Back during my teenage years in the 60s, I vaguely remember threatening to “take my business elsewhere” to merchants who looked askance at my fringed vest and bellbottoms. (In retrospect they had a point, but luckily all photographs of that period have been blissfully mislaid.)

It scares me to think of the IS managers who must have missed having similar experiences. Take as an example Microsoft’s elimination of concurrent licensing for small businesses. According to fellow InfoWorld columnist Ed Foster, customers are up in arms about this. They’re bothered that Microsoft can so easily force them to spend more, just to stay legal.

When technical matters leave you confused, try to find parallels in other industries. So let’s imagine General Motors decided to make leasing illegal. Would you (a) complain about their unfair business practices; (b) take your lumps and buy one of their cars when you’d really wanted to lease; or (c) shake your head at their stupidity and take your business to Ford?

Microsoft may have a monopoly position in the minds of many IS managers, but they don’t have a monopoly in the marketplace. WordPerfect and WordPro have just as much feature-bloat as MS-Word, and I’m confident Novell and IBM/Lotus would be more than happy to take your money.

Face facts: most IS Managers buy Microsoft products because that’s an easy way to make a safe decision in what has become a commodity marketplace. You have alternatives.

Take the emotion out of selecting your basic PC software, and list your selection criteria. Features? They all have lots of features. Ease of use? They’re all Windows programs – like it or not, Windows imposes a certain sameness to the user interface. Speed? They’re Windows programs – speed is a thing of the past.

Right now, most IS Managers have made “product has a long-term future” their only criterion for selecting a word processor, spreadsheet and database – the basic three applications. By doing so they’ve created a self-fulfilling prophesy guaranteed to transfer money from their company coffers to Microsoft.

Take the emotion out of selecting your basic PC software: where’s the risk in taking your business elsewhere? Novell may not find a buyer for WordPerfect and it may vanish from the landscape? Could happen. Then you’d have to convert to something else at a HUGE EXPENSE!

How big? That depends on how you do cost accounting. My guess: the difference between what you’d spend anyway on a version upgrade and the cost of a “competitive upgrade” (what you really pay when you change products) just won’t be that great.

Given the dull sameness of all Windows software, you won’t have a lot of end-user retraining to worry about. At most you’ll have to give your end-users a one-hour orientation.

How about your ability to exchange documents with customers and suppliers? MS-Word has become the de facto standard word processing format, after all.

True enough. Here again you have alternatives, though. You can send “Rich Text Format” files (extension of .rtf) instead – all word processors can read them. You can send Adobe Acrobat files instead, if you like – the Acrobat reader is widely available.

Or, start using HTML as your standard document storage format. You lose some formatting ability you rarely use in the first place. You gain plenty:

You can exchange documents with the rest of the known universe – everyone can view them using any Web browser.

You can manage all company documents using inexpensive “Intranet” technology. It won’t be hard to let users publish their own documents on your internal Web servers as easily as you may use shared directories now.

You’ll be able to choose from dozens of HTML-authoring tools, letting you buy in a highly competitive marketplace – always good for the corporate checkbook.

Microsoft certainly hasn’t acted in the best interests of its customers. It doesn’t have to – it may choose to as a marketing tactic, but it has no obligation to do so.

Don’t like it? Take your business elsewhere. That’s the nature of a capitalist economy, and the requirement for maintaining one.

When my eldest daughter Kimberly was three, she got her first ruler. She happily wandered around the house, measuring everything in sight. She did a good job, too. For example, she established beyond the slightest doