Teddies, Fetishes and the Management Consulting Scam

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What if I told you that the key to becoming a successful management consultant was to become a Teddy Bear?

What if I also told you that it involves fetishes? You might be re-checking the URL to make sure you are on the right site!

Fear not, this article is definitely not “50 Shades of Management Consulting Grey”. Nor is it about donning a cuddly animal suit as a mascot for a football team. To borrow from the much loved children’s TV show “Playschool,” there’s definitely a bear in there, but not the one you might be thinking!

You see, for many people, modern corporate life is now at a point where pace of change is accelerating, unrelenting and fatiguing. In my home state of Western Australia, businesses are reeling from unprecedented levels of disruption and uncertainty, be it the end of the commodity boom, the impact of global competition or disruptive, technology-enabled innovation. It is now difficult to think of any industry that has not had the ground shift beneath it in some way — except perhaps, for Management Consulting.

Management Consulting thrives in an environment of fear, ambiguity and doubt, principally because its business model is based on the presumption that they can make it go away. It’s lucrative too — ambiguity is such a powerful force that executives will part with copious amounts of cash in attempts to escape it…

read the full article at medium.com

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The cloud isn’t the problem–Part 5: Server huggers and a crisis of identity

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Cloud
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Hi all

Welcome to my fifth post that delves into the irrational world of cloud computing. After examining the not-so-obvious aspects of Microsoft, Amazon and the industry more broadly, its time to shift focus a little. Now the appeal of the cloud really depends on your perspective. To me, there are three basic motivations for getting in on the act…

  1. I can make a buck
  2. I can save a buck
  3. I can save a buck (and while I am at it, escape my pain-in-the-ass IT department)

If you haven’t guessed it, this post will examine #3, and look at what the cloud means for the the perennial issue of the IT department and business disconnect. I recently read an article over at CIO magazine where they coined the term “Server Huggers” to describe the phenomenon I am about to describe. So to set the flavour for this discussion, let me tell you about the biggest secret in organisational life…

We all have an identity crisis (so get over it).

In organizations, there are roles that I would call transactional (i.e. governed by process and clear KPI’s) and those that are knowledge-based (governed by gut feel and insight). Whilst most roles actually entail both of these elements, most of us in SharePoint land are the latter. In fact we actually spend a lot of time in meeting rooms “strategizing” the solutions that our more transactionally focused colleagues will be using to meet their KPI’s. Beyond SharePoint, this also applies to Business Analysts, Information Architects, Enterprise Architects, Project Managers and pretty much anyone with the word “senior”, “architect”, “analyst”  or “strategic” in their job title.

But there is a big, fat, elephant in the “strategizing room” of certain knowledge worker roles that is at the root of some irrational organisational behaviour. Many of us are suffering a role-based identity crisis. To explain this, lets pick a straw-man example of one of the most conflicted roles of all right now: Information Architects.

One challenge with the craft of IA is pace of change, since IA today looks very different from its library and taxonomic roots. Undoubtedly, it will look very different ten years from now too as it gets assailed from various other roles and perspectives, each believing their version of rightness is more right. Consider this slightly abridged quote from Joshua Porter:

Worse, the term “information architecture” has over time come to encompass, as suggested by its principal promoters, nearly every facet of not just web design, but Design itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the latest update of Rosenfeld and Morville’s O’Reilly title, where the definition has become so expansive that there is now little left that isn’t information architecture […] In addition, the authors can’t seem to make up their minds about what IA actually is […] (a similar affliction pervades the SIGIA mailing list, which has become infamous for never-ending definition battles.) This is not just academic waffling, but evidence of a term too broadly defined. Many disciplines often reach out beyond their initial borders, after catching on and gaining converts, but IA is going to the extreme. One technologist and designer I know even referred to this ever-growing set of definitions as the “IA land-grab”, referring to the tendency that all things Design are being redefined as IA.

You can tell when a role is suffering an identity crisis rather easily too. It is when people with the current role start to muse that the title no longer reflects what they do and call for new roles to better reflect the environment they find themselves in. Evidence for this exists further in Porter’s post. Check out the line I marked with bold below:

In addition, this shift is already happening to information architects, who, recognizing that information is only a byproduct of activity, increasingly adopt a different job title. Most are moving toward something in the realm of “user experience”, which is probably a good thing because it has the rigor of focusing on the user’s actual experience. Also, this as an inevitable move, given that most IAs are concerned about designing great things. IA Scott Weisbrod, sees this happening too: “People who once identified themselves as Information Architects are now looking for more meaningful expressions to describe what they do – whether it’s interaction architect or experience designer

So while I used the example of Information Architects as an example of how pace of change causes an identity crisis, the advent of the cloud doesn’t actually cause too many IA’s (or whatever they choose to call themselves) to lose too much sleep. But there are other knowledge-worker roles that have not really felt the effects of change in the same way as their IA cousins. In fact, for the better part of twenty years one group have actually benefited greatly from pace of change. Only now is the ground under their feet starting to shift, and the resulting behaviours are starting to reflect the emergence of an identity crisis that some would say is long overdue.

IT Departments and the cloud

At a SharePoint Saturday in 2011, I was on a panel and we were asked by an attendee what effect Office 365 and other cloud based solutions might have on a traditional IT infrastructure role. This person asking was an infrastructure guy and his question was essentially around how his role might change as cloud solutions becomes more and more mainstream. Of course, all of the SharePoint nerds on the panel didn’t want to touch that question with a bargepole and all heads turned to me since apparently I am “the business guy”. My reply was that he was sensing a change – commoditisation of certain aspects of IT roles. Did that mean he was going to lose his job? Unlikely, but nevertheless when  change is upon us, many of us tend to place more value on what we will lose compared to what we will gain. Our defence mechanisms kick in.

But lets take this a little further: The average tech guy comes in two main personas. The first is the tech-cowboy who documents nothing, half completes projects then loses interest, is oblivious to how much they are in over their head and generally gives IT a bad name. They usually have a lot of intellectual intelligence (IQ), but not so much emotional intelligence (EQ). Ben Curry once referred to this group as “dumb smart guys.” The second persona is the conspiracy theorist who had to clean up after such a cowboy. This person usually has more skills and knowledge than the first guy, writes documentation and generally keeps things running well. Unfortunately, they also can give IT a bad name. This is because, after having to pick up the pieces of something not of their doing, they tend to develop a mother hen reflex based on a pathological fear of being paged at 9pm to come in and recover something they had no part in causing. The aforementioned cowboys rarely last the distance and therefore over time, IT departments begin to act as risk minimisers, rather than business enablers.

Now IT departments will never see it this way of course, instead believing that they enable the business because of their risk minimisation. Having spent 20 years being a paranoid conspiracy theorist, security-type IT guy, I totally get why this happens as I was the living embodiment of this attitude for a long time. Technology is getting insanely complex while users innate ability to do some really risky and dumb is increasing. Obviously, such risk needs to be managed and accordingly, a common characteristic of such an IT department is the word “no” to pretty much any question that involves introducing something new (banning iPads or espousing the evils of DropBox are the best examples I can think of right now). When I wrote about this issue in the context of SharePoint user adoption back in 2008, I had this to say:

The mother hen reflex should be understood and not ridiculed, as it is often the user’s past actions that has created the reflex. But once ingrained, the reflex can start to stifle productivity in many different ways. For example, for an employee not being able to operate at full efficiency because they are waiting 2 days for a helpdesk request to be actioned is simply not smart business. Worse still, a vicious circle emerges. Frustrated with a lack of response, the user will take matters into their own hands to improve their efficiency. But this simply plays into the hands of the mother hen reflex and for IT this reinforces the reason why such controls are needed. You just can’t trust those dog-gone users! More controls required!

The long term legacy of increasing technical complexity and risk is that IT departments become slow-moving and find it difficult to react to pace of change. Witness the number of organisations still running parts of their business on Office 2003, IE6 and Windows XP. The rest of the organisation starts to resent using old tools and the imposition of process and structure for no tangible gain. The IT department develops a reputation of being difficult to deal with and taking ages to get anything done. This disconnect begins to fester, and little by little both IT and “the business” develop a rose-tinged view of themselves (which is known as groupthink) and a misguided perception of the other.

At the end of the day though, irrespective of logic or who has the moral high ground in the debate, an IT department with a poor reputation will eventually lose. This is because IT is no longer seen as a business enabler, but as a cost-center. Just as organisations did with the IT outsourcing fad over the last decade, organisational decision makers will read CIO magazine articles about server huggers look longingly to the cloud, as applications become more sophisticated and more and more traditional vendors move into the space, thus legitimising it. IT will be viewed, however unfairly, as a burden where the cost is not worth the value realised. All the while, to conservative IT, the cloud represents some of their worst fears realised. Risk! risk! risk! Then the vicious circle of the mother-hen reflex will continue because rogue cloud applications will be commissioned without IT knowledge or approval. Now we are back to the bad old days of rogue MSAccess or SharePoint deployments that drives the call for control based governance in the first place!

