Posted by: Long Huynh | May 27, 2009

CIO: How Do You Stay Relevant to Business? – Part 2

 UPDATE.- If you like to comment on this post, please come over to its new home at www.tao-of-living.com.

This is a follow-up on an earlier post this week, CIO: How Do You Stay Relevant to Business? in which I suggested that the IT organization and its commander-in-chief, the CIO, could learn a lesson or two about Relevancy from one of the best organizations, the U.S. Marine Corps. Despite its repeatedly demonstrated value in war time, the Corps has struggled occasionally to stay relevant in peace time. Only through foresight, vision and perseverence that the Corps raised itself to the challenge and occupies today a privileged place in the hearts and minds of the U.S. military brain trust.

IT Relevancy to Business: Is It an Issue?

The pertinent question here is whether IT today encounters a similar issue of Relevancy to business, where information technologies are no longer in the exclusive control of IT. The short answer is Yes.

Ever since the publication of the article “IT Doesn’t Matter” by Nicholas Carr in the May 2003 edition of the Harvard Business Review, there was an avalanche of responses (1) from the IT world which, like in any good and spirited debates, took position on both sides of the fence. Carr and his supporters argued that IT has reached a commodity status therefore IT is no longer of strategic value to business. His antagonists (including such luminaries as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Intel’s Craig Barrett and Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy) offered a counter-argument that IT will always matter to business, like it or not. I won’t take side in this debate here, except to say that the article has sowed the seed of doubt in the mind of many business managers.

Almost exactly six years later, another article by Bob Evans in the April 22, 2009 edition of InformationWeek, Prove It’s Business Value to Your CEO – Or Else, raised the question of IT relevance again. This time, it’s the CIO who is challenged. In a mock “Dear Chris” letter from the CEO, he has pointedly asked the question:

“In the absence of that visibility [of the business value IT delivers], Chris, how can I as CEO get an accurate fix on how you and your team are doing? (…) and if you can’t quantify for me how you’re doing that, then I can’t have you as a CIO.”

The tone maybe a little overdramatized but the depicted situation is happening across Corporate Ammerica and many CIOs are squeezed hard by their boards.

How Did the Corps Manage To Stay Relevant?

Coming back now to the history of the Corps. You have learned of the Corps’ dark period between the end of World War II (1945) and the start of the Korean War (1950). And of the circumstances under which the Corps managed to gain 3 stays of execution, two through sheer determination of its leaders and one through an opportunity (2). You may learn that since the Inchon landing in September 1950, there was no looking back for the Corps and its Marines. Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq … there was no theater of conflict that didn’t see the presence of the Marines as the first response team in place. In its own words (3), “the Marines have always been looked upon as a fighting force without equal, capable of exceptional accomplishment in the face of insurmountable odds.”Today, the Corps has become the de-facto American “force de frappe” whenever and wherever there is chaos and conflict to be put out.

The Corps has arrived at this position not because of its superiority over other services in terms of technologies or combat individuals. Its Marines share the same or similar weaponry, have the same or similar training facilities, engage in the same or similar combat situations as the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. The big difference is that while other services may have the required competencies, their engagement is limited to the set plays developed specifically for them (e.g. air strikes before ground attacks against fortified positions); whereas the Marines can cover virtually all situations more effectively and with better speed. They have learned to focus on a few core competencies that are hard to acquire, to manage the expectations by almost always guarantee the outcomes and to foster a unique set of values (Honor, Courage and Commitment) that set them apart as “The Few, the Proud.”

What Lessons Today’s IT Organization Can Learn From the Corps?

The first lesson is about Competency: the Corps is a competency-based organization. But rather than picking specific threat-based combat competencies (i.e. associated with specific target enemies) like other services, the Corps focuses on 2 timeless competencies: Solving complex situations and Speed. As the enemies change faces, the Corps stays relevant and remains just as effective against the ethnic-cleansing warlords of the 90’s or the al-Qaeda terrorists of today as it did against the Cold War communists of the 50-60-70’s.

The second lesson is about Outcome: the Corps is an outcome-oriented organization. Expected outcomes become mission orders. No questions asked. Results delivered. That way, the Corps has gained top of mind whenever a situation arises that threatens world peace and the safety of nations.

The third lesson is about Value: the Corps is a value-driven organization. No other service persons live their service like the Marines. While an Army serviceman may say: “I am in the Army”, a Marine will say: “I am a Marine” with the full understanding of what it means. The Corps has continuously showcased its values throughout its 234 years of existence and has institutionalized them in a formal Marine Corps Values Program in 1996 via the Marine Corps Order 1500.56.

The sought-after favorable Outcomes cannot be consistently delivered without a set of superior Competencies. Hard-to-master Competencies such as the capability to solve complex situations don’t come by without the devotion and even sacrifice of the troops involved. Their devotion / sacrifice, in turn, wouldn’t happen if they don’t believe in and live out the Corps Values.

