Wednesday, December 9

New Poll: What do you think about the IBM iManifest initiative?

How often do people really tell you what they think when you ask them a direct question? If they know that you already hold strong beliefs or opinions on the topic then you run the risk of hearing what people think you want to hear, rather than what they would say behind your back. Or I am just being too paranoid?

I really want to know what other people think about our iManifest initiative. The sustained effort required to start something like this, and to keep building toward a tangible set of goals, is considerable. So I need to know if, as we say in England, I am just "peeing into the wind."

Today I have started my first poll on LinkedIn. All votes are anonymous so you really can and should say what you think - I won't be able to come after you later! I will publish the results here once the poll has closed and I will certainly be influenced by the general consensus.

This will be my last post before the holidays so I thank you for your interest and comments this year and extend best wishes to all for a happy and prosperous 2010.

Wednesday, November 25

A blogging pause ... but an iManifest milestone

Pressure of work has progressively reduced my blogging cadence to one post per month - the minimum, you would think. Well now I've reach a new low and not managed a single intelligent post since mid-October (or ever, depending on your view point). The only defence I can offer is that since being promoted to the COO position at LANSA on Oct 1 my workload has gone off the chart. It's all good stuff but, frankly, I need to find a new way of working because trying to "stay on-top-off everything all of the time" is no longer practical - prioritisation and delegation are the key my boy!

Despite my blogging largesse I have made progress with the evolution of the iManifest EMEA initiative and today, with the 'purchase' of a Premium Economy seat by Meridian IT Ltd (MITL), I am thrilled to announce that we have passed the half-way mark. The funding total for iManifest EMEA now stands at €43,470. Note that the web site ( is updated once or twice per month so the total you see there is only ever a snapshot. Turning €8k of LANSA seed money into €43k of community funding is an achievement of which we can all be proud.

It is hard to predict what the recruitment tempo will be leading up to the holidays but I am confident that, come early 2010, iManifest EMEA will be airborne. Several other major global ISVs are close to saying "yes" and I have found an ever-increasing number of IBM'ers who are helping to spread the word and activate their personal networks. Will the second-half of the fund raising effort be easier or harder than the first? I would like to think that we now have sufficient momentum to carry us across the finish line, but it's not a done deal. You can help and we all share an equal responsibility to recruit new members if we truly believe in the iManifest objectives. If you need help to spread the word and to 'get specific' about the objectives and intended outcomes then please re-use the recruiting tool that has been working for me. There are a few significant iManifest-related developments in the pipeline, which may break cover before Xmas, so stay tuned for the next gripping instalment.

Monday, October 19

Avnet and Infor join LANSA in iManifest EMEA

Today's news is the most significant thus far in the evolution of iManifest EMEA. Although not by design, we now have nice symmetry to the group; Avnet representing the Tier 1 distribution channel, Infor representing the biggest homogenous group of IBM i business applications and LANSA as the largest independent vendor of IBM i development tools and enabling software.

A month ago I opined that no IBM Business Partner wants to find that iManifest is the third rail of IBM politics, in so much as if you touch it then you die! My promise was, day job allowing, to invest the time to recruit a few major names to help reassure some others. I set the end of October as a milestone so, with today's announcement, I have achieved something early [for once].

NOTE: While I have no official word from IBM, I want to go on-record and say that I have personally received enthusiastic and practical support for iManifest EMEA from a number of IBM'ers around the globe. I cannot thank-you by name here, but you know who you are.

The trio of Avnet, Infor and LANSA means that we have sold all of our business-class seats on the inaugural flight of iManifest EMEA - I wonder how many airlines can say that in today's climate? Follow this link for a reminder of the proposed funding model.

We continue to receive in-bound pledges at the economy level based on word-of-mouth. Although the buzz around iManifest is spreading far-and-wide I expect that we will need a pro-active strategy for explicitly recruiting the six premium economy passengers. Hopefully the news of Avnet and Infor coming on-board will tempt some other major players from the shadows and I certainly expect that Avnet's extensive relationships within the IBM Business Partner community will prove fruitful in soliciting further support. I have worked with the Avnet folks in the past and have been impressed with what they can achieve with just one phone call. Likewise, with Infor's support, I hope we will witness more active involvement from the other packaged application providers who have so far been conspicuous by their absence (if you look at the supporter list it is dominated by infrastructure, tools and utility providers - not application vendors).

Finally, as a reminder, if you believe in the goals and spirit of the iManifest initiative then I urge you to wear your digital badge with pride.

Tuesday, September 15

iManifest: One advert is not going to do it

I really need to broaden my horizon and starting blogging on other topics again, but the level of buzz around our iManifest initiative makes it an irresistible topic of conversation. The vast majority of the dialogue I've had about iManifest, both on- and off-line, has been positive and new members are joining every week. But two issues have started to come-up with more frequency so I need to set the record straight.

