Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Design Thinking: Beyond the hype

Those of us who frequently browse business and technology magazines and publications would have noticed a surge in headlines about “Design Thinking.” For instance, just this past Sunday, New York Times business section had an interesting cover story about “IBM’s Design-Centered Strategy to Set Free the Squares” When the media journals like the esteemed Harvard Business Journal dedicate cover stories to such technology or business buzzword, one can be sure C-level Executives are taking note. (“The Evolution of Design Thinking” HBR – September 2015).

During the past few years, consulting firms have been “investing” in building their Design Thinking skills and capabilities. The HBR article describes how
"The pursuit of design isn’t limited to large brand-name corporations; the big strategy-consulting firms are also gearing up for this new world, often by acquiring leading providers of design services. In the past few years, Deloitte acquired Doblin, Accenture acquired Fjord, and McKinsey acquired Lunar."
Offshore consulting services firms aren’t too far behind
“Infosys has already signed up 22 customers on its design thinking offering and will train 30,000 of its employees on design thinking by the end of the year to further boost growth in that consultancy service”
“For this year the company has announced a number of 100,000, but the long-term plan is to make sure all TCSers i.e., 324,935 will undergo this training.” (
Corporate leaders are taking note of this buzz over Design Thinking, which means an opportunity for those of us in the corporate world to cut through the hype.

Beyond the hype

Consultants and self-proclaimed gurus are yet to converge on common terminology. Definitions and terminologies vary in subtle ways, but most experts agree on a few common aspects, like having Personae, Users and user stories at the front and center of any design effort. For instance, Stanford’s D-School (link) highlights “Empathy” as the start of a design journey. 

Most experts, likewise, agree on the need to “Define” the problem, “Ideate” and evaluate options and alternatives before commencing with rapid prototyping and testing by the user; finally scaling up execution: developing what works better and faster. While these are easy enough concepts to understand, one cannot trivialize the practice in real life scenarios; if Design Thinking were that easy, would HBR devote a cover story to the topic?

So what does this mean?

Many of us have long used aspects of user-centric thinking, focusing on use-cases to highlight user requirements. The approach is straightforward: identify and understand the interactions between Actors (Personae ?) and systems to achieve their needs.  That said, agreeing on “Architecturally Significant Use Cases,” with stakeholders has been a perennial challenge, leading to the design of systems that partially meet the needs of users, or in some cases meet the need of only a small segment of users.
This is where Design Thinking techniques, if applied skillfully, can help bridge the gaps in our understanding of the user’s needs and wants. By empathizing with users, understanding their needs, and prototyping and validating with them early in development cycles, one can ensure that the limited resources are dedicated to scaling solutions that satisfy most of their needs.
In the past few years, I have observed several large programs adopting aspects of Design Thinking. For example, early identification of Personae and interviewing key users are intuitive and common enough. However, many of us are in early stages of adoption, and are bound to encounter challenges that may include:
  • Diverging needs of Personae: The popular case study from “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Innovation”  highlights the divergence in needs of Personae. The four Personae - LIFER, TRANSACTIONAL, JUST-IN-CASE and THE INFREQUENT – have widely diverging needs.  For corporate design teams, without the deep pockets of the federal government, designing to satisfy all the needs of these personae, with limited budgets can be a challenge.
  • Business sponsors may not be users: Project sponsors - people with money - can be vocal about what they think users need. Sponsors may or may not understand user requirements, leaving the design team to wonder if sponsors also be included as distinct Personae
  • Typical users may not be the most vocal: The most vocal and eloquent Personae being interviewed may not represent the views of his/her peers, requiring the design team to be creative in gathering inputs
  • Organizational Culture: Organizational culture and internal dynamics may also dictate how Design Thinking can be applied. For instance in hierarchal organizations, where internal users are expected to manage with less-than-optimal solutions mandated by their leaders, design thinking needs to factor-in this constraint.
Please feel free to add to this list of challenges. And if you have used Design Thinking techniques in your corporate settings, please share your success stories too.

(Republished from my LinkedIn Pulse article)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

It’s raining free drones on Linkedin … but here is the catch

Attracting the attention of IT decision makers and influencers is hard. We typically get a barrage of inputs from articles in the trade press, analyst briefings and reports and many of us subscribe to RSS readers for topics of interest. To say that we are drowning in the deluge of information from which we are expected to draw insights would be an understatement. This said each of us probably has a small subset of favorite go-to sources. For me, scrolling through the LinkedIn home page to review articles, Pulse posts and topics that my peers have “liked” is among the list. This is the consumer side of the equation.

