Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Is any Business Benefit Gained by Adopting Collaborative Technologies Within the Workplace?

Not too long ago few, if any, in the workplace could really justify accessing the web from their workplace. Justification would normally relate to access to externally hosted services that added value to the corporation, or alternatively to conduct research or resolve problems, and for the IT department download patches and upgrades.

Over time applications have become thin client and have migrated to the web browser. Web access at work has become much more the norm – although there are normally limits to the sites that can be accessed. Of-course the web has evolved rapidly in the last few years, in particular with the addition of several web 2.0 services, such as:

  • Instant Messaging
  • Wiki
  • Web Logs
  • Social Tagging or Bookmarking
  • Social Networking
  • Ideas and interchange

It is argued that there is between a 2 and 6 fold productivity enhancement for any given large organization to adopt collaborative technologies. It can also be argued that early adoption will be progressive and lead to a corporation being at the forefront of an industry. Whilst the Internet is evolving the corporation must understand the business benefit each of these collaborative technologies bring and decide whether access to them is appropriate within their organisation, department, or workgroup. Any technology will only bring real benefit when it is intuitive, easy to use, and has a clearly stated value proposition.

When an organisation complements these technologies with unified communications strategy, that can operational and travel expenses, maximize employees productivity by better leveraging the ability to share knowledge in a online way, etc..

Instant Messaging

Is possibly one of the most prevalent tools in-use today. If used correctly it can allow a mechanism to communicate facts and actions in a timely manner. I have seen this empower communications between business partners, enabling corrective measures to be taken in a timely manner. The example I have personally seen was keeping open IM sessions throughout the warehouse picking process. The warehouse manager noted that the order for a customer seemed smaller than normal – turns out one item was short by a factor of 10 (e.g. 12 were on order instead of 120). The net result of keeping this communications channel open was rapid correction of a problem.

This represented an instant cost saving to the company as the normal impact of this error would have been sending an almost empty truck on an extra trip to add the extra items the following day (losing any profit made from this customer this week).

Ironic that the original connection was purely social between two long-term colleagues and friends.

Wikipaedia and Blogging

The biggest risk with the ability to ‘blog’ from work are twofold opening the corporation up to breaches of confidentiality and the risk of libel. Items on a corporate web-site are by definition published by the company, even if there is no official backing for the statement.

Certain tools have an innate benefit, especially when used inside the corporation, one example of this is the use of a corporate Wiki – which can be a great tool to educate new employees in the nomenclature, meanings, and procedures used in the corporation. It is ironic that the corporate Wiki is taking off just at the time that Wikipedia – the free encyclopaedia – is being slated as containing too much ‘fiction’.

We do live in an age of information. The problem is that more than half the information out in cyberspace is plain wrong or useless, just 0.01% is of any great value to any given situation.

One of the benefits that the Web Log, or Blog as it has become known, is the capability for anyone to publish whatever they wish. This writer has two separate blogs serving different purposes. To a large extent if Samuel Pepys were alive today he would be the master of the Blog and we would all feature in it. However the problem with so many blogs is that the standard of writing is generally low, and the contributions are often poorly researched and badly written. It could be argued that most add very little value to the corporation, but then there is the occasional expert blog that turns out to be the nugget in the rough.

IT people will know that there are blogs that have been created by experts on every piece of software available, and the workaround or fix is out there somewhere. It is often the first place they turn when they identify a problem. This type of blog can add value as it puts the developer in-touch with an expert (that is often one of the authors of the software).

The same could be said for business problems - blogs exist on a variety of subjects, e.g. implementing the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), just perform a Google search on your latest pain-point and someone else may be able to identify the steps needed to be taken to resolve the issue.

Tagging and Bookmarking

The benefits from associated with social bookmarking are associated with drawing traffic into a website through search engine optimisation. The tagging is supposed to give a boost to searches and draw traffic to a popular site. Within a day of your submitting your website to these bookmarking sites, you can expect to be visited by all the major search engines. Social bookmarking sites claim to guarantee a lot of traffic to flow from these sites to your site. Submit a detailed profile where you can list all your web pages and also post links to your sites, thus it is a form of self-branding.

