Chris Weston - Making IT Work
Collaboration - avoiding Eternal September

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Collaboration tools are fast becoming a superior way to communicate and share knowledge, especially around projects and specialist subjects. The creation of communities that subconsciously curate and value contributions, improving quality and relevance, trumps the data tomb of email in many ways. However, there are lessons from history about how these tools should be deployed.

Often, a collaboration tool is first used by a bunch of cool folk who want to do something different. It’s rarely a corporate edict, like most (all?) innovation it’s driven by a need in a branch of the organisation. People start to see the value, get involved, and the fun starts to snowball. These people are often collaborative by nature, interested in new ways of working and embrace change. Once a critical mass is reached, and higher levels of management get on the bandwagon, tools start to become recommended, or mandated. If you’re not using that tool, they say, you won’t be on the project.

This is the danger point. Let’s go back to 1993, when Usenet was around 10 years old. Usenet, for you young’uns, was the way we communicated on the internet before there was a web, world wide or otherwise. A huge collection of newsgroups on just about every subject, many of them very technical - Usenet was essentially an academic network for much of its early history. The old guard on Usenet used to see a spike in ‘noise’ in September, when freshers went to university, found Usenet and immediately breached all of the ‘netiquette’ that kept the thing ticking over. SHOUTING IN POSTS WAS A CLASSIC ERROR. It usually took a month for this to die down, and everyone got on fine. In 1993 something changed. AOL arrived, sold internet access to the world, and thousands of ‘ordinary’ people started to appear on Usenet. September 1993, for the Usenet old guard, never ended. Usenet became a messy, murky place and ceased to resemble the thing they knew and loved. It was the ‘Eternal September’

When launching a collaboration tool in an organisation, those early adopters mentioned above are the vast majority. They work well together. When the tool becomes mandated, the demographic changes quickly. How to manage this change? Set the rules early on. Let people know why the tool is there, and what it’s to be used for. Use moderation sparingly, but do use it if necessary (especially if people from outside the organisation are involved) and set out the ways that moderation will be applied, for the benefit of everyone not least the moderators. Promote a positive attitude from veterans to the newbies, encourage volunteers to provide help and guidance.  The long term use of the technology is more important than the baby steps.

Think about the future of your collaboration effort and plan for it to succeed, and you can avoid Eternal September :)

The slow, lingering death of email

A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a CIO about technology, and how younger people relate to it. He told me that he had recently started helping out with his son’s football team, and at the end of a training session told them he was going to email them all the dates for upcoming fixtures and practice. The response he got was one of muted hilarity at the ancient method of communication. When I joined the world of work, the telex had been replaced by the fax machine as the electronic method of choice for sending documents or text, and if you saw one of these telex beasts, it was generally sitting in a corner, unused and unloved. The same fate has befallen the fax machine, although there are still strong pockets of resistance in locations where telecoms infrastructure is poor, or where companies cling to the 20th century in the hope that it might come back one day.

The signs are all around us that email has already gained significant momentum on the slide to irrelevance. There’s a saying now that work is where you go to use old technology. People have a panoply of communication tools available to them (literally) in the palms of their hands. Social messaging tools like WhatsApp, Kik and Snapchat are beloved of the kids and they use whatever is the most appropriate at the time. Not to mention the hairy old(!) monsters of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter… In more forward-thinking offices collaboration tools such as Huddle and Yammer supersede email by bringing messages together around a subject or community. Run your messaging on one of these platforms and you find that the ‘who has access to Bob’s emails’ question doesn’t present itself when Bob wins the lottery and disappears to Bermuda. That’s got to be worth the entrance fee on its own.

Even the name ‘eletronic mail’ now sounds anachronistic, it’s hardly suprising that kids find the idea funny. I am not enough of a soothsayer to know how long email has left, I don’t expect it to disappear overnight. But I believe the writing is on the wall for anyone who cares to look.

Postscript : I first posted this on LinkedIn.  One of the first comments was from someone I have a ton of respect for, who said ‘email is where organisational knowledge goes to die.  The sooner it’s gone, the better’. Perhaps that is another reason email will be ushered out in successful organisations in the coming years.

CIOs told to leave innovation to marketing?

This Computer Weekly article uses a provocative and rather silly headline to make what is quite a sensible point.

http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240221928/CIOs-urged-to-manage-infrastructure-and-leave-innovation-to-marketing

Ever since Gartner used an equally silly headline to claim that CMOs would spend more than CIOs on technology before you know it (they include digital advertising spend in that calculation) the marketing guys have been used as bogeymen to scare the poor, fragile CIO. So, rather predictively it’s used to promote this article, which then talks very little about marketing, thankfully.

