have a significant impact, then we really need a mandate to change the way the organisation works. Are the organisations own policies actually incenting employees (or partners, or customers) to work against the best interests of the organisation? (Like the point guard mentioned in the No-stars, all-star{{1}} article.) Do the existing IT solutions cause more problems than they solve? Just why did the problem happen in the first place?

[[1]]The no-stars all-star @ The New York Times[[1]]

Even a mandate has its limits though. Ultimately the behaviour of an organisation is determined by the behaviour of its leaders. The behaviour that caused the problem was a result of the culture created within the organisation.

The most useful tool to solve this sort of problem is the time and attention of the leadership team, along with a willingness to admit that no one is perfect, that mistakes will happen, and a sincere desire to improve the organisation.

When someone drops “Our brand is worth everything” on the table these days, I like to point out that bad things can happen, and will always happen. We can use technology to trap a few things, but the only long term solution is to create an environment when everyone involved — all the way from employees through partners, channels and customers — is naturally inclined to do the right thing.

Yelp seem to be learning this the hard way{{2}}. Accidents will always happen, and speedy and considerate response is acknowledged as the best we can do. However, creating a culture where “doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason” is accepted will eventually get you in trouble that you might not be able to get out of.

[[2]]Inside Yelp’s “Blackmail” Lawsuit: CEO Stoppelman Seems to Hate His Advertisers[[2]]

And hence we arrive at the real problem. A brand’s worth, after all, is a measure of what people think of an organisation; both customers buying your products or services, or the investors who want to know where you”re going. When bad things happen, and sometimes they happen quite regularly, the only real long term solution is to change the way we manage the organisation so that the root cause is no longer present. This means the people at the top need to change what they are doing. And give that the rules of IT have changed{{3}}, and we need to change with them.

[[3]]Some new rules for IT[[3]]

It’s not enough to be good: we need to be original

We all like a good jacket. One that fits well and makes us feel good. But how long is it since we went to a specific tailor? Someone a friend recommended, perhaps, for doing a good job in the past.

The same trend is emerging in IT. The dynamics of how we provide IT services (either as external systems integrators, or internal IT departments) are changing. The did it, done it stories we’ve relied on in the past are becoming increasingly irrelevant to a business caught between globalization and spiraling competition. Where previously we built our reputations on being good—for delivering quality in the past—being good is no longer enough. We also need to be original.

Quality was a real problem when buying clothes in the 1800s. Without today’s quality standards and processes, you were never sure that you were going to get what you asked for. Even relatively recently, back when I was growing up, we used to pick through racks of t-shirts in the hope of getting one that wouldn’t twist out of shape in a few washes. Manufacturing was also expensive in the 1800s, with most people only able to afford the clothes they were wearing. A purchasing decision was a decision they would live with for a long time.

When quality is a problem, and the item you’re purchasing is expensive, managing risk becomes your biggest concern. How can you ensure that the product you asked for is the product you receive?

This is the situation IT has been in for some time. Four years, fifty million dollars are not uncommon figures in a world where you cannot buy a business capability off the rack. The closest we’ve come to this ideal are packaged applications, which is more akin to a DIY or flat packed kit where you provide some of the parts. The business still need tailors—system integrators or internal IT departments—to help put the parts together.

The solution—in both 18th century tailoring and with current IT—was to rely on someone with a track record. The did it, done it stories collected over a career provide some surety that they would receive the result they expected.

Tailoring has come a long way since then. Manufacturing processes have matured to the point where quality is simply another factor used by a procurement department to influence the final price. Quality is something a client can assume, and is no longer something actively managed.

The move away from did it, done it stories has radically changed the dynamics of the tailoring industry. We’ve seen the rise of designer labels which don’t manufacture, but which provide a unique image that many people want to associate themselves with. The traditional bespoke tailors have become boutiques which provide a unique service (an experience). The industry is also dominated by off-shore manufacturing providing quality at a low cost. The market seems to have broken into three layers.

The value triangle
The value triangle

At the top is value, where clients search the globe for the vendors which can provide them with something unique. This might be a designer which provides a specific image, or the local bespoke tailor who provides a unique experience. Or it might be the IT consultancy that brings you some unique insight into a business event (such as Sarbane-Oxley) or innovative ways to use a technology.

On the bottom are the industrialized capabilities—the factories that manufacture goods. These factories might be creating suits, running IT projects to even testing solutions. As the goods bought from factories are purchased on cost, and labour is the largest factor in cost, they typically migrate to the cheapest geography.

And finally, in the middle, are the clients concerned with risk management. These are the vendors who are good at something—vendors with did it, done it stories—which does not create any specific value, and that has not (yet) been industrialized into a factory.

We’ve seen the death of the traditional did it, done it story on shore (in the first world at least) for tailoring. We’re currently watching it play out for conventional enterprise applications.

The problem for tailors—and IT services—in the first world is that it is not enough to be good anymore. You need to be original.