<nerd interlude>

Now to the nerds reading this post who find it incredibly frustrating that their organisation will happily pump money into some cloud-based flight of fancy, but whine when you want to upgrade the network, I want you to take take note of this paragraph as it is really (really) important! I will tell you the simple reason why people are more willing to spend more money on fluffy marketing than IT. In the eyes of a manager who needs to make a profit, sponsoring a conference or making the reception area look nice is seen as revenue generating. Those who sign the cheques do not like to spend capital on stuff unless they can see that it directly contributes to revenue generation! Accordingly, a bunch of servers (and for that matter, a server room) are often not considered expenditure that generates revenue but are instead considered overhead! Overhead is something that any smart organisation strives to reduce to remain competitive. The moral of the story? Stop arguing cloud vs. internal on what direct costs are incurred because people will not care! You would do much better to demonstrate to your decision makers that IT is not an overhead. Depending on how strong your mother hen reflex is and how long it has been in place, that might be an uphill battle.

</nerd interlude>

Defence mechanisms…

Like the poor old Information Architect, the rules of the game are changing for IT with regards to cloud solutions. I am not sure how it will play out, but I am already starting to see the defence mechanisms kicking in. There was a CIO interviewed in the “Server Huggers” article that I referred to earlier (Scott Martin) who was hugely pro-cloud. He suggested that many CIO’s are seeing cloud solutions as a threat to the empire they have built:

I feel like a lot of CIOs are in the process of a kind of empire building.  IT empire builders believe that maintaining in-house services helps justify their importance to the company. Those kinds of things are really irrational and not in the best interest of the company […] there are CEO’s who don’t know anything about technology, so their trusted advisor is the guy trying to protect his job.

A client of mine in Sydney told me he enquired to his IT department about the use of hosted SharePoint for a multi-organisational project and the reply back was a giant “hell no,” based primarily on fear, uncertainty and doubt. With IT, such FUD is always cloaked in areas of quite genuine risk. There *are* many core questions that we must ask cloud vendors when taking the plunge because to not do so would be remiss (I will end this post with some of those questions). But the key issue is whether the real underlying reason behind those questions is to shut down the debate or to genuinely understand the risks and implications of moving to the cloud.

How can you tell an IT department is likely using a FUD defence? Actually, it is pretty easily because conservative IT is very predictable – they will likely try and hit you with what they think is their slam-dunk counter argument first up. Therefore, they will attempt to bury the discussion with the US Patriot Act Issue. I’ve come across this issue and and Mark Miller at FPWeb mentioned to me that this comes up all the time when they talk about SharePoint hosting to clients. (I am going to cover the Patriot Act issue in the next post because it warrants a dedicated post).

If the Patriot Act argument fails to dent unbridled cloud enthusiasm, the next layer of defence is to highlight cloud based security (identity, authentication and compliance) as well as downtime risk, citing examples such as the September outage of Office 365, SalesForce.com’s well publicized outages, the Amazon outage that took out Twitter, Reddit, Foursquare, Turntable.fm, Netflix and many, many others. The fact that many IT departments do not actually have the level of governance and assurance of their systems that they aspire to will be conveniently overlooked. 

Failing that, the last line of defence is to call into question the commercial viability of cloud providers. We talked about the issues facing the smaller players in the last post, but It is not just them. What if the provider decides to change direction and discontinue a service? Google will likely be cited, since it has a habit of axing cloud based services that don’t reach enough critical mass (the most recent casualty is Google health being retired as I write this).  The risk of a cloud provider going out of business or withdrawing a service is a much more serious risk than when a software supplier fails. At least when its on premise you still have the application running and can use it.

Every FUD defence is based on truth…

Now as I stated above, all of the concerns listed above are genuine things to consider before embarking on a cloud strategy. Prudent business managers and CIOs must weigh the pros and cons of cloud offering before rushing into a deployment that may not be appropriate for their organisation. Equally though, its important to be able to see through a FUD defence when its presented. The easiest way to do this is do some of your own investigations first.

To that end, you can save yourself a heap of time by checking out the work of Richard Harbridge. Richard did a terrific cloud talk at the most recent Share 2011 conference. You can view his slide deck here and I recommend really going through slides 48-81. He has provided a really comprehensive summary of considerations and questions to ask. Among other things, he offered a list of questions that any organisation should be asking providers of cloud services. I have listed some of them below and encourage you to check out his slide deck as it is really comprehensive and covers way more than what I have covered here.

Security Storage Identity & Access
Who will have access to my data?
Do I have full ownership of my data?
What type of employee / contractor screening you do, before you hire them?
How do you detect if an application is being attacked (hacked), and how is that
reported to me and my employees?
How do you govern administrator access to the service?
What firewalls and anti-virus technology are in place?
What controls do you have in place to ensure safety for my data while it is
stored in your environment?
What happens to my data if I cancel my service?
Can I archive environments?
Will my data be replicated to any other datacenters around the world (If
yes, then which ones)?
Do you offer single sign-on for your services?
Active directory integration?
Do all of my users have to rely on solely web based tools?
Can users work offline?
Do you offer a way for me to run your application locally and how quickly I can revert to the local installation?
Do you offer on-premise, web-based, or mixed environments?
     
Reliability & Support Performance  
What is your Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity strategy?
What is the retention period and recovery granularity?
Is your Cloud Computing service compliant with [insert compliance regime here]?
What measures do you provide to assist compliance and minimize legal risk?
What types of support do you offer?
How do you ensure we are not affected by upgrades to the service?
What are your SLAs and how do you compensate when it is not met?
How fast is the local network?
What is the storage architecture?
How many locations do you have and how are they connected?
Have you published any benchmark scores for your infrastructure?
What happens when there is over subscription?
How can I ensure CPU and memory are guaranteed?
 

Conclusion and looking forward…

For some organisations, the lure of cloud solutions is very seductive. From a revenue perspective, it saves a lot of capital expenditure. From a time perspective, it can be deployed very quickly and and from a maintenance perspective, takes the burden away from IT. Sounds like a winner when put that way. But the real issue is that the changing cloud paradigm potentially impacts the wellbeing of some IT professionals and IT departments because it calls into question certain patterns and practices within established roles. It also represents a loss of control and as I said earlier, people often place a higher value on what they will lose compared to what they will gain.

Irrespective of this, whether you are a new age cloud loving CIO or a server hugger, any decision to move to the cloud should be about real business outcomes. Don’t blindly accept what the sales guy tells you. Understand the risks as well as the benefits. Leverage the work Richard has done and ask the cloud providers the hard questions. Look for real world stories (like my second and third articles in this series) which illustrate where the services have let people down.

For some, cloud will be very successful. For others, the gap between expectations and reality will come with a thud.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

www.hereticsguidebooks.com

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The cloud is not the problem-Part 4: Industry shakeout and playing with the big kids…

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Cloud
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Hi all

Welcome to the fourth post about the adaptive change that cloud computing is going to have on practitioners, paradigms and organisations. The previous two posts took a look at some of the dodgier side of two of the industries biggest players, Microsoft and Amazon. While I have highlighted some dumb issues with both, I nevertheless have to acknowledge their resourcing, scalability, and ability to execute. On that point of ability to execute, in this post we are going to expand a little towards the cloud industry more broadly and the inevitable consolidation that is, and will continue to take place.

Now to set the scene, a lot of people know that in the early twentieth century, there were a lot of US car manufacturers. I wonder if you can take a guess at the number of defunct car manufacturers there have been before and after that time.

…Fifty?

…One Hundred?

Not even close…

What if I told you that there were over 1700!

Here is another interesting stat. The table below shows the years where manufacturers went bankrupt or ceased operations. Below that I have put the average shelf life of each company for that decade.

Year 1870’s 1880’s 1890’s 1900’s 1910’s 1920’s 1930’s 1940’s 1950’s 1960’s 1970’s 1980’s 1990’s 2000’s 2010’s
# defunct 4 2 5 88 660 610 276 42 13 33 11 5 5 3 5
avg years in operation 5 1 1 3 3 4 5 7 14 10 19 37 16 49 42

Now, you would expect that the bulk of closures would be depression era, but note that the depression did not start until the late 1920’s and during the boom times that preceded it, 660 manufactures went to the wall – a worse result!

The pattern of consolidation

image

What I think the above table shows is the classic pattern of industry consolidation after an initial phase of innovation and expansion, where over time, the many are gobbled by the few. As the number of players consolidate, those who remain grow bigger, with more resources and economies of scale. This in turn creates barriers to entry for new participants. Accordingly, the rate of attrition slows down, but that is more due to the fact that there are fewer players in the industry. Those that are left continue to fight their battles, but now those battles take longer. Nevertheless, as time goes on, the number of players consolidate further.

