Confidence is an easy position to take when you’re doing your daily tasks. You know how things work. You know where to get information. Everybody knows their jobs and they are heads down doing them. But in those spare moments when you are waiting for someone to get back to you with the prices you need for a quote, or over the days it takes for departments to prepare reports for a board meeting, or over the week it takes for shipping to get back to you with your inventory standings – you do have a bit of an itch at the back of your mind. Is this good enough? Are we prepared for the future – whatever comes? Are we fooling ourselves – building up a backlog of “solution debt” we’re going to have to pay back with interest at some point?
When those thoughts come up, you wonder if you are really doing ok, or just holding on. It is very hard to know when you have outgrown the business systems and technology that supports your operations. A major disruption may be just around the corner that you just can’t see. Worse, the systems you are using may be actually hobbling your business – making you less nimble and less able to meet your customer expectations and their perceptions of your competition. Comfort and complacency are hard to fight in operations. Change is always a bit risky and less attractive than sticking with our known processes and solutions.
But if you feel like there should be a way to look at your current standing and “take stock” as they say – you’re not alone. We meet with clients frequently that have realized they waited too long and are now facing some big costs for “uplifts” or alternatively – new systems and applications. It isn’t a comfortable situation for anyone.
With that in mind, we have looked at the warning signs we’ve seen in the field that should start the process of planning a change. Are we talking about a full digital transformation? Not really, although it may be the best outcome in the long run, we’re looking here at the assessment of where you stand and what you could need to address. These areas may not be all you need to consider; every business is different after all. But these are all things that we think are important for any service or systems-dependant organization (and we’re all getting there if we’re not already) to look at:
1. Growing Pains
Maybe your business was stable for a long time and because of opportunities you capitalized on or positive steps you took – you are now growing and maybe looking at significant growth in the near future. What is significant growth? It depends on your size and ability to scale but when you start to get beyond 20% of your current volume you could see significant pressure on your systems – but you may not actually realize it until you get above 30-40%. After all, we all tend to be a bit conservative about our future growth and the stability of growth patterns. We’re happy to cut corners and our existing workarounds continue to function up to somewhere around point. It isn’t until the constraints we have begun to cut into the volume we can handle while still maintaining our customer experience that we begin to say – ummmm – wait a minute.
You may notice it sooner though if you are expanding into a new region or setting a business area up as a separate unit. When the processes you have and the systems you use need to be spread to new locations, you will suddenly find all the little gaps in your processes that you have been living with for years are in the way when you want to extend them into a new site or situation. And the same may be true when you combine local offices or you pull back some expansion that hasn’t gone like you expected. Bringing those units together or back to the mother ship may expose some differences and inefficiencies you didn’t expect or give you a vision of a more unified, standardized process.
Regardless of how you get there – changes in size and business volume are opportunities to look at your systems and ask – are they really serving you? Is the “Off-the-Shelf” solution you when you were just one office still able to serve you? Is the app you had written some years back actually what you want to try to scale to twice the number of seats? While your teams are finding ways to “work with what we’ve got” – that may mean that their work is less efficient, standard and scalable. These are all questions and consideration related to growth and its impacts on the systems that support you.
2. More Mobile
This has been happening to so many businesses that it really isn’t funny anymore. We’re used to working at our desks, in our offices. But gradually, we’ve become more mobile and our clients, partners, and co-workers expect us to be available on demand with our data at our fingertips. You’re home on a Saturday and a really big client calls and asks, “Where is the order that was supposed to come in on Friday?” Now honestly – you don’t know. You know you signed the shipping order and it was supposed to be loaded and out the door. You need to look at the shipping documents and check progress. If you can’t do that out of the office – you’re going to have to make excuses until you can go back in and do the search process manually.
Worse, maybe you can get into shipping from your smartphone – but all you are seeing is read-only scrapes from the shipping app screens. You can’t change anything without going in and maybe calling someone from shipping to help. Believe it or not, this still happens. A lot of apps have been “made mobile” by nothing more than piping desktop screens to a mobile interface. They aren’t optimized, they often have limited or no access to make changes and they are sometimes not formatted for the varying screen aspects of mobile devices. You’re not sure what you don’t see without constantly scrolling around.
Whether your work takes you to the field to provide services or you are simply “on-call” all the time – actual mobile apps are important today. And we don’t just mean “mobile enablements” like we used to see. We mean applications that actually serve responsive, fully functional apps to your workers where they are and when they need them. We’re already to the point where some workers never use a “desktop app.” Representatives can enter their sales from their cell phones and tablets – sending full PDF invoices to their clients and booking orders directly into the system. They really don’t have time to go back to a desk, sit down, log in and enter details.
