Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | March 25, 2012

Different stories, same “Putty”

Information and communication technologies have begun to catch us in unexpected places and moments. Earlier this month, I traveled through Japan, and had occasion to go from Kyoto to Nara by local train, a leisurely journey of about 40 minutes, meandering through sleepy towns and small stations. The Japanese woman next to me looked to be in her twenties, had a friendly face and a bright smile, and did not speak English. Whenever possible, I usually talk with fellow travelers – I find it fun and so far I have not landed in any serious sort of trouble because of it. Given that I don’t know Japanese however, that wasn’t going to happen this time.

The words are a bit blurred but one can see the two boxes

As the train started moving, I felt a gentle nudge at my elbow and looked at her, and then to where she was pointing – her cell phone. There on the screen were two boxes, one beneath the other. The top box had a sentence written in Japanese, and the bottom one, presumably its English translation – Are you a tourist? She had pulled up an app that translated between Japanese and English. I looked at her smile that said – Now we can talk! And I typed in the English box – Yes. And she wrote in the Japanese box – Where are you from? My reply – I live in America. And then – You like Japan? I said – Beautiful. She smiled at me, the barrier of language between us now gone. She told me she lived in Kyoto and worked in a small town between Kyoto and Nara and this was her commute to work. She worked for a clothes boutique and that she lived with her parents and older brother. My parents want me to get married soon, but I don’t want to. How many times had I seen that sort of determined and wistful look on the faces of young girls who wanted to see places and do things and didn’t want to get married just yet?  In India, certainly, in the US also. In China, where a 19-year university student told me she wanted to become an “engineer who makes cars, before I get married, I hope my father lets me”. And we talked about these and other sorts of things that were country independent, and were human sentiments, really. She told me she had been to Tokyo once or twice, and wanted to see other cities in Japan, maybe even travel outside. Before the train reached her station she pulled up a train timetable on another phone app and wrote that since I could not read or understand Japanese, it would be useful for me to know that Nara was fifteen minutes away and what the preceding station was – I cannot recollect now the name of the town she mentioned.

Have a nice time in Japan, she told me, before getting off the train and waving herself off with a smile. And I thought – the cell phone (and the tablet and Facebook and all of these sorts of devices and applications) is just like putty. You give it the shape you want and use it to whatever end it is that makes sense to you. To check email or read stuff or connect with people or simply and unexpectedly to talk with the next person in the train who doesn’t speak your language. How you use it tells the story of who you are and what you find worthwhile doing. The Management Information Systems literature has a theory to explain it – adaptive structuration. You structure the functions, properties and uses of the device and applications to match your preferences. In other words, different stories, same putty!

Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | March 3, 2012

I went to Barnes and Noble

I went there after quite a while, actually. I had a fixed objective  – I wanted to buy the Dr. Spock book for my sister, who was pregnant. I was passing by anyway. Oh well, lets buy it from here. I knew exactly which bookshelf I wanted to go to and counted on spending no more than ten minutes in the store. On entering, among the first things I saw, as always – the bargain shelves. Meandering for five minutes cannot hurt, locating Dr. Spock will take no more than three minutes. And so it started. There was a book on the plays of Shakespeare and I suddenly smiled as I remembered Portia and Shylock and English classes in school and, ah yes, friends. Then one on yoga , and suddenly I saw my dad teaching me yoga poses when I was little, and mum helping me with homework, and I saw home. I serendipitously spotted a little book on various herbs and how to grow them, just the book I needed and had not been looking for. And I found it without the help of “customers who viewed this also viewed……”! I looked around – did I have fellow browsers? Were they also doing similar cartwheels in their mind? A young man and woman were standing close together, talking softly and looking at what seemed like a book of weddings. And I saw weddings, ceremonies, festivals, new clothes, food, gossip, fun, people.

