My Notes


Mar 2011

The quality in quality time

Proponents and supporters of “quality time” argue that quality makes up for quantity with regard to spending time with family or friends. They reason that it is okay to “sacrifice” away some time because it will be recovered fuller through higher quality, i.e. in “quality time”. But when people get off work to spend “quality time” with family or friends, how much “quality” are they actually putting into and getting out of their “quality time”?

Any seasoned manager will have many work-honed skills that are cross-utilised in private life to enhance the quality of his/her personal time. For example, being proactive in planning is a natural extension into private life that often enhances the quality of personal time. Another example, being optimistic and looking at life as “half-full glass” instead of “half-empty glass”.

And one does not rise up to the top without at least some skill to juggle tasks simultaneously. And quite a few actually have the propensity to do so out of personality. “Multitasking” is one skill that can often have positive effects but, if carried too far, can have undesired effects in personal affairs.

Being present

One of the most difficult things for a busy manager, especially in exciting times (be it good or bad), is to achieve a state of mind that devoids of thoughts related to work — when NOT at work. In other words, physically present but the mind is elsewhere, i.e. multitasking with work-related thoughts. The mind is still in “the office” so to speak. You are not 100% “present”.

Even when not thinking about work, the multitasking habit may manifest itself in the form of thinking about the future (or the past). A leader, like a chess player, naturally thinks steps ahead while making the move on the current step.

“Technically I lived in the present, but my eyes were forever focused on a more elusive, seemingly more important spot in time.” Eugene O'Kelly #quotes

Quality time demands focus and active participation. It requires the participants to be fully present – body and mind. This may come naturally for some, but for others it may necessitate re-training of work-hardened habits and re-commitment to the private life. The fundamentals are there. Similar to dedicating 100% of self at work, we need to dedicate 100% of ourselves to our private lives – especially during quality time.

Being present is the key that unlocks the quality in quality time.

#learningorg #obxerve

Nov 2010

Adapting project at the speed of business

In large enterprises, implementing a new project can be slow. It can take years from when management has an idea to improve the business and initiates the project until the project starts delivering value. Sometimes, by the time the project finishes many business opportunities are lost or, worse, business condition may have changed unfavourably from when the idea was incubated. Increasingly, business condition changes at a faster pace than in previous years. Projects must adapt to keep up with the business reality and deliver value faster.

Companies in various industries have projects running in their organisations at any given year in some shape or form. It can be a new business initiative, a new IT project, a new building construction, a new product launch, et cetera, et cetera. Many companies also have project-based organisations to manage the projects on an ongoing basis and send their employees through certification process for project management (such as PMI, IPMA, or IPMC Global). Sounds good, but even in the best funded and most experienced project-based organisations, project delivery often plays catch up with the timing of business needs.

Almost invariably, business stakeholders ask that projects be delivered earlier than when the projects will actually deliver. Unfortunately, projects constraints means that some projects are destined to run long. And it is the long running projects that often face issues when business condition changes midstream through the project lifecycle. So how can these projects adapt to keep up with business changes?

Define upfront, and then measure for, short term and long term business objective

Long project exists because, many times, it simply cannot be delivered in a short period of time for good reasons. However that does not preclude such project from needing to deliver business value as early as possible. Upfront, the project success ought to be defined in concrete and measurable terms for the stakeholders, not only for the long term business benefits for which the project is justified on, but also for the short (or medium) term business benefits. Short term benefits are critical in building up and sustaining support for the project and also as validation that the project is on the right course.

Aim to deliver some practical business value as early as possible even to the point of trading in some theoretical long term big picture benefit. It is a balancing act between real tangible benefit versus potential benefit in the future (that may not be there anymore if the business condition change). Early return on investment also helps make management team be more fact-based in making decisions when the wind of change is blowing. Decisions can be made either to stay the course as the return is already proven, or change the course to improve the odds of maximising return, or stop the project when getting a return takes a leap of faith. Upfront discipline enables agility later on through the project lifecycle.

Break project scope into chunks of modular blocks (as modular as feasible)

Define the project roadmap into blocks of scope that may be executed either in sequence or in parallel or a combination of both. The blocks can build on top of each other, but each should aim to deliver business value instead of only at the end of the project. Essentially, modularity allows the project to be flexible when it needs to change course, without loosing too much on sunk cost.

At the same time, modularity needs to be managed guardedly to ensure efficiency is not sacrificed and that transition flows smoothly from one building block of the project scope to the next. The project blocks cannot exist as loosely federated project streams that act only for their own benefits, diverging from the unified business objectives of the project. Whether companies have defined “portfolio management” or “program management” (or whatever fancy name) process is less important than having the entire organisation understanding and being committed to the essential driver of the business benefits.

Agree on the decision makers and decision making process upfront

Large and long project is usually, or hopefully, strategic in nature. Decision making process can be rather straining due to the impact the project can have and the number of cross-functional stakeholders it entails. So involve the right stakeholders early, clarify and agree upfront who the decision makers are. Then engage them often throughout the project.

