Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Enterprise Mobility – Not Just a Technical Challenge

Quit worrying about the technology, it's your people and processes that need to change

With the increasing focus and provision of tools to aid the move towards mobile-first enterprise applications it is easy to think that the challenge to mobilise the workforce is becoming easier. In actual fact the emergence of Mobile Application Platforms and increasing available development environments is starting to expose another hurdle with enabling the remote worker.

The challenge has moved from being one of a technical nature to a people and processes problem. Many large companies have IT teams that have grown in to large complex organisations built on a history of updated process, procedures and progressive hiring. They are ill-equipped to deal with the radical game-changing requirements demanded by the mobile-first generation of products.

Time to Market

Many industry observers are commentating on the challenges of go-to-market mobile solutions that are still taking 12+ months to reach their target clients. Mobile device manufactures are rolling out updated hardware faster than this. The software-based solutions need to be there almost immediately. Gone are the days where projects required a 3-month requirements and analysis stage. These days users outline their desires to a combined design and development team, a few quick sprints later a Proof of Concept (PoC) app is ready for review and test. The production release is simply this PoC app plus a little re-factoring and some thorough testing.

Disposable apps

Simple apps such as those providing basic form-based information capture can be developed and deployed in a matter of hours. It is becoming increasing popular to develop apps that are only useful for a matter of days. Just consider the efficiency benefits over a paper-based solution when using a tablet device to perform a one-time data capture operation that automatically populates a backend inventory system. There is simply no need for extensive requirements gathering, solution design and comprehensive testing. In many case there is no need for an IT team, users can drag-and-drop to create their own apps.

OpEx vs CapEx funding

The shift from large complex, multi-functional business support systems to smaller, targeted point solutions also challenges the traditional view of project funding. There is simply no time to introduce a lengthy ROI-based review to justify spending on a mobile solution. In many cases thus would literally take longer than the deployment phase. Mobile app development needs to be treated as a service to the business and allocated funding from the OpEx budget.
Small customer-facing, multi-skilled development teams

Many large IT organisations are structured with departments aligned with disciplines. This no longer works, business analysts don’t have time to spend weeks producing comprehensive requirements documentation. It is simpler, quicker and more efficient for end users to work directly with app designers and developers. Mobile-first development teams need to be multi-skilled and comfortable with exposure to the end clients. This is not a ‘normal’ experience for many IT specialists.

Testing, support and maintenance

Clearly it is paramount that mobile-first solutions work correctly and can be supported and maintained. This doesn't mean someone needs to closely follow the development team tracking their every move. It means ensuring a thorough and appropriate test regime. The exact level of testing will depend on the application, it’s importance, it’s longevity and the impact on business operations if something goes wrong (risk-based testing).

Structured coding, the use of standard libraries and common platforms all contribute to helping support future modifications. A well built software application with suitable documentation should be understood by all development teams. The standardisation of code for app development, particularly the use of HTML5, has further increased the community of developers able to adopt and modify code build elsewhere. This all removes the legacy opinion that software solutions need additional technical writers to document all aspects.
Adapting to the changing environment

Before embarking on the route towards Mobile-First solutions, businesses need to review if their current infrastructure, process and even people are correct aligned to meet the new challenges. As Darwin observed many years ago, the organisations that will survive this mobile revolution are the ones that can adapt to the change.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

5 steps to to your very own Mobile Solutions team

Mobile-First enterprise solutions are the growing trend for organisations looking to maximise return from existing resource. Many CIOs are carefully polishing their strategic plans to deliver efficiencies to their business by providing small targeted mobile solutions from an every growing library of apps.

But it isn't as simple as creating a new team from the existing IT division and redistributing job titles.  Mobile solutions development is different and isn't for everyone. Here is a simple guide to the most important factors to consider when setting up your team.

1. Recruitment

Pick team members that have the ability and passion to thrive in a fast-moving, agile and customer-facing environment. There is no time for detailed documentation with many mobile projects, ambiguity is the norm, as is the ability to interpret often vague user stories and translate in to creative solutions. Developers need to work hand-in-hand with clients, there is no room for a large team of business and system analysts. In the new agile programming world there is often no project manager, development teams are self-managing. This is not a comfortable environment for an engineer steeped in the traditions of legacy IT support and development.

2. Funding

Mobile apps can often be identified, scoped, coded and delivered in a matter of days. Even complex apps can be deployed with only a couple of months of development. There is no time to accommodate a detailed ROI-style review of the cost benefits of funding such projects. The admin will strangle the team and prevent benefits from being delivered in a timely manner. The Mobile Solutions team needs to be funded as part of an OpEx budget. The team needs to be trusted by the business and have the flexibility to pick projects that deliver the most business benefits the quickest, without involving budget committees and threatening fast response times.