The coffee shop was, surprisingly, quite crowded. People were talking, working on laptops, or just sitting and reading. Soft lamps. A piece of unhurried tranquility, to recharge and perhaps to recoup. To share and create stories. It looked so familiarly comfortable and inviting. I turned around to go toward the children’s section. A woman was reading to her two toddler children, the three of them embedded in the tale and its pictures. Frequent squeals of high-pitched delight and frantic gestures interspersed with soft grown up laughter, all of it cocooned safely away from the world. Love. A member of the staff asked me what I was looking for. He showed me similar books, and told me about his daughter who had just had a baby and what books he had given her. He spoke fondly, because she was his daughter of course, but I suspect as much so, because he liked to help people find the books they wanted as part of their lives, and in doing so, to become a little bit of their lives as well. Not a piece of data-mining and recommender-system code, but a human being. Through him, I too sort of felt connected to those people.

I chose a few books, stood in the checkout line, picked out a bookmark from one of the nearby racks for good measure, a physical bookmark, paid, and left. I had spent many more than ten minutes. And had witnessed and felt a not insignificant sweep of the everyday sagas that come our way, and which will never change, no matter where or how we buy our books. For, our books will always chronicle the yarns most precious and beloved to us. www.amazon.com, anyone?

Disclaimer: I love all sorts of bookstores – in airports, on cobbled streets, in the vast depths of the Internet, on the pavements of Calcutta and Ann Arbor. This piece is in no way a criticism of either bookstore mentioned, but a reflection on how we humans have so swiftly adapted to, and found traction with, the compelling power of electrons.

Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | January 25, 2012

Boundless Amidst My Binding Chords

“The world is too much with us”, said William Wordsworth. Indeed, and why not? There are things to be done and roles to play and dreams to chase. It is difficult to get away from all of it, just like that. And yet in the midst of all these that bind us to the days and nights and ebbs and flows,  that which is changeless, somehow pops up in unexpected places and never really lets go of us. I heard this Tagore song – Sheemar Majhe Asheem–  the other day, my attempt at translation follows, and the YouTube link of the Bengali original is attached below that.

Boundless Amidst My Binding Chords

Amidst all my binding chords,

You stand boundless for evermore,

Playing Your eternal melody,

Your radiance finds its home in me,

It shines beautiful for evermore.

 

In all the colors and fragrances around me,

In all the songs and poems I sing,

Your beauty dances,  beyond all my words,

Your radiance finds its home in me,

It fills my heart for evermore.

 

When You and I are one,

Everything else fades away,

The mighty oceans rise in waves of unbridled joy,

Free for evermore.

 

There are no shadows in Your light,

When it finds its home in me,

Through my tears,

It shines beautiful for evermore.

Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | January 25, 2012

Unbundling the University through Information Technology

Universities are changing. They are going the way of a host of other industries that were transformed by Information Technology (IT) in the last 25 – 30 years – media, entertainment, retailing. Process standardization, collaboration and automation tools are “dis-connecting” various processes and changing the way that things get done in the University.

Universities have three major functions: 1. Creation of knowledge through research, 2. Dissemination of knowledge to students and 3. Providing infrastructure and facilities for students to interact with one another and with teachers and potential employers, and to get access to sources of information. Traditionally all of these activities have been carried out in one physical structure, the University. Now, there is the potential, indeed even a reality in many places today, that these three objectives can be served seemingly independent of one another and outside of a conventional university with classrooms and faculty offices and labs.

Starting with “Dissemination of knowledge to students”, an increasing proportion of classes are conducted online, where instead of meeting the professor and other classmates every week, course materials are accessed, assignments are done and quizzes are taken online. With increasingly “rich” sorts of interactions, through collaborative tools such as wikis and video conferencing embedded in or augmenting traditional course management tools, an increasing number and variety of classroom activities such as discussions and case study analyses can be conducted online. Theoretically speaking therefore it is possible for a professor and a student to teach and take a course without being in the same physical space. I know many colleagues who after retirement are teaching only online courses for non-traditional universities, working out of their home offices.

Second, as far as “providing infrastructure and facilities for students to interact with one another” goes, most students do not meet in traditional places such as libraries and canteens. They meet mostly in online spaces and exchange ideas and information through things such as Google docs, not to speak of Facebook. So the idea that students need to spend time with one another to set off spirals of serendipitous learning is becoming less and less true. Yes, the 4 years spent in college are still filled with that sort of learning and friendships and network building, but that doesn’t happen only through or even majorly through physical spaces any more.