Even when who the decision makers are clear, some decision makers can be slow in making decision. A decision making process can help mobilise the decision makers. Decision making criteria needs to be clear and pre-defined upfront with rules to break a deadlock. Analysis paralysis is a luxury that cannot be afforded when project agility is called for.

Keep the big picture in mind

Projects in most companies are funded based on annual budgeting process (true for public companies and also for most private companies), but business change does not wait for the next annual budgeting cycle. Budgeting process imposes important financial discipline but it should not handcuff the project from delivering business value flexibly. At any time of the year, management needs to assess project changes (or new projects) against decision making criteria of what brings the most good for the organisation. Budget allocation should not be static as projects are prioritised and re-prioritised according to business realities.

Also prevalent in large organisations is the institutionalisation of project methodology. This is often done out of the desire for standardisation and scalability (a la factory model for projects). Project methodology is good but it needs to be balanced with pragmatism. It should not be applied to the point of slowing the project when it needs to change course.

“Planning is good, but not if it excludes the opportunity to be able to take chances when they come up.” (Chris Wright) #quotes

In conclusion, the overriding ideas of adaptive project are smart planning and continuous pragmatic decision making. Long projects would serve business stakeholders well by being adaptive according to business changes.

#learningorg #obxerve

Sep 2010

Reasons to use open source software

In early days of open source movement, fear mongers created the perception that open source software is not fit for large organisations. Despite the costs, commercially licensed software was seen as a safer alternative to open source and many arguments were brought forward to claim the hidden cost of open source software. Some corporate IT managers still think like this. And they are doing their companies a great disservice.

The open source software movement has matured to become a strategic enabler for corporate IT. Corporate IT needs to assess where open source software can help accomplish the company's business objectives. Here are top reasons why open source software, correctly managed, can be a strategic enabler.

Faster time from idea conception to proof of concept

A properly skilled IT department can often go from idea conception to proof of concept in as much time as their centralised purchasing department setting up and completing request for information / proposal process with commercial software vendors. Open source software is available at large for anyone to download and implement whenever and wherever. There is no need to wait for the software DVD or license key to arrive from any vendor. The software is ready to be implemented at once.

And since there is no external cost involved in doing the proof of concept, there is less political pressure to abandon the idea and move on to the next open source software or to the next idea. Open source software can bring about agility and efficiency.

Faster time from problem identification to resolution

Open source software is available complete with source code (i.e. human readable program). A properly skilled IT department can leverage the source code to troubleshoot a problem that arises within the software because they can investigate what went through the program. They can know where the problem is and what causes it.

And then there is the open source community. It is a community where knowledge sharing is treasured. And in strong open source community, help can come from the community in ways that are sometimes faster and more relevant than support coming from a vendor's hep desk.

Even better, once the solution is known the IT department can fix it themselves and rebuild the software, if needed. There is no need to wait for the software vendor to figure out what the problem is and come up with a fix. (Depending on service level agreement, the wait can be longer than when the fix is needed.) Open source software can lead to less dependence on external vendors.

Faster time from improvement availability to it being implemented

Commercial software vendors try to please all their customers, but unfortunately not all customers will get the improvements they want when they want them. Sometimes the commercial vendors will delay some new feature due to limited development resources (no matter how big they are). Sometimes they release them when there is no IT budget for software upgrade. Which means the users must wait for budget to be made available while making do with less efficient work-around.

This again is where the open source community shines. Development of the “new” or “improved” functionality can be done by any member of the community. People can develop it themselves and use it internally. Better yet, the development can be submitted back to the open source community for the entire community to adopt. In a thriving open source software community, feature growth is as fast as how active the members are at contributing back new development to the community. This can lead to faster access to more functionality.

Flexibility in choosing when to upgrade

This one is the other side of the coin from the point above. More often than not, it is better to upgrade software in line with its current release cycle. However, it is a fact of life that some software cannot be upgraded in timely fashion consistently, whether it is due to budgetary reason nor technical reason nor whatever reason. The issue with commercially licensed software is that they always terminate support for older versions which leaves corporate IT managers to decide whether to pay extra for the extended support (if it is even an option at all) or upgrade (not free either). If neither really is possible, then the company is operating the software at risk, because if there is a critical problem, it cannot get support from the vendor and it does not have the source code to fix it (see above).

This does not happen on a daily basis, but when it happens, it can be headache nonetheless. With open source software, there is a greater degree of control to upgrade when it makes sense to internal timetable as opposed to someone else's. Open source software can lead to more control over maintenance timetable.

Focus on software merits

Companies who avoid open source software are limited to evaluate commercial software during their software selection process. They might be missing a great opportunity to compare commercial software against equivalent open source alternatives. In many situations, open source alternative can be technically as good as the commercial software. Increasingly, more and more critical corporate IT capability runs on open source software. Open source software adds options to software selection.


