Look back to the future

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11 January 2018 | 0


At this time of year, the almost universal publishing tradition is to look forward, forecasting or speculating about what may happen in the year ahead. Bah, Humbug! ….as some of us said last month. But for most businesses, January is something of a depressed season of the year. Optimism grows in February or March, early Spring. In the bleak mid-Winter early days of the New Year, retail has to resort to sales (low margin leftovers from Christmas), services have to recover from the effect of the combined holidays of Christmas and New Year and construction is simply stalled. The ‘essential’ services are on duty with effectively skeleton staffing, state offices are open and consumer retail is targeting the consumer money left over.

But it is not an active time of year in other sectors. Ireland is pretty well unique in running the holiday seasons together. Our Winterval is 10 or 12 days long. In our tech sector, in spite of the US culture of so many multinationals, the Irish—and European—combinative culture has prevailed. Let’s face it, the USA does not have enough public holidays or leave allowances. We are short of the European average on public holidays, but on a par with actual holliers.

Review and recall
So what to do at this time of year, after the Winterval and as the days are short? Instead of looking ahead to new products and developments and the direction of the market, indulging in speculation, this CIO Folder suggests a review of the past. The recent past, because this is not a history review. The overall Big Question is ‘What is our current success (or simply stability) built on?’ To that list can be added: where we have invested and where are the flaws?  What is working well?  What has snags or inadequacies? Do we need to look at our business processes?*

Processes affect everybody—staff, customers, suppliers, partners—and have an impact on the performance of enterprise applications. There are many perfect, maximally efficient corporate processes. But a good guess would be that there are many more which are not quite of that standard and many others which are clunky. That lack of digital perfection might be because of legacy system origins, traces of older business practices or just old coding translated for today’s systems. There is always a faint possibility of incompetence (inside or outside) which is seldom admitted (inside or outside).

Equipment performance is another universally recognised key factor that tends to be reviewed only as a spotlight shines on it, triggered by ambition or failure. Servers and data storage resources tend to get reviewed only when their performance or space lags or when the business demands better IT resources. We still generally observe the old-fashioned three/four year equipment renewal cycles until something triggers an examination. The financial department is used to those traditional cycles of annual write-down and the IT teams are, by and large, reluctant to ask for investment funding when it is not actually urgent. Their technology estate costs so much annually to maintain, that keeping to the agreed budget is mostly top of the agenda.

“This column’s seasonal suggestion is that any manager at work in the early dark days of 2018 could do worse than run through what happened last year—mentally and making the odd note. It is fairly certain that there will be things that you remember could have been done better”

When did we last innovate? That is one of the questions upon which to ruminate at the start of a New Year. We are not talking about projects completed or applications updated or upgraded—though they are very relevant. Did you introduce some new things last year? Markets or product/service lines, acquisitions, branches, revamped processes or online services? If your business did, now is a good time to cast they eye back. Many projects, large and small, meet the deadlines by hook or by crook and start functioning satisfactorily. But months or years later, those hooks and crooks that served the deadline may be the source of problems. A look back, with an eye to clean-up opportunities, may yield valuable results in tidying up and smoothing processes—or yielding glimpses of possible improvement or even innovation.

We are not advocating a formal programme of retrospective analysis across the organisation. There are probably too many people absent for that. This column’s seasonal suggestion is that any manager at work in the early dark days of 2018 could do worse than run through what happened last year—mentally and making the odd note. It is fairly certain that there will be things that you remember could have been done better, frequently if there was more time, or events or instances that had to ‘be got over’ at the time and were afterwards forgotten in general business or seasonality or whatever.

What about complaints? From customers or colleagues, partners or suppliers, formal or online or over a Friday evening drink. Complaints are mostly on foot of human or systems error. But volume and type or pattern may yield clues to a recurring cause or flaw in the processes involved. Most businesses have a structured or informal complaints resolution process. SMEs are generally happy to let a senior person exercise best judgment in making the customer happy again. Front of house managers in service industries understand very well that gracious and prompt resolving of a complaint often in fact makes a customer more loyal.

But all too many businesses have no collective recording method for complaints, particularly the less serious that have not escalated. They stay in the folk memory of the individual department or team… and fade as fast as Christmas. Yet a full documented history of complaints is as valuable to any business as Big Data is to a large enterprise. The fruits can range from occasional insights into how to do things better to the seeds for valuable improvements in process or service or product or sales performance—even new lines or channels of business.

Group reminisce 
So any senior manager can profit from a few hours (or more) running over the previous year and its events. A chat between colleagues can possibly yield even more, sparking a competitive and possibly more thorough  ‘Do you remember…?’ group reminiscence. The key to the yield from any such informal review of the past year, individually or collectively, is that it spans positives and negatives, scaling from a remembered phrase in a complaint to a project (near-)disaster and all things in between.

The successful introduction of new lines of business, branches or channels—or indeed innovations of any kind—are always satisfying to look back on. But all too often the edges are softened in memory. What about the snags that happened or were threatened?  Remember that old phrase about ‘20/20 hindsight’? It is no less valid today. Casting your mind back over 2017 with that clarity and objectivity, now that the dramas are past, is a potentially very useful exercise.

Nothing really stands out in business technology about 2017. It generally saw the acceleration and expansion of IT in online dealings, cloud in all of its known conformations, hyperconvergence and all of that. Plus the inexorable advance of software-defined everything.

All change and none
Will 2018 produce amazing IT innovation? Amid all the published guessing at this time of year, this column’s take is ‘All change, no change’. That much-abused sales phrase ‘paradigm shift’ threw up its last manifestation in the supremacy of software. Change for the next years will be in the advances in hard technology, from IoT to speeds of processors, memory, networks and all that.

In Ireland we hope 2018 will see the US 2015 definition of broadband as 25mbps reach rural and indeed all areas. But we doubt.

So this column advises: look back—for insights into what you can do better for the future.




*The answer to that one is ALWAYS yes



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