Google, Apple, and the Permanent Beta

One of the most interesting features of Apple’s new iPhone 4GS is Siri, a voice-recognition “assistant” that is able to take colloquial spoken English commands. For example you can tell Siri to “book and appointment with John tomorrow” and “she” will check your calendar for available times. There are plenty of reviews of this feature, and that’s not the crux of this article. What is however is that Apple has introduced Siri as “beta” software: a product that the manufacturer believes is complete, but hasn’t been fully vetted and tested on a large scale.

This is nothing new in the technology world, and the preponderance of Google’s free online offerings also fall into this category despite widespread usage. Many other companies in the technology world generate consumer angst when they release what’s perceived as poorly-tested “beta” software to meet a release deadline, co-opting users as involuntary testers in the process and fixing the problems later, however they are usually selling what is billed as “complete” software rather than clearly denoting its beta status.

There’s no harm in a corporate setting to launching some “beta” initiatives, as long as the beta status is clearly spelled out to the user community, and not used as an excuse to release half-baked work for business-critical functions. No one has the resources to pursue every initiative to the fullest, but beta initiatives can test new technologies, or get you 60% of the way there on a problem that needed to be solved yesterday, bridging the gap to a more prefect solution. In short, if you’re not experimenting with a handful of beta initiatives, preferring to do everything “perfectly”, you are probably missing opportunities.

The Utility Aspect of IT

There will always be a utility aspect of IT, and in the corporate world, it’s a utility from the consumer’s perspective. No matter what accounting or organizational gyrations you go through, basic services like email, network connectivity, phones, etc., are going to be treated like electricity, water, or sewage: No one cares how complicated it is (when was the last time you thanked the power company for splitting atoms), and everyone wants it as cheaply as possible.

The mistake I see is trying to treat the utility and strategic aspects of IT as one and the same. The other mistake is trying to advance IT as a strategic partner, when you’re not running the utility side of the house flawlessly and cost-effectively.

The “alignment” problem

There’s an interesting debate on Linked In about why we’re still talking about IT “alignment” after doing so for nearly 30 years, and like many of these conversations, there are questions about what exactly “alignment” means in this context.

Some definitions have been offered, but in my mind, it’s rather simple: alignment is using IT as a tool to solve a business problem, not an end in itself.
While that’s conceptually simple, many IT organizations don’t do it well. Look at all the people saying “Cloud is our technology strategy”. It’s like hiring an expensive builder to make you a custom home, who keeps saying “The Makita Sawzall 9000 is my strategy to give you a great home”. The focus is on the tool, not the outcome or value provided.

The IT departments that are seemingly naturally aligned are the ones where all the technology happens behind the scenes, and the CIO is called in to help solve a business problem. If your C-level peers run away when they see you approach, or start snoring in your meetings, you’re probably focusing on the tools rather than outcomes.

Corporate Narcissism

Netflix, a US company that started life as a DVD-by-mail rental service, then added digital movie streaming to its offering recently announced a poorly-received corporate restructuring. In addition to a price increase for the mail and streaming services, the company split the offering into not only two products, but two separate companies with their own billing, recommendation, and customer account systems. Whereas a customer could formerly login to the Netflix website and manage a queue of movies for mailing or streaming, the split would create two different, non-integrated places for customers to do the same tasks, and even charge two separate items to a customer’s credit card each month, a move akin to a restaurant forcing you to go into a different room, with a different waiter, and pay a separate bill for your appetizer and entrée.

Historically, the company has often been regarded as consumer-friendly, and technologically advanced, so the move legitimately offended a highly vocal group of customers. The CEO of the company offered a non-apology, and attempted to convince customers that splitting their service, creating more administrative hassle, and effectively increasing the price for less convenience were in their favor.

These types of maneuvers can best be described as a kind of corporate narcissism, where companies focus internally and treat customers as an inconvenience, rather than the reason they are in existence. The US-based airlines have been guilty of this for years, with flight attendants literally rolling their eyes while dealing with customers as if the flight was scheduled for the airline staff’s personal amusement, and then those pesky paying customers rained on the party.

This narcissism can also occur internally, with corporate divisions passing inane policies and procedures that scratch some parochial itch, while inflicting hours of extra administrative burden on the larger organization.

While the customer (external or internal) is not always right, they are almost always the ones that provide the financial lifeblood of your company. When you consider some elaborate strategic shift and there is nary a mention of how it will impact paying customers, make sure you’re not preening in front of the mirror while the building around you burns down.

The Google/Moto Mobility Marriage

Google’s Motorola acquisition is all over the press, and represents an interesting shift in the mobile landscape. I’ve frequently discussed the changing mobile landscape on these pages, and despite my current enjoyment of the Apple i-products, Google and its Android OS are emerging as the ones to beat in the mobile space.

Until recently, Android’s biggest strength, its adaptability to a large variety of devices, was also a handicap that resulted in incompatibilities between devices. While this is still hurting Android in the tablet space, the kinks are largely becoming ironed out in the smartphone form factor (although still hitting hiccups in the tablet arena). With Google directly owning a hardware manufacturer, this gives them the ability to push new, and potentially more risky innovations on the Android platform.

