Convergence and Integration – Easy to Fail!




It was recently recommended to me that I pick up a copy of “Billion-Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years” published in 2008 by Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui.

Fascinating book so far – as usual, bought the book wirelessly while I was having a conversation about this book, and was able to flip through it instantly. Ah, digital content… subject for another day.

Distributed Convergence

As I’ve been mentioning recently, and the reason the book came up… the vast majority of work we’ve been doing lately (and the ramp up into 2011 is astonishing, honestly) has been explicitly about taking various approaches (depending on the client) to do what I’m calling “distributed convergence.

You’ll be hearing more from me about this over the coming days and months. It’s a massive trend, and in all seriousness, no matter what size organization you are, you need to be thinking about this.

Chapter One – Illusions of Synergy

In the very first chapter is a primary case of exactly what clients are looking to avoid. Now the majority of our clients are not facing potential failure (usually) at the scale of a true “billion dollar lesson” (we should all be so… lucky?).┬áRegardless, it’s a long-rising trend that it’s high time is ended.

From the book, under a case study discussing the merger of two Disability Insurance companies with sharply different approaches and target markets – Unum Corporation and Provident Companies – and under the aptly title subtext of “UnumProvident: Giving ‘Disability’ a New Name”:

Unum and Provident talked before the merger about back-office efficiencies. But they began as a combined company with thirty-four separate information systems that didn’t talk to each other. As of 2005, six years after the merger, UnumProvident had managed to eliminate just four of those thirty-four systems.

The book is primarily about business management and culture failures – clashing cultures, misunderstood strengths/weaknesses, the fallacy of expecting 2+2 to equal 42 or more, in an overly optimistic timeframe… But, right up front, it’s a classic case of “un-convergence” or as we all typically call it “siloed systems” and the dangers lurking there. Silos aren’t necessarily bad – targeted functionality is what makes mobile apps, for example, so darn useful, and yes, those are stand-alone silos, essentially.

Shut down, Blow it up or Integrate?

Photo credit: muffinmaker / photocase.com

Now, does an aquiring company HAVE to shut down a system or many systems to make it more efficient? No.

Could they shut them down more quickly and systematically? No doubt – but big companies especially, tend to dance like elephants, as the saying goes.

Could they introduce integration layers, not necessarily BIG BUDGET integration layers, like an Enterprise Service Bus or SOA overhaul, but perhaps light-weight integration, say Business Process Management, Portals, Taxonomies, or Search technology to cut across systems? Yes. Rather… YES!

There’s no single clear path to untangle what is easy to see is an unholy technology mess – pre-merger, during or post-merger. But clearly, as this book indicates (based on lessons learned from extensive research into 750 major bankruptcies between 1981 and 2006, including Enron, Conseco, Texaco, Kmart, and Refco – as well as companies that survived, but were clearly hard hit in their businesses due to bad decisions and tragic assumptions), if you do not have your SYSTEMS in order, behind the scenes, not only are you crippling your ability to run the business on a daily basis…

But when you add extra fuel on the fire, through mergers & acquisitions, or economic downturn, or any other large shock to the system, it becomes all to clear how both fragile the new system is (2 merged companies that in theory are bigger, better and… more nimble? Contain that laughter!), and how resistant to change the old systems and sub-systems (departments, regions, vice presidents of divisions, suppliers, etc.) are.

Walk the Agile and Integrated Walk

I’ve been in working in and around IT/IS for a long time – and although I no longer (mostly) twiddle the bits and cables, much of my work surrounds strategy and implementation of technology.

Whether I’m brought in by IT explicitly (“I’m one of you, or least, was”), or by business sponsors as a bridge to IT (which happens far more often), I’m close enough to the problem that UnumProvident experienced to see it every day.

It is far easier to build systems, and groups of systems that are destined to fail… unintentionally… than it is to set up for both current and future success.

Looking too narrowly at a problem can cause serious pains in implementing solutions. Too often the BizTech problem that’s been solved is only a single pain point, and not the real, root-cause issues, or to be more positive, to enable the ultimate business goals of reduced cost/time/effort, increase revenue/profit, customer satisfaction/loyalty and the like.

As a result, the “systems” or solutions that are often put into place are a patchwork of solutions that are islands onto themselves, picking off a single or handful of issues, and (with luck and serious effort) those few issues or opportunities will be solved well.

But that leaves the organization’s systems as a whole as a fragmented minefield for the employees to navigate as the “human glue” between systems.

Scenarios like these are incredibly common – and very fragile.

Head Down, Prepare to Fail

When the economy tanks, and people are either laid off, or the company goes bankrupt, or the belts tighten and everyone fears for their livelihood, the only agile/flexible pieces in this “system” – the employees – suddenly become so rigid and fixed in their ways, with their heads down to play it safe and keep their jobs, that all of the break points in this wide array of systems stresses even further and in many cases, blows itself into a million bits.

I’m not trying to sell you on suites, or in spending a single other dime on “new” solutions – that’s not likely to help, really.

Our business is not in selling or re-selling solutions, nor in doing hands-on integration work.

That leaves us with the freedom to be able (in many cases) to tell clients that they probably do not need to spend much more in software/solutions, do not have to blow it up and try again, or spend thousands of man-hours to migrate from an “old” system to a new one.

Not to drop a “pie in the sky” strategic plan that’s impossible to implement… but actionable strategy.

My questions to you as we head into 2011…

  • Is your strategy head screwed on tight, and focused on planning for both short-term pain elimination and longer-term integration opportunities?
  • Are you laying bridges across systems and solutions so your employees can spend less time navigating the vast landscape of applications (a recent client estimated they have at least 20,000 applications in various stages of use/implementation), and focusing on delivering value to your clients?
  • Are you taking a system rather than single solution point of view when you update, upgrade, replace or install a new solution from scratch?
  • Can you take advantage of the trend of employees working from home or across wide geographic distances, but that can still function as a team and a whole system of coordinated brains?

Make ┬áno mistake – this takes work, and no “out of the box” solution will make the lack of integration you probably have right now, just go away.

No pre-built strategy document with the best of the “best practices” is going to instantly move you out of the worst practices of DIS-integration that you may be struggling with right now.

This is knowledge work, plain and simple, and there are far fewer organizations who are doing this well than are doing it poorly.

As I said in a tweet at the beginning of the summer of 2010:

So the real question is…

Are you prepared to converge?

What are you doing to prepare? What have you tried, and hasn’t worked? What have you tried and *has* worked? Your comments are valuable not just to me, but to your peers and colleagues as well. it’s time we shed light on assumptions of that past that just aren’t true now, if they ever were.

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