Reflections on SIMposium09

I had the opportunity to attend and speak at SIMposium09 in Seattle last week. As Seattle is a great town and close to Victoria,  I took the opportunity to take Diane and we both enjoyed Seattle and spent a few very relaxing “Internet-free” days at the wonderful Lake Quinalt Lodge on the Olympic Peninsula after the conference. Having now had time to reflect on the conference, I offer a summary of my thoughts (and in doing so, draw on a number of my earlier posts).

Introducing the sessions on Tuesday, the Moderator, Julia King, Executive Editor of Computerworld, said that what she had taken away from the conference up to that point were three things – people, process and productivity. While productivity – specifically doing more with less – was a common theme, and there was considerable emphasis on people and some on process, I would expand on this somewhat. From what I heard, both through formal presentations, and in informal discussions, the things that I left thinking about, and which I will expand on below were – value (including but not limited to productivity), leadership, innovation (where I would include process), people, and change (specifically management of strategic change). I will talk a bit more about each of these below.

Value

It should come as no surprise that this is my first point. I was pleased that a number of sessions did focus on value, and it was mentioned to varying degrees in others. I was however disappointed when Jerry Luftman presented the results of the 2009 SIM IT trend survey that the word was not mentioned in any of the top ten CIO issues. In fairness, I do understand that in order to plot trends, there has to be some consistency in questions year over year. While it could be argued that the “alignment” question may be a proxy for value (although many people told me they never wanted to hear this question again), and that it is implied in others – I believe we have to make value explicit and  put it front and centre. Certainly, productivity is one aspect of value, but only one aspect – one that tends to focus on doing more with less, and by inference cost. In The Information Paradox, we talked about 3 aspects of value: alignment (NOT the infamous “Aligning IT with the business” topic which, in my mind, makes about as much sense as talking about “aligning our heart with our body”, but rather ensuring that investments are aligned with the enterprise’s strategic objectives); financial worth (which I now refer to as business worth including both financial and non-financial aspects); and risk (both delivery risk and benefits risk).  The Val IT ™ framework further defines value as “total life cycle benefits net of total life cycle costs adjusted for risk and (in the case of financial value) the time value of money”. We need to shift the discussion from the cost of technology to the value of the business change that it enables. We need to create a culture of value in our enterprises.

Leadership

A quick scan of the agenda shows that this was by far the most prevalent topic – not surprising given SIM’s target constituency. There is absolutely no denying that we need more and better leadership – but what do we mean by that? Are we talking about grooming those few who will rise to the corner offices in the top floor of corporate HQ, or are we/should we be talking about something beyond that?  A former colleague of mine, Don Tapscott, used to say (may still say) that “leadership can come from anywhere”. I have been thinking for a while about the “cult of leadership” – in his book, The Wisdom of CrowdsJames Surowiecki identifies one of the challenges is that we put too much faith in individual leaders or experts, either because of their position or track record and that these individuals also become over-confident in their abilities. I don’t want to question the ability and competence of all leaders or experts – while I certainly have seen my share of bad ones, most are good people doing the best they can. However, in today’s increasingly complex and fast-paced knowledge economy, much of which is both enabled by and driven by technology, it is unrealistic to expect individuals, however good they are, to have all the answers, all the time. The reality is that neither position nor past success is any guarantee of future success.

If organisations are to succeed in today’s knowledge economy, they cannot constrain themselves to the knowledge of a few individuals – to put it a more brutal way, they cannot be constrained by the habits or ego(s) of their leader(s)! Organisations must tap into the collective knowledge of all their people – retaining appropriate accountability, based on the law of subsidiarity – an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. This means locating accountability and decision-making at the most appropriate level, while supporting decisions with broader and more knowledgeable input.

Innovation

We hear a lot about innovation and the potential for CIOs to become Chief Innovation Officers. Interestingly, a number of recent surveys show that executive leadership is disappointed with the lack of innovative ideas from CIOs. But what is innovation? The Oxford Dictionary defines innovation as [t0] bring in new methods, ideas etc. often followed by making change. All too often, we believe that innovation requires new technologies. In a recent Entrepreneur article, Tim O’Reilly, who launched the first commercial website, coined the term “Web 2.0” and was instrumental in the popularization of open-source software, isn’t buying the hype: He calls the era of the I-word “dead on arrival.” “If it is innovative, everybody will know,” O’Reilly says. “Adding words to it does not help.” The current “innovation” overload is the result of folks who don’t know what true invention is trying to pass themselves off as trailblazers. He’s seen companies throw away great ideas because it wasn’t immediately obvious how to make money from them. Then smaller companies and entrepreneurs would come along and play with the idea, just because they’re passionate about it. And they would be the ones to unlock the idea’s potential and grow into the money. While new technologies do indeed enable new methods and ideas, they are not necessary for innovation. Innovation is equally powerful, and often easier, by simply coming up with new and creative ways of using existing technologies.