Can IT become a competency-based, result-oriented, value-driven organization just as the Corps? I believe that some do and some will. But there will be casualties. For the sake of your business, let reflect on these lessons and bring IT to a higher level of performance so that IT will stay relevant to the Business as much as the Corps to the United States of America.

Epilogue

I would like to wrap up this post with a lighthearted remark (yet containing an element of truth) from Alastair Behenna, the CIO of Harvey Nash, a global professional recruitment consultancy and IT outsourcing service provider, written in his blog post A message from the trenches:

“It really is the best of times for Information Technology and technologists to show what they can do, with less formality, less money and more courage. Using our natural speed and responsiveness, our capability to assimilate huge chunks of information to good effect and our innate ability to deliver against the odds. Combine this with our natural good looks, wit and charm and we are unassailable.”

What do you think?

What kind of competencies an effective IT organization should develop?

How can IT become a “force without equal, capable of exceptional accomplishment in the face of insurmountable odds” such as the Corps?

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(1) You can get a rather detailed summary of these responses here. My favorite piece is this article by James Champy, the Business Re-engineering guru, in Fast Company.

(2) In order to appreciate the Korean “opportunity”, you should understand that:

  • the U.S. has entered the Korean War first with the Air Force then with the Army ground troops, to no avail against the North Korean troops;
  • the Marine Commandant, General Clifton B.Gates, was invited to sit in a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting in early July 1950 as a guest;
  • he seized the opportunity to offer a (non-existent) Marine Air-Ground Brigade, a risky offer which was eagerly accepted;
  • the new Brigade, the 1st Provisional, was hastily cobbled together from a stripped down 1st Division and recruits from other units within days;
  • this under-strength Brigade has set sail from San Diego on July 12, 1950 and landed in Pusan on August 2, 1950, exactly one month since its creation.

(3) Quote extracted from the Marine Corps Order 1500.56 (issued December 16, 1996).

Posted by: Long Huynh | May 25, 2009

CIO: How Do You Stay Relevant to Business?

Note.- Today is the Memorial Day, a day to remember. To those who are skeptical of the CIO future, I want to say upfront that NO, this post is not a commemoration of the fallen CIOs of recent past (1). It is to pay tribute to the U.S. soldiers who died while in military service, especially to those from the U.S. Marine Corps (the Corps) and to its 2 former commanders, Alexander A. Vandergrift and Merritt A. Edson. Fallen and departed Marines, I salute you.

It is no secret to those who know me that I consider the Corps as one of the best organizations in the world and I tried to model the IT organization under my leadership along the same line. There are many management principles of the Corps that prove to be useful in business, but to me the biggest lesson to be learned is HOW TO STAY RELEVANT when external environments constantly change?

Let me start with this introductory question from a book by David H. Freeman, Corps Business:

“…what do the Marines do that justifies the Corps as a separate service?

There are, of course, certain types of missions that have become almost exclusively associated with Marines: beach invasions and the evacuation of American from hostile environments overseas are two obvious examples. But in fact the Army has long been capable of beach invasions; the D-Day Normandy landing, for example, was an army operation. And all three of the larger services are capable of quickly inserting highly trained soldiers into hostile environments to lead civilians to safety.

In truth, there is little the Marine Corps does that couldn’t be seen as redundant with the services performed by the other branches of the military.”

 The last statement was also the view held by many people in power, especially in post-war time. They didn’t see the need for an expensive strike force. In fact, there were at least 3 attempts to disband the Corps or integrate it with the Army between 1945 and 1950, condoned and even spearheaded by the U.S. President, Harry Truman, himself:

  1. In 1946, a bill – S.2044 – was introduced to place the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) under Navy control. Its practical effect was to reduce the Marine Corps to the status of a Navy branch. The Corps Commandant, General Alexander A. Vandergrift, saved the day for the Corps by making an impassionate speech before Congress in May 1946; 
  2. In 1947, the same bill was re-introduced again, this time accompanied by a directive prohibiting comments by any serving officers. Marine Brigadier General Merritt A. Edson resigned at the peak of his career in order to make the round of Capitol Hill lobbying for the Corps as a civilian. He succeeded in having the bill defeated and the status of the Corps confirmed with the National Security Act of 1947; 
  3. During this 1946-1949 period, the Corps was systematically dismantled and reduced from a 485,000-strength troop at the end of the World War II to a 2-division structure of about 10,000 effectives;
  4. In June 1950, Truman administration announced its plan to reduce the Corps budget for 1951 to 6 battalions (around 5,000 troops). The plan was thwarted soon by the event of June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded the South and triggered the Korean War. The first U.S. soldiers called to action were the Marines … and the rest is history (2).

Fast forward now to the business world of today. Does the Corps story sound familiar to you? Do you hear already other corporate executives pondering aloud:

  • Can we reduce the IT budget by another 10% this year?
  • What do IT people do anyway that justifies IT as a separate service, with a Chief Officer in command? 
  • Why shouldn’t we disband IT and relocate its people among the divisions/departments? 
  • Why shouldn’t we outsource IT services and place its governance under Finance & Administration?
  • Why shouldn’t we create a separate Business Intelligence (BI) or a Business Continuity (BC) unit independent of IT?