If we applied a cloud/web hosting paradigm to the above table, I would equate the dotcom bust of 2000 with the depression era of the 1920’s and 1930’s. I actually think with cloud computing, we are in the 1960’s and on right now. The largest of the large players have how made big bets on the cloud and have entered the market in a big, big way. For more than a decade, other companies hosted Microsoft technology, with Microsoft showing little interest beyond selling licenses via them. Now Microsoft themselves are also the hosting provider. Does that mean most the hosting providers will have the fate of Netscape? Or will they manage to survive the dance with Goliath like Citrix or VMWare have?

For those who are not Microsoft or Amazon…

image

Imagine you have been hosting SharePoint solutions for a number of years. Depending on your size, you probably own racks or a cage in some-one else’s data centre, or you own a small data centre yourself. You have some high end VMWare gear to underpin your hosting offerings and you do both managed SharePoint (i.e. offer a basic site collection subscription with no custom stuff – ala Office 365) and you offer dedicated virtual machines for those who want more control (ala Amazon). You have dutifully paid your service provider licensing to Microsoft, have IT engineers on staff, some SharePoint specialists, a helpdesk and some dodgy sales guys – all standard stuff and life is good. You had a crack at implementing SharePoint multi tenancy, but found it all a bit too fiddly and complex.

Then Amazon comes along and shakes things up with their IaaS offerings. They are cost competitive, have more data centres in more regions, a higher capacity, more fault tolerance, a wider variety of services and can scale more than you can. Their ability to execute in terms of offering new services is impossible to keep up with. In short, they slowly but relentlessly take a chunk of the market and continue to grow. So, you naturally counter by pushing the legitimate line that you specialise in SharePoint, and as a result customers are in much more trusted hands than Amazon, when investing on such a complex tool as SharePoint.

But suddenly the game changes again. The very vendor who you provide cloud-based SharePoint services for, now bundles it with Exchange, Lync and offers Active Directory integration (yeah, yeah, I know there was BPOS but no-one actually heard of that). Suddenly the argument that you are a safer option than Amazon is shot down by the fact that Microsoft themselves now offer what you do. So whose hands are safer? The small hosting provider with limited resources or the multinational with billions of dollars in the bank who develops the product? Furthermore, given Microsoft’s advantage in being able to mobilise its knowledge resources with deep product knowledge, they have a richer managed service offering than you can offer (i.e. they offer multi tenancy :).

This puts you in a bit of a bind as you are getting assailed at both ends. Amazon trumps you in the capabilities at the IaaS end and is encroaching in your space and Microsoft is assailing the SaaS end. How does a small fish survive in a pond with the big ones? In my opinion, the mid-tier SharePoint cloud providers will have to reinvent themselves.

The adaptive change…

So for the mid-tier SharePoint cloud provider grappling with the fact that their play area is reduced because of the big kids encroaching, there is only one option. They have to be really, really good in areas the big kids are not good at. In SharePoint terms, this means they have to go to places many don’t really want to go: they need to bolster their support offerings and move up the SharePoint stack.

You see, traditionally a SharePoint hosting provider tends to take two approaches. They provide a managed service where the customer cannot mess with it too much (i.e. Site collection admin access only). For those who need more than that, they will offer a virtual machine and wipe their hands of any maintenance or governance, beyond ensuring that  the infrastructure is fast and backed up. Until now, cloud providers could get away with this and the reason they take this approach should be obvious to anyone who has implemented SharePoint. If you don’t maintain operational governance controls, things can rapidly get out of hand. Who wants to deal with all that “people crap”? Besides, that’s a different skill set to typical skills required to run and maintain cloud services at the infrastructure layer.

So some cloud providers will kick and scream about this, and delude themselves into thinking that hosting and cloud services are their core business. For those who think this, I have news for you. The big boys think these are their core business too and they are going to do it better than you. This is now commodity stuff and a by-product of commoditisation is that many SharePoint consultancies are now cloud providers anyway! They sign up to Microsoft or Amazon and are able to provide a highly scalable SharePoint cloud service with all the value added services further up the SharePoint stack. In short, they combine their SharePoint expertise with Microsoft/Amazon’s scale.

Now on the issue of support, Amazon has no specific SharePoint skills and they never will. They are first and foremost a compelling IaaS offering. Microsoft’s support? … go and re-read part 2 if you want to see that. It seems that no matter the big multinational, level 1 tech support is always level 1 tech support.

So what strategies can a mid-tier provider take to stay competitive in this rapidly commoditising space. I think one is to go premium and go niche.

  • Provide brilliant support. If I call you, day or night, I expect to speak to a SharePoint person straight away. I want to get to know them on a first name basis and I do not want to fight the defence mechanism of the support hierarchy.
  • Partner with SharePoint consultancies or acquire consulting resources. The latter allows you to do some vertical integration yourself and broaden your market and offerings. A potential KPI for any SharePoint cloud provider should be that no support person ever says “sorry that’s outside the scope of what we offer.”
  • Develop skills in the tools and systems that surround SharePoint or invest in SharePoint areas where skills are lacking. Examples include Project Server, PerformancePoint, integration with GIS, Records management and ERP systems. Not only will you develop competencies that few others have, but you can target particular vertical market segments who use these tools.
  • (Controversial?) Dump your infrastructure and use Amazon in conjunction with another IaaS provider. You just can’t compete with their scale and price point. If you use them you will likely save costs, when combined with a second provider you can play the resiliency card and best of all … you can offer VPC 🙂

Conclusion

In the last two posts we looked at some of the areas where both Microsoft and Amazon sometimes struggle to come to grips with the SharePoint cloud paradigm. In this post, we took a look at other cloud providers having to come to grips with the SharePoint cloud paradigm of having to compete with these two giants, who are clearly looking to eke out as much value as they can from the cloud pie. Whether you agree with my suggested strategy (Rackspace appears to), the pattern of the auto industry serves as an interesting parallel to the cloud computing marketplace. Is the relentless consolidation a good thing? Probably not in the long term (we will tackle that issue in the last post in this series). In the next post, we are going to shift our focus away from the cloud providers themselves, and turn our gaze to the internal IT departments – who until now, have had it pretty good. As you will see, a big chunk of the irrational side of cloud computing comes from this area.

 

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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The cloud isn’t the problem–Part 2: When complex technology meets process…

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Cloud
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Hi all

Welcome to my second post that delves into the irrational world of cloud computing. In the first post, I described my first foray into the world of web hosting, which started way back in 2000. Back then I was more naive than I am now (although when it comes to predicting the future I am as naive as anybody else.) I concluded Part 1 by asserting that cloud computing is an adaptive change. We are going to explore the effects of this and the challenges it poses in the next few posts.

Adaptive change occurs in a number of areas, including the companies providing a cloud application – especially if on-premise has been the basis of their existence previously. To that end, I’d like to tell you an Office 365 fail story and then see what lessons we can draw from it.

Office 365 and Software as a Service…

For those who have ignored the hype, Office 365 known in cloud speak as “Software as a Service” (SaaS). Basically one gets SharePoint, Exchange mail, web versions of Office Applications and Lync all bundled up together. In Office 365, SharePoint is not run on-premise at all, and instead it is all run from Microsoft servers in a subscription arrangement. Once a month you pay Microsoft for the number of users using the service and the world is a happy place.

Office 365, like many SaaS models, keeps much of the complexity of managing SharePoint in the hands of Microsoft. A few years back, Office 365 would have been described in hosting terms as a managed service. Like all managed services, one sacrifices a certain level of control by outsourcing the accompanying complexity. You do not manage or control the underlying cloud infrastructure including network, servers, operating systems, SharePoint farm settings or storage. Furthermore, limited custom code will run on Office 365, because developers do not have back-end access. Only sandbox solutions are available, and even then, there are some additional limitations when compared to on-premise sandbox solutions. You have limited control of SharePoint service applications too, so the best way to think about Office 365 is that your administrative control extends to the site collection level (this is not actually true but suffices for this series.)

One key reason why its hard to get feature parity between on-premise and SaaS equivalents is because many SaaS architectures are based around the concept of multitenancy. If you have heard this word bandied about in SharePoint land is because it is something that is supported in SharePoint 2010. But the concept extends to the majority of SaaS providers. To understand it, imagine an swanky office building in the up-market part of town. It has a bunch of companies that rent out office space and are therefore tenants. No tenant can afford an entire building, so they all lease office space from the building and enjoy certain economies of scale like a great location, good parking, security and so on. This does have a trade-off though. The tenants have to abide by certain restrictions. An individual tenant can’t just go and paint the building green because it matches their branding. Since the building is a shared resource, it is unlikely the other tenants would approve.

Multi tenancy allows the SaaS vendor to support multiple customers with a single platform. The advantages of this model is economies of scale, but the trade-off is the aforementioned customisation flexibility. SaaS vendors will talk up this by telling you that SaaS applications can be updated more frequently than on-premise software, since there is less customisation complexity from each individual customer. While that’s true, it nevertheless means a loss of control or choice in areas like data security, integration with on-premise systems, latency and flexibility of the application to accommodate change as an organisation grows.

