Systems, Support Process

September 29, 2010

In the technology part of our businesses, words – and I mean simple words can be be confusing.

How about the word system?

First there are the definitions that we know from a standard dictionary.

Then there is the word System in the context  of  Systems Theory, which states that while individual parts may be independent, they also are interacting, therefor problems in one input can affect other outputs further down the value chain. (Which is a lot of the basis behind Theory of Constraints process modeling)

And finally, a common usage in business technology; a System being the computer server, storage, and/or software that provides a particular resource. As an example we talk of an E-Mail System, or ERP System.

All of these uses of the word are completely in line with the definitions that we have in our trusty dictionary, but what will get your technology projects, investments and communications into trouble is the over use of the word system in relation to the business process that your system is trying to help.

I found an excellent article by Bob Lewis titled; Business change methodology gaps. The article is written about business change, but one quote demonstrates how often we abuse the word system when used in relation to technology supported business process changes;

Most organizations are still stuck thinking in terms of system deployments rather than process changes. Don’t believe me? How many companies title their projects something like <System Name> Implementation? When the project title misses the point, how likely is it the organizational change will be on target?

Do your sales staff give a damn about a CRM System?

No – they don’t.

Your sales staff have issues ranging from managing communications to effectively managing the pipeline. They need a business process that alleviates the pain points in managing their communications and improve that pipeline management.

Managing those communications or pipeline issues requires looking at the business process. And asking how that process can be improved. And then leading the change for that process.

Once the process is looked at and understood, and a new process designed, can technology help? Certainly.

Technology can then help you standardize or automate parts of that business process.

The SMB Takeaway

I believe it is time that we seriously reduce our use of the word System when it comes to any corporate IT enabled project, change or initiative.

As Mr. Lewis states, lets call it what it is. It is business process. It may be process changes. But calling it a System just confuses the issue.

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IT, Age, and Skills Training

September 27, 2010

I was honored to be interviewed by Dave Webb for ComputerWorld Canada in this piece titled; IT doesn’t handle aging well (registration required)

The interview covered my dislike for how the technology field tends to throw out skills and buy new ones, rather than educate or train;

“We do have a bad reputation (in IT) as body shops, looking for two years’ experience in a six-month-old technology,”

And from a second interviewee, Lori Keith;

“without exception, classmates from the IT field were there on their own nickel”

Other industries don’t do this – why IT?

If you use Twitter at all, you are already aware that there is a trend that occurs every Friday where you call out a recommendation about an individual. And more importantly why you find that individual to be someone you recommend other people investigate and follow.

I confess that I never participated, simply because in most cases these #FollowFriday (or #FF) shout outs are really short on details of the true why that I would find value in that recommendation. Then Gini Dietrich (@GiniDietrich on Twitter) slapped me around and pointed out that this blog works for an expanded why I do a recommended Follow Friday.

So in greater than 140 characters, for today – My #FollowFriday recommendation is Mike Myatt. (@MikeMyatt)

As Chief Strategy Office at N2Growth, I was reading Mike’s blog before I was active on Twitter myself. So it was logical to look him up on Twitter when I joined.

Mike writes about Leadership. And he writes it in a direct, common sense, and participatory approach that kicks ‘buzzwords’ to the garbage can.

To quote one recent blog post;

..but I don’t care whether someone agrees or disagrees with me. In fact, in most cases I actually prefer to have my thinking challenged

And since challenge, and learning, is what my life is all about – I can’t trump that!

Computer Speeds and Relativity

September 23, 2010

And yes! that is a deliberate play on Einsteins’ theory!

We are human, and when dealing with concepts that either we do not understand, or we have an inability to immediately visualize, we tend to try and make a mental comparison about that concept relative to a concept that we can understand or appreciate.

To illustrate, consider all of the press coverage of the massive Gulf oil spill after BP’s DeepWater Horizon exploded and started spewing oil into the Gulf.

If your press coverage was like mine, after numbing your brain with a massive amount of oil measured in tens of thousands of gallons (or Litres), there was usually a reference relating that massive number to; “the equivalent of X Olympic sized swimming pools”

Putting in this relative reference allows our brain to put a rough estimate, or mental framework around what would otherwise simply be a dizzying number.

It is not just gulf oil, how many times in your life have you heard relative comparisons similar to;

– the length of three football fields
– as high as two Empire State buildings

And Computer speeds?

I was asked to get pricing on a new computer workstation capable of very demanding, very heavy duty work. The tasks the machine would be doing included creating and editing of massive digital imagery, manipulating, editing and working with full screen quality video, and other compute intensive tasks.

I checked various machines and their specifications with corresponding prices, then supplied a recommendation.

It went over like a lead balloon

A week or so later, I was asked why a local Big Box computer retailer had computers with the same computer processor, the same amount of RAM (memory) but about one half the cost?

I had made a mistake.

I had forgotten this relativity.