Caveat emptor. Open source software is not a miracle cure. It does what it does best, but it is not to be used without proper assessment.

Here are some things to watch out for.

Know thy total cost of ownership

From the perspective of total cost of ownership, open source software is never free. And poorly managed, it can be as expensive as commercially licensed software. The key consideration is between fit of internal capability to do the work versus cost of hiring external skill to do the work. If neither of them is attractive compared to commercially licensed software (inclusive of all the external skill that often has to be hired too), then cost obviously is not a selling factor. Unless there is a real strategic advantage, then skip it for some other software projects.

There is also a danger that corporate IT function starts building every skill internally, instead of hiring external services, which eventually will lead to larger and larger internal IT headcounts. Eventually, this will be detrimental. So there is a fine balance that must be watched with discipline.

Know thy open source software

Not every piece of open source software is created equal. Barrier of entry is almost none, so there is a bewildering array of open source software out there varying in quality from mediocre to best-in-class. And the community behind the open source software is equally an important consideration. Without a good community behind it, long term maintenance cost may creep up over time.

Know thy legal constraints

Open source software comes in a number of license flavours. If the use of the software is not purely internal, then pick one that will fit the intended use. Open source license vary from liberal to restrictive. Legal departments are usually hung up by the restrictive licensed open source software, but there are many superb open source software with liberal license for the picking. Some are also offered with dual license, open source or commercial with commercial support. It really depends on a case by case, depending on the open source software choices in a given segment at a given time. It does change from time to time. If nothing fits, go commercial software. In short, license is a tactical consideration, but not a strategic show stopper.


Corporate IT strategy should be about focusing on long term business strategy and ways to execute it with speed, effectiveness and efficiency. Open source software has helped many companies deliver on those and it can help many more companies.

#learningorg #obxerve #design

Jun 2010

Talent mismanagement

If one searches for “talent management” on the internet, the results that come back are typically dominated by recruiting-oriented or human resource management search results. This probably reflects current prevalent practices in many organisations around the globe. However it seems to obfuscate one critical factor in any talent management i.e. the proactive involvement of senior leadership and anybody who manages employees. Anything less than proactive talent management can end up being talent mismanagement.

Corporate hallways are rife with stories where talented employees leave to the despair of their managers. Sometimes, team performance may suffer (sometimes significantly) for a prolonged period after the departure of a talented staff. And managers are often befuddled when this happens. They will give various reasons and many will fall into some predictable patterns.

I did not see it coming

In some very specific situations, this can indeed be the case, but it is very rare. For example when mandatory resignation notice period is very short and an employee literally out of the blue is compelled to quit, be it due to positive or negative reason. Aside from such rare cases, more often than not a manager should have sensed something.

When this does not happen, this can be a symptom that no real dialogue is happening between the manager and the staff, or not frequently enough. If there is no real dialogue in between annual performance reviews, then a manager will not sense anything coming, even when the staff has given hints or clues to his/her dissatisfaction. (This is no excuse either for virtual teams, because just like in a face-to-face meeting, a manager need to be as effective in maintaining open dialogue and in sensing subtle messages from the employees.)

I knew but there was nothing I could do

Why? What is meant by “could do”? There is usually several ways to address an issue; zero (“nothing”) that can be done could be a symptom of ignorance, incompetence, laziness, or structural organisational dysfunction. Ignorance, incompetence or laziness may mean that the manager is not that good, so it is possible that the talented employee will quit anyway someday. This is an issue that the manager's manager must address. Structural organisational dysfunction, on the other hand, may mean that the manager's manager, or even higher up, is dysfunctional (could be due to ignorance, incompetence, or laziness also). For example refusing to hire an extra headcount when the workload justifies the need or refusing to invest in better tools to make the team more efficient, etc, etc.

There is always something that someone can do. If it is important enough, then the manager needs to either do it or find that someone who can do it.

He/she is irreplaceable

Every staff is unique in what he/she brings to the organisation, but every job comes with job specification and competency requirements that an employee must meet. Any extra performance beyond that is bonus, whereby the employee deserves the recognition that he/she merits. But when the manager or the team relies on this “bonus” above and beyond the job specification and competency requirements, then something is wrong with the organisation. Maybe everybody is expected to give something extra so an extra headcount is not needed. (And the manager wonders why the star employee is not happy.) Maybe this causes the lazy team members (or manager) to not give their 100% and the manager neglects to address it. Et cetera, et cetera.

It is the manager's job to build the entire team and to help everyone improve so someone else can step in to perform the job. Even when resignation is not involved, this is a common situation, such as long vacation, maternity / paternity leave, etc.

I do not have time to recruit someone new

Everybody is working at their maximum capacity these days, so an additional effort to recruit a replacement is usually unplanned burden. This is a symptom that separates those companies with solid human resources business processes and those without. HR processes need to be transparent, smooth and fast. And there needs to be solid integration between operations and HR. For example, is the detailed job specification and competency requirements up-to-date all the time? Does HR know what questions to ask potential recruits for the job? Et cetera.

