Are we treating the symptoms, or the real problem?

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of knee pain.  For the last few months, its been constant and regular and seemed to get worse when I would spend a lot of time on my feet.  My initial thought was that my years of powerlifting in high school was finally catching up to me and I was finally seeing the response to have over 500 pounds of weight on my shoulders (I won the national powerlifting championship in 1990 at 16 with a 550 pound squat, 350 pound bench press and 500 pound deadlift). That’s a lot of weight to be on anyone’s shoulders, but probably worse for a developing young man.

I was about to resign myself to the fact that my knees would ache for the rest of my life or I’d have to have some form of knee surgery, until one day I happened to realize that my feet began to hurt a bit before my knees hurt.  It seemed that the foot pain was a precursor to the knee pain.

I did some research and found that when you’ve got bad foot support in shoes, it can cause knee pain.  About that same time, I saw the Dr. Scholl’s FootMapping Machine and its ability to ‘read’ your feet and tell you what type of orthotics to buy.   I found a machine at my local Wal-Mart and tried it out…sure enough, it told me that my low arches were forcing pressure on other parts of the feet, which is exactly what my research said would cause knee pain.

I bought the recommended orthotics and now…no knee pain.  I’ve been pain free for a few days now.

It would have been very easy for me to call up a Doctor and describe my knee pain and my history.  It would then have been just as easy for that Doctor to prescribe surgery for that knee pain.  And…it would have been easy for me to spend tens of thousands of dollars on medical expenses on something that turned out to be poor support for my feet.

Instead…because I spent some time research the issue, I found that I could solve my problem with a much simpler approach.  For $50 I was able to solve the real problem causing my knee pain.

Much like the current business environment isn’t it?

Many organizations today are in pain and are looking for solutions.  They’re patients looking for a good doctor.  They’ve got a lot of pain, and there’s a lot of people willing to offer medication or surgery for that pain, but very few people willing to treat the real problem(s).

Take social media as an example.  There are problems that social media can treat well.  But…there are a lot of people prescribing social media for many different ‘pains’ and ignore the underlying problems.

For instance…if your organization has a history of poor customer service, would you first take a look at the customer service organization, culture and processes for ways to improve? Or…do you do as many organizations are doing today and join twitter,  FaceBook and other social media platforms to ‘engage’ with your customers?

Many consultants & companies will tell you to ‘get out there’ on the social media platforms to engage with your customers.  These people are treating the symptoms rather than the real underlying causes.  The pain is the blow-back created by poor customer service and many people would argue that by ‘engaging’ with these customers, you’ll somehow magically improve service.

While this might be true in some instances…it doesn’t address the underlying problems. You may improve service for a few people (or few hundred people) using social media but the underlying problem still exists….the problem of poor customer service. Social Media won’t solve the underlying problem of poor service culture or processes.

Of course…treating the symptom works in many cases.  Have a headache…take an aspirin.  No more headache…for now.

But what happens when that headache isn’t the actual problem?

What if that headache is actually just a by-product of meningitis or a tumor?  Without taking the time to really understand all the symptoms, just treating the headache may not treat the real problem.

That aspirin would help the headache today…but it’ll return tomorrow.

So…next time you see a problem in your organization, take a good long look at it and make sure its the real problem before throwing money & bodies at it.

Make sure you’re solving the real problem…not just addressing the pain.

What’s wrong with today’s IT?

What's wrong with today's IT?

What's wrong with today's IT?Last week I wrote a long article titled Building Tomorrow’s Organization – without today’s IT? The purpose of that article was to walk through a ‘what if’ scenario centered around designing the organization of tomorrow without a single IT professional.

I’d like to thank those that left feedback for providing exactly what I was looking for…commentary and a thoughtful reaction to what I wrote.

The purpose behind that article was to highlight an extremely important issue facing IT today.   That issue is a simple one to say and a difficult one to ‘fix’.  The issue, to me, can be summed up in one sentence:

Most IT groups have become blinded by process, procedure, technology that they’ve forgotten their main role – make the business run better.

While most IT professionals are smart and try as hard (or harder) than any other employee within an organization, they are also one of the most constrained groups of people found in the modern organization.

Think about all the regulations facing modern organizations.  Nearly every one of those have some form of technology component that places another brick in the wall surrounding the technology and information found within IT.

That’s what’s wrong with IT today…we’ve built walls around ourselves with processes and procedures…and we’ve forgotten that there are people on the other side of that wall. People that need our help. People that want our help.