For the content producers – including tech companies, startups and others with a product to sell - standing out from the crowd and be noticed is especially hard. And it is easy to get lost in the deluge of information that typical IS executives, managers and other leaders receive every day. Therefore, it is not surprising to see creative approaches to reach out to prospects: if the number of a sponsored posts on my LinkedIn homepage is any indication, Drone giveaways seem to be it! 

Product and sample giveaways have been a favorite marketing tactic for ages. Tagging on the hype over drones and the geeky-cool factor of trying one out, this seems to be a catchy way to attract attention! So, what’s the catch, one is bound to wonder?
  • Time and effort: Even a cursory look at the ‘conditions’ that the hyperlink on the advert highlights a series of tasks one has to perform, including attending pre-sales pitches, downloading and trying software, linking back one’s network etc etc. All this translates to considerable time and effort one would have to invest to ‘earn’ the ‘Free’ drone.
  • Implicit and sometimes explicit commitment: by downloading and trying the software or engaging in the trail, one is committing oneself - and perhaps one’s employer. This may not necessarily be an issue if one was planning to evaluate such software even without the inducement of a “Free drone”.
  • Added to obscure rolodex/databases: One can expect a continuum of pre-sales calls, pitches and emails to follow after the demo, and perhaps much after the drone has outlived its novelty.
One has to evaluate if all this is worth the cost of a drone? Not for me, thanks; I am just as happy with the inexpensive Syma S111G that I bought on Amazon to play with my six-year-old 

(cross post from my LinkedIn Pulse article)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Here is why IS executives love to hate Excel Spreadsheet applications

Wrapping up an Application Portfolio Management (APM) initiative for a high-growth region for my employer, I was reflecting on the role user-developed “Applications” - including excel spreadsheets and access databases - play in supporting business processes; and what it means to IS executives and portfolio managers.

Office productivity tools like Excel spreadsheets and Access databases are enormously popular in the corporate world. Many, if not most white-collar jobs require analysis of large amounts of data and to take decisions based on ever changing parameters. Such data and information may come from corporate Applications, intranets, websites and other sources. Most reporting systems and many IS Applications also allow authorized users  to download such data or reports being reviewed. After downloading the data, tools like Excel may be used to merge it with other datasets , perform ‘what if’ analysis by varying parameters, or ‘visualize’ the results by creating charts and graphs.

It is not just corporate users who love this ability to download and analyze data on the fly. Most banks, financial institutions and brokerages enable customers to login and download their data and transactions in .cvs and other standard formats.

There is little debate over how much these tools empower ‘employee self-service’ and increase productivity. Such ESS is attractive to IS manages since there is no incremental cost or licensing involved: organizations generally license office productivity suites for the enterprise. And empowered users require lesser handholding or support.

Widespread use of local spreadsheets and user-developed scripts, and local databases may shift significant parts of the business processes to such ‘unmanaged’ tools, which by itself isn’t the challenge. However, the proliferation of data download, as the old adage goes, can be a case of too much of a good thing.  A large transformation of  a portfolio of Application systems may impact the downloaded data formats.  Here is an abstract of an observation from an APM exercise:
“Massive use of Excel Spreadsheet and Access databases to consolidate information, build report, perform calculation, simulations, process monitoring, workflow control, repository and other functional needs.”
Those of us who have worked in large enterprises will recognize that the observation is not atypical or isolated. During an APM review, those evaluating a new system or process may not be aware of all the people or processes ‘downstream’ using the data in existing/older formats. This is just one of the obvious challenges to be addressed during a larger transformation. 

The other bigger challenge with unmanaged data is the security and regulatory risk to an enterprise. Corporate users are no longer content to just download data to their corporate laptops and desktops for analysis using Excel and Access databases. Many are increasingly uploading such data to web based analytical and data visualization tools, or storing them on their personal cloud--data-drives for access from “home.” This leaves a big open door for those with malicious intent looking to access corporate data without breaking into a firewall.

Preventing download of data from corporate Application systems is not the answer; it can be counterproductive and stifle individual creativity and productivity. And so would be a policy preventing individuals or groups from developing their own Excel based ‘Applications,’ scripts or tools for data analysis.

It comes down to pragmatic policies and governance that encourages productive use of downloaded data while making users aware of the risks.

