Monday, October 30, 2006

Process modelling and design: don’t get obsessed

Over the years, business process modelling has, at various times, been a big part of my life. From using a pencil, paper and stencils to draw process diagrams in the mid 80’s, through pushing the first generation of CASE tools to their limits, I eventually got into modelling environments from vendors such as Rational, Select, Protosoft and Casewise.

Along the way, I read most of the books, practised (or at least experimented with) many of the methodologies, and from time to time have preached the gospel according to one guru or another.

While a bit of an old cliché of a publication now, one the books I related to the most during the 90’s was Michael Hammer’s “Reengineering the Corporation”. This was because I had spent so much time as a business analyst uncovering poor or outdated processes then running into resistance in the form of dogma, politics or just plain old inertia when trying to persuade people that processes should be changed. Hammer’s book helped by legitimising the whole idea of challenging accepted wisdom in the quest for business optimisation.

The other thing it did was point out to the masses that it’s the business objective that matters the most, and I can’t help thinking of this principle when I read the numerous articles that have been appearing recently that put the business process as the pivot point for everything. I guess if you are an engineer and have grown up with a systems background and mindset, this is progress, but it’s still missing the point as any practising business analyst worth their salt will tell you - the "what" and the "why" always take precendent over the "how".

This might sound a little picky – after all, modelling processes is an integral part of business analysis. But if you lose sight of the fact that addressing business objectives and achieving the right business outcomes are the real measures of success, you can easily end up perpetuating bad practices or missing opportunities for improvement. This is relevant to discussions around outsourcing, implementation of software packages, SOA, Web 2.0 and the exploitation of many other emerging technologies and ideas.

Focussing on outcomes, though, sometimes throws up some surprises. I had an interesting conversation, for example, with the CIO of a large global hi-tech manufacturing company a few weeks ago. When I asked him what the biggest initiative was within the company right now he said it was replacement of their old SAP system. When I then asked what it was going to be replaced with, he said “SAP”.

The logic behind this was that when the original system was put in, they ended up customising it significantly to match their existing business processes. Ten years down the line, this has translated to high maintenance costs, lack of flexibility and the customisations being an impediment to keeping the system current and up to date with the latest releases from the vendor.

However you might think this reflects on the nature of the SAP solution, the CIO in question said that one of the biggest lessons the company had learned over the past ten years was that you should not be a slave to the notion of there being a single “right” or “best” process for getting something done. There are usually more ways than one to skin the proverbial cat.

Given this, he told me the philosophy with the new implementation is to adopt standard SAP processes wherever possible, on the basis that a) they are now very configurable, b) tweaking the way you do things is often less costly and risky than paying a consultant to modify standard application functionality, c) it’s going to be cheaper and less hassle in the long run from a maintenance and upgrade perspective, and d) standard processes from a vendor like SAP are likely to reflect industry best practice anyway. Of course there will be areas where it makes sense to deviate from the standard, e.g. for competitive reasons or because the cost or risk of adjusting the process is prohibitive, but the message was to think of these as the exception rather than the norm.

This mindset and approach, which is clearly focussed on the most efficient way of achieving the desired business outcomes, is much more mature than all of those out there who seem to be obsessed with the nirvana of ultimately flexible applications that are able to shape themselves around whatever esoteric processes you might invent. As the guy I was talking to pointed out, if you are executing some routine accounting or administration process differently to the tens of thousands of other SAP customers out there, you have to ask yourself why – and maybe even be a little concerned.

At the other end of the spectrum, trying to apply too much process oriented rigour in those fast moving environments at the edge of many businesses can be an impediment to the creation of business advantage. Technologies like SOA, portals and mash-ups are destined to empower users in driving the business forward in innovative and ever changing ways, and if such activity leads to the kind of results we want, and the appropriate controls are in place to deal with things like security, privacy and compliance, who cares if the processes don’t stay still for long enough to be mapped in the traditional manner.

So, counter intuitive though it seems, using business objectives and outcomes as the pivot point for your thinking can lead equally to the adoption of canned processes from the likes of SAP, and the embracing of relatively unconstrained Web 2.0 and social computing ideas.