A small example of the restricting effect of multi-tenancy is when you upload a PDF into a SharePoint document library in Office 365. You cannot open the PDF in the browser and instead you are prompted to save it locally. This is because of a well-known issue with a security feature that was added to IE8. In the on-premise SharePoint world, you can modify the behaviour by changing the “Browser File Handling” option in the settings of the affected Web Application. But with Office 365, you have to live with it (or use a less than elegant workaround) because you do not have any access at a web application level to change the behaviour. Changing it will affect any tenants serviced by that web application.

Minor annoyances aside, if you are a small organisation or you need to mobilise quickly on a project with a geographically dispersed team, Office 365 is a very sweet offering. It is powerful and integrated, and while not fully featured compared to on-premise SharePoint, it is nonetheless impressive. One can move very quickly and be ready to go with within one or two business days – that is, if you don’t make a typo…

How a typo caused the world to cave in…

A while back, I was part of a geographically dispersed, multi-organisation team that needed a collaborative portal for around a year. Given the project team was distributed across varying organisations, various parts of Australia, the fact that one of the key stakeholders had suggested SharePoint, and the fact that Office 365 behaved much better than Google apps behind overly paranoid proxy servers of participating organisations, Office 365 seemed ideal and we resolved to use it. I signed up to a Microsoft Office 365 E3 service.

Now when I say sign up, Microsoft uses Telstra in Australia as their Office 365 partner, so I was directed to Telstra’s sign up site. My first hint of trouble to come was when I was asked to re-enter my email address in the signup field. Through some JavaScript wizard no doubt, I was unable to copy/paste my email address into the confirmation field. They actually made me re-type it. “Hmm” I thought, “they must really be interested in data validation. At least it reduces the chance that people do not copy/paste the wrong information into a critical field.” I also noted that there was also some nice JavaScript that suggested the strength of the password chosen as it was typed.

But that’s where the fun ended. Soon after entering the necessary detail, and obligatory payment details, I am asked to enter a mysterious thing listed only as an Organization Level Attribute and more specifically, “Microsoft Online Services Company Identifier.” Checking the question mark icon tells me that it is “used to create your Microsoft Online Services account identity.”

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I wondered if this was the domain name for the site, as there was no descriptive indicator as to the significance of this code. For all I knew, it could be a Microsoft admin code or accounting code. Nevertheless I assumed it was the domain name because I just had a feeling it was. So I entered my online identity and away I went. I got a friendly email message to say things were in motion and I waited my obligatory hour or so for things to provision.

The inbox sound chimes and I received two emails. One told me I now have a “Telstra t-Suite account” and the other is entitled “Registration confirmation from Microsoft online.” I was thanked for purchasing and the email stated that “the services are managed via Microsoft Online Portal (MOP), a separate portal to the Telstra T-Suite Management Console.” I had no idea what the Telstra T-Suite Management Console was at this point, but I was invited to log into the Microsoft Online Portal with a supplied username and password.

At this point I swore…I could see by my username, that I made a typo in the Microsoft Online Services Company Identifier. Username: admin@SampleProjject.onmicrosoft.com – which means I typed in “SampleProjject” instead of “SampleProject” (Aargh!)

The saga begins…

Swearing at my dyslexic typing, I logged a support call to Telstra in the faint hope that I can change this before it’s too late… Below is the anonymised mail I sent:

“Hiya

In relation to the order below I accidentally set SampleProjject as the identifier when it should be SampleProject. Can this be rectified before things are commissioned?

Thanks

Paul”

Another hour passed by and my inbox chimed again with a completely unsurprising reply to my query.

“Hi Paul , sorry but company identifier can not be changed because it is used to identify the account in Office 365 database.”

Cursing once again at my own lack of checking, I cannot help but shake my head in that while I was forced to type in my email address twice (and with cut and paste disabled) when I signed up to Office 365, I was given no opportunity to verify the Microsoft Online Services Company Identifier (henceforth known as MOSI) before giving the final go-ahead. Surely this identifier is just as important as the email address? Therefore, why not ask for it to be entered twice or visually make it clear what the purpose of this identifier is? Then dumb users like me would get a second chance before opening the hellgate, unleashing forces that can never be contained.

At the end of the day though, the fault was mine so while I think Telstra could do better with their validation and conveying the significance of the MOSI, I caused the issue.

Forces are unleashed…

So I log into Telstra’s t-suite system and try and locate my helpdesk call entry. The t-suite site, although not SharePoint, has a bit of a web part feel about it – only like when you have fixed the height of a web part far too small. It turned out that their site doesn’t handle IE9 well. If you look closely the “my helpdesk cases” and “my service access” are collapsed to the point that I can’t actually see anything. So I tried Chrome and was able to operate the portal like a normal person would. My teeth gnashed once more…

image  image

Finally, being able to take an action, I open my support request and ask the following:

*** NOTES created by Paul Culmsee
Can I cancel this account and re provision? A typo was made when the MOSI was entered.  The domain name is incorrect for the site.

A few emails went back and forth and I received a confirmation that the account is cancelled. I then return to the Office 365 site and re-apply for an E3 service. This time I triple checked my spelling of the MOSI and clicked “proceed.” I received an email that thanked me for my application and that I should receive a provisioning notification within an hour or so.

So I wait…

and wait…

and wait…

and wait…

24 hours went by and I received no notification of the E3 service being provisioned. I log into Telstra’s t-suite and log a new call, asking when things will be provisioned. Here is what I asked…

Hi there, I have had no notification of this being provisioned from Microsoft. Surely this should be done by now?

In typical level 1 helpdesk fashion, the guy on the other end did not actually read what I wrote. He clearly missed the word “no”

Hi Paul,

that’s affirmative. Your T-Suite order has been provisioned. As per the instructions in the welcome email you can follow the links to log in to portal.

Contact me on 1800TSUITE Option 2.3 to discuss it further. I’ll keep this case open for a week.

*sigh* – this sort of bad level 1 email support actually does a lot of damage to the reputation of the organisation so I mail back…

But I received no welcome email from Microsoft with the online password details… I have no means to log into the portal

This inane exchange costs me half a day, so I took Telstra’s friendly advice and contacted them “on 1800TSUITE Option 2.3 to discuss it further.” I got a pretty good tech who realised there indeed was a problem. He told me he would look into it and I thanked him for his time. Sometime later he called back and advised me that something was messed up in the provisioning process and that the easiest thing to do, was for him to delete my most recent E3 application, and for me to sign up from scratch using a totally different email address and a totally new MOSI. Somehow, either Telstra’s or Microsoft’s systems had associated my email address and MOSI with the original, failed attempt to sign up (the one with the typo), and it was causing the provisioning process to have an exception somewhere along the line.

In hearing this, I can imagine some giant PowerShell provisioning script with dodgy exception handling getting halfway through and then dying on them. So I was happy to follow the tech’s advice went through the entire Office 365 sign up process from the very beginning again (this is the third time). This time I used a fresh email address and quadruple checked all of the fields before I provisioned. Eureka! This time things worked as planned. I received all the right confirmation emails and I was able to sign into the Microsoft online portal. From there I created user accounts, provisioned a SharePoint site collection and we were ready to rock and roll. Although the entire saga ended up taking 5 business days from start to finish, I have my portal and the project team got down to business.

Now for what it’s worth, it should be noted that if you are an integrator or are in the business of managing multiple Office 365 services, Telstra requires a different email address to be used for each Office 365 service you purchase. One cannot have an alias like provision@myoffice365supportprovider as the general account used to provision multiple E1-E4 services. Each needs its own t-suite account with a different email address.

Plunged into darkness…

Things hummed along for a couple of months with no hiccups. We received an invoice for the service by email, and then a couple of days later, received a mail to confirm that in fact the invoice has been automatically paid via credit card. For our purposes, Office 365 was a really terrific solution and the project team really liked it and were getting a lot of value out off it.

I then had to travel overseas and while I was gone, suddenly the project team were unable to login to the portal. They would receive a “subscription expired” message when attempting to login. Now this was pretty serious as a project team was coming to an important deadline and now no-one could log in.  We checked the VISA records and it seemed that the latest invoice had not been deducted from the account as there was still a balance owing. Since I was in overseas, one of my colleagues immediately called up Telstra support (it was now after hours in Perth) and was stuck in a queue for an hour and then ended up speaking to two support people. After all of the fuss with the provisioning issues around the MOSI and my typo, it seemed that Telstra support didn’t actually know what a MOSI was in any event. This is what my colleague said:

I was asked for an account number straight away both times, and I explained that I didn’t have one, but I did have the invoice number in question, and that this was a Microsoft Office 365 subscription. They were still unable to locate the account or invoice. I then gave them the MOSI, thinking this would help. Unfortunately, they both had no idea what I was talking about! I explained that users were unable to login to the site with a ‘subscription expired’ error message. I also explained the fact that the VISA had not been processed for this period (although it was fine in the last period).