The Challenge of IT Today

The major challenge that CIO’s and IT groups face today is balancing processes, procedures, security, regulatory requirements and the ever changing world of technology with the need to be flexible, agile and proactively provide innovative approaches to technology for the organization.

This challenge is rarely faced successfully by most IT groups, at least in my experience.  IT professionals have been trained to focus on process and procedure.  On top of that, most IT pro’s are extremely overloaded with a workload that could easily be offloaded to 2 or 3 people.

If we (IT professionals) want to ensure a long and healthy career full of interesting and fulfilling work, we’ve got to find a way to overcome the above challenge…or we’ll find ourselves on the sidelines of tomorrow’s organization.

So…how do we overcome this challenge?

Meeting the challenge – Future-proofing IT

In order to meet the challenge facing IT today, we’ve got to take a long hard look at what we have done, what we are doing and what we’ll need to do in the future.

I’ve got some ideas on future-proofing IT.  I wrote about Future-Proofing the CIO role in the Cutter IT Journal article with my co-author Gene De Libero.  I’ve mentioned a few ideas in previous posts as well. In fact I ended the Building Tomorrow’s Organization – without today’s IT? article with one of these ideas.  I wrote:

Start looking at bringing humanity back to IT.  Focus on your people, their skills and the human side of IT and start focusing on what those people can do for the organization.

Bringing Humanity to IT isn’t the only answer…but it is one that will start to help.  If IT professionals and managers can begin to move the focus away from process and procedure and focus more on the human side of business, things will change.

Now, before you start screaming at me that process is important…I completely agree with you.  But process for process sake is just plain wrong.   Keep pushing your processes and you’ll find Shadow IT will take over the majority of technological initiatives within the organization.

Keep pushing process and you’ll find yourself and your team pushed out of relevance and your role will diminish and your future will become quite bleak.

Rather than process, push people.

Building Tomorrow’s Organization – without today’s IT?

Tomorrow's Organization with today's IT

Tomorrow's Organization with today's ITA few weeks ago I wrote about The diminishing role of IT and the CIO.  That post struck a nerve with quite a few readers so I wanted to expand on the topic.   I thought about a case study of some form or perhaps an interview or two but then I thought…why not do a ‘what if’ scenario and see what happens.

Sound like fun? Well…it does to me…and I plunked down more than 1800 words on it so be prepared to read 🙂

My “what if” scenario revolves around tomorrow’s organization…and whether it can be built without today’s IT. Here’s the premise:

What if you could build your organization from scratch.  No legacy systems.  No sacred cows.   What would the IT group look like?

Interesting question right?   While its not likely that anyone would scratch their legacy systems and start over, it still might be a fun mind game to see if IT matters or not.

The basis for this “what if” scenario is built upon the Future of IT survey report by the Executive IT Board – read more about that survey in my article titled The Future of IT & the CIO – Redux of the Dodo.

Tomorrow’s Organization

What would your organization look like if you could start over?  Would you have the same physical space and layout?  Same overhead?  Or…would you try a more radical approach and go with telecommuting, remote working and outsourcing?

Since we all have different ideas of what an organization is…let’s set some ground rules.  Let’s assume the following:

  • You have 500 employees
  • Customers are spread across North America (US & Canada)
  • Your company provides services (rather than make/sell products)
  • Due to customer demands, you need to have some employees in a different areas of the country.

So…how would you design your organization to handle the demands of the business?

Open up four offices in the four largest cities in the country?  Open offices in geographically important areas?  Let’s say you want to have a presence in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas.  Not bad locations…but expensive too.

Each business is different of course, but let’s say that we need to have physical presences in this four cities because customers demand it.  Fine…let’s open up some offices.

Now.  You’ve got your physical space figured out. How about your technology?

Remember…you can start from scratch.  No legacy systems to think about. But…you do need to think about whether today’s IT will work in tomorrow’s organization.

What would you do?

What I’m going to do in this post is show how tomorrow’s organization can be built with absolutely zero professional IT staff.

Building Tomorrow’s Organization

What are the basics needed for running your business?  What systems do you need?   I’ll go with these as my absolute  must haves:

Basics

  • Computers / Workstations (not servers…they will be included in Systems)
  • Printers
  • Copiers / Scanners / Fax (anyone use fax anymore??)
  • Phones

Systems

  • Email
  • Web
  • Collaboration
  • Financial
  • Sales/Pipeline Management
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
  • HR / Payroll

I’m sure there are others but this covers the basics.

The basics are no-brainers. Find a reputable company / vendor and order some hardware.

