The path to radically simple IT

The path to radically simple IT

By designing and deploying enterprise systems in a different way, Japan’s Shinsei Bank turned IT from a constraint into a launch pad for growth.

Enterprise IT projects — both custom and packaged “one size fits most” systems — continue to be a major headache for business leaders. The fundamental problem with these systems is that for the most part, they’re constructed using what programmer and open source champion Eric Raymond dubbed a cathedral approach. Like the great edifices that Europeans erected in the Middle Ages, enterprise IT projects are costly, take a great deal of time and deliver value only when the project is completed. In the end, they yield systems that are inflexible and cement companies into functioning the way their businesses worked several years ago, when the project started.

Despite recent improvements in the flexibility of packaged software, companies often find it exorbitantly expensive and difficult to modify their enterprise systems in order to exploit new business opportunities. Instead of building systems that are legacy from the day they are turned on, managers can and should develop systems that can be improved — rapidly and continuously — well after they’ve gone live. Over the past decade, we’ve studied the design and implementation of enterprise IT systems and assisted numerous firms with the process.

Through our work, we have identified an approach that not only reduces a company’s costs but supports the growth of existing businesses and the launch of new ones. We call it a “path based” approach, because rather than attempting to define all of the specifications for a system before the project is launched, companies focus on providing a path for the system to be developed over time. The approach’s premises are that it is difficult and costly to map out all requirements before a project starts, because people often cannot specify everything they’ll need beforehand. Also, unanticipated needs almost always arise once a system is in operation. And persuading people to use and “own” the system after it is up and running is much easier said than done.

Shinsei success

In our research, we discovered a stand-out among the companies applying the path-based method: Japan’s Shinsei Bank. It succeeded in developing and deploying an entirely new enterprise system in one year at a cost of $55 million: That’s one-quarter of the time and about 10 per cent of the cost of installing a traditional packaged system. The new system not only served as a low-cost, efficient platform for running the existing business but also was flexible enough to support the company’s growth into new areas, including retail banking, consumer finance, and a joint venture to sell Indian mutual funds in Japan.

The path-based principles that Shinsei applied in designing, building, and rolling out the system — forging together, not just aligning, business and IT strategies; employing the simplest possible technology; making the system truly modular; letting the system sell itself to users; and enabling users to influence future improvements — are a model for other companies. Some of these principles are variations on old themes, while others turn the conventional wisdom on its head.

Shinsei came into being when Long-Term Credit Bank, founded by the Japanese government to assist in the rebuilding of the country’s industries after World War II, went bust in 1998 with nearly $40 billion in nonperforming loans. The firm was nationalised, then sold in 2000 to Ripplewood Holdings, a US private-equity fund, and renamed Shinsei, which means “new birth”. Ripplewood executives coaxed Masamoto Yashiro, the former chairman of Citi-bank Japan, out of retirement to lead Shinsei. In addition to deciding to revamp existing commercial-banking operations, Yashiro formulated a plan for revolutionising retail banking in Japan by offering a value proposition that was unique in the country at that time: High-quality products and services provided on a convenient, easy-to-use, low-cost basis. The strategy called for Shinsei to offer services that were then uncommon in Japan, including no-charge ATMs available 24x7, internet banking, online foreign-exchange trading, online bilingual banking, and quick service supported by real-time database reconciliation (meaning customers’ accounts were updated immediately after each transaction).

Yashiro felt that the bank needed to move quickly to seize the opportunity in retail banking. However, the firm’s existing IT systems were antiquated and could not even support the bank’s existing corporate business adequately. To address these issues, Yashiro hired his former colleague Dhananjaya “Jay” Dvivedi, who had led IT operations at Citibank Japan, to be chief information officer. Upon taking the job, Dvivedi quickly surrounded himself with a talented core team, most of whom had worked for him previously. Since the recovering bank had limited investment funds, Yashiro gave Dvivedi the mandate to revolutionise IT but with the understanding that his team needed to do it “fast” and “cheap”. Recognising that they could not fully know what the retail operation would need, the two men agreed that the goal should be to build a system that could scale with growth and adapt to new opportunities that the dynamic business would create.

Dvivedi knew from his prior work and his conversations with other CIOs that technical problems were almost never the reason that new IT systems flopped. Human problems were. People typically resist adopting new systems, often because the cost (the effort) outweighs the benefits. To address this, Dvivedi used

simple but innovative technology solutions to avoid the wrenching go-live experience. For example, by mimicking the old system’s look and feel at least for a while, Dvivedi and his team were able to speed adoption of the new system.

While the retail unit has yet to break solidly into the black (due to the expenditures required to build the business and Japan’s difficult economic and regulatory environment), the new enterprise IT system was instrumental in helping Shinsei quickly become a significant player in the retail banking market in Japan. By June 30, 2007, Shinsei had more than two million retail customers, up from fewer than 50,000 in 2001, when its retail business was limited to wealthy clients.