Both support staff could not access the Office 365 subscription information (even after I gave them our company name). Because I called after hours, t-suite department was not available. The two staff I talked to could not access the account, so could not pull up any of the relevant details. It turns out that after business hours, Telstra redirect t-suite support to the mobile and phones department. The first support person passed me onto technical but the transfer was rerouted to the original call menu – so I went through the whole thing again, press x for this, press x for that, etc. The second time round, I explained it all over again. The tech assured me that it couldn’t be a billing issue and that Telstra generally would not suspend an account because of a few days late payment. If that was the case, prior to suspension, Telstra would send out an email to notify customers of overdue payment. I told him that no such email had been sent. He then said that it would most likely be a technical problem and would have to be dealt with the next day as the T-suite department would not be available til next morning between office hours 9-5pm EST.

I hung up frustrated, no closer to solving the problem after two hours on the phone.

My colleague then got up early and called Telstra at 6am the next day (9am EST is 3 hours ahead of Perth time). She explained the situation again to Telstra t-suite support person all over again. Here again is the words of my colleague:

The first person who took my call (who I will call “girl one”) couldn’t give me an answer and said she’d get someone to call back, and in the meantime she’d check with another department for me. She put me on hold and during this time the call was re-routed back to the original menu when you first call. I thought that instead of waiting for a call that I may not receive soon as this was an emergency, I went through the menu again. This time I got “girl two” and explained the whole thing *again*. I got her to double check that the E3 subscription was set to automatically deduct from the VISA supplied – yes, it was. She noticed that it said 0 licenses available. She told me that she was not sure what that was all about, so would log a call with Microsoft. Girl two advised me that it could take any time between an hour to a few days for a response from Microsoft.

I then got a call from Telstra (girl three) on the cell-phone just after I finished with girl two. This was the person who girl one promised would call back. I told her what I’d gone through with all support staff so far, and that “girl two” was going to log a call with Microsoft. Girl three, like girl two, noticed the 0 licenses available. She wasn’t sure that it was because there were none to begin with or that there were no more available. I stated that the site had been working fine till yesterday. I explained that no one could access the site and that they all got the same message. Same as girl two, girl three advised that she would also log a call with Microsoft. Again, I was told that it could take up to several days before I could get a reply.

Half an hour later, we received an email from Telstra t-suite support. It stated the following:

Case Number: xxxxxxxx-xxxxxxx

Case Subject: subscription has expired for all users

I checked your account info and invoices. The invoice xxxxx paid for 01 Oct to 01 Nov was for company ID SampleProjject not SampleProject. Please call billing department to change it for you.

With this email, we now knew that the core problem here was related to billing in some way. As far as we had been told, Telstra had deleted the original two failed Office 365 subscriptions, but apparently not from their billing systems. The bill was paid against a phantom E3 service – the deleted one called “SampleProjject”. Accordingly the live service had expired and users were locked out of the system.

As instructed in the above email, my colleague called up t-suite billing (there was a phone number on the invoice). In her words:

Once again, the support person asked for the account number to which I said I didn’t have one. I offered him the invoice number and the MOSI, thinking someone’s got to know what it was since it was ‘used to identify the account in Office 365 database.’ He stated he could not ‘pull up an account with the MOSI’ and said something to the effect that he didn’t know what the MOSI ‘was all about’. He asked what company registered the service and I gave him our details. He immediately saw several ‘accounts’ in the billing system related to our company. He noted that the production E3 was a trial subscription and the trial had now expired and he surmised that the problem was most likely due to that fact. I queried why this was the case when the payment subscription was set to automatically deduct from the supplied visa account. He told me that as going from trial to production was a sales thing, I would have to speak to t-suite sales department. He also added that we were lucky because there was a risk that the mistakenly expired E3 service could have been deleted from Office 365.

I called up sales and finally, they were able to correct the problem.

So after a long, stressful and chaotic evening and morning, Armageddon was averted and the portal users were able to log in again.

Reflections…

This whole story started from something seemingly innocuous – a typo that I made on a poorly described text box (MOSI). From it, came a chain of events that could have resulted in a production E3 service being mistakenly deleted. There were multiple failures at various levels (including my bad typing that set this whole thing off). Nevertheless, first thing that becomes obvious is that this was a high risk issue that had utterly nothing to do with the Office 365 service itself. As I said, the feedback from the project team has been overwhelmingly positive for Office 365. There was no bug or no extended outage because of any technical factors. Instead, it was the lack of resilience in the systems and processes that surround the Office 365 service. At the end of the day, we got almost nailed because of a billing screw-up. It was exacerbated by some poor technical support outcomes. Witness the number of people and departments my colleague had to go through to get a straight answer, as well as the two times she was redirected back to the main phone menuing system when she was supposed to be transferred.

Now I don’t blame any of the tech support staff (okay, except the first guy who did not read my initial query). I think that the tech support themselves were equally hamstrung by immature process and poor integration of systems. What was truly scary about this issue was that it snuck up upon us from left field. We thought the issue was resolved once the service was finally provisioned (third time lucky), and had email receipts of paid invoices. Yet this near fatal flaw was there all along, only manifesting some three months later when the evaluation period expired.

I think there are a number of specific aspects to this story that Microsoft needs to reflect on. I have summarised these below:

  • Why is the registration process to sign up to Office 365 via Telstra such a complete fail of the “Don’t Make Me Think” test.
  • Why is the significance of the MOSI not made more clear when you first enter it (given you have to enter your email address twice)?
  • Why did no-one at all in Telstra support have the faintest idea what a MOSI is?
  • When you entrust your data and service to a cloud provider how confident do you feel when tech support completely misinterprets your query and answers a completely opposite question?
  • How do you think customers with a critical issue feel when the company that sits between you and Microsoft tells you that it will take “between an hour to a few days for a response from Microsoft”. Vote of confidence?
  • How do you think customers with a critical issue feel when the company that sits between you and Microsoft redirects tech support to their cell phone division after hours?
  • How do you think customers with a critical issue feel when the company that sits between you and Microsoft has to pass you around from department to department to solve an issue, and along the way, re-route you back to the main support line?
  • We were advised to delete our E3 accounts and start all over again. Why did Telstra’s systems not delete the service out of their billing systems? Presumably they are not integrated, given that from a billing perspective, the old E3 service was still there?

Now I hope that I don’t sound bitter and twisted from this experience. In fact, the experience reinforced what most in IT strategy already know. It’s not about the technology. I still like what Office 365 offers and I will continue to use and recommend it under the right circumstances. This experience was simply a sobering reality check though that all of the cool features amounts to naught when it can be undone by dodgy underlying supporting structures. I hope that Microsoft and Telstra read this and learn from it too. From a customer perspective, having to work through Telstra as a proxy for Microsoft feels like additional layers of defence on behalf of Microsoft. Is all of this duplication really necessary? Why can’t Australian customers work directly with Microsoft like the US can?

Moving on…

No cloud provider is immune to these sorts of stories – and for that matter no on-premise provider is immune either. So for Amazon fanboys out there who want to take this post as evidence to dump on Microsoft, I have some news for you too. In the next post in this series, I am going to tell you an Amazon EC2 story that, while not being an issue that resulted in an outage, nevertheless represents some very short sighted dumbass policies. The result of which, we are literally forced to hand our business to another cloud provider.

Until then, thanks for reading and happy clouding 🙂

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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The cloud is not the problem–Part 1: Has it been here all along?

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Cloud
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Hiya

I have been meaning to write a post or three on cloud computing, and its benefits, challenges and eventual legacy. I’ve finally had some time to do so. This series will span over a few posts (not sure how many at this stage) and will focus mainly on SharePoint. In short, I think the cloud is a shining example of innovation, combined with human irrationality, poorly thought out process with a dash of organisational dysfunction. In this first post, I will give you a little cloud history lesson, through the eyes of a slightly jaded IT infrastructure person. To that end, I will try and do the following throughout this series:

  • Educate readers to some conceptual aspects of cloud computing and why it matters
  • Highlight aspects to cloud computing that are current being conveniently overlooked by proponents (and opponents)
  • Look at what the real challenges are, not just for organisations utilising it, but for the organisations providing cloud services
  • Highlight what the future might look like from a couple of perspectives
  • As always, take a relatively dry topic and try and make this entertaining enough that you will want to read it through 🙂

So let’s roll the clock back a decade or so and set the scene…

In the beginning…

In the height of the dotcom boom of 2000, I took a high paying contract position for a miner-turned-ISP. You see, back then it was all the rage for “penny stock” mining companies – who had never actually dug anything of value out of the ground – to embrace “The interweb” by becoming an Internet Service Provider. Despite having no idea whatsoever about what it entailed to be an ISP, instantly they would enjoy at least a fiftyfold increase in stock price and all the adulation of those dotcom investors who actually believed that there was money to be made.