The first line of the piece says that “IT leaders have been urged to relinquish their monopoly on technology, as other parts of the business step up their spending on mobile, social media and cloud computing”. It was a few seconds before I finished laughing, because this is like asking Kodak to relinquish their monopoly on photography. That ship sailed a long time ago.

Innovation almost never comes from a central brain, thinking great thoughts. The old phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ has survived because it’s a fundamental truth. When processes or ideas need to evolve, they do - forcing the pace is very difficult.

Of course now that digital technology has become so ubiquitous, people will use it to solve their problems and they won’t come asking for permission before they do so. I was told a tale recently of a large corporate executive board who use WhatsApp to communicate with each other between board meetings because their IT department hadn’t come up with a collaboration tool.

However, back to the article, which descends into what Basil Fawlty would describe as the ‘bleedin’ obvious’, with sub headlines like “Business leaders need technology skills” and a stunning revelation - “The research shows that although marketing departments are keen to experiment with technology, they have no interest in managing technology infrastructure.”

And therein lies the continuing role of the CIO. Creating a technology environment where people can make good, informed choices. Growing and maintaining key relationships with technology providers that add value to the simple provision of kit. Being the place to go when people have delivered a tech innovation but want to scale it across the enterprise. Acting as an honest broker between those enthusiastic marketing people and the myriad snake-oil technology pushers. There’s still a big, hairy job to do. But it’s not, and has never really been, to provide the innovation.

IT folk - take a lesson from the sales team

Many CIOs are working in roles that are high-powered, with huge budgets, fighting for very skilled staff in a competitive market - top people doing an important job. They hold a coveted ‘C-level’ title and mix with the key decision makers in their organisations. This doesn’t always tell the whole story. The CIO still, in most organisations, doesn’t report to the CIO, being one level removed under the CFO. The CIO often doesn’t attend board meetings unless invited. Most frustratingly of all, their function is regularly criticised for delivering late, over budget technology that doesn’t meet the needs of the business. IT folk are well aware that this is almost always because IT teams are engaged late, given a solution to deliver rather than a business requirement to deliver against, and budgets have been finalised before anyone from IT has been able to give sensible input.

So, the mountain the IT function has to climb is to become a shaper of the demand, early in the decision process, rather than a hapless taker of orders. How to achieve this? Maybe the lessons are to be found in the world of business development. Sales people are often segregated into types thus;

  • Relationship builders - work on long-term personal and professional relationships to keep their pipeline flowing
  • Hard workers - make dozens of calls a day, sell like crazy and play the percentage game
  • Problem solvers - beat up their own organisations to ensure the customer gets what they want
  • Challengers - get to know their customers’ business, push their thinking and take control of the sale. They are assertive with both the customer and their own organisation.

A study into these sales types found that the majority of high performing salespeople are Challengers. They come to the customer with new ideas, tailored to that customer, and gain their trust - becoming a go-to person when change or improvement is needed. They don’t sell a product, they sell a solution. I believe that CIOs not only have to adopt this approach, they need to train their people to do so too. Every conversation with senior stakeholders should have an element of this Challenger behaviour, so those key people must be able to work in that way.

It may be going too far to suggest that IT senior managers go on sales training courses, but the behaviours that win for the Challenger types are the behaviours that will change the business relationship with IT. If CIOs don’t learn to shape their demand, their demand will inevitably shape them.

(I also posted this article on my LinkedIn feed  - https://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20140524182952-20224089-can-it-teams-learn-to-shape-their-demand)

Can innovation be found in your organisation?

Many organisations look to innovation to move their product or service on. They employ consultants, analyse their competitors, and sometimes even ask their own people. Asking the employees is fraught with danger, because it seems the obvious thing to do, but it’s an implied commitment that might be setting everyone up for a bad experience.

When you stick the suggestion box on the wall, or use your intranet for feedback, or ask for emails to brightideas@company.com, you are setting up a two-way deal. One side is that people will send in the ideas they’ve had for ages but didn’t know who to tell it to - the other side is that you’ll do something about it.

The trouble is that ideas are easy to come by. If you need some, check out this list of 999 ideas from Seth Godin’s blog. They’re free, because ideas are worth very little - execution is where the value is. Execution means risk, in time and money. So, how likely is it that your organisation will spend time and money on an idea flung in from the crowd? Or will these ideas simply fade away, leading to disillusionment of the folk that submit them in good faith?

I suggest that it’s better not to ask for ideas, at least not in this way.

Good ideas and innovation find their own way of coming to life, powered by one person, or a small team, who find a way to do something better. Is the organisation that wants to find innovation to fuel growth or efficiency better off spending their time finding ideas like this that are already working and nurturing both the idea and the people that made it work? I think so.

The Abominable No-Man

Talking to some colleagues from the IT world this week I was introduced to a phrase that I hadn’t heard before, 'The Abominable No-man'.  