But…before you take this first step, how will you organize your business?  Will you hire IT staff to implement and manage this hardware or will you outsource it?

Me?  Nothing on this basics list brings me an advantage in the marketplace.    I’d outsource the whole kit and kaboodle.  I’d find a company (or companies) that could manage the roll-out, maintenance, support and hardware/software refresh needed to support and maintain this equipment.   Of course…you’d need to make sure the company(s) that you outsource this to is credible and dependable…but that’s easy enough to do right? 😉

If you wanted to try an even more radical approach, you could let each employee manage their own computer, printer, phone combination.  Might be a support nightmare here but you could give each employee a stipend upon hiring and tell them to ‘buy their own system’.  Kraft is already trying this approach.  Looks like Citrix is trying it out as well.  You’d have to build some detailed guidelines to provide some direction on systems, software, and specifications, but I think it could be done.

Regardless of which approach you take, we’ve now found a way to get the basics for our 500 employees and we’ve not hired 1 IT employee yet.  Should we think about bringing on an IT pro?  Maybe…but do I need an IT professional?  I need someone to manage the vendors, the process and the relationship….so maybe I bring a procurement / vendor management / contract management professional with experience in the IT space. With 500 employees focused on providing services, I probably already have someone perfectly suited for this role. If not, +1 on the employee side…but we haven’t hired an IT employee yet.

We’ve got the basics down…let’s dive into the systems.

Outsource, in-house or the cloud?

Based on the necessary systems listed above, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to handle seven different systems. Do we build out a datacenter and pack it full of servers and then start hiring employees to support these systems?  We could take that route…or….we could outsource it all to third-party vendors to manage for us. Or….we can look to the cloud for all these systems.

Let’s look at a few different options.

  • Option 1 – All systems in-house in a standard datacenter
  • Option 2– Some systems on-house staffed by employees with others outsourced (via cloud or standard datacenter)
  • Option 3 – All systems outsourced (via cloud or standard datacenter)
  • Option 4 – Some Critical Systems in-house with others outsourced (via cloud or standard datacenter)

There are many combinations to look at…but these are 4 options to consider.

Which option do we take?

Do we hire a full IT team and build out our own datacenter?  In my experience, there’s an awful lot of overhead, staffing and headaches involved in building and managing your own datacenter …way too much for very little real value.

Do we hire a partial IT team to manage in-house systems and outsource the rest?  I’m learning towards this approach. Personally, I’d suggest putting critical systems in-house and outsourcing the rest.

So..let’s figure out what our critical systems are.  Is an HR / Payroll system critical? What about email?  Financial Systems? That’s a call that each organization has to make…but here’s how I’d break them down for this particular excercise:

  • Critical: Web, Financial, Email
  • Non-Critical: Collaboration, HR/Payroll, Sales/Pipelne, CRM

Critical Systems – In-house or Outsource?

I’ve said before that email can easily be outsourced and/or moved to the cloud and I still believe that.  Email, although a critical app, can be moved to the cloud via either Google Apps, Hosted Exchange or some other form of outsourced email arrangement.   In today’s world, I wouldn’t  even think about staffing up to manage and maintain an email platform.  I’d outsource it.

What about the Web function / systems?   It sort of depends on what you want / need to do I think.  Will there be an ecommerce function?  What about the need to capture sensitive customer information?   Those questions play a key-role in the decision.

Let’s assume our website requirements are like other similar businesses…we need a website that looks good, is easy to change/update, has a client portal, can collect new lead, etc etc etc.  Do we need to build an entire group within IT to manage / maintain the web?

A good portion of what needs to be done on the web can easily be moved onto the cloud….see the write-up by Scott Brinker in his post titled The Age of Disposable Software and his Marketing in the Cloud slides for an overview of many of the cloud solutions available for web/marketing.

I’m going to go with outsourcing my web system(s).  There’s absolutely nothing I can do in-house that can’t be done by plugging several systems together using the cloud or a managed server (or servers) with a company like Peer1 or Rackspace. Why hire a staff of IT professionals to manage servers when I can offload this to professionals at another company for much less money?

That said, I do think there’s a need for someone in the organization to architect and manage the web presence…is that an IT person? Or…can a Marketing Technologist do that? For the sake of argument here, I’m going to say that I’d hire a technologist and place them in my marketing department.  This person (or persons)  can provide strategic direction for all things web and manage the vendors & technology used on the web. +1 on the employee side…but still no IT staff.

