Build vs. Buy is the Worst Possible Way to Frame That Decision

Why?  Because it represents a false dichotomy.

“Build” part of that equation implies that you are either starting from scratch, or at the very least, have a very long road ahead, wrought with long requirements sessions, prioritization arguments, and project delays and overruns.  It brings to mind images of 6 hour pizza-catered sessions, Gantt charts, and difficult conversations.  It comes with high support costs and staffing issues.  Ultimately, however, you will get something that meets your exact specifications.

On the other side, “buy” implies that you will get what you need out of the process.  Yes, there will probably be overpromising and underdelivering, and you will likely have to compromise on some things and sacrifice others, but at least you will get the very thing that will help you do your thing at the very end.   You can just pay for maintenance to some entity and they will deal with the headaches.

In what world are these two scenarios true?  Were they ever?

In my almost 25 years of IT, while I saw both “build” and “buy” efforts either phenomenally succeed or spectacularly fail, and eventually corner the company into some box, a way out of which was to do a costly and painful forklift.

Because change.

Taking into consideration the rapid pace of improvement in today’s technologies, and more importantly, the rapid pace of change in our customer’s needs and behavior, it is exceedingly speculative to guess what will be asked of our teams and technologies in a year or two.   And so when we develop our systems to meet our requirements, we are focusing on the needs of today and maybe, just maybe, give 5 minutes of thought to the future.  But historically, the future gets here sooner than we think, lagging ever so slightly behind now.

It’s all about platforms and accelerators.

No “buy” system will ever meet “now” needs fully or account for “future” needs completely.  No “build” project will deliver exactly what’s needed.  What it all comes down to, are two questions:

  1. How far towards achieving critical objectives and requirements can I go before I have to customize to meet remaining needs?
  2. Can the selected system support both getting up and running quickly, and customizing extensively?

“Buy” would likely get you pretty far towards achieving stated goals and objectives, but will likely limit how much customization you can make.  In fact, it seems that the closer you can get to meeting your immediate needs with a “buy” product, the greater the limiters on what you can eventually turn it into.

“Build” would most likely start out nowhere near stated goals and objectives, but will probably offer great customization opportunities.   It does come with increased support costs.

Picking the right platform and accelerator can give both – quick path towards launch plus ability to hold off the forklift for much longer.

So my argument is that it’s not “build vs. buy” decision, regardless of how snappy and easy saying it is. The whole thing should be framed as “how far towards my goals does this get me and can I drive myself afterwards?”

Posted in Information Technology | Leave a comment

Moving On to Huron

I’ve moved on.  An odd opening sentence for the first post in over a year, but I needed to break the silence somehow and this seemed to be as good of a way as any.

So yes, as most of you know, I have left my beloved McCombs School of Business to join Huron Consulting Group.  Although to many outside observers, and honestly, to me as well, it seemed like the decision was a sudden one, I think subconsciously I was ready for something bigger, something different.  And not all outside observers were surprised.  Many of my now former colleagues, including my boss, said that they were waiting for it to happen.  Maybe I was projecting something I didn’t even realize.

But I did leave McCombs.  Once again in my career, I left industry to join consulting.  It was a bittersweet departure to be sure.  For one, I loved working at McCombs.  For all of its quirks and challenges, I genuinely enjoyed working with (most) people there.  Beyond that, I finally got to the place where many of the plans and long-range goals I was working on the past few years have come to fruition.  I finally had the executive support to transform the organization in the way I dreamed of.  And I left.

I left because frankly, Huron blew me away.  Everyone I spoke to during the interview process appeared genuine, professional, high competent, and personable.  Plus Huron has a stellar reputation in the industry.  Plus as a company, they have some really incredible expertise and capacity, not only in Salesforce, but across the full spectrum of higher ed technology stack.

So I left McCombs.  And now, I am looking forward to working with all of the different schools that I’ve only briefly spoken with.  I’m leaving friends behind, but I look forward to making new ones.  I’m leaving achievement behind, but I look forward to new ones.

What’s possible is ever fascinating.

