Tag Archives: SABER

Decisions are more important than data

Names and categories are important. Just look at the challenges faced by the archeology community as DNA evidence forces history to be rewritten when it breaks old understandings, changing how we think and feel in the process. Just who invaded who? Or was related to who?

We have the same problem with (enterprise) technology; how we think about the building blocks of the IT estate has a strong influence on how approach the problems we need to solve. Unfortunately our current taxonomy has a very functional basis, rooted as it is in the original challenge of creating the major IT assets we have today. This is a problem, as it’s preventing us to taking full advantage of the technologies available to us. If we want to move forward, creating solutions that will thrive in a post GFC world, then we need to think about enterprise IT in a different way.

Enterprise applications – the applications we often know and love (or hate) – fall into a few distinct types. A taxonomy, if you will. This taxonomy has a very functional basis, founded as it is on the challenge of delivering high performance and stable solutions into difficult operational environments. Categories tend to be focused on the technical role a group of assets have in the overall IT estate. We might quibble over the precise number of categories and their makeup, but for the purposes of this argument I’m going to go with three distinct categories (plus another one).

SABER
SABER @ American Airlines

First, there’s the applications responsible for data storage and coherence: the electronic filing cabinets that replaced rooms full of clerks and accountants back in the day. From the first computerised general ledger through to CRM, their business case is a simple one of automating paper shuffling. Put the data in on place and making access quick and easy; like SABER did, which I’ve mentioned before.

Next, are the data transformation tools. Applications which take a bunch of inputs and generate an answer. This might be a plan (production plan, staffing roster, transport planning or supply chain movements …) or a figure (price, tax, overnight interest calculation). State might be stored somewhere else, but these solutions still need some some serious computing power to cope with hugh bursts in demand.

Third is data presentation: taking corporate information and presenting in some form that humans can consume (though looking at my latest phone bill, there’s no attempt to make the data easy to consume). This might be billing or invoicing engines, application specific GUIs, or even portals.

We can also typically add one more category – data integration – though this is mainly the domain of data warehouses. Solutions that pull together data from multiple sources to create a summary view. This category of solutions wouldn’t exist aside from the fact that our operational, data management solutions, can’t cope with an additional reporting load. This is also the category for all those XLS spreadsheets that spread through business like a virus, as high integration costs or more important projects prevent us from supporting user requests.

A long time ago we’d bake all these layers into the one solution. SABER, I’m sure, did a bit of everything, though its main focus was data management. Client-server changed things a bit by breaking user interface from back-end data management, and then portals took this a step further. Planning tools (and other data transformation tools) started as modules in larger applications, eventually popping out as stand alone solutions when they grew large enough (and complex enough) to justify their own delivery effort. Now we have separate solutions in each of these categories, and a major integration problem.

This categorisation creates a number of problems for me. First and foremost is the disconnection between what business has become, and what technology is trying to be. Back in the day when “computer” referred to someone sitting at a desk computing ballistics tables, we organised data processing in much the same way that Henry Ford organised his production line. Our current approach to technology is simply the latest step in the automation of this production line.

Computers in the past
Computers in the past

Quite a bit has changed since then. We’ve reconfigured out businesses, we’re reconfiguring our IT departments, and we need to reconfigure our approach to IT. Business today is really a network of actors who collaborate to make decisions, with most (if not all) of the heavy data lifting done by technology. Retail chains are trying to reduce the transaction load on their team working the tills so that they can focus on customer relationships. The focus in supply chains to on ensuring that your network of exception managers can work together to effectively manage disruptions in the supply chain. Even head office focused on understanding and responding to market changes, rather than trying to optimise the business in an unchanging market.

The moving parts of business have changed. Henry Ford focused on mass: the challenge of scaling manufacturing processes to get cost down. We’re moved well beyond mass, through velocity, to focus on agility. A modern business is a collection of actors collaborating and making decisions, not a set of statically defined processes backed by technology assets. Trying to force modern business practices into yesterdays IT taxonomy is the source of one of the disconnects between business and IT that we complain so much about.

There’s no finer example of this than Sales and Operations Planning (S&OP). What should be a collaborative and fluid process – forward planning among a network of stakeholders – has been shoehorned into a traditional n-tier, database driven, enterprise solution. While an S&OP solution can provided significant cost saving, many companies find it too hard to fit themselves into the solution. It’s not surprising that S&OP has a reputation for being difficult to deploy and use, with many planners preferring to work around the system than with it.

