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3 Posts authored by: James LaPlaine

[Note: This article was originally posted to Mental Effort on January 19, 2015.]

Gustave Flaubert was a nineteenth century French author who is considered by many to have created the style of the modern novel. As the New York Times literary critic, James Woods, put it, "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring; it all begins again with him." Flaubert painstakingly depicts his characters with precise and lean descriptions. His works, like Madame Bovary, are highly referenced examples of Realism. Maybe you've never heard of him, however I bet you know one of his famous quotes:

"There is no truth. There is only perception."

Of course we all create and have a library of perceptions, mental images based on our senses, about the world around us.  Sensory information, in a sense (pun intended), are simply data. Data which doesn't have a natural right or wrong associated with it. We form perceptions by combining both our sensory data and the experiences and knowledge we have about a particular subject.

 

Harvest Moon by Brett Davis - https://flic.kr/p/5mNyLx

HARVEST MOON BY BRETT DAVIS – HTTPS://FLIC.KR/P/5MNYLX

 

For example, you've likely seen, on occasion, a moon that looks big and orange just above the horizon. Now, we know that the moon didn't actually grow, and that this largeness is an optical illusion. The red & orange color is due to the filtering of blue light from the thicker parts of the atmosphere which are located closer to the horizon.

But what if we didn't have today's modern science and understanding of atmospheres, orbits, and different wavelengths of light? We might think that the moon suddenly grew and turned a frightening shade of blood orange. Our observations would be the only data we have about the moon and our perceptions would be set. If this were the case, we would have created a misconception about the moon, a view that is incorrect because it is based on a faulty understanding.

Misconceptions are the subject of today's third part of my series on IT business transformation. We'll explore this question:

What perceptions of technology do business leaders make that lead to misconceptions of IT services and staff?


As a technologist you have experience and knowledge that business leaders in other areas won't. What you perceive when merging your observations with this knowledge may be vastly different than the perceptions that others form about your work. You have to translate your experience into language that the uninitiated will understand and care about. Others have not chosen your specialty, so they may not be naturally inclined to be curious about technology, to want to know the why, or to even "hear" what it is your saying unless you speak in their terms.

Stated simply, you have to stop talking about technology. Instead speak in terms that matter to your audience, to truly change perceptions.

 

Here I want to make an important and maybe obvious point. On occasion I've found that the misconception lies with me, and not the other way around.  If my team is hard to work with, or has a habit of saying "no", the lens of "misconception" just might be reversed and introspection would be in order. You shouldn't expect other leaders to take the lead to point this out to you, after all they have been by giving you feedback all along, haven't they?

By way of example, let's take a look at two common areas of misconception: cost and transparency. I'll offer a scenario, talk about the likely misconceptions, and offer ideas on how to turn the conversation toward IT Value.

IT Costs

Scenario

Your IT costs are allocated back to a business unit, showing up on a P&L as single lump sum.

 

Misconceptions

IT is seen as expensive, uncontrollable, and adding little value.

IT is a tax on the business.

 

The message you should receive

Business leaders don't know what specific value you bring, they don't understand their consumption of your services, and they often see marketing from external companies with little on this front from you.

 

Solutions

Dig into the details of what is truly represented in this allocation. Do you understand it, does it make sense to you? Take financial accountability of your costs and how they are reflected to the business units.

 

Reaffirm and validate the rules that govern allocation. Are they arbitrary or based on data?

 

Consider grouping the allocations into more specific categories from the services you provide (servers, storage, customer support, etc…) versus a single number.

 

Provide operational and consumption based metrics in addition to the financials.

 

Sit down with each product GM and have them describe their business to you and how they think IT supports their cause.

 

Arm yourself with the risks, road map, and upside of the business meeting their goals.

 

Use all of this data to establish monthly business problem solving sessions where IT is a partner and part of the culture.

 

Lack of Transparency

Scenario

IT is late to learn of new product and service offerings. Much IT work feels reactionary versus planned. Little to no strategic planning is done with the IT department.

 

Misconception

IT is a supplier, providing only tactical services. IT is a black box, what do they even do all day long?

IT is a bottleneck, not flexible enough, and slowing my business down.

 

The message you should receive

Business leaders see you as ticket takers, waiting for direction from them. They see you as a vendor, not a partner. Vendors are there to brow beat, partners play on the same team.

Business leaders don't understand the technical risks of their decisions.

 

Solution

Define a service catalog, market the value you bring. Rinse and repeat the marketing.

 

Talk about risk prevention and the insurance policy of an on-call team, Network Operations Center, or penetration testing of your services.