3. Focus on real customer needs

Mobile-first teams are developing solutions that target specific customer needs. They must focus on what clients want and need, not just what IT can offer. Old-style legacy systems often drive the processes and functions used in the business. Here is a chance to change things and provide solutions that much better match what the business needs. Mobile devices come with a plethora of new tools, coloured hi-res displays, cameras, GPS capture and touch screen manipulation. The best solutions will use these to enhance the user experience. Be wary of falling in to the trap of limiting functionality because the ‘backend cannot support it’, look for creative ways to deliver the user benefits beyond these legacy restrictions.

4. Multiple device support

Mobile devices are ubiquitous. There is an enormous range of devices available in the market, both commercial and consumer devices. They are also upgraded and replaced at an ever increasing rate. Be careful of standardising on any one device.  This is especially true if taking advantage of cheaper consumer devices, though often more powerful and feature-rich, they can become obsolete in a very short time. There is no point deploying a complex mobile solution that only works on a specific high-end consumer device if the manufacturer plans to replace and withdraw support after only a short period. Consider safe-guarding solutions by using hybrid programming techniques and code that enables easier porting to different devices.

5. Cloud-based platforms

If this is your first foray in to developing a portfolio of mobile solutions then chances are details will be scarce with regard the likely take-up and use of potential apps in your organisation. Estimating the demand and subsequent load on IT infrastructure will be challenging and could derail initial rollouts. Avoid some of this uncertainty by looking to utilise cloud-based platforms that are easily re-configured to managing fluctuating loads. Many of these have been developed with a mobile-first strategy in mind, typically they incorporate up-to-date technologies and they continue the OpEx funding model already adopted by the development team (making it easier for the business to pay only for the service it uses).

Finally, there is a lot of hype around using mobile solutions for driving enterprise efficiencies. Don't be put off. Not least because a lot of what you are hearing is true!

Good luck.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Does project escalation help?

You've been there, seen the issues, suffered the consequences and lived through the remedial plans. Does escalating the issues on a risky project really benefit the project? Does engaging the executive team help or hinder? Controversial maybe, but the whole point of different roles in a successful business is to ensure the
best people are involved in the most relevant positions. Where they add the most value.

Getting a CXO involved on what is likely to be a day-to-day issue is highly unlikely to benefit anyone. The decisions they make are important but not necessary on anything more than high level direction and possibly business focus. Lower level resource decisions and tactical selections need to reflect the overall business vision set at the highest level and organisations need to trust the abilities of the team selected to make these decisions.

Does the senior management team really help fix broken projects? How do we decide what breaks a project? Is a RED project in need of senior executive attention? If the project manager needs something, why don't we just let them have it? The only CXO decision here is where there are conflicting priorities. How does 'sitting' on the progress and getting a daily update really help?

My CEO is great at generating excitement in a growing start-up business, he demonstrates great vision and leadership. He is not employed for his ability to manage, or  fix, challenging projects. Escalating to his level does not add much value to any part of a project. Making important decisions is helpful, especially if impacting other business priorities, but where does he get his key input? Others that are probably better placed to make the decision in the first place.

So what help do executive stakeholders offer? Are they simply consumers of the results of their leadership?

It is ironic that once a project reaches a RED status, the main focus of the PM is to report on a more frequent basis to the senior team. When their efforts are far more useful and beneficial focused on the team that is actually doing the work (and hopefully fixing the problems). The senior executives are often keen to offer helpful advice during the many status update meetings, but this is often based on the canned case-studies from their MBA rather than real experience. What the books tell you is often irrelevant when face-to-face with the actual problems, in most cases a solid dose of reality is necessary to help achieve the goals.

Well prepared and documented procedures are designed to prevent projects failing, they rarely offer benefit once a project has failed and is in need of attention. Here you need hands-on, focused support to overcome specific problems not covered in the 'business-as-usual' rules. This is where the experienced 'hands-on' project manager differentiates from the qualified 'professional' project manager with a portfolio of successful deliveries. There is a need to do what will work, not necessarily what the procedure says. Rules are indeed often broken.

I wonder if most successful projects are those that avoid executive support and help entirely (high-level vision and direction excepted). Certainly those that stay below the radar attract less stress and concern for all involved. Then again, in my experience I have rarely been complimented or rewarded for successfully delivering a project that went by-the-book and no-one noticed. The plaudits and rewards have been for rescuing the projects everyone thought were unrecoverable. Not a great example for following good project management practice in the first place.