Posted in Random Thoughts | Leave a comment

Soviet Union, lapel pins, and gamification

Earlier today, a coworker of mine emailed me a picture asking if I knew what it was.  The picture was of a Swimmers Federation of the Soviet Union lapel pin.  It was fun to see such a trinket, and I responded to my coworker explaining what it was he just happened to find among things his Canadian mother had.  Along with that, I sent a picture of other Soviet lapel pins I had.  It’s a sorry collection, considering that I used to collect these pins when Iimage1 was a kid.  Considering the fact that I brought them all the way from the Soviet Union and they were preserved all this time, the collection is maybe not as sorry.

As I thought about how I’d explain the tremendous culture surrounding lapel pins in the Soviet Union, I had an epiphany.  The kind that maybe was not so startling to others, but in those 5 minutes, I had my mind completely blown.

Much is being said in the past 10 years about gamification.  Both the theory of gamification and the badging are now at the root of many product and service design concepts, especially those geared towards millennials.  It’s the latest motivator – complete three tasks and receive a badge – that should drive achievement.

Well, as I pondered explaining lapel pins to my co-worker it occurred to me that it was the very early iteration and application of the gamification concepts and badging.  Here we’re arguing about the value of gamification is a motivator, and we perhaps have the biggest experience already concluded, with certifiable results – ready to go.

Soviet Union was highly gamified society.  So many things we did were based on levels, and so many achievements awarded with lapel pins, medals, etc.

Sports – we all went to the same sports clubs, but those that were serious would follow a very structured rank system, akin perhaps to belts in martial arts: if you could demonstrate certain things in your particular sport, you’d be given a higher rank.  The awards for achievement of each rank were lapel pins.

Work – there were productivity goals, achievements of which would be rewarded with a particular lapel pin, and higher awards would be awarded with medals.  Schools are rank/grade based anyway, but military service – certain things you did, you’d get lapel pins, medals, and ranks.  Come to think of it, I find it hard to imagine what it was that wasn’t structured as a multi-tiered achievement ladder with badging as rewards for interim performance (hoping my friends can chime in here.)

I remember specific people that wore their 3rd rank in fencing lapel pins proudly, above their Young Pioneer lapel pins we were all required to wear (big no-no.)  I remember movies about calloused factory workers beaming with pride as plant manager affixed pins to their lapels signifying completion of 2000 widgets manufactured above the planned amount.

The thing I do not remember if it was ever as much of a motivating factor.  Hard to argue that for all of our gamification of an entire society, Soviet Union crashed and burned in the worst possible way, and we can argue that the issues that ultimately brought it down were beyond anything motivational lapel pins could overcome, but I simply have to question the wisdom of motivation with badging and gamification.

I don’t know if I have a larger point here.  Just thought I’d share my epiphany along with trying to revive this stalled blogging effort.

Posted in Random Thoughts | Leave a comment

Dreamforce: While it’s all still fresh in my mind #DF14HED

Just came back from Dreamforce.  What a ride that has been.  Being how this was my second time at this event, I really tried to make the most of it and tried to fix all of the things I think were broken during my first trip last year.  While it’s all fresh in my mind, here are my main take aways for how to make the most of an event which literally demands omnipresence of its attendees.

  1. Book Early

Last year, I decided to come to Dreamforce sometime in September and the only hotel I could get was some fleabag near the Golden Gate Bridge.  It meant 1 hour commute each way, each day, to Moscone Center.  I swore that I wouldn’t do that again, and so I actually watched very closely when the registration opened.  I had to have registered within the first few minutes, and as a result, was able to get a hotel across the street from Marriott for under $200 a night.  Main take away here: if you think you might be coming, register early.  I do believe you can cancel your registration later, but the chance to get that hotel is well worth it.  Secondary take away: do not overlook The Mosser Hotel – highly recommend.

  1. Sessions vs. Networking

This may sound sacrilegious, but I think that the networking aspect of the event is probably just as important as attending sessions.  At least in my case, I missed many a session I was registered for because I was deep in a conversation with a colleague from another school.  And it’s not that the time got away from me, it’s just that the information we were exchanging was great.  As a result, I came back with a huge rolodex of cards of colleagues all over the country who are at various stages of where we’d like to be, and do not feel the least bit sorry about missing the sessions.  Main take away here: at least for me, do not rush to the sessions and forsake the conversation.  Sessions will be recorded and posted on YouTube, the chance for a great connection may be gone forever.