Indeed, these questions have been answered in the affirmative by many companies. More than ever before, the IT organization and your role as its commander-in-chief are threatened with irrelevance. How do you stay relevant today? What lesson can you learn from the Corps?

Stay tuned …

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 (1) If you follow the CIO press or the CIO LinkedIn Forum, you will find alarming information about CIO’s being let go without replacement during the last 6 months. More troubling is the alleged view of the CEO as depicted in this article by a CIO himself: Prove It’s Business Value to Your CEO – Or Else, by Bob Evans, InformationWeek, April 22, 2009.

 (2) The story of the U.S. Marine Corps during the post-war time of 1945-1950 is a fascinating read. Some of the key sources are:

Posted by: Long Huynh | May 14, 2009

A Thought on the Art of Living the Beginner’s Life

“So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.”

This excerpt is from the first letter in a series of Letters to a Young Poet written by Rainer Maria Rilke, a late 19th century poet in response to a request for critique. His advices were addressed to an aspiring poet – a beginner, but could be easily applicable today to an aspiring blogger such as myself or someone looking for the “art of living the beginner’s life” such as my blogger buddy, Christiaan Hillen at his blog Mind the Beginner.

Let’s read on:

“No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

“Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.”

“What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.”

Even if written more than a century ago, Rilke’s thinking still resonates very much with me, and in several ways:

1. On Writing (Blogging)Avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary. Take the subject of blogging for example. There are too many bloggers writing about “How to blog successfully” or “How to make money from your blog”. Unless this is a subject that you are passionate about and your power to create something individual is great and fully ripened, it’s better to leave it to others.

2. On The Art of LivingGo into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows. The art of living is to live a full life in every aspect, be it personal, professional or social. Unless you are a narcissist or a hermit, chances are that you spend the majority of your awakened hours interacting with others, reacting to their opinions and emotions. Even when you manage to have some time of your own, you risk spending it on the quick and easy – the mind candy (watching a reality show, reading a detective novel …). Getting in touch with the deep sources of life, either through reflection or meditation, would make you more conscious of self and more grateful for the ordinary things around you. Writing and sharing them with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity would then complete the art of living.

3. On Beginner’s LifeKeep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development. Life is a journey full of desire, expectation and aspiration. Throughout the journey, each new place or event provides a new vista and experience. Even if it seems that we have learned something, there is always a new element present. That’s why people of faith have made the annual pilgrimage, Santiago de Compostela being the most written about. That’s why practicing Tendai Buddhists performed their annual “kaihogyo”. One of them, Jim Curry, once observed: “I’m always walking the same places I’ve never been before.” On this life journey then, everyone of us, regardless of age or station in life, is a forever beginner. Having the humility and the curiosity of a beginner would keep you growing, silently and earnestly, until the very end of your earthly life. 

What are your thoughts about Rainer Maria Rilke the poet and his advices? Please write and share.

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Note: This post is unusual and personal, written in response to a question from a blogger buddy, Mind the Beginner. It will be moved to a companion blog called The Q Force when that one is fully set up.

Posted by: Long Huynh | May 11, 2009

To Plan or not to Plan, this is a CIO question

Did you have early last year a plan for (how to deal with) the economic downturn? And this month, do you have a plan for its return to growth? In short, do you have a plan for different market scenarios? If you ask the CIOs, the most likely answer is NO. Few would be able to say:

“Yes, we have anticipated the downturn and here is our Plan A to deal with it. By the way, we also anticipate its return to growth x months after and here is our Plan B. Just in case the downturn gets prolonged for another y months, here is our Plan C.”

The sad truth is that the majority of us don’t plan for every eventualities. We don’t have the habit or practice to do so. We don’t have the time to do, so we say. We are good at developing the annual IT plan (mostly a budget, with perhaps a list of projects to do). We are also good at developing topical and ad hoc ones (e.g. Influenza A Pandemic Action Plan). We have plans for every IT aspects: operating plans, project plans, audit plans, disaster recovery plans … We have plans for every business functions: financial plans, human resources plan, marketing plans, engineering plans … We have plans for every time frames: annual plans, monthly plans, daily plans … However, we build plans to response to something instead of to anticipate something. And when we do build plans in anticipation (we call them strategic plans), we put them in the context of a large time horizon (3-5 years). These long-range plans are worse than having no plans at all, they are the albatross around our neck, forcing us to follow through for example with a 3-year implementation of a unified Enterprise Resources Planning system across all divisional units when the business itself undergoes changes at all levels. There is no built-in mechanism to adjust these plans on-the-fly, only an annual revision process. And when the revised version looks drastically different from the original one, we ditch the old strategic plan and introduce a new one, with the same time horizon moving forward by another year.

Is it the way to lead the business nowadays? I think not.

