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Need for an IT Consumer Forum 

The industrial revolution saw mass production of industrial products, and was a witness to the emergence of the consumer movement too. The industrial revolution is a story of the past and we are now into the information era. In this article we focus on a typical information age product - the computer software, and its consumers. In particular, we concentrate on the consumers of business application software, namely the business heads, CEOs, the managers and the other business users of application software trying to use this product to automate their business processes. 

The industrial age consumer movement had its origin from the frustrations of the consumers of the industrial products, and the need to protect the interests of the consumer. In the information age, I see the need of IT consumer movement for the same reason - a disillusioned IT consumer. Yes, the IT consumer too is frustrated. The need for an IT Consumer Forum is more pronounced as most of the IT forums concentrate on the supply side of software and often the consumer is left to fend for himself.

 

1.       All's not well with the IT Consumer

 

However high may be the IT fever and the craze to be associated with IT, if you look deep into what is happening in the IT arena in businesses today, you will soon realize that for most decision makers, IT is still a strange animal. Most of the users of this product are not comfortable with it. When it comes to getting down to business and getting into details of the study, development and particularly the implementation of an IT application in a business, the real issues emerge and the discomfort with this creature, the deep rooted ignorance of IT (both of the IT professional and the IT consumer) emerges to surface.  

There are several IT project failures in the corporate world. There is immense loss to industry on account of unimplemented systems. Imagine the cost of development or purchase of software, the time and effort spent on the development or implementation, and the opportunity cost when the systems are left unimplemented either because the implementation activity never took off or was an utter failure. These are the direct cost, leave alone the indirect costs due to the increased stress levels associated with ignorance, infighting and finger-pointing which are very common during implementations. 

With so much at stake, there is a need to address the woes of the consumer.

2.      There is a big IT - Management divide

 

That the senior management in businesses is uncomfortable with this commodity called software is evident from the fact that most of the companies till recently and some even today do not have the IT departments reporting to the business head. The IT departments were conveniently relegated to the Finance departments or some other operations departments, since most CEOs were not at ease dealing with something they did not understand. This has also resulted in IT departments being normally headed by relatively junior positions. 

There is still a vast gap between what is required and what is known about IT processes by the top management, the senior managers who are users of IT and last but not the least the IT people themselves. When I refer to the IT processes, I mean the whole range of activities required to convert a manual business process to an automated process. The IT process includes not only the transformation of the process on the drawing board, but most importantly, putting it in place so that people use the automated process. And there is equally high ignorance in the IT fraternity too, because several IT people know how to develop applications but are quite ignorant of the last part of the process I stated above, that of making it work for people. They are quite ignorant of the implementation issues and the causes for failure of implementation.  Most of the IT professionals of the in-house IT departments are also happy developing the software in the cozy environment of their air-conditioned offices, but when it comes to facing the heat of the real life issues of implementation, they fail miserably. By then, having developed the application, they would be looking out for another opportunity somewhere else to take up development assignment, because most of them like only to develop and not implement systems. The story with the IT people in the software development companies is worse. They may have high degree of proficiency in the software manufacturing process, but they are far removed from the practical problems in the business processes, people issues, change management and implementation issues.  

With confusion abound, there is often finger pointing between the supplier and the consumer. There is a gap for sure between the IT and the user, just as there is a gap between the IT department and the top management.

3.      Most IT forums focus on the supply side of software 

Surprisingly, a lot is talked about computers - mostly focusing on the technology, the bits and bytes. But rarely is the people issue addressed, which is the core issue behind successful implementations. Rarely do we talk of the implementation issues and what will make computers acceptable to people. In other words, most of the attention is directed towards the supply side of software and very little is talked about, even in IT forums, about the consumption side. This article hence takes a look at the consumption side of software commodity, particularly the business applications software commodity.  

