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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 [2010-02-01]

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

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

Innovation [2009-11-16]

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

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

  • Warren Buffett’s bet against innovation [BusinessWeek: Innovate]
    In proclaiming an “all-in wager on the economic future of the United States, Warren Buffett just paid $44 billion for a 19th century technology platform, a railroad, that carries 20th century goods—coal, agriculture, imports from Asia, petroleum. This is a vision of an America mired in the past and in economic and political decline. And Buffett just might be right. He has a great track record betting against innovation.
  • Embracing Innovation: a new methodology for feature film production in Australia [Centre for Screen Business]
    Do too many Australian films fall into a budgetary ‘no-man’s land’ – not big enough to compete with the US studios, yet too big to stand a chance of commercial viability in a market flooded with independent films? Robert Connolly’s recommendations provide us with valuable grist for the mill as we, in the IT industry, work our way through the current evolutionary phase our industry is going through, driven by the shift from large, on premises applications to a future increasingly dominated by cloud solutions. His approach to the problem is also an excellent model of how to engage with the wholesale transformation of an industry.
  • 10 examples of minimum viable products [Venture Hacks]
    Brilliant products are rarely the result of brilliant ideas. Most products start small, as minimum viable products, and then grow as the customers and developers work together to learn what the product should be.
  • What do the crowds know about innovation? [Innovate on Purpose]
    Companies use different strategies and techniques for crowdsourcing ideas. All of these approaches help gather ideas from the crowd, but they also serve as trend spotting and public relations opportunities as well, and some companies might be more interested in these secondary effects. As Henry Ford pointed out, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Balancing our two masters

We seem to be torn between two masters. On one hand we’re driven to renew our IT estate, consolidating solutions to deliver long term efficiency and cost savings. On the other hand, the business wants us to deliver new, end user functionality (new consumer kiosks, workforce automation and operational excellence solutions …) to support tactical needs. But how do we balance these conflicting demands, when our vertically integrated solutions tightly bind user interaction to the backend business systems and their multi-year life-cycle? We need to decouple the two, breaking the strong connection between business system and user interface. This will enable us to evolve them separately, delivering long term savings while meeting short term needs.

Business software’s proud history is the story of managing the things we know. From the first tabulation systems through enterprise applications to modern SaaS solutions, the majority of our efforts have been focused data: capturing or manufacturing facts, and pumping them around the enterprise.

We’ve become so adept at delivering these IT assets into the business, that most companies’ IT estates a populated with an overabundance of solutions. Many good solutions, some no so good, and many redundant or overlapping. Gardening our IT estate has become a major preoccupation, as we work to simplify and streamline our collection of applications to deliver cost savings and operational improvements. These efforts are often significant undertakings, with numbers like “5 years” and “$50 million” not uncommon.

While we’ve become quite sophisticated at delivering modular business functionality (via methods such as SOA), our approach to supporting users is still dominated by a focus on isolated solutions. Most user interfaces are slapped on as nearly an after thought, providing stakeholders with a means to interact with the vast, data processing monsters we create. Tightly coupled to the business system (or systems) they are deployed with, these user interfaces are restricted to evolving at a similar pace.

Business has changed while we’ve been honing our application development skills. What used to take years, now takes months, if not weeks. What used to make sense now seems confusing. Business is often left waiting while we catch up, working to improve our IT estate to the point that we can support their demands for new consumer kiosks, solutions to support operational excellence, and so on.

What was one problem has now become two. We solved the first order challenge of managing the vast volumes of data an enterprise contains, only to unearth a second challenge: delivering the right information, at the right time, to users so that they can make the best possible decision. Tying user interaction to the back end business systems forces our solutions for these two problems to evolve at a similar pace. If we break this connection, we can evolve users interfaces at a more rapid pace. A pace more in line with business demand.

We’ve been chipping away at this second problem for a quite a while. Our first green screen and client-server solutions were over taken from portals, which promised to solve the problem of swivel-chair integration. However, portals seem to be have been defeated by browser tabs. While these allowed us to bring together the screens from a collection of applications, providing a productivity boost by reducing the number of interfaces a user interacted with, it didn’t break the user interfaces explicit dependancy on the back end business systems.