I’ve been toying with a new taxonomy for a little while now, one that tries to reflect the decision, actor and collaboration centric nature of modern business. Rather than fit the people to the factory, which was the approach during the industrial revolution, the idea is to fit the factory to the people, which is the approach we use today post LEAN and flexible manufacturing. While it’s a work in progress, it still provides a good starting point for discussions on how we might use technology to support business in the new normal.

In no particular order…

Fusion solutions blend data and process to create a clear and coherent environment to support specific roles and decisions. The idea is to provide the right data and process, at the right time, in a format that is easy to consume and use, to drive the best possible decisions. This might involve blending internal data with externally sourced data (potentially scraped from a competitor’s web site); whatever data required. Providing a clear and consistent knowledge work environment, rather than the siloed and portaled environment we have today, will improve productivity (more time on work that matters, and less time on busy work) and efficiency (fewer mistakes).

Next, decisioning solutions automate key decisions in the enterprise. These decisions might range from mortgage approvals through office work, such as logistics exception management, to supporting knowledge workers workers in the field. We also need to acknowledge that decisions are often decision making processes which require logic (roles) applied over a number of discrete steps (processes). This should not be seen as replacing knowledge workers, as a more productive approach is to view decision automation as a way of amplifying our users talents.

While we have a lot of information, some information will need to be manufactured ourselves. This might range from simple charts generated from tabular data, through to logistics plans or maintenance scheduling, or even payroll.

Information and process access provide stakeholders (both people and organisations) with access to our corporate services. This is not your traditional portal to web based GUI, as the focus will be on providing stakeholders with access wherever and whenever they need, on whatever device they happen to be using. This would mean embedding your content into a Facebook app, rather than investing in a strategic portal infrastructure project. Or it might involve developing a payment gateway.

Finally we have asset management, responsible for managing your data as a corporate asset. This looks beyond the traditional storage and consistency requires for existing enterprise applications to include the political dimension, accessibility (I can get at my data whenever and wherever I want to) and stability (earthquakes, disaster recovery and the like).

It’s interesting to consider the sort of strategy a company might use around each of these categories. Manufacturing solutions – such as crew scheduling – are very transactional. Old data out, new data in. This makes them easily outsourced, or run as a bureau service. Asset management solutions map very well to SaaS: commoditized, simple and cost effective. Access solutions are similar to asset management.

Fusion and decisioning solutions are interesting. The complete solution is difficult to outsource. For many fusion solutions, the data and process set presented to knowledge workers will be unique and will change frequently, while decisioning solutions contain decisions which can represent our competitive advantage. On the other hand, it’s the intellectual content in these solutions, and not the platform, which makes them special. We could sell our platform to our competitors, or even use a commonly available SaaS platform, and still retain our competitive advantage, as the advantage is in the content, while our barrier to competition is the effort required to recreate the content.

This set of categories seems to map better to where we’re going with enterprise IT at the moment. Consider the S&OP solution I mention before. Rather than construct a large, traditional, data-centric enterprise application and change our work practices to suit, we break the problem into a number of mid-sized components and focus on driving the right decisions: fusion, decisioning, manufacturing, access, and asset management. Our solution strategy becomes more nuanced, as our goal is to blend components from each category to provide planners with the right information at the right time to enable them to make the best possible decision.

After all, when the focus is on business agility, and when we’re drowning in a see of information, decisions are more important than data.

Why we can’t keep up

We’re struggling to keep up. The pace of business seems to be constantly accelerating. Requirements don’t just slip anymore: they can change completely during the delivery of a solution. And the application we spent the last year nudging over the line into production became instant legacy before we’d even finished. We know intuitively that only a fraction of the benefits written into the business case will be realized. What do we need to do to get back on top of this situation?

We used to operate in a world where applications were delivered on time and on budget. One where the final solution provided a demonstrable competitive advantage to the business. Like SABER, and airline reservation system developed for American Airlines by IBM which was so successful that the rest of the industry was forced to deploy similar solutions (which IBM kindly offered to develop) in response. Or Walmart, who used a data warehouse to drive category leading supply chain excellence, which they leveraged to become the largest retailer in the world. Both of these solutions were billion dollar investments in todays money.

The applications we’ve delivered have revolutionized information distribution both within and between organizations. The wave of data warehouse deployments triggered by Walmart’s success formed the backbone for category management. By providing suppliers with a direct feed from the data warehouse—a view of supply chain state all the way from the factory through to the tills—retailers were able to hand responsibility for transport, shelf-stacking, pricing and even store layout for a product category to their suppliers, resulting in a double digit rises in sales figures.

