Manfred Grossmann has seen the scenario play out over and over.

“I think companies that sell new products in an IT environment don’t always use them themselves,” said the vice president of corporate IT and project excellence for digital service provider Sycor Group. “Like everybody else, they focus on things that are not quite new.”

This was the situation Sycor recently found itself facing.

“When you’ve been using an older system release for years, hardly being able to do any upgrades, you get into a kind of innovation trap,” Grossmann explained.

Prior to 2022, Sycor’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system was 60% dependent on nonstandard processes, a situation that complicated operations, blocked growth, and reduced innovation.

As a result, application runtimes tended to be long.

The log-on process “was really slow and not state of the art,” Grossmann said. “It was based on on-premises hardware with additional virtualization layers.” Users had to begin by logging on to a virtual private network (VPN) ensuring that all data would be privately transmitted. That often took 20 seconds, then another 20 seconds to start a program.”

“It was very frustrating if you were in a meeting and wanted to demonstrate something on the screen. Everyone would be sitting there, waiting for the data to come up.”

In order to keep pace with its forward-looking philosophy, Sycor would have to simplify and standardize all processes of the company – replacing the unwieldy system with a single platform.

Investing in change

With its main headquarters in Goettingen, Germany, Sycor Group covers the entire range of information and communication technology, including software asset management, concept development, telecommunication services, and IT outsourcing.

The urgency to develop the Sycor Intelligent Business Platform was felt at every level, since two legal mergers were scheduled to occur by New Year’s Day 2022.

The company forged ahead anyway, vowing to have the platform in place when business operations combined. 

“You have to invest in change,” Grossmann said.

Implementation partner Walldorf Consulting assisted on everything from development enhancements and interfaces to program management.

“Implementing public cloud software is completely different to classic on-premises approaches,” Grossmann pointed out. “That’s why we needed a good implementation partner to guide us through the cloud environment and its specific processes.”

With an eye on future innovation and new business model support, the decision was made to reach across the fragmented services and systems by building the platform with seven cloud solutions from ERP leader SAP, including SAP Analytics Cloud, SAP Marketing Cloud & Sales Cloud, SAP Concur, and SAP SuccessFactors.

“Individual software would no longer have to be installed,” Grossmann said. 

Complexity would be minimized by incorporating mobile and other technologies to capture data, allowing users to log on from anywhere and gain support from modern user interfaces.

New horizons ahead

In less than 10 months, 179 services and processes were implemented, enabling Sycor to meet its January 1, 2022 deployment deadline.

Among the achieved goals: a single sign-on across all systems, greater transparency at every information level, and faster response times for internal and customer requests.

The utilization of mobile, user-centric applications for recording and billing expenses dramatically reduced complex administrative tasks of the past, creating more time for innovation.

For its holistic re-design of its entire business platform, Sycor was honored as a winner at the 2022 SAP Innovation Awards, an annual ceremony highlighting organizations using SAP technologies to transform the world.

Meanwhile, modernization efforts continue at Sycor, with plans to use its enhanced tools to improve the company’s HR processes, create new billing models, and widen the cloud and technology portfolio for customers.

“When I think back on the way we developed the platform, there are many minor things we could have changed,” Grossmann said. “But when you consider the methodology and the way we’ve run the project, I would do it again completely the same way.

Learn more about Sycor’s amazing accomplishment that earned them the SAP Innovation Awards here.

Enterprise Applications, SaaS

As CIO at The Hut Group (THG), the British ecommerce firm behind such brands as Lookfantastic and Myprotein, Joanna Drake has been navigating some serious headwinds.

Responsible for global operations and technology services across company and customer websites, staff technology, and THG’s direct-to-consumer Ingenuity service and hosting business, Drake has looked to support the rapid growth of the Manchester-based firm through IPO, a global pandemic, supply chain instability, and the onset of recession.

Speaking at the CIO UK 100 awards ceremony at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, Drake explained what it meant to be ranked the top CIO in the UK, how her tennis background shaped her leadership, why automation is freeing up her IT team, and how THG is supporting engineers relocating from war-stricken Ukraine.

CIO 100 winner, sports leadership and being ‘too friendly’

Having featured in the CIO 100 in 2021 and 2020 prior to topping this year’s list, Drake says the award is for her team, not just her.

“If this was about me, as an individual, I’d struggle to do a [CIO 100] submission,” she said. “So it’s about the team and I’m blessed and honoured to work with some amazing people every day, with so much grit, determination and creativity.” She also added that it was also an opportunity to stop and reflect on how far they’ve come in the last year, and how she fell into IT after a career in tennis failed to materialise, first starting out in help desk support before progressing into service management and engineering positions.