From a practical perspective, while business process modelling and documentation is important and valuable in many situations, the lesson is to keep your eye on the ball and not get too obsessed with trying to analyse, model and re-design everything from first principles for the sake of it. In many areas it just isn’t worth it, and in others, the model will never keep up with the business.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Different worlds

During the course of my time in IT, I have switched between the worlds of business applications, development tools and platform software at several points, and on each occasion, I have had to recalibrate my view of the world.

While working for a database management company in the early 90’s, I was encouraged (some might say brainwashed) to adopt the mindset of the database decision being the most important a customer could make. When working for ERP and CRM vendors in the latter part of the 90’s, platform software became a mere detail that was settled at the end of the buying cycle so we knew which set of CDs to ship to the client. The thing that really mattered then was the application.

I generalise, of course, but one of the things you notice as an analyst is that IT vendors still have a tendency to think the world revolves around what have to offer, and are often oblivious to what’s going on elsewhere.

But even we analysts can drift into a frame of reference that is somewhat distorted if we spend too much time analysing a specific area of the industry. Having recently been heavily involved in looking at various aspects of the IT infrastructure and communications markets, for example, it was a bit of a wake up call for me today when I visited the Softworld Accounting and Finance exhibition at the NEC. I was on a panel discussing how Financial Directors might better tune themselves into the rationale for IT investments (beyond simplistic ROI, TCO, etc), but the visit to sunny Birmingham also gave me a chance to cruise the show a bit.

With my head buzzing with all of the stuff from projects I am currently involved in on SOA, virtualisation, unified communications, etc - it was like walking through the wardrobe into another world in which none of those things matter. To the guys on the front line selling business applications, and the business buyers attending the show, it’s all just techie platform detail.

Never one for missing a primary research opportunity, however, I sidled up to as many people as possible attending the show and struck up a conversation, ending up chatting with quite a few finance professionals. And just as with similar encounters over the past year or so, the old cost oriented mindset that people often assume all finance people must have was very conspicuous by its absence, with everyone talking about IT as an enabler of business advantage (this came out of the workshop panel session very strongly too).

What was really interesting, though, was introducing the discussion of IT infrastructure into the conversation, and I tried some different approaches when doing this to see what would happen. After a few encounters, it became very clear to me that many in the finance community still need help in understanding the business rationale for spend on IT infrastructure improvement activity, as opposed to investment in applications.

What I found hit the mark pretty much every time, however, was talking about faster delivery by IT, i.e. the notion of IT being able to respond more quickly to requirements when the business needs something doing. This gels with our more structured research studies that often highlight inflexibility and inertia holding back the business as one of the most prominent complaints about IT departments.

From the discussion around the need for more flexibility, it’s then a short step to describing, in a non-technical manner, the significance of developments like virtualisation and SOA. All you’re doing is matching up some of the techie infrastructure stuff with a fundamental issue that is perceived to exist. Interestingly, the “and you can do stuff more cheaply” bit seems to be a welcome bonus, but not the thing these guys were latching onto the most.

The experience today has reinforced the view I have had for a while that we now have the foundation for closing the understanding gap that often exists between IT and the business, along with the solutions that potentially allow IT to follow through and address requirements and issues effectively, if only we remember (or discover) what really matters and avoid the distracting detail. OK, I was homing in on one type of benefit that had proved to be a hot button, but once you get the conversation going, you end up broadening out the discussion to a full dialogue.

A group of us have been pulling ideas together recently for a book we are writing, which is based on a set of principles for achieving and maintaining IT business alignment. A series of interviews with CIOs who seem to have it sussed has provided a lot of the input for this, and during these, the theme of constant change leading to a requirement for inherent flexibility and adaptability has emerged quite strongly.

Zooming back out to the bigger picture, if we come back the in the infrastructure versus application worlds and consider the impact of SOA blurring the lines here, along with the need to bring the IT and business worlds closer together to unlock real value from IT, the one thing we can be sure of over the coming few years is that many people will be required to operate a little more outside of their comfort zone.

At the end of the day, though, we are all just human beings, and if we take the trouble to just talk and tune into each other, what needs to be done will come together much more easily.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Telemarketers must adapt or die

I was recently struck by the following statement in a release from Avaya about some Keynote research on call centres.