Now…how about the Financial System?  Since this business is a services business, we really don’t need anything major…we just need a financial and accounting system to run the business.  What does that entail? I have no idea to be honest…I’ve never done finance / accounting IT systems. Because I don’t understand them, I’m going to outsource the system implementation & maintenance but will require the systems be in-house. Do I hire an IT person to oversee this platform?  I don’t see why I would…my outsourced vendor would handle all technical details and I would pay them for it.  I would hire someone to oversee this critical application though…+1 on the employee side…but still no IT staff.

Non-Critical Systems

The decisions for our non-critical systems are a bit simpler than our critical systems.  These types of systems are well understood in the world of the cloud and outsourcing I’m going to look to outsourcing and the cloud for my non-critical systems. Salesforce.com for Sales/Pipeline & CRM, SocialText for collaboration and a company like Paychex for HR / Payroll / Employee adminstration.

Perhaps there’s a need to have a person (or two) to manage the relationships, contracts and procurement…but no technical staff. Perhaps a +1 or +2 for employees…but yet again, no IT staff.

Tomorrow’s Organization without Today’s IT?

Did I just design an organization without a single professional IT employee?  I sure did.

Is it realistic to do this?  Maybe…maybe not.  Is there ways to argue against everything I’ve done here? Absolutely…there are tons of holes in this new organization.  That said…I do think a company could easily outsource most of their IT infrastructure…if not all of it.

Do I really think that tomorrow’s organization will be built without IT? Not really…I think there will always be some form of IT but the status of the IT group (and the CIO) will change if we keep going down the road we’ve been traveling on for the last umpteen years.

The history of unfinished & unsuccessful projects is leading to a dead-end for most IT groups.  The mentality of process over people has lead most organizations to despise IT and everything IT stands for.  I can’t tell you how many organizations I’ve talk to where the IT group is looked at as the ‘enemy’ rather than as a friend.

Don’t get me wrong here though….I truly believe there are good IT groups and good CIO’s out there…but the majority are just average.  And today’s average isn’t good enough for tomorrow.

Don’t let tomorrow’s organization be built without having a role in building it.   IT Professionals, Leaders and Managers….what can you do today to make sure you’re delivering the value that tomorrow’s organization will need?

Here’s a hint:

Start looking at bringing humanity back to IT.  Focus on your people, their skills and the human side of IT and start focusing on what those people can do for the organization. Do this and you might have a chance in the future.  Don’t do it and you’ll find yourself stuck in yesterday.

Mining for knowledge in a social word

A segment of a social network
Image via Wikipedia

Last week I published a post titled Mining for Knowledge where I discussed some of the research that I’ve been doing in my doctorate program.

One of the favorite lines from the article, and one that resonated with a few others as well. The line was:

…converting tacit (i.e., internal) knowledge to explicit (i.e., external) knowledge is one of the most difficult things to do.

I’ve been thinking about this (and reading A LOT of articles, papers and books on the subject) and have come to the conclusion that trying to force someone to convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge is a wasted effort.

Why?

Can I truly convert 100% of my knowledge into the written form?  Will the context of my knowledge be converted?  Perhaps a good portion of my knowledge can be converted, but can my experiences, thoughts and believes that shaped that knowledge be converted?  Can I ‘write down’ the knowledge that I have and truly make it meaningful to others?  I don’t think (feel free to disagree here).

Does that mean that an organization should stop trying to gather an individual’s internal knowledge to add to overall organizational knowledge-base?  Nope…. definitely not.

Rather than forcing a conversion from tacit to explicit (which is darn near impossible), are there ways to manage the internal knowledge of people?  Managing that knowledge is a much easier process that converting that knowledge.

Knowledge is best internalized when wrapped in context

Nonaka and Takeuchi, the godfathers of Knowledge Management, argue in their book The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation (affiliate link) that tacit knowledge can be converted into explicit knowledge only through externalization and describes this process as being one of dialogue, discussion and reflection.

Basically, they’re saying that in order to share internal knowledge, you’ve got to start a dialogue with others.  That’s why activities like storytelling, mentoring and other forms of social interaction can play a huge role in knowledge managment…they help to start and maintain dialogue and discussion on various topics.  These activities help to provide context around knowledge, which helps a person internalize that knowledge and make it their own.

In my previous article I talked about ‘mining for knowledge’. I talked about using web 2.0 platforms to capture knowledge and to share knowledge. All good stuff (and still interesting to me) but I’m looking at other methods to make these platforms more social.  Make dialog and discussion a more active portion of these tools.

If we can find ways to create dialogue and discussion within the enterprise, knowledge sharing would happen much more naturally.    This is why I like the idea of Enterprise 2.0.  While some people hate E2.0, I think there’s some real value there. Of course, E2.0 won’t solve world hunger and probably will never truly win over its detractors, there are many aspects to the idea that make sense.

What would it mean for an organization’s knowledge managements capabilities if a system could be implemented that found indexed the many disparate repositories of structured and unstructured data sources found throughout the enterprise and then provided that information in a socially aware platform that could wrap context around the indexed knowledge as well as provide a mechanism for dialogue, discussion and reflection?   You’d have a platform that could capture and share explicit and tacit knowledge.

Anyone know of any companies with products in this space?  I know SocialText is out there but I don’t think they have a platform as robust as the one above. SharePoint also has some aspects to this but not everything.

Can we stop trying to run IT as a business?

I really dislike it when I hear someone in IT say that its time ‘run IT as a business’.

Why?

Because both terms normally convey a sense of importance upon the IT group that really isn’t there.

Think about it this way:  Have you ever heard anyone in finance say ‘we need to run finance as a business’ or ‘we need to run finance like a business’.  I’d bet you haven’t.

What about HR?  Ever heard anyone within your HR team say they need to ‘run HR like a business’?  No?  There are some proponents for running HR ‘as a business’…if you google that term you’ll find a few results for the term in books/ articles.  In reviewing those articles/books, the writers are really saying the same thing I am…take a business approach to HR (and in our case, IT).

So why do we IT folks think we need to ‘run as a business’?  Shouldn’t we just ‘run’ as part of the overall business?

What is really being said with ‘IT should run as a business’?

Normally when I hear this term from someone, they are trying to say something more along the lines of ‘IT should be more business-savvy’ or ‘we need to take a business approach to IT’.

What these people are really saying is that they understand that IT isn’t delivering the value that it should to the organization. They understand this and are they trying to find ways to change it.

But the key isn’t to run IT ‘as a business’.  You don’t have ‘customers’….you have business partners.  Treat people like customers and you’ll be treated as a vendor.

Look at it another way….do you (in IT) pay for the services the HR function provides you?  Do you pay for the functions that finance / accounting provide you?    Perhaps in a shared services environment you might pay for these services, but the shared services approach is one that is another bad idea in my opinion.  More on that level of hell in other posts perhaps.

What to do?

The first step is to go read Bob Lewis’ InfoWorld article titled Run IT as a business — why that’s a train wreck waiting to happen and then go read Chris Curran’s Run IT like a business, not as a business.

Interesting reading, right?

The takeaways from those articles?  Stop trying to be a business and start working a partner to the rest of the business.

Step away from running IT as a business.  Move toward a more integrative approach to working with your business partners within the organization.  Stop worrying about what you can out-charge and to whom and focus on delivering business value.

If you continue to run IT as a business and focus on costs and out-charging your ‘customers’, you’ll continue to be seen as a vendor.  Vendors aren’t part of the business…they are a necessary cost to doing business.  The instant a better (e.g., lower cost, bette quality, etc) vendor comes along, you are toast.

How do you do this? Stop being seen as a vendor.

Stop trying to get that $180 out-charge for moving a network drop from cube A to cube B and start wondering how you can help the people in those cubes do their job better.

Links for June 13 2010

  • BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

    Quote: As the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill continues to grow, reports suggest that several IT failures may have contributed to the problem. More importantly, the spill represents a deep state of failed leadership inside BP.

  • Strategic Moves by Jamie Notter on Get Me Jamie Notter:

    Quote: …define a strategic move as a “set of managerial actions and decisions involved in making a major, market-creating business offering.”

  • My job is to hold the umbrella so the shit from above doesn’t hit you. Your job is to keep me from having to use it. – Bob Sutton

    Quote: I think this is  brilliant because there is so much wisdom on so many levels.  First, it is really funny, especially when paired with the picture in the post.  Second, there is deep wisdom there about the relationship between a good boss and good followers — these are mutually supportive relationships, not one way. Even the best boss can’t do everything.

  • When Big Companies Are Dead But Don’t Know It by Steve Blank

    Quote: It is a rare company that realizes it is time to fire the CEO when the financials are good but the business is fundamentally heading for a cliff.  For me, I learned this lesson first hand. I had joined the board of a $200million public company that 15 years earlier had single-handily created an industry. The company had innovated, found a business model, grown successfully but now even as revenues continued to grow, the company was slowly but surely dying.