As she climbed the ranks, taking on more senior technology roles at Diageo, Accenture, Yahoo, Betfair, BBC and Skyscanner before joining The Hut Group in 2018, she realised that her sports background could shape her leadership style.

“Sports taught me about teamwork, putting players in the right positions, team formation, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, practice, hard work, discipline and how and when to apply coaching or mentoring,” she says, adding that she continually analyses the ‘ingredients’ of her team, to find details that can make big differences.

This isn’t to say that Drake’s ascension to the higher echelons of business leadership has come without difficulty. In particular, throughout her 20-year career, Drake has often been chastised for being too friendly, an unfamiliar quality perhaps in a results-driven business world.

“A lot of times in my career I’ve been told I wouldn’t make it as a senior tech person,” she said. “Actually, I think it’s about being my true authentic self because it’s exhausting if you can’t be yourself. I’ve learned through being me that actually, that’s okay.”

Digital workplace, automation and ‘IT as consultants’

Drake highlights THG’s digital workplace and automation initiatives as her team’s most notable achievements over the last year, alongside its Ingenuity Compute Engine (ICE), through which THG is hoping to build ‘hyperscaler experiences’ across more than 50 data centres.

As part of the ‘infrastructure reimagined’ programme, ICE provides a software-defined, infrastructure-as-code (IaC) platform where teams can run containerised applications on Kubernetes, ultimately speeding up infrastructure procurement and deployment. Drake says THG has built the platform in four of its data centres so far, allowing developers to build new platforms on ICE, and migrate existing THG workloads onto it.

Speed and simplicity have also been the essence behind THG’s digital workplace initiatives.

The e-commerce firm has also rolled out zero-touch device provisioning, built app stores for Microsoft and Mac-based devices, offered technology drive-through and click-and-collect services, as well as numerous enhancements to the office environment from digital signage, wayfinding screens and universal desk set-up for hot desking, to meeting room technology, video editing suites, device lockers and digital packing benches in warehouses.

Automation, meanwhile, has been introduced to free-up IT team members to become consultants to the business, removing their operational toil while empowering their line-of-business peers to focus on more strategic work.

Leveraging a combination of RPA, low-code and no-code technologies, THG has sought to streamline processes, particularly in HR such as joiners, movers, leavers and role-based access control.

“Automation has been about [IT] almost automating themselves out of the jobs they had, so they could go on to more interesting roles,” says Drake. “Where they’ve removed a lot of operational toil, we’ve had to re-skill our engineers and this is great for retaining talent.” So instead of churning or doing tickets, engineers go out as consultants in the business and speak to different departments about processes. “They follow things that hold them back, how they could do more, so they can actually remove their operational toil,” she adds.

Stalking talent and supporting Ukrainian staff

Despite such technological innovation, Drake is adamant that people remains her top priority, and she’s taking to stealthy methods to find prospective talent.

“I do a lot of stalking on LinkedIn,” she says. “I think about the sort of people and skill I want, and I go and hunt them out. I’ve got to build the team and I want the best players so I’ve got to go out there and find them. And when I’ve got them, I need to make sure they’re successful and making a difference. And if they’re successful, we’re all happy.”

Yet she recognises that the ongoing recruitment challenges, cost-of-living pressures and deepening mental health concerns mean the focus must be as on talent retention and attraction in equal measure.

To further help with the former, Drake oversees a series of stand-ups during the week to keep the team engaged. There’s a Monday session that tackles how the IT team plans to ‘win’ that week, a Tuesday one is called take-over Tuesday, Wednesday’s focuses on wellness and development, and Friday offers an opportunity for team shout-outs and general updates.

The Hut Group has also looked to help engineers get out of Ukraine at the onset of the war with Russia, helping to evacuate them and their families to Poland, paying for accommodation and providing homeware, toys and jobs at a local warehouse.

“For a lot of our staff in Ukraine, work has helped them lead as normal life as possible in these circumstances,” says Drake. “Ensuring they are very actively involved in and heard every day is a really important part of supporting them.”

Financial strife puts the CIO’s focus on efficiency

Much of last year’s progress has been about laying the technological foundations for the next 10 years, yet Drake acknowledges that the next 12 months could be a bumpy ride.

The Hut Group has seen its growth stunted in recent times by rising raw material costs, cost-of-living pressures on customers, declining shares (down 86% year-on-year), and a market valuation that recently plummeted from £5bn to £600m amid market headwinds.