Firstly, I really do understand that a single entry advertisement in a newspaper is not going to change the public perception of the IBM i platform overnight. Others have suggested that we will get more 'bang for our buck' by using our initial advertising budget (€81,000) to place a series of adverts across a range of media channels and publications. I understand the logic behind this suggestion but I am not convinced by the arguments.

In my mind a manifesto of any kind - political, charitable or commercial - needs to arrive on the scene with a loud bang to get noticed. This means that the founding supporters must be credible and vocal on the topic and the launch must be sufficiently symbolic to encourage long-tail coverage. One of the benefits of making a splash is that the bold act itself is reported on throughout the media world, thus generating the kind of authoritative coverage that modest amounts of money just can't buy. I was impressed by the initial results achieved in Japan and the fact that their action (placing a full-page advertisement in a national newspaper) was so bold that it enjoyed global media coverage is how this initiative first came to everyone's attention outside of Japan.

There is also the challenge of reaching out to IT and business decision-makers at the same time. In my experience, strategies to replace an IBM i server with a more modern platform [sic] are often sponsored by ill-informed managers and it's the knowledgeable IT folks that are usually to be found fighting in the platform's corner. There is no single media outlet that perfectly covers our target set of influencers and decision-makers, but I have to believe that publications like the FT, WSJ and Nikkei are as close as you can get. By raising such a relatively large war-chest we will send a clear message to the market that iManifest - and the IBM i platform - has support from entities with the resources and muscle to make good on their promises. I reluctantly point out that I control one of the largest marcoms budgets in the IBM i community, so I do have some practical experience of the most effective tactics. And, at the risk of repeating myself, let's review again what the objectives of our manifesto are:
  1. To revitalise the IBM i market in EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) and increase the customer base
  2. To assure IBM i customers, resellers and ISVs selling IBM i solutions that the IBM i will not only survive but continue to prosper
  3. To inform the wider IT community of the unique value proposition of the IBM i server
How can anyone who makes their living in this market not want to participate in helping to achieve these objectives? Sure, we can just resign ourselves to a fate worse than death or choose to ponder ad nauseum about why IBM is seen to neglect our beloved platform in this way - or we can let our actions speak louder than our words. With an entry-level pledge starting at only €810, isn't worth a go? I am currently the most visible champion of this cause in EMEA, and the chairman pro-tem, but ultimately the decision regarding tactics will be made by the board of iManifest EMEA. The board will be elected by the 50 founding members as-and-when we reach that milestone. So if you disagree with my proposed first step then join the group, get elected to the board and then propose and rally support for an alternative outcome!

Speaking of IBM, the second issue that crops up is that [apparently] some vendors are waiting in the wings until IBM themselves pass some ruling regarding the legitimacy of this and the other iManifest initiatives. I think that waiting for IBM to act rather defeats the purpose of trying to take matters into our own hands but I do acknowledge people's genuine concerns. No IBM Business Partner (particularly one with Premier status like LANSA) wants to find that iManifest is the third rail of IBM politics, in so much as if you touch it then you die! I cannot go into details today, but I have taken this issue on-board and can assure you that I am talking to IBM and some Tier 1 distributors and other global ISVs to generate a more visible display of support that will reassure the faint-hearted. This is my next step for progressing iManifest in EMEA and I hope to achieve this goal by October. I am encouraged by the fact that a formal interface already exists between IBM Japan and the original iManifest team.

NOTE: In support of my argument that substantial public statements can be made by the kind of full-page newspaper advert that I am proposing, I direct you to this recent example placed by Oracle to assuage the Sun community: "Oracle has much to say to Sun Microsystems customers in a front-page advertisement it placed in Thursday's European edition of The Wall Street Journal."

Thursday, August 13

What Apple did that IBM must emulate

The IBM i server has an image problem, which is why going on a public relations offensive is the fundamental goal of our iManifest initiative.

I am often asked to comment on IBM's decision to unify the System i (AS/400, iSeries) and System P (Unix) server lines - what we now know as Power Systems. My view is that the resulting engineering efficiencies and economies of scale must bode well for the future of the IBM i platform. The flip-side is a potential loss of identity and seemingly zero marketing effort by IBM to explain what makes a Power Server running the IBM i operating system different and special from the same box running a Unix variant? When you add this dilution of brand identity to a brand that was already in trouble - being incorrectly perceived as a legacy system that belongs in the past, not the future - then you create the mother of all marketing challenges. Perhaps even one that is insurmountable? I think not and here's my precedent.

Apple. An innovator that defined an entirely new way of using computers - desktop publishing. They had the vision, they created the whole product solution (with help from the likes of Xerox, Aldus and Adobe) and they owned the market ... and it nearly killed the company. I know because I was selling Apple computers to both the SME and Corporate markets during their hey-day. An Apple Macintosh computer was so firmly positioned as the cute little graphics machine in the corner that people were unwilling to accept the same device as a corporate workhorse. We still managed to sell tens of thousands of Macs to the likes of BT, Kodak, GEC Marconi, Nortel, Glaxo and other big corporates but it was always a struggle and we fought against corporate standards like OS/2 and Windows. Apple did smart things like forming alliances with Digital and IBM but it wasn't enough. They lost the battle for the corporate desktop, began to lose their dominance in the education market but still owned the DTP niche. I won't recount the whole sorry saga here (including the departure of Steve Jobs) because my only point is that Apple came back from the brink and today stand head-and-shoulders above their competitors. They not only have more market share and greater profitability than ever but they have the kind of mind share, influence and cool factor [halo] that any technology marketing executive would trade their first born to enjoy.