My usual goal is to prevent and avoid escalation at all costs, even on a challenging project that has already gone wrong. The chance of failure once the CXOs get involved probably increases 10-fold. If the executives could manage the project better than a good project manager then the organisation probably needs to seriously review its recruitment and resourcing policies. All I generally need is the resource or time necessary to turn things around.

I wonder if I'll remember this advice if  I ever get to be one of these executives?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

My experience as a ‘breastfeeding’ Dad

Adding to my eclectic mix. This subject is potentially one of the more controversial...

I’m not sure anything properly prepares you for becoming a father. You can attend all the pre-natal classes, sign-up for NCT training and read all the books available but it still doesn’t come close to providing you with experience of watching childbirth and worse still looking after this tiny bundle of life sudden thrust upon you.

Many fathers have talked about the sheer terror of having the responsibility for looking after your baby. I had the advantage of being a relatively mature father. I’m not that old, but have plenty of life experience relative to many young fathers – to put that in to perspective I was off to university when my own father was my age. Whilst this may have given more confidence it didn’t provide me with any more knowledge or helpful answers.

Feeding your most precious possession is probably the single most important thing to worry about. In fact during the first six weeks this is probably the most demanding task parents face (and you have to do it with no sleep). The effort required to stick with breastfeeding is massive and will be continually challenged by other sources suggesting easier options. Not least in our situation from almost all the NHS midwives we encountered (though not all as you will read).

Christopher’s birth wasn’t simple, though nor were there any significant complications. The biggest challenge we faced in the early days was jaundice (not uncommon in breastfed babies). Shortly after his birthday Christopher and his Mum were re-admitted to hospital for phototherapy over a couple of days.

During this time the pressure to switch to formula-feeding was significant. We continually had to push-back on the midwives to force them to accept Christopher was to be breastfed exclusively. Overnight feeding was raised and the potential for Mum to express milk as solution was ruled out due to a lack of available pumps in the hospital (one of the biggest maternity units in the UK). We fixed this issue by returning home for our own equipment which was reluctantly accepted.

The knowledge we had both gained (predominately via Mum) from reading support literature proved by LLL was key in enabling us to challenge midwives and doctors when faced with difficulties. LLL gave us the confidence to stand behind our position and demand Christopher was fed the way we wanted, not how others felt was easier. Our personal circumstances helped, but the backing we both got from LLL was significant in supporting our own beliefs.

We did get a lot of very good support and help from one of the NHS midwives we came across. Not only did she reassure Mum about breastfeeding, she provided practical ‘hands-on’ support that involved explaining to Dad how he needed to help position Mum and baby so things worked. I have to say that this kind of help cannot be replicated by reading and viewing images in books. The midwife in question was instrumental in ensuring we continued in our quest to ensure Christopher stayed breastfed.

The hands-on approach from our one helpful midwife is also one of the major benefits of getting involved with LLL. The ability to ‘network’ with mums in a similar position takes a back-seat to the ability to experience other Mums feeding their babies in front of you. Whilst I personally never attended any meetings, Mum always returned with suggestions for different techniques, positions and ideas to ensure breastfeeding worked for everyone. The practical advice available from LLL meetings is invaluable.

Once the physical skills for breastfeeding have been mastered the physiological issues need to be overcome. Feeding at home in pyjamas is one think, satisfying a hungry baby in the middle of a crowded public restaurant is a completely different challenge. Again LLL stepped in to help by promoting the fact that breastfeeding couldn’t be more natural. Many places now appreciate the value of the ‘family-pound’ but many still direct feeding mums towards restrooms and changing tables. I think my role in this was to simply protect the idea that Mum was going to feed at the table as a-matter-of-fact. Most hosts were reluctant to challenge this ‘normal’ behaviour. Again the matter-of-fact approach from LLL helped promoted this feeling in our family.

From a father’s point of view the only consistently negative issue I have come across has been lack of intimacy with their newborn. Mum gets to spend all the quality time when feeding, Dad just changes nappies!

Firstly, when you child is breastfeed, nappy contents are often not unpleasant. In fact breastfeed baby poo is often quite sweet smelling. Changing time is a real opportunity to bond and is not nearly as bad as you may imagine. It may sound odd but changing time provides Dad with an opportunity for skin-to-skin contact and a chance to improve the comfort of your baby which benefits everyone.