In October, Japanese investor SoftBank announced it was selling its 6.4% stake to company founder Matthew Moulding and Qatari investors for just £31m, having bought the stake in the shopping group for £481m in May 2021.

Such uncertainty means Drake’s focus is now on efficiency.

“[My priority is] continuing with all of that efficiency stuff—ICE, composable compute, which means we can deliver more, more quickly.”

Drake is also spearheading THG’s ‘match-fit programmes’, looking at ways the group can improve customer service, operational efficiency and team development for when some semblance of normality returns.

She says THG is consolidating toolsets, decommissioning legacy technology and migrating customers to the latest platforms, as well as making sure the firm gets the best ‘bang for buck’ when working with suppliers.

“We thought of using it as an opportunity to get in really good shape, ready for the fight when the world turns the right way up again.”

CIO, CIO 100, IT Leadership

IT analyst firm GigaOm is quick to point out that primary data is the first point of impact for ransomware attacks. This fact puts primary storage in the spotlight for every CIO to see, and it highlights how important ransomware protection is in an enterprise storage solution. When GigaOm released their “GigaOm Sonar Report for Block-based Primary Storage Ransomware Protection” recently, a clear leader emerged.

GigaOm named Infinidat as the industry leader in ransomware protection for block-based storage. Infinidat is a leading provider of enterprise storage solutions. According to GigaOm’s independent analysis, Infinidat distinguishes itself for its modern, software-defined storage architecture, securing enterprise storage with a strategic, long-term approach, broad and deep functionality, and high quality of innovation.

One of the top CMOs in the tech industry, Eric Herzog, is leading the marketing charge at Infinidat and had this to say about this recognition from GigaOm:

“Infinidat has taken the benefits of ransomware protection on enterprise block storage to the next level, including guaranteed immutable snapshot recovery in one minute or less, greater ease of use, and comprehensive cyber resilience.”

“Being recognized as the industry leader for combatting ransomware not only gives us enormous forward momentum as a solution provider of cyber storage resilience and modern data protection, but it also gives Infinidat a seat at the table to talk to large enterprises and service providers about what we can do to eliminate the threat of ransomware for them,” he added.

The GigaOm Sonar Report showcases the strength of Infinidat’s novel InfiniSafe cyber resilience technology embedded across all its platforms: InfiniBox®, InfiniBox™ SSA and InfiniGuard®. The report states:

“Infinidat offers a complete and balanced ransomware protection solution. InfiniSafe brings together the key foundational requirements essential for delivering comprehensive cyber-recovery capabilities with immutable snapshots, logical air-gapped protection, a fenced forensic network, and near-instantaneous recovery of backups of any repository size.”

Infinidat has delivered the industry’s first cyber storage guarantee for recovery on primary storage – the InfiniSafe® Cyber Storage guarantee.

The company recently extended cyber resilience to its InfiniBox and InfiniBox SSA II enterprise storage platforms with the InfiniSafe Reference Architecture, allowing Infinidat to provide its immutability snapshot guarantee and the recovery time of immutable snapshots at one minute or less. InfiniSafe was announced on the InfiniGuard modern data protection and cyber storage resilience platform in February this year.

The GigaOm Sonar Report recognizes the features and functionality of Infinidat’s cyber resilience technology: “InfiniGuard delivers solid cybersecurity features at no extra cost, allowing customers to quickly and securely restore data, even at scale, in case of an attack.”

Through near instantaneous cyber recovery, Infinidat helps organizations avoid having to pay the ransom, yet still retrieve their valuable enterprise data, uncompromised and intact. Think about how significant this really is, given how much of a threat ransomware is.

When ransomware takes data hostage, it can destroy backup copies of data, steal credentials, leak stolen information, and worse. It has caused businesses of all sizes to shut down operations overnight, so it is not unusual for a company to pay a large sum of money to restore their business. Infinidat’s solutions can put a stop to it.

It is an honor that GigaOm has recognized the technology leadership. The analyst community has been spot-on about how enterprises and service providers should strategize to not just take “baby steps” but actually take a quantum leap forward to address these cyberattacks.

In addition, GigaOm recognized Infinidat as a “Fast Mover,” one of only two vendors awarded that accolade. “Fast Movers” are expected to deliver on their solutions and technologies faster and with more features/functionality than other vendors known as “Forward Movers.” Infinidat has been rapidly delivering new technology, several guarantees, and new capabilities over the past 18 months, including the extension of new features and functions to InfiniSafe.

Max Mortillaro, Analyst at GigaOm, shared his perspective: “Primary data is the first point of impact for ransomware attacks, so it is critical for organizations to implement primary storage solutions that incorporate ransomware protection, such as Infinidat’s cyber resilience solutions.”

