Agility and globalisation in IT: Oil and water?

15 February 2011

With the ever pressing need to cut costs and squeeze the maximum business value from this year’s IT budget, I’m always looking for ways to get more efficiency from our IT organisation. This year I’m embarking on moving away from a local IT service to global or Pan European services. Why am I doing this? Simple...I want to remove duplicate effort and increase efficiency and effectiveness.

Whilst the economics of the globalisation of IT seem to stack up, sceptics always talk about the loss of agility...and nobody is as sceptical as the staff who find themselves ‘targets’ of the European service.

So for what it is worth, here are my thoughts:

Agility?

I am currently on a train from Feltham (and no I haven’t just escaped from the Young Offenders Institution!) en-route to a business meeting in central London. The fact that I’m typing this on a laptop carefully balanced on my knees could be considered agile however, for many CIO’s, agility today is the ability to quickly adjust IT services to meet an organisations’ constantly changing business requirements in line with customer expectations.

In order to respond quickly, it is important to understand what changes are taking place across the business, so being close to the hub of business activity is key. Those who oppose the globalisation or regionalisation of the IT function often talk about long processes, form filling and the need to constantly evaluate business cases as barriers to efficient working. They’ll also usually (and justifiably so) raise the issue of miscommunication, which is about language as well as culture. So responding to sceptics comes down to good IT strategy as well as ensuring well defined processes are in place to handle change requests efficiently.

What perceived challenges can a good IT strategy overcome?

A properly aligned IT strategy should cover potential business changes/scenarios, thus avoiding the need for knee jerk reactions. After all, we don’t expect our customers to make dramatic movements in a very short space of time......well unless of course you were Northern Rock.

Requests for change should be backed with valid business cases. Many of our businesses have already gone down the standardisation of process, especially in the back office. Thus where change is required, requests should come through process owners, who are already working at regional or global levels anyway. They should not come directly through locally generated requests.  How many of us have sat through standardisation meetings with 5 participants and 7 ways of doing it!?!

Increasing effectiveness and efficiency

The nature of business growth within Brother meant I inherited many subsidiaries companies, each with their own local IT function. Despite efforts to encourage sharing of information I was constantly frustrated by the amount of effort being expended in some local IT functions where similar work had already been done in another.

For example to overcome the need for a new backup solution, one local IT department spent several weeks evaluating solution providers, including some of the new cloud based services, before making a recommendation to local management. In the same year 3 other local IT departments did the same. They came up with similar outcomes but chose different suppliers. I now have 4 companies using 4 different cloud based backup providers. With a global service approach, we’d have a standard service offering already evaluated ready to just plug in.

But it’s not just avoiding duplication of effort. Within smaller IT departments resources are generally multi-skilled rather than specialist because they need to know how to support and deliver solutions across all aspects of the business. So whilst they are doing their utmost to deliver the best service possible, they don’t have the same in-depth skill and knowledge as a specialist.

A global approach to delivering services allows me to utilise resources across the organisation, so I can afford to train them in specific areas. So when one company requires a new telephone solution, I can put a specialist straight onto it. And if a new backup solution is needed, I have a different specialist to look into this.

Location, location, location

Globalisation doesn’t have to mean centralisation. In today’s connected world, it’s just as feasible to leave the resource local but have them work on a global service. The trick is having the management, processes and skills in place to ensure it works effectively. So if anyone out there has a bag of useful tricks, please let me know, as I am digging through mine and not finding much in there at the moment.

I’m currently defining the services required by each of the business units, and how each of these will be provided.  Some will be provided globally, some regionally and some will remain local. However as we win over our customers (read something recently to say we shouldn’t call them ‘customers’ anymore, but rather ‘peers’ or  ‘colleagues’) we’ll look to drive further efficiency by moving local services to a regional level and regional services to a global level.

So what are the benefits?

I’m sure many of you have read multiple articles on the future of IT and noted that supposedly the real value add IT can now offer is in customer interaction areas i.e. marketing, sales, after sales. In many companies the potential ROI made in the back office is now quite small. We’ve all aligned our processes, standardised them across the operations, and got over the nightmare of ERP implementations. So making the front end solutions more efficient is where the return is now.

At Brother we’ve always driven sales through a local operation. And this is where I find myself in a slight quandary. If the differentiation and value comes from being locally attuned to your customers, how can I go around saying that we need to find a European standard way?

So does this mean I need to have 25 different solutions? No I don’t believe so, but it does mean I need flexible solutions, that are easy and quick to localise, so when a genuine change is required we can get it done quickly.

How do I know when I am sweating the small stuff, making nil positive benefit to the overall business yet expending huge efforts on a local marketing requirement? I am not sure about everyone else but this is one area of the business that is always capable of forecast inaccuracy. I remember a Sales and Marketing Director from a previous company who was always satisfied if we could measure his forecast accuracy within two digits % points as opposed to three!

Despite this, we need to respond quickly, even if that is with a push back because the business case isn’t strong enough. With the maturing of cloud solutions, we now have real competition on our hands. Our sales and marketing executives are being targeted with excellent solutions available in the cloud that can deliver what they need now, so simply saying “no” isn’t sufficient. We need to articulate no because there is no business case.

Right now my agility is somewhat limited by the technologies I have to hand, but what’s more limiting is the right people at the right time in the right place. The ability to engage with the business and hold constructive discussion about the requirements, help offer guidance and suggest additional requirements is not a skill that all possess. However with the aid of video conferencing, web conferencing and other collaborative technologies it is possible to spread those resources to the places that need them. Writing in a KPI for the availability of this resource as part of the service offering is a sure way of keeping this need for local discussion a focus of service managers.

So is the local model of delivery dead?

No I don’t believe so. It all depends on the on the size of the company within the organisation and the degree of autonomy each has. In some cases a global model may bring little benefit. One company may drive more benefit and value from a particular IT solution than another, so solutions need to be tailored accordingly. However where organisations find themselves with small pockets of IT staff and a common IT strategy a global and regional approach should be of great benefit.

Where to next?

I need to depart the train now...either that or I’ll end up back in Feltham! But before I leave here’s a question for you...

...when delivering services, what is your experience, global or local and how well are you reacting to the change?

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Following a degree in Food Technology, Ian was introduced to the world of IT at the Cooperative Wholesale Society where he worked on various IT projects as part of a management training position. After a short spell in the Leisure industry, he joined Brother International where he’s held a number of roles across the business including a stint in R&D, after sales service and a year as ‘road warrior’ selling Brother solutions to Higher Education and corporate worlds. 

In 2000 he embarked on a European implementation of SAP R/3 for Brother and has subsequently worked on various IT led change programmes across the organisation. In 2005 Ian was appointed European IT Director and has since been transforming the IT organisation within Brother regionally whilst playing a key role to moving in a global direction. In his spare time you’ll find him knee deep in mud from walking, covered in flour from cooking/baking or with one of many tools in hand trying to maintain his 17th century cottage.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bluefin Solutions Ltd.

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