So, where are the parallels with the challenge facing the IBM i? Well, first of all, you can bounce back from the brink even if you original niche position becomes the architect of your own demise. So never lose hope and never allow the doomsayers to create a self-fulfilling prophecy; especially when most of those doomsayers are in fact competitors who work hard to perpetuate the legacy system myth because it suits their agenda! The IBM i is a fantastic piece of kit containing technology innovations that still have yet to be cloned or rivalled. The R&D bods at IBM are clearly still very clever and the machine justly deserves the title of World's Best Business Server. But the marketing communications around the platform needs to be reinvented and reinvigorated. Apple rose phoenix-like from the ashes because, a decade ago, they envisioned a digital future for the consumer that no-one else could or did. People like me brought into that vision and, step-by-step, Apple has delivered on the promise. It started with the iMac, then the iPod, then iTunes and the Store, then AppleTV, then the iPhone and so on. I waited for the innovative products and services to come along, and stayed loyal to Apple, because I believed in their vision and trusted them to deliver with their hall-mark quality and design panache. IBM needs to paint a similarly compelling future for the IBM i in bright, vivid colours and get the word out via traditional channels and by cultivating its to-die-for loyal user base and partner ecosystem. It can be done and Apple (and others) have proved it.

Another interesting parallel is how, during the midst of this re-birth and growth spurt, Apple has completely changed its hardware and software architecture. A Mac computer used to be a proprietary box running a non-standard operating system on a relatively obscure chipset. I'm sure this made it more expensive to build and certainly made WinTel users more circumspect about migration. Even silly things like PowerPC chips running at slower clock-speeds than their Intel equivalent worked against consumer buying behavior; fastest is always best, right? Today my MacBook Air is an Intel laptop running Unix with a GUI front-end. But I'm willing to pay six times more for my Mac than, say, a Netbook with an Intel CPU running Linux or three times more than a regular WinTel laptop. Not only is Apple assembling great products from standard components but I'm willing to pay them a HUGE premium (in IT terms) for the privilege of owning one. Why? Because it all just works. The Total Cost of Ownership is less than the WinTel equivalent. Designs are so good that I actually get a thrill using their products (well, I'm an ex-geek after all). Apple defined the segment, cracked the marketing problem and became a worldwide phenomenon again. Successful tech companies are rarely one-trick ponies and usually under-go major transformations every decade or two. It's time that the IBM i server business followed suit.

So the "only thing" that makes an IBM i different is the operating system and the stuff that plugs into it or runs on it. Well, Apple have proved that this difference alone is enough to win. Dispel the myths, tell great stories and commit to a compelling future that others can trust and buy into. It can be done and, while we in the IBM i community may have lost some recent battles, the war is not over until we lay down our arms.

Thursday, July 23

iManifest Update: no more heroes?

As The Stranglers once asked; whatever happened to all the heroes? You know, those characters with the boldness to act and sufficient fortitude to accept the consequences without regard for self-interest. I'm asking the question because, while the response to my call for participation of iManifest EMEA has resonated loud and far, support has come predominately from small players in the IBM i community.

Now, don't get me wrong, this support is most welcome but we also need some Tier 1 vendors (other than LANSA) to participate at the higher levels of funding. We simply cannot afford to fly this plane with only Economy passengers on-board. I am not disheartened because the recruitment process only started two weeks ago and, frankly, the silly summer holiday season is not the best time to launch a recruitment drive in Europe! I went over the background material I have on the formation of iManifest Japan and was reminded that the iManifest Executive committee was formed by a few Japanese ISV companies, IBM resellers and iMagazine KK in May 2008. Their manifest was published in the NIKKEI newspaper in January 2009. So it took them a fair few months to get organized and we should expect the same.

It is usual for a fund-raising initiative to chart its progress in some public way and it seems almost obligatory to use a thermometer bar. So here is one I created for iManifest EMEA that I will update on a weekly basis. I have used the cost of the full-page advert in the FT (Europe edition) as the initial financial target - €81,000. Remember, I have pledged the first 10% - so that's the €8,100 kicker you see - and the rest is all the qualified pledges received to date.

iManifest EMEA fund raisingI don't have a good handle on whether my call for participation in the iManifest EMEA initiative has reached the upper echelons of our community - those with the authority and financial wherewithal to say, like me, "that's a bloody good idea, we'll have a punt". I am grateful for all the media coverage and the declarations of support this publicity has generated. But now I'm asking you to go check with your boss if a) they are aware of the initiative and b) will they come out in support of iManifest EMEA? There aren't many vendors in the IBM i community whose revenues put them in the Tier 1 category; let's say north of USD 30 million per annum. So if I can get a quick read on reactions from this group then I can determine whether this proposition is ever going to be financially viable or whether I am doomed to endure a Branson-esque solo endeavor.