The question is who determines popularity? In the proverbial battle between Mac and the PC, or between Microsoft and Linux can be swayed one way or the other by a determined set of social-bookmarkers favouring one side or the other of the debate. This can make competition for the corporate website against those with an axe to grind. The biggest concern therefore is that other influence the final search ranking, so the benefits can be seen at the most as marginal.

Can the benefit of social bookmarking outweigh the benefits of paid links? The paid link will bring you to the top of a relevant search, but the cost has to be considered for a small business. It can certainly be more precise than the whims of a casual passer-by tagging the site (or anti-site). There are also other methods to promote a web-site.

On the flip-side sharing bookmarks with colleagues can have a business benefit. We can both be looking at the same site, in working towards a common goal (but on the other hand it is possibly simply to email the link – that is the way we always used to do it).

Social Networking

It is true that people use the telephone, the fax, email and the Internet for purely personal use, and most organisations have usually given some latitude here. However research has shown that in most organisations it is a small number of people are responsible for a large amount of web usage. Adding Web 2.0 applications, particularly Social Networking into the mix does allow more opportunity for overburdening the corporate network. It is this more than anything that concerns the average corporation.

Corporate applications, email, data messaging etc all place a burden on the corporate network, which needs to remain fine-tuned to maintain optimal performance levels. The traditional view is that any use of corporate resources for entirely personal purposes creates an unnecessary burden on the corporation – e.g. making that photocopy, taking the pen from the stationery cupboard are actually a theft, however few organisations are willing to prosecute any but the most flagrant of breaches. Abusing corporate internet access falls under the same category.

The flexibility of Social Networking allows the potential for some employees to use large chunks of time on-line communicating with their friends and forget that are expected to work. The biggest concern with certain sites, e.g. FaceBook and YouTube, that are well know for providing video content. It is this video based content that is starting to take-up a large percentage of Internet bandwidth. Is there any justification for downloading/playing the video from last Saturday’s party to show to your friends at work? Probably not.

However there is another side to the concept of Social Networking – professional based sites such as LinkedIn, and industry specific networking sites, like IT Toolbox, offer a capability to extend our professional network that is not inherently about FUN but has an over whelming business goal. The principals of sharing are present. The risks of libel and breaches of confidentiality also exist here as a statement once made is permanently published

If you have a pressing business problem then you are likely to obtain some advice on how to solve that problem, or be referred to a specific expert through business focused social networking sites, the end result a solution. However should we seek an external consultant before we look at the expertise within our own organisation? During my consulting days I remember engagements I remember days of consulting effort had been spent when the ultimate answer came from the subject matter expert ‘down the hall’ who the project team had simply forgotten to involve in the project.

For certain disciplines (e.g. Information Technology) there have always been on-line reference sources or bulletin boards to assist in resolving that problem. Professional networks do combine well with expert blogs in order to provide answers (that is one of the reasons why I record good answers onto my web log – to ensure that they are retained for history sake).

Recruitment seems to be one area where social networks are booming – hiring managers are cutting out the middleman. It is cheaper to place an advert on LinkedIn than to use a recruitment consultant, especially where senior executives are sought. Further more it is possible to research candidates, see the recommendations that have been made about that person in recent position that they have held.

Of course recruiters are not missing out on this game seeking business through the same channels as are a plethora of other professionals, demonstrating their wares to a wider audience than they would otherwise meet, if you need to connect with someone to assist your relocation to California, a graphic design professional in Canada, a writer in New York, then I can help you.

Collaboration within the Workplace

In the course of managing corporate change projects there is always a need to build on multidisciplinary competencies in order to deliver effective change. Corporate-wide projects need the ability to collaborate on a global scale, not to mention the necessity to involve external specialists. The need for collaboration is not new, it has long been accepted that success is bred through collaboration, it is simply a new generation of tools that are making it easier to collaborate, even if project members are not in the same time-zone.

