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Support, Governance & Success A Competency for Cloud Applications
Ajay Nair
Monday, August 1, 2011
The concept of the “cloud” is everywhere, perpetuated by the numerous applications that exist for us to consume (from Angry Birds on your mobile device to salesforce.com, a CRM application). These applications are being developed by large enterprise software companies and smart college students in their dorm rooms. The infrastructure cloud and the internet have made it possible for us to consume these applications with relative ease. Buying a subscription to a CRM application and utilizing it for your sales activity tracking is relatively easy. Purchasing a 99 cents application from iTunes for your mobile device is quick and pain free. Providers have mastered the delivery mechanism for these applications and they deserve all the praise. They have increased productivity, allowed people more access to enjoyable outlets and have, in some ways, made our lives easier.

The ease of cloud application consumption is leading to a skewed valuation of those very things we are consuming. When things are easy to obtain, we expect more as consumers and tend to undervalue them due to their very accessibility. I like to breakdown cloud applications into two broad categories: consumer-focused and enterprise-focused. Applications in both these categories are easy to purchase (a few clicks can get you on-line) and deploy to a team of people. What ends up happening is, we inadvertently fall into the trap of viewing both categories of applications though the same governance lens.

All applications, whether downloaded from a web store or consumed via the Internet are “assets” to the person or company using them. Their purchase value may range from a few cents to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but their personal value (in terms of efficiency, enjoyment, etc.) is almost always significant. Checking your Facebook news feed on your iPhone is entertaining; but if something happened to the device, you would undoubtedly miss your asset (phone & application) and want it back.

This ease of consumption has also led to a conundrum within our traditional IT organizations. Today, most cloud-based application purchases are made by functional business groups (like Sales, Marketing, and Customer Service) and not the IT department, as traditionally was the case. The ability for a Sales Manager to purchase a few CRM licenses on-line is empowering and allows them to avoid the bureaucracies of dealing with IT evaluation and justification. Functional representatives can purchase software as a subscription service and decide to quit when they no longer need the service, or don’t feel comfortable with their initial decision. Such flexibility is just not possible with traditional software hosted by the IT department. IT has a critical dilemma they must address: How do I support my in-house ERP system and also stay engaged with a CRM purchase that happened in the Sales group? How do I show that IT still brings value to the table when the organization has more “cloud” applications than “in-house”? How does IT help the business optimize a cloud-based system that requires less programing skill but more business acumen and analyst skills?

It is time we started recognizing cloud applications purchased for an enterprise as “valuable” assets, with long term value. Even though they are considered expense items (not capitalized) within most organizations, it is vital that they be treated as tools for competitive advantage to further business goals and initiatives. Businesses must develop a plan to support and govern these assets throughout their entire lifecycle.

The answer to the above challenges may be rather simple: “Discipline of Governance”. An asset, whether it is a car, a house, or a CRM application, needs on-going care and feed. Ease of procurement should not determine how or whether it should be managed, governed and supported. Support services are becoming more and more crucial in a world awash in cloud-based business applications. A well-defined “Support Team” is now a vital ingredient within an organization’s structure.

Support as a Competency

The discipline of support is closely tied to the concept of governance. Support is a “competency” just like development, strategy and compliance. What makes it a competency?

• Aptitude: People with the right aptitude and diligence to manage and maintain. These people have a talent for customer and business support without sacrificing the due diligence that is required for success. Traditional helpdesk is not a competency; but rather a tactical operation aimed at resolving grievances. The true “support” person is not just a doer; but a thinker, and also capable of performing the task at hand (operational excellence with a strategic bend).

• Program: Support and Governance is a program with a set of processes that helps maintain and increase the value of an asset through increased utilization and efficiencies. Similar to a quality endeavor, it focuses on reducing waste, improving efficiencies and maintaining effective checks and balances for maximum ROI. A support program will include daily operations, outage management; upgrade planning and on-going training to maximize asset value and utilization.

• Value: Support, if treated as a competency, provides value and guidance in areas of productivity, compliance, training, utilization and business growth. A lack of support and governance plan will lead to dis-satisfied employees, re-work, re-implementations and underutilization of the asset.

Many believe that support is a project with set timelines and investments. Support is not a time bound activity. Much like quality management, support is about governance, intelligent control and flexibility to do more when needed. Support has strategy built into it, much like project management; but not with an end-date in mind. It is and should always be a continuous process improvement program that reaps value over the long term.

In my experience, I have seen support and governance done well in 3 different ways, none of which should come as a surprise. I will emphasize that the single most important aspect of successful support is people.

• Internal staff: Successful support can be achieved by hiring the right set of people who have the ability to derive and deliver value from a purchased asset. Organizations that have recognized support as a competency do this well.

• Managed Services: These are organizations that offer support as a subscription (just like the cloud application you purchased). True managed services companies supporting applications believe in high-touch as an offering to their customers. To be successful with a managed services company, consider them part of the organization so that they can deliver the right amount of support at the right time.

• Hybrid: Internal staff complemented by Managed services. Success here is achieved through mutual collaboration, communication tools and respect for what each party brings to the table. If a managed services organization is treated like a call center helpdesk operation, the value add will not be realized and in a lot of cases is detrimental to the success of the organization.

As an organization that wants to be successful in today’s business environment, reach for the cloud; embrace it; but do not forget to support it, govern it. If you do, the promise of the “cloud” will be realized.

The author is President & CEO, eightCloud

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