And lastly, for “creation of knowledge through research”, perhaps the only physical facilities that are required are laboratories. And that too largely in the physical sciences. Everything else that research requires – collaboration, discussion, iteration, analysis, writing, reviewing and critiquing, can be done through electronic media.

Given the above then, it is very likely that we are looking at disembodied “classrooms” that exist only in the abstract, at college going students conglomerating only in online forums for their learning and course, at professors working out of their home offices and at ‘universities’ as significantly shrunken physical spaces. The “unbundled” university.

Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | July 10, 2011

How Can IT Folks Support Social Media Use?

How to use social media in effective support of a company’s strategic goals and objectives – is a question that many companies struggle to address.  I find that the answer to this, is in many ways, similar to the one I have been working on, for some time, namely, how do IT folks facilitate use of innovation tools? The essence for both questions is – when the tools and applications in question are decentralized, easy to acquire and use, and not given to corporate control, how can the IT department have an effective role?

The challenges to effective use of social medial are many, among them: (1) not being able to identify the right areas/departments to target, (2) getting stuck with social media tools and applications that are technically slick and state of the art, but which no one uses, (3) letting a thousand flowers bloom and ending up with a plethora of social media platforms that do not talk to one another and hence cannot be used for decision support, and (4) creating an IT security hole in the corporate IT infrastructure in the zeal to use social media. Each of these, alone, can derail a company’s efforts to gainfully use social media. Addressing them requires the deliberate and combined efforts of those who are enthusiastic about applying social media to their work processes (i.e. functional managers from marketing, innovation, customer service and other departments), of those whose brief it will ultimately be to provide a technically secure and sustainable platform for the applications (i.e. the IT department), and of those who will provide the financial and human wherewithal to initiate and see these projects through (i.e. the executive management). The presence of each of these three components is important, and non-automatic. We talk about the role of the IT department.

1. Never say “never”: The first instinct that IT departments have when confronted with use of an application that they did not recommend or do not support is – “cannot be”. Such a reaction is not completely out of line because concerns of security, compatibility and standardization are and should be foremost for enterprise systems, database and networks, i.e. the heavy duty systems and applications on which the firm runs. Social media applications, however, do not fall among these. By nature they are flexible applications, given to substantial structuration and configuration by the user. Additionally, ideas for which particular type of social media application should be used and how it should be applied to company processes, come from the trenches and frontlines in sales, R&D and other functions. The first step for the IT department is therefore to listen to these ideas with full consideration.

2. Understand technologies and processes: Eventually it is the IT department that will be called upon to provide the technical platform, scalability and integration for any social media application that a function might want to adopt. More often than not however, that function does not fully understand how such an application might be fully utilized or what the technical implications of its adoption and use might be. In order to make any sort of useful contribution here, the IT department should understand the plethora of social media applications out there and their possible application to the firm’s processes. Equally important, it should be familiar with the workflows and critical processes of each department. And most important, IT folks should be able to put together and assimilate such technical and process understanding to effectively educate and inform functional users and managers about potential social media tools. Unfortunately, the reality is that many IT departments just do not get it. A comment from a student in my EMBA class, “I remember the Head of IT mentioning that he did not “get” Facebook and how it’s used, why people use it, what the purpose is, etc.”

3. Apply gentle and firm persuasion: Based on the above, the IT department may need to influence the functions in their design and choice of specific social medial tools. Frontline managers who come up with ideas about social media applications are usually technically savvy, willing to experiment and know their processes well. Any potentially helpful and influential role that the IT department hopes to play, in guiding and directing social media adoption will therefore need to be based on solid technical and business knowledge, high credibility with the functions, and good working relationships with front line functional managers.

4. Direct, support and encourage use: Once a decision has been made to adopt a particular application, prompt and skillful technical support for it should be forthcoming from the IT department. IT folks should also encourage use by publicizing the system and its benefits. They should make users aware of possible security risks, since ideas based on social networking applications tend to put employee information and possibly important company information “out there” among customers and competitors. Develop, for instance a how to guide that includes a list of potential risks from social media and ways to mitigate them. Create a list of “things to keep in mind” when using social media for specific activities. Easier said than done. In my experience, a comment from a graduate student, a middle level executive in an automotive firm, “The older IT guys were not chatty types to start with. Call for help – no way. The newer IT guys a little more chatty, but too preoccupied with their cool tools.”

