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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
This is another in my occasional series in which I draw conclusions about business, technology and change from my experiences in various of the sports that I enjoy. The first article in this series was Perseverance, which compared the degree of effort required to succeed in rock climbing with that necessary in change management. Here I am going to focus on another of my pastimes, mountain biking.
Some background on Mountain Biking
Mountain biking (invariably abbreviated to MTBing, with the bikes themselves called MTBs) is something that I have got into more recently than rock climbing, but I suppose there are some parallels between the two. My path into rock climbing started with loving walking in the outdoors, which became hill-walking, which became scrambling (hill-walking where you have to use your hands to get through steeper sections), which eventually became rock climbing. Starting at the same place, MTBing is another logical progression from general and hill-walking. While rock climbing was about increasing the angle at which I moved (to vertical and then over-hanging), MTBing was about increasing my speed.
Another thing that rock climbing and MTBing have in common is their adherents’ obsession with equipment. With rock climbing this ranges from the shoes you use, to bouldering mats, to ropes, to the various pieces of equipment that you use to protect yourself. With MTBing, the focus is mostly on the bike itself.
There are two main types of mountain bikes: hard tails and full suspension bikes. Hard tails have a shock absorber at the front, but the rear is essentially the same as in a road bike. An example of two hard tails appears below – these are actually my bike and my partner’s, both rather muddy from a day out.
Full suspension bikes (as the name suggests) have suspension at both front and rear. The fact that you also need to drive the suspended rear wheel with the pedals makes these types of bikes much more complicated from an engineering perspective (and inevitably more expensive). While some zealots aver that all you ever really need is a hard tail, regardless of the conditions, the majority accept that a full suspension MTB will allow you to take on more challenging terrain with greater comfort and security. It is full suspension bikes that I will devote the rest of this article to.
The anatomy of a full suspension mountain bike
The following is a diagram showing the general anatomy of a full suspension bike; the UK version of a Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Elite (the US one currently being black). The image is copyright Specialized, one of the most well-know bike manufacturers, but the annotations are mine.
As you might expect, one of the major factors influencing the performance of a MTB is the frame – this is the main structure of the bike, generally made from steel or alloy tubing, or sometimes carbon fibre in more expensive models. Helpfully in the diagram, the frame is essentially all the white bits. As we are talking about a full suspension bike, the back of the frame needs to flex in order to allow the rear wheel to move up and down.
The above design is for a cross country bike. This is the least aggressive type of MTBing and consequently places least stress on the frame. In this bike, the seat and chain stays (the triangular white bits at the back extending back to meet at the axle of the rear wheel) are both pivoted and their movement is damped by the rear shock absorber. In more full-on types of mountain biking (all mountain, free ride and down hill) the bikes can begin to resemble tanks – think of a 4×4 (SUV) compared to a regular car. Designs with a single, beefy swing arm at the rear are more common in these types of bikes.
However it is not the frame that I really want to focus on here, but the other components that go to make up the bike. Most of these are labelled in the diagram. Sometimes a bike comes complete with all of these and ready to ride. Other times you buy the frame only (or maybe the frame and shocks) and then add the other components that you would like to have. In this second approach the idea is to tailor the components to the type of riding that you want to do and of course to your wallet.
Often, even with a ready-to-ride bike, the owner might decide to upgrade some components, for example by purchasing a better front fork. Some of the manufacturers will sell you a ready to ride bike that has essentially all of their own components, but even then it is highly likely that the equipment for pedalling, changing gears and braking will be made by another organisation. On the bike in the diagram above, a lot of the components are from manufacturers other than Specialized. The range of other companies involved in the above bike includes:
Shimano – the crank arm, chain rings, pedals, front and rear derailleurs, gear shifters and rear sprocket
Avid – the brake assemblies and levers (Avid are now part of SRAM)
DT Swiss – the rear hub (the front one being by Specialized)
It is also worth noting that Specialized, more than most other frame manufacturers, are known for producing their own components – they even make the shock absorbers for many of their models. On a bike from another company, the seat post, saddle, head stem, handle bars and tyres would all also be from another organisation; often different ones to those listed above.