I was most taken by this (to the point of googling it and finding it’s been around a long time - the splendid cartoon above is from this blog from Tom Fishburne), although my pleasure at hearing this splendid pun was tempered slightly by what it referred to.  It was, of course, the IT Director, or CIO - stopping people using the IT they wanted to, because of the policy, or strategy, that says otherwise.  I’ve seen the chaos that ensues when IT proliferates randomly, but I’m still ambivalent about this issue as I’ve written in the past.  Innovation means doing something outside the norm, interacting with customers in a different way, and in these Digital days, it has to happen now.  I’m not sure the TOGAF model, or the ITIL model, are set up to deal with this. I do know one thing, and that is that I hate the idea of IT being a blocker to doing good stuff.  That’s not the reason I’m in the business of corporate IT. 

Last week I spent a day talking about innovation with a bunch of people from various parts of my organisation.  It was a fascinating day, not least because I got to hear what other people think innovation is, and where it comes from.

There’s no ‘right’ answer to this and there are many ways to get to an innovative solution to problems.  However my favourite explanation, and the one I see happening most often, is the ‘edge effect’.  This is based on an ecological principle, and describes what happens when two ecologies meet.  A great deal of diversification and evolution happens in these places in order to cope with the conjunction of the different worlds.

IT has it’s own edge effect, which I kind of blogged about last year, and this is the rise of ‘shadow IT’, which tends to happen when corporate IT can’t meet the dynamic demands of evolving organisations. This can often be where customers (one ecology) demand services from the organisation (another ecology) which then needs to react quickly to maintain a market position.  Monolithic central IT, with all the baggage of prior investment and governance, cannot react in the timescales needed by the new ecology.  It’s not only IT that suffers these issues, of course. Most business processes are challenged by these edge effects, and sometimes organisations choose to withdraw completely from the interaction rather than challenge their internal models.  This isn’t always a bad thing, but in extreme cases can lead to the organisation becoming irrelevant, and eventually extinct.

The video above is musician Yo-Yo Ma talking about the edge effect, and how it can be used to encourage collaboration and mutual success.  I take the view that if innovation can be described and predicted in such an elegant way, it must have a lot going for it.  Hope you enjoy it.

Linkedin lifeline

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Today, the company I work for announced an acquisition, in a press release timed at 7:30am.   At 8:48am I had my first random LinkedIn request from an employee of that company.

Isn’t that great?  If people are going to be working together it is fantastic that they use the available tools to connect with their future colleagues (although I wish people would personalise their LinkedIn message!). Acquisitions and mergers are (almost) always characterised by difficulties, be they clashing cultures, denial of the new realities of life, or the classic lack of communication.  Now that people are able to create dynamic communities in response to these changes, it’s bound to lessen these age-old problems.  People can get to know each other before any change management programme tries to make it happen, and as I wrote in a previous post they will expand their network in reaction to what’s happening to them - it won’t be because of a memo from a line manager.

Social media, people!

Embracing the network

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Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in the past few months have been about organisational change and the impact of social networks on traditional hierarchical management models.  A recent blog by Optimity captured a lot of this thinking - a key quote is

As the pace of change continues to accelerate, it is unrealistic to believe that a century-old management model will somehow endure while the rest of the world is reshaped by the technologies of the digital age.

My take on this view is that the digital generation expects to be able to be part of many communities at once, and be holding several simultaneous conversations with each of them.  Sometimes the conversations will inform each other, sometimes they won’t be relevant to each other at all.   Some interchanges will be slow burning, some will rush to a conclusion.  Communities will likewise be long-lasting and ephemeral in equal measure.  This is how ‘digital natives’ communicate, and it’s radically different to the 20th century model.

A 21st century organisation must embrace and exploit this, or it will fail.  A good example of a very traditional organisation adapting to meet a new challenge of this sort is the United States military - maybe the most clear example of a strict hierarchy you’d hope to find.  They took on the task of fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq after the invasion in 2003 and set about it in their usual way.  They began to map the enemy with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at the head, and various lieutenants and soldiers beneath him.  It became clear pretty quickly that this was flawed - previous enemy forces had been organised in this way, but Iraq’s lieutenant’s weren’t waiting for memos from their superiors.

Al Qaeda in Iraq was using technology to transfer money, information and propaganda faster than the US Army could follow it, their enemy was not organised by rank, but by reputation, relationships and fame.  The enemy could grow and sustain losses with impressive ease - it was a well-functioning network.

General Stanley McChrystal coined a phrase ‘it takes a network to fight a network’ - and set about changing the structure of the US forces to be able to react to the way Al Qaeda was operating.  Information was shared far more widely than before, barriers of rank were broken down and individual units given more responsibility to respond to this information.  This was so successful that the tactics were quickly adopted in Afghanistan where the same problems haunted the allied forces.