He went on to say, “Our new GigaOm Sonar Report on ransomware protection for block storage comes at a time when ransomware attacks have become so prevalent and such a persistent threat for all organizations across all industries. We have seen through our analysis how ransomware can cause significant damage to companies and government agencies.”

The time is right for Infinidat to step forward as a recognized industry leader for ransomware protection.

To download the full analyst report, click here.

To read more about Infinidat’s cyber resilience solutions, click here.

Security

The nonsense was tucked away in a PowerPoint slide, as so much nonsense is. “We’ll help you institute best practices, followed by a program of continuous improvement,” the offending bullet said.

Now, I’m willing to shrug at a bit of harmless puffery from time to time. And maybe this puffery was harmless. But I don’t think so.

As my pappy used to say, ‘If someone sells this and someone else buys it, they have something in common: They’re both schmucks.’ Even ignoring the two-schmucks-in-a-pond aspect of the situation, the whole premise of “best practices” isn’t just flawed, it’s fraud — that should be avoided at all costs. It’s a phrase that pretends to provide value when it’s really inserting nothing but noise into the signal.

The idea of “best practices” is deeply wrong for these reasons: (1) It’s argument by assertion, not evidence and logic; (2) “best” is contextual, not absolute; and (3) it encourages stasis by precluding innovation.

Argument by assertion

When you read or are told a particular way of doing things is best practice, do you ask what the criteria are for awarding it best-practice status? Or, for that matter, who the governing body is that’s authorized to give out the award?

In the rare cases where there is a governing body — ITIL is an example — best practices aren’t what they offer. What governing bodies more often provide are “frameworks,” which are lists of practices, not actual how-to assistance.

If you have asked, you’ve probably discovered that there is no such group. What there is in its place is self-proclaimed authority. Here’s how that works out:

Imagine the situation at hand isn’t about running IT or a business — it’s about curing intense abdominal agony, for which surgically removing the vermiform appendix is, you’re told while lying in your bed of pain, best practice. An industry consultant tells you so, buttressing their argument by laying out three case studies in which appendix removal successfully eliminated the abdominal distress. It’s best practice!

Except it isn’t, because, sadly, they lost a few patients along the way. There are, as it turns out, lots of different types of intense abdominal pain, most of which aren’t appendix-related. Somehow or other these weren’t written up as case studies.

Best is contextual

As has been pointed out in this space before, processes and practices have six dimensions of possible optimization, and because they trade off you can only optimize no more than three of them.

For any given practice, different organizations need to optimize different combinations of these dimensions. A process or practice whose optimization goals are, for example, cycle time and quality will be designed quite differently from one designed to optimize for unit cost and excellence.

Which makes designing any one process or practice that’s best in all situations no more possible than designing any one anything else that’s best in all situations.

Stasis over innovation

Call me Captain Literal, but “best”? Really?

Look, if we’re supposed to take someone at their word, their word should mean what it’s supposed to mean. So a best practice should be, by definition, a practice that can’t be improved on.

As a leader and as a manager, the last thing you ought to be doing is encouraging the attitude that the way you do things, or the way you’re going to do things once you’ve installed a new practice, is that there’s no place for innovative thinking.

But that’s what the phrase tells them.

So don’t use it.

Where do you go from here?

When you decide you need to improve your organization’s practices, starting from scratch doesn’t make sense either. Surely there must be a way to learn from the experience of other organizations.

There surely is, and it’s probably obvious to you if you’ve read this far.

If you’re on the proposing side of such things, banish the phrase “best practice” from your vocabulary. When you’re tempted to use it, describe the practice you’re proposing as a “proven practice” or “well-tested practice” instead, assuming you and your teams have enough experience to justify the claim.

If you’re on the buying side of the equation and someone uses it as part of their attempt to persuade you to embrace their way of doing things, stick your fingers in your ears and sing, La la la la la! I can’t hear you! La la la la la!

It is, after all, just noise.

If you’re looking for a better way of doing things, and like the practice in question as described and are explaining why you’ve chosen to implement it, go beyond banishing the phrase.

Replace it with this dictum: There’s no such thing as best practices, only practices that fit best.

And make sure you’ve evaluated the practice in question so you’re confident it does fit your organization best.

Is that best practice for practice improvement?

Probably not.

But it’s a pretty good one.

IT Leadership, IT Strategy

A lot is being written about VSM, and for good reason: it offers the opportunity for organizations to benefit from increased alignment, accelerated innovation, reduced risk, and improved competitive advantage. In spite of the clear benefits, it remains a struggle for many leaders to feel confident in taking initial steps and knowing exactly where to start. In this regard, it is invaluable to hear from experts who have been doing this work and realizing success.

