Running before you can walk

Prelude…

I have been back blogging for a few days, so it is well past time for a rock climbing-related post. Though this site being what it is, I’ve twisted this thought round to apply to the world of IT.

Case of the Month

Symptoms: 42 year-old with recent long finger injury and resultant deformity.

A2 pulley damage - this is not my finger, but is most likely the injury that I have

Diagnosis Disruption of the A2 (white arrow), A3 (black arrow), and A4 (black arrowhead) pulleys. The primary function of the pulley system is to provide stability to the flexor tendons during flexion by fixing them to the underlying osseous structures. Injuries to the pulley system, commonly seen in rock climbers, lead to bowstringing of the flexor tendons with abnormal separation from the underlying phalanges.

Image and text care of The Institute of Orthopaedic Imaging, with my underlining.

Living in London, real rock is always a reasonably lengthy drive away, but in normal circumstances I would train indoors at least twice, and normally three times, a week and climb outdoors as often as possible. However, for a variety of reasons (including an ankle injury to myself, a chronic shoulder injury to my partner and both having an awful lot of other things on), I have not been climbing very much for several months. About a month ago, my partner and I decided to make a point of once more getting to the wall at least once a week. The problem is that, after a lay-off, your mind can remember climbing at a certain level but your body is way off the pace.

A combination of keenness, a desire to make up for lost time, pride and pig-headedness often sees a climber who is returning from injury quickly try to get back on to the level of routes/problems that they were achieving before. My limit, both indoors and out, used to be around V4 (fairly low down on the overall scale of climbing), with the occasional V5 indoors only. Having a few tentatively successful sessions under my belt, I found an indoor V5 that played to my strengths and was making some progress on it. It was a bit fingery and required use of a technique called crimping (see the image below):

An example of crimping

This is a very effective way of getting purchase on small holds, but puts a lot of pressure on your fingers. Levering my body up from sitting on the ground with both hands crimping like mad I felt a sort of crunching in the ring finger of my left hand. I stopped my attempt and decided that I would warm down on some easier stuff. Sadly even easier stuff can be quite demanding on the fingers and on my next but one climb I ended up pulling quite hard on the same left hand. There was a very audible pop, my left hand exploded off of the hold and I found myself on the floor holding my swollen finger in quite some pain.

After intensive icing at the wall and some therapeutic treatment in the four or so weeks since, I am still able to bend the finger (so hopefully do not have a full rupture of the tendon), but am a long way off of going back to climbing. I also have an unhelpful mental image of the tendon hanging by a thread, it is going to take quite some time for me to get over this; even if the finger itself heals.

Old tendon injury to ring finger of right hand

It doesn’t help that I fully ruptured the same tendon in my right ring finger when playing rugby as a teenager (see above). I can’t bend the top section of that finger and it has been a bit of an issue for me when climbing on occasion.

Tommy Caldwell - "high four"

Professional climber Tommy Caldwell (above) cut off one of his fingers in a DIY accident and still climbs to an astonishingly high level, so I can’t complain too much about this earlier injury. However I am now rather concerned about having matching tendon problems on both hands. I guess time will tell how serious this new injury is and what level of recovery I will experience. I hope to be able to avoid surgery, which is in any case no guarantee of a cure.

One of the most frustrating aspects of all this is that I feel as if I had a warning with the initial crunchiness, I chose to ignore this, which then led to the more serious injury. I guess it rather feels that I could have avoided getting myself in this situation with a little more thought.

The learning here is twofold: specifically how easy it is to injure yourself when returning from a lay-off; and generally that it is also much too tempting to try things that you are not yet ready for – to run before you can walk. The first lesson applies to climbing and sport in general, the second has wider applicability and some pertinence to the work of IT in particular.
 
 
…and Fugue

Running before you can walk seems to be something that particularly afflicts IT departments and IT people when they are in a bit of a hole already. If an IT department has been under-performing, or has become semi-detached from the business (the latter often leading to the former), there can be a desperate desire to get onto firmer ground quickly. I have seen this manifest itself in a couple of ways:

  1. An overwhelming urge to do something that will be appreciated by the business and make a difference – here the desire is for a quick redemption, unfortunately the concomitant rushing and even omission of key steps in the development process are just as likely to lead to more business disappointment and an increasingly tarnished reputation.
  2. The second symptom is virtually antipodal to the first; an unhealthy clinging to formal methodologies, or (much worse) an attempt to introduce new and improved ones – this can have almost a totemic quality, as if by simply adhering to ISO 9000 / Agile / ITIL / RAD (delete as appropriate) things will miraculously turn around.