It is recognised that collaboration tools work best in cultures of knowledge sharing and reward. External consultants often get listened to because they have an expert label but solutions can often be found in-house.

Collaboration is especially relevant to:

  • Change management
  • Corporate project deployment (e.g. ERP or CRM deployment)
  • Innovation
  • Staff development

The most important component of any collaboration within the workplace is the people involved in the project, in particular those within the business community who will become responsible for day-to-day operations. Behaviour is critical to the success of any activity. It is often necessary to break down boundaries and silos in order to achieve success.

Technology should be used as a means to facilitate collaboration, e.g. tools such as on-line file sharing can be a contributor to success. Collaboration provides team members the capability to capture and debate ideas as-and-when they occur, enabling team members to constructively challenge one another, or identify risks associated with the choices that need to be made. This can have an impact on corporate culture and values.

The anticipated benefits of collaboration are relevant to every organisation. Ironically the use of software to support collaboration is not new, but the extent by which we are able communicate effectively has grown with sharing across the internet.

The ability to collaborate on projects has been present for much of the last 25 years, it is the tools we use to achieve the results that have changed. I have been involved in many international projects, where the whole project is managed centrally without needing to board a plane. Teleconferencing has facilitated this, but what was once only available in the largest corporate domain can now be done from the average PC. It is the use of technology to share information more effectively that can lead to a performance improvement. Thus the means to encourage collaboration are extremely wide and becoming more varied.

For further reading on the challenges of collaboration I recommend the reader look at Tension in Collaboration by Bruce Lewin.

Co-locating teams (and the opposite distance working), web based project management tools, voice and video conferencing, do place a greater need on collaboration but the technology has to be shown to bring a positive business benefit to each individual organisation. It is possible to demonstrate benefit for a change project of any type, but it is more difficult to show the same benefit for other business teams.


Where an organisations is oriented to collaboration within their relevant marketplace, data sharing between all organisations within the supply chain is instrumental in assuring higher levels of customer satisfaction that may be translated to a better competitive positioning.

Another cultural issue that is evolving is the whole concept around ownership of knowledge, or even the data that supports it. Many years ago a CEO made a statement to me that I have always remembered “the most precious commodity we have in this company is the data that we own”. This has been a guiding principle for most of my working life. Collaboration is important for the success of the organisation, but it is information that allows the organisation to succeed.

There are many Web 2.0 technologies that are now being promoted as new ideas - that are in-fact as old as IT. Instant Messaging it is not a new – it was in use in the 1970’s (OK it was not as swish as modern tools, but the basis was the same - to communicate with someone on-line). Likewise discussion forums have existed as long as we had modems to connect to some form of on-line service.

For other Web 2.0 technologies there are clear benefits to be identified, but not for every worker in every workplace. There is a view that says people will do this irrespective of IT support. The issue however is not about IT getting in the way, but about the corporate officers setting the usage policy. Web 2.0 applications are no different than those before them; corporate officers must still be concerned that corporate resources are used effectively and do not negatively impact productivity or profitability.

What has changed is how we are leveraging these capabilities to change business. Enterprise communications and collaboration requires:

  • The right building blocks, including an intelligent framework to combine voice, video, and data)
  • A preparedness to share knowledge,
  • A workforce that is empowered to integrate and collaborate.

Cisco (amongst others) is researching mechanisms that will provide an integrated workforce experience, see Web 2.0 in the Enterprise for Cisco’s proposal.

I still believe that the best foundation is a business that is seeking to leverage collaborative technology in order empower their workforce and provide tools and knowledge that will facilitate growth.

Peter B. Giblett

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Information Technology Perspectives 2008

Come the start of any new year there is a continuing trend of predicting the future by all the soothsayers in any industry. Well I thought I would add my penny’s worth to the predictions for the forthcoming year. I have done this as a targeted report for private clients in the past – this is the first time that I have done this for the industry in general.