3. Security is an Afterthought
There was a time that security was handled as much by obscurity as any formal attempt to control and monitor access to applications and their data. And, truth be told – that is still far more common than it should be. There are literally millions of applications that can be “hacked” with simple default password choices (the word “password” is still the number one choice) and even though a lot of them may not be a significant risk because they don’t save or generate proprietary data – it is often their connection to other applications in the stack that is the real target. A really large corporation “might” be able to handle the risk but for small to medium companies – an exposed hack of customer data could easily be the death knell.
Legacy applications can hold many surprises. Passwords and sensitive data that is not properly controlled and encrypted. Unable to use the latest methods of secure data transport – they simply let it go with no rules to control the level of access or security methods used. Security should cover issues beyond unauthorized access to data and system too. What will prevent outside forces from changing data? Or setting access controls that block you out while they press for system “ransom?” And although many organizations do not, it is worth considering if reliability falls under the same umbrella for you. If servers or applications can fail without rolling over to a new instance – you have serious risks in the current atmosphere. If the applications and systems they run on are relatively new – the problems are probably fixable with better configurations or virtual environments. But if they are older, legacy apps – upgrades to handle reliability issues may simply not be worth the time and effort required to bring the environment up to speed.
Security vulnerabilities are also not something that can be judged simply by applying an alphabet soup of standards. An application that was never designed for the current environment of “always on, always connected” applications can have a number of holes that create risks when probed by a knowledgeable hacker. And in that sense, you’re only as secure as your weakest link. All too often considerable effort has been spent to harden systems only to find later that it was a single legacy application in the environment that provided an entry window into otherwise secure applications. It isn’t a bad idea to ask for a vulnerability assessment for your entire environment if you are upgrading or bringing new applications. It has a cost depending on what level of assessment you ask for – but it can be much less costly than data a loss of customer or proprietary data.
4. IT stack is a patchwork
Applications require supporting environments. To provide that technical support, a “stack” with operating systems, languages, protocols and more are used. This is fine when all your applications are of a similar period and using similar environments, but when they come from radically different approaches, technologies or periods – they can require isolated stacks with different specifications. This requires licenses, proper hardware or hardware emulation (which may be hard to obtain if the application is older), and a knowledge of how to monitor and maintain these specialized stacks. The longer you keep your application up and running, the more likely you are to get to a point where it is hard to justify all the expense and specialized knowledge required. For core applications, this just isn’t possible but for secondary apps, it often goes unnoticed until the situation fails completely. And then it can set up a cascade when the data or processes embodied in those legacies are no longer available.
To some degree, these problems can be contained by leveraging virtualized environments. But even then, the options grow smaller as time moves along. Patchwork stacks are a risk, they complicate maintenance, and they usually increase costs – sometimes considerably when a license reaches sunset and requires a premium to remain in use. Even when all applications are relatively new and fully supported, divided environments for different operating systems and runtime environments take careful planning and standardized processes to control and maintain. It may seem minor at the moment, but as you go along these problems can morph into serious risks if they are in or attached to core business processes.
5. Clouds are a Hazy Dream
There was a time when “cloud computing” was a dream promoted by IT professionals but the potential was only vaguely understood in the business executive ranks. That time is well behind us now, or should be. The problem is that as the technology has gone along, the usage patterns in small to medium businesses have remained relatively naive and small.
Now think about that for a minute. Here is a technology that lets you use the latest and greatest technologies to host and serve your applications – for a monthly cost that is historically low. It allows you a higher level of security, reliability, and scalability than you have every had access to before, features that were once reserved for only the biggest players in technology, at a cost that is scalable and manageable.
But there is a cost to entry, of course. The first hurdle is you must have the requisite knowledge and experience to know how to apply the features available to your business. That one is tough because most in-house IT shops don’t have the time or the skills to keep up with everything that is going on in the field. The second though may be just as daunting. Your applications need to be optimized for running in and taking advantage of the environments cloud technologies provide. Unfortunately, in many cases that doesn’t include an uplift or configuration of your existing apps. In the best case, in the course of considering the development of a new application, you should specify that you would like to see options for running it in a virtualized configuration and what you could gain from that environment.
If your core business is not in itself technical, outsourcing to a partner the planning and development of cloud apps can be a good way to move forward and begin to take advantage of the capabilities you can gain from cloud-based applications and services. But whether you do it in-house or outsource – if you are not taking advantage of cloud computing in a serious way, you are hurting yourself now and hobbling your business for the future.