Towards the end of our APM reviews, I was walking by the offices of the consultants who had emphasized the pitfalls of Excel Spreadsheet proliferation. I was amused to see a coffee mug that read “I love spreadsheets.”

Note: I am trying to illustrate my points with Microsoft’s Office suite - Excel and Access  - but the arguments should be equally applicable to other popular Office productivity suites.

(cross post from LinkedIn Pulse)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Flood of Fire - by Amitav Ghosh

My review of "Flood of Fire: A Novel (The Ibis Trilogy)" by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s book is a well-researched glimpse into the history and politics of British imperialism and the business of narcotic drugs and opium, masked as a fast paced novel. Told through the eyes of colorful characters like Kesri Singh, Shireen Moddie, Captain Mee and Zachary Reid, Ghosh transports us to the life and times of the colonial era, centered on the annexation of Hong Kong and Macau by the British nearly two centuries ago.

The novel begins with an introduction to some of the main characters that initially feels a bit overwhelming and excessive. The novel is sprinkled with Hinglish and Hindustani as spoken by ‘Gora Sahib’ of the era, adding to the authenticity of the narrative.
After wading through the buildup, readers can experience the lives of the main characters who happen to come together from different parts of the globe - Zachary Reid from America who is out to explore the world, but finds himself transforming into a guileful businessman, Captain Mee from the British Army who harbors a dark secret, Kesri Singh, of East India company’s army, recruited from the Indian Hartland, who typifies brown soldier-for-hire of the era and Shireen Moddie, the widow of a prominent Parsee opium trader from Mumbai who migrates to China, who like fellow Chinese Parsees traders has a secret life that unravels after his death.

The lives of the main characters are intertwined in the ships - Ibis, Anahita and Hind - that are transporting a cargo of Opium while helping imperial British Army fight the Chinese. The characters and their travails highlight the futility and lack of moral justification for the Opium Wars.

While this is a novel about the politics of Opium, drugs and war two centuries ago, there are distinct parallels for those of us watching the news of contemporary history unfold: the “war on terror” in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan which is really about control of oil and energy.

(Cross posted from Amazon.com)

Friday, September 4, 2015

Drowned Syrian toddler: A picture worth a thousand words

The image of the innocent Syrian toddler washing up the shores of Turkey has gone viral on Social media. Some in the media are calling this the 'defining image' of the European migrant crisis. (NPR: How Photos Of Crisis Can Shape The Events They Represent)

The silent image captures a lot of things almost at once: the loss of hope and dreams that float away when the innocent child was lost. And the well-dressed child with his shoes still on washing up the shores; it was not a ‘poor’ ‘pitiable’ child that died, but a well-loved, cared for child that perhaps had a long bright future ahead.

As a father who also lost a child while migrating across the globe, albeit under different circumstances, I can empathize with Abdullah Kurdi's plight. To lose a child unexpectedly, is one of the most heart-wrenching experiences, one that no human should undergo. Mr. Kurdi lost not just this child (shown in the image) but his other child and wife too; and with that were perhaps washed away dreams and hope..

This image also brings home the really sad sub-text of the story and the migrant crisis that very few of us in the West realize or are willing to acknowledge: The crisis in Syria and the middle-east was entirely preventable. Perhaps created and nurtured by our un-quenching thirst for cheap oil and the need to change regimes in countries that don’t bow to western governments. Nearly three years ago, President Obama declared “Assad must go” (Washington Post)
Well, Assad hasn’t gone (yet) but a weakened Assad government in Syria has led to a vacuum, one that is filled by ISIS/ISIL.
The father, Mr. Abdullah Kurdi hopes to take the bodies of his children and wife “back home” to be buried. Quoting the Reuters article (link), the grieving father Abdullah,  states "The things that happened to us here, in the country where we took refuge to escape war in our homeland, we want the whole world to see this. We want the world’s attention on us, so they can prevent the same from happening to others. Let this be the last."
The fact that even in this moment of utter grief, Mr. Abdullah Kurdi is able to think clearly is a testament to human resilience.
Those of us feeling for the little toddler and hoping for change should take a moment to pause and reflect on the root-cause here: How can we in the west prevent millions of displaced Syrians and Libyans find their way back home?
Repost from LinkedIn-Pulse Link to my story, including the loss of a child while migrating is in the eBook: “The Bounce!”) 