Unfortunately both of these extremes are essentially displacement activities. I have led the turn-around of a number of IT teams. In my experience, what is generally required is a heavy dose of pragmatism and a focus on doing the basics well and without any elaboration whatsoever. It is nearly always best to try to fix the existing machine, or at most to tinker with it slightly in the first instance, rather than to make drastic modifications or try to build a new machine in entirety.

The main reason that teams under-perform - and the main route to addressing this

When IT is under-performing it is not normally a case of absent or ill-adhered to formal procedures. Rather the malaise is more likely to be a human one, relating to a lack of leadership and direction, a consequent lack of motivation and a group that begins to spiral in on itself. If the problem is essentially with people, then the solution often lies with them as well. It is not easy to motivate demotivated people, it is not easy to provide direction to those who are lost. However both of these things are easier to do than relying on the same lost and demotivated people to either make lighting fast redemptive deliveries, or to cheerfully adopt a new and fool-proof development methodology.

If a formal methodology is important – and it generally is – then my recommendation is to implement this once you have put a lot of effort into creating a happier and better functioning IT team. It is a bit like the old adage about not outsourcing a problem. Best practice instead is to resolve the issues and only then outsource a functioning process.

It is worth also saying that, as well as being more effective, working to make your team happier and more functional is a lot more rewarding and a lot more fun. If you achieve this it is amazing how much more easily the successful system deliveries start to flow.
 
 
Coda

In business, as in rock climbing, if you try to run before you can walk, try to jump to the desired end-state without putting in the necessary hard work, then you are only likely to get hurt. If you don’t believe me, I can tell you all about my finger injury again.
 

A recording of me being interviewed by Brian Roger of SmartDataCollective.com

SmartDataCollective.com

I have been a featured blogger on SmartDataCollective.com almost as long as I have been a blogger. SDC.com is Social Media Today’s community site, focussed on all aspects of Business Intelligence, Data Warehousing and Analytics, with a pinch of social media thrown in to the mix.

Brian Roger, the SDC.com editor, was recently kind enough to interview me about my career in BI, the challenges I have faced and what has helped to overcome these. This interview is now available to listen to as part of their Podcast series – click on the image below to visit their site.

sdc-podcast

SmartDataCollective.com Intervew

I would be interested in feedback about any aspect of this piece, which I am grateful to Brian for arranging.
 


 
Social Media Today LLC helps global organizations create purpose-built B2B social communities designed to achieve specific, measurable corporate goals by engaging exactly the customers and prospects they most want to reach. Social Media Today helps large companies leverage the enormous power of social media to build deeper relationships with potential customers and other constituencies that influence the development of new business. They have found that their primary metrics of success are levels of engagement and business leads. One thousand people who come regularly and might buy an SAP, Oracle or Teradata system some day is better than a million people who definitely won’t.

Social Media Today LLC, is a battle-tested, nimble team of former journalists, online managers, and advertising professionals who have come together to make a new kind of media company. With their backgrounds, and passions for, business-to-business and public policy conversations, they have decided to focus their efforts in this area. To facilitate the types of convresations that they would like to see Social Media Today is assembling the world’s best bloggers and providing them with an independent “playground” to include their posts, to comment and rate posts, and to connect with each other. On their flagship site, SocialMediaToday.com, they have brought together many of the most intriguing and original bloggers on media and marketing, covering all aspects of what makes up the connective tissue of social media from a global perspective.
 

“Does Business Intelligence Require Intelligent Business?” by George M. Tomko

CIO Rant George M Tomko

Introduction

George Tomko’s CIO Rant has been on my list of recommended sites for quite some time. I also follow George on twitter.com (http://twitter.com/gmtomko) and have always found his perspective on business and technology matters to be extremely interesting and informative.