We have started a group on LinkedIn that serves as a virtual departure lounge for passengers on the inaugural flight of iManifest EMEA. You can apply to join the group or please feel free to express your interest in private by email to martin.fincham AT

Remember, in life if you want different results then sometimes you need to try different things. That philosophy is part of what is driving me to push forward with launching iManifest EMEA.

Tuesday, July 7

iManifest EMEA: Call for Participation

When your image is in the toilet, and you need an urgent public makeover, then you call Max Clifford Associates. But a modem is no longer bundled with an IBM i server so it can’t dial Max for help! One might also turn to a parent for support in times of need but … well, say no more. So we, the IBM partner community, must band together to correct some misconceptions and promote longevity of the world’s best business server – the IBM i.

The launch of the iManifest initiative in Japan has generated an unprecedented level of buzz in the worldwide IBM i community. My original post on the topic is, by far, the most viewed and linked-to page on this blog. We have all no doubt read the extensive coverage by the U.S media and today I learned that the ServerNEWS magazine (reaching some 20,000 I.T professionals in Spain and Latin America) has devoted two pages in their July issue to the ‘IBM i Manifest’.

Last month I offered to kick-start such an initiative in EMEA by helping to construct the board and committing some seed funding. The response was overwhelmingly positive, except for the people who know me and observed that “I don’t have the time” for another new project! Well, we can always find reasons not to do things but why let something as trivial as a 24-hour day stand in the way of progress?

It was bold of our Japanese brothers-in-arms to announce their pledge in a national business newspaper. The cost of such a public declaration sends a clear message of intent to the market and makes this initiative standout from other ‘flash-in-the-pan’ endeavours. While Europe has several pre-eminent business newspapers from which to choose, I am inclined to believe that the Financial Times has the best pedigree and broadest reach in Europe. The rate card for a full-page advert with European distribution is £69,800 (€81,000). We need vendors from the IBM i community in Europe, the Middle East and Africa to come forward and agree to participate in funding and forming iManifest EMEA.

Aside from agreeing the objectives of the group and the mechanics of its formation and management, obtaining seed funding and nominating board members are the most important first steps. The coalition will be a toothless tiger unless we can quickly raise, in principal, the circa. £70,000 required to fund the placement of a full-page advert in the FT. The vendor community may have other ideas about how best to raise the money – suggestions welcome - but I jotted down the following model over breakfast.

Assume 50 founding members from the IBM i vendor community (ISVs, SIs, Consultants, Media Publishers, Event Organisers etc). Some major players must be willing to stump-up serious money to overcome inertia. Like the business model of an airline, the economy seats would be unaffordable [to the masses] were it not for the patronage of the few business-class passengers. So passengers on the inaugural flight of iManifest EMEA (an advert in the FT) can buy tickets in one of three classes:

  • 3 seats in Business class (10% of the advert cost)
  • 6 seats in Premium Economy (5% of the advert cost)
  • 40 seats in Economy (1% of the advert cost)

This ‘aircraft’ has 50 seats (because we all like round numbers) so my model leaves 1 spare seat that will be offered at no-charge to a worthy individual or organisation that the founding members deem beneficial to have on-board. A nomination and voting procedure for the ‘free seat’ (1 member, 1 vote) will follow directly after the 49th seat has been sold. Once all 50 passengers are on-board we will be cleared for take-off :-)

NOTE: I have already ‘purchased’ one of the business-class seats for €8,100 on behalf of LANSA to get the ball rolling. I will also under-write any of the incidental costs incurred in getting us off the ground – but I can’t foot the fuel bill on my own for very long!

The format of the advert will be similar to that used in Japan with the name of each Founding Member listed. I propose that the 9 largest contributors (those purchasing seats in Business and Premium Economy) form the Transition Board with me assuming the mantle of Chairman pro-tem. The Transition Board will meet in-person within 30 days of placing the advert and within 90 days of that meeting the Bylaws will be agreed and published. The Transition Board will be dissolved and members will then put themselves up for election for a 1-year term (1 member, 1 vote from the 50 founders). After that, who knows? Let’s channel our energy and enthusiasm into getting this bird off the ground, rather than drawing-up and filing a complex flight plan.

So, who’s with me? Please come forward as flying solo is no fun for me.

You may either declare your interest and financial pledge by commenting directly on this blog post (if you want to make a public declaration) or send me a private email with your commitment or question. You can get my email address from the profile page.