The connection with Systems Integration
While, as mentioned above, the frame plays a very important role in determining how well a bike performs (and it is generally the most expensive part of the bike), what really leads to a great bike is how all of the different components are blended together. While Component A may be great on Frame X, working with Component B, it will be a much less good choice for Frame Y, working with Component C. The other factor that comes into this is of course cost and this makes a balance even harder to find.
It is in the above area that I see some similarities with systems integration. Here too the aim is to make products from different organisations work in harmony in order to deliver the greatest level of effectiveness at the lowest cost. Here too trade-offs will be necessary to meet the often incompatible goals of performance/functionality and cost. In systems integration, as in MTBing above, Product A may work well with Product B in Industry X, but be a bad option to run with Product C in Industry Y.
The most expensive is not necessarily the best
An interesting observation in MTBing is that simply picking the most expensive component in each category will not necessarily lead to the best performing bike. Some components suit the geometry of some bikes and work well in conjunction with other components regardless of cost. Here is just one example from a review of a bike in a magazine I subscribe to, Mountain Bike Rider (or MBR). The bike in question is a Giant Trance X5 and it just came first in MBR’s review of full suspension bikes under £1,000 ($1,500 – though it is probably cheaper than that in the US). This bike received a rating of 9/10 from MBR. Here is a picture of it:
This bike features an OEM rear shock as below (image copyright MBR):
Here is what MBR had to say about it (note that Fox – whose shocks were featured on the Specialized Stumpjumper above – produce both the most respected and most expensive shocks in the industry):
We found this presumably cheap own-brand unit to be the best we’ve ridden on a Maestro linkage [the type of rear pivot arrangement featured on the bike], whether by chance or design. It felt like it had less compression damping and married with the linkage better than any Fox unit we’ve tried. It was a lot more active, allowing the Maestro design to track the terrain better on this bike than on any other Giant Trance we’ve ridden previously.
It is worth noting that MBR terminology can be just as confusing as IT jargon until you get used to it. The above quote is actually relatively light on terminology.
While it is dangerous to extend some analogies too far, I think that there is something to be learnt here about how to run systems integration projects. It is the systems that work best with the other parts of the design that should be selected, not those that have the best features when considered in isolation, or those that come from the most prestigious companies.
It used to be said that buying the products of some IT vendors was a sure way to avoid getting fired (the vendors mentioned have varied over time). The above insight from the world of mountain biking suggests that looking beyond the obvious (and often more expensive) products may sometimes yield significant benefits.
Information is one of the key components of any IT organization (I would personally argue it’s more important than the technology aspect). Two facts disturb me when one looks at IT’s role in the financial crisis:
1) We in IT have been pushing data warehouse and business intelligence technology for years, saying these technologies should allow for “proactive” decision making at all levels of an organization, and an ability to spot trends and changes in a business’ underlying financial health.
2) The finance industry is usually spends more on IT than any other industry.
This being the case, if BI actually does what we’ve pitched it to do, shouldn’t one of these fancy analytical tools spotted the underlying roots of the financial crisis in at least one major bank? Is IT partially culpable for either not looking at the right data, or selling a bill of goods in terms of the “intelligence” aspect of BI?
I have written elsewhere on LinkedIn.com about business intelligence’s role in the financial crisis. My general take is that if the people who were committing organisations to collateralised debt obligations and other even more esoteric assent-backed securities were unable (or unwilling) to understand precisely the nature of the exposure that they were taking on, then how could this be reflected in BI systems. Good BI systems reflect business realities and risk is one of those realities. However if risk is as ill-understood as it appears to have been in many financial organisations, then it is difficult to see how BI (or indeed it’s sister area of business analytics) could have shed light where the layers of cobwebs were so dense.
So far, so orthodox, but Patrick’s question got me thinking along a different line, one that is more closely related to the ideas that I propounded in Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus last year. I started wondering, ‘is it just too easy for IT to say, “the business people did not understand the risks, so how were we expected to?”?’ (I think I have that punctuation right, but would welcome corrections from any experts reading this). This rather amorphous feeling was given some substance when I read some of the other responses.