Lured from my stable job by the hubris-funded per-hour rate and a cooler job title, I designed and ran an ISP from late 1999 till late 2004, doing all things security, Linux, Cisco and Microsoft. Back then, the buzzword of choice was “hosting”. Of course, the dotcom bubble popped big time and the market collapsed back to cold hard reality pretty quickly. Like all organisations that rode the wave, we then had to survive the backwash of a pretty severe bear market. Accordingly, my hourly rate went down and our ISP sales guys dutifully sold “hosting solutions” to clients that were neither useful nor appropriate. The best example of this is when someone sold a hosted exchange server to a company of 300 staff with no consideration whatsoever of bandwidth, security and authentication (remember that this was the era of Exchange 2000, immature Active Directory deployments and 1.5/256 megabit ADSL connections).

We actually learnt a lot from dumbass stuff like this (and we went through a seemingly endless number of sales guys as a result). By the end of the journey, we did some good work and had a few success stories. The net result of riding the highs and lows of the dotcom boom, was my conclusion that if you had a public IP address and a communications rack with decent air conditioning, you were pretty much a hosting provider.

Then in 2004 I took a different job with a different company. They hired me because they had just acquired a fairly well-known “hosting provider” who had gone through some tough times. I was tasked with migrating the hosting infrastructure – and the sites hosted on it – to the parent company premises and integrate it with the existing infrastructure. So imagine my shock when on day one, I arrive onsite to see that the infrastructure of this hosting provider was essentially a store room, full of clone PC’s with panels removed, sitting in a couple of communications racks, with a cheap portable fan blowing onto it all to keep it cool and with no redundant power (in fact one power cord was sticky taped to the floor and led out the room to the nearest outlet). As it happened, some very high profile websites ran on this infrastructure.

This period I describe as “my bitter and twisted days” as I had a limited time to somehow migrate this mess to the more robust infrastructure of the parent company. This was the period where I became a bit of an IT control freak and used to take a dim view of web developers who dared to ask me a dumb question. I also subsequently revised my view of hosting. I decided that if you had a public IP address and a comms rack with completely crap air conditioning, you were pretty much a hosting provider. After all, when you access a website, did you ever stop to consider where it physically might reside?

…and henceforth came “the cloud”

Before SharePoint 2010 came out, I used to do talks where I put up the SharePoint 2007 pie and asked people what buzzword was missing. Many hands would rise and the answer was always “cloud”. Cognisant of this, I redrew Microsoft’s marketing diagram to try and capture the essence of this this new force in enterprise IT. I suggested that Microsoft would jump on the cloud big-time with SharePoint 2010. How do you think I did? Smile

 

image

As it turned out, Microsoft for some reason opted not to use my suggested logo and instead went with that blue Frisbee with fresh buzzwords to replace the 2007 ones that had reached their saturation point. Nevertheless, the picture above did turn out to be prophetic: The era of the cloud is most definitely upon us, along with the gushing praise that often accompanies any flavour of the year technology.

Now in one sense, nothing much has changed from the days of web hosting. If you have an IP address with a webserver on the end of it, you can pretty much call yourself a cloud provider. This is because at the end of the day, we are still using the core ingredients of TCPIP, DNS, HTTP, communications racks and supposedly good air conditioning. When you access something in “the cloud”, you have no visibility as to the quality of the infrastructure on the other end. For all you know, it could be a store room being kept cool with a dodgy fan and some sticky tape :-).

But while that’s a cynical view, its is also naively simplistic. Like all fads that come and go, things are always changed as a result. The truth is that there has been changes from the days of web hosting that will change the entire face of IT in the coming years.

The major difference between this era and the last is the advancement in technology beyond those core ingredients of TCPIP, DNS and HTTP. Bandwidth has became significantly cheaper, faster and more reliable. Virtualisation of servers (and services) not only gained momentum, but is now a mature technology. My own evidence for this fact is that I haven’t put SharePoint web front end servers onto non-virtualised infrastructure for a couple of years now. Add to that the fact that the tools and systems that we use to build web solutions are now much more powerful and sophisticated. As a result, “cloud” applications now reflect a level of sophistication and features way beyond their web based email origins. Look at Office 365 as a case in point. Microsoft have bet big-time on this type of offering. I’m sure that most architectural diagrams currently drawn all over Microsoft whiteboards for SharePoint vNext, will be all about reworking the plumbing to create feature parity between on-premise SharePoint and it’s cloud based equivalent.

It’s interesting stuff indeed.

Now, perhaps because I had an ISP/hosting ringside seat,  I could see all of this happening way back in 2000 – more than a decade ago. Not only could I see it, I experienced the pain of early adopters trying to do it (witness the example of the hosted Exchange 2000 “solution” I started this post with). But a decade later, cloud based infrastructure now realises the sort of capabilities that I was able to foresee in my ISP days. We have access to unlimited storage and scalability. With it, I can save massive time and effort to get complex systems up and running. In this fast-moving age we find ourselves in, being able to mobilise resources and be productive quickly is hugely important. Recognising this, companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft leverage their incredible economies of scale, as well as the sheer depth of technical expertise to make some rather compelling offerings. Bean counters (i.e. CFO’s and CIO’s with tight budgets) suddenly realised that the cost to “jack-in” to a cloud based solution is way less costly than the traditional manner of up-front costs of hardware, licensing, procurement and configuration.

The cloud offers minimal entry cost because for the most part, it is based on a pay-for-use model. You stop paying for it when you stop using it. Buying servers are forever, but the cloud is apparently not. Furthermore, the economies of scale that the big boys of the cloud space offer, usually far exceeds what can be done via internal IT resources anyway. This extends past sheer hardware scalability and includes security, reliability and performance monitoring. As a cloud provider customer, you will not just expect, but assume that companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google can use their deep pockets to hire the best of the best engineers, architects and security practitioners. Organisational decision makers look increasingly longingly at the cloud, in the face of internal IT costs being high.

Even the most traditional on-premise IT vendors are getting in on the act. Consider SAP, previously a bastion of the “on-premise” model. Their American division just shelled out US$3.4 billion to buy a cloud provider called SuccessFactors (3.4 billion = 50% premium to SuccessFactors share price.) Why did they do this? According to Paul Hamerman (the bold areas are mine).

“SAP’s cloud strategy has been struggling with time-to-market issues, and its core on-premise HR management software has been at competitive disadvantage with best-of-breed solutions in areas such as employee performance, succession planning and learning management. By acquiring SuccessFactors, SAP puts itself into a much stronger competitive position in human resources applications and reaffirms its commitment to software-as-a-service as a key business model.”

If that wasn’t enough, consider some of Gartner’s predictions for 2012 and beyond. One notable predictions is that by year-end 2016, more than 50 percent of Global 1000 companies will have stored customer-sensitive data in the public cloud. Closer to home for me, I have a client who has a ten-year BHAG (known as a Big, Hairy Audacious Goal). While I can’t tell you what this goal is, I can tell you that they have identified a key success metric that currently takes them around 12 months to achieve. Their BHAG is to reduce this time from 12 months to 4 weeks and achieve this within a decade. Essentially they have a time-to-market issue – similar to what Hamerman outlined with SAP. By utilising cloud technology and being able to procure the necessary scalability at the click of a button and the swipe of a credit card, I was able to save them one month almost straight away and make a massive inroad to their organisation-wide strategic goal.

So it seems that in the rational world of key performance indicators and return on investment, and given the market trends of large, mainstream vendors going “cloud”, it would seem that we are in the midst of a revolution that has an unstoppable momentum. But of course, the world is not rational is it? If it were, then someone would be able to explain to me why the US still uses the imperial system given that every other country (save for Liberia and Myanmar) has now changed to metric (yes my US readers, the UK is actually metric).

The irrational road ahead…

In this first post I have painted a picture of the “new reality” – the realisation of what I first saw in 2000 is now upon us. While this first post might sound like gushing praise of all things cloud, rest assured that this is not the case. I deliberately titled this post “the cloud is not the problem” because we are going to dive into the seedy underbelly of this brave new cloudy world we find ourselves in. My contention is that cloud computing is an adaptive challenge, which by definition, questions certain established ways of doing things. Therefore it has an effect on the roles, beliefs, assumptions and values behind the established order. In the next post or three, we are going to explore some of the less rational sides of “the cloud” at a number of levels. Furthermore, the irrationality often tends to be dressed up as rationality, so we have to look behind the positive and negative straw-man arguments we are currently hearing about, to what is really going on. Along the way I hope to develop your “cloud computing strawman argument” radar, so you can smell manure when its inevitably dished out to you 🙂

The general breakdown of this series will be as follows:

I’ll start by chronicling my experience with Microsoft’s new Software as a Service (Saas) offering: Office 365, as well as Amazon’s Platform as a Service Offering (EC2). Both are terrific offerings, but are let down by things that have nothing to do with the technology. From there we will move into looking at some of the existing roles and paradigms that are impacted by the move to cloud solutions, and the defence mechanisms that will be employed to counter it. I’ll end the series by taking a look at the cloud from a longer term perspective, based on the notion of systems theory (which despite its drop-dead boring sounding premise is actually quite interesting).