When HR processes are solid all the way through and HR department is properly staffed, the additional burden would center around interviewing promising candidates – internal or external – and not much more. Hiring managers usually complains about recruiting effort because the prerequisites above do not happen. Obviously, HR needs to step up, but managers should also cooperate with HR even when they do not have any urgent need for HR services, i.e. do not wait until a staff quits.


Talent mismanagement is easy to do and, in organisations or teams that let this happen, talented employees would not want to stay. And without capable employees, execution does not happen well, no matter how good the company strategy is.

Talent management is only one side of the coin, where on the other side is succession planning.

Contrary to common perceptions, succession planning ought to be understood literally just that, when any employee moves on, what is the succession plan to replace that employee – no matter what his/her seniority in the organisation is. No organisation should under-estimate the challenges and impact when “lower pay-grade” or “less talented” employee leaves; it may not be high-profile but the impact can be surprisingly high nonetheless. As the saying goes, “a chain is only as strong as the weakest link”.

It is imperative that every organisation strengthens every link in its chains, i.e. its teams. The following list provides some proactive actionable recommendations.

  • Knowledge sharing: Everyone in the team needs to share their knowledge and make it a point also that it is one of the annual performance objectives. Do not intentionally let key knowledge to build up in just one person.
  • Investment in supportive tools: Record the team knowledge; it can be written, audio, video, etc. And make it easily recordable and accessible via easy-to-use tools.
  • Shadowing: Assign a second person as a backup throughout an assignment, not just during vacation periods. A designated backup is essentially the immediate successor in case an employee is sick or on vacation or leaves the organisation. This concept is the most difficult to swallow because it requires extra bandwidth usage, but management team who is willing to pay this insurance premium would be the one who are well positioned.
  • Rotation: Rotate the team members to do each others' roles from time to time. This builds up knowledge among the team members and can be a rewarding experience for the team.
  • Career path planing: Not everybody is able to be promoted, but for those who are talented and ambitious, they may not be happy to keep doing the same thing year in and year out. Understand their talent, track their progress and proactively plan their career path. If the managers will not do it, they will do it themselves and when this is the case, the path may lead to them joining other companies.
  • Competency development: Formal training programs are the norm, but often relegated to low priority status. Above average employees, as much as the average employees, would benefit from continuing education programs. Sometimes it also involves giving the employees a personal development goal (and the time to do it at work) by doing self-study or research toward their competency development.
  • Employee satisfaction survey: Conduct anonymous satisfaction survey regularly. The survey can be brief but it needs to be complete enough to cover 360 degree aspect of one's job, including colleagues, boss, customers, direct reports, etc. The survey helps give a snapshot of potential dissatisfaction and, over time, trends of their job satisfaction.

Talent management (in combination with succession planning), arguably, is the most important job of a CEO and every managers in the organisation. It has strategic importance and it should not be relegated to a low priority HR initiative. Do not wait until key talents leave the organisation to act on it.

#learningorg #obxerve

Apr 2010

Myths of early technology adoption

Being an early adopter for new technology is not for the faint of hearts. True. But often decision makers are subjected to fear mongering tactics that make it seems far riskier than it needs to be. Despite the best intention to measure return on investment, technology investment is wrought with political manoeuvres and myths, especially when the new technology is placed face-to-face against established technology. At the same time, it is unwise to dismiss the opportunities that can be made possible by new technology.

The latest technology is historically referred to as leading edge or cutting edge. Sometimes it is referred as bleeding edge, cynically referring to the pain and “bleeding” that the early adopters endure when implementing the latest technology. The phrase sticks, further reinforcing the perception that it is very risky to be an early adopter. What got lost in the message is: what did those “bleeding” companies do that made them “bleed”. Was it purely due to the technology or was it exacerbated by their mis-management of the technology adoption project?

Technology is a tool; it cannot perform or fail on its own. There is always the people factor that influenced the outcome – good or bad. And yet people misunderstand this factor and generalise away. This eventually creates a fog of myths.

Myth #1: Leading edge technology is unproven

When a technology is so new, leading edge implies that not very many companies or users would have bought and used it. However to state it is unproven, the statement needs to be understood in context. The burden of proof rests on both the vendor and the consumer. The vendor always have to back up their claim about their new technology and for that they will claim it in as narrow a scope as they can get away to avoid extra liability, while at the same time aggressively promising benefits to lure the consumer. Which means that most of the burden of proof needs to be born by the consumer, i.e. the consumer must prove that their intended use can indeed be performed to specification by the technology.

This is where many companies fail. Often, they do not have specification of their intended use or if they do, not good enough. Sometimes they do not even know or agree among themselves what the intended use is supposed to be. In the occasion that they have good specification, they may not have good and repeatable ways to test the technology against the specification. In other words, they themselves cannot prove if the technology can perform to their intended use or not.