 

While supplying compute, storage, and network is essential, turn the dialog to the higher order services you do as part of solving a business problem. Don't lead with hardware configuration and speeds and feeds.

 

Likely flexibility comments are really about not having visibility into the workload of the IT department. Determine how to make this visible, catalog all tickets in a queue, categorize them, ask for help setting priorities with your peer business leads. Oh, and market that you have this visible display, often.

 

Create a forum (newsletter, blog post, lunch and learn sessions) to talk about the big things you are doing that will improve efficiencies, limit risk, save money, and enable better products and services.

 

Remember, IT is a strategic weapon and creates value for the company.

These tactics are examples of the types of actions you should have in your IT roadmap to create positive perceptions of your organization. You want to turn emotion led decisions into data-driven decisions. The next time you hear feedback from your peers in the company, try to empathize and figure out why they feel that way. Only one of two outcomes is possible:

  1. They've got it right and you have work to do to address the feedback,
  2. They've got it wrong, and you have work to do to address the misconception.

Ignoring the feedback will further strengthen the observations and lead to more heavily entrenched feelings toward IT, more pressure on IT budgets, and over time erode the support you need to be transformational.

Next, in part 4 in this series, I’ll explain why building a complete IT financial model is the right first step in beginning this transformational journey.


James LaPlaine is the CIO & SVP, Technology Operations at AOL. You can follow James on his blog Mental Effort and on twitter @JamesLaPlaine.

In a twelve part series about IT business transformation, James explores the need for the modern technology leader to be a catalyst for change, leverage IT value as a corporate strategic weapon, and lead the way for complete financial transparency. Utilizing this approach, today's technology leader can provide the foundation for the company to build better products and services and gain approval for technology led initiatives that often struggle for executive support and funding.

[Note: This article was originally posted to Mental Effort on January 12, 2015.]

I believe this to be a universal truth for successful companies:

We invest in things that create value.

This is true in our personal lives too. I don't just mean financial investments, it includes personal relationships, or decorations for our homes, or the car you drive. The value often times is an emotional one. In fact, I would say the most valued things create a positive emotion. When we engage in something that has perceived value, or worth, you feel better, right?

IT shops in many companies are seen as predominately a cost center, which is very often viewed as anti-value. We de-emphasize IT, by cutting budgets, when a company doesn't see the value it creates.

This simple graph visually depicts the danger of continuous IT budget cuts.

IT Misconceptions cropped

Over time, continuous cutting of an IT budget will cause the misconceptions about IT to become realities. There is a point where the burden of disparate technologies, lack of resources to deliver to timelines, under utilized assets, and lack of coordination about strategic product plans will simply overwhelm the IT department as the budget shrinks. When this happens, the misconceptions are further strengthened, leading to additional budget cuts, eroding more business value.

If you agree with me that creating value ought to be the mission for IT, then what we need is a set of disciplines to manage IT like a business. This is where the concept of Technology Business Management (TBM) can help.

It is imperative that IT leaders act now to reposition their work as creating business value before this point of "No Return" is crossed. Adopting the TBM framework allows an IT organization to focus on value creation and pivot from the typical cost dominated view.

We can break the TBM framework into two broad categories: Run the business and Transform the business.

Run the business: establishes the cost efficiencies needed to invest savings into the transformational work to create value. It also provides credibility which will be leveraged to garner support for future investments. Items in this category include:

    • Financial transparency
    • Consumption based metrics
    • Optimizing for cost
    • Establishing technology standards
    • Reduce the complexity of the IT portfolio
    • Modernize the tech stack and application deployment workflows

 

Transform the business: items here improve the way we do business by growing revenue, providing for better decision making, and improve business processes.

    • Innovate for growth
    • Become business partner consultants
    • Increasing agility
    • Make data-driven decisions
    • Leverage technology trends and competitive differentiators in new ways

 

The TBM Council makes this very astute observation, "Since run-the-business spending is often fixed and non-discretionary, budget cuts generally come from our change-the-business initiatives first." The first steps in a TBM adoption must be in support of establishing credibility and meaningful impact in the run-the-business items to protect the necessary transformational investments. I plan to share more about the TBM journey I'm working on as this series continues. For now I'll provide a snapshot of where we are on that journey timeline. I have broken this down into 3 broad phases:

 

  1. Modeling and transparency
  2. Evangelism and Education
  3. Moments of Impact

At AOL we spent the better part of twelve months building our TBM model and completed the bulk of this work in 2013. Last year we concentrated on educating and getting into a rhythm of monthly showback and chargeback models for every line of business. We now account for every dollar spent on IT and can trace this back to the business decision that was the catalyst for the spend. We aren't entirely done with our evangelism phase, and likely we will require some level of constant dialog here.