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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Root Causes of Communication Fragmentation: Organisational Culture

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This is the second article in a series of articles which examine factors causing the sort of organisational inefficiencies that lead people to use products like SharePoint. My first article in the series examined individual learning and behavioural styles and their impact on communication and how those same learning and behavioural styles still manifest themselves in collaborative tools and informational architecture.

We now turn our attention away from individuals and look at the collection of individuals known as the "organisation". In the first article, I lamented the fact that it seemed no empirical study had even been performed to determine the relationship between behaviour/learning styles and specific collaborative tools/techniques. Fortunately for me, in writing this second article, organisational culture has long been recognised as just about *the* most critical factor in organisational success. What that essentially translates to, is that there is an absolute *plethora* of research on the topic of the influence of organisational culture in knowledge management. In writing this article I had a severe case of information overload but fortunately found exactly what I was looking for.

Knowledge management in academia

Academic papers tend to be pretty dry reads. Researchers, surprise…surprise, write papers to be read by other researchers. Any time you delve into academia to look for answers you have a lot to read and digest, and need a strong jolt of caffeine to keep you going.

Combine that with the fact that the term "Knowledge Management" suffers from rampant buzzword abuse in the same way that the term "Governance" does. This abuse reflects itself in academia where authors are forced to spend pages and pages of their work on defining exactly what they are talking about, whilst making sure that they have demonstrated that they have checked their facts (evidenced by numerous references to other researches).

I ended up finding one particular paper to be very insightful contained within this book:

 

and in particular, this paper/chapter with an extremely long title…

*Paul takes a deep breath*

"An Empiric Study of Organizational Culture Types and their Relationship with the Success of a Knowledge Management System and the Flow of Knowledge in the U.S. Government and Nonprofit Sectors" by Juan Román-Velázquez, D.Sc.

What a mouthful that was!

Credit where credit is due though, this is a terrific paper and I am going to barely paraphrase it here. But I encourage anyone who wants to ensure that organisational culture issues have been given due consideration in their planing to read this paper. Despite being oriented to government and non-profit organisations, there is a lot of good conclusions to draw from.

Velázquez sets the scene by explaining that public, private, and nonprofit enterprises must survive and thrive in an environment of shrinking distance, complex interdependencies and increased uncertainty. Unsurprisingly, the use of knowledge management (KM) is rapidly growing and tools like SharePoint are commonly used in this area. Velázquez has a good definition for KM that

…provides the capability to engineer the enterprise structure, functions, and processes necessary for the enterprise to survive and prosper. KM leverages the existing human capital/intellectual assets to help generate, capture, organize, and share knowledge that is relevant to the mission of the enterprise. Furthermore, the implementation of a KM system (KMS) enables the effective application of management best practices and information technology tools to deliver the best available knowledge to the right person, at just the right time, to solve a problem, make a decision, capture expertise, and so forth, while performing their work. The KMS can comprise formal systems, processes, management directives, and others that, when combined, help generate, capture, organize, and share available knowledge that is relevant to the mission of the enterprise.

Velázquez than makes the key point that I have always believed. I tell clients that SharePoint is 90% head-space. Velázquez argues although motivations for KM may differ between the public and private sector, the *practice* of knowledge management is very similar. Velázquez also stresses the point that "tools" are a small part of the solution.

A successful KMS involves more than just implementing a new technology that can be acquired in a “box”; it requires understanding and integrating its human aspects and the culture in which it operates.

So SharePoint is not a Knowledge Management System – it is merely one of the tools that underpin a KMS.

Where does organisational culture come from?

A widely held view is that the importance of organisational cultural considerations emerged by the failure of many US and European companies to compete with Japanese firms. Case in point? Look at the history of Ford, General Motors and Toyota. In their book, Diagnosing and Changing Organisation Culture (see below), authors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn make the point that successful companies with sustained profitability and above-average returns leverage their organisational culture as the key factor for competitive advantage.

Organisational culture can emerge in a number of ways:

  • It is sometimes created by its founder (e.g. Walt Disney).
  • It may emerge over time, as the organization faces challenges and obstacles (e.g. Coca-Cola)
  • It may be developed consciously by the management team (e.g. General Electric through Jack Welch).

How important is organisational culture? Consider this quote from Cameron and Quinn.

The point we are illustrating with these examples is that without another kind of fundamental change, namely, the change of the culture of an organisation, there is little hope of enduring improvement in organisational performance. A primary reason for the failure of so many efforts to improve organisational effectiveness is that, whereas the tools and techniques may be present and the change strategy implemented with vigor, failure occurs because the fundamental culture of the organisation remains the same. Consider the studies by Cameron and his colleagues (Cameron, Freeman, & Mishra, 1991; Cameron, 1992; Cameron, 1995) in which empirical studies were conducted in more than 100 organisations that had engaged in total quality management (TQM) and downsizing as strategies for enhancing effectiveness. The results of those studies were unequivocal. The successful implementation of TQM and downsizing programs, as well as the resulting effectiveness of the organisations’ performance, depended on having the improvement strategies embedded in a culture change. When TQM and downsizing were implemented independent of a culture change, they were unsuccessful. When the culture of these organisations was an explicit target of change, so that the TQM and/or downsizing initiatives were a part of an overall culture change effort, they were successful. Organisational effectiveness increased. Culture change was the key.

That quote, I think hits the nail on the head of why so many SharePoint projects fail. To implement SharePoint without any appreciation for organisational culture is simply not smart. If you are dumfounded by the fact that nobody in the organisation is embracing wikis, blogs and discussion forums, stop and think about it. Is this organisation conducive to such technologies?

Fortunately for SharePoint practitioners who have never considered the effect that an organisation’s culture has on the application of collaborative technology, I’m about to make your life easier… In short, the hard work has been done for you.

The CVF model

In the first article, I used the learning style theories of Honey and Mumford and Marston DISC to explain how our individual differences impacted on the means and methods by which we collaborate. They are not the only theories by any stretch. In fact, pretty much anytime anybody puts up a theory or methodology, you will invariably find someone else trashing it by questioning its validity. Likewise, when trying to quantify organisational culture factors, there are many different measurement methods with different theoretical underpinnings. Naturally, each believes that *theirs* is the right way to go.

I just had a sudden thought that maybe the learning and behavioural styles of an individual has an influence on which measurement methodology they might find to be the most useful.

One tool used to diagnose organisations and help executives change their culture is called the Competing Values Framework (CVF). The CVF consists of a framework, a sense-making tool, and a set of steps to analyze and change organisational culture. CVF is best explained with two charts that I have supplied below.

 

image

There are two dimensions used in this chart. From left to right, we are looking at "internal versus external" factors such as employee satisfaction, customer service, market share and profitability. From bottom to top, we are looking at the "control versus flexibility" factors such as the internal processes, policies and systems that maintain stability and consistency at one end, and adaptability at the other. Taken together, the two dimensions of the CVF produces four quadrants: Clan, Adhocracy, Hierarchy and Market culture.

Note that it is a very similar dimension based system like Marston DISC. (This is why I like it).

Below I have defined the characteristics of each culture type as defined by Velázquez:

The clan culture: Dominant in flexibility, discretion, dynamism, internal focus, integration and unity.

A very friendly place to work where people share a lot of themselves. It is like an extended family. The leaders, or the heads of the organization, are considered to be mentors and perhaps parent figures. The organization is held together by loyalty or tradition. Commitment is high. The organization emphasizes the long-term benefits of human resources development and attaches great importance to cohesion and morale. Success is defined in terms of sensitivity to customers and concern for people. The organization places a premium on teamwork, participation, and consensus.

The adhocracy culture: Dominant in flexibility, discretion, dynamism, external focus, differentiation and rivalry.

A dynamic, entrepreneurial, and creative place to work. People stick their necks out and take risks. The leaders are considered innovators and risk takers. The glue that holds the organisation together is commitment to experimentation and innovation. The emphasis is on being on the leading edge. The organisation’s long-term emphasis is on growth and acquiring new resources. Success means gaining unique and new products or services. Being a product or service leader is important. The organisation encourages individual initiative and freedom.

The market culture: Dominant in stability, order, control, external focus, differentiation and rivalry.

A results-oriented organisation whose major concern is with getting the job done. People are competitive and goal oriented. The leaders are hard drivers, producers, and competitors. They are tough and demanding. The glue that holds the organisation together is an emphasis on winning. Reputation and success are common concerns. The long-term focus is on competitive action and achievement of measurable goals and targets

The hierarchy culture: Dominant in stability, order, control, internal focus, integration and unity.