George’s latest blog post is is on a subject that is clearly close to my heart and is entitled Does Business Intelligence Require Intelligent Business? I should also thank him for quoting my earlier artcile, Data – Information – Knowledge – Wisdom, in this. Being mentioned in the same breath as Einstein is always gratifying as well!

George acknowledges that this is something of a “What comes first – the chicken or the egg?” situation. He starts out by building on an article by Gerry Davis at Heidrick & Struggles to state:

  1. collecting [information about customers] is “easy”
  2. analyzing it is hard
  3. disseminating it is very hard

Kudos to the first reader to correctly identify the mountain

Both George and Gerry agreed that the mountains of data that many organisations compile are not always very effectively leveraged to yield information, let alone knowledge or wisdom. Gerry proposes:

identifying and appointing the right executive — someone with superb business acumen combined with a sound technical understanding — and tasking them with delivering real business intelligence

George assesses this approach through the prism of the the three points listed above and touches on the ever present challenges of business silos; agreeing that the type of executive that Gerry recommends appointing could be effective in acting across these. However he introduces a note of caution, suggesting that it may be more difficult than ever to kick-off cross-silo initiatives in today’s turbulent times.

I tend to agree with George on this point. Crises may deliver the spark necessary for corporate revolution and unblock previously sclerotic bureaucracies. However, they can equally yield a fortress mentality where views become more entrenched and any form or risk taking or change is frowned upon. The alternative is incrementalism, but as George points out, this is not likely to lead to a major improvement in the “IQ” of organisations (this is an area that I cover in more detail in Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI).
 
 
The causality dilemma

Which came first?

Returning to George’s chicken and egg question, do intelligent enterprises build good business intelligence, or does good business intelligence lead to more intelligent enterprises? Any answer here is going to vary according to the organisations involved, their cultures, their appetites for change and the environmental challenges and evolutionary pressures that they face.

Having stated this caveat, my own experience is of an organisation that was smart enough to realise that it needed to take better decisions, but maybe not aware that business intelligence was a way to potentially address this. I spoke about this as one of three sceanrios in my recent artcile, “Why Business Intelligence projects fail”. Part of my role in this organisation (as well as building a BI team from scratch and developing a word-class information architecture) was to act as evangelist the benefits of BI.

The work that my team did in collaboration with a wide range of senior business people, helped an organisation to whole-heartedly embrace business intelligence as a vehicle to increasing its corporate “IQ”. Rather than having this outcome as a sole objective, this cultural transfomation had the significant practical impact of strongly contributing to a major business turn-around from record losses over four years, to record profits sustained over six. This is precisely the sort of result that well-designed, well-managed BI that addresses important business questions can (and indeed should) deliver.
 
 
Another sporting analogy

I suppose that it can be argued that only someone with a strong natural aptitude for a sport can become a true athlete. Regardless of their dedication and the amount of training they undertake, the best that lesser mortals can aspire to is plain proficiency. However, an alternative perspective is that it is easy enough to catalogue sportsmen and women who have failed to live up to their boundless potential, where perhaps less able contemporaries have succeeded through application and sheer bloody-minded determination.

I think the same can be said of the prerequisites for BI success and the benefits of successful BI. Organisations with a functioning structure, excellent people at all levels, good channels of communication and a clear sense of purpose are set up better to succeed in BI than their less exemplary competitors (for the same reason that they are set up better to do most things). However, with sufficient will-power (which may initially be centred in a very small group of people, hopefully expanding over time), I think that it is entirely possible for any organisation to improve what it knows about its business and the quality of the decisions it takes.

Good Business Intelligence is not necessarily the preserve of elite organisations – it is within the reach of all organisations who possess the minimum requirements of the vision to aspire to it and the determination to see things through.
 


 
George M. Tomko is CEO and Executive Consultant for Tomko Tek LLC, a company he founded in 2006. With over 30 years of professional experience in technology and business, at the practitioner and executive levels, Mr. Tomko’s goal is to bring game-changing knowledge and experience to client organizations from medium-size businesses to the multidivisional global enterprise.

Mr. Tomko and his networked associates specialize in transformational analysis and decision-making; planning and execution of enterprise-wide initiatives; outsourcing; strategic cost management; service-oriented business process management; virtualization; cloud computing; asset management; and technology investment assessment.