If Mum is able to express milk then Dad does still get the opportunity to feed using a bottle. Christopher refused a bottle quite early in his development, though when he was very young there was a small window when I was able to feed him myself, especially at night.

We fixed the intimacy issue by introducing Daddy exclusive bath time before bedtime. Whenever possible I bathe Christopher and get him ready for bed. This generally involves a lot of skin-to-skin contact, mutual trust and shared sensual experiences through water play. In theory this time could provide Mum a break from childcare and a chance to do something refreshingly different. In our case Mum does household chores so we both finish our evenings earlier. It definitely gives me a chance to bond exclusively with Christopher and is to be honest a highlight of my day.

The majority of this advice in this article is aimed at fathers and how they may want to best help Mum and baby. I’ll end with one final point aimed at Mums. Dad’s may not have the same experience or knowledge when it comes to looking after your little one, this doesn’t mean they don’t know what they are doing nor do that they do things wrong. They may just do things differently. If what they do works, please let them do it. Criticising or commenting negatively when they try to help may dissuade them from helping in the future. One thing we have learnt as a family is that it is much easier to look after your baby when everyone is working together.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Chelsea Flower Show - A view from the industry

Forget the visitors and the celebrities, for people in the gardening industry Chelsea is all about ego. Everyone in the gardening industry wants to say they have exhibited, built a garden and/or won a prize at Chelsea regardless of whether or not this has any bearing on their actual daily job. I’d bet that every gardener’s CV has at least one mention of Chelsea, even if it is the smallest of roles.

I’ve seen first-hand how involvement in the design, preparation and building of stands for Chelsea can almost destroy a small business when the owner gets distracted by the bright lights and neglects the day-to-day running of the business. It is easy to be seduced by the media attention and forget that most visitors have no interest in actually purchasing anything (which is usually the key driver for suppliers attending any industry show). Chelsea is a long way from your usual trade show.

The only businesses that profit from involvement at Chelsea are those that bring products to sell in the various outlets found in the retail areas. Everyone else invests large amounts of effort, time and money just to have a presence at the premier gardening event of the year. Admittedly some of the more capable designers can add value to their brand with a widely acclaimed and handsomely decorated show garden, but let’s face-it they aren’t paying for their gardens, one of the major corporate sponsors has their expenses fully covered.

Chelsea is a social event first and foremost. There are plenty of other shows where the cost of entry is far lower and returns more rewarding, but these just don’t tick the ‘sexy’ box. If you are in the industry, who cares that you were at the National Garden Show or even HamptonCourt?

Well, in actual fact your clients do. The reality is that most clients of gardening businesses care about the usual things, service, quality and value. They really don’t care if you were at Chelsea, in any capacity. There would rather you were able to deliver their garden requirements at a reasonable price. This remains true for even the high-value customers.

Chelsea is about posturing to your peers. It is about pretending you are bigger, more successful and more desirable that your competitors. It is about proving you have made it as a premier gardening business. Unfortunately for the large majority of smaller participants it ends up being a rather expense ego-trip that fails to generate any additional business. But at least your competitors know you mean business...

Me... I’m giving the Flower Show a miss this year for the first time since I switched careers (unless someone can get me a free ticket of course). I am however helping out with the Chelsea Fringe, which requires much less effort and cost but delivers benefit to far wider audience, i.e. my local community.

Monday, June 20, 2011

It's now all about the experience

Or how customers experiences and expectations of mobile communications have changed over the years and are now driving innovation and evolution in the telecommunications industry.

During the induction to my first job in the Telecommunications industry (well over 20 years ago), one presenter claimed that within a matter of a few years everyone that wanted one would carry a mobile phone. This doesn’t seem very radical now, but back then it seemed a pretty ambitious target and we weren’t all convinced. Remarkably he was correct, by the mid-1990’s mobile phones were pretty much common-place, albeit not the throw away commodity they are now.

Technological advancements in the industry over the last 20 years have been enormous, but what I find almost as interesting is the change in customer expectations.

When mobile phones first became generally available in the UK it was common to not have sufficient signal to make or receive a call. Dropped calls were the norm rather than an exception and connections to other mobile networks expensive and often unreliable. Though often frustrated customers rarely complained, most accepted the situation as the cost of using such new and novel technology. These days phone users expect immediate, reliable connections and in most cases not just to any other phone but also to the internet where they can access email or surf the internet. A quick browse on some of the network forums provides a useful insight in to the expectations and demands of current customers.

This increased expectation of service delivery has been coupled with a decrease in the price customers are willing to pay. After investing billions in the rollout of network infrastructure, mobile phone companies are now watching traffic increase rapidly over their networks but revenues remain static. Customers simply demand and expect more for less. This scenario is mirrored across all countries with established mobile communication industries.