A very formalised and structured place to work. Procedures govern what people do. The leaders pride themselves on being good efficent-minded coordinators and organizers. Maintaining a smooth-running organisation is most critical. Formal rules and policies hold the organisation together. The long-term concern is on stability and performance with efficient smooth operations. Success is defined in terms of dependable delivery, smooth scheduling, and low cost. The management of employees is concerned with secure employment and predictability.

I’m sure that just like the previous article, most readers will readily identify the sort of organisational culture to which they belong. Microsoft themselves are a classic case study of an organisation that has attempted to change its culture on numerous occasions with varying degrees of success. Microsoft would like to think that their culture is that of a clan and adhocracy, but the reality is they are very much a market culture. These days they are beaten to the punch my smaller, more nimble competitors, but over the long term they are able to use their formidable market position and financial leverage to succeed. Netscape is a classic example of Microsoft’s market culture succeeding, but you can almost *hear* the rusty gears of the Microsoft culture machine slowly but surely turning as competitors like Google and Linux achieve tremendous success which has been built on very different philosophical foundations.

Having said that, I believe personally that Google is now invariably moving from a strong clan/adhocracy culture starting point to a dominant market culture as well. If you disagree with my assertion then we need to prove it either way. How? 

…Enter the OCAI.

OCAI

The Organisational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) is part of the CVF. It is a survey based instrument that allows an organisation to profile what quadrant they are strongest in and to decide if they would be better off by cultivating strengths in another quadrant. There are plenty of reasons why a company might want to do this. Microsoft both succeeded and failed in this regard. They managed to completely out-compete Netscape through Netscape’s own failed execution of strategy, yet they have been playing catch-up with Google for years and still really have not managed to make a dent. 

To determine the dominant culture type in an organization, survey questions are group into six "cultural components". The six components are: General Dominant Characteristics, Organizational Leadership, Management of Employees, Organizational Glue, Strategic Emphasis and Criteria of Success.

  • General Dominant Characteristics: In general, what does the organisation look like? What the overall organization is like.
  • Organizational Leadership: How leaders are perceived in their direction of the institution.
  • Management of Employees: The style that characterizes how employees are treated and what the working environment is like.
  • Organizational Glue: The bonding mechanisms that hold the organisation together.
  • Strategic Emphasis: Areas of emphasis or priority issues that guide the organisational strategies.
  • Criteria of Success: Evaluation criteria and procedures to determine level of achievements and outcomes. It is how victory is defined and what gets rewarded and celebrated.

Each question has four alternatives representing each CVF quadrant (A=Clan, B=Adhocracy, C=Market, D=Hierarchy). Individuals completing the OCAI are asked to assign a score to each alternative. A higher number of points are given to the alternative that is most similar to the organisation in question. Results of the OCAI survey are obtained by computing the average of the response scores for each alternative. This can then be plotted as per the example below.

image

Et Voila! Now we have a much clearer assessment of the culture of an organisation, based on the feedback from the members of the organisation.

Is it worth it?

Geeks who have made it this far through this article are at this point wondering what I am smoking, but rest assured – this stuff is critically important for anybody who is tasked with putting SharePoint into an organisation.

It actually turns out that research using the CVF quadrant has shown that large organisations able to balance their competing values by growing strength in each quadrant tend to outperform other organisations over the long-term. Therefore, the tools and technologies that are put in place to support knowledge management need to also take into account the culture of the organisation in order to extract maximum value from the investment.

Each of the four traits were also significant predicators of other effectiveness criteria such as quality, employee satisfaction, and overall performance. The results also showed that the four traits were strong predicators of subjectively-rated effectiveness criteria for the total sample of firms, but were strong predicators of objective criteria such as return on net-assets and sales growth only for larger firms.

In a following post from this series, I will present the findings of the Velázquez paper which undertook an empirical analysis of KM priorities and critical success factors of many organisations using OCAI.

How would SharePoint look?

In the first article I had a section where I theorised how a SharePoint installation would look like if behavioural types had been taken to extremes. In the interests of consistency, I think it’s good to repeat that experiment in poor stereotyping here:

The clan culture is social networking personified and therefore Facebook style applications are the answer to collaboration and knowledge management. Employees twitter away to each-other and share everything. SharePoint’s "My Sites" are the obvious candidate here, but to a mature clan culture, my-sites are pretty antiquated and almost laughable compared to some of the competing cloud based applications out there. Document libraries? Sheesh! What do you need documents for anyway?  Everyone uses blogs, wikis and Information architecture consists of tagging anything and everything. A mature clan culture would very likely utilise 3rd party add-ins like Newsgators Social Sites if they were to make a SharePoint investment.

I actually believe that anyone who considers themselves a clan culture and is putting in SharePoint is really a market culture with a case of rose coloured glasses 🙂 .

The adhocracy culture is essentially every startup company as well as any CEO who describes themselves as "dynamic". SharePoint, in this type of culture, does not have an information architecture to speak of (in the ‘classic’ meaning of that term). SharePoint features will be used as needed and grow over time. If it works, it will be used, if it does not, it will lie abandoned. Anything newly released will be eagerly tried, kept or discarded depending on relevance and usage. Some re-use from learning will take place, but ultimately SharePoint will perpetually be a work in progress with no central governance authority. Most power users will be administrators of their own sites and any attempts to impose centralised order or a governance regime that is based around centralisation and standards will likely fail. Decentralised control for this type of organisation is fine because there is a strong sense of ownership of the knowledge and information.

The market culture would start to utilise SharePoint in a manner that is most in keeping with the literature around features, deployment and governance. Dashboards and KPI’s would feature heavily, as well as workflows that contribute to the ease of collecting performance measurements. Reporting Services integration in particular will fare well here. In a market culture, very little sympathy may be given for SharePoint functionality that is not seen as contributing positively to the business. Additionally, users are unlikely to change for the sake of change or because it is something new and shiny. A market driven culture will implement SharePoint because they see a tangible, quantifiable reason to do so.

The hierarchy culture will implement SharePoint in its most ‘classical’ style. They will naturally make use of site collection, sites and subsites and enforce strict, often complex security boundaries with tight centralised control. Chances are that significant time will be invested into ‘classical’ governance such as forming a committee, standardising on structure and conventions and trying to create a solution that is repeatable with a minimum of rework. Workflows will be very popular, as well as form services as well as document centric collaboration. Facebook style social networking will most definitely not be a high priority, and what’s more, will probably be blocked by the corporate firewall anyway!

Another note: SharePoint out of the box in my opinion is most suited to the latter two organisational cultures. Is it any surprise that a market culture organisation such as Microsoft would produce a collaborative tool that happens to work with it’s own organisational culture? Therefore it begs the question whether an organisation founded on one culture can ever really write the perfect tool for another culture?

Culture based communication fragmentation

Just like the first article, I have painted a pretty stereotypical picture of the sort of SharePoint installation I’d likely see. Some readers (dare I risk suggesting younger readers?) may look at the market and hierarchy culture as old school, representing 20th century organisational thinking. Certainly Linux proves that the clan culture can be extremely successful against the old school guys. But there are many stories of organisations that have had massive initial success, only to get left in the dust once the slower market and hierarchical cultures get their act in gear. One thing hierarchical cultures can do exceptionally well is repeat process more consistently, with fewer defects which ultimately reduces cost. They may not be all that quick at first, but it’s not always about being first to market.

Once again I leave you on an Information Architecture note. Someone who only knows a clan culture will very likely put together a SharePoint solution vastly different to someone who has only known hierarchical culture. The prevailing culture will always win the technology battle, no matter how passionate the individuals are. Even organisational stakeholders in a SharePoint project often make this mistake with the "build it and they will come" approach and think that making the technology available will change the culture . This is both naive and dangerous and has the effect of setting yourself up for project failure.

So, you, as an information architect, need to acutely be aware of the prevailing culture. If your stakeholders give you mixed messages, then perhaps the CVF/OCIA analysis would be a very timely and smart thing to do.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

www.sevensigma.com.au

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Mrs CleverWorkarounds – Skills and Competencies of Global Managers

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Hi everyone. Some light reading for the weekend 😉

This post is not authored by me (Paul). Instead, my one-and-only darling wife. Apart from being an all-round hottie, she has been studying a post-graduate business course at University. The content of this post is one of her papers that when I read it, found it to be a really excellent piece of work. Her lecturer agreed too – and awarded it a high distinction.

Now the reason that I am posting this to the CleverWorkarounds blog is she really did some serious research, and I ended up reading a lot of the material too. In fact, I used a lot of her reference material when I was writing the global strategy and technology, and “project fail…” series of posts. If you liked that stuff, you may find some stuff here you like also.

Note: If you want to see where our thinking has evolved in this area, I suggest you take a look at my book: The Heretics Guide to Management. That really nails the true skills one needs for global managers!

So without further adieu, I present to you her paper, examining what skills and competencies that global managers require to operate in an increasingly complex and dynamic global environment. Please let me know what you think of it.

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