We can look at the current scenario from another angle. Today the consumption of software is poor because of the poor success rates of computerisation projects, mainly due to failures in implementation. If the consumption increases, automatically the demand increases and the software companies stand to gain. Hence, in their own interest, the software companies need to focus on the consumer. There is need for IT and software bodies to do something to improve the consumption.

 

Consumer Movement with a Difference

1.     Collaborative movement required 

While I have listed the problems of failed systems and the frustrations of the end user, I have no intentions to have the consumer up in arms against the suppliers. Some of the readers may wish that the consumer should take a more hostile stand and that the forum should address the consumers' woes by taking the suppliers to task. At the cost of disappointing them, I must say that the need of the hour is to have a more co-operative movement. For IT is a different ball-game altogether. In most cases there is no one party you can point fingers to - it is not the fault of the supplier or the consumer alone.  As we saw in the previous section, the IT - top management divide is a result of problems at both ends - the IT on one side and the top management and user departments on the other.   

IT implementation is a highly collaborative effort and can only succeed together in a cooperative way.  

Though this movement originates from the frustrations of the consumer, they are frustrations of a different kind. In the consumer movement of the industrial variety it was more a showdown between the supplier and the consumer, but in this case both the consumers and the suppliers have to work together as they face a common problem - both have to get over the industrial age mindset and get into the information age mindset. The current confusion is a result of a broader issue relating to the evolution of mankind from the industrial age to information era. We shall talk more about it later. Hence, what I propose is not a movement of hostility, but a highly co-operative and collaborative movement where the suppliers and the consumers get together, and work together to understand the real issues and remove the deficiencies of both the sides. For sure, there are deficiencies on both ends.  

Whereas the industrial consumer movement was about making  the consumer aware of the rights, this movement needs to make the consumer aware not only of the rights but also his roles and responsibilities (RRR). 

Software companies and organizations /Associations should champion this movement, but it must be spearheaded by the CEOs of consumer companies. 

The IT consumer movement will be a collaborative effort not only of the supplier and consumer, but a third element in the form of the facilitators - namely the management institutes. I have also included the HR professionals as a change agent and facilitators of the change in mindset.

I believe that HR departments have a very prominent role to play during implementations as facilitators in the change process brought about by IT in companies. They can facilitate implementations through their better understanding of people and thus contribute immensely to their businesses.

  

Collaborative IT consumer movement

 

                

 

In one of my previous assignment as a CIO more than a decade back, I had actually teamed up with HR head and devised a very effective behavioural workshop for the IT and the user departments. I had long discussions with the HR person to make him aware of the exact gap between the IT and the user, the mental blocks on both sides and the misconceptions. The workshop was designed to make both the departments appreciate each other's problems, and was attended by representatives of both departments just before implementing a crucial system. Needless to say, the implementation was a resounding success. 

In yet another highly successful implementation, I had, through a workshop, set right the sky high expectations of the end users from the 'magic box' that the computer was perceived as, and also mentally prepared them to what was to come during the implementation process. All that I had to prepare them was that computerisation was not just smooth sailing, and that they were in for a rude shock. The HR departments, the HR consultants and trainers can contribute in this area. 

2.      It is Nobody's Fault - It's just the wrong time

 

Having worked both as a CIO in several companies and as a senior professional in software companies, and also having observed at close quarters the people attitude and behaviour during the IT change process, I know the pain that companies go through and the price they pay for the ignorance of the IT technology and of the IT processes.  

Having seen people behaviour at close quarters has also convinced me that you cannot blame it on the people - neither the consumers nor the suppliers. It is just that the time is wrong. We are in the middle of a transition from the industrial age to the information age. Just as the Industrial revolution had its share of social turmoil, we are now going through the turbulence of change from Industrial revolution to Information revolution. And all the chaos and conflict is because of this change. It is a larger issue related to the evolution of mankind from the industrial age psychology to the information age.   