In modern computers, the processor, or brain, of the computer is no longer the single key to how that machine will perform. Basically, a computers fitness for your purpose is driven by many other pieces of the machine.

So, how did I try and recover from my error?

First I told a story, then related that story to the specifications of the computer.

You don’t need to be a fan of auto racing to grasp the idea that taking the engine out of a racing car and sticking it into your minivan won’t let you win the Montreal Grand Prix. (or Brickyard if you prefer!)

Sure, the engine is a big part of a race car, but it has a stellar supporting cast in transmission, suspension, and brake components. And your minivan? well it does not have that all star supporting cast.

I then showed three computer specifications with exactly the same processor, and same memory. One machine was a consumer product, the second a mid range general purpose business machine, the third a high end engineering class workstation. I could then point out visually the differences in this supporting cast of components.

In our race car, the supporting cast includes the suspension and brakes, some of the computer related supported cast includes the electrical speed of the data bus (in MHz) that ferry’s data in and out of the processor. The speed and size of the layer 2 and 3 cache (that increases the predictive opportunity for the processor) The speed and architecture of the RAM chips.

These supporting pieces are what separates the race car computer from the minivan.

The SMB Takeaway

There is more to know than the type of processor and how much RAM is in a computer to determine if it is fit four your purpose.

If the workload is heavy and complex, look at the improved supporting cast. If not? you can get away with out it.

PS, did my recommendation get accepted?

Actually no! armed with that information an even higher powered machine was preferred- but hey – all is good.

Photo Credit Martin Pettit via flickr

On Context Blindness

September 21, 2010

I am sure most of us have had this happen; you run into someone familiar and then stand there drawing a blank.

You are completely lost for words.

You know that you recognize this individual, but you  just can’t place from where.

Then the light bulb clicks on! the familiar face is a child’s teacher, the owner of your local dry cleaner, or the gas bar jockey you see twice a week.

This disconnect when we see people that we are familiar with, but outside of the context that we usually see them, well – it can throw us for a loop. Our mental circuitry seems to have difficulty in making that association without that associations familiar context.

Let me relate a story, and then ask how this type of context blindness may be affecting us as leaders and managers in our businesses.

A Tech Guys Context Blindness (mine)

It started simply enough, about two years ago we bought a new, fairly high end refrigerator. Over the past couple of months we have been getting frustrated as this new machine has been acting up. The first service call had the technician basically tell us that nothing was wrong. (lets not get into service call ‘sometime between 9 and 5’ here)

But the issues persisted, so we called for service again.

I gave the service technician the outline of what the symptoms were, and the technician instantly replied;

I know this area, you have lots of power surges out here….

Before he finished the above phrase – it smacked me like a punch in the stomach.

Because?

#1 I have been in technology for 20 years, and I know rule number one!  And that rule states that if there is a computer style circuit board anywhere in a device, put it on an electrical surge suppressor to protect it from power spikes.

#2 Logically I knew that the refrigerator had a computer circuit board, simply because all of its controls for the temperature settings,  automatic defrost etc. are all digital!

The Blindness

Simply put – my mental context of protecting computer circuit boards with electrical surge protectors, failed to connect the mental dots between what I know about protecting electronic devices, and what I know about this refrigerator.

And yes – the problem with my refrigerator? that circuit board had blown, usually caused by power spikes.

And Our Business?

Do you have a context specific form of tunnel vision? where you know A and you know B, but is there a piece missing that could turn out to be a new product or service?

Have you mechanized your thinking too the point where you cannot notice the pain point that could be crying out for a solution?

Have you been desperately searching for some way to purchase innovation, when managing this missing context is right before your eyes?

The SMB Takeaway

I am entering this week determined to take a new look at everything that I know within the context of our business. Because who knows if another piece of context blindness is lurking around.

PS, I purchased a new computer grade surge suppressor for my refrigerator.

On Designing Systems & Process

September 17, 2010

My thanks to Eric Brown, who graciously accepted a guest post of mine on his Technology, Strategy, People and Projects blog.

The post does a brief comparison of business processes with personal time management.

As individuals, things can fall through the cracks, ditto for business.

As individuals, rework and lost time can occur, again ditto for business.

Add Eric’s blog to your regular reading!

For many IT leaders in the SME space, thinking about technology is easy.

But thinking about how technology affects the goals and problems of other parts of the business, or external customers is harder.

Technologists tend to look only in the mirror. This type of business introversion is similar to the old adage; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

To improve IT performance smash that mirror and start looking out the window. If you want to borrow another old adage; walk a mile in their shoes.Walk in their shoes

Can you describe the goals and problems facing your sales team? How about marketing? Now how about your customers?

If you can’t answer those questions, observe, research, and ask.

What if you can describe their problems and goals?

Congratulations on a great start, unfortunately that is the easy part.

Influencing and proposing methods to improve ‘the way we always do it around here‘ beast is the harder part.

But it is still the part that has to be done correctly.

Image credit ppphotographs via flickr