Mid Sized Enterprises

Outsourcing Doesn’t Have to be a Dirty Word

Person giving presentation at flip chartSay the word “outsourcing” in many organisations, and you’ll be met with a frosty reception. People will recount tales of how huge chunks of their company were laid off or sold off, and will talk about how things have never quite been the same since. They’ll talk about how it used to be possible to respond to changing customer demands quickly and swiftly, but now implementing any change takes forever because there is a rigid and inflexible contract in place with an external partner… and they may well argue the case for bringing the outsourced capability back in house.

 

In fact, in some organisations the word “outsourcing” has become a dirty word. Saying it creates controversy, and can even create ill feeling. There is no doubt that some companies have entered into ineffective outsourcing arrangements—perhaps they have chosen the wrong partner, outsourced a capability that was better serviced in house, or perhaps the relationship went sour.  However, it’s important not to discount an entire solution approach, and in the ever-changing business environment that we live in, strategically outsourcing activities to carefully selected partners or Managed Service Providers (MSPs) can yield significant benefits. Whilst there are undoubtedly examples of outsourcing going wrong, where it is implemented well can be very beneficial indeed. It can help organisations to smooth demand, to expand into new areas quickly, and to secure expertise that they don’t want to (or can’t afford to) employ in house.

 

I’ll tell you what led me to write this article. Just the other day I realised that my car is overdue its annual service, and I was trying to figure out which garage to take it to. I was discussing this with a good friend of mine who knows a lot about cars, and he offered me some useful advice:

 

  “Adrian, your car getting old. It’s important that you service it but the service history won’t add to its resale value any more. Why don’t you do a basic service yourself?”

Organisational Agility

Man looking at conflicting arrows on chalk boardRead any book, article or blog about implementing change in organisations, and you’re sure to come across the term agile. Particularly in the software development world, rightly or wrongly, agile and evolutionary techniques are seen as the antidote to some of the often cited problems with more linear waterfall techniques. A well-executed agile project provides the opportunity to deliver business value sooner, by focussing on the most critical set of features and functions first, then adding to them incrementally. An experienced agile team often works like a well-oiled machine, gaining momentum and getting into the rhythm of delivery.

 

Clearly, both types of methodology have pros and cons, and discussing these in detail is beyond the scope of this blog article—but sufficient to say that as practitioners we add value by ensuring the right approach is taken in any given scenario.

 

Yet a challenge we face is what I like to call the ‘buzzwordification’ of agile. The term has become diluted, and worse still, it has significantly different meanings to different people. Our stakeholders may mistake agile (as a project or software delivery lifecycle) with organisational agility. This can lead to some unexpected outcomes, none of which are the fault of the agile team itself.

Project Reviews and the Insight of Lessons Learned

Person about to step on banana skinI’d bet that everyone reading this article will have taken part in some kind of “lessons learned” meeting or brainstorm at some time in their career.  These sessions are often part of a retrospective or post-project review, and are aimed at ensuring that organisations and project teams consider what went well – and also what went badly.  The idea is simple: these lessons and pointers can be taken into account in future projects, iterations or phases.  This should ensure that future activities run as smoothly as possible.

 

However, it doesn’t always seem to work this way.  I was speaking with a contact of mine just the other day, who observed that in some organisations, the “Lessons Learned” process should really be called “Lessons Documented”.  He implied (only half-jokingly) that in some companies, learning points get written down but then fester in a document that isn’t ever read again.  The document might be loaded into a repository somewhere, but even if somebody wanted to read it, after six months everyone has probably forgotten where it is stored and what it contains.  The whole process becomes about ticking boxes on a plan rather than driving genuine insight and change.

 

This observation really resonated with me, and I felt he’d hit the nail on the head. If we’re honest we’ve probably all seen this pattern occur.  When running projects, there is the opportunity to capture valuable insight and data – everything from data about the amount of effort spent right through to insight about the issues that occurred and the problems that could have been avoided.  The challenge is that by the time the project is finished, everyone is tired and ready to move onto the next big thing.  Sadly, this might mean that rich insight is lost.

 

An example: Estimation

Frustrated man frowning

Discussing Data Can Be Scary. Ignoring It Is terrifying.

Frustrated man frowningDelivering organisational change can be a tricky business.  In order to adapt and grow, a company may need to tweak or change its organisational structure, processes and systems – and often, Information Technology (IT) is an important enabler for change.  Of course, IT will only represent part of a change, but it can be an important catalyst and if implemented well, it could even enhance or create a competitive advantage.