We need to create a modular approach to composing new, task focused user interfaces, doing to user interfaces what SOA has done for back-end business functionality. The view users see should be focused on supporting the decision they are making. Data and function sourced from multiple back-end systems, broken into reusable modules and mashed together, creating an enterprise mash-up. A mashup spanning multiple screens to fuse both data and process.

Some users will find little need an enterprise mash-up—typically users who spend the vast majority of their time working within a single application. Others, who work between applications, will see a dramatic benefit. These users typically include the knowledge rich workers who drive the majority of value in a modern enterprise. These users are the logistics exception managers, who can make the difference between a “best of breed” supply chain and a category leading one. They are the call centre operators, whose focus should be on solving the caller’s problem, and not worrying about which backend system might have the data they need. Or they could be field personnel (sales, repairs …), working between a range of systems as they engage with you customer’s or repair your infrastructure.

By reducing the number of ancillary decisions required, and thereby reducing the number of mistakes made, enterprise mash-ups make knowledge workers more effective. By reducing the need to manually synchronise applications, copying data between them, we make them more efficient.

But more importantly, enterprise mash-ups enable us to decouple development of user interfaces from the evolution of the backend systems. This enables us to evolve the two at different rates, delivering long term savings while meeting short term need, and mitigating one of the biggest risks confronting IT departments today: the risk of becoming irrelevant to the business.

The NBN wants to be free

There’s been a lot of discussion on what Austalia’s national broadband network (NBN) will cost when it’s finally delivered to consumers. How much will we need to stump up to take part in today’s knowledge economy? Most cost recovery models have ISPs charging monthly fees of over $200, which is a lot more than the $50 per month most of us are used to paying. Who’s gonna pay that? A lot of folk have been pointing out the folly of forcing through a broadband network that few of us can afford, let alone be bothered to pay for.

Is this missing the point though? What if the government’s intention is to make the NBN free (or close enough to as to make no difference)? Much like most other public infrastructure such as roads. There’s precedents for this, from the New Deal though the recent government report on supporting innovation and the fact that the government is sitting on a large pile of money that they intend to spend.

The global financial crunch has had a dramatic impact on everyone’s lives, though Australia has been in the lucky position of avoiding the worst of the down turn. Australia is even the first large, rich country to raise interest rates on the back of the world recovery. Discussion has now turned to the nature of this recovery: will it be V or W shaped? Most of the smart money (including the RBA’s) seems to be settling on W shaped, with the potential for unemployment to rise in the short to mid term. The war chest the government accumulated to fight recession is still quite full, and the government has stated that it plans to stick to the large stimulus plan announced earlier in the year.

Recessions often to bring governments to think about major infrastructure projects. The U.S. went down this route mid century, with Congress having a few attempts at chartering a “National System of Interstate Highways” before Eisenhower made it a reality. I haven’t seen a figure for the investment required, but I expect it to be scary. The impact, though, was profound on the U.S. in general, and the economy in particular. Through the years, various estimates have been made of the contribution of the interstate highway system to the economy, generally finding that the interstate highway system has more than paid for itself in improved commercial productivity, with each dollar of investment in highways producing an annual reduction in product costs of 23.4 cents. It is estimated that the interstate highway system is now producing approximately $14 billion. All this from something you can use for free.

Fast forward to the future, and we can find an interesting report, Powering Ideas, recently published by the Australian government, outlining how what Australia might do to support innovation domestically. The report is quite long but at its nub, it points to a strategy of funding the infrastructure required by innovators it make it easy (and cheap) for them to innovate. This doesn’t mean that the government is getting out of the grant business, but it is an admission that the government doesn’t have a great track record of picking winners in this space. Cheap (if not free) infrastructure helps those grant dollars go further, while at the same time helping every innovator in Australia who wasn’t lucky enough to receive a grant.

Put the two of these together and it makes you wonder: what if they Australian government makes the the NBN free? Back in the 30’s the U.S. economy was driven by interstate commerce. Reducing the cost of trucking goods across the country (reducing the transaction costs) helped drive the economy forward. Today, in Australia, knowledge and collaboration are the back bone of the commerce. Reducing the cost of sharing information and collaborating has the potential to have a similar impact .

Like free and efficient roads, very cheap broadband access would help the entrepreneurs and innovators thrive. This would provide Australian’s with powerful platform to build businesses in a today’s knowledge economy. We could capitalise on the current trend for software-as-a-service (SaaS) startups replacing business process outsources (BPO), replacing a human labour driven solution is a software driven solution, servicing the world’s needs from our home base Research driven startups would have cheap and efficient access to the massive data sets which drive modern research, having the world at their fingertips.

You would probably still need to pay for the last mile, connecting your abode to the NBN backbone, but this is similar to the current energy delivery commitment from the government: they get the power lines to the property boundary, and then you pay someone to connect it into the house. Local ISPs could provide (or organises) the connection service, along with sorting out the home network and providing support. The NBN would also probably need to expand to include the link overseas, complimenting (or replacing) the network of links funded and managed by the existing telcos and ISPs.

And finally: where do the major Australian telcos fit in this? Interesting question. One probably better left to them to answer.

From doctrine to dogma: when did a good idea become the only idea

When does a good method become the only method? The one true approach to solving a problem; the approach which will bind them all. The last few decades has seen radical change in our social and business environments, while the practice of business seems to have changed relatively little since the birth of the corporation. The problem of running a business, the problem we work every day to solve, has changed so much that the best practice of yesterday has become an albatross. The methods and practices that have brought us to the current level of performance are also one of the larger impediments to achieving the next level. When did the yesterday’s doctrine become today’s dogma? And what can we do about it?

Our methodologies and practices have been carefully designed to help steer our leviathan ships of industry, tuning their performance to with five and three year plans. The newspapers of today, for example, hold a marked resemblance to the news papers of 100 years ago, structured as large content factories churning out the stories with some ads slapped in the page next to them.

The best practices evident in companies today represent the culmination of generations of effort in building, running and improving our businesses. The doctrine embodied in each industry in a huge, a immensely valuable body of knowledge, tuned to solving the problem of business as we know it.

doctrine |ˈdäktrin|
noun
a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group : the doctrine of predestination.
• a stated principle of government policy, mainly in foreign or military affairs: the Monroe Doctrine.
ORIGIN late Middle English : from Old French, from Latin doctrina ‘teaching, learning,’ from doctor ‘teacher,’ from docere ‘teach.’

OS X Dictionary, © Apple 2007

However, a number of fundamental changes have taken hold in recent years. The pace of business has increased markedly; what used to take years now takes months, or even weeks. The role of technology in business has changed as applications have become ubiquitous and commoditized. The assumptions which existing doctrine were developed under no longer hold.

Today, most (if not all) newspapers are watching their as revenue is eroded by the likes of Craigslist, who have used modern web technology to come up with a new take on the decades (if not centuries) old classified ad.

Let’s look at Craiglist. I’ve heard people estimate that they are doing close to $100mm in annual revenues at this point. Many say, “they could be doing so much more”. But the Craigslist profit equation is interesting. They apparently have less than 30 employees. That’s about $4mm/year in employee costs. Let’s assume that they spend another $6mm per year on hosting and bandwidth costs and other costs. So it’s very possible that Craigslist’s annual costs are around $10mm/year. Their value equation then is 10 x (100-10) = $900mm. That’s almost a billion dollars in value for a company with only 30 employees.

Fred Wilson, A VC

Craigslist has taken a fresh look at what it means to be in the business of classified ads, and used technology in a new way to help create business value, rather than restrict it to controlling costs and delivering process effencies; an approach Forrester have labeled Business-Technology.

The challenge is to acknowledge that the rules of business have changed, and modify our best practices to suit the new business environment because, as Albert Einstein pointed out “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If we can’t change our best practices to suit, then our valuable doctrine has become worthless dogma.

dogma |ˈdôgmə|
noun
a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true: the Christian dogma of the Trinity | the rejection of political dogma.
ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: via late Latin from Greek dogma ‘opinion,’ from dokein ‘seem good, think.’