However, I don’t want to focus too much on any one comment. My approach will be instead to take a more personal angle and describe some of the thoughts that the comments provoked in me (I am using “provoked” here in a positive sense, maybe “inspired” would have been a better choice of word). If you want to read my comments with the full context, then please click on the link above. What I am going to do here is to present some excerpts from each of my two lengthier contributions. The first of these is as follows (please note that I have also corrected a couple of typos and grammatical infelicities):
Rather than being defensive, and as a BI professional I would probably have every right to be so, I think that Patrick has at least half a point. If some organisations had avoided problems (or mitigated their impact) through the use of good BI (note the adjective) in the current climate, then BI people (me included) would rush to say how much we had contributed. I have certainly done this when the BI systems that I have implemented helped an organisation to swing from record losses to record profits.
Well if we are happy to do this, then we have to take some responsibility when things don’t go so well. It worries me when IT people say that non-IT managers are accountable for the business and IT is just accountable for IT. Surely in a well-functioning organisation, IT is one department that shares responsibility for business success with all the other front-line and service departments.
I have seen it argued with respect to failed financial institutions that IT can only provide information and that other executives take decisions. Well if this is the case, then I question how well the information has been designed to meet business needs and to drive decisions. To me this is evidence of bad BI (note the adjective again).
There are some specific mitigating factors for IT within the current climate, including poor internal (non-IT) governance and the fact that even the people who were writing some financial instruments did not understand the potential liabilities that the we taking on. If this is the case, then how can such risk be rolled up meaningfully? However these factors do not fully exculpate IT in my opinion. I am not suggesting for a second that IT take prime responsibility, but to claim no responsibility whatsoever is invidious.
So yes either poor information, or a lack of information (both of which are IT’s fault – as well as that of non-IT business folk) are a contributory factors to the current problems.
Also, while IT managers see themselves as responsible only for some collateral department, semi-detached from the rest of the business, we will see poor IT and poor information continuing to contribute to business failure.
This is the second passage:
I just wonder how it is that IT people at such firms can say that any failures are 100% nothing to do with them, as opposed to say 1% responsibility, or something of that nature.
Part of the role of professionals working in BI is to change the organisation so that numerical decision making (backed up of course by many other things, including experience and judgement) becomes part of the DNA. We are to blame for this not being the case in many organisations and can’t simply throw our hands up and say “wasn’t me”.
I will freely admit that there was a large dose of Devil’s Advocate in my two responses. As I have stated at the beginning of this piece, I am not so masochistic to believe that IT caused the current financial crisis, however I do not think that IT can be fully absolved of all blame.
My concerns about IT’s role relate to the situation that I see in some companies where IT is a department set apart, rather than being a central part of the overall business. In this type of circumstance (which is perhaps more common than anyone would like to think), the success of the IT and the non-IT parts of the business are decoupled.
Under these arrangements, it would be feasible for IT to be successful and the business to suffer major losses, or for the business to post record profits while IT fails to deliver projects. Of couse such decoupling can happen in other areas; for example Product A could have a stellar year, while Product B fails miserably – the same could happen with countries or regions. However there is something else here, a sense that IT can sometimes be an organisation within an organisation, in a way that other service departments generally are not.
Rather than expanding further on this concept here, I recommend you read Jim Anderson’s excellent article Here’s What’s Really Wrong With IT And How To Fix It on his blog, The Business of IT. I think that there is a good deal of alignment between Jim and I on this issue; indeed I was very encouraged to find his blog and see that his views were not a million miles from my own.
I would also like to thank Patrick for posting his initial question. It’s good when on-line forums lead you to take an alternative perspective on things.
Gavin quotes Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, as saying that his corporation will be “sticking to the knitting” in response to Oracle‘s swoop on Sun. He goes on to cover some aspects of the Oracle / Sun link-up; specifically referring to the idea of “BI in a box” that seems to be gaining credence as one rationale for the deal. In his words, this trend is about:
storing, serving, and understanding information […]: the trend for getting fast access to huge quantities of data on massive networks and making sense of it.