He can be reached at gtomko@tomkotek.com
 

Chase Zander Forums – IT Director Report and Change Director Invitation

Following on from my series of posts about the inaugural Chase Zander IT Director Forum that I helped to organise earlier in the year, a report covering the event, which was held in Birmingham, has just been released by Chase Zander themselves.

Anyone interested in learning more about what goes on at these events is welcome to view the document, a PDF version of which may be downloaded here.
 


 
The next Chase Zander event is the Change Director Forum (attendance at which moved me to write the very first article on this blog: Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus). This will be held in London on the evening of 9th July 2009 at the following venue:

Address: St. Clement’s House
27 – 28 Clement’s Lane
London EC4N 7AE
Nearest tubes: Bank or Monument
Map: click here

 
Registration starts at 17:30 and the event itself kicks of at 18:15.

Details of the programme will be published nearer the date.

Attendance is free, but prior registration is required. Please mail Emily White at emily.white@chasezander.com or call her on 0870 997 9014.
 

“Big vs. Small BI” by Ann All at IT Business Edge

Introduction

  Ann All IT Business Edge  

Back in February, Dorothy Miller wrote a piece at IT Business Edge entitled, Measuring the Return on Investment for Business Intelligence. I wrote a comment on this, which I subsequently expanded to create my article, Measuring the benefits of Business Intelligence.

This particular wheel has now come full circle with Ann All from the same web site recently interviewing me and several BI industry leaders about our thoughts on the best ways to generate returns from business intelligence projects. This new article is called, Big vs. Small BI: Which Set of Returns Is Right for Your Company? In it Ann weaves together an interesting range of (sometimes divergent) opinions about which BI model is most likely to lead to success. I would recommend you read her work.

The other people that Ann quotes are:

John Colbert Vice president of research and analytics for consulting company BPM Partners.
Dorothy Miller Founder of consulting company BI Metrics (and author of the article I mention above).
Michael Corcoran Chief marketing officer for Information Builders, a provider of BI solutions.
Nigel Pendse Industry analyst and author of the annual BI Survey.

 
Some differences of opinion

As might be deduced from the title of Ann’s piece the opinions of the different interviewees were not 100% harmonious with each other. There was however a degree of alignment between a few people. As Ann says:

Corcoran, Colbert and Thomas believe pervasive use of BI yields the greatest benefits.

On this topic she quoted me as follows (I have slightly rearranged the text in order to shorten the quote):

If BI can trace all the way from the beginning of a sales process to how much money it made the company, and do it in a way that focuses on questions that matter at the different decision points, that’s where I’ve seen it be most effective.

By way of contrast Pendse favours:

smaller and more tactical BI projects, largely due to what his surveys show are a short life for BI applications at many companies. “The median age of all of the apps we looked at is less than 2.5 years. For one reason or another, within five years the typical BI app is no longer in use. The problem’s gone away, or people are unhappy with the vendor, or the users changed their minds, or you got acquired and the new owner wants you to do something different,” he says. “It’s not like an ERP system, where you really would expect to use it for many years. The whole idea here is go for quick, simple wins and quick payback. If you’re lucky, it’ll last for a long time. If you’re not lucky, at least you’ve got your payback.”

I’m sure that Nigel’s observations are accurate and his statistics impeccable. However I wonder whether what he is doing here is lumping bad BI projects with good ones. For a BI project a lifetime of 2.5 years seems extraordinarily short, given the time and effort that needs to be devoted to delivering good BI. For some projects the useful lifetime must be shorter than the development period!

Of course it may be that Nigel’s survey does not discriminate between tiny, tactical BI initiatives, failed larger ones and successful enterprise BI implementations. If this is the case, then I would not surprised if the first two categories drag down the median. Though you do occasionally hear horror stories of bad BI projects running for multiple years, consuming millions of dollars and not delivering, most bad BI projects will be killed off fairly soon. Equally, presumably tactical BI projects are intended to have a short lifetime. If both of these types of projects are included in Pendse’s calculations, then maybe the the 2.5 years statistic is more understandable. However, if my assumptions about the survey are indeed correct, then I think that this figure is rather misleading and I would hesitate to draw any major conclusions from it.

