The Evolving Landscape of IT Managed Services

The business landscape today is vastly different from what it used to be a decade ago. Many CIOs and IT managers realize that the commercial backdrop is continually evolving and that a professional IT service provider can help mitigate risk, enhance agility and control costs. Most CIOs consider an IT partner as a value addition to their in-house team, since a professional IT managed service provider also helps reduce the complexity of an organisation’s IT environment.

IT is no longer an overhead expense, it is a business transformation agent

Forces such as globalisation, consolidation and deregulation have driven organisations to realize that business transformation is a must to gain a competitive edge and to maximise shareholder value. Business leaders understand that IT is no longer an overhead expense. On the contrary, it is a business transformation agent that can drive high impact initiatives, which in turn create incredible business value.

IT budgets are scrutinised more than ever before

Today, CIOs and IT leaders understand that the business value of IT needs justification, and that they need to efficiently manage TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) and boost ROI (Return on Investment) on existing investments on technology.

Today, it is difficult to support a modern, global business with a traditional, in-house approach towards IT

Legacy IT infrastructure is simply not enough to face the fast-paced challenges posed by a modern business. Established managed service providers have the skills and experience that is required to serve global companies with world-class, innovative IT solutions that meet the unique business needs of the organisation. These managed service providers often take the responsibility of managing all third-party providers and create a total managed services solution by efficiently taking care of all client relationships.

Integration projects are no longer stand-alone or secluded

A decade ago, IT transformation projects were often secluded from management and operations. However, that is not the case today, as integration projects are no longer stand-alone, as companies understand that it is crucial to implement integration to realise the full value of their investment on technology.

Organisations rely on IT managed services providers to not only manage IT assets, personnel and processes, but also to mitigate risks

Until a couple of years back, organisations used to partner with managed service providers to exclusively manage technology assets, personnel and processes, but the scenario is different today as companies partner with IT service providers to mitigate risks that are associated with a change in the technology environment.

The IT landscape is continually evolving and IT managed service providers are considered as strategic tools and partners who can help boost business agility, conserve capital and control operational costs.

Was Chicago Smarter than San Diego?

In 1997, I visited America’s First City of Architecture for the first time, to meet my future in-laws before I married their daughter. Visiting Chicago during a warm spring, I felt like Ferris Bueller; in one single day we went to a White Sox game, visited the Art Institute, checked out the modern public art downtown and capped off my own personal Day Off with a nightcap at Buddy Guy’s Southside blues club. I was and continue to be amazed at the rich architectural history in Chicago. Following the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, leading architects from the Midwest flocked to Chicago to rebuild and become the “City that Can”. From Sullivan and Adler’s Auditorium Building (1889) to Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott and Co. (1904), the modern Monadnock Building (Burham & Root, 1891), some of America’s greatest buildings were being built as well as a new and unique residential architecture genre that rose from the flat Prairie landscape – the Prairie School, led by Walter Burley Griffin, George Elmslie, Marion Mahony, William Purcell and of course, arguably one of America’s greatest artists, Frank Lloyd Wright. But, there was another type of building being constructed during this time, the humble bungalow – a brick one and one-half story house that became known as the Chicago Bungalow. Between 1900 and 1930, the Chicago Bungalow with their detailed windows, stone work, pitched roofs, sheltered entrances and neat lawns become the dominant style of homes for thousands in the outer neighborhoods. The Chicago Bungalow also addressed issues raised by progressive and social reformers of the time, such as Jane Addams, regarding the unsanitary, threatening and appalling conditions of the late 19th century Victorian housing.

Janet and I stay with her sister and family in historic Edison Park, at their Northside 1920s Chicago Bungalow with original art glass, woodwork and fireplace, whenever we visit the “Windy City”. We always take time to visit “heritage tourism” places during our stay, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s piece de resistance Prairie School, 1908 Frederick C. Robie House; the Wright Home & Studio in Oak Park; Wright’s poured concrete Unity Temple (1905) and H.H. Richardson’s Glessner House (1887). We love to drive around and view the wonderful homes in Oak Park, Hyde Park, River Forest and Riverside. This past holiday season, we took a three hour bus tour on a beautiful Saturday to Hyde Park, the Gold Coast, Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus and saw many historic districts and toured the interior of the Rookery in the Loop. We also took a self-guided walking tour during an unseasonably warm day to tour the Old Edgebrook Historic District.

Whenever we travel to Chicago, I wonder why they have so many more bungalows than we do here in San Diego. Nearly everywhere you drive you see older buildings and homes. There are over 100,000 bungalows in Chicago or about one-third of their housing stock in the city of Chicago. Contrast this with less than five percent of our housing stock. While San Diego is an older city than Chicago (1769 vs. 1837), we grew at a much slower rate, mostly because Chicago quickly became a center of commerce owing to its strategic location on the great waterways of America. But, what happened to all of our bungalows? San Diego was once home to thousands of bungalows throughout Bankers’ Hill, Golden Hill, Hillcrest, Loma Portal, Mission Hills, North Park, Sherman Heights, South Park, University Heights, not to mention Chula Vista, Coronado, Escondido, La Jolla, La Mesa, National City, Oceanside and other older county communities. Who are we to blame for the loss of our bungalows and our cultural history? While housing styles changed after World War Two, bungalows became outdated as returning GIs and their families moved to new communities north of I-8. In the 1960s and 70s poor planning destroyed whole blocks with “Huffman Six-Packs” and other unfortunate housing development in the older parts of San Diego. Developers demolished older homes left and right in the name of making a quick buck or new homeowners moved into town without a sense of history or place. Isn’t California a place of starting over, beginning anew?

So, was Chicago smarter than we were after WW2 and during the especially destructive years of the 1960s and 70s? Were San Diego developers more powerful and connected to the good-old-boys running City Hall? A few years ago, I picked up a wonderful book about Richard Nickel titled “They All Fall Down, Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture”. Nickel was a photographer and preservationist who in the 1950’s and 1960’s tried to save Louis Sullivan buildings as Mayor Richard J. Daley was tearing them down in the name of Urban Renewal. Chicago lost a lot of great architectural treasures, from the humble bungalows to important Sullivan and Wright buildings such as the Garrick Theater. The book is a fascinating account of Nickel’s attempt to document Sullivan buildings with incredible black and white photography and also documents his struggle to save important Sullivan artifacts while buildings were being demolished. Tragically, Nickel died while salvaging ornament from Sullivan’s landmark Chicago Stock Exchange Building in 1972.

Maybe Chicago was no different from San Diego. Chicago also lost a lot of great buildings as well as bungalows because of the failure of planners, developers, real estate agents, politicians and homeowners who didn’t want grandma’s old bungalow and whose vision didn’t include the soul of a city or the history of individual neighborhoods. Simply put, there are more bungalows in Chicago today because they started out with more. However, I do think that Chicago now appreciates their heritage more openly than we do. Their civic leaders came to realize the importance of historic buildings and homes. Chicago has 34 historic districts and they have identified over 17,300 historic properties. San Diego has only seven residential historic districts and most of these (Grant Hill, Pueblo Ribera in La Jolla, Shirley Ann and Talmadge are very small – some with only eight to ten homes in their entire district). It might be argued that Chicago has had more vision than we have. The battles that we are fighting in preservation have largely already been fought and won there. Mayor Richard M. Daley, grew up in a Southside Chicago Bungalow and started the Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative in 2000 to preserve ALL Chicago Bungalows ( www.chicagobungalow.org ) – a program that includes education, marketing and financing to preserve the thousands of Chicago Bungalows still standing.

Meanwhile, the City of San Diego and Historic Resources Board believes that OUR bungalows can be torn-down because we have too many. Too many?! We don’t have enough! Do San Diegans believe that a San Diego bungalow that has deferred maintenance has no redeeming value and can be demolished for something Big and New and Modern? Do San Diegans believe that a San Diego bungalow does not contribute to the vision of the City of Villages – despite the fact that OUR bungalows were built as part of trolley-car suburbs and were the “smart growth” communities that current plans aspire to? Our bungalows are being sacrificed TODAY as they were in years past by our civic leaders and city planners at a time when a lot of people desire living in these simple, yet dignified homes. Bungalows are made out of 200 year old wood; old growth timber (now a rarity) as well as an incredible craftsmanship also gone and we honor the materials and craftsmanship of these talented people by preserving EVERY bungalow today. Yes, it seems that Chicago’s politicians; city planners and developers were and ARE smarter than ours!

Every humble bungalow lost strikes our soul, slowly chips away at our past, our history and our legacy. We are losing our collective past, home by home. Someday people will have to travel to historic districts just to view a bungalow. Historic districts will become de facto house museums unless we as a society learn that every bungalow is special we will end up with nothing but generic cookie cutter mass-produced houses that get mowed down every thirty years to make room for the newest model. We must all step up to the plate. For your next home, consider buying a bungalow, research it, have it historically designated, mobilize your community by forming a historic district, educate your real estate agent about the value of older homes, support political candidates who understand preservation. There is too much at stake for you to sit on the sidelines and watch the gradual loss of our history. We must elect leaders who listen and care about the quality of life in the community. We must demand that our mayor appoint leaders who respect the history and character of our communities from the Planning Commission, the Historic Resources Board and Development Services. Until such time, Chicago will continue to be smarter than we are.

Data – The Poor Relation With a Big Say

To some use of the word ‘data’ signals the beginning of one of the most boring, technically esoteric and generally useless topics of discussion they can imagine. Data model, data dictionary, data schema, data cleansing, data coding & classification…. or just plain old data.

HELP! How much boredom and technophobia can one person be expected to cope with! Can’t those sad techie’s keep all that gobbledy-gook stuff to themselves and just talk to the rest of us about normal business things?

Oh dear, a response common to many technophobes we know. We even have some sympathy for this perspective. However, we also know from hard experience that the technophobes are dead wrong to place this conversation on one of the lower rungs of technical hell.

Unfortunately, although we’d never claim the topic was scintillating to most listeners, we know how fundamentally important good data is to modern organisations. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that without it they are lost with little hope of rescue!

You see, business processes, functions, workflows, metrics, org charts, etc, etc change quite regularly… sometimes at the whim of a passing management fad. Where-as base data on the other hand generally changes relatively little on the whole… while underpinning all the rest of the faster changing artefacts that rest on top of it.

To understand this, while trying to avoid the more technical aspects, it is useful to think of (business) data as being split into three camps: meta data, static data and dynamic data.

Meta data is simply data about data. This camp covers such things as should data be ten digits long or fifteen digits long. Should it be numeric or alpha-numeric. Should it use an existing classification system (e.g. NATO schema) to group and relate items or one you invent for yourself. These basic decisions underpin every data structure (e.g. database) ever devised and are essential to being able to speak a common data ‘language’ that uses consistent definitions and formats.

A very common business example of meta data is the structuring of an organisation’s financial chart of accounts… i.e. what locations and functions, what departmental / budget codes, what time periods, what currency, what consolidation roll-up, what accounting standards, etc.

Look more widely and you will also see that the concept of an invoice, an order, a requisition, a product, a part and many, many other familiar business artefacts are also meta data entities. That is, an object or item with an understood set of data attributes and rules that define and specify it and its relationship to other data entities. In fact, a map of such things is known as an entity relationship diagram or data schema!

Once the basic data entity building blocks are defined, for both operational and maintenance purposes, they are often then divided into two further camps… static data and dynamic data.

Static data, as the name implies is data that either does not change, or more typically, changes relatively infrequently. Into this camp we can place data items such as products, customers, suppliers, BOMs, routings, etc. It is not that these data items never change, but that once created they commonly change little and infrequently… for some organisations, sometimes verging on never… which can be a problem in and of itself!

Finally, we have the camp of dynamic data. As this name implies this is data that changes fairly frequently. Into this camp we can place data items such as quotes, orders, requisitions, GRNs, invoices, etc. These items by definition change regularly as part of the normal cycle and rhythm of conducting business.

However, lets now circle back to our original point… that base data changes relatively little on the whole. How does this reconcile with the idea of dynamic data which changes regularly for instance? Well, as for most things, the distinction is in the definition and the use of the qualifier ‘base’ in base data.

The point is that while dynamic data changes regularly (e.g. new invoice number, new requisition number, etc) and static data from time-to-time (e.g. new supplier, existing supplier address with a new address, etc) the meta data that defines those entities (e.g. the fact that there is an invoice number or address field) almost NEVER changes!

When is the last time for instance that you can remember a basic data concept like that of an invoice being introduced for the first time?

Hence our use of the phrase ‘on the whole’ when describing the low change rate of base data. It also explains our desire to illuminate the distinction between the data camps as we did to explain things a bit more clearly and accurately.

With your new understanding of these three data camps… keeping in mind that these definitions have a wide general applicability, but if you went outside the realms of business (e.g. scientific research), you would find far more data camps in use than just these… you should be beginning to see how fundamental data is to everything built on top of it.

And for common business concepts like P&L, ROI, management reporting, project status, etc… that is almost EVERYTHING!!

Now perhaps it is becoming fully clear why an apparently boring and technically esoteric topic like data is actually of PARAMOUNT importance to any business!

After money, it is arguably the lifeblood of any organisation in terms of understanding and deciding where it is, where it needs to go and how well it is progressing on that journey. Without good quality data a business is quite literally lost… even more dangerously so if it actually believes it knows where it is (i.e. based on access to ‘bad’ data) but in fact does not…

This observation leads the conversation nicely to a few additional important facts about data. Namely, once you have some data, you also need to ensure that it is as:

  • Accurate – plus or minus how much?
  • Precise – to how many decimal places?
  • Timely – when am I going to be able to get this?
  • Available – How will I be able to access it?

as it needs to be (i.e. as opposed to as much as it ‘theoretically’ could be) to fill your legitimate business needs. There are many approaches to accomplishing this list of requirements, e.g.:

  • use of mobile technologies (e.g. handheld devices, laptops, etc)
  • use of automated technologies (e.g. bar coding, RFID, etc)
  • use of rigorous routines (e.g. perpetual inventory / cycle counting, stock counts, trial balances, month-end closes, etc)

and many others too numerous to quantify here, but the message is the same.

If something is important to the organisation then the relevant data relating to it also needs to be defined, instantiated, collected, collated, accurate, precise, timely and available to a level of quality matched to the importance placed on it by the organisation!

The number of times we have seen managers puzzling over ‘mysterious’ business project failures… especially in the context of large, multi-site, multi-function transformational change programmes… is nothing short of astounding. Failures in which they resolutely believe they broadly got (and perhaps did get) the strategy, processes, metrics, people, systems and other dimensions of change right, but still fell short somehow.

Although not on every occasion of course, but with frightening regularity all the same, one of the most obviously missing considerations in our experience has been a good understanding of the quality of the underlying legacy data landscape.

Had they (i.e. management, not the ‘techies’ who often do understand but whose views are often not sought or are ‘unwelcome’) deigned to look, it being a low-level techie subject and all, they might have actually seen (shock horror) that the data landscape was not fit for purpose.

They might have even found that it never had been and was thus never going to be capable of supporting the level of integration of processes, metrics, systems, reporting, etc that everyone had been working towards!

Unfortunately, given its lowly ‘techie’ status, looking at the data landscape is not a high priority on many a corporate transformational change programme agenda.

And although data is often not the only issue needing attention… it is one of the most commonly overlooked, and thus one of the most inscrutably responsible culprits for the failure to achieve the expected results!