Looking back through the history, I see that there existed a model for effective planning: The General Staff organization of the Prussian empire (1808 – 1871) which is recognized as the most advanced warfare planning institution and one that was subsequently studied and imitated by virtually all other military powers (British, French, Russian and American included). The Prussian General Staff was largely responsible for the success of the Prussian army throughout this period (1) and beyond:

“Prussian and German military victories would often be credited professionally to the Chief of Staff, rather than to the nominal commander of an army. Often the commander of an army was himself a member of the General Staff, but it was now institutionally recognized that not only was command leadership important, but effective staff work was a significant key to success in both pre-war planning and in wartime operations.”[Source: Wikipedia]

One reason for its success can be attributed to its legendary level of preparedness:

“As early as 1843, when Europe had been largely at peace for nearly thirty years and most major nations had no plans for war, observers noted sheaves of orders at the Prussian War Ministry, already made out to cover all foreseeable contingencies and requiring only a signature and a date stamp to be put into effect.”[ibid]

Modern CIOs, do you think that you can benefit from the thinking and teaching of these historical Chiefs of Prussian General Staff?

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 (1) I purposely make the reference to the Prussian army in this particular period in order to avoid any debate about the German General Staff organization and its role in the World War II. Consult this Wikipedia page for more information on the role of Chief of General Staff in various countries and time lines.

Posted by: Long Huynh | May 6, 2009

To Tweet or not to Tweet, this is NOT a CIO question

There are recently a host of posts inquiring about whether the CIOs of the world are joining the social media bandwagon or not. One is from NetworkWorld with “12 CIOs who Tweet”. The most recently one is from fellow CIO blogger George Tomko with his post “Why CIO are not using Twitter?” in which George made the following remark:

“Very few CIOs use Twitter. This is not to say that they are against using Twitter. It also does not mean that they are not interested in social networking tools. Three major factors contribute to the slow adoption by CIOs and, ultimately, the companies for whom they manage the deployment of such technology.”

He went on to describe these 3 factors which I would encourage you to come over and read more about, it’s a great post. I posted my comments there:

“As with any good questions, there is no straight answer to “Why CIOs are not using Twitter?”. I would say that its adoption/use by the CIOs depends largely on 3 factors:

1. The persona of the CIO – Some are more techno-inclined, hence more techno-advanced than others in using new tools. There is no evidence to say that one is more capable than another in terms of making an informed decision when the time comes.

2. The level of maturity of IT in the organization – Depending on whether IT is highly effective (optimized in my terminology) or not, issues of security, privacy and productivity may or may not be easy to tackle.

3. The nature and culture of the business organization – Some are more “social” or “media”-centric than others, hence the different rate of adoption. Likewise, the risk averse mentality is more of a corporate one than a particular CIO trait. A risk-averse CIO won’t last long in a high risk-tolerant company.

and would like to expand on it here.

1. To Tweet or not to Tweet, it depends on the Persona of the CIO  – Teeting is a personal, professional and social activity at the same time. Some use Twitter to “follow” newsbreak or celebrities the way many of us following CNN and the like. Others use it to stay connected and exchange tidbits of information among their communities of friends. Others yet use the platform in a creative way for marketing reasons. There shouldn’t be any difference from a CIO user to a non-CIO one. To tweet or not to tweet is more of a personal choice depending on his/her persona.

2. To Tweet or not to Tweet, it depends on the maturity level of the IT organization – As explained in an earlier post (A Darwinian view of a successful IT organization), the challenges facing an IT organization in the early stage of evolution (Optimization) are different from those in the later stage (Growth). While on surface they all need to cut costs and add values, those still working toward an Optimized state (similar to the Level 5 of the Capability Maturity Model – CMM) do not have in place yet a process or mechanism to automatically and effortlessly adjust to technological changes. Social Media in general and Twitter in particular are good examples of those changes. The apparent slow adoption of changes is not because of the unwillingness or risk-averse attitude (of those CIOs) but of the un-preparedness to deal with such ramifications as threats to security, privacy and productivity.

3. To Tweet or not to Tweet, it depends on the nature and culture of the Business – One statement making the round lately is that “CIOs as a lot are more risk averse those days”. Some like Brian Gillooly from InformationWeek [Ref. 1] even called the risk-averse attitude “inherent” and “potentially disastrous for the company”. My take is different: I think that it depends on the Business and we cannot make a blanket statement for all. If some CIOs exhibit a risk-averse approach to social media or any other new technology, it could simply because the CIOs in question are in tune with the Business or with its risk-averse culture. It is then neither inherent nor more disastrous than some CIOs too eager to push through new technologies in the name of innovation while the Business doesn’t warrant one.

By understanding these 3 factors, the smart CIO would listen hard to the stakeholders to understand their perception and expectations in order to address them accordingly, resist the temptation to follow the crowd and stay true to his/her image of a no-nonsense business leader. To tweet or not to tweet, that is a personal choice. To adopt Twitter or other social media corporate-wide is a business decision to be based on demonstrated benefits and values, not on any ideological or personal preference.

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[Ref. 1] Global CIO: Have CIOs Become More Risk Averse? by Brian Gillooly, editor-in-chief of events for the InformationWeek Business Technology Network.