However mention is then made of co-offerings that Oracle and HP have teamed up to make in this space – surely something that would be potentially jeopardised by the Sun acquisition:
Oracle last year announced the HP Oracle Exadata Storage Server and HP Oracle Database Machine, a box from Hewlett-Packard featuring a stack of pre-configured Exadata Storage Servers all running Oracle’s database and its Enterprise Linux.
Returning to Microsoft’s response, the article stresses their modus operandi of focussing on software components and then collaborating with others on hardware. Refernce is also made to Kilimanjaro, Microsoft’s forthcoming SQL Server version that will further emphasise business intelligence capabilities.
In closing Gavin states that:
Acquisition of a hardware company would break the DNA sequence and fundamentally change Microsoft in the way that owning Sun’s hardware business will change Oracle.
It’s tempting to note that DNA is broken (and then recombined) millions of times by RNA Polymerase, that is after all how proteins are synthesised in cells; one characteristic of Microsoft’s success (notwithstanding its recent announcement of its first ever dip in sales) has been a willingness to reinvent parts of its business (else where did the XBox come from), while relying on a steady income stream from others. When it comes to the idea of Microsoft acquiring a major hardware vendor, I agree it seems far-fetched at present, but never say never.
The Register is the one of the world’s biggest online tech publications and is headquartered in London and San Francisco. It has more than five million unique users worldwide. The US and the UK account for more than 1.5 million readers each a month.Most Register readers are IT professionals – software engineers, database administrators, sysadmins, networking managers and so on, all the way up to CIOs. The Register covers the issues they face at work every day – in software, hardware, networking and IT security. The Register is also known for its “off-duty” articles, on science, tech culture, and cult columnists such as BOFH and Verity Stob, which reflect our readers’ many personal interests.
Also, earlier my initial reaction to the news was also featured in Computing.co.uk coverage. I have had a long relationship with Computing and VNUNet in general. Other Computing articles referencing my work and opinions may be viewed on the Press Case Studies and Interviews page of the Public Presence section of this site.
Computerworld, the world’s most successful media brand for IT managers, was originally launched in the US in 1969. Since then it has earned a world-class reputation by maintaining a sharp focus on IT management. Today there are 57 editions of Computerworld around the globe serving a combined audience of over 14 million IT professionals.Computerworld and Computerworld.com and the respective logos are trademarks of International Data Group Inc.
One area that people seem agreed upon is the importance of Java to Oracle’s application strategy, so it makes sense – as a defensive move if nothing else – for them to seek to prevent influence over its future direction falling into the hands of a competitor (which in turn raises the question of when exactly Oracle and Sun started talking and how much overlap there was with the IBM negotiations).
The future of MySQL seems less clear. Some commentators feel that Oracle will support it and allow it to continue to thrive as one of their products. At the other extreme, I have seen suggestions that it will be killed off. Of course as an open source database, this might be easier said than done. There seems to have been a steady trickle of MySQL people out of Sun, pre-acquisition and I would have thought that there is enough expertise and ownership outside of Oracle/Sun for MySQL to have some sort of future regardless of Oracle’s strategy for it.
A bit of a dark horse is OpenOffice.org. A lot of commentary has focused on Oracle positioning themselves to compete with IBM via the acquisition. Perhaps OpenOffice.org offers Larry Ellison another chance to cross swords with his old adversaries at Microsoft.
Moving from software to operating systems, Sun’s Solaris has probably suffered more than most from the rise of Linux, but there have been rumours about Solaris offering Oracle a better route to the current technology Nirvana of cloud computing. Whether this is really the case, I’ll leave to more technically competent authorities to discuss.
But beneath Solaris beats the SPARC chips and other components of Sun’s hardware. Is Oracle’s real aim to offer a complete solution: ERP, CRM, BI and DW in a box? Sun’s hardware has not exactly been flying off the shelf in recent months, but perhaps the sales team at Oracle have other ideas. Maybe their feeling is that all that Sun’s boxes need is to be part of a more alluring overall package. Leveraging Sun’s hardware and operating system is what many people assume is behind Oracle’s strategy. This is certainly the path that would lead to challenging IBM as a company that can meet many of an organisation’s needs as a one-stop-shop.
