Friday, April 13, 2007

Enterprise Visibility (Cheap)

A foundational element of good management, whether you call it business process management or not, is visibility. So much of our time is spent "in the weeds" - deep in the minutia, that we lose sight of the big picture. Keeping a constant eye on key metrics means first identifying and understanding what those key metrics are (and why they're important) and devising a means to constantly monitor them.

The challenge with this is that enterprise-class business intelligence systems tend be pricy and require the commitment of some already-strained IT resources. The absence of the time, money or simply the desire to implement such a system should not be an impediment, however. Use of a spreadsheet is sufficient. By creating a dashboard comprising a collection of pie charts that represent key performance indicators, taking a screen shot and publishing it on a web page using an "img src=" tag, you can provide process visibility to anyone interested via the web. Further, if you want to provide drill-down, the screen shot you use can easily be turned into an image map using simple HTML tags - you specify the upper left and lower right hand coordinates to define the clickable area of the map and the page or document to which clicking will direct users. By using an “href” tag to link the map coordinates to a project schedule, live spreadsheet or other source, users can drill down to far more detailed information. In addition, policy statements, project charters, contact lists and other process or project-related information can easily be made available. Concerned about who might be able to access the info? At the low end of security, there are many simple javascript applets that enable you to password-protect the dashboard page with no programming required. For a little more robust security, you can use a Flash page for log in info. If greater security is called for, you might have to enlist your IT department for a few minutes. Most of these scripts are available for free online.

If you want to splurge, for a modest sum you can buy Business Objects’ Crystal Xcelsius product and bring your presentations to life. For those of you unfamiliar with it, Crystal Xcelsius ties into a simple spreadsheet (or other data source) and allows you to quickly create interactive dashboards and render them as HTML pages, Flash pages or PDFs. It’s a very inexpensive way to deliver enterprise visibility into critical projects and processes. Don’t succumb to deer-in-the-headlights syndrome out of fear of the time or expense involved. Providing visibility is critical to maintaining support from senior management, gaining buy-in and literally keeping everyone on the same page, and here’s a very inexpensive way to provide it.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Too Busy to Plan?

Lots of time since my last post, having been on the road and working with clients. 12,000 miles in two weeks - surely not a record, but a decent amount of air miles nonetheless. And during my travels there was apparent at one particular engagement a resistence to good project planning. Remarkable. A one-year project, now in month twenty, is off the rails. The client is unhappy. The vendor defensive. The implementation in a sort of controlled chaos. The prescription, after a week of solid assessment (staff interviews, documentation reviews, product demos, etc.)? Add a little discipline to the process of delivering this very complicated product. The response? We're too busy to plan!

This blows my mind, really. We all know the definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result each time. Now there's a classic example.

Cut to a recent dinner with prospective clients (let's call them Tom and Fred) contemplating hiring a new systems vendor. "Why do you want to change vendors?" I asked, genuinely interested in what motivates companies to become so frustrated they're willing to scrap millions of dollars of investment, only to spend millions more for a replacement. "It takes four months, literally, to get anything modified in the system," was the response. Again, the issue is poor planning, poor execution and an abject lack of discipline. "We were encouraged with the speed at which they began the project," remarked Tom, "but then the thing just fell apart." Heard that one before? I have.

Cynics abound in the world of technology. The challenge is the knowledge held by the technical elite is often so obscure and difficult to grasp, that the businesspeople who have to work with the systems they create almost completely defer. Add the unbridled arrogance of a talented technologist and you get a recipe for disaster. That's not to say they're all bad; the Alistair Cockburns and Suzanne and James Robertsons of the world - probably the world's foremost authorities on requirements gathering (from a very practical perspective) - give us all hope. Those who subscribe to their methodologies - and no, not verbatim, as that's entirely impractical - but those who understand the value a framework, a proven approach to attacking complex systems implementations, brings to such projects, have a decided advantage.

My advice to the client at dinner? "I'd rather you get a little frustrated with the slowness of implementation up front given the thoroughness of the planning and requirements gathering processes, than be downright angry after months of missed deadlines." Speed at the beginning of the project might be encouraging, but it could also be a warning sign for things to come.