Let’s take a closer look at Shinsei’s path-based approach.

Don’t just align business and IT strategies — forge them together. The notion that business strategy and IT strategy should be aligned and, therefore, that business users should be involved in the design of enterprise systems has been widely accepted. However, doing this has proven fiendishly difficult, for several reasons. For one thing, IT leaders struggle to truly understand the business context. What’s more, business leaders do not invest the time required to appreciate the power and the challenges of technology and tend to treat the IT staff as second-class service providers. Even when the two groups meet to discuss a project, those occasions tend to be isolated, one-off events, rather than part of an ongoing discussion. Like it or not, however, information systems are an integral part of business strategy in almost all industries today. If business leaders view the IT staff as an ancillary player rather than a partner, then knowledge transfer between the two groups will suffer, resulting in missed opportunities and suboptimal performance.

Complicating the situation when companies adopt standard packaged software, is that they often end up adapting the business to the technology. To be sure, this sometimes means that businesses abandon inefficient processes and institute best practices that are embedded in the software. But more often than not, managers sacrifice idiosyncratic, competitively powerful capabilities that the system could make possible because developing them would add to the time and cost of carrying out an already expensive, time-intensive project.

So what should a company do to integrate its IT and business strategies? Before the planning work on a project begins, general managers need to be sure that the IT staff understands the business and takes a central role in the organisation. One way to make sure this happens is to have the head of IT report to the CEO or COO (as Dvivedi does at Shinsei) rather than the CFO, as is common at many major corporations. The perception of importance often becomes the reality.

Business managers also need to have an understanding of what IT can do. At Shinsei, Yashiro and his successor, Thierry Porte, invested substantial amounts of their time in learning about IT. Porte speaks with Dvivedi frequently, meets with him formally a minimum of once a week, and visits the company’s IT and operations centre at least once a month. Porte believes that as CEO, “I have to be able to explain IT to my customers and employees so that we can meet our customers’ business needs and deliver value going forward.”

The close relationship between the IT and business groups helped Shinsei fully harness technology in its drive to transform the customer’s experience at the bank’s branches. For example, Shinsei tellers were equipped with two screens — one facing the teller and the other facing the customer. The customer screen was the same as that on the internet banking site, while the teller screen displayed that content plus additional information about the customer. When a customer came in for a transaction, the teller would literally show the customer how to execute the transaction herself (without telling the customer that she was being trained to conduct future transactions on a personal computer at home or on an ATM).

Strive for extreme simplicity

William of Ockham, the medieval philosopher, said theories should be as simple as possible. The same principle applies to enterprise IT systems: They should be designed with as few standards (such as network protocols, operating systems, and platforms) as possible — ideally one of each. While organisations usually start with a handful of standards, most allow them to multiply over time as a result of acquisitions and individual businesses’ initiatives. In addition, the technology chosen or developed to satisfy specific needs should be as simple as possible, should assume there will be technical failures and have ways to mitigate them, and, as much as possible, should be reusable.

Standardisation of a small set of components is critical to a path-based approach. Simplifying the IT infrastructure allows a company to reduce complexity, deepen specialised expertise, and increase the potential for reusing elements of the system — all of which accelerates development and lowers maintenance costs. In addition, standardising components allows organisations to devote less time to maintaining quality and more to building new functionality.

Dvivedi ruthlessly drove standardisation at Shinsei. He solicited input from relevant players, but did not wait for consensus to act. One of his most radical decisions was to eliminate Shinsei’s mainframe systems, the traditional back-bone of a bank’s IT, replacing them with Intel-based servers. This was a significant change from the prevailing practice among banks in Japan and most financial services firms around the world, which loved the high throughput speeds and dependable uptime of mainframes. The problem was mainframe systems were expensive and difficult to keep up (the annual cost of maintaining a typical mainframe is 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the original purchase price). The software for older mainframe-based systems is usually written in arcane proprietary languages, which are difficult to untangle even if you can find programmers conversant in the code.

The switch to a server-based platform immediately saved the bank $40 million in expenses annually. Along with selecting a single-server platform, Dvivedi and his team chose other standards, such as Dell PCs, Microsoft Windows, the internet, IP phones, and standard messaging between business systems.

Not wanting the new bank (the retail as well as the commercial and investment-banking units) to be shackled by the capabilities of the existing technology, Dvivedi worked with his team to create an architecture that would allow Shinsei to address business issues as they arose. This involved a straightforward process that the bank followed consistently.