 

Continuing our writings ( The IT Audit that Boosts Innovation, Sloan Management Review, July 1, 2010) on the role that Information Technology plays in enabling innovation in companies, Steve Gordon and I had the following piece published recently. We talk about why innovators and the IT folks need to collaborate with each other, why they do not or cannot, and what can be done about it. Take a look.

How to foster greater collaboration between innovators and the IT department

Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | June 27, 2011

Now

She doesn’t like to eat and will do it only when I tell her that it will make her stronger. She laughs and cries in her sleep, her fingers sometimes tightly curled up, sometimes holding on to mine. She tells me to play her favorite song and read out a book and we listen to the music and words together as though no one else existed. She hates it when I give her medicines or salt water gargle for her sore throat, telling me that I am a bully. She likes to hold my hand when she walks more than a few steps. I did these things too, with her, when I was her little girl. Now she is my little girl.

Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | June 1, 2011

Running and Building with Information Technology

Modern IT operations, even for a medium sized firm, can quickly become very complicated. IT proliferates end-to-end processes in the value chain and forms a critical part of the infrastructure of the firm. Indeed there are certain aspects of the IT backbone, which, if non-functional, can derail the very processes that need to get done in order for the firm to operate. Think of Amazon with no back end database connectivity, or a bank where you cannot access your account information. Given this sort of infusion of IT in critical firm processes, there are many different tasks that require the attention of the IT function, including developing code, maintenance, data management, security, user support and standardization, to name just a few. An important question that IT departments are increasingly grappling with is – How to classify all these numerous activities into a reasonable set of focus and priority areas such that resources and skills can be appropriately classified and directed?

Emerging findings from studies on the CIO and the IT department suggest that there are two broad types of activities that the IT function is responsible for- Run and Build. Run functions are those that speak to the utility aspect of IT. These activities keep the lights on and make sure that the servers, networks, crunch applications and security programs are working so that business processes don’t get held up and workflows get done. Run activities include identifying opportunities for automation, providing sets of services and minimizing their costs. These activities can be provided by outsourcing vendors on a service level agreement basis. For example then, network services are provided based on capacity, throughput and downtime, while data storage and processing services are provided on the basis of processing and memory capacity. The focus of managing run activities is to achieve the desired level of performance and quality at minimum cost and appropriate standardization.

Build functions are those that support and enable new IT initiatives, that is, they provide technology for business change initiatives. Build activities require joint IT-business accountability because they focus on new applications and hardware infrastructure. Business interfaces are required for deciding their specifications and functionalities. Another aspect of build activities is platforms and architecture If new applications and systems are not built on existing platforms and do not integrate with them, then users may not be able to capture the full benefits. Consider your bank launching a set of new investment products and then telling you that you will not be able to consider these as part of your existing portfolio of products when you log into your account because “the IT for them is different”! A second aspect of build applications has to do with process reengineering. The IT department works with functional units to identify processes that can be transformed and taken to the next level, and then plans out and implements the required applications and systems. A relatively new aspect of build is IT’s share of revenue. Many IT units are using rapid delivery methods to quickly get digital products to market. They are serving as partners in product delivery, through solution and platform delivery activities. This is particularly so in the banking and media sectors. Thus revenue generation is an important part of build.

The question then arises – how much should a company allocate to Build and Run? Most companies spend about 50-60% of their total IT allocation on Run activities. While there is no fixed or magic number, the relative allocation would depend on the extent to which IT can assist in getting new products and services to market. Firms where that is high would likely require to spend more on Build. The idea is to maximize the cost efficiency and standardization of Run activities such that there is enough left over for Build.

Another important question – Where does IT outsourcing come in? Are different skills required from the IT department for outsourcing Run and Build activities? Typically, yes. Outsourcing Run activities is more structured and standardized. It is important to specify service levels and performance measures for the vendor, who is then expected to provide services accordingly. Once the contracts are drawn, there is not much of day-to-day interaction between the internal IT department and the outsourcing vendor except in case of emergencies and escalations. For Build activities however, the outsourcing vendor is typically required to be more informed about and involved in the client’s business processes and even long-term business plans. They are required to project medium to long-term technical and architectural requirements, based on projections of business and future products. Outsourcing service delivery is more about understanding process requirements and developing applications and platforms, rather than providing IT utility services. Not all outsourcing vendors have the skills to put them up to these sorts of tasks.

Finally, companies run the risk of over and under allocation. Too much attention to build renders the IT department unable to keep the lights on in the first place and hence its credibility is lost. At the same time, over attention to run may make the IT department oblivious of future business needs or of the technical and human skills required of it, to address them. Firms are just beginning to understand the drivers behind their Run and Build IT activities, and it is expected that with greater understanding will come greater ability to appropriate value from IT

Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | June 1, 2011

Information Techology’s Value Proposition: Explore or Exploit?

Two important trends have characterized firms’ use of IT in the last decade. One – there has been increased assimilation of IT across functions, within and across companies.  Inefficient, paper-based, undocumented and often ad-hoc workflows and information-processing have given way to automated transaction-processing and more digitized and integrated processes, powered by application such as ERP software for processes internal to the firm such as payroll processing, production planning, and goods receipt and dispatch. For inter-firm processes such as procurement and supply chain management, similar applications such as e-procurement and inventory management software have created possibilities for integration across the firm’s boundaries with its suppliers and customers. The second trend has been that many firms have begun to consider more advanced uses of digitization – such as for product and channel innovation. Particularly in highly information intensive and consumer-oriented sectors such as cell phone services, entertainment, automobile/high-tech manufacturing, retailing and banking, they are beginning to capitalize on emerging opportunities for partly or completely digitizing products and services, and using digital channels as possible means of their delivery.

So what is the value proposition for IT? Is it a mere enabler of efficiency in transaction processing, data storage and retrieval and workflows, or is it something more? Can IT be an enabler or driver of product and process innovation? Ever since Nick Carr’s IT Doesn’t Matter, which argued, rather fallaciously, that IT is like plumbing, a utility that is a requirement for running a business but not a differentiator for competitive advantage, there has a been a scramble to look at what is it that IT really does for a company.  A number of papers (e.g. Venkatraman and Henderson 2008, Sambamurthy et. al. 2003) have suggested that IT is expected to facilitate new product and business development by exploring and capitalizing on opportunities presented by new technologies. Firms like Google, Amazon, Wal-Mart, Nasdaq exemplify this view. They use IT to develop new products (e.g. Google analytics), new strategic partnerships (e.g. Amazon’s marketplace) and process innovations (e.g. Wal Mart’s logistics processes).

One way to look at this dual role of IT is through the exploration-exploitation lens. Exploration and exploitation reflect respectively, the strategic emphases of an organization on discovery of new products and technologies, and on refinement of existing ones. Exploration is characterized by activities of learning and experimentation in the context of new technologies. Exploitation focuses on activities for refining and improving established skills and processes (March 1991, Tushman and Benner 2003). In the exploration mode the firm seeks to innovate with IS through new IS initiatives, and search for, learn about and deploy, IT that can drive or enable the firm’s exploration of new products and markets. In the exploitation mode the firm seeks to create value through refining and improving existing IT assets and initiatives and utilizing existing IT for developing and delivering the firm’s offerings.

This brings us to an interesting dichotomy. If IT is both an enabler of efficient, structured, and repetitive information processing, as well as a potential facilitator of innovation, what are the implications for what the IT department and the CIO do? Do they bring the same set of skills, knowledge and competencies to both these roles? Are the skills required of exploration the same as that required for exploitation? We find that as a result of the need to both explore and exploit, the IT function (which includes the CIO and the IT department) is subject to dichotomous requirements. On the one hand, it is expected to facilitate new product and business development by exploring and capitalizing on opportunities presented by new technologies, spurring acquisition of new IS, and exemplifying the strategic importance of IT. On the other, there is an imperative for it to effectively exploit the firm’s existing IS in support of current products and processes, making it necessary to deliver and support reliable infrastructure and systems, and reflecting the operational importance of IT.