In 2015 we will spend more time doing data analysis and business consulting to allow us to find improvements and innovations we wouldn't have discovered without the rich data we are now producing. Those "moments of impact" are on the horizon for us.

I'd encourage you to take a look at the TBM Council website, which provides an overview of the framework, resources for how to begin your own transformation, and an engaged community of IT leaders around the planet who embrace the idea that IT must be about business value creation.

Part three in this series will discuss common IT misconceptions.

~

James LaPlaine is the SVP, Technology Operations at AOL. You can follow James on his blog Mental Effort and on twitter @JamesLaPlaine.

 

In a twelve part series about IT business transformation, James explores the need for the modern technology leader to be a catalyst for change, leverage IT value as a corporate strategic weapon, and lead the way for complete financial transparency. Utilizing this approach, today's technology leader can provide the foundation for the company to build better products and services and gain approval for technology led initiatives that often struggle for executive support and funding.

[Note: This article was originally posted to Mental Effort on January 5, 2015.]

 

Change is afoot.

 

In a twelve part series I’m going to discuss transforming IT into a catalyst for driving business improvements. I will share my views and approach to this transformation. Topics I’ll cover include: the IT tribe I have been building, the steps I’m taking to change culture, and why a transparent financial model of IT is essential.

 

It all starts with a simple premise that IT is a strategic weapon. One that should be leveraged for competitive advantage, efficiency, and enable product and service excellence. Technology is not a “means to an end”, it is an essential part of producing, delivering, and consuming products and services. If you produce or consume digital content, IT is both on the critical path and the service offering.

 

Photo Credits: Chad Horwedel https://flic.kr/p/mVV9p6

PHOTO CREDITS: CHAD HORWEDEL – HTTPS://FLIC.KR/P/MVV9P6

 

In 1998 I had the opportunity to fly in this B-17, Aluminum Overcast, one of only 12 air worthy B-17’s left in the world. I’ve been using this photo and caption in presentations to my staff as a symbol of building a strategic weapon for the past 18 months.


The later half of the 20th century brought about the Digital Revolution with the proliferation of the personal computer, the Internet, mobile devices, and cloud computing. Today we live in an economy dominated by digital information and automation. Every industry is being shaped by the Information Age, and every Information Technology (IT) shop needs to update their approach to managing in this era. To stay competitive, progressive thinking technology leaders are adjusting their approach to IT, managing technology like a business versus operating like a traditional cost center.To be successful in this modern age, an IT leader will need to address:

 

  • Culture: What does this digital shift mean to the IT staff? How do the other business units interact with IT when it is run as a business unit? How do you garner executive support?  How do you address the stereotypical cost center connotation? What happens to your own job?

 

  • Language: IT leaders need to talk less about technology and more about business. You must understand and speak in financial terms. You need to learn about product management. You need to interact face-to-face with the real customers (the one’s who are sending money to your company, not other internal business units).

 

  • Transparency: Be open about poor services, deficiencies in procedures, outages and problems to address. Talk about what your doing to fix these things. Share operating costs. Share operating metrics.

 

  • Technology Trends: What are competitors doing? What is your cloud strategy? [Don’t have one? I bet your internal consumers of IT do (it might be wrong, but they have thoughts here if you don’t )]. What are the disruptive technologies you should be researching?

 

  • Blocking and Tackling: To be allowed to be transformative, you must get the blocking and tackling covered. If you have chronic outages, capacity shortages, missing alarms, and too many human mistakes, you must address these as priority one. A foundation of operational excellence is required to act as a catalyst for change to rest of the company. Ignoring these issues will allow misdirection to derail your efforts.

 

  • Vision:  When I ask leaders about their IT roadmap the answers generally fall into two broad categories:
    • No roadmaps exists for our products or services from the GMs and business units, so IT is primarily in reactive mode
    • IT goals are all related to supporting the plans of others, a subservient role in the organization

 

In my view, technology leaders who are unwilling or fail to address these categories, jeopardize their positions and their companies and will be overtaken by companies with IT leadership that are champions for this modern approach to IT.

In the next post I’ll discuss Technology Business Management, a mindset for formalizing the approach to running Information Technology like a business.

~

James LaPlaine is the SVP, Technology Operations at AOL. You can follow James on his blog Mental Effort and on twitter @JamesLaPlaine.

 

In a twelve part series about IT business transformation, James explores the need for the modern technology leader to be a catalyst for change, leverage IT value as a corporate strategic weapon, and lead the way for complete financial transparency. Utilizing this approach, today's technology leader can provide the foundation for the company to build better products and services and gain approval for technology led initiatives that often struggle for executive support and funding.