But that does not mean that we do nothing about it saying that the chaos is inevitable and unavoidable. In fact, having gone through the process of change to the industrial revolution we should be wiser to handle the change from the industrial revolution to the information revolution. Equipped with our knowledge of the transition to industrial revolution, we are trying to handle this change, but again we have failed. The skills and learning of industrial age do not seem to be adequate to manage this change. There is a subtle difference between the industrial revolution and the industrial revolution that one has to see while tackling the information revolution.

 

3.      Difference between Industrial era and Information era

 

There are some subtle differences in the way we need to look at the information age machine as against our deeply ingrained notions of the industrial age machine. Just as the machines brought about the industrial revolution, the real machine of the information age is the software and not the computer, as we commonly perceive with our industrial age mindset. This is also the root cause of the confusion about computers and computer technology. Though physically we are in the information age, mentally we are still in the industrial age.  

It is beyond the scope of this article to list out the differences between the industrial age and information age machines, and how they contribute to the general confusion about Information technology, but there is a great deal of learning which is possible if we closely examine these difference. Based on the learning from the change process and frustrations of industrial revolution, we should be able to manage change better this time.  

The same can be addressed by the proposed IT consumer forum and by the management institutes. The IT Consumer Forum can contribute in this movement by helping correct the misconceptions about IT which have their origin from this misplaced ideas due to information revolution. Management institutes can do well to educate the future managers with this difference - which will lead to less resistance to change and smoother transition to the information age. 

I call it re-engineering the education. For reengineering, you define the goal, you define your own coordinates (very important and often ignored) and then find out the best possible way to reach there. We often do not know our coordinates because we live in the past and our thinking is highly influenced by the past. Sometimes, you need to forget the past and open the eyes afresh as if you just got up (Like the rats in "Who moved my cheese" - they are always looking at the current situation.) Man is still living in the past, in the industrial age.

 

Benefits of the movement 

Consumer movement benefited the suppliers indirectly in that it helped them improve their products and processes. IT consumer movement will benefit the software supplier companies more directly than in the other case. 

Today the consumption is poor because of the poor success rates of computerisation projects, mainly due to failures in implementation. When more and more companies implement successfully, the benefits of computerisation will be more visible and more demand will be generated.  Not only will the company who successfully implemented an application like to opt for more computerisation and implement more software, but their success will also give the visibility of applications to encourage others to put their bucks into computerisation. This will help the software companies grow.  

The proposed IT Consumer movement can benefit not only the suppliers of software but the industry as a whole, the academia, and the country. 

Apart from the cost saving and improved efficiency and satisfaction due to improved automated systems, successful implementations, there can be immense indirect benefits both to the users and to the software industry at large. 

More implementations of the same software would automatically lead to more feedback from the users and an opportunity to evolve the product to serve the users better. The software can also improve if it is put to live use. The product can evolve to better meet the customer requirements, and better product can again in turn mean wider markets, and Indian software vendors can look for the overseas market in products after having tested and perfected them in the domestic market.

 

                          

 

The side effect is better utilisation of scarce resources of IT experts. Less of their efforts will go waste, which means better utilisation and less wastage of scarce IT resources. They can be used more productively. 

All CEOs, even of non IT companies have an opportunity to contribute to software export - by helping improve the software offered by the Indian software companies.

 

What the Forum needs to do

What is required for successful implementations is a massive effort on awareness programs, particularly for the top management, the CEOs and the MDs, who are the key elements in a successful computerisation. There has to be better change management skills, better understanding of the people issues in IT. Senior managers need to be taught not only the computer awareness skills, but also an awareness of their own role in the automation process. And as I said before, a better understanding of our coordinates with respect to our transition to the information age will go a long way in reducing the agony and pains of the change. It has been my experience that putting the industrial age machine (software) into correct perspective helped in clearing most of the misconceptions and in bringing the high expectations down to earth. 

On the other hand, the IT people too need to be trained on the implementation skills, people management skills, human issues of IT, psychology of change and handling the change. IT people tend to focus only on the development of software in the cosy environment of their offices, and tend to avoid the heat of live implementations. They need to be encouraged to learn this special skill of making IT work for people, because only then they can become complete IT professionals. 