After first identifying a business issue, the team would break it down into its constituent pieces and would then determine a technology solution for each one. To do so, they first delved into their tool kit of standard modules and components to see if a solution already existed. If they did not have a solution in-house, they looked outside for an off-the-shelf solution. If none were available, they would turn to one of five or six independent Indian software-service partners to develop the capability. An example of an ingeniously simple solution is the IT team’s cure for failures stemming from memory leaks. Any operating system may be prone to memory leaks — which happen when an application does not release the memory that it used once it has finished a task. Eventually, the operating system may run out of memory, become unstable, and crash. The commonly prescribed remedy is to design sophisticated memory management and debugging tools to try to prevent all memory leaks. However, such tools cannot reliably plug every leak. Shinsei decided to simply assume that memory would leak within its servers and to have them perform a staggered reboot at frequent intervals — a crude but effective and inexpensive solution.

Whether Dvivedi’s staff developed a component internally or asked an outside vendor to provide it, the component had to be reusable in other projects at Shinsei if at all possible. To make sure of that, the team clearly specified the required function of the component and the standard interfaces that would ensure it could “speak” to any other existing or future modules.

Modularity, not just modules

While the prevailing view that big IT programs and systems should consist of modules is hardly new, the concept of modularity is often misunderstood. Just because a software developer claims that the various parts of its applications are modules, does not mean that they are actually modular. Modularity involves clearly specifying interfaces so that development work can take place within any one module without affecting the others. Companies often miss that point when developing enterprise systems.

A truly modular architecture allows designers to focus on building solutions to local problems without disturbing the global system. With small, modular pieces, the organisation can purchase off-the-shelf solutions or turn to inside or outside developers for a certain piece, accelerating the speed of development. Modular architecture also makes it easier to upgrade the technology within modules once the system is up and running.

The modular approach was a critical part of achieving the bank’s strategy, as Dvivedi described it, “to scale up and expand into new activities with ease, to be able to service the needs of the organisation as it grows from a baby into an adult ... and avoid building capacity before we need it.”

Give (some) power to the people

Many of the failures in large IT projects stem from organisational resistance — users torpedoing new systems — rather than from technology that does not work. Sometimes the problem is that the company tries to force the system on its people, and they rebel; more often, people simply do not see a compelling reason for making the effort to learn how to operate the new system.

In general, firms should not have to sell new systems to users; rather they should build systems that users willingly embrace. This is not to say that every technology will be adopted enthusiastically by every member of the organisation. But if a system is universally hated long past the “get to know you” stage, it is likely that the system needs significant improvement or should be scrapped.

When Shinsei rolls out a new system, it starts the process by offering an interface, or screen format, similar to that of the old system. A Shinsei employee starting to use the new system for inputting loan applications could navigate to a page that was an exact replica of the old system’s data entry screen. However, if the new loan-application form required information (a customer’s mobile phone number, for instance) that was not included in the old screen, the employee would have to go to the new data entry screen to type in the information.

By going back and forth in this fashion, the user would become accustomed to the new system. Only after the vast majority of users make the transition to the new system does Dvivedi’s team turn off the old data entry screens. This approach will add to costs in the short-term, but Dvivedi believes it is a small price to pay for the quicker and more enthusiastic adoption of the new system.

Continuous improvement

Dvivedi’s belief in user power extends beyond the rollout stage. It also applies to continuous improvement. One bedrock principle is that any continuous-improvement effort will fail without the committed involvement of users. Shinsei actively solicits users’ ideas for improving its enterprise systems, involves them in daily experimentation, and strives to make users feel their input matters. It realises that if people do not feel their ideas are being listened to and acted on quickly, they stop offering them.

To that end, Dvivedi and his team created a system for addressing feedback and requests from customers, business users and technical users. Both suggestions and system failures generate electronic work orders, which are routed to the relevant personnel and escalated to higher levels in the organisation if they stay open for too long. When an issue has been resolved, the person who raised it is notified.

Companies currently spend about 5 per cent of their revenues on IT. While there is a large variance in this number, there is an even greater variance in the benefit companies get out of their IT. If anything, the already daunting task of choosing the right IT systems — those that can support the business strategy, provide a competitive advantage, and serve as a platform for growth — is getting more challenging. That’s because the choices are greater, are changing faster, and are growing more complex with the advent of cheap processing power, network capability, and sophisticated IT vendors in developing economies.

In such a world, businesses must focus on building IT systems that cannot fail to improve. This outlook can be very disquieting for the traditional manager who thinks that constructing a major IT system is like putting up a warehouse: You build it; then it is finished. But that does not work for IT anymore. If you take that approach to building enterprise systems, you will get rigid, costly systems that are outdated from the day they are turned on. If you adopt the path-based approach, you’ll get flexible systems that can change as the business demands and can shift IT from being a simple platform for existing operations to a launch pad for new functions and brand new businesses. Harvard Business Review

David M. Upton is the Albert J. Weatherhead III Professor of Business Administration and Bradley R. Staats is a doctoral candidate in the technology and operations management unit at Harvard Business School in Boston.

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