6. Everyone has a workaround
We’ve heard it a thousand times. From the day you introduced that application what was supposed to help you improve processes in your core operations, people have been complaining about “little things.” For a time, the noise was constant and many problems were solved, but eventually – it just melted away. Things seemed to be working. Everyone had adjusted and there were few if any complaints. So what happened? Did everyone get over their complaints and learn to accept the system?
Well maybe. Or maybe not. Most people don’t really want to waste their time complaining, they want to get on with their work and they don’t want to be bothered. So, they find little ways to work around the process or the conventions the program seems to be pushing them into. It could be notes written on a piece of paper or entering odd characters into fields that don’t seem to give them the options they need or spreadsheets that reference an item entry but give the detail they need to do their work. Workarounds often cross departments and roles too. Perhaps there is no way to get authorization for an action within an application so – an email chain is started to get and document that important bit of the process. Or someone needs to be notified that an action is being taken and they need to set up an order for supporting materials. Or… the list goes on.
Business changes, evolves, but in most cases, the applications that support it and are the backbone of the operation – do not. So, people find workarounds. The problem comes when you try to extract or interpret data from the application for use in other places. You’re not getting everything and you may not be able to make sense of what you do have. You can count on it. The longer your applications have been around, the more workarounds will exist. They are little bits of data and process that can be very hard to track and control.
7. Crossing many systems to get to one answer
Let’s say you want to find out how times a specific product was returned for repairs or return in the last year and you want to compare that to the number sold. And then, to make the report a little more complete, you want to know the details of the customers that bought and returned those products – to see if you can discern a pattern.
Do you think you could do that on one system in your business? If you are using an ERP – perhaps you can. But there are a lot of businesses that are not and don’t intend to. They probably started relatively small and build up a stack of applications to help them do their work done over time. Today we have an inventory management system – a year ago we didn’t. Tomorrow we will get our customer information off spreadsheets kept by individual sales people and put it into a CRM. Is the CRM hooked to the inventory management system? Probably not. They are managed in different departments – silos. To trace those products and the customers that purchased them you will have to cross systems. Do the IDs in the CRM match the numbers used in the inventory system? Maybe, but they were started at different times so there is no particular reason they should. And what if some of the inventory was in the field before the inventory system was implemented? Well…
The incremental growth of business applications in silos is one of the biggest (hidden) threats to developing a modern, nimble operation. If it is a symptom you can discern in your organization – you need to consider when, not if, you will address it.
8. Paper. Stacks and stacks
We should have addressed this one a long time ago, right? Or maybe we thought we did. You might be surprised if you look around. It could be said to be one of the biggest workarounds – that we have already addressed in this list – but it more than that. Paper is the last resort when technology doesn’t give us the options we need, when we need some “temporary” storage for information, or when things just need to be noted at the moment. And it builds up. It can be very surprising how much paper is hiding on our desks, file cabinets, and traveling around in our work. But it can also be revealing. It can show the reports we need but don’t have, the fields in apps we need but don’t have, and the interdepartmental collaboration that is vital to our operations but embodied nowhere.
9. Same problems, over and over again.
This one should be self-evident – but it isn’t. The problems one person has in their work may never reach someone else whose work is similar – and has related problems. Issues may exist up and down a process – but because we don’t examine them and look for improvements – we don’t share our frustrations and in many cases, we are concerned that if we do – we begin to be seen as the problem ourselves. Collaboration, open discussions of “how things work” are all good, but if they lead to no changes, they don’t last. But you can bet those problems are still out there.
10. Skills, expectations, costs and recruiting
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There isn’t a business executive alive who doesn’t see this one coming. The acquisition and retention of the kind of experienced, skilled resources you need to address this list of problems – has a cost and it isn’t cheap. It isn’t cheap in real cost or the associated time and business resources spent on it. But, the need is real and you are right to be concerned about it.
And to wrap this up – that is a big part of why we spent the time to address this list of warning signs that the solutions you depend on may be failing you. When you find that yes, you have some of these warning signs – what’s next? How do you move forward?
We’d like to help
This is where we say, “Yes – we would like to offer our help.” Scio provides end-to-end engineering services in a collaborative partnership to ensure that your team is an integral part of the solutions you require. We can offer a wide range of skills to make up a team that you can depend on – and work with directly. And when you need something more – we’re flexible. From helping to assess your needs to developing, implementing and maintaining solutions, we can offer as much or as little help as you need. Our teams can work with you virtually or on your site – but most companies need some type of combination of the two and we’re more than happy to find that blend too. If you think that sounds interesting – Contact Us. We’re ready.
And, we’re providing a series of articles to our readers under the title: “Refuse to Fail” They are quite insightful about this and other subjects related to digital transformation and the strategies behind it. If you think you might be interested – sign up. It costs nothing and you can opt out at any time.