  1. Agile approach

Coming into Dreamforce, I had a set of sessions that I registered for and my agenda laid out.  Naturally, I missed some sessions because of networking, but I also missed some sessions because the person I was talking to told me about this other session they were going to which I didn’t see, or didn’t care for while planning.  But just then that particular session sounded more interesting and would end up being extremely delightful.  I ended up in user experience, sales, admin, and retail sessions – all of which I wouldn’t have thought to attend, but walked away with a ton of ideas.  Main take away here: plan your visit, but be prepared to go where the dream forces you.

  1. Do not forsake the expo

This may be a “doh!” kind of statement, but I really didn’t want to walk the expo.  “May I scan you?” is just not the question I’m looking forward to answering.  I look forward to answering all of the sales calls and emails from the expo scans even less.  But some of my most profound “Wow!” moments came at the expo, where I spoke to two vendors I really had hard time figuring out how I’d ever use them.  For example, while briefly pausing at a gamification vendor’s booth and trying to figure out how can Salesforce be used for gamification, I started talking to the sales rep and walked away with a great idea for using gamification for undergraduate career services.  Main take away here: brave the sales pitches, as even one AHA! moment is worth it.

The main theme that emerges here (outside of book early) is that for me, Dreamforce was actually more about Dreaming, then it was about Salesforce.  In other words, I certainly got some of what I wanted – deepening my knowledge of some subject areas, and some ideas along the lines of what I was thinking before I got to Dreamforce.  But what I found most enlightening and inspiring was the things I didn’t expect – it was these experiences that stretched my imagination of what’s possible, and the part that I really enjoyed.   And the only way this became possible is by me choosing networking over sessions attendance, and being open to other experiences and industries.

Looking forward to the Higher Ed Summit in February, but I can’t wait for Dreamforce 2015.

Posted in Random Thoughts | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Thanks, Jeter, you are a role model for role models

derek-jeter-michael-young-texas-rangers-ihhvjncmfn-michael-york-421154726I became a fan of the New York Yankees by accident.

When my family immigrated to the United States in 1989, we entered the country with $900 for 5 family members and lots of fears and hopes. As all Soviet émigrés of the time did, we spent the next few years on all sorts of public assistance programs, including welfare and food stamps. Needless to say, money was very hard to come by.

So when I needed a fall jacket, my mom took me to this discount store on Kings Highway in Brooklyn (I think it was called Robbins or something like that). There, fitting our budget, was this cool blue jacket with this white spider web-looking thing. As you are reading this, you probably readily recognize the color and the logo of the New York Yankees, but I had no frame of reference.

In Soviet Russia (insert your own Yakov Smirnoff joke here), there was no baseball. We had no idea such a game existed, didn’t know who the Yankees, or Mets, or Red Sucks, were. The shot heard ‘round the world didn’t penetrate the iron curtain.

And so when I put on the cool blue jacket with a white spider-web looking thingy in the late fall of 1989 in Brooklyn, I had no idea that I was setting myself up. In ensuing months, I would walk to and from school with random people yelling at me: “Blah blah suck!” Since then, I came to realize that what they were yelling was “Yankees suck,” (it was coming at the end of a few good years for the Mutts after all), but then I had no idea who Yankees were, or that it was even a word, and to complicate matters – I was like 3 months into learning English so it was all a blur of sounds and angry Americans screaming at me for some unknown reason. I thought it was something related to me being an immigrant (there was a lot of that too), but I actually never tied it to the jacket I was wearing.

Right around there, what was also happening was this guy, an American, in a jacket that was kind of like mine, but the blue was different and the white spider-web on his jacket was a yucky orange, kept coming up to me in PE, and talking to me in words I didn’t understand. It seemed that I should have, but I didn’t. My English at the time was at “My name is Vadim and I am from Soviet Union. I like America very much” level and he kept using these other words.

One phrase stood out in particular. He kept saying “home runs.” I think he was probably talking about Darryl Strawberry’s or HoJo’s hitting prowess, but at the time, I tied it back to the only thing I knew – I am an immigrant, I’m not wanted, and I should run home. So one day, as he kept rambling on and on about something, when he said “home runs,” I said: “I like America very much”, turned around and bolted.