The role of mobile phone companies has also changed. Most have grown from simple network operators, building and managing mobile networks, to providing completely integrated communication services earning their new communication service providers (CSPs) moniker. This change has also blurred the lines between types of service provider, with technologies and consolidation driving a shift to convergent operators providing mobile phones alongside internet, fixed line and even cable services. Providers need to be able to offer customers a seamless service across a wide range of products, competing with increasing demand for services at an ever reducing cost.

My own career has followed this evolution in the industry quite closely. The first role I had was as a manufacturing engineer building switches for a telecoms equipment vendor. I was quickly seduced by computers with the power and flexibility of software applications to provide solutions and enhancements to the basic hardware. 

As mobile networks started to gain traction and coverage expanded to more users, my career shifted towards software products designed to manage these networks - operations support systems (OSS). Initially these were focused on network performance and fault management but with a subsequent migration into overall service assurance solutions. As the business and operations support (B/OSS) functions began to merge so did the solutions I was delivering, until finally the concept of customer experience solutions (CES) and management (CEM) were introduced. 

As their customers demand more for less, CSPs are increasing looking at how they can monitor, manage and control the experience of their customers. Software vendors are likewise striving to meet these requirements  by providing more and more integrated solutions across the whole spectrum of customer, business and operations support.

Industry sources are starting to suggest the next big steps for CSPs will be customer experience transformations (CET). Which is just as well, because I’ve had my sabbatical away from the industry over the last couple of years and I’m keen to jump straight back in where I left off... 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A winning team

This week I was lucky enough to discuss a job opportunity with an organisation that is continuing to do remarkably well in terms of sales and production despite the current economic climate.

In common with most companies, the business wasn’t without its problems. In fact this is largely why they have an opportunity for me to analyse the situation and help implement changes. During my experience I was interested in discussions around the perceived lack of ownership and commitment to product quality demonstrated by some of the workforce. The business in question manufactures a luxury product with a significant brand awareness of very high quality, even amongst its competition. It seems odd that the some of the problems related to a lack of attention to quality during production. It was not clear that the workforce were as ‘proud’ of their product and its strong brand as perhaps would be expected.

Without providing details or identifying the organisation; the experience did remind me of an article I wrote prior to my MBA focused on the factors responsible for creating high performing (or winning) teams in successful organisations. In my opinion there are two key factors responsible; a company culture that promotes an environment where effective teamwork can flourish and systems in place that will ensure employees work together towards common goals.

Company culture, or the character of an organisation, is essential to provide a platform where employees can be made to feel part of the business and responsible for its overall success. The actual culture is of less importance than the strength and consistency of the messaging through the organisation. In fact winning teams across many industries often demonstrate vastly different cultures while still delivering a high performance. Contrast for instance the differing cultures that exist between successful companies such as IBM, Google and McDonalds. Each promote and demonstrate very different cultures within their organisations and when dealing with customers, but in each case the cultures are consistent throughout the business and reflected amongst all employees.

A solid team culture will frequently deliver a higher performance than would be expected based on the ability or experience of each individual. Though more commonly observed in sporting teams this phenomena does not go unnoticed by venture capital firms looking to invest in smaller start-up companies. Often it is the culture and enthusiasm amongst the employees that provides the necessary confidence that the business will succeed.

With a consistent and accepted culture in place throughout the organisation, the next key factor to enable a winning team is to ensure that everyone is working together.

Most companies have incentive plans and performance monitoring systems in place to encourage high performance. How these systems are used is the key factor to enabling a winning team. It is important to ensure a consistent application of the process across all business areas and employees. It is especially important to avoid any contradictions between objectives and goals across different areas of the business. The quickest way to introduce conflict and destroy teamwork is to allow employees to believe what they are trying to achieve differs substantially from others in the same organisation.

The best way to ensure everyone is focused on the same core goals and objectives is to use a cascading approach to goal setting. The CEO holds the key to the initial introduction and creation of these goals. Based on expectations of the company’s stakeholders, the CEO is responsible for deciding on what goals the business needs to be focused each year. These need to be converted in to objectives for the senior management team and then cascaded in a similar manner to all employees.

While the rank and file employees are unlikely to share identical goals to the senior executives, they should at least be aligned with the overall business goals and, ensure everyone believes that they are driving the organisation in the same direction.

A winning team is created in an organisation when each employee wants the business to succeed and feels that their individual contribution is an integral part of this success.