However, this segues into another observation. If Oracle really has IBM in its sights, then it lacks one crucial piece of ammunition, a global services organisation; the sort of outfit that IBM acquired from the hiving off of PwC’s consulting arm. Maybe now is a good time to but stock in CSC?
But to return to some of the points I made earlier, there is a further possibility. Perhaps Oracle don’t want to move into the fiercely competitive and low-margin arena of hardware sales after all. Perhaps it was Sun’s software assets that were the real goal. Does Oracle really want to position itself as a hardware vendor, no doubt poisoning strong relationships with people such as HP in the process? Maybe not. If this is indeed the case then maybe there will be a spin-off of Sun’s hardware assets, or indeed a sale to someone like HP – assuming that they wanted them.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Oracle’s proposed acquisition of Sun is just how many balls have been thrown up into the air by it. It will be really interesting to see how they fall over the next few months.
Some of the blogs that I have read on this subject are acknowledged at the end of my earlier article.
Today’s big news is of course that Oracle and Sun Microsystems “have entered into a definitive agreement under which Oracle will acquire Sun common stock for $9.50 per share in cash.”
As Sun’s press release goes on to say, “the transaction is valued at approximately $7.4 billion”. At the time of writing, Sun’s stock was up nearly 36% and Oracle‘s was down just over 1%. The price Oracle is paying represents a 42% premium over Sun’s closing stock price on Friday – that’s a big premium.
What is interesting is that the previous mooted IBM / Sun deal appears to have foundered at least partly on issues of price (though potential antitrust issues were also a concern). IBM was rumoured to have offered a price identical to what Oracle will now be paying. So what, taking Larry Ellison’s deep pockets to one side, was the difference?
Well while there seemed to be some synergies for IBM in the earlier deal (a big say in the future of Java obviously being one that would have attracted both suitors), the acquisition of Sun is unarguably a much more transformational event for Oracle. Despite Sun’s recent problems in shifting big iron (funny how UNIX platforms are now viewed that way isn’t it?), Oracle post-acquisition will have a product set ,matched by few companies. In fact it will probably be matched by only one: IBM. So, while buying Sun might have made business sense for IBM, it would not have changed the nature of the organisation overnight. Oracle’s announcement today would appear to have done just that, positioning them as the other big beast in the “buy everything from us” jungle. Whether this deal proves successful for all concerned (and not just Sun’s shareholders) is a question whose answer will probably not be clear for a long time.
Stepping back from all this IT fervour for a moment, it is perhaps instructive to compare the merger madness that seems to have taken over the sector with trends outside the technology industry. Here the picture is very different. Over the last 10 years the majority of sprawling conglomerates have been split up; previously cherished businesses have been spun off, or sold to competitors. This has all been in homage to the business school orthodoxy of focus and core competencies. Many an internationally renowned name now sells just a fifth of its previous product set, with other assets now owned by those who can presumably generate greater profit from them and who feel that they are more compatible with their own core strategy. Deals where two similar companies have swapped assets and businesses to create two more distinctive entities have been common. While it is always notoriously difficult to assess the impact of such trends, general opinion seems to be that this phenomenon has generated greater value (or at least destroyed less value) than the previous focus on mergers and acquisitions.
So where does this leave IT with its rash of mega mergers over the last couple of years? Well it could of course be argued that IT itself is a single sector (and thus an area of focus and core competency) and that mergers within the technology sector are not the same as say a consumer electronics firm taking over a Hollywood studio (Sony / Colombia TriStar) or old media taking over new (TimeWarner / AOL). But many elements of Sun and Oracle’s businesses are quite different from each other. Ellison must believe that he can run a more diverse stable and still breed winners. The track record of Oracle successfully managing acquisitions is mostly impressive, so he may have a point. Perhaps bucking the trend towards being highly focussed is a masterstroke. The merger may prove to be a Waterloo for the world’s third biggest software and services firm; but whether they are playing the role of Wellingtion or Napoleon remains to be seen.
UPDATE: The above chart reflects: “According to the recent JoinVision study ‘Open Source in the Fast Lane’, IT specialists indicated they deploy MySQL 30% more frequently than Oracle, SQL Server or DB2.” Not quite the same thing as market share.
You must be logged in to post a comment.