Something else happened at around that same time. As we didn’t have money and were on public assistance, pretty much all of the furniture we had in our apartment was either a hand-me-down from another immigrant family who now started to make it and could afford to buy stuff, or found on the curbs during garbage days. Yes, as most of us did during that time, we furnished our house by digging through people’s garbage. At the time, the loot was good – we got 2 TVs, couches, chests, beds, etc. To make a long story short, we became very good at walking around the streets of Bensonhurst on garbage days and looking at what’s available.

One day, my mom came back with a Sega Master System. What probably happened was some mom got tired of her son playing Sega all day so she ripped it out and tossed it in the garbage. That is the only explanation I have for a relatively new game console, with two controllers, and a game (but no power cables or TV connectors) ending up in a trash. My mom didn’t know what it was. She brought it home and said to me that this looked like an interesting thing. But I knew. I knew exactly what it was. By then, I was in the country for probably 6-9 months and my friend had a system just like that. My excitement was up to 11.

As I mentioned earlier, the console had a game inserted in it. What was the game? Great Baseball.

Even though I already spoke somewhat decent English and new what a Sega Master System was, I still had no idea what baseball was. And neither did any of my friends. But as it was the only game I had, I would borrow my friend’s power and TV cables and try to play this silly game the only way I knew how – button mashing.

In time however, I learned the rules. That’s right, I learned baseball rules by mashing buttons while playing Great Baseball on Sega Master System my mom found in the garbage on the streets of Brooklyn. And as time went on, I actually connected the dots that were appearing all around me – the jacket, the Yankees, and baseball. And as long as I owned the jacket, I might as well own the title – a Yankee fan, and that’s how it all started for me.

But finishing up high school, adjusting to a new identity as an American, and growing up, and figuring out what to do with my life, and this whole college thing, baseball was just a thing I sort of followed. It wasn’t until the strike-shortened 1994 season that I really became a baseball fan and a Yankee fan in I guess a true sense of the term.
Yankees were doing great that year. I already knew the history of the team, and the fact that we were the best team in baseball (Montreal doesn’t count) and didn’t get a chance to go to the World Series hurt. So when 1995 came around, I was excited for the start of the baseball season. I followed my (by then) beloved Yankees all year, watching them lose to the Mariners, watching Donny run around the field asking for O’Neil, oh it was great. I don’t remember seeing Derek Jeter play that year, but I certainly remember spring training of 1996.

SPORT MLB BASEBALLAs the controversy surrounded him, I remember Jeter calmly sitting during one of the spring training media circuses (press conferences) and saying, that he wasn’t there to take anyone’s job (Tony Fernandez) but he was really there to do whatever was needed to help the team win and do his best. In a world of cliché sport sound bites, I guess it was pretty standard, but something about the way he said it that resonated with me, and been with me ever since.

The rest is history. I became a Yankee fanatic, routinely going to half-dozen to a dozen games each year, and watching probably at least 40-50 more on TV, each year, until game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. Watching Red Sucks fan celebrate on our turf was hard to bear. It was Jeter that gave us a glimmer of hope against Pedro in the 7th (I think) inning, but we ultimately lost, and to me, the Yankees lost their identity with that game.

To me, Yankees truly became my Yankees on Derek Jeter’s watch. I loved them all – Tino, Paulie, Bernie, Jorge, Mo, Brosius, Wells, Cone, Jeff Nelson, Torre. They were all almost my entire American identity. I was still a Russian, I still spoke with an accent, I still did lots of “Russian” things, but I was a fan of the New York Yankees and their excellence, their professionalism, their teamwork was something that appealed to me on a very deep and personal level, beyond the silly jacket and Sega Master System – it was what I thought being an American was all about.

But it was Jeter who anchored it all for me. In a three way great shortstop convo of the late 90s between A-roid, Nomar-oid, and Jeter, he had the lower stats, but he did everything with excellence. He always said the right things, did the right things, and he didn’t have to work at it – it all just happened. To me, he personified an ideal – a true professional, who loved what he did, excelled at it, and remained a human being.

And so starting with 2004 ALCS, I slowly began to lose my association with the Yankees and what they represented to me. The acquisition of A-roid, and then this obsession with trying to buy a World Series, and then the way he quit the team and then we took him back for even more money – I couldn’t associate with them anymore, until I found myself looking at the roster after spring training and not recognizing half of the names. And it all went downhill from there until the last few years, I didn’t even care. I only looked in on the standings once in a while to see what place they were in, but I also always looked in to see how Jeter was doing. And in my news feed, I still read his quotes and watched his interviews. For me, Derek Jeter busted through the baseball fences.

And so now it all comes to an end. As it really began with him, so does it end. As Derek Jeter played his last game, really the only reason I had for following the Yankees in the last few years came to an end.

Everyone talks about Jeter’s leadership qualities. I don’t know about that. I was never in the locker room or on the field, and I cannot judge someone’s leadership qualities based on TV coverage and media interviews. What I do know about is that as my daughter and my son are growing up to be athletes, what I can say, and really not ever be wrong about, is that Jeter is the ideal role model. I can point to him and say: “this is what an athlete is, this is how you work and how you live.” And for that, I am grateful. Thanks, Keptin, thanks for helping to shape my American identity and for becoming a great role model for my kids. I’m sure I’ll see you on TV, and maybe in a manager’s uniform someday, but for now, thanks and good luck.

Posted in Random Thoughts | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Choices

“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.” -Epictetus

Amazing how Hellenistic philosophy resonates in modern day business world.

We can’t control market conditions, vendor roadmaps, customer requirements, competitor actions, or executive whims.  What we can control is how much time we spend on thinking about what’s possible and how flexible and forward-looking our solutions are.  In that flexibility do we find the capacity to respond appropriately.

And the solution that was good at one point can become bad pretty quickly if it can’t adequately respond to an external factor.  The mark of a good solution is its ability to stand the test of changing, uncontrollable, external factors.

Posted in Information Technology, Quotes, Random Thoughts | Tagged | Leave a comment

Salesforce #HESummit14 Reflections

Back from Salesforce’s Higher Ed Summit – time to reflect and summarize.

Community-building – You’re Doing It Right

I am not sure if any other vendor is taking notes, but they should be.  In fact, in the IT space, every single vendor should be taking notes of how Salesforce goes about building communities around their products.  This should be studied, and cased, and then case studied.   Because when it comes to building a community around a product, Salesforce’s commitment and actions are unprecedented.

Salesforce put together an advisory council consisting of actual customers who are actively using the product to help guide company’s effort.  They also created an online community where users of the product can ask questions and exchange ideas.  So far, pretty standard stuff and something that most companies do these days in their effort to pay appropriate amount of lip service to this whole customer community fad.

What makes it truly work for Salesforce is that they actually dedicated resources to making it work.  They hired wonderful Kathy Lueckeman, who, for all intents and purposes, is still one of “us”.  Kathy is now a member of the team that consistently monitors the online community and is very quick to respond to posts and questions from customers.

What in turn makes their responses super valuable is that they typically recommend another customer to talk to, thereby creating a sense of community.  In other words, if someone asks how to do something, they answer the question if they know, but also point to a specific person in another school who they know may already have dealt with the issue.

This practice of connecting customers to each other is what, IMHO, makes the community building efforts by Salesforce work.  It’s the absolute right thing to do.  And they do this in all interactions – online and offline.  It’s all about connecting customers.  Whether I’m talking to Kathy or Mark Dickey, my list of contact grows.  And if you are a vendor and you still do not understand why it’s more important for me to speak with a peer than to listen to your sales pitch, then you should not be surprised that I will not be quick to buy, forget about championing, your product.

As far as customer service for Salesforce is concerned, they should make their slogan something like: “Community-building done right.”

We’re All Connected

It seems that the rate of adaption of Salesforce is accelerating at an incredible pace.  Which means that there are a great many schools that are wrestling with exact same issues and trying to get answers to exact same questions.  That, in turn, means that this is something that Salesforce can solve once, for all of us, and so increase the rate of adoption even more.

Because what we all do is same (we’re admitting students, then educating them, then getting money off them), and why we do what we do is same (we want to get the right student, we want to give them quality education, we want to place them in good jobs, and we want them to be engaged alums).  What differs is how we go about do it.  In that sense, I get the feeling that most of the common questions I hear/see asked over and over again are about how to achieve the what and the why.  That can be solved centrally, by Salesforce, leaving the how to be at the discretion of each implementer.

360 Degree View Is The Wrong Way To Look At It

Whenever I hear someone say that they want to get a 360 degree view into something, my instinct is to ask: “At what point?” During the summit, I heard lots of references to getting a 360 degree into a student as a way to describe that we should have a complete record prospect through alum.  But describing that concept as a 360 degree view doesn’t work for me at all.

To me, if I want to have a 360 degree view, I want that view while they are prospect, and applicant, and so on.  In other words, I want to know everything that is important to me at each stage of our interaction and in that sense, 360 degree view conveys that need.

I also heard the term “student lifecycle” used to refer to the same concept.  It’s closer, but I still like student journey better.  We did an MBA student journey and have since been using that term, student journey, as a way to indicate the very concept we’re trying to convey with “360” or “lifecycle” verbiage.  Student journey is an adaptation of the customer journey terminology from service design discipline and IMHO poetically conveys how we should treat our constituents – we should sheppard them on their journey.  It also has the added benefit of me being able to combine the terms and say that I’d like to have a 360 degree view of our constituents as each point of their journey.

More Depth Please

One thing I noticed, and this is not unique to Salesforce by any means, is that the presentations are too high level.  They give some ideas, but mostly they confirm that I’m thinking of the right thing, without giving much insight into how to solve something.  I would ask Salesforce to encourage their presenters to be more open, more forthcoming, more detailed.

Innovation Panel

I loved the concept.  I actually chose later flight out of Phoenix to make sure I’d make it to the innovation panel.  I think this is something that needs to continue to be present.

 

During the conference, I heard that Salesforce will move the summit to be hosted roughly 6 months after Dreamforce – that’s an awesome idea, and we’d love to host in 2018, when our new business school building is up.

 

Thanks to Salesforce!  And thanks to ASU!

 

Posted in Information Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Innovation vs. Improvement

Being on the Central time zone internally and Pacific time zone physically allows for waking up really early and pondering.  As I await the start of Salesforce Foundation’s Higher Ed Summit 2014 in Phoenix, I began reflecting on the few conversations I had with some of my colleagues regarding my last post, specifically the part about allowing customers to innovate being the only job of IT.

It became clear that what I consider to be innovation is not necessarily what others consider it to be as way too many people agreed with me, and in the meantime, I realized that I was too eager to publish my post and so was in error.

Ever since Apple began to dazzle us with their innovative prowess (and has since ceased to do so), innovation became this sexy term, much like leadership, that everyone began chasing after.  These two terms became the Holy Grail.  If a person or an organization was a leader, then it had to become innovative; if it were an innovator, then it had to become a leader; and if it were neither, then it had to become both, otherwise, it was doomed to fail (interesting to note here that I actually obtained a certificate in innovative leadership some years back.)

But as few people are truly innovative, the definition of innovation, IMHO, became deluded and first significant, then marginal, improvements became substitutes for true innovation.

To me, if your decision is supported by data, then you are not innovating.  The only data that can support true innovation, again IMHO, is that nobody else is doing it.  If you have data to support your decision, then you are making improvements.

Both of these, innovation and improvements, are hard.  Innovation requires tremendous comfort level with risk, and convincing of everyone, customers and team members, and potentially new ways of not only doing, but even thinking about things.  Improvement requires setting up the tools to  identify area of improvement, then convincing everyone that improvement is worthwhile making (had a discussion this week with a coworker who made the claim that everyone is convinced by facts and I actually laughed out loud), then actually making the improvement.  But they are worth doing, and they are not same things.  With that, I amend my IT mission statement to enabling our customers to improvement and innovate.

Posted in Information Technology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

IT as an Impediment to Innovation

Over the past decade, much is being said about IT being the enabler of innovation within organizations.  I certainly am firmly in that camp.  In fact, I don’t view it as one of our jobs, to enable our customers to innovate, I view it as our only job.

But as I go around speaking to customers about our bright future with Force.com, a thought began to formulate in my mind.  It is something that I suppose I always knew, but only now does it begin to take shape into something I can actually state, and therefore, tackle.

If IT is supposed to be the enabler of innovation, then doesn’t that mean that the opposite is true as well?  That IT can be an impediment to innovation?  Lately, I find that it is exactly the case, and as I reflect back on my 19 year IT career, I find that to be the case universally.

Naturally, IT is not the only reason why companies do not innovate.  But sometimes, just sometimes, we have a much greater impact than we think.  And our obstructionism occurs in roughly two ways.

First way is by erecting a direct barrier – we just say no.  When our customers come to us and ask us to do something, we say we can’t do it, or we won’t do it, or we can’t do it now, but we say no.

Most certainly, the reasons for us saying no can be very valid, and they all boil down to us not having enough resources to satisfy every request.  On my awesome web team, we have departments lining up out the proverbial door but virtually every request that comes in now will have to go into a 6-9 months waiting list because we only have so many project managers/developers/content editors.  Years ago, I remember sitting in a meeting where one of the floor traders was trying to pitch an idea to allow the company’s customers to make their own trades through computers, and the IT director shut it down because the technology to implement such a capability was too new, too risky, and would “break a lot of existing things”.   In only 2 short years, online trading exploded.

We say no.  Sometimes we really want to say yes but can’t; and sometimes, we truly believe that no is the right answer, but we say no, and so put up a barrier to innovation.

The second way we impede innovation is more subtle, and far more evil.  Not meaning to compare our customers to elephants, but I’m reminded of the experiment where if you keep an elephant tied to a pole long enough, pretty soon you can remove the rope and the elephant will never leave the vicinity of the pole, to the point of dying of hunger.

After constantly being forced to say no to customer requests, what I find is that we actually condition our customers to temper their outside the box thinking.  They already know what our limitations are, because we keep talking about them as justifications for our nos.  And so when they think of how they can improve their business, they inevitably self-sensor.  I often hear that in meetings “that’s a great idea, but IT can’t do it” at which point we solemnly nod and inwardly pat ourselves on the back for doing a good job of marketing what we do and how we do things.

Two things are important to note here.

IT is not the only group that does this.  How many times have you said: “yes, I’d like to be able to do this, but legal/accounting/HR/Marketing won’t allow it or will make it difficult, so I won’t even try it?”

Also, the inevitable argument that customers still bring all sorts of requests to us means that we’re not as bad as I think we are.  My only response to that is customers are not bringing us innovative ideas.  They bring us pain points that came to the point of where they don’t want to deal with them, or they heard somewhere that someone else solved it.  In other words, they come to us out of necessity.  They bring their wacky problems and make outrageous requests just to help them get their job done, which to me is not at all the definition for innovation.

This creates a problem where whenever anyone is asked to think about creating a truly innovative idea, they self-sensor because they have been conditioned to do so by IT/HR/legal/accounting/Marketing/etc.

As I find that virtually all of the readers of my blog are people with whom I interact on regular basis, I look forward to hearing what you think about this.  There isn’t much we can do in the near term about other departments (except to show them how it’s done), but there is something we can do about us being the impediment to innovation. Because if we can have a discussion about IT’s role as enabler of innovation and if we should strive to be that, but it is undeniable to me that the role we do assume is one of a barrier to innovation.

As Eldridge Cleaver said: “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”

Posted in Corporate Culture, Information Technology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“Salesforce is just for selling stuff”

It was about 10 months ago that I first contemplated the idea of adapting Salesforce as our application development platform.  At the time, my decision was based on what I knew about Salesforce from a few encounters I had with the platform in years past.  The idea of having a maintenance-light platform which allows for maximum flexibility and expedited solution delivery seemed like a no-brainer for the challenges I observed during my one year stint as an embedded IT consultant within the MBA program office.

Since that time, I spent countless hours expounding on the benefits of the platform to all willing, or not so willing, listeners.  I encountered a number of different objections, ranging from “you don’t know what they do with our data” to “Salesforce is just for selling stuff”.  Now that I feel I reached a kind of a milestone in my evangelism (I can come up to virtually any executive within the school, start talking Salesforce, and receive a favorable response without launching into half an hour explanation of what and why), I have to start working on the business unit leaders and middle managers and I can use the lessons I learned to try and make this stage smoother.