In these cases, it is actually irrelevant whether the technology is new (i.e. leading edge) or widely used (i.e. established). If the technology implementation does not live up to expectation, they would blame the technology anyway. When the technology is new, they would claim the reason is because it is “unproven” and when the technology is not new, they would come up with other excuse.

Opportunities await companies or consumers who have the discipline in understanding and specifying their intended use of any technology and proving the fit methodically before actual use. These companies or consumers have the ability to try out any leading edge technologies that may benefit them ahead of their competitors, whether the pundits think it is proven or not.

Myth #2: Leading edge technology is for start-ups

The perception is that start-ups are more willing to take risks than larger companies. Out of necessity, this is often true. Ironically, it is actually the larger companies who usually have better means and resources to “prove”, prior to use, any promising new technology against their need or intended use – as discussed above. And this is the exact opposite of risky, because the fit for purpose can be assessed beforehand. Companies or consumers who think leading edge technology are not for larger companies are generally the same ones who were misled by myth #1 above.

Once any company or consumer can get over the provability complaint, it all comes down to standard portfolio risk management. Start small, start with non mission-critical use, start with change-ready users, or any combination of these. Then learn from the pilot project before enlarging the scope in order to make corrective actions. If the pilot project proves the new technology does not work for them, they can move on and use the knowledge for the next new technology evaluation.

Many large companies rely on analysts to help them “understand” new technologies and wait until it is in widespread use before they start trying them out. This approach is actually riskier than trying the technology hands-on when they are still new. First, analysts are blind to the nuances and complexity of a large company. They can only make generalisations of what large companies need and how a given technology will or will not fit their needs. Second, waiting means that other companies who successfully use the new technology will get the competitive edge over those who wait.

From the perspective of portfolio risk management, large companies have more cushion than small companies to take on the calculated risk of doing a pilot project on the new technology.

Myth #3: Leading edge technology gives less ROI than established technology

If the intended use is merely to maintain the status quo, then there is a lot of weight in this statement. But maintaining the status quo is the wrong objective. The objective should be about acquiring competitive advantage. And when observed in light of this objective, the ROI (return on investment) calculation takes on a different nuance and the time horizon extends longer.

When a technology is new, the market size is still relatively small and there is not enough economy of scale. So cost tends to be higher than established technology. And even with technology where economy of scale does not necessarily reduce price (e.g. computer programs), there are still the secondary services (e.g. availability of programmers) that are directly or indirectly affected by the market size and priced accordingly. This is basic supply and demand.

Therefore, new technology – due to relatively higher cost on the outset – its ROI needs to be assessed from the perspective of benefit in giving competitive advantage over the medium to long term. On its own, a new technology may not generate enough ROI. But when looked in the context of what it potentially brings to the company's competitive advantage, the medium or long term ROI will shift favourably.


The opportunity cost from the failure to use a relevant new technology for competitive advantage can be hard to recoup. At the same time, this does not mean that every new technology is relevant and needs to be implemented widely and immediately – far from it.

Leading edge technology brings an opportunity, not a promise. If it works as intended, does it have the potential to give competitive advantage?

  • Understand first the business need and how it affects competitive advantage.
  • Assess whether or not the new technology can satisfy the intended use.
  • Plan and execute a pilot project within the context of portfolio risk management.
  • Assess the ROI using medium to long-term perspective and adjust based on the learning from the pilot project.

Every decision maker needs to be curiously open minded and cautiously pragmatic at the same time.

#learningorg #design #obxerve

Feb 2010

Career crossroads

What are the most common reasons for professionals to change jobs? Usually: unresolved negative incident, family-related move, or unsolicited recruitment. All of these are externally influenced circumstances; in other words, externally triggered as opposed to internally triggered. But these are, usually, not within one's direct sphere of influence, thus limited influence on improving or maintaining job satisfaction. Arguably, a better approach at managing one's job satisfaction is via personal monitoring of career crossroads signs.

“If a man is unhappy in his work, he is unhappy.” (Patrick Morley, “The Man in the Mirror”)

This quote applies to both male and female professionals. And yet many professionals arrive at career crossroads without knowing it. The opportunity to make a career move does not always present itself. At the same time, just because there is no “obvious” opportunity does not mean it is a bad idea to make a career move either.

As the saying goes, “a map is only useful if you know where you are and where you want to go” (assuming you also have the right map). So what are the signposts that can help you identify where you are and where you need to be in your career journey? The following talks about some personal signposts; they may be different from one person to another, but these are a good start.

Being proud at the end of every working day

Getting paid appropriately to the level of contribution is crucial, but all else being equal, pride counts a lot. At the end of the day, every day, is there conscience that the work done is well deserving of the pay? Is it something that has been done in the best possible way with the available knowledge at the time? Is it something that will stand up to the scrutiny of the next generation? If the answer is no, then maybe it is time to move on.

Having magnitude of attitude in check

Some people push all the wrong buttons from time to time, while some others push the wrong button all the time. This is not to say that wrong buttons justify bad attitude in the workplace. Attitude is the fine line that separates professionalism and barbarism. It sets apart a decision maker from a bully.

