Are You Asking Questions?

October 7, 2010

A nice article titled; The electronic health record meets the iPad from IT World Canada.

The articles demonstrates how Mr. Dale Potter, chief information officer at the Ottawa Hospital improved IT services at the hospital exponentially.

There is one key quotation that I want to point out regarding Mr. Potter’s work;

….. asked physicians how much of the information they needed in their work was available …

Look at the very first word in that quotation.


Asking questions.

How often does your IT Leadership actually do that? Or do they try to be prescriptive without asking those questions first?

The SMB Takeaway

Ask questions and then truly listen. Only then can you begin thinking of solutions or alternatives. It won’t always be easy.

Ask Questions

Photo Credit Leo Reynolds via flickr


How Can I Plan?

August 24, 2010

If you aren’t telling me what your plans are?

My research, and my recommendations have to be based on what your strategic goals and tactical plans are.

If you are the CFO / CEO of a small to medium business and you are responsible for IT, yet in my IT leadership role I have no clue what your thinking?

Then I can’t support those tactics or plans can I?

Would I research and recommend an IT infrastructure upgrade if you have already decided that you have outgrown our facility and are planning to move?

Would I recommend deferring a particular expense if your strategic plan contains a new revenue generation activity where that cost would actually be an investment to get you there?

A simplistic example

If your primary revenue strategy is moving boxes by the truckload off a loading dock, fancy IT tools may be just an expense.

But if your strategy is changing to become the go-to business that gets every box off of that dock and into the right customers hands in the least amount of time – those fancy IT tools may become a critical investment.

The SMB Takeaway

IT investment needs to support your business goals and your operational strategies.

If your IT team has no clue what these are – you are not going to get the IT support you should be receiving.

If you disagree? tell me why!

I wanted to break this into two posts, one as an introduction, and the second giving one recent example I experienced recently that demonstrates the concept.

As a general manager in an SME, there is a pretty good chance that your technology support individual or small technology team will be reporting to you, not to a dedicated IT Manager.

And as that general manager, you may feel that you don’t have the technical knowledge to question any recommendations or decisions made by your IT team.

Don’t feel that way! because that is a mistake, you don’t need to be a complete techie to ask these questions about these recommendations or decisions.

What the techies can forget

Quite simply, as a general manager, you are more likely to think about the second or third order consequences of any recommendation or decision. And unfortunately? too many technology specialists don’t.

As a business manager, your background could be sales, finance, or engineering. Whatever that expertise is, you already know that any decision analysis that is within the domain of your expertise has trade offs. Margin versus volume? Performance versus cost? As a manager, you know that you need to look beyond the basics into the longer term issues with any decision.

While your IT staff may give an idea or recommendation, they often neglect that longer term focus. They may think that recommendation is the  coolest new technology, but what are the second or third order consequences of that recommendation, of that idea, or that decision?

If your goal is reducing cost, perhaps that recommendation will increase costs because it requires secondary services or hardware that you don’t own.

If your goal is to try and use for as much as possible to reduce CAPEX costs, perhaps this recommendation is going to need new servers and tools on your site.

Now while you rely on your IT team for technical details, it still up to you to ask questions.

These don’t need to be tech questions, but general questions such as;

– Does this idea fit into our current infrastructure and goals? Or does it require new services such as new databases, servers, or technologies.

– Does this recommendation require anything different in the technology infrastructure we have? Or does it have dependencies that are needed that you may not be familiar with?

– Will this work with existing solutions such as our types of servers, or backup software? or does it require new investments and skill sets.

– Does this idea require long term operating costs and requirements?

THE SMB Takeaway

You already think of the trade offs that exist in any decision that you make. So don’t let the fact that you may not be a complete ‘techie’ put you off from understanding those trade offs when it comes to ideas presented by your business technology team.

Because too many technologists may not think of them.

And to ask those questions, you don’t need to know Linux from Windows, or MS SQL from MySQL.

No tech required!

UPDATE: Part 2 is now here

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Photo Credit frangipani photograph’s creative commons via flickr

Book Review: IT Savvy

November 30, 2009

I recently finished IT Savvy by Peter Weill, and Jeanne W. Ross. An excellent book, but I actually had to debate writing this review.

Quite simply, this blog is dedicated to you, the hard working executives and managers in the SMB space. And this text is applicable only to the largest SMB’s, with heavy emphasis on the larger enterprise.

That caveat aside, the authors present  an excellent prescriptive text on developing  a clear, vision forIT Savvyincorporating IT into a businesses strategic planning processes.

The first sections of the text walk through the definition of, and providing examples of, defining your unit operating models, because the linkage between the model and IT is critical. Correctly defining your operating model (ie competing as lowest cost provider, or innovator etc) is critical, because as the authors state;

Information technology does two things well;  integration and standardization

This emphasis is placed because it is that precise definition of your operating model that is needed to align the business with the high level requirements of the IT functionality required to support that model. In other words, choosing the wrong IT strategy for a particular model will not provide the benefits you are looking for.

The next section dives into the requirement of applying the correct funding model to your IT investments. As these funding decisions will determine that you are allocating funds to the right places, and for the right reasons, and receiving the appropriate returns. (as the authors state, if your funding decisions are made on the golf course, you have some work to do)

IT funding allocations must be transparent, repeatable and consistent and activity based in their costing formulas.

The next step? Optimizing your IT investment, this is the point where you are digitizing basic business operations, this is the cost reduction stage where you emphasize standard processes or improve data flow. Again depending on your operating model. One key quote I want to pull from this section;

A much tougher piece is the implementation of enterprise process

This is that key warning that applies to business of all sizes; tools such as ERP or POS software are dead last in the people, process then technology equation.

The final sections of the book close off with the critical concept of governance. As simply as it can be put; governance is the mechanisms, roles and formalized process that clarify accountability to fulfill strategic business objectives.