In order that I am not accused of hidden bias, I should state unequivocally that I am a strong proponent of Enterprise BI (or all-pervasive BI, call it what you will), indeed I have won an award for an Enterprise BI implementation. I should also stress that I have been responsible for developing BI tools that have been in continuous use (and continuously adding value) for in excess of six years. My opinions on Enterprise BI are firmly based in my experiences of successfully implementing it and seeing the value generated.

With that bit of disclosure out of the way, let’s return to the basis of Nigel’s recommendations by way of a sporting analogy (I have developed quite a taste for these, having recently penned artciles relating both rock climbing and mountain biking to themes in business, technology and change).
 
 
A case study

Manchester United versus Liverpool

The [English] Premier League is the world’s most watched Association Football (Soccer) league and the most lucrative, attracting the top players from all over the globe. It has become evident in recent seasons that the demands for club success have become greater than ever. The owners of clubs (be those rich individuals or shareholders of publicly quoted companies) have accordingly become far less tolerant of failure by those primarily charged with bringing about such success; the club managers. This observation was supported by a recent study[1] that found that the average tenure of a dismissed Premier League manager had declined from a historical average of over 3 years to 1.38 years in 2008.

As an aside, the demands for business intelligence to deliver have undeniably increased in recent years; maybe BI managers are not quite paid the same as Football managers, but some of the pressures are the same. Both Football managers and BI managers need to weave together a cohesive unit from disparate parts (the Football manager creating a team from players with different skills, the BI manager creating a system from different data sources). So given, these parallels, I suggest that my analogy is not unreasonable.

Returning to the remarkable statistic of the average tenure of a departing Premier League manger being only 1.38 years and applying Pendse’s logic we reach an interesting conclusion. Football clubs should be striving to have their managers in place for less than twelve months as they can then be booted out before they are obsolete. If this seems totally counter-intutitive, then maybe we could look at things the other way round. Maybe unsuccessful Football managers don’t last long and maybe neither do unsuccessful BI projects. By way of corollary, maybe there are a lot of unsuccessful BI projects out there – something that I would not dispute.

By way of an example that perhaps bears out this second way of thinking about things, the longest serving Premier League manager, Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, is also the most successful. Manchester United have just won their third successive Premier League and have a realistic chance of becoming the first team ever to retain the UEFA Champions League.

Similarly, I submit that the median age of successful BI projects is most likely significantly more than 2.5 years.
 
 
Final thoughts

I am not a slavish adherent to an inflexible credo of big BI; for me what counts is what works. Tactical BI initiatives can be very beneficial in their own right, as well as being indispensible to the successful conduct of larger BI projects; something that I refer to in my earlier article, Tactical Meandering. However, as explained in the same article, it is my firm belief that tactical BI works best when it is part of a strategic framework.

In closing, there may be some very valid reasons why a quick and tactical approach to BI is a good idea in some circumstances. Nevertheless, even if we accept that the median useful lifetime of a BI system is only 2.5 years, I do not believe that this is grounds for focusing on the tactical to the exclusion of the strategic. In my opinion, a balanced tactical / strategic approach that can be adapted to changing circumstances is more likely to yield sustained benefits than Nigel Pendse’s tactical recipe for BI success.
 


 
Nigel Pendse and I also found ourselves on different sides of a BI debate in: Short-term “Trouble for Big Business Intelligence Vendors” may lead to longer-term advantage.
 
[1] Dr Susan Bridgewater of Warwick Business School quoted in The Independent 2008
 

“Why taking a few punches on the financial crisis just might save IT” by Patrick Gray on TechRepublic

linkedin TechRepublic

Back on April 27th I wrote an article, The scope of IT’s responsibility when businesses go bad, that was inspired by a thread that Patrick Gray had started on the LinkedIn.com Chief Information Officer (CIO) Network group. This was entitled Is IT partially to blame for the financial crisis? (as ever you need to be a member of LinkedIn.com and the group to view these links).

Since then, there have been nearly 80 comments made by a wide variety of people, with an equally wide range of opinions. As can often happen in on-line discussions, positions were taken, attitudes were hardened and eventually some sort of stalemate was reached; probably as the protagonists were too weary to fight any more. In this respect seasoned IT professionals can be no different to teenagers discussing the merits of different genres of music! I certainly employed my method acting approach at a new level on this thread.