People

Ultimately, it is people who lead, people who innovate, and, as a result, people who create value. Over the last few decades, much has been said and written about empowering the people within an enterprise – unfortunately little of that talk and writing has translated into reality. As James Surowiecki says, “Although many companies play a good game when it comes to pushing authority away from the top, the truth is that genuine employee involvement remains an unusual phenomenon.” As a result of this, information flows – up, down and across organisations – are poor, non-existent or “filtered” in all directions, decisions are made by a very few with inadequate knowledge and information, and there is limited buy-in to whatever decisions are made. As Peter Senge says in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook , “…under our old system of governance, one can lead by mandate. If you had the ability to climb the ladder, gain power and then control that power, then you could enforce…changes…Most of our leaders don’t think in terms of getting voluntary followers, they think in terms of control.” I should add here, based on Monday’s closing keynote “It’s about the People”, given by Bill Baumann, Vice President of Information Technology for REI, that REI does appear to be one enterprise that does understand empowerment.

In this context, although there was not a specific session on the topic, social networking (including Web 2.0 and crowd-sourcing etc.) was discussed in many of the sessions, and in informal discussions. As I have said before, I am becoming increasingly interested in how social networking, rather than being viewed as a potential problem to be managed within the “traditional” view of governance and management – today still largely based on beliefs and structures that are a hundred years old – has enormous potential to revolutionize governance and management. In doing so, we could truly tap in to the experience of all employees (and other stakeholders) – not be limited to the knowledge/experience of those few anointed leaders or experts. This could actually make the much-abused term empowerment mean something by giving people the opportunity to contribute to/participate in decision-making, actually be listened to and, as a result, re-engage and really make a difference.

Change

The challenge facing enterprises today is not implementing technology, although this is certainly not becoming any easier, but implementing IT-enabled organisational change such that value is created and sustained, and risk is known, mitigated or contained. The creation and sustainment of value from innovation requires understanding and effective management of change in how people think, manage and act, i.e. change in human behaviour. Unfortunately, as we were reminded in one session by Jeffrey Barnes and Cheryl White, studies have shown consistently over the last 25 years that the failure rate of strategic change initiatives is between 85-90%. Let’s look at a number of scenarios where such initiatives can come to a premature halt.

The first of these is implementation by fiat, without an adequately thought out plan and commensurate resources. There is all too often a tendency for executives to believe that once they say something should be done it is – this is rarely the case. I sometimes describe this as the “Star Trek school of management”. Executives, just like Captain Picard, say “Make it so!” – they often don’t fully understand what “it” is or how they will know when they get there, and  the people they say it to all run off with very different ideas of what “it” is creating a lot of activity – often in conflicting directions. As Larry Bossidy and Ram Charam suggest in Execution, The Discipline of Getting things Done, the role of the executive when saying “make it so” is to ensure that no-one leaves the room until the executive is confident that they all understand what “it” is and, when they come back with a plan, that they don’t leave the room until he/she is confident that the plan has a good chance of delivering “it”.

In other cases, organisations take on too much in the first bite – this either results in “sticker shock” with no action being taken or, particularly when, as is often the case – especially in the current environment of short-termism – the time-frame is unrealistic, failure. The opposite can also be true, doing too little and/or taking too long to do it such that patience runs out and/or interest diminishes to the point of backing off.

Also, where progress is being made, success is not always promoted and built on – without demonstrated and recognized success it can be very difficult to maintain the interest and attention of executives to sustain the change initiative, especially one that may take many years, as many, if not most such initiatives can do. This can become particularly evident if a new executive comes on the scene and asks “Why are we doing this?” Without a sound response, this is often followed by “We did just fine without this where I came from!”

Many of these scenarios are exacerbated when insufficient thought has been given to metrics – measurements that must include both “lag” metrics – are we there yet? – and “leading” metrics – are we on track to get there?, as well as tangibles and intangibles. As Faisal Hoque, Chairman and CEO of the Business Technology Management Institute says, “…technology [itself] warrants evaluation with a tangible set of measures. But the majority of what technology actually does falls more into the sphere of the intangibles”. Understanding how those intangibles (often lead indicators) can contribute to tangibles (often lag indicators) is a key part of value management.

John Zackman offered another explanation for the challenge of change when positioning enterprise architecture – in the context of the overall enterprise – as being about managing complexity and change (which I very much agree with). John said “If you can’t describe it you can’t build it or change it.” John’s comments raise a number of  interesting questions which I won’t attempt to answer here.  Is it actually possible to “reverse architect” today’s complex global enterprises that have, somewhat like London’s Heathrow airport, grown ad hoc over time without any underlying architectural framework or design? If not, are they doomed to eventually fail? Will new and emerging enterprises take a more disciplined approach or will they follow the same pattern such that the cycle continues?

For more on the topic of change, go to Managing Change – The Key to Realizing Value and The Knowing-Doing Gap.

I will explore some or all of these topics more in subsequent posts.

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