Negativity tears down the team, whereas positive attitude redirects the team's energy to build up and strengthen the team. So when the reserve for positive attitude runs low and replenishment cannot keep pace, then maybe it is time to move on.

Working in a way that lets life to be enjoyed

All too often, work interferes with personal life outside work. Being late for something because an important meeting ran over, or dinner plan with friends need to be missed due to a business trip, or having to receive a work phone call during vacation because an urgent decision cannot wait, etc, etc. This is understandable and sometimes is just a “small price” compared to the alternative repercussions.

But once it starts reducing the joy in personal life, then it is time to check. Is this happening on regular basis or just haphazardly? If regular, how long has this been going on? Is there any path forward to resolve it soon? If the analysis yields unfavourable observation, then is it worth the personal sacrifice? If no, then maybe it is time to move on.

Knowing that learning will not stop

Decision makers are by nature “knowledge workers” who thrives at processing and using relevant knowledge to make decisions. And decision making is done always within the context of competitive landscape which itself changes all the time. Lifelong learning is more than a privilege, it is a necessity.

Ongoing learning is the key to adaptability. Without learning, one's decision making ability will become dull.

“Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.” (Author Unknown)

So when the learning slows down or stops completely, then maybe it is time to move on.


Change can be uncomfortable

A career change, especially when family may be affected, is even more uncomfortable. However, if you know where you are and you are not where you want to be, then ask the question, “Am I looking at a career crossroads?” If yes, maybe it is time to move on, even if it is uncomfortable. Life is too short to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and not do anything about it.

Life is a journey. And “a journey of a thousand li starts with a single step.” (Lao Tzu)

#learningorg #obxerve

Jun 2009

The inertia of fear

“Fear” is not a much-used word in the workplace, for whatever reason, although in bad times, people are more open to talk about it, e.g. “fear of losing a job”, etc. Nonetheless, fear is one of human being's basic emotions. It is ever present in the workplace, consciously or unconsciously, bad times or good times. Managing people, in one way or another, requires managers to understand how fear can affect corporate performance.

Both in personal and corporate life, “fear” can either be an incentive or a disincentive for change. It affects people's propensity to upset or maintain the status quo.

Fear in the workplace

Managers are responsible for many many bad decisions, including the decision to not decide in timely manner. “Bad” decisions can be due to lack of understanding (e.g. cluelessness) or due to ego or due to, commonly enough, fear. Ironically, fear of making bad decisions (either for the company or for oneself) can lead to indecisions which in many cases is a bad thing itself. It is a vicious circle.

Fear is often used to drive employee performance, too. Some companies openly tell their employees that the bottom performers are candidates for layoffs. This tactic drives employee behaviours. Employees find out what “perform” means and they do whatever it takes to get high marks on those measurements. This can be good and at the same time, this can lead to unexpected consequences.

Fear inhibits change

Employee behaviour that is driven by fear are difficult to change. There is an inertia that builds up and then takes on a path of its own. Many times, this path diverges from a strategic direction that senior management wants to pursue. Deservedly, many strategic corporate initiatives fail due to poor change management that fail to address the fear factor properly.

As an example, take a company who is disciplined in meeting their budgets and financial goals. In this company, managers can get fired if they miss their budget. Then the CEO gets religion on “innovation” and tells his managers to take risks and invest in new projects that can potentially yield innovative products (or services). Guess what? If investing in new projects involves the risk of missing the budget, and if missing the budget still means they can get fired, there is only a small chance the managers will change. If the managers do not change, the staffs are unlikely to change either. And the CEO wonders why the company is not responding to the strategic initiative to be innovative.

To reiterate, fear can build up inertia against change. And lack of change, in turn, can build up even more inertia against change.

The elephant in the room

To state the obvious, a normal human being always has fear in him / her. And fear is not, in itself, bad. It is part of human being's survival strategy. What makes it good or bad is how it is managed within corporate settings.

The goal is not to eliminate all fear; the goal is to align fear to the “right” framework and context according to corporate strategy. Management needs to look at the pre-existing “carrot and stick” and ensure that they do not inhibit the change which is being pursued by the corporate strategy. If they do, then they need to be pre-empted with a new set of “carrot and stick” that fits the strategy.

For companies that operate globally, cultural and socio-political differences have an obvious impact to what will work as “carrot and stick”. What works in one country may not work in another. For example, fear of unemployment is not the same between countries that have strong unemployment benefit versus countries that have none.

Also, different industries face different challenges when it comes to managing staffs and fear. Industries that are growing fast, or where the job market is dynamic, have a different set of challenges from industries where the industry is slowing down.

Another important point is that a strategy needs to be balanced. It ought not eliminate fear completely such that it encourages one-sided behaviour and disregard everything else. To revisit the above example, the CEO ought not encourage risk taking without putting in place suitable check and balances to identify reckless or irresponsible risk taking.