Oracle Corporation boasts that its licence revenue is up by 38% and this is without any fusion of the product offering that has been promised for this year. Oracle has broadly three areas of expertise:

  • Database
  • Middleware; and
  • Applications

On the Database front – Oracle remains the corporate power database (despite advances from Microsoft). Its Data Warehousing offerings are now maturing. Oracle has primarily grown its capabilities by internal development. This author’s greatest concern is their adherence to the Warehouse Builder ETL tool – this is so far behind the competition that any organisation looking to build powerful solutions will look elsewhere for their integration/ETL tools (often Informatica). By comparison Microsoft’s offering in this area has become considerably smarter as an out-of-the-box offering.

I have over the past few years wondered why Oracle has not sought to purchase externally to make-up its deficit in the ETL market. Informatica and BPEL would make a powerful pairing. The development toolset continues to expand, but one weakness relates to tools for the SQL DBA or developer, where TOAD, DB/Artisan, and SQL Navigator continue to lead the field over Oracle’s SQL Developer offering.

Adding the Hyperion product line to the Oracle product set strengthens the Business Intelligence offering available, fitting alongside and complementing the Oracle BI Suite.

It is still early in the year but I do not see the application products being fused yet. In order for this to happen there and (and always were) significant challenges - for instance product offerings that do not easily meld together. Fusion is not simply a case of joining products together and hoping they fit; JD Edwards, PeopleSoft, Siebel, and Oracle E-Business Suite all offer Customer Relationship Management capabilities – these cannot simply be parcelled together with a cut and paste job. Fusion requires much re-programming.

Oracle has, generally, a good track record for not delivering before a product it is ready for market. The fused application offering may have an exciting future – but in the immediate period the user community will be nervous awaiting the news of what features will change (or even disappear) from their products.


Whilst Oracle has been busy transforming itself into the major corporate applications vendor Microsoft has not exactly silent in developing its offerings. The two companies do have some differences in focus (particularly as Oracle does not have any competitor for the operating system, “Office”, or games markets – and they show no intent to enter those marketplaces). They do share competition for the Database and Business Applications arena.

Microsoft’s growth within the application arena has also been based on acquisition, particularly with the building of the Dynamics product line. This product line is perceived as less widespread, or powerful when compared to some competing products. CRM is perhaps the best known of this product set. This commentator believes that Microsoft is looking out for other acquisitions to add to the Dynamics product line – as they do this they will be faced with similar problems that Oracle faces – which functions to retain and which to remove. Microsoft’s history is that they tend to remove functions they either do not understand or find awkward in the product set.

The Microsoft application acquisitions are arguably less scalable to the larger corporation than those provided by Oracle. I see fewer issues of scalability now than when the Dynamics applications were first purchased. This is largely because of the underpinning by the latest version of the SQL Server database platform. Any Corporation that uses the Microsoft database should have upgraded to 2005 by now to plug into the extra power and stability.

The Acquisition of ProClarity enhances the Business Intelligence offering and users should consider upgrading to Performance Point Server within the next 6 months in order to benefit further .

In the last 12 months Microsoft has made considerable headway in identifying its future product positioning and is starting to deliver against that plan, which is to be applauded.


Big blue has continued with its acquisition path. However with such a wide spread of applications it is not always possible to identify where the offerings will end up. Two notable purchases during 2007 were Data Mirror and Cognos.

When the Data Mirror tools were acquired I anticipated that they would be added to the Ascential toolset (now part of the growing Websphere family) but this has not yet occurred. I suspect that this acquisition was more about obtaining a new customer list than adding to the toolset (although good features will be stripped from Data Mirror).

The Cognos acquisition is a totally different category. Cognos has always been database independent with a large percentage of its market being Oracle based. It adds a more complete BI tool to IBM’s product set. Few of Cognos’s Oracle database customers will be interested in a move to DB/2 – this offers no advantage.

IBM will continue to grow by acquisition. This commentator is not convinced that they have any specific plan other than to build the product portfolio of the company that is very diverse due to its operating system and database mix.

One Size Does NOT (Necessarily) Fit All

These corporations and SAP would like to provide a single solution that works across the entire customer enterprise. Is it possible to provide such a solution? The simple answer is yes – not that any software vendor is in a position to do that today. This is at the heart of the corporate acquisitions.