We find that IT functions having an exploration orientation should be good at (1) identifying emerging information technologies of potential strategic importance to their firms, (2) understanding and framing business and innovation opportunity emanating from such technologies, and (3) ensuring that the firm’s strategic planning process proactively considers these opportunities. That is, they should scan emerging and new technologies and identify which ones can be applied to create new products or processes. The CIO learns about emerging technologies, considers their possible application to the firm’s business, and creates awareness among executive management about how IT can further business innovation through new products and channels. The IS department organizes forums where middle and junior-level functional and IS mangers discuss IT buzzwords and competitor action trends with respect to emerging technologies, and gets going conversations about IT, within various levels in the company. The CIO also creates, along with executive management, shared visions about specific processes or products that can come about through emerging IT. Further, he or she tries to incorporate these visions and understanding into the firm’s strategic business plans, by, for example, playing a leading role in strategic planning process. The IT department often gets involved in the development of new products and processes that have high levels of IT embedded-ness.

IS functions that are oriented toward exploitation, should focus on (1) effective delivery and maintenance of technology and applications and (2) application of existing IS to product and process development or improvement. They do this through execution and delivery and end user interaction. Execution and delivery routines embody the ability to implement and maintain complex systems. The CIO should maintain relationships with top management executives and senior functional managers, to keep them informed about ongoing IT initiatives, acquire their support for resources for existing systems, and facilitate the IT department’s access to other functions. The IT department should facilitate timely and efficient execution of IT implementation initiatives and maintenance. As part of end user support, the IT function should anticipate and services support requirements from an end user population that, in Indian organizations, varies considerably in its IT related sophistication and comfort-levels. The CIO serves as spokesperson for existing systems and their broad capabilities, bridging the IT function and users. The IT department has a significant role in educating and training users on specific functionalities of existing applications, identifying solutions that can come from simple improvisations on them, and resolving user problems.

We thus see that exploration and exploitation orientations require innovation and utility based approaches towards using IT respectively. They also require distinct and different skills from the IT function.

References:

Benner, M. J. and Tushman, M. L. “Exploitation, Exploration, and Process Management: The Productivity Dilemma Revisited,” Academy of Management Review (28:2), 2003, pp. 238–256.

March, J.G., “Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning,” Organization Science, (2:1), 1991, pp. 71-87.

Sambamurthy, V., Bharadwaj, A., and Grover, V. “Shaping agility through digital options: Reconceptualizing the role of information technology in contemporary firms,” MIS Quarterly (27:2), 2003, pp.237–263.

Venkatraman, N., and Henderson, C. Four Vectors of Business Model Innovation: Value Captured in a Network Era. Pantaleo, D., Pal, N., From Strategy to Execution: Turning Accelerated Global Change into Opportunity, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2008.

Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | May 9, 2011

Beloved Bard

This year, today actually, is the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in literature. I of course, do not know as much I would like to, about all of the different forms in which he expressed himself. But whatever I do know, mainly through his songs and poems, I find very personal in a rather comforting sort of way. I suppose that is the hallmark of all enduring literature – that it should hold up a mirror for us to experience our familiar joys and doubts over and over. But with Tagore, whether you are searching for your beloved or playing with your child or remembering your parents or just taking in a star-filled sky in wonder, some song or poem invariably comes to mind, and you hum it and you think of the words, and you say “How did he know what I am feeling?” Follows below a translation I did some time ago, of the song “Daanriye Accho”.  It reminds me of musical instruments, meandering rivers, distant echoes, deep longings and ancient quests.

The Other Shore of My Song

( A version of Daanriye Accho Tumi Aamar Ganer Opare)

You stand on the other shore of my song

My notes have found their words- they call out to You

Yet, You remain far away

Softly blows the breeze

Do not keep Your boat tied to the shore

Set it free, cross the river

Come into my heart for evermore

Making music with You

Is like playing to a place far away

My flute sings in distant longing

Every night and every day

When will You hear its voice?

When will You come and play?

Come in joy

Come in the silence of the dark

Come in the peace of the night

You stand on the other shore of my song

My notes have found their words- they call out to You

Yet, You remain far away

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