Posted by: Long Huynh | May 4, 2009

The CIO in time of Fear – Uncertainty and Doubt

Recent news about the potential Swine (now renamed H1N1) Flu Pandemic prompted me to think about the role of a CIO in time of Fear – Uncertainty – Doubt (FUD), especially when those FUD factors threaten the business continuity. It is easy to dismiss the news as “hype” by the media hungry for sensational reactions – pictures of the Spanish Flu Pandemic (1918-1920) come to mind. However, in my opinion it is also dangerous for the CIO to take the high ground or stay mum about the subject.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared on April 29, 2009 that the H1N1 Flu has reach the level 5 alert, meaning that a pandemic outbreak is imminent, I have searched the Web for signs of response from the IT Leadership and found very little. Apart from a series of to-be-expected advisory articles by industry analysts such as Gartner, IDC and the like, there were just a smattering number of articles related to the positions or actions of CIOs, especially in the private sector. It appeared that either the majority of business organizations are prepared to deal with such outbreak or they take the position of “ignorance is bliss”.

Without going deep into a debate of whether such preparedness is true or not, what does concern me is the dearth of visible actions (i.e. communications) from the IT Leadership. I don’t see or hear much about CIOs jumping to the opportunity (yes, even a crisis could be viewed as one – dangerous but still an opportunity) to show their business acumen or leadership mettle. May be I am not being exposed to the right channels of information, being in my neck of wood in Canada, but here are some potential activities that I am not aware of:

1. Seize the opportunity to reassure the Board of your control of the situation as it unfolds. For many of you who have the foresight to have a Business Continuity Plan developed (mostly to address the Avian Flu situation in 2006), this is an opportunity to have face time with your boss to discuss business impact of various scenarios (executives love to have options to choose from). For those who don’t have such a plan in place (and according to a recent Gartner study [Ref. 1], only 25% of respondents have a BCM/DR plan in place, and that most of these plans do not cover all applications), what do you have to say? May be this is an opportune time to push through one of the investment initiatives to support remote operations.

2. Seize the opportunity to enlist the support of your peers in Marketing, Sales, Operations. If you do the Business Continuity Management / Disaster Recovery (BCM/DR in Gartner jargon)correctly, it should cover all aspects of business and not just the IT facilities. A discussion with the business operation heads about impact of potential disruption to the supply chain or with the marketing & sales heads about similar issues with distribution channels should bring you closer to your peers. Did you have such discussions recently? Dis you update the Business Impact Assessment (BIA) document – and have their names included as co-authors of the report?

3. Seize the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the eyes of your staff/members/associates. Like it or not, the threat of a pandemic touches on people, your people, directly. Their concerns and worries are legitimate and need to be dealt with seriously. It is time to show that you care for their safety and well being. The Human Resources and Communications departments can help you drafting the memorandum, bulletin boards and what not, but the contents of Who should do What-When-Where-How in different situations and scenarios should come from you. What kind of information that have been communicated to your troops? If nothing done, you are leaving it to the media at your own peril.

This is a call for action, not a sound of panic. You should treat the situation as “business as usual” (BAU) but with the full knowledge that BAU also means to seize all opportunities to add values and reinforce the positive image of you as a business leader.

I like to hear your comments on this subject.

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[Ref. 1] ‘Swine Flu’ Means Test Transaction Document Recovery Plans Now – Gartner Research Number G00167835, published April 28, 2009.

Posted by: Long Huynh | April 29, 2009

100 Days to a Better Blog – Part 1

I started this Blog on April 3, 2009. Not quite on an impulse but also not based on any rational reasoning (except perhaps for some fleeting thought that it should not be on April’s Fool day). According to my 100-day plan, I should conclude my Better Blog project on July 11, 2009, with April 15 and June 26 being the end dates for Stage 1 (Initiation) and Stage 2 (Execution) respectively. That April 15 date has come and gone 2 weeks ago, but I am OK with that since I did reflect upon intents, expectations, goals, objectives and success factors; I just didn’t think to put them down as I would for a serious project. This action (or inaction) will be the subject of Lessons Learned in Stage 3 (Conclusion).

As mentioned earlier in the Introductory post, I would have to perform the following 2 steps in the Initiation stage:

  1. Clarify intents and expectations
  2. Set goals, objectives and success factors

Step 1 – Clarify intents and expectations

Why should I clarify Intents and Expectations first?

All projects started with good intents and high expectations. Many of them however gradually strayed from the original intents and never quite met the expectations despite all the care and effort invested in the projects. The main reason for this is that intents and expectations were seldom documented, especially when the project delivery party and the intended beneficiary were one and the same. It wouldn’t be so bad if intents and expectations stayed pretty much the same throughout the project or if the project manager had a way to stay intimately in tune with the client. Otherwise, the project became risky because intents and expectations, especially the latter one, did change over time. For most cases, the 2 parties are separate entities, thus a clarification of intents and expectations at the outset would ensure a meeting of the minds before plans are plotted and actions are taken.