While each organization’s VSM initiative will be unique, there are nevertheless common principles and lessons that all can benefit from. In our work with global enterprises, we’ve had the opportunity to hear directly from the executives who are leading the VSM initiatives in their organizations, and who are leading the industry in terms of maximizing the benefits of VSM. We recently had the opportunity to chat with a leading VSM expert working in a large insurance firm. Several years ago, this executive helped launch the organization’s VSM initiative. Here are some of the key lessons they’ve learned in terms of breaking ground with VSM:

Start with clear definitions

In today’s business world there’s no shortage of acronyms and buzzwords. Ultimately, for the insurer, VSM has come to involve people from throughout the organization, especially when working with an international mix of stakeholders, executives, and participants. It is vital to start with a clear understanding of VSM so everyone’s grounded in a common understanding of what it is and why it’s important.

Clearly define value. The good news is that any organization that’s been in operation has value streams. It is essential to gain a clear, well understood, and agreed upon definition of the value being delivered. Ultimately, if teams aren’t clear on value, it is inherently a hit-or-miss proposition as to whether that value can be delivered and improved over time. The VSM leader took a purposeful approach in this case. Start with value, then look to back up from there in terms of decisions that enable that value, and how it is delivered.

Leverage data to gain transparency

Teams need to be empowered with data. Without a real-time view of what’s happening, it takes longer to pivot, and longer to deliver value. When you have fundamentals in place, decisions become faster, and you’re more likely to avoid having to make the same decisions repeatedly.

Quality data provides context, and helps teams navigate complexity. Teams have to navigate thousands of micro decisions. If we don’t have quality data, those decisions become bigger, more complex efforts; we then have to stop and gain input from others, etc. With quality data, we can validate decisions and move forward.

Are you constantly asking, “What can be done to inform an action?” See where there are disconnects and blockages in value streams. Focus on removing things that get in the way of making decisions, from tactical to roadmaps.

Data-based dashboards versus PowerPoint slides: Ensure your dashboards are based on real data, not interpretation. Automated dashboards are much less manual effort than aggregating data and building slides, and if you have thousands of people doing manual rollups – it really becomes a massive cost and drain on efficiency.

Be inclusive

For this insurance giant, VSM is very much a team sport; to succeed, many people need to be involved and engaged. Any time someone approaches, it is very useful to share knowledge around what the teams are trying to accomplish with VSM. Invariably, when hearing about the focus on delivering customer value, others get engaged and want to be a part of it.

Ultimately, people from legal, finance and executive leadership, and a range of other areas are part of the delivery of value. On a practical level, bringing in these other teams can be instrumental in avoiding potential roadblocks and speeding up initiatives. It is important to listen to different perspectives and be open to changing your mind.

Don’t be neutral

Value streams already exist – the question is how effectively they are being managed. Staying neutral, or not investing in VSM, means competitors will be getting in front of you. Often, if you put off dealing with VSM, problems don’t necessarily emerge right away. They may start emerging in six to eight months. Therefore, it is essential to take a proactive approach, and get started right away. You have to invest in an umbrella before it starts raining, just like you have to invest in systems, processes, and people. Build trust in those investments before you realize you are facing a catastrophe.

Focus

If focus is everywhere, you will be weak everywhere. We all only have a finite amount of time and resources. If your organization is not clearly focused on value, you will be diluting power that exists in an organization. Focusing on everything can be very detrimental. You’ll fall into a trap of focusing on efficiency, while losing sight of what really matters: whether you are gaining traction in value delivery.

Balance continuous improvement and innovation

Continuous improvement is inherently about improving existing processes, while important drivers are very different for innovation. You must be able to accommodate unstructured creativity, experimentation, etc. to foster innovation, without disrupting other workflows. For example, if you have scrum methodology in agile, you are effectively measuring velocity. Ultimately scrum is about stability, and the ability to predict and forecast productivity. You can’t expect to measure on this type of predictability, while at the same time requiring innovation. It creates conflict. If there’s misalignment and you try to scale, you will only scale misalignment. Before you try to scale value, you need to be certain you are delivering value.

Conclusion

VSM makes success far more likely for your organization. By leveraging clear definitions, real-time data, and using an inclusive approach, teams can ensure benefits of VSM are realized – as proven by this real-life example.

For more information, watch this webinar, Resilience Through Rainstorms – How Unum Weathers Any Storm with VSM.

Collaboration Software