“the survey found that 70 per cent of respondents reported being compliant with OFCOM’s regulations, introduced 6 months ago, and believe that silent calls cause inconvenience, frustration and stress to the public”

The question I’d like to ask is what proportion of the pubic find B2C cold calling an inconvenience, frustrating and the cause of stress. I can’t think of a single occasion on which I was called at home by a telemarketer and got any value out of it. That’s why I’ve registered everything I can think of with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) to stop it.

Talk to the telemarketing industry and they give you the rather disingenuous response that they are bringing valuable information to the attention of users through a legitimate means of marketing. What they actually mean, is that just like junk mail they want to annoy 98% of us for the 2% response that they expect to get, and they intend to lobby vigorously for the right to continue doing it.

A graphic illustration of public sentiment was the introduction of “do not call” registry in California in 2003 in advance of federal legislation. So many people signed up for the service upon its launch that the website temporarily collapsed under the load.

The poor reputation of telemarketers is exacerbated by the aggressive format that some of it takes, including slamming, where you are converted to a new mobile phone contract or landline telephone provider without realising it. Only 10% of telemarketing firms appear to be part of the Direct Marketing Association and subject to its code of conduct.

The telemarketing and direct mail industries need to take a look at the evolution that’s occurring in online media and the use of social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace and the targeted advertising offered by sites like Google.

Targeted promotions and advertising are going to be increasingly effective (and therefore cost effective) because they can be relevant to the interest of individuals general interests, and also to their current or situational interest. Tying promotions to web 2.0 behaviours has the potential to be much more cost effective, and as these methods get more developed their market for blanket campaigns will shrink, to the great relief of all of us no doubt.

Telemarketing and junk mail is going away, the sooner the mass advertising companies realise it and move to other business models, the better for them and the better for us.

Now, are you sure you don’t need any replacement windows?

Youth, age and technology

There have been a few debates recently about the impact of a highly tech/internet savvy generation entering the workplace. The argument is that youngsters brought up in the PC/Web/IM/blogging/mashing culture of interactive electronic 2000’s will expect (need?) all this stuff when then eventually join the ranks of the working population. The advice we often hear is that employers need to be ready for this and should start making sure that their IT systems are not going to disappoint or hold the new generation back.

Something that came out of a conversation I was having with my Dad in the pub over the weekend, though, made me think of the other extreme.

He was making the point that as a semi-retired chap taking the odd engagement here and there, he is noticing that some employers seem to be suffering from the opposite problem, i.e. they often assume too much knowledge and familiarity with technology. We then went on to discuss the latest labour legislation introduced into the UK to prevent discrimination against older folk, along with the “baby boomer” generation reaching retirement age and realising their pensions are not going to be as strong as they thought they were – all of which means the older and often less tech-savvy generation are going to be working for longer.

Zooming out to the bigger picture, this means we are going to have critical mass of both extremes in the labour market in many developed countries that organisations are going to have to deal with for quite a few years to come.

One response to this as technology increasingly pervades the business environment is to make sure the appropriate training programmes and initiatives are in place for those who need it. However, my personal opinion is that much of the technology used in business today is far more complex and unfriendly than it needs to be from a user perspective. There has been an increasing trend towards cluttering both hardware and software with features and distractions that are only used by exception. Simplification of the person/technology interface therefore has to be an important part of the evolution of workplace technology moving forwards.

The good thing is that vendors seem to have caught onto this. If we take the simple example of desktop software, the latest version of Microsoft Office System is designed more around the idea of providing options in context, with complex tasks being “canned” as much as possible so they can be accessed via a click or two.

I also like the work IBM has been doing around activity-centric computing planned for the Lotus product line. And, of course, many would argue that Apple has been dealing with the issue of usability for many years.

While all of this is welcome, I still think we are only scratching the surface of the usability and access problem. In some areas, the industry can produce different products for my son and my Dad, but in the workplace, we need technology that is usable by both.

Against this background, it is interesting to consider the interplay between legislation, age and technology. The new UK labour laws say you can hire a younger person in preference to an older one only if you have an objective reason to justify the decision. The question is, would “Sorry mate, had to give the storeman job to the lad who could mash-up our inventory data with our suppliers’ online catalogues” qualify as objective?