From an end user business community perspective is such a solution desirable? Probably not. Software vendors are losing sight of that fact that software should be a tool to empower the business community. At least one of the top-tier software suppliers has a reputation for forcing customers to change their business practices to fit their software – this approach is no longer acceptable as it increases implementation costs. Good software is made to support business processes. It is for this reason ultimately that it is unlikely there will ever be a “one vendor fits all” solution. Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, and SAP will of-course argue the opposite.

The time has come for a return to implementation on a best-of-breed basis. The best production line solution does not come from the same company that produces the base accounting software. Single vendor solutions are a panacea that is best forgotten.

Other Software Vendors

Investigating the market over the last few months I have noticed that acquisitions seems to be the rule of the day. Specialist software suppliers, who have etched out a unique market focus are being acquired by other software vendors (who operate in complementary marketplaces). These mergers are not from the big-3 but by smaller vendors. This trend is likely to continue throughout 2008 and 2009. The attentive CIO will check what is happening to your proposed vendor before finalising that agreement.

Offshore Services

The two major offshore centres are currently India and China. Growth will continue for the Chinese at the expense of the Indian service providers. Throughout North America public opinion is increasingly against offshore service providers with demands for services to be brought back under internal control, particularly relating to help desk and customer services operations.

One thing that must be remembered when considering a new relationship is that prices are rising across India and salaries are rising for Indian developers, thus they are no longer as cost effective as they once were, particularly as the value of the US dollar falls.

Something to Enjoy

At least one part of the IT market is booming at the moment. In North America for 2007 two of the top 10 titles in the entertainment industry were both computer games – this is fantastic news. I expect this trend to continue.

Delivering Value for Money

Downturn in the USA

With a full-blown shrinkage underway in the US economy this will have an impact in IT budgets, when compared to 2006 or 2007. The manufacturing sector is likely to be impacted most with also financial markets being impacted. This means that CIO budgets will be tight for 2008. The US economy has a similar impact on Canada, Mexico, and the EU – eventhough these economies are not suffering an economic downturn at the moment.

The CIO will be charged with delivering value for money in the current period, as budgets are reined in. When I make such a statement I always feel this should be top of the agenda for any project delivery at any time, not just in a recession – but we all have to realize that value for money is always tested most during an economic downturn. Development is always an ongoing demand – the business community cannot to afford to wait till next year to make essential changes.

Deployment effectiveness

IT departments must remember their reason for existence – to facilitate business through interactive systems. A major aim has always been to aid profitability improvements, this is by either reducing costs or facilitating business development. IT should be a business facilitator providing accurate, flexible, and cost effective deliverables. Value for money implementations are more important now than ever before.

All system deployments will require realistic justification. True business benefits must be identified. The aim is to clarify for the decision makers the expected overall direction of the proposed project in order to support the financial justification. This can be aided by:

  • Incremental or staged deliverables focused on the needs of specific business units
  • Ensue a consistent approach is adopted for all deliverables
  • Adopt a quality first approach – have you adopted corporate-wide business rules, common terminology, and master data management?
  • Remember the technology base we are delivering against is undergoing significant change with all vendors adding to their product portfolios.

The best ROI occurs when projects are deployed to the business community faster. By this I mean we look in a delivery cycle for early quick wins and deliver to these within a short time-box. Time-boxing deliverables into a 6 to 12 week delivery cycle has a positive impact that the business sees results earlier and starts to adapt to new business processes earlier. It is not necessary to have all functionality working at the same time but project managers should take on a rolling delivery plan, delivering new functionality at planned and agreed regular intervals.

Short sharp deliverables can stop the focus on the legacy system problems that can get in the way of traditional waterfall type deployments.

The positive impact is that IT is seen as delivering rapidly and is continuing to deliver. The negative side of this approach is that some problems are not as easy to resolve as first thought. Therefore a stage may need to be delivered minus a critical component (which becomes a separate deliverable available as the next project stage). This approach works whether one is delivering custom coding or configuring pre-built business software.