Friday, May 29

We should import more from Japan

Before the nationalists among you cry out in protest, I should explain that I am not advocating a widening of our trade gap. Instead, a colleague in our Asia Pacific subsidiary has just told me about an uprising by the IBM partner community in Japan. It sounds like another innovation from the East that could well be heading West.
A group of over 70 IBM partners and Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) has joined forces in Japan - the world’s second largest IT market - to launch the IBM i Manifest initiative. The coalition has three main objectives:
  1. To revitalize the IBM i market in Japan and increase the customer base
  2. To assure IBM i customers, resellers and ISVs selling IBM i solutions that IBM i will not only survive but continue to prosper
  3. To inform the wider IT community of the unique value proposition of the IBM i server
The partner community has taken this unusual step in response to a change in focus of IBM’s corporate marketing and server positioning. Below the level of their global campaigns (like Smarter Planet) IBM now promotes its software and services offerings before its hardware portfolio. IBM’s Systems and Technology Group offers a range of server platforms, powered by operating systems which in many cases are also promoted by other vendors and communities - Linux, Unix (AIX) and Windows. In contrast IBM i and z/OS are owned by IBM and so require different marketing, sales execution and ecosystem development strategies. IBM needs to be more proactive in areas like market education, establishing a core value proposition and selling on value. But the harsh reality is that IBM has neglected its responsibilities and now the partner community is left to take up the slack. The question is: can the partner community make a better fist of it all? Well, some of the steps already taken by the iManifest membership include:

Recruiting 71 foundation members for the launch
Preparation of a manifesto known as the 'IBM i Manifest', or iManifest for short, to articulate passion and support for IBM i and a promise to support IBM i customers reliably into the future
Placement of a full-page advertisement in Japan’s most influential daily newspaper, the Nikkei (equivalent to the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times)
Provision of web access to the iManifest Declaration on Japan’s iForum community web site
Formation of the iManifest Advisory Board, to coordinate 7 task forces focusing respectively on Technology Advantage, Leveraging the Media, Collaboration with IBM, Marketing of IBM i, Winback Strategy Formulation, New member recruitment and Immediate Actions

What struck me most was how quickly they raised the circa. USD 100,000 required to pay for that full page advert in the Nikkei newspaper. I have seen many such coalitions come and go over the years, but I've never seen one make such a splash and so readily put its money where its mouth is.The advertisement was a success. Immediately the committee started fielding numerous phone calls and receiving emails from IBM i users, IBM employees and business partners to congratulate them on the venture. Competitors sat-up and took notice. Web access to the iManifest page on the iForum web site spiked at 24,000 hits as against the usual 1,000 or so hits per week.The close cooperation demonstrated thus far between the members of the iManifest initiative in Japan is an impressive achievement. While IT vendors often give lip-service to “co-opetition”, defined as simultaneous co-operation and competition amongst vendors, the reality of delivering genuine benefits to the market by co-opetition is much harder to achieve.

S. Kakizawa, President of Sanwa Comtec and one of five directors on the iManifest Advisory Board, puts the question to his colleagues very simply by adapting a well-known historical saying: "And so, my fellow IBM i partner community members: ask not what IBM can do for you, ask instead what you can do for your IBM i community."

Take a look at the iManifest Declaration (originally written in Japanese and now available in English) to see the passion and the determination behind this new initiative. Those of us outside Japan should follow the iManifest initiative’s progress with interest, and see what lessons can be learned for our own markets.

If anyone wants to kick-start such an initiative in EMEA then let me know and I'll gladly help to construct the board and hereby pledge a contribution to a similar full-page advert in the Financial Times.

Thursday, April 30

Sun of Oracle

Late last year I wrote a post entitled ‘Java may slay everything in its path - including Sun’ and asked the question: If Java is so universally good - it has been trying to prove itself for 13 years - then who enjoys and makes money working with it?

It appears that the only vendors who made any real money from Java are Oracle, BEA Systems (now Oracle) and IBM. As I've been tardy about posting to my blog there now seems little left to add to the well-documented saga of IBM choosing not to consummate a marriage with Sun and the man from Oracle saying “I do”. There is news today that Sun’s revenue plunged 20% last quarter and losses jumped to $201m – clearly a broken business model.

With Java finding a home at enterprise software vendor Oracle, whose sales force are notoriously weaned on six- and seven-figure deals, I have to believe that the door is now wide-open for Microsoft to dominate the SMB market. I have long believed that Java’s complexity and running costs have restricted its market opportunity and that Sun’s failure to find a viable business model (for this is what a sale at such a low valuation indicates to me) confirms my suspicion. Note that I am talking about commercial viability and not specifically whether the Java technology is good, bad or ugly.

I suspect that IBM i shops will be eyeing this transaction with some trepidation if they have bet the farm on a Java strategy. Larry Ellison has already talked about optimising it products for the Solaris platform and, by inheriting the MySQL database, Oracle has a new stick with which to beat IBM. I think it’s fair to say that Oracle and IBM are fierce competitors, far more so than either party’s current relationship with Sun. Java bigots will tell me that so much of the technology’s evolution is now influenced by the community process that a change of ownership will make little to no difference to Java’s future prospects. I think that viewpoint is naïve and woefully under-estimates Oracle's ability and appetite for making money.

