Archive for IT Strategy

The Ant and the Grasshopper: Continuity Planning & Situation Awareness

Success in projects large and small often relies on a great deal of “situation awareness”—the awareness of dynamic factors integral to and surrounding a project and of the extent to which a change in one variable affects the whole.

Some of the most critical variables in any project are, of course, humans.

Situation awareness must always include an assessment of the human environment within which a project is taking place, and if you are the leader (an executive or project manager), you must be prepared to adjust your style and approach based on the personalities, power relationships, motivations, and intentions you encounter.

If that sounds multi-layered and complex, it is. The human brain is still the most powerful and creative computer we know of, but all that grey matter comes with baggage. Even before actual work ever gets done, leaders must seek common understanding and trust—and appropriate boundaries. There are no true cookie cutter management applications or algorithms—we always have to make adjustments.

A Modern Fable

To illustrate, let me tell you a story from my past experience—a kind of modern version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper!”

At the beginning of the last decade, I was consulting with a multi-national corporation when continuity planning became a hot topic. It was a sidebar to the Y2K debacle, when companies were forced to make adjustments based on short-sighted computer programming that had not provided for the switch from “1999” to “2000.”

As 2000 approached our organization realized that anything programmed with dates—security systems, printers, engineering controllers—might not work if relying on date-driven information. (In a related example, when I was working for a very large media company, a building security system was tested for the year 2000; it locked all the doors in corporate headquarters and would not be opened without being completely dismantled!)

“What Are Your Priorities?”

As information officer, responsibility for continuity planning fell on me and my staff. Since we were a federal contractor, we used the methodology prescribed by the General Accounting Office (GAO), and we hired a “Big Five” consulting firm to perform third party validation.

These two decisions created pressure for buy-in by the organization to participate. Additionally, we didn’t just make this a Y2K exercise, but a business continuity exercise, posing the general question, “How long can you afford to not do business, and what are the priorities to maintain minimal operations?”

The study became an exercise in situation awareness within a complex system, conducted over six months.

It produced an inventory of facilities and IT systems—essentially anything that had a controller in it, including lowly stamp machines. Items were rated for effect on mission critical operations. Scenarios were examined for contractual, political, and natural incidents that could cause disruptions. These were run through multifunctional teams for review, testing, and prioritizing. We created emergency plans, maps, and communication trees that included meet-up locations, service level agreements from providers, and alternative phone systems.

A Natural Disaster

Every office participated, but one. And sure enough, a disaster struck that office causing a continuity crisis—its facility’s roof was ripped off in a hurricane. Because there was no continuity plan in place, this subsidiary and the project office were unable to meet contractual requirements, and they both went out of business.

Meanwhile, through advance testing, every system but one mail machine in the corporate office had been addressed prior to Y2K and coped with the date change just fine. And when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks happened, the same plan was used and the organization quickly locked down project areas that were considered susceptible to terrorist strikes.

The teamwork and collaboration involved in this project must be noted. Due to the complexity of the organization and the services rendered, there was no reliance on an individual—or, to allude to another fable, on the boy with a finger in the dyke.

Teams were important and players had to be able to assume each other’s roles. For example, when the voice-over IP communications lines went down briefly during the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks, two remote engineers stepped in for the IT people, who were busy being safety marshals.

By referring to the Emergency Manual, individuals in Alabama and North Dakota were able to reroute communications lines through emergency dial up connections that the organization maintained for critical connectivity. Not only was safety ensured—and calm maintained—but investor and public relations kept communications channels open, even as some larger companies were affected by leaks and improper information disclosure by employees in the midst of that crisis.

David Beats Goliath with a Rock (Solid Approach to Market Entry)

I recently received some great feedback on my University of Maryland Doctorate of Management paper on “Globalization and the Small-to-Medium Enterprise (SME).”

Despite many challenges, I argue that there remain some tremendous opportunities for SMEs to gain market entry in a global environment through alliances, virtual organizations, and symbiotic relationships with other companies both large and small. At the end of the paper, I included an interview with Ian Bothwell of Rover Technologies, a technology-based SME.

Here’s some of the good advice Ian passed along regarding how to launch technology-based products and services in a global marketplace.

Play the Field: Market in More Than One Segment

“The ability to market your technology to more than one segment is valuable. Multiple segments implies the potential to also scale in a larger market, while the risk of failure is reduced in any one segment. However, switching segments is usually not practical very early in the market entry process, primarily because customer acquisition and product customization costs can be prohibitive.”

Horses for Courses: Find the Right Niche

“A scaling strategy in the face of an established market is extraordinarily difficult, in terms of differentiating oneself and establishing presence and credibility. For SMEs scaling is predicated on finding useful niches and entering with an attractive price/performance and matching customer needs. In Phase Two, upsell the early adopters.”

Jack Be Nimble: Use Size to Your Advantage

“The primary advantage an SME has is its size. There is no market too small or any customer too unattractive. Its agility and willingness to take risks makes it a potent market force. For technology-based products and services, this advantage means being able to adapt to diverse customer needs without incurring significant additional development, testing, or market validation costs. This requires an inherently ‘flexible’ product that can be customized rapidly, easily, and at low ‘delta cost.’”

Pipe Dream: Rapidly Introduce New Products/Upgrades

“In order to scale in a segment, while sustaining first-in-class momentum, you must introduce product improvements in a rapid tempo, usually more than once a year. This calls for a fundamentally superior design concept and flawless execution by the product team. A useful concept here is product line architecture (PLA), which has become the rage with large enterprises in their drive to eke out efficiencies.”

Triumph of the Commons: Design for Rapid Product Evolution

“A well-designed product line embeds a superior design of sufficient abstraction and commonality that it allows for the assembly of a majority of ‘common’ elements along with a small number of unique variations—to yield rapid development of a range of product forms. R&D advances fed into the pipeline allow for variations to take advantage of these technologies first before they are incorporated into the enterprise. This provides a viable implementation framework for a large range of products prior to the market entry of even the first one! Synergistically designed software and hardware provide a powerful foundation for an affordable and efficient PLA to leverage an SME’s agility in order to make a big market impact.”

Fully Baked: Design Agnostic Hardware

“Hardware design needs to be device agnostic to allow for significant upgradeability for emerging technologies that are as yet undefined. Similarly, scalability has to be ‘baked-in’ at the outset, since the PLA supports different products with widely different scaling needs. The use of standard interfaces allows for interoperability of different classes of devices, opening the door to a variety of application concepts with the same hardware framework.”

Reading the Future: Use Services-Based Software

“Software design needs to mirror the abstraction of peripheral devices. Core software design must generalize these device constructs using a meta-framework to define and model them, to allow software to understand device types yet to be developed. A services-based software framework can encapsulate various aspects of product-related functions and allow the development of common and unique services.”

SITUATIONAL AWARENESS AND DECISION SUPPORT ON THE US BORDER Operations and Systems Improvements

AVI Management Group (AVIsion) was recently contacted by several engineering specialists who are currently involved with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded Secure Border Initiatives (SBI) program.

AVIsion was asked to help provide solutions that can solve the challenge of reliably incorporating data from disparate sources into the SBInet Common Operating Picture (COP) used by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).  After review of the program, several factors have been identified that if implemented, will greatly enhance its effectiveness. The current program can be leveraged and expanded using existing assets such as the Waypoint GIS system, repurposing the dispatch system software currently used for SBInet DSS, and sharing resources with programs such as SPAWAR. In addition, communications networks could be reconfigured to extend the original vision of SBInet to the field.

While the SBI program is on hold pending congressional review, the CBD still has two requirements of utmost importance;

  1. To be able to recognize and track legitimate breaches of US borders, and
  2. Identify targets and intentions prior to apprehension.

Historically missing from the DHS modus operandi is a roadmap and strategy to achieve afore mentioned requirements on a comprehensive scale. In the case of CBP, a vision for managing the perimeter of the United States is paramount to determining operational and tactical approaches that can close gaps on the border. At the national level, DHS needs to feed a comprehensive analytics solution for managing resources, predicting patterns and behaviors beyond local environments. Introduction of a feedback loop through the command chain will further enhance situational awareness and decision making. Introduction of a feedback loop on a local level can constantly refine simple decision making as patterns reveal consistent successes under specific conditions.

AVIsion and its partners have a clear vision for how both CBP and DHS can operationally and technically manage tactical and strategic border security mandates. This vision includes the use of subject matter experts to perform a use-centered analysis on the unique needs and characteristics of each CBP sector and subsector. In addition this includes review of processes to identify improvments and efficiencies, as well as data and tools.

A comprehensive study is planned, resulting in an actionable blueprint that includes a master-level framework to ultimately deliver the right information to the right people, at the right time. This framework includes an intelligence platform, physical devices and architecture, people and process maps. The blueprint, based on a 15-year plan, will provide a short-term path, and a longer-term roadmap.

envisioned common operating picture condensed view

AVIsion possesses international enterprise-level information management, system design,and planning and implementation experience. Our company has experience in delivering comprehensive distributed systems into remote areas that have constrained communications systems and infrastructure.  An opportunity presently exists to provide alternative operational and technical approaches to CBP and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  AVIsion is also accepting partners and subject matter experts who feel they can contribute to this effort

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