 

In the rush to implement new IT or different IT, there is often a focus on the required functionality.    People focus on what they want the system to do and the exciting new features that they’ll be able to use.  In the excitement of building or buying a new system, data sometimes becomes the proverbial elephant in the room.  Everyone knows that it’s important, yet somehow it gets pushed from the agenda.  With the focus firmly on the visible functionality, there may be less appetite to discuss data.

 

Whilst this rush for quick implementation of functionality is understandable, when this pattern occurs, it’s really important to ask the question: Who is considering the data?  There is a real danger if the answer is “nobody”.

 

Data dangers

Lightbulb

An Unorthodox Catalyst for Innovation: Data

LightbulbNew ideas often arrive at the most inconvenient of times.  As I sit here writing this blog, I’m reminded of the seemingly hundreds of blog ideas that have occurred to me over the past year whilst I’ve been driving my car.  I don’t keep a notepad in the car (as I try to avoid being distracted as I drive), but I always make a mental note to write the idea down when I reach my destination.  Sadly more often than not, I have forgotten it by the time that I arrive.  I am also renowned for waking up in the early hours of the morning, having a fantastic innovative new business idea, but falling back to sleep and forgetting it by morning.  Perhaps you find similar things happen to you too…

 

It seems that ideas and innovation are often triggered by the most surprising of stimuli.  A left-field idea can be triggered by a seemingly unrelated insight.  It’s tempting to think that we are at nature’s mercy, and innovative ideas can only be created by a serendipitous coincidence.  Yet there is much we can do to stimulate innovation – and much has been written discussing the virtues of creative thinking, brainstorming and many other ways of cultivating innovation.

 

Yet, it strikes me, that when we are looking for innovative new ideas we often overlook a real asset that our organisation holds: Data.

 

Before I continue, I should be very clear – I’m absolutely not trying to suggest we should force innovation nor am I underplaying the importance of those happy innovative coincidences that do occur.  However, when organisations need to innovate – and in many industries innovation becomes a pre-requisite for survival – data can be a rich source of inspiration and insight.  We can draw on our data for potential scenarios and ideas for the future.

 

Data as an innovative catalyst

A Key to Good Customer Experience: Consistency

Inconsistent SignIn a competitive environment, ensuring that our organisations offer good customer service can help create a real competitive advantage.  Understandably, organisations of all sizes—from midsized to multinational—have spent time re-designing their processes and considering the journey that their customers go through when interacting with the company.  Providing a slick, informative and helpful service that meets the needs of our customers will make it more likely that they come back to us.   Customer experience can be examined from many different angles; this article considers the consistency of experience.

 

Offering an experience that is both good and consistent is crucial.  It is extremely frustrating, as a customer, when a company offers an excellent experience one day but a mediocre one the next.   When we provide a great customer experience, it raises the bar; quite rightly, our customers will expect a similar experience the next time.  If we fall short of this in the future, we cause disappointment and frustration. Imagine the following hypothetical example:

 

A supermarket offers a home delivery service.  Week after week, the service works well, with items being delivered on time and as expected.  The driver is always courteous, and helps the customer carry the bags into the kitchen. 

One week, the driver is rushed and unable to help the customer carry their bags into the house (“We don’t actually have to do that…”).  The customer realises, in the rush, that a bag has been missed.  The customer rings the call centre, and after a protracted discussion, the call centre agent issues a refund… but this leaves the customer in a situation where they have to go and visit a supermarket to obtain the missing items, even though they had opted for home delivery.

This inconsistency in experience, if it persists (even occasionally), may convince the customer to change to a different supplier.

 

What this means for business and business analysis

Innovation works better when you inject the voice of the customer

Woman with megaphone shouting to a globeAs organisations adapt and innovate, they inevitably alter their products, processes and systems. Whether mid-sized or multinational, companies quite understandably focus on ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of their operations. They launch new products, re-engineer their processes and refresh their infrastructure.  They strive for growth and continued success and are forever on the lookout for the next ‘big idea’.

 

Yet, an unpleasant reality can haunt the unprepared.  Often these innovative projects and initiatives end up placing too much focus internally.  They are driven by ideas that are formed in board meetings, in departmental problem solving sessions and during internal workshops.  We run innovative brainstorming sessions and come up with ideas that everyone agrees are just fantastic.  Inadvertently, and with the best of intentions, we risk ignoring the customer.  We assume that we are going to deliver something they will value — yet how much true customer input or insight have we sought?  Often the answer is “little” or “none”.