I don’t think there’s as much risk as some are speculating about Google making enemies of its customers; most of these customers also use archrival Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, so in essence they are all ready less chummy than some would have you believe.

For CIOs, competition is going to be a good thing in the mobile space, and as companies increasingly look to the cloud for applications, a cloud-centric mobile operating system will be key. Google’s expanded ability to deliver exciting hardware alongside other Android-based manufacturers should be a win for IT departments and push the industry as a whole, just as Apple knocked the pants off companies like RIM and Microsoft when the iPhone first arrived on the scene. Again, while I’m currently happy in my Apple-centric mobile world, Google’s tribe of manufacturers is iterating and innovating faster than Apple, and rapidly learning from earlier missteps. With direct access to a hardware manufacturer and some “litigation insurance” on the patent front, from an IT perspective, this acquisition looks like a strong win.

Adequate Advancement

This evening I walked past an urban school occupying a former retail storefront. Instead of clothing, electronics, or home goods, there was colorful children’s artwork adorning the large windows, and a couple of impressive-looking government plaques that caught my eye. They proudly noted that the school had achieved “adequate advancement” over the past two years, perhaps one of the most hollow endorsements since “the beatings will continue until morale improves”.

I can only wonder how often we in the corporate world celebrate mere “adequately”, showering fancy trappings and even compensation on the merely adequate rather than encouraging and demanding superior performance.

Transitioning IT from a technical focus to a business focus

I’d suggest this transition is akin to any other major organizational transition (moving Marketing away from print/radio to web/social media for example). Too often, IT thinks it is unique in facing this type of challenge when it’s really not.

To foster this change, I’d suggest focusing on three major areas:

1) Lead from the top. If the CIO is a technologist, and has never left the IT department to spend a day working with line employees, and can’t articulate the company’s products, markets, and competitors, you’ve lost the game before you’ve even started.

2) Base staffing decisions on this new reality. Hire people with an emphasis on business acumen and an ability to rapidly learn new processes and technologies, rather than hiring hard-core technologists.

3) Tie comp to the change you’re seeking. To borrow from the old movie line, "If you comp them, they will come." Determine how to measure the behaviors you’re trying to engender, and evaluate and pay based on those metrics.

If this sounds too simple, it’s because like most advice, it’s easy to explain and hard to implement. I liken it to loosing weight. The bullet-proof weight-loss strategy is probably the simplest to explain, and hardest to implement: eat less than you need, and exercise more. Like weight loss, it’s easier to buy some new methodology du jour, or technology than to do the hard work of implementing a change like this.

Thoughts on Industry Benchmarks

I find benchmarks to be of limited use, mostly for "ballparking" rather than making key strategic decisions. If I discover my anonymous "competitor" has 12.674% fewer staff than I do, what does that mean and why should I care? If you find you’re grossly outlying your industry, that might trigger a deeper investigation, but knowing my spend is plus or minus 2.847384% of the industry norm seems to be little more than nice cocktail party trivia.

Where benchmarks can be helpful is in comparing similar IT initiatives. If I’m spending 20% more and taking 40% longer on an ERP project than everyone else, I better have a darn good reason.

Rather than obsessing over benchmarking, I’d expend the effort on making sure you are setting and meeting appropriate internal service levels, building peer relationships, and tracking the results of your IT spend rather than worrying about how you generally compare to anonymous peers.

ERP Failures

I’ve worked with companies to help prevent large ERP failures, and generally see some variation of the following:

1) An ERP implementation is regarded as a technical project, and left to the IT folks. These folks are usually well intentioned, but with ERP in particular, business process is a more critical component than the actual technology. Key users and stakeholders need to be involved from the outset, and the project managed according to business results and drivers, not technical deliverables.

2) Companies act as “absentee landlords” and let their implementation firm run the show, expecting them to show up with a working system some number of months later. Generally, “something” will be produced by the implementation firm, but it will take 3 times as long, and not meet the needs of the end users.

3) A defined decision making process is not in place. For and ERP to finish on schedule, tough decisions on scope, processes, and schedule must be made. In many environments, making the wrong decision is punished so onerously, no one wants to make any decision. Implementation firms often don’t help this process, since a long decision cycle adds billable hours.

4) There’s an inherent conflict with implementation firms in that each hour that a project drags on costs the client money, but increases the implementation firm’s billings. To assuage that conflict, clients should have a streamlined decision making process, and maintain project management and ultimate oversight of the project. There’s also no shame in bringing in outside expertise (a role I frequently fill) to keep all parties honest. When burn rates can run into five figures per day, this is usually very cost effective.

IT Management in 3 easy steps

For IT to be effective, you need to accomplish three things:

1) Get the "utility" aspect of IT solidified (no one wants to hear you talk about strategy when the email system is constantly down)

2) Build your staff in to capable business experts rather than inflexible technicians

3) Learn your business, and its strategic imperatives

Once you’ve established the final point, you can translate those strategic imperatives (enter the China market) into IT initiatives (enhance our supply chain systems and processes). Whether you do this exercise through roadmaps, "strategy" documents, Enterprise Architecture, or smoke signals is irrelevant as long as you ensure IT reflects where the business is going.