Monday, August 31, 2015

My Indian ecommerce experience: When rubber fails to meet the road!

There is a tremendous amount of hype over India’s homegrown eCommerce startup and incubator culture. Many are attracting venture capital and partnership proposals, some are tying up with larger, more established global firms, while some are dreaming of growing up organically. There is also an emerging sub-segment of innovators developing IS/IT ‘tools’ catering to other startups, a niche within a niche!

Living in America, working for a multinational, I generally get my inputs on these developments from fellow Digirati and articles in the media. During a recent trip ‘back home’ to visit my parents, I got to engage in conversations with friends and former colleagues, some of whom had left the comfort of a steady paycheck to explore and experiment with hi-tech startups. It was also an opportunity to ‘experience’ their services first-hand.

One such experience with the much-hyped startup OlaCabs stood out for me. The on-demand cab service, Ola, touts itself as India’s answer to Uber.  “Ola started as an online cab aggregator in Mumbai, now based out of Bangalore and is among the fastest growing businesses in India” - Wikipedia.

Here is a summary of my experience of Ola’s service – the good and the bad.

The Application: Registration and onboarding

The registration and onboarding process is seamless. All one requires is a smartphone with internet/Wifi, to download and use the App. After downloading and registering the cellphone and email-id, one is good to go.

As a technologist, I get to use a wide variety of applications on different devices. My first impression: the mobile App is easy to download and use.  The application is slick, and easy to use, and recognizes one’s location. To book a cab, the user is given just a few options - the way it should be – and the App uses the cellphone location data to identify the user’s current location.

The service experience: Could be better!

While traveling to Bangalore, I generally pre-book a cab from a local taxi service. The guy has a few cars and drivers on call, who are generally available, and has been reliable and economical for years. The process is neither hi-tech nor digital. Just walk up to the Taxi-wallah, give him my phone number, pickup time and preference on the kind of car I want, agree on the rate and I am good to go.
The hype over the online service and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends prompted me to try Ola. What could go wrong? My parents live in central Bangalore area and I could always fallback on other cabs if my Ola-experiment didn’t work out.

I planned to book a cab to the Bangalore airport for 9.30 am, the following day. I figured this would give us adequate time to get to the airport and check-in with baggage for a 12 pm flight. While booking a “ride later,” the App does not provide an option to select a car size. That morning, I got an SMS message that a ‘mid-size’ Mahindra Verito, license plate XYZ would be arriving. At about 9.15 am the driver called and said he was in front of our house and I came out of the house with our bags. The driver looked at the luggage and said only one of the two suitcases would fit in the trunk and he couldn’t take the other one in the vacant seat up front or the luggage rack on top. He didn’t want to negotiate an extra baggage fee and just left, leaving my wife and I scratching our heads. To say I was irked by the lack of courtesy or customer service would be an understatement: didn’t the guy know that passengers going to the Airport would have luggage? What would the customer do if he left them stranded?

Time was beginning to run out and I was really glad I had left a buffer for my maiden Ola-experiment. My parents, whom I was visiting were amused, and began prodding me to make a switch and call the local Taxi stand.

Undeterred, I decided to continue with the Ola experiment.

I decided to use the App again, selecting the “Ride Now” option. Interestingly, this option allows the user to view available Cabs of different sizes in the vicinity, showing approximate time. I looked up a “large SUV” that was about 15 minutes from our house and decided to book it. The Ola App confirmed my request and promptly gave me the cab guy’s name, make of car (Tata Innova) and the driver’s cell-phone number. Within a couple of minutes, I got a call from the driver who confirmed my location and also confirmed that he could take us with the luggage to the airport.

The cab arrived promptly and the guy even helped pick up and load the suitcases and drove us to the airport. At the airport, he said the distance – from home to airport - calculate by Ola app was a bit off and would I be willing to make up the difference. Having arrived on time, I obliged, including a tip on top.

Bottomline: It’s all about Service, Stupid!

The Ola experience made me reflect on service management. At the end of the day, the customer is paying for the service: a cab that arrives promptly, a driver who is courteous and responsive and gets the customer from A-to-B.

An App is just a tool, an enabler that the customer isn’t paying for. A slick, easy to use mobile app is really useless without a world-class service to go with it.

Ola, and its competitors must remember the market. If a single driver turns out to be unresponsive, the word-of-mouth and reviews on social media can drown the tremendous amount of hard work that goes into engineering and developing a service! And in a market like India, the competition is not just another online service, but the ubiquitous call-taxis, autos and other modes of transport that are easily accessible!

End-note: Would I be willing to use Ola again in the future? For me, it has been a hit-and-miss experience with Indian eCommerce. For my next trip, I will probably stick to hailing local cabs or walking up to the local taxi-guy!

(Repost from LinkedIn Pulse)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Application Portfolio Reviews and CMDBs continue to be expensive?

As the Enterprise Architect responsible for key IS applications, it generally comes down to me to guide and enable teams engaged in reviewing application portfolios. In my technology consulting days in the past, I had engaged in several “Application portfolio review” exercises for clients across industry domains.  In all these exercises, there is a common thread: high cost of such “application portfolio” data gathering exercise - in other words, a nice high-value billable engagement for consultants – that can add up in the context of large transformational programs, where understanding of “as is” landscape is a must have.

At the very basic level, the problem comes down to maintaining a verifiable, well maintained inventory of applications. Of course, for many uses, a simple “list” alone is not sufficient. Most of us who have been in the industry realize that for an application list to be useful, it has to inform a cross section of stakeholders looking for varied perspectives. Just a small subset:
  • Enterprise Architects: Seek data on applications, application components, data and interfaces between them, and more importantly the business capabilities and functions enabled by such applications. Such inputs are also building blocks for “Roadmaps” that inform the implementation of business strategies and are also used in scenario planning and defining business cases.
  • IS Architects and Others: Large technology transformation programs generally require an “impact assessment” to understand, and catalog the impact of changes in the existing application landscape. Typical questions include: How many applications in the landscape? How many applications supporting xyz process, who and how are the applications managed?
  • IS Executives and leadership teams: Generally interested in support cost, technologies adopted and other dimensions that can inform TCO of application portfolios, including strategic use of software licenses, vendor negotiations and optimizing the use of infrastructure across the portfolios (Cloud strategies come to mind but delving deeper on the topic in this article will digress us)
  • Operational and support teams: Managing the workflow of functional and technical changes and enhancements and propagating them through the application development life cycle.
  • Vendor and strategic suppliers: Access to application portfolios can help them proactively suggest optimization or leveraging new product and solution capacities.
  • Other uses: Include SoX compliance, responding to regulatory and audit requirements etc.
Reading thus far, you are probably right in wondering if CMDBs are the potential “silver bullet.”  Wikipedia defines “A configuration management database (CMDB)” :
“a repository that acts as a data warehouse for information technology (IT) organizations. Its contents are intended to hold a collection of IT assets that are commonly referred to as configuration items (CI), as well as descriptive relationships between such assets. When populated, the repository becomes a means of understanding how critical assets such as information systems are composed, what their upstream sources or dependencies are, and what their downstream targets are.”
A well-defined and managed CMDB tool may help an organization manage IT assets, including applications and infrastructure supporting them. Many tools also enable “auto discovery” of elements. An entire industry and consulting sub-segment of IT management focused on ITIL and IT operations has sprung up around configuring, supporting and managing CMDBs.
The gap – and perhaps opportunity – is when it comes to data about the business functional and capabilities enabled applications. These are generally defined in the product documentation (in case of COTS products) or in the functional specifications and design documents and need to be manually updated in the CMDBs. Even assuming an initial mapping of such data is accurate, the data generally degrades over time as the applications transform, functionality is added and technical and functional ownership changes.  Updating such changes in the CMDB is both expensive and resource intensive, as it is generally a manual process.
Unless managed with strong executive support, governance, and ongoing funding, the reliability of such data in the CMDB may degrade over time. Such lack of reliability may also weaken stakeholder confidence in the CMDB as the “single source of application information,” causing groups, divisions and transformational programs to begin managing their own lists in wikis, spreadsheets and other smaller ‘databases.’
In a way this is a classic example of being penny wise and pound foolish: by avoiding the cost of updating and maintaining CMDBs, the organization may end up spending a lot more in individual “application portfolio review” and “data gathering” exercises.
  1. These observations are based on review of CMDBs and application portfolio “lists” at large organizations spanning geographies and lines of businesses. Smaller organizations with smaller IT footprint and limited number of applications may not have the same issues
  2. Many organizations have their own definitions of applications and technology platforms. (Wikipedia)  Hence, I have refrained from defining “Applications” in this writeup.

(Repost from LinkedIn Pulse)