What do I mean by Intent?
While even the dictionary [Ref. 1] stated that intention, intent, purpose, goal, end, aim, object, objective are synonyms: these nouns refer to what one plans to do or achieve”, there are some nuance among them:
  • Intent is defined as having the mind and will focused on a specific purpose. Its Latin root is intendere, meaning to direct attention. It is the stronger form of Intention which is defined as a course of action that one proposes to follow.
  • Goal is defined as the end, the destination, the finish line. It suggests an idealistic or long-term purpose.
  • Objective is defined by [Ref. 2] as: 1) the clearly defined, decisive, and attainable goals towards which every military operation should be directed; and 2) the specific target of the action taken.

So you can see that even before I set my goals and objectives for the project, somehow I have already the mind and will to do it, and more relevant to the issue of potentially misreading the original intents, I have already sketched a rough course of action to follow.

What are my Intents?
My intents when starting this blog were:
  1.  To learn about this aspect of social media (blogging) – for my professional needs
  2.  To share my experiences with others who have a need to learn – for my social needs
  3.  To leverage and benefit from this new (to me) marketing channel – for my personal needs

In other words, I planned (my intention was) to invest a certain amount of my time – say 2-4 hours a day to build up a presence on the Web, to take part in the Social Networking trend, first as a follower then as a leader in certain fields or subjects where my points of view may be of help to others, namely the IT field and the Leadership experiences in that field (a proposed course of action). For more details on this, please take a look at the About page.

What are my Expectations?
My original expectations (i.e. prospects of success or gain) were to achieve a certain presence and reputation in my chosen niche (i.e. blogs about IT Leadership & Management) and be recognized as a critical thinker with insight and wisdom to share, not a mere interpreter of events or aggregator of data. Being present also means at or near the top of the mindshare of the IT Leaders, especially those who may need advisory services beyond the blog.

However, having acquired more market intelligence since, I have toned down my expectations. First of all, my time horizon for this to happen now stretches out to 2 years, and the means to achieve them is not by a single and sustained drive but through a series of project with their incremental objectives.

As you can see, intents and expectations once articulated can be easily translated into goals and objectives. But expectations do change, especially when perception of reality demonstrates a potential gap against such expectations. Without being aware of such change, the project runs the risk of attaining the presumed goals and objectives without satisfying the expected needs. This phenomenon explains why some successfully completed projects were never implemented (Note: I have no number to substantiate this claim. Input is appreciated).

Step 2 – Set goals, objectives and success factors

Because Intents and Expectations are soft, hard-to-pin-down types of measure, we usually translate them into Goals (long-range purpose) and Objectives (specific targets).

What are this Project’s Goals & Objectives?
The long-term Goal of this project (as well as other projects that would follow in the same series within the next 2 years) are to be in the Top 20 blogs in the field/subject of IT Leadership & Management (presence) and to win some awards (recognition) such as the Blogger’s Choice Award or Weblog Award.

The Objectives (or short-term Goal) of this project is to achieve 50 post submissions and receive 100 comments from 10 frequent readers.

Why 50 posts? The first measure of success for me is how can I produce quality posts in a sustained fashion. That means at least 3 per week for 14.3 weeks (100 days), with some odd ones thrown in here and there. I have written so far an average of 2 posts per week, so there is some catch-up to do.

Why 100 comments? The second measure is the feedback received from the readers. I read somewhere that the average rate of comment is about 2% of the page views, so 100 comments are the equivalent of 5,000 page views that I need to reach in 100 days. But to me, page views are indicative of the traffic while comments are indicative of the interest. I elect to measure the latter (I am not sure how exactly, but I will investigate). Again, I have received just a handful of them thus far (so few that I can count them all by hand), so there is a steep curve to climb for the remaining 72 days.

Why 10 regular readers? The third measure is the number of readers themselves. I recognize that many do/will have an interest in my blog but are/will be hesitant to write back. It seems that a simple “Great/interesting post!” comment wouldn’t sound good enough to send. So while the number of comments is indicative of the interest, I need a measure of the number of readers and that would be the RSS Feed number. If you read this post so far, please click on the RSS Feed button to receive fresh posts. Now why 10? I arrive at this number by making an assumption that my readers are keener that the average visitor, in fact 10 times keener to the tune of 20% instead of 2% making comments. It would take then 10 readers to make the targeted 2 comments per post.

What are other success factors, if any?
Let’s say that by the end of this 100-day project (July 11), I have written 52 posts, received 86 comments and counted 12 regular readers. Would I declare then a success (mind you, with a small asterisk next to the less-than-100 comments)? It depends. What if I can honestly say that only 45 of those 52 posts are real quality ones (i.e. insightful, provocative, critical, beyond-the-obvious) and the rest were just fillers to make the number? What if I know of 10 additional readers-friends who swear that they visited the Blog regularly without leaving any trace? What if 2 of those registered readers are the “movers and shakers” of blogsphere such as ProBlogger’s Darren Rowse (nice dream!)? So beyond the target numbers, there are also the intangible factors of Quality, Strategic Impact and so on.