It is a mantra of mine that to place bets on the future of a particular technology is to be certain of ‘losing big’ at least one time. That’s why I prefer to work with products that operate at a higher level of abstraction, thereby providing a degree of technology insurance rather than lock-in. Having choice is important at the operating system, development language, database and presentation layers because business needs and market conditions are always changing. So a rigid commitment to, say, DB2 + Java + Web carries risks that are not always communicated or considered.

I would not expect die-hard Java shops to down their tools just yet, but I urge those of you on the fence to reflect on this latest power play and consider the long-term implications for you and your organisation. If you are ready to step-off the treadmill of technology dependence then, as a reader of my blog, you hopefully know where to come first.

Friday, March 20

How [not] to build a business case for application modernisation

I read survey after survey that results in ‘modernisation’ projects coming top of the list of priorities for IBM i shops to undertake that year. It’s the same result year after year, so there must be no more old legacy systems out there! But you and I both know that’s not true, so wassup?

We’ve commissioned a few of these survey ourselves so I know that the data hasn’t been messed with to suit the sponsor’s agenda. Has the term modernisation become a modern day platitude or is it more a case of following that old adage about teenage sex: everybody is talking about it, very few are actually doing it, and those that are do it badly.

I used to think that IBM i shops were paralysed by fear. Fear of change in general or fear of deviating from the path of the mother ship, whether that influence is Big Blue or, say, the supplier of the original ERP package. Perhaps fear is too strong an emotion, and it’s really just a case of plain old confusion. For instance, it’s not clear to me whether IBM wants you to use the latest version of RPG, or re-write everything in Java, or web-enable with PHP or model your systems in Rational EGL (whatever that means). Microsoft would obviously like you to move workload over to their platform and let’s not forget all the third-party vendors, like LANSA, who each have a different take on how best to modernise your legacy system. One can easily forgive an IT executive for quickly appraising the landscape and retreating back to the comfort of what they know.

The advent of the Global Financial Crisis has made the answer clear – most IT departments couldn’t put together a compelling business case for modernising their core systems if their life depended on it. So the IT people surveyed want to modernise but they can’t get the funding. It’s the same reason why I don’t drive a Ferrari – there is often a will but never a way. It’s always been good practice to ensure that every significant IT project goes through a proper cost justification process. But I think we all know that during the good times people drop their guard and technology investments take on more of a faddish – or keeping-up with the Joneses - nature. Well I can promise you, from my every day experiences in the trenches of vendor land, there are no significant IT projects getting funded today without a compelling business case and a short-term ROI.

The bad news is that I don’t have a template that you can just tweak to produce your own business case – there are too many variables between applications and industries for a template to be meaningful. But I have learned that, when it comes to planning modernisation projects, you can only be sure about the things you can measure, and you can’t accurately measure anything without commissioning a prototype. This may sound like stupidly obvious advice, but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen companies follow the guiding light of an incumbent vendor only to crash on the rocks. It seems that companies don’t always apply the same due diligence to existing advisors as they would to a new supplier.

Sure, a prototype will verify that the proposed solution does what it says on the side of the tin. But more importantly, a prototype is an opportunity to engage a potential business sponsor early in the process and that involvement sets you up well for compiling a winning business case. I’ve met IT people who are reluctant to involve somebody from the business too early in the process. I’m never quite sure what they are afraid of, but the excuse is usually couched in terms of business people not being interested in technology or something about “if they see it, they will want it tomorrow, and we’re not sure we're ready for that”. Whatever their reasons I can promise you that I’ve never had a bad experience by lining-up a business sponsor too early in the process. But I have seen modernisation projects fail to get off the ground due to a lack of proper sponsorship and the longer the IT people work in isolation the more disfranchised the business decision-makers become.

Any vendor worth their salt will offer to do a prototype. It need only take a few days, you should not be required to purchase or commit to purchase any software, but expect to pay a fair rate for their expert consulting services. Some companies ask for free prototypes but this is a false economy as you want the vendor’s best people on your project and, as the saying goes, if you pay peanuts then you get monkeys. Of course commissioning a paid-for prototype means that you now have to cost justify that expense so here are my ten top tips for explaining the value of a prototype to your boss:

  1. Demonstrating the vision to stakeholders, so that they are committed from the outset
  2. Securing internal commitment and building project momentum, particularly at board level
  3. Validating the business, process and technical assumptions made in the scope
  4. Testing the validity of the end-to-end concept, particularly any third-party integration
  5. Uncovering business risks and technical complexities before reaching the point of no return
  6. Extrapolating from real metrics in order to more accurately size the total development effort
  7. Testing round-trip performance to establish acceptable service levels and reveal bottlenecks
  8. Measuring load to more accurately size the hardware and network infrastructure requirements
  9. Limiting the initial commercial investment and risk – no white elephants
  10. Assessing the team’s ability to absorb new technology and to learn new skills

If you’re organisation is not willing to invest a few quid in gaining all those benefits then it’s a clue that you’re on to a hiding to nothing. I appreciate that just having a positive attitude towards prototyping is not a silver bullet. To create a thorough business case for application modernisation you will also need to consider the hidden costs of maintaining the status quo and paint a vivid picture of what the end game looks like for the entire systems architecture. I will post more on these and other topics about building a successful business case as we go through the year. But if you want to get started today, and hit the right groove from day one, then my advice is go find a business sponsor and make that first puppy dog sale.