In business organisations there are similar challenges, where traditional layered hierarchies stifle communication and collaboration.  I will quote Jon Husband from the Wirearchy blog -

today it’s very likely that in your organization people are interconnected and are using their exchanges with each other and their participation in information flows to get work done and achieve objectives. The organization’s people are already operating using knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on achieving results ..

The question is posed, how well has the organisation adapted its leadership, management practices and organizational culture to be flexible and adept enough to take advantage of these real possibilities for improvement and/or innovation?

Can we learn from people like McChrystal, and adapt our organisation to the changing world, or are we so sure of the 20th century business model that we will cling to it, come what may?  I know where I’m putting my money!

Remembering to ask

When looking at a business problem for the first time, it’s easy to start in an unstructured way - the opening lines from Rudyard Kiplings ‘The Elephant’s Child’ are a nice way to remind yourself to step back and consider…

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

So, how does IT, and the Digital agenda, help you grow your business?

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Some people invest in IT, some get value, some feel they don’t.  Some just don’t invest.  So how, in a nutshell, can you give yourself the best chance of making the investment count, and how does it link to your overall success?

A simple, classic growth strategy piece of work might go something like this

  • What business are we in, what is our core offer, which generates our most important work re margin/revenue?
  • Who are our customers (potential and current), what business are they in, what value do we generate for them, what are their alternatives to us
  • Who are our customers’ customers? What do they want from our customer? How can we help our customer help them?
  • What, if anything, do we need to be better than our competitors at to maintain and grow our market share given the answers to the above?
  • What, if anything, do we need to be cheaper than our competitors at to maintain and grow our market share given the answers to the above
  • How do we achieve these two objectives?

Then

  • How do we communicate our effectiveness to our customers so they will choose to buy our product or service?


IT strategy now kicks in, answering such questions as…

  • What technologies can be exploit to make the first ‘How’ happen? (More often than not increasing efficiencies around process is at the heart of both service improvement and cost reduction)
  • Can ERP (for example) be implemented/improved? 
  • Can data gathering be done more accurately /efficiently?
  • Can information be disseminated more effectively, ensuring the right resources are employed at the right time, more often?
  • Can we use our information to purchase more effectively? Reduce our debtor days? 
  • Can we provide any value from our information to our customer?


How does the ‘Digital’ agenda fit?


Digital, in my opinion, describes a bunch of technologies once owned by IT because of their complexity/cost, now appearing as commodities to be exploited by non-technical people and organisations. This is a Good Thing and the natural direction of travel. For example, once upon a time, the web site was dealt with by the IT department, but now it’s a natural part of the marketing effort. The commoditisation and proliferation of IT means that more information is available, more channels exist to be exploited, and if we look, we can find out more about our customer (or our customer’s customer). We can work with them in a more effective way, converting our sluggish 20th century processes to shiny new 21st century technology. It’s a big part of both the first AND second ‘How’ questions - whereas not so long ago the second ‘How’ was entirely a Sales and Marketing piece of work. IT and Marketing now need to work together hand-in-hand to exploit these opportunities.

Thinking about these questions, analysing the answers and coming up with a long-term plan isn’t something to be done over the weekend. Each answer asks several more questions, and every organisation will have unique strengths and weaknesses that direct the discussion. It takes commitment and effort, and honesty. But it’s eminently possible, and will highlight the areas that will actively contribute to your business plan, providing genuine return on investment and competitive advantage.  It’s vital if you want IT to be a enabler for growth, rather than the frustrating stop-start, costly effort that is playing catch up every time the rest of the organisation remembers to tell them what they’re doing!

Let’s get Digital - the rise of the CDO?

There is lots of talk in the blogs and conferences at the moment about ‘Chief Digital Officers’ and what this means for traditional IT.  In fact the one certain way you can know it’s a real issue is that top CIOs are denying the need for a CDO. There is a lot of sense in this view in my opinion, of course the answer is not to make someone responsible for the world as it is today whilst everyone else continues to think about yesterday.

But, life isn’t as simple as that.  It’s just not sensible to expect people who grew up in an unconnected world to understand and embrace an environment in which things change, and communication happens, at a giddying pace.  Teenagers don’t spend their evenings talking to their friends on the phone any more, they text each other, or use social media.   Why?  Because that way, they can have several conversations at a time.  The ‘Generation Game’ is well under way.

The CDO will be a part of life until the digital native generation makes it into the management layer in a bigger way.  Most organisations know they have to adapt - and they know they can’t do it wholesale.  It’ll be interesting to see where the CDOs come from, and what their expertise is.  I’m betting most of them won’t be from the CIO club.

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