I will leave you with that thought and would like to solicit your comments. What are other success factors that count for you?

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[Ref. 1] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
[Ref. 2] The Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. US Department of Defense 2005.

 

Posted by: Long Huynh | April 28, 2009

10 Steps to a Successful Blogging Project

In a previous post, I have shared with you my participation in ProBlogger‘s 31 Days to Build a Better Blog (31DBBB) project and how I have had a belated awakening that this is also MY Better Blog project and I should take control of it and execute it the way that I know, i.e. via a 100-day mission-style project. This post is the introduction piece to a 3-part series that will document my activities and thought process through this short journey. Part 1 will be posted tomorrow since I am already past the due date, Part 2 will start soon and of course, you will need to wait for the end of the project for Part 3.

There is nothing magic or fanciful about breaking the project into 3 parts. That’s my habit (see The Rule of 3), but it also fits the natural 3 stages of Initiation – Execution and Conclusion. Viewed through the lens of a 3-stage project, the 100 days would then be broken down into a 15-70-15 ratio.

In the Initiation stage, I would have performed 2 steps:

1. Clarify intents and expectations

2. Set goals, objectives and success factors

followed by 6 more in the Execution stage:

3. Collect data and intelligence

4. Assess situations and gaps

5. Build the team

6. Form a coalition

7. Secure early wins

8. Align and adjust

and wrapped up in the Conclusion phase with 2 more steps:

9. Consolidate successes

10. Make it stick

As a sneak preview of what’s in stock, I would suggest that you picture these 10 steps as those of a ballroom dance performance where the couple would make a flourishing entrance with Steps 1 and 2, then repeat Steps 3 through 8 in a defined pattern yet with increasing intensity and intricacies before the finale.

Posted by: Long Huynh | April 27, 2009

100 Days to a Better CIO Assistant Blog

Today’s post doesn’t fit into the regular CIO Assistant stream. It’s about my personal experience in a blog building project called 31 Days to Build a Better Blog (31DBBB) from ProBlogger (Darren Rowse). While many of you have no interest to read about blogging in general and my blogging experience in particular, the key message I would like to share is that this project is of no difference than any of the IT projects that you encountered day in day out in your business. There are some principles, approaches and lessons learned here that could be applied to your situation as well.

Let me begin with some context. I first said Hello World! on this blog more than 3 weeks ago. At practically the same time, ProBlogger launched his 31DBBB project. Talk about serendipity. At first, I had no specific objectives other than to build a nice blog, with a group of nice readers (i.e. birds of a CIO feather) faithfully following my posts with no obligations from either end. The title of the 31DBBB project made me comfortable in getting aboard: just 31 days, a period too short to have any serious harms done if I goofed off, in adition to a feel-good “better blog”. Hey, practically anything would make my blog better since it has nothing here that could get worse: a few posts, insignificant page views, no subscribed readers. So for the first 2 weeks, I follow ProBlogger’s 31-day plan to learn the (blogging) rope but not religiously. Then on day 15, I was asked to “find a blogging buddy”. Such search brought me to Christiaan Hillen’s Mind the Beginner and his 16-point plan called 3 months to a successful blog. I realized then that I didn’t follow my own advice for the start of any project: Clarify intents and expectations. This is Step 1 in a 10-step action plan that I will write about as I progress through the 31DBBB project, or rather MY project based upon this one from ProBlogger. My project would be called the “100 days to a better CIO Assistant blog“. Yes, it would take more than 31 days. Yes, it would make better my blog , not any one else. And yes, I need to define what “better” mean to me.

Now, just a side note on the 100-day notion. Similar to the Rule of 3, this is another important keystone. I believe, and my experiences have proven it time and time again, that significant or meaningful results could be realized in 100 days. Not just as a phase since with a phased approach, you may get nothing worthwhile if the project gets canned before completion. Not just a boxed-in period of time since with a time-boxed approach, the only guaranteed outcome is that you have used up all the resources. More of a mission with clear targets and measurable outcomes. Even if the undertaking is large and complex, there is always possible to break it into slices of 100 days and the first slice (of 100 days) is always the crucial one.

Stay tuned for the 100-day Plan … and of course, the 10 steps to success.

Posted by: Long Huynh | April 22, 2009

A Darwinian View of a Successful IT Organization

A fortnight ago, I submitted a post called “3 steps to a successful CIO” in which I surmised that his/her journey from the geek kingdom to the boardroom would follow a Darwinian evolution. This follow-up post will expand on that theme by suggesting that this journey cannot skip over any step but could be accelerated through a conscious and judicious application of the 3 concepts: Optimization – Alignment – Growth. Each concept will be further elaborated in an upcoming 3-part series.