Friday, February 27

Doing the Midrange Mash

Like a dance craze that seems to burst onto the scene from nowhere, the concept of mashing-up business applications is suddenly the talk of the town. Mashups have the potential to deliver rich user experiences that cut across silos of applications to better support the way end-users actually work. These new composite applications are proven to increase user productivity, lower processing costs and reduce the support and training burden. It should come as no surprise that, in an era of doing more with less, this practical approach to reusing existing systems is enjoying such popularity.

Business Mashups are particularly useful as a new technique for modernizing legacy applications. The useful parts of a green screen (5250) application can be isolated, wrapped and then snapped inside the Mashup framework. This means that all navigation is handled behind the scenes and the user enjoys a simple point-and-click interface. The real beauty of this approach is that old and new application functionality can sit right alongside each other in the same user interface - no more ALT-TAB acrobatics between multiple windows. New logic can be added to the Mashup so that manual, repetitive tasks are automated and errors are handled before they ever reach the back-end systems. It has been possible to develop such composite apps for several years but the recent advent of better tools - and the pervasive nature of APIs like web services - has lowered the cost and complexity threshold, thereby bringing Mashups within the reach of everyone and not just the rich kids.

The potential ROI from implementing a Mashup solution can be immense. We recently worked on a project with STRATTEC who are the world's largest manufacturer of automotive locks and keys. Their ERP system is based on the System 21 package from Infor (previously JBA) running on an IBM iSeries. This is a classic green screen (5250) application that is highly functional and perfectly adapted to their needs, but suffers from the kind of old-fashioned user interface that today's knowledge workers struggle to work with efficiently.

The first Business Mashup they built with was to automate the way they process shipment and inventory deliveries, and in particular how they allocate items to customer backorders. Users had to generate a printout of all the items that were received and with print out in-hand, start to allocate each item to a backorder one by one. A single shipment often contains over 100 items which means users have to cycle through the same screen 100 times! With the new Business Mashup a user can select any one of the shipments that came in that day and allocate all the items with a few clicks of the mouse. No more printouts and no more manual line-by-line reallocations – it has all been automated. The result? They reduced the average backorder reallocation process from 162 minutes down to 24 minutes. That’s an 85% reduction in handle time and a huge cost saving!

Their second Business Mashup addresses the order to cash process. The IT folks knew they could shorten the cycle time and reduce the number of errors that occur during the first half of this process. Users had several tasks to be performed in order to process and invoice an order with their legacy ERP system. The procedure has multiple points where errors can occur because the user must visually scan for deviations between the verification reports and the picking notes and they must manually update the quantities in the system when any changes are found. With the new automated process, the picked order arrives on the conveyor in an open box with the pick note and verification report sitting right inside the box. It arrives at the first station to have the UPS shipping label created and attached. The box moves onto the scale and the charges are determined by the shipping address. The label is printed and the UPS software writes the tracking number and the shipping cost to the database file on the IBM iSeries. Then, the order moves down to the next station where the Mashup generates the invoice. The user scans the UPS tracking number and the order number and then presses one button to invoice the whole order. They have now reduced the invoice cycle time from 150 seconds down to 30 seconds, an 80% decrease in processing time.

It easy to appreciate that with those kind of business benefits, and a relatively low threshold to implement, Business Mashups are no one-hit-wonder. Unlike the 1960's novelty song from which I have adapted the following lyrics:

I was working in the data center late one night

When my eyes beheld an eerie sight

My slumbering i-boxes began to rise

And suddenly to my surprise

They did the mash

They did the midrange mash

The midrange mash

It was an office smash

They did the mash

It caught on in a flash

They did the mash

They did the midrange mash!

Friday, January 30

BIG E.R.P → R.I.P ?