It is about managing people

Managers' attitude toward staffs needs to be kept in check; fear should not be misused. There is a trust relationship between staffs and managers that needs to be respected. Company reputations, and often performance, depends on managers respecting this sometimes invisible social contract.

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May 2009

The purpose of influence

“Intelligence? Checked. Career? Checked. Money? Checked. Professional and social networks? Checked. Now what?” These questions get asked often by high powered individuals, but the answers do not always satisfy. An interesting approach to find the answer is through understanding one's sphere of influence and then defining a purpose with which to focus his / her influence.

Obviously, every one is different. An answer that satisfies one person may not satisfy another. At the same time, the process of how to get to the answer may be applicable for many individuals. The following tells a story of one person's journey to find his answer.

When his book became one of the all time best selling book in the world, Rick Warren started seeing millions of US dollars flow from his book proceeds. In other words, he had done it; he had arrived. The following video shows a TED Conference talk where Rick recalled how he dealt with his “now what” question by focusing his influence and affluence into three areas: AIDS, poverty, and leadership development.

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Mar 2009

KPI conundrum

What organisational metrics measure must not be confused with what the organisation needs to do about the metrics. Metrics are data points; they are not the goal. Confuse the two, and an organisation can loose track of the real goal.

Most, if not all, large organisations track various organisational metrics internally. And they designate some of the metrics to be key metrics, also known as key performance indicators (KPIs).

KPI is a double-edged sword

One story goes that, a few years ago, a chief information officer (CIO) of a large global company set a long term goal. The goal was that the ratio of information technology (IT) cost to sales, year over year, will be held relatively constant or lower. A very laudable goal, but the implications have proven to frustrate the organisation in the past few years.

One example is in the area of new IT projects, among others. Whenever “business” wants to implement a new enterprise software, IT would push back and scale down the scope of features. And then when implementation options or vendors are being considered, IT would push hard to select certain “standard” technologies or “strategic” IT vendors instead of the solution that appeals most to the “business” users. Arguably, there are valid points to this particular approach, from the perspective of cost management, but that is not the point.

The point is that when the above is motivated by the goal of controlling “IT costs” to the expense of “business cost”, then it harms the entire organisation. There are cases where this caused business process efficiency to suffer in this particular organisation which turns out to be more expensive than the supposed cost saving that was sold by IT. In other words, “IT costs” looks good, but the total cost for the organisation does not.

Senior management's first instinct (and this has become common practice) is to compare their KPIs against industry average or direct competitors' KPIs. Then a benchmark goal is set for the organisation to pursue as performance goal without solid understanding of what causes their metrics to be different from the benchmark. And this is when tensions can arise. A proactive effort to change the KPIs can potentially trigger a win-loose relationship within the organisation. Managers look out for their own interests, sometimes openly and sometimes subversively.

Does that mean that it is wrong to benchmark KPIs? No. Benchmarking is a legitimate management practice and it is a good starting place for investigating improvement opportunities. The conundrum lies in how they are implemented.

KPI is an indicator – not a goal

Many organisations are fixated on the KPI as a performance goal / objective. The root of such practice, probably, comes from one interpretation of the axiom: “You cannot control what you cannot measure.” (1982, Tom DeMarco) Thus many in management think they have to measure and set goals against business performance that they measure.

And there are caveats to this thinking. First, when KPI is “fixed” by means of performance goal, it creates a superficial trend. The real trends are obscured or disguised or “faked”, because when bonus depends on it, organisations may justify the means to make the number. And this misses the more interesting question: what do the (real) trends tell?

Second, rarely is a KPI an island unto itself. Often, it consists of a hierarchy of other metrics that collectively aggregate into one KPI. And each metric is usually interdependent with other business metric(s) which may have either reinforcing effect or counter effect.

Third, there is a danger that people starts to believe that the converse of what DeMarco posited is always true, but it is not necessarily so. Just because you can measure something, it does not always mean you can control it. Measurability does not guarantee controllability or manageability.

Lessons learned from KPI implementations

Although metrics appear on the surface to be an easy number crunching exercise, effective use of KPIs require thorough analysis and planning.

  • Understand the trends using the appropriate context. Trends in the metrics are the real story behind the indicators, not the metrics isolated by themselves. Trends can be leading or trailing indicators, depending on the circumstances. And they help an organisation track if it is moving in the “right” direction and at what speed.
  • Understand the interdependent “system” dynamics behind the KPIs. Honest numbers do not come out of thin air – there are processes and people behind the metrics.
  • Reward performance based on end-to-end or wholistic metrics. What really counts is the success of the entire organisation, not just that of a single department.
  • Prioritise the KPIs. Crystal clear guidelines enables organisations to proactively resolve conflicts among various business processes that track different KPIs.
  • Review performance result collaboratively. Interdependencies imply that making or missing the numbers involves other groups delivering, or not, on what they are depended upon. And be constructive; finger-pointing after the fact cannot fix the past.

