Here are some simple tests to help you determine whether those IT vendors are the real deal
Have they consumed and improved their own systems where they are good enough for you?
IF there’s one value that I appreciate most from IT vendors, it is growing from strength to strength through consuming their own dog food – as I posted this on my LinkedIn wall, the first reply I received was: “Then most IT firms will not even exist!”
As I smiled at the comment, I was also reminded of the irony within typical Malaysian IT firms, like the somewhat apocryphal Coke employee who blatantly drank Pepsi on the job and was fired.
While a huge sense of pride in one’s product is prevalent with Western and Japanese firms, strangely, Malaysian IT vendors eschew their own capabilities even more than the customers who raise official complaint letters to the vendor CEOs.
Here are some simple tests to help you determine whether your IT vendor is the real deal – i.e. folks who have painfully consumed and improved upon their own internal systems to the level that they are good enough to be customer-ready; or better yet, world class.
CRM, BI and analytics vendors
As these are some of my favourite subjects in Digital News Asia (DNA), I can’t help but to tackle them first.
Ask the sales people, point blank, to show you and your management how they have used their own tools and analytics in performance management or board level meetings to achieve heightened insights and improve business reach.
Were they able to explain the information points from the intelligence dashboards in relation to their business, and how the board members made their decisions from those datasets?
Systems integrators are hired for their prowess in IT project management – their ability to interface with various stakeholders; iron out teething technical issues and aggregate complex systems into a seamless whole.
Ask the sales representatives to name at least three major internal IT projects that the company has undertaken – right down to the project plan, team composition, impacted users, major milestones and key values achieved upon achieving those milestones. Important also are details on stakeholder management and change aspects of the project.
Finally, ask them for the status of the completed projects today. Are white elephants or beacons of productivity for the companies involved? Is the product already in its 27th iteration or has it even budged from version 1.0?
Application development companies
Businesses buy services to code applications when managing software developers is not their core competency, or have sufficient business complexities to warrant a bespoke application versus attaining one off-the-shelf.
Considering that application development firms would have armies of developers and high precision software engineering processes with a gleaming CMMI (Capability Maturity Model Integration) certification, surely they would have home-grown software they use to expedite their own daily routines.
There’s no bigger irony than a software development firm that is not even able to automate the entire software delivery and deployment chain as a stringent quality execution framework. That’s a dead giveaway that you are buying services from a firm that is no better than a bunch of freelancers sitting together.
Indeed, you may even be better off with freelancers should you have competent software managers.
I am in the outsourcing business, and comparing the number of audience members in the April DNA-TeAM Disrupt event on outsourcing, versus other topics, it is likely the most unpopular pillar of information technology.
I can’t blame the crowd as outsourcing brings to mind call-centre operators in cramped rooms with skill sets at the bottom of the IT competency barrel, and the associated remunerations to boot.
Such negative perception cuts both ways: Good, because you get fewer competitors entering the scene; bad, as it becomes difficult to convince new graduates to join your company. It can even be a self-fulfilling prophecy if not managed well.
The reality is that whether IT outsourcing is lucrative or mind-numbingly razor-thin margin-wise is not fundamentally dictated by the market, but simply the strategic choice of segmentation and outsourcing services to offer.
For example, why bother with call-centres when you could do deep security introspection and financial systems business forensics for major GLCs (government-linked corporations) and banks?
Anyhow, outsourcing is a pure ‘services’ business; therefore, its products are its people. So a good outsourcing firm’s dog food is their human capability development processes, people leadership and the very same business processes which the outsourcer professes to be competent in to warrant being an outsourcer.
So do sk the outsourcer to walk through its established human development programmes that it has put in place to ensure that the personnel are ramped up skill-wise; understand the discipline required to be placed at the customer’s site, while being motivated to perform professionally.
As such, ask the outsourcing personnel: Are they happy and productive working in the organisation? Do they receive sufficient training and are there internal knowledge transfer and reinforcement tools that allow them to keep abreast of customer needs?
Lastly, the most crucial question: What are the proven IT processes that are in use within the IT outsourcing organisation which can be adopted by the customer’s environment? And has the team been performing for the last several years?
If there’s none, you’re again likely better off running it yourself.
The chicken and egg situation
… Or why so many Malaysian firms have failed to attain world-class status.
I tend to have heated discussions with entrepreneurial types on this topic. After going through so many IT organisations – both vendor and client, global and local – I still insist that there is a natural order to innovation and growth. A business needs to have a solid product that is proven time and again, and more importantly, continuously honed through battle scars and successes.
Entrepreneurial types are cool, don’t get me wrong.
But unfortunately, they fall into the trap of their own hubris. So their argument tends to be: Sell first; we can construct the product along the way. If we do not sell, how can we survive?
Yes, I agree with the argument, and I wholeheartedly agree that sales cycles tend to be exceedingly long; hence there’s a window to create your product while the sales funnel runs through its motions.
To some degree I can also agree with all the ‘projecting,’ ‘posturing’ and ‘name dropping’ required to make a company seem bigger or more competent than it is.
All that is well and good as long as there is a direct and conscious focus to fill the gap between what was sold and the services to be rendered – as well as the gumption, laser sharp focus and especially the vision to follow through on how game-changing your product and services will evolve to become!
If you’re in the business for the long run, with the goal of creating world-beating products and services; there are just no short cuts. If you just want to ‘survive,’ I am sure you can.
Selling first and delivering along the way only results in sub-standard or, at best, mediocre products and services. It also means an exceedingly long teething period because you have never done it before.
Although you may even build a reputation of bending over backwards to fulfil your obligations, remediation leaves a bad aftertaste for customers. Not all are that willing to give you another shot just to experience mediocrity.
Building a world-class product takes years of focused investments, blood, sweat and tears, especially to compound on the knowledge gained and the persistence to keep at it. Changing models, approach, processes, market segments, price points, product mixes, technology pillars, service areas and even culture can keep you alive.
Heck, you may even be good and agile, but unfortunately, greatness can remain elusive.
Every Malaysian IT firm that succeeds in attaining world-class status would so because it persevered and evolved its product vision. Those that don’t … well, they will continue to churn very little butter.
PS: As this is potentially my final article with DNA, I would like to thank everyone who has commented and provided feedback. Sincere apologies if any of my columns came out too strong, as my intent was to make IT great, dignified and, hopefully, a profession worth the respect it deserves.
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