There is also a need to train the IT professionals on re-engineering processes before automation. One of the causes of failure is that the manual processes are automated as they are and not re-engineered. 

Most important of all, the IT Forum needs to create that environment where all the concerned parties understand the problems of the other and collaborate for successful implementations. 

Behind all this is the firm belief that "Together we can make IT Work"

 

Part II 

In the next few sections, we take a look at what companies need to do as an immediate solution. I believe that there is a need for a new role to be played in the industry - that of a Business Process Automation expert. Today there is a vacuum in the industry. We see who is best suited to play this role today. The management institutes can attempt to fill this gap by introducing more relevant courses to provide a long-term solution.

 

New Role of "Business Process Automation Specialist"

1.     Need for a Messiah

 

Majority of the implementations fail not because of technical issues but because of issues related to the process, people, change management, top management, attitudes, and other socio-psychological aspects of computerisation, which are rarely discussed. Lack of business orientation and implementation know-how is a major cause of these failures. 

There is a clear need in industry for a role which can help make the right applications, be the bridge between the technology and process specialists, handle change management and ensure successful implementation. 

Looking at the enormous loss that the industry is incurring due to a gap in the understanding, isn't there an equally pressing need of a role in the corporate world which can be the messiah to bridge the gaps between the IT on one side and the top management and users on the other, between the manual business process and the optimally automated process? 

This new role to be played in companies needs to be a technology and business specialist (at least a business process specialist if not a business specialist), understand what is involved in transforming manual processes to optimal automated processes, needs to understand change management, people issues, psychology of change, etc. 

We call this new role the role of a Business Process Automation Specialist (BPA Specialist). We shall see what are the key characteristics and skills required to fulfil this role. If the skills are not available, then it is high time that the management institutes concentrated on creating the required skills to end the torture that the pioneering companies of the information age are going through.  Technology changes very fast, but it takes generations to change the mental make-up, unless proactively catalysed by change agents. 

Let us see what skills are required in a business which desires to use IT. They can be categorised into four types: 

1.        Technology and infrastructure skills: Understanding of the hardware, software and networking technologies which make the infrastructure to run applications

2.        Application Software development and deployment skills: Systems Analysis, Design, development and implementation of application software

3.        Business Processes skills: an understanding of the Business Processes, particularly automated processes and the transition from manual to automated processes.

4.        Change Management and People Skills: an understanding of the psychology of change and the people's reaction to change. 

Most of the IT departments today perform the first role listed above - that of hardware and infrastructure management. Few CIO's who are process oriented may take interest in the second (application software), but in most places, the activity is completely outsourced to consultant companies, or relegated to lower levels within the IT departments.  

The third and fourth skills listed above are rare to find in most IT departments of companies. The role of business process specialist and change facilitator is completely ignored by the IT departments. Most business heads do not even expect IT departments to have the business process and change management skills. Often important decisions affecting business process change are made in companies without even consulting or involving the IT departments. 

The BPA Role envisaged needs to perform all the roles listed above - that of hardware and network infrastructure management, identifying and developing or procuring application systems, translating the manual processes to optimal automated processes with re-engineering if required, and implementing the change so that the automation permeates down to the lowest user.

BPA specialist will play a catalyst role in selection of the right processes for automation, transforming manual processes to automated processes, business re-engineering if required, selection of right technologies, mapping the manual or semi automated processes to the new automated processes, managing the change, fine tuning the processes to suit the software during implementation and ensuring that the transition to automated process is smooth and rewarding. There are several detailed steps and strategies which need concentrated attention in this entire cycle, all of which obviously cannot be listed here. There are people issues, Management issues, attitude and psychological issues, political issues, the tense atmosphere of vested interests, personal prefer­ences and a rigid mental-emotional make-up of the people affected by computerization.