As a result of the overall feedback, Patrick has now composed a blog article on TechRepublic.com, an outlet that has also featured one of my favourite technology writers, Ilya Bogorad (see this earlier blog post). Patrick’s piece is titled Why taking a few punches on the financial crisis just might save IT and takes a thought-provoking stance with respect to the comments that his thread engendered. Here are the introductory remarks:

Patrick Gray believes that IT leaders still looking to find a seat at the C-level table might gain that influential position by taking a share of the responsibility for the failures that led to financial crisis.

It is certainly worth reading this article, but I recommend that you do so with an open mind.
 


 
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.
 

Maureen Clarry stresses the need for change skills in business intelligence on BeyeNetwork

The article

beyenetwork2

Maureen Clarry begins her latest BeyeNETWORK article, Leading Change in Business Intelligence, by stating:

If there was a standard list of core competencies for leaders of business intelligence (BI) initiatives, the ability to manage complex change should be near the top of the list.

I strongly concur with Maureen’s observation and indeed the confluence of BI and change management is a major theme of this blog; as well as the title of one of my articles on the subject. Maureen clearly makes the case that “business intelligence is central to supporting […] organizational changes” and then spends some time on Prosci’s ADKAR model for leading change; bringing this deftly back into the BI sphere. Her closing thoughts are that such a framework can help a lot in driving the success of a BI project.
 
 
My reflections

I find it immensely encouraging that an increasing number of BI professionals and consultants are acknowledging the major role that change plays in our industry and in the success of our projects. In fact it is hard to find some one who has run a truly successful BI project without paying a lot of attention to how better information will drive different behaviour – if it fails to do this, then “why bother?” as Maureen succinctly puts it.

Without describing it as anything so grand as a framework, I have put together a trilogy of articles on the subject of driving cultural transformation via BI. These are as follows:

Marketing Change
Education and cultural transformation
Sustaining Cultural Change

However the good news about many BI professionals and consultants embracing change management as a necessary discipline does not seem to have filtered through to all quarters of the IT world. Many people in senior roles still seem to see BI as just another technology area. This observation is born out of the multitude of BI management roles that request an intimate knowledge of specific technology stacks. These tend to make only a passing reference to experience of the industry in question and only very infrequently mention the change management aspects of BI at all.

Of course there are counterexamples, but the main exceptions to this trend seem to be where BI is part of a more business focused area, maybe Strategic Change, or the Change Management Office. Here it would be surprising if change management skills were not stressed. When BI is part of IT it seems that the list of requirements tends to be very technology focussed.

In an earlier article, BI implementations are like icebergs I argued that, in BI projects, the technology – at least in the shape of front-end slice-and-dice tools – is not nearly as important as understanding the key business questions that need to be answered and the data available to answer them with. In “All that glisters is not gold” – some thoughts on dashboards, I made similar points about this aspect of BI technology.

I am not alone in holding these opinions, many of the BI consultants and experienced BI managers that I speak to feel the same way. Given this, why is there the disconnect that I refer to above? It is a reasonable assumption that when a company is looking to set up a new BI department within IT, it is the CIO who sets the tone. Does this lead us inescapably to the the conclusion that many CIOs just don’t get BI?

I hope that this is not the case, but I see increasing evidence that there may be a problem. I suppose the sliver lining to this cloud is that, while such attitudes exist, they will lead to opportunities for more enlightened outfits, such as the one fronted by Maureen Clarry. However it would be even better to see the ideas that Maureen espouses moving into the mainstream thinking of corporate IT.
 


 
Maureen Clarry is the Founder and President/CEO of CONNECT: The Knowledge Network, a consulting firm that specializes in helping IT people and organizations to achieve their strategic potential in business. CONNECT was recognized as the 2000 South Metro Denver Small Business of the Year and has been listed in the Top 25 Women-Owned Businesses and the Top 150 Privately Owned Businesses in Colorado. Maureen also participates on the Data Warehousing Advisory Board for The Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver and was recognized by the Denver Business Journal as one of Denver’s Top Women Business Leaders in 2004. She has been on the faculty of The Data Warehousing Institute since 1997, has spoken at numerous other seminars, and has published several articles and white papers. Maureen regularly consults and teaches on organizational and leadership issues related to information technology, business intelligence and business.