The authors define the following five elements as key in the governance process;

1) IT principles
2) enterprise architecture
3) IT Infrastructure
4) Business needs and project deliverables
5) IT investment & prioritization

And finally – the text closes off with the key leadership attributes needed to drive this change as this quote states; (emphasis original)

No vendor can drive value from IT for you. You can take a partner on an IT Savvy journey with you

Disclosure: Just as anyone that has studied any of the basic sciences can understand the concept the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it takes much more skill to actually use it. And as a manager in smaller SMB’s, this concept is the same for me. Certain of these concepts apply to many smaller businesses, but the actual execution of this in larger enterprises is beyond my pay grade.

Just so you know!

A September2009 Harvard Business Review article by W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne is an excellent piece on strategy. I wanted to pull out one comment in regards to the Business to Business space. The authors recommend that B2B businesses work on maintaining two value propositions;

… one for your customers and one for your customers customer

This is something that few businesses (large or small) do really well. But some can do it very, very well, and outperform because of it.

To revisit a conversation I wrote about previously, I had asked which is the easier sale; one where a customer needs to be sold on your product, or one where a customer comes in looking for your product.

I think that the answer to that one is pretty clear!

But what about when the end buyer does not purchase directly from you? Can we still get that customer researching their local market to find your product specifically?

The answer is yes. Effective marketing and brand awareness can do that. In this post I will stick to my IT experience and ask;

For Managers in B2B SME’s, are there ways that your IT can help your marketing efforts? Help in getting your customers customer looking for your product?

The method and ideas may differ depending on your industry, but how about some samples;

* Successful case studies prominently displayed on your Web Site, made easy to create by efficient content management systems?

* A Blog that allows your senior leadership to start down the road to being deemed as thought leaders in your industry or market?

* A world class web site that easily refers a prospect to your partnered retail network?

The SMB Takeaway

Again, these are just some off the cuff ideas, but in the SME manufacturing or distribution business, keep this second value proposition in mind – the one for your customers customer.

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Photo Credit KnownColor via flckr

As a C level executive, General Manager, or Owner of a small to medium business, too often we leave any talk (possibly even thought!) about our investments in technology assets and staff until the time something breaks.

And that is unfortunate!

Cambridge MA based Forrester Research identifies that 80% of businesses identify that their Information Technology (IT) is between “somewhat” and “critical” to business.

Yet still we often live with the mind set of; out of sight,out of mind. (at least until it breaks!)

Question: Have You experienced some of these symptoms?

Consistent and regular failure of your IT infrastructure? Maybe the Internet dies regularly, E-Mail seems to fail more often than it is working, people cannot log in to their workstations or cannot access the servers they need?

Or perhaps this one; You are paying IT staff or suppliers;

And yet…..

You are usually wondering what they do all day?

These are often symptoms of that out of sight,out of mind tendency that we all can have.

Fortunately it is relatively easy to begin changing this mind set without becoming a PhD in Computer Science!

You can change it simply by starting a regular conversation with your Information Technology Management team or supplier on the these two basics of IT service delivery blocking and tackling.

1) Is It Written Down?

If critical information exists only in the brain of one person, that person is a disaster waiting to happen. All IT assets and services must be documented.

That does not mean that you need 500 page manuals on each of your servers! Think of the assembly instructions for some piece of assemble it yourself furniture. As brief as can be while still maintaining all the critical information and relationships among the pieces.

Consider these documents a road map or cheat sheet of how each piece of your IT infrastructure supports and depends on other pieces. This documentation should remain fairly technical, the goal is not to have your grand mother be able to rebuild it (unless she was a computer expert of course!) but it should be explicit and clear enough that any individual with skills in that technology environment can use that documentation as a baseline to either rebuild,or keep moving forward.

As an example; if you are a manufacturing concern, I am quite confident that every time an operator for a particular machining tool leaves, that you are not going back to the machine vendor to re-train a new operator. You have the operating procedures and instructions both for training , and for operator substitution.

Why would you not do the same with your IT infrastructure?

2) Give Me The facts Please!

Our second tool in this basic blocking and tackling is maintaining records and reporting on all issues and requests that have affected your IT service delivery.

At it simplest, in your discussions with your IT Leadership; how many things broke last week? and most importantly, do we know why it broke? And how long did it take us to fix it?

You also want to know how many calls for help and service that your IT staff are dealing with. This should include everything from helping fix that corrupted Marketing presentation, to why that particular person is having trouble printing in landscape mode.

Using my same machine tool example, if that tool is failing regularly, you need to know why. And if regular operator issues are occurring, again, that can begin to point out trends or the requirement for improved training.

The SMB Takeaway

If you only talk to your IT staff or suppliers when things have broken, you will not be successful in monitoring or improving your IT service delivery and IT infrastructure reliability.

Without having to learn techno-speak, just beginning to ask these questions on a regular basis will begin to demonstrate what is happening within your IT organization.

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Photo Credit Leo Reynolds via flickr

You have set the vision for your IT team that aligns with your business goals.

But have you created a plan?

While a good vision can provide all staff with what the future should look like, it is your plan that will provide the driving directions that will get you there.

Create that plan, for near, mid and longer term goals.

Yes, it will probably change!

The world changes, the future is unknown. There will be changes in direction and detours, maybe even some flooded, washed out roads!

But you need that direction!

For you, a general manager in the SME space, there is one caveat though!

Good portions of the IT plan depend on your current business strategy. So yes your strategic planning must be part of the conversation.

My goal setting and IT planning to improve remote office connectivity and grow the infrastructure for three more remote facilities is as useless as a milk pail under a bull…

If this current economic climate has you planning to close down the existing two remote offices.

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Photo Credit teepoole  via flickr