Lesson 1 – The main attraction is Force.com, using the name Salesforce can be counter-productive

Whenever I start my Salesforce conversations, I inevitably run into what the above-mentioned business unit leader summarized in the quote I used to title my post: “Salesforce is just for selling stuff.”  Yes, it is true that Salesforce as a company is known by the name of the first product built upon its powerful platform and the name recognition is tremendous.  But as tremendous as it is, it is also superficial as not many people know what it is beyond what it sounds like. Or to phrase it a little more fairly, there are people who know what can be done on the platform, there are people who know what they did on it, there are people who heard of it, and then there are those who never heard of it.  Three out of four groups will automatically establish defensive stance against “corporatizing institution of higher learning.”

So the next stage of my journey begins with retraining those who already know that we’re in the process of implementing Force.com platform (made by Salesforce, btw), and “selling” Force.com as the direction to the new audience, not Salesforce.  Where before I Salesforcifying our school, I am not Forcedotcoming it.  While within IT, I still refer to it as Salesforce, I began using Force.com in all my official presentations and hallway conversations.

This approach also has the added benefit of actually being far closer to what we’re actually doing: we’re adapting Force.com platform to build applications.  Plain and simple, and oh by the way, Force.com is made by Salesforce.

Lesson 2- Use the power of community as Salesforce is not very good (yet) at marketing to higher ed institutions.

Every presentation I ever saw from Salesforce about what it can do for higher ed always listed the full student lifecycle in its diagrams but always focused on application process and donor management.  To me, that always represented misunderstanding of what is important to our sector and tacitly played towards the perception of it being just a tool to sell stuff.

Yes, a school needs to be able to recruit students, and yes, we’d like for our alumni to donate to the school.  But a prospect spends maybe 9 months in the application process without much interaction with the school.  They then spend the next two to five years (or more) as students where services delivered to that student make the application process a child’s play.

And yes, collecting donations and keeping track of who donated what and when is important, but that is such a miniscule part of what alumni relations teams do.  The services they typically offer, again, make the process of donations management child’s play.

Now, I don’t mean to trivialize the application process and donor management, but our school’s needs far exceed those two areas and if the strength of the platform is to be fully realized, we need to look at all those other areas that Salesforce used to just briefly mention in their literature and presentations.

So very early on, I decided to not show much of what Salesforce puts out and rely strictly on peer school feedback and lessons learned.  While I just began reaching out to the wider Salesforce in Higher Ed community with the help of wonderful Kathy Leuckeman, I have been in contact with various members of our peer schools IT departments since I began this process.  And so when I encountered the inevitable question of: “what can this do for us”, saying “well, Tuck does this and that with it” has been tremendously helpful.

As I move to spread the word to different units within the school, I now attempt to get as much information as possible about who is doing what within our industry before I go in for that all important first talk.

Lesson 3 – talk really is cheap and early win is everything

As I went about the school with my message of hope, I found myself constantly defending against roughly same objections and answering same questions, and at one point, it occurred to me that if I already had a working implementation within the school that I could point to, I wouldn’t have to sell as hard and be as ineffective at it (or it wouldn’t have been as long and hard road as it was).  So I changed my strategy and decided to find allies within the business units whom I can wholly migrate to Salesforce and then use as a tool to show the viability of the platform.

I only had three requirements:

  • I had to have an ally within the business unit who was supportive of the migration and would apply the necessary pressure while providing the necessary support from within while I worked on the outside
  • The unit either had to be important enough to where it was a high visibility while still not being complex to implement, OR it had to be a micro representation of a larger unit where it was easy to extrapolate the successes
  • The integration with other systems (college and university) was minimal and I could conceivably incorporate all of the business processes of the unit into Salesforce

I was lucky enough to find two units within the college that satisfied all three of the requirements – Executive Education for its visibility and our summer high school student program for its micro-representation.  Going forward, I intend to show, not tell, or more accurately, show more and tell less.

Anyone had any other lessons in selling the sales tool as being great at other things than just selling?

Posted in Information Technology | Tagged | 1 Comment