This ability to rapidly see and act on information has accelerated the pulse of business. What used to take years now takes months. New tools such as Web 2.0 and pervasive mobile communications are starting to convert these months into week.

Take the movie industry for example. Back before the rise of the Internet even bad films could expect a fair run at the box-office, given a star billing and strong PR campaign too attract the punters. However, post Internet, SMS and Twitter, the bad reviews have started flying into punters hands moments after the first screening of a film has started, transmitted directly from the first audience. Where the studios could rely a month or of strong returns, now that run might only last hours.

To compensate, the studios are changing how they take films to market; running more intensive PR campaigns for their lesser offerings, clamping down on leaks, and hoping to make enough money to turn a small profit before word of mouth kicks in. Films are launched, distributed and released to DVD (or even iTunes) in weeks rather than months or years, and studios’ funding, operations and the distribution models are being reconfigured to support the accelerated pace of business.

While the pulse of business has accelerated, enterprise technology’s pulse rate seems to have barely moved. The significant gains we’ve made in technology and methodologies has been traded for the ability to build increasingly complex solutions, the latest being ERP (enterprise resource planning) whose installation in a business is often compared to open heart surgery.

The Diverging Pulse Rates of Business and Technology

This disconnect between the pulse rates of business and enterprise technology is the source of our struggle. John Boyd found his way to the crux of the problem with his work on fighter tactics.

John Boyd—also know as “40 second Boyd”—was a rather interesting bloke. He had a standing bet for 40 dollars that he beat any opponent within 40 seconds in a dog fight. Boyd never lost his bet.

The key to Boyd’s unblemished record was a single insight: that success in rapidly changing environment depends on your ability to orient yourself, decide on, and execute a course of action, faster than the environment (or your competition) is changing. He used his understanding of the current environment—the relative positions, speed and performance envelopes of both planes—to quickly orient himself then select and act on a tactic. By repeatedly taking decisive action faster than his opponent can react, John Boyd’s actions were confusing and unpredictable to his opponent.

We often find ourselves on the back foot, reacting to seemingly chaotic business environment. To overcome this we need to increase the pulse of IT so that we’re operating at a higher pace than the business we support. Tools like LEAN software development have provided us with a partial solution, accelerating the pulse of writing software, but if we want to overcome this challenge then we need to find a new approach to managing IT.

Business, however, doesn’t have a single pulse. Pulse rate varies by industry. It also varies within a business. Back office compliance runs at a slow rate, changing over years as reporting and regulation requirements slowly evolve. Process improvement and operational excellence programs evolve business processes over months or quarters to drive cost out of the business. While customer or knowledge worker facing functionality changes rapidly, possibly even weekly, in response to consumer, marketing or workforce demands.

Aligning technology with business

We can manage each of these pulses separately. Rather than using a single approach to managing technology and treating all business drivers as equals, we can segment the business and select management strategies to match the pulse rate and amplitude of each.

Sales, for example, is often victim of an over zealous CRM (customer relationship management) deployment. In an effort to improve sales performance we’ll decide to role out the latest-greatest CRM solution. The one with the Web 2.0 features and funky cross-sell, up-sell module.

Only of a fraction of the functionality in the new CRM solution is actually new though—the remainder being no different to the existing solution. The need to support 100% of the investment on the benefits provided by a small fraction of the solution’s features dilutes the business case. Soon we find ourselves on the same old roller-coaster ride, with delivery running late,  scope creeping up, the promised benefits becoming more intangible every minute, and we’re struggling to keep up.

There might be an easier way. Take the drugs industry for example. Sales are based on relationships and made via personal calls on doctors. Sales performance is driven by the number of sales calls a representative can manage in a week, and the ability to answer all of a doctor’s questions during a visit (and avoid the need for a follow-up visit to close the sale). It’s not uncommon for tasks unrelated to CRM—simple tasks such as returning to the office to process expenses or find an answer to a question—to consume a disproportionate amount of time. Time that would be better spent closing sales.

One company came up with an interesting approach. To support the sales reps in the field they provided them with the ability to query the team back in the office, answering a clients question without the need to return to head office and then try to get back in their calendar. The solution was to deploy a corporate version of Twitter, connecting the sales rep into the with the call center and all staff using the company portal via a simple text message.

By separating concerns in this way—by managing each appropriately—we can ensure that we are working at a faster pace than the business driver we supporting. By allocating our resources wisely we can set the amplitude of each pulse. Careful management of the cycles will enable us to bring business and technology into alignment.