Alignment cannot be achieved without Optimization –

In reading recent articles on IT challenges, one realizes that the highest preoccupation by an CIO today is the issue of Business-IT Alignment. A survey run by Peter Thomas back in January provided some good indication: 27% of the senior IT managers said that Alignment is at the top of business issues that they face, followed by Cost Saving at 14%. Yes, the latest poll today might show Cost Saving gaining ground, but it is more an example of Business-IT Alignment in this economic downturn situation than a preoccupation with Optimization per se.

Yet another survey of more than 500 executives, this time by Bain & Company about a year ago painted a sobering picture about the risk of being Aligned while not Optimized. The key findings were that:

“Nearly three-quarters believed their IT capability was neither highly aligned with their business goals nor highly effective … These firms recorded a slower rate of growth–2 per cent below the three-year average–while spending the same as the average on IT.”

and:

“The rarest breed was both highly aligned and effective. Such “IT-enabled” organisations amounted to only 7 per cent. But they recorded a compound three-year growth rate 35 per cent higher than the average. Moreover, they spent 6 per cent less than the average respondents.”

but the real eye-opener was:

“More troubling was the 11 per cent of companies in which IT was highly aligned but not highly effective. These companies fared much worse. Their IT spending was 13 per cent higher than average, but their three-year growth was 14 per cent lower than average. These firms were in the “alignment trap”.”

According to the survey, an IT-enabled organization spent 19% less and generated 49% more in growth rate than a highly-aligned-but-not-highly-effective one.

I remember one IT Outsourcing organization who prides itself for its Flexibility. The IT group is highly aligned with the Business in this vision and structures its services accordingly. It means that it offers customized IT Infrastructure Management services to its clients with minimal change to the support model that the client is familiar and comfortable with. The outcome after several years of accelerated growth is that the IT spending rate started to overtake the growth rate because they are forced to maintain different technology platforms, operating processes and support staff for different clients. The sad truth is that this is not a unique case.

Growth cannot be achieved without Alignment –

What happen now to those highly effective IT organizations which have standardized the processes, implemented an enterprise-level resource planning system, consolidated all data centers, and delivered projects on time, on budget? The chance is they are pretty much aligned with Business already (7% as mentioned above). But the same survey by Bain & Company also indicated that more than half of these highly effective IT organizations (8%) were not aligned with Business at all. Why?

It should not be a surprise if we understand that Business is a constant change. It flies in the face of Stability and Predictability that these 8% try to instill in the organization. A CIO who has succeeded in optimizing its IT shop, often at great costs, would not be open to new elements which could upset the established order. Does it sound familiar the cautious comments from a CIO about the adoption of any new platforms, be it mobility, business analytics or social networking media?

A case in point: An insurance company would like to provide its assessors a quick,easy access to the claimants’ files (policies and claim records) while on the road. The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) prefers an Internet-based solution, accessible anywhere by authorized agents equipped with Blackberrys. She needs to introduce the service fast to use the new Claim Assessment capability in a CEO-approved blockbuster ad campaign. The CFO supports his colleague CRM, thinking that such a solution could be put in place within a month and would be inexpensive. The CIO is in disagreement. He thinks that the Internet is not stable (its uptime is not 100% guaranteed) nor safe (for privacy of data). He proposes instead a Web-based application located on a secured server behind the corporate firewalls and accessible over a secured VPN. It would take several months (just ordering the connection lines from the telcos would take more than 6 weeks, notwithstanding the need for a business case, a feasibility study, a revision of the enterprise architecture, an operation readiness assessment, a project charter …) and the investment may not be insignificant as the CFO has thought (sorry, no figures available yet). Who is right?

In my mind, the CIO has failed to stay aligned with the business and regardless of which solution would be picked eventually, he misses an opportunity to connect and solidify his position as a business executive. The CIO should realize by now that his company’s business (and his) requires quick and sound solutions at the same time, not a trade-off between one business imperative (quick to market) and another (safeguard of confidential data). He should anticipate such request from a fellow CxO and be ready with a win-win solution instead of coming across as a business ignorant.

Optimization cannot be achieved without Growth –

On the surface, the CIO can cut costs, maximize the use of automated tools, minimize the number of non-standard equipment, trim the staff, eliminate overhead expenses. But for how long? The harsh reality is that there is a limit to the resources at hand and without growth, a limit to their optimization. Growth provides scope and scale that the CIO can leverage.

That does not mean that the IT organization is counting on business growth to increase its budget. Growth also means getting more mature, more “mainstream”. Mature enough to let go of unnecessary baggage (do you really need to manage the Help Desk or the Data Center yourself?). Mainstream enough to blur the line between business and IT people, to let business staff using self-serve IT functions and to have IT staff participating in routine business functions (e.g. managing and reporting on its own financial performance). Only then that Optimization becomes a self-adjusted and continuous improvement process.

Accelerating the Evolution Cycle –

You may think that my premise is a circular reasoning or a kind of Catch-22. It could be if you think strictly in linear terms. However, if you consider the 3 steps of Optimization – Alignment – Growth as a collection of short evolution cycles that spiral upward (like a staircase to heaven), you can make small yet steady progress toward Success. Watch for the new series here soon.

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