KPI is a highly useful management tool, but the implication of poor KPI implementation can be detrimental to the organisation. It pays to give it the attention that is due for it.

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Dec 2008

Buying IT investment advice

It may be interesting to survey CEOs and CFOs on how much they truly understand IT analysts' influence on their IT spending. IT analysts are often CIOs best friends (figuratively speaking). When asked by the CEO / CFO, “why implement such and such information technology that costs so much money?” The CIOs can usually point to their teams' analysis that is backed by some industry report from some IT analyst to justify the reason.

In the financial industry, people are familiar with the important roles that credit analysts and stock analysts play in the health of the industry. At the same time, abuse of responsibility by either of them can have major impact to the fortune of many people.

How is this relevant to IT? IT analysts like Yankee Group, Gartner, Forrester, Ovum, etc (see IIAR for more), are very different than credit analysts or stock analysts. Indeed, they are different, but IT analysts have only been in existence for a brief period of time compared to credit or stock analysts. If things stay the course for the long term, IT analysts, directly or indirectly, can potentially have similar impact as the analysts in the financial industry. This is not a story out of a science fiction movie; this is real life, particularly in large companies. (IT analyst costs often price out small companies.)

Value added services

IT analysts reports save time and, in some cases, fill in the competency holes that exist in some organisations. Many CIOs and their teams typically use them in several areas, among others are the following.

  • Strategy planning: IT analysts scan the industry for technology trends which are used by CIOs and their teams to propose which technology area to invest and develop.
  • Vendor and product assessment: IT analysts regularly issue reports on vendors and products to document their assessments and, sometimes, their recommendations. These reports are often used during IT purchasing planning.
  • Benchmarking: IT analysts periodically conduct survey and analysis on IT costs which are used to rationalise cost cutting measure, or in rare cases, obtain approval for budget increases. In other cases, surveys are done to inventorise the areas where IT investments are being made.

These value added services are very useful in the right context, but they can create powerful influencing forces. Technology trend reports can influence corporate spending on technology types that are favoured or disfavoured by the IT analysts. Vendors and product assessment reports directly influence visibility for corporate spending. Some enterprise software vendors have seen improved business due to no small part on being favoured by IT analysts. Cost benchmark reports can affect the fate of IT employees, to the benefit of outsourcing companies, and also the fate of IT spending policies, which often has hidden cost implications.

Wrong IT investments can affect the entire company, both short and long term, which can have direct financial impact to the bottom line.

Caveat emptor. There is very minimal, if any, check and balance in the IT advisory industry. IT analysts are not accountable to any governing body. So let the buyer beware and take notice when buying and reading IT analyst reports.


Some key pointers to pay attention to

Full disclosure

Technology trend reports and vendor / product assessment reports can have financial impact to IT vendors whose offerings are mentioned in the reports, either favourably or otherwise. But there is a lack of disclosure by IT analysts in their reports. Do their companies accept business from any of the vendors? Do they own any share in such companies? Different companies have different policies.

Practical experience

IT analysts are not overpaid reporters; they are analysts first and foremost, and then they write up reports. For these analysis to be worth the cost they charge, the IT analysts not only need to have good analytical and writing skills, but more importantly, they need to have true understanding of the topic at hand and how it applies. Clients need to ensure IT analysts have the practical experience. Many IT analysts (not all) have long track record as IT analysts, but not necessarily as IT practitioners. So if they lack the experience as practitioners, do they explain their process of ensuring their recommendations do not just look good in theory?

Global and local context

IT analyst reports would contain general recommendations on certain areas, areas that have global impact to their clients. Yet in most cases, an IT analyst client is larger, and operates in more geographical areas, than all of the IT analysts combined. Do they demonstrate experience in the complexity of a large global operations and the sensitivity of local cultural and geopolitical issues?

Range of coverage

Having limited resources, most IT analysts focus only on medium-to-large IT vendors and, even then usually, on specific sets of technology only. They cover the mainstream, but not the fringes of technology trends. Unfortunately, this can lead to missed opportunities for innovative solutions that may be just what are needed at some companies.

Track record

Many IT analysts come up with some sort of trends or prediction or forecast on certain topics, quantitatively or qualitatively. Nobody, officially, keeps track how accurate they are from year to year. To draw an analogy from the financial industry again, all mutual fund investment advisors regularly publish their performance, i.e. how they compare against their target performance benchmark. So if there is no performance tracking, what criteria would companies use to choose one IT analyst company over another?


Balanced approach is needed

IT is becoming more and more intertwined within business processes in the organisation. IT is not just a tool; it is slowly (or depending on industry – quickly, if not already) becoming the core component in many companies' business processes. The right IT investments, done right, can give the competitive edge needed in today's business environment.

External IT analysts – the good ones – have a role to help make sense of where to invest in the fast changing world of IT. At the same time, intimate knowledge of practical internal needs is mandatory before deciding on what, where and how much IT investment should be done.

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