OS X Dictionary, © Apple 2007

Enterprise architecture (EA) is prime example. As a doctrine, enterprise architecture has a proud history all the way back to John Zachman’s work in the 70s and the architecture framework which carries his name. EA has leveraged large, multi-year transformation programs to deliver huge operational effencies into the business. These programs have delivered a level of business performance unimaginable just a generation ago.

The pace of business has accelerated so much in recent years that the multiyear engagement model these transformations imply is no longer appropriate. What use is a five or three year plan in a world that changes every quarter? Transformation projects have been struggling recently. Some recent transformations edge across the line, at which point everyone moves onto the next project exhausted, and the promised benefits are neither identified or realized. Some transformations are simply declared a success after an appropriate effort has been applied, allowing the team to move on. A few explode, often quite publicly.

This approach made sense a decade or more ago, where IT was focused on delivering the next big IT asset into the enterprise. It’s application strategy, rather than technology strategy. However, the business and technology environment has changed radically recently since the emergence of the Internet as a public utility. The IT departments we’ve created as application factories have become an albatross for the business; making us incapable of engaging anything but a multiyear project worth tens of millions of dollars. They actively prevent the business from leveraging in innovative solutions or business opportunities. Even when there is a compelling reason to do so.

Simply put, the value created by enterprise architecture has moved, and the doctrine, or at least our approach to applying it, hasn’t kept up. For example, a common practice when establishing a new EA team seems to involve hiring architects to fill each role defined TOGAF’s IT Architecture Role and Skill Definitions to provide us with complete skills coverage. Driving this is a desire to align ourselves with best practice, and ensure we do the job properly.

Some of TOGAFs IT Architecture Role and Skill Definitions
Some of TOGAF's IT Architecture Role and Skill Definitions

Most companies don’t need, nor can they can afford, a complete toolbox of enterprise architecture skills inside the business. A strict approach to the the doctrine will result in a larger EA team than the company can sustain. A smarter approach is to balance the demands and available resources of the company against the skill requirements and possible outcomes. We can tune our approach by aligning it with new techniques, tools and capabilities, or integrating elements from other doctrines—agile or business planning techniques, for example—to create a broader pallet of tools to solve our problem with. This might involve new engagement models. We can buy some skills while renting others. Some skills might be sustainable at a lower levels. It is also possible multi-skill, playing the role of both enterprise and solution architect. Similarly, leveraging software as a service (SaaS) solutions can also force changes in our engagement model, as a methodology suitable for scoping a three year and $50 million investment in on-premises CRM might not be appropriate for a SaaS solution which only requires 10% of the effort and investment as the on-premises solution.

Treating doctrine as prescriptive converts it into dogma. As John Boyd pointed out, we should assume that all doctrine is not right—that it’s incomplete or incorrect to some extent. You need to challenge all assumptions and look outside your own doctrine for new ideas.

Our own, personal resistance to change is the strongest thing holding us back. It seems that we learn something in our early to mid twenties, and then spend the rest of our career happily doing the same thing over and over again. We define ourselves in terms of what we did yesterday. If we create an environment where we define ourselves in terms of how we will help the organization evolve, rather than in terms of the assets we manage or doctrine we apply, then we can convert change from an enemy into an opportunity.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. For all the talk of the end of newspapers, some journalists are banding together to create new business models which can hold their own in a post-Craigslist world. Some old school journalists have taken a fresh look at what it means to be a newspaper. Young but growing strong and profitable, Politico’s news room is 100 strong and they have more people in the white house bureau than any other brand.

As TechCrunch pointed out:

Journalists still matter. A lot. Especially the good ones.

The challenge is to focus on what really matters, get close to your customers and find what really drives your business, question all the common sense (which is neither common or sensible in many cases) in your industry’s doctrine, look into the doctrine of other industries to see what they are doing that you can use, and use technology to create a business which their more traditional competitors will find it impossible to compete against.

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.

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.