Unfortunately, today this role is not only completely ignored, but what is worse, the need for such a role is also not recognised.

2.      Profile of BPA Specialist

 

Let us define the key characteristics of this Role of "BPA Specialist". What should be the profile of the person to perform such a role?

A BPA Specialist would be one who

-          understands IT - the technology and  terminology

-          can talk the language of IT and business

-          is comfortable interacting with other departments and top management

-          has a business orientation - though a sound technology base

-          understands manual processes and automated processes

-          talks the language of users

-          can re-engineer processes to suit automation rather than simply automate manual processes

-          Understands strengths and limitations of the technology itself

-          Understands what processes are suitable for automation and what are not so suitable

-          Understands which processes are better done manually and understands what is the right mix of manual and automated processes.

-          Understands what people do not use computers for and are more comfortable doing it manually (or using simple tools like spreadsheets/ word processors)

-          Understands how to give the right doses of automation at right times so that it is palatable and acceptable to the masses.

-          understands the confusion of the user - what is it that the users of IT find confusing about IT?

-          people orientation - understands the attitudes of people to change, the personal traits of people who accept change readily and those that are resistant to change

-          how people react to change, how the organisational hierarchy plays a role in the change, etc.

-          understands the socio psychological issues of change management, apart from the techno commercial issues

-          Understands the HR issues, implementation strategies.

 

3.      Skills required by BPA Specialist

 

The management institutes can play a significant role in filling this big gap in the industry and help in creating future BPA Specialists. The management institutes need to update their curriculum to cover more management issues and people issues related to IT implementation, and the socio-psychological aspects of IT apart from the technical, commercial and managerial aspects.

The training curriculum for BPA Specialists should contain

-          people issues related to IT Users

-          top management issues

-          Strategy for success - simple tricks of the trade

-          People issues related to IT specialists - what motivates them, how to get the best out of them

-          How to pick the right people for implementation

-          What are the people attitudes favourable to implementing a change. What are the negative attitudes to change

-          How to develop systems so that they are accepted by people

-          The misconceptions about IT of the users

-          People involvement during system study and implementation

-          User ownership

-          The roles of top management, the user department head, the functional coordinators and IT departments in the automation process.

-          India specific issues

-          Documentation - Suitable for Indian conditions

 

 

Who Can Fill the Gap Today?

 

Can the companies afford to wait till the management institutes create the right curriculum to produce the future application specialists? They need a solution today.

Who then can be the BPA specialist in companies today? Either it can be a process specialist who understands technology or a IT specialist who understands business processes. It is high time that the IT department takes on itself this responsibility. The CIO can, if necessary, take the help of the right consultants with a People, Process, and Technology orientation.

The Indian software companies too need to work to fully equip themselves to perform this role. The focus of the software companies in India, where most of the big software companies focus on the overseas market, is more on the software manufacturing process and less on the implementation. Such companies may be well versed with the software development process and the software delivery process, but they lack the knowledge and experience of the business processes, the people issues and the management issues in implementation. Moreover, most of such companies would be more conversant with the US companies' requirements and as is very common in most fields, they tend to apply the same criteria blindly to Indian companies that they would apply while developing software for overseas, particularly US companies. They need to look at what are the specific needs relevant to Indian situation. You may be lucky to get a consultant who knows both the software development and what happens in the hot seat of a CIO. The IT Consumer Forum can also help to fill this gap.

The top management in companies too needs to be aware that they are missing out on what an IT department can do. They need to broaden their outlook towards the IT person and look at  him or her not just as someone to look at the hardware and network infrastructure alone, not only someone who can monitor PCs, commonly used tools like mail, word processors and spreadsheets, etc., but some one who can contribute to transforming the business.

Not many businesses have recognized the role that an IT person can play as an effective change enabler, as a business process transformer, designer of automated processes and a mediator to bridge the digital divide.

 

 

Prem U. Kamble