Tuesday, December 30

2009: It’s time to get your Ox-on

The Chinese symbol of the zodiac for this coming year is the Ox. The Ox is a sign of prosperity through fortitude and hard work. Expecting this year to be one of prosperity seems ambitious, bordering on ludicrous, given the deteriorating economic situation. But displays of fortitude and hard work have always brought prosperity through good times and bad. I am reminded of a favourite adage: the harder I work, the luckier I get!

I am not qualified to provide personal coaching or career development advice on this blog, but I do know about how businesses can best use Information Technology to optimise their efficiency and gain a real competitive advantage. We just witnessed a period of irrational exuberance that was punctuated by many excesses. Executives were paid more than the sustainable value of their creations. Families brought more stuff than they needed and then kept replacing (upgrading) all this stuff for no good reason. Speaking of upgrades, I have seen many I.T system replacement projects be undertaken for no discernible business reason. More often than not such projects are simply following the fashion of the time or are follies that massage the egos and résumés of so-called I.T professionals.

Thankfully that bubble has now burst and business decision-makers are more circumspect about the projects they approve. System replacement projects should demonstrate a tangible, short-term ROI and the expected benefits must align with business imperatives like improving customer satisfaction and lowering operating costs. The truth is that, in my experience, such projects often involve more cost, risk and effort than is factored into the original business case and the resulting benefits are usually soft (looks and feels more modern) rather than hard (processes sales orders 25% faster).

A legacy of my time living in Silicon Valley is an unfortunate tendency to spout American colloquialisms. I try to stick to plain English wherever possible but there are some phrases that so succinctly capture an ethos; an example is sweating your assets. This is one piece of advice that executives should be mindful of in 2009. When applied to the question of "what to do about our legacy systems?" this ethos can produce unexpectedly potent results. The fact is that these unglamorous, workhorse-like systems are what power your key business applications today. These systems are not perfect [no system ever is] but if you are buying, manufacturing or selling goods and services profitably, and in high volumes, then your core systems take some of the credit. If you buy a software package, from say SAP or Oracle, to replace a legacy system there is every probability that you have paid to reproduce 80% of the same base functionality – and where is the business sense in that? Invariably you can carefully craft additionally capability onto and around your core systems at a fraction of the cost and risk of the big-bang approach.

It seems to me that there are many similarities between these legacy systems and the Ox that symbolises the coming year. The Ox is the sign of a born leader, being dependable and possessing an innate ability to achieve great things. Like their animal namesake, the Ox is unswervingly patient, tireless in their work, and capable of enduring any amount of hardship without complaint. An Ox is never going to be a sexy creature but then the engine room of an enterprise is a place for brains and brawn, not style.

So my planning advice for 2009 is to recognise the inherent strengths of your Ox-like core systems and to invest in their future by selectively enhancing, extending and integrating their capabilities and reach throughout the enterprise and beyond. By doing so you will avoid being overheard next Xmas saying “the boss is having a damn cow again because we wasted the year on another failed I.T project”.

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