No long winded pre-amble for you this time. Just the facts:
  • 93% of ERP implementations take longer than expected
  • Only 35% of ERP projects are completed on or under budget
  • Only 21% realise at least half of the business benefits they expected
  • Only 13% of those interviewed are very satisfied with the results
  • 57% of systems suffered operational stoppages after implementation

Now, don't get me wrong, I have no axe to grind against big ERP projects. We know that big systems projects, particularly those designed to replace mature legacy systems, all share similar failure rates and can cause equal levels of
stress. But it's the ERP projects that grab the headlines because they carry with them the real possibility of killing the operational side of a business. You know, the boring stuff like making sure there is enough inventory, collecting cash in a timely fashion and paying the staff. Think I'm exaggerating? Well here is just the latest tale of woe: SAP project costs cited in jeweler's bankruptcy filing

What frustrates me is that these failures, whether in the absolute or relative sense, give the vendor-side of the business a bad name. During the nineties there was a swing of the pendulum from a build to a buy mentality and package software vendors became large and very successful. But selling a complete package solution means you must start from the position that the existing system is 'legacy' and should be replaced - how else can you justify the multi-million dollar price tag of new package? Who ever actually measures the functional overlap to determine whether, say, 70% of the new functionality is actually just a re-implementation of what was already there? For instance, there hasn't been much innovation in the area of double-entry bookkeeping in recent years so you can argue that many of the fundamentals must still apply. I am arguing that too many babies are being thrown out with the proverbial bath water and it's time to stop and think differently about the value and role of legacy systems.

My experience at LANSA has been a real eye-opener in terms of what is possible to achieve by sweating the existing assets rather than spending millions on a new system. I was reminded of this fact when reading the latest edition of the LANSA Review magazine. Inside you will find an excellent Showcase article entitled 'Making Money and Saving Money with LANSA'. I don't mean for this post to be a blatant advert for my employer but I honestly know of no other vendor that can tell so many real stories - from different industries and countries around the world - that demonstrate just how much extra business value and longevity can be squeezed from existing systems.

There is never a good time to experience a big project failure, but there are times of exuberance when you can chalk it up to experience and move on to the next big idea. But however you choose to describe the perilous state of the global economy, I think you must agree that few companies currently have the wherewithal to absorb such a massive failure - particularly in already fragile industries like retail, manufacturing and financial services. This new reality means that even the mighty SAP is feeling the pinch. They have reported lower than expected earnings, instigated their first large reduction-in-force and effectively withdrawn guidance for 2009. Ouch.

The good times may one day roll again for the big package software vendors. In the mean time I urge you to think different and take a more creative approach this year. You might place the pendulum somewhere between extend and selectively replace for a while rather than watching it swing violently between build vs. buy. That kind of sanity is welcome during good times and bad.

Thursday, January 15

Hey, Make Do & Mend Mister!

Yes I’m talking to you sonny-jim, the CIO making plans for 2009 when the only certainty is that the pressure on you to deliver is relentless and funding for new projects is evaporating faster than spit on a hot griddle.

A dilemma for sure, so where to turn for inspiration and support? It struck me that - after hearing pundit after pundit comment that this economic melt-down is the worst since the war (WWII) – what actions would a war-era CIO have taken if computer systems had been as prevalent in business then and not just military code-breakers?

The British government ran a campaign during the war encouraging all citizens to Make Do & Mend. With the nation's industrial output concentrated on the war effort, basic clothes were in short supply and high fashion was an unknown commodity. Adults were issued as little as 36 coupons a year to spend on clothes. But a man's suit could cost 22 coupons, a coat 16 and a lady's dress 11, so the need to recycle and be inventive with other materials became more and more necessary.

Are there any useful parallels to be drawn from comparing the recycling of curtains into dresses and old sheets into underwear with the reuse of IT systems? When times are good then nobody wants to be caught walking around in pair of old curtains. But there exists a nadir after which it is not only socially acceptable to ‘Make Do & Mend’ but somewhat de rigueur and stigma transfers to conspicuous consumption.

NOTE: I first came across the 'Make Do & Mend' maxim applied to the IT sector on the excellent UKHotViews blog published by Richard Holway and Anthony Miller. It is a theme that they come back to time and again but here is a post from early 2008.

By the end of 2009 I expect that ‘smart’ CIOs will be identified as those who dreamt-up ever more creative and compelling ways to extract business value from existing systems. When business is flush with cash it is easy to pooh-pooh ‘the old ways’ and go cap-in-hand to the CFO for a shiny new system. But finding ways to deliver 80% of the same functionality of a new package for only 20% of the cost takes real imagination, skill and, dare I say it, balls (or big cojones for those across the pond).

At LANSA we see both sides of the coin on a daily basis – new systems being designed and built from scratch as well as projects to enhance, extend and integrate existing systems. Drawing on that experience I humbly submit my Top 5 list of quick win application modernisation projects to do this year:

Web customer self-service to lower operating costs
Shortening the supply chain (digital B2B communication)
Mashup business apps to increase end-user productivity
Second-generation e-commerce solution to ramp-up sales
Replace 5250 UI with a rich GUI to reduce training costs

NOTE: A good result would be delivering any 3 of these 5 projects during a 12 month period.

For a while the 'next big thing' in IT will not be a new technology. It will be a business focus on improving the top and bottom line. With this in mind, IT projects are likely to be re-prioritized. Now is a better time than ever to reuse existing systems and to extend and modernize these systems with cost-effective enhancements that will pay for themselves in the short term and provide genuine value. BTW, demonstrating how to deliver 80% of the solution for only 20% of the cost is also a good way to make yourself indispensable.