Being frugal in project budgets should not mean sacrificing quality. The CIO needs to make the most of their available budget and spend it in the right areas.

System and hardware costs will need to be controlled – there will be no opportunity for a second dip at the budget – if you have not included a contingency for unexpected costs then try to negotiate these now! Please also take this opportunity to ensure your network is up-to-task. Ask your software vendors for an update on licensing costs (particularly if your software vendor has been acquired by one of the larger software vendors) – ensure you include all software tools in this assessment.

If such an option exists it may be wise to defer some costs till 2009 either by delaying project start dates or making suitable deals with suppliers, then take it.

Master Data Management

One of the keys to delivery effectiveness is the ability to manage data effectively. It has take a long time to ensure that corporations recognise their data assets, but this is now starting to occur. Understanding data ownership is key managing this asset correctly. This applies to customer, supplier, and product data alike.

Data should be managed by the IS department, but should be an asset controlled by the business community. For example it is the business who must ensure that we have full and correct details of the customer. Customer Services departments who maintain contacts with the customer should continue to check that the data held is up-to-date and correct. In some instances customer self-service web sites add an asset. Ultimately customer data will be stored into the CRM (or a customer database)

The IS responsibility is to ensue that the data is mastered correctly and disseminated to all systems requiring customer data. Ensuring that we maintain one master record per physical customer is still a challenge in some organisations.

The challenge during 2008 is to ensure than an effective Master Data Management strategy is put in-place that recognises data mastering to be a joint responsibility. Now more than ever before a corporation lives o dies on the quality of its data.

Privacy Laws

The requirement that applications, systems and databases obey privacy laws has never been more paramount. Privacy is the expectation that confidential personal information disclosed as a matter of business will not be disclosed to third parties. This has been a hot topic in both North America and Europe for the last 5 years and continues on the agenda. In the recent past USA has been criticized for not valuing personal information and data enough. It has created serious problems between the U.S. and European Authorities and continues to be the cause of trade and information security friction between the two economic zones.

Corporations needs to ensure that they maintain the right level of security to ensure customer data is not stolen. There have been some notable instances in the past year that have seemingly occurred as a result of gaps in corporate firewalls. Sometime it seems that whatever action is taken is not enough.

Corporate vigilance is required. Privacy is not simply in the Information Services domain – it is a business issues and the whole organisation requires the training and know-how to identify areas where the organisation can have weaknesses.

Technology Advances

One of the advances in the last couple of years has been in the area of multi-core chipsets. Its development improves energy efficiency of computers. I expect to see more deliveries using quad-core technology specifically in the server arena, as the foundation for the new data-centre. I also expect to see the number of “cores” increase in the chipsets.

There has been a long-running argument by the Apple Mac community about the superiority of their operating system over the PC – particularly as MAC pokes fun at Vista’s short-commings. The introduction of the Mac operating system on the Intel platform makes for an interesting future. I have heard that Dell is already considering selling the Mac operating system. I think this is an interesting scenario the leading corporate PC vendor adding an operating system to their portfolio, how many other vendors will follow suit?

Can this also provide an avenue for a supported Linux growth path? By the way that other apple wannabe icon the iPhone does not seem to be making the market inroads that were predicted for it as other smartphones seem to be holding their market share, with Nokia, Motorola, and Blackberry holding their own. This whole sector of the telecom market is expected to continue growing in 2008.

Will the High Definition disk war come to an end in 2008? There is some speculation that the Blu-Ray standard may be winning – but as soon as I say that someone will almost inevitably say the opposite. This commentator has been hesitant to buy any such device on the basis that I cannot predict the winner of this argument and I don’t want to be left holding a pink elephant.

…In Conclusion

2008 offers tighter IT budgets but for the astute IS manager there are more opportunities than ever before to work hand-in-hand with the business community. The key wins these year will be where IS provides real business benefit. Information Technology should simplify business processes – the tools are readily available to provide this capability it is a matter of implementing them.