 

Take the following hypothetical examples:

Avoid knee-jerk decision making

Business person standing in front of black-board with arrows pointing in conflicting directionsI suspect everyone reading this blog has, at least once, been guilty of making a knee-jerk decision – I know I certainly have.  You know the type of situation:  you’re presented with a couple of facts that look ‘urgent’, so you make a quick decision without seeking further information, context or data. Soon after, you find the facts were very unrepresentative of the real holistic situation, and the decision you’ve made suddenly looks like it might not lead to the outcome you were hoping for.  In fact, it may be a complete overreaction and in retrospect might seem like a bad decision…

Cars parked

Do You Know Where The Problem Is?

Cars parkedIf you’re ever in the UK city of Portsmouth and you want to hear an impassioned debate, ask some local residents about car parking.  You’ll be sure to stir up a variety of opinions and ideas.  After you ask the question though, I’d recommend standing back… it’s a very divisive topic!

 

It may help if I explain the context.  Portsmouth is a crowded island city.  It’s heavily populated and surrounded by the sea, only connected to the mainland by road bridges.  This creates an interesting dilemma — the capacity to build anything on the island is limited.  There is only so much land, and short of building underground or on the sea, that capacity is finite.  This creates a real problem when it comes to parking.  The vast majority of houses on the island were built in the 1800s and early 1900s – long before anyone needed to think about driveways or garages.  So parking space is at a real premium, with most residents needing to park their cars on the street.

 

The trouble is that demand outstrips capacity.  There are many more people who want to park on the streets than there are available parking spaces.  This has led to the local council trying various tactics to control parking – from creating (and then suspending) residents-only parking schemes right through to creating a ‘park and ride’ scheme.

 

Time and experience has shown that there is no silver bullet to Portsmouth’s parking problem.  Every intervention that the council makes will inevitably have some affect and some impact – but the impacts that are positive for some stakeholder groups are negative for others.  Often, a problem that is solved in one area creates a brand new problem elsewhere.  This leads to the council being in a perpetual state of confused oscillation: Creating new parking zones, then suspending them, in a desperate attempt to find something that works.

 

The city is a system: The solution isn’t always near the problem. 

In reality, parking problems might be solved with seemingly unrelated solutions.  The city of Portsmouth is a complex system with interwoven dependencies that are difficult for the eye to see.  To solve a parking problem, you have to analyse and crunch the data of the entire holistic system. This requires collaboration and analysis across departments, organisations and areas.  Take the following examples:

 

  • Portsmouth has a large university and a transient student population, who often share houses. This means a house may have 4 or 5 cars, and those cars might only be used occasionally.  So perhaps offering a car-sharing scheme for students, which saves them money whilst still enabling them to use a car might help.
  • There is a trend towards converting older properties into apartments; each apartment owner will probably own a car. So perhaps the town planning regulations should change to control this or at least ensure adequate parking is built on redevelopments (or that the developments are in areas that are sufficiently close to public transport)
  • There are areas of Portsmouth that it is difficult to get to on public transport. By understanding and improving this, the need to own a car may be reduced.
  • Since on-street parking is free, there isn’t a disincentive to park. So perhaps there is an argument for some kind of affordable parking for a guaranteed space

 

The examples above just skim the surface – but the key point is that in order to solve a parking problem, it would be necessary to think in a much broader way.  It would be necessary to examine wider data sets too.  A solution may involve not just the parking department, but also the town planners and maybe even the local university.  It’s important to understand what is driving demand and the complex network of interrelated factors that are causing the problem.  A combination of seemingly unrelated interventions may create a far better outcome than an “obvious” knee-jerk reaction.

 

What this means for business and business analysis 

People waiting in an airport

Do You Know How Many Customers You’re Throwing Away?

People waiting in an airportI was recently travelling home after a business trip and I checked in to a very small regional airport.  It was around 6:30 p.m. and I had over an hour to kill so I visited the airport’s only café to buy some food.  The café appeared to be part of a regional mid-sized chain, and they had a standard range of food, so I knew exactly what I could expect.  I looked through the menu, made my choice, and went to the counter to order.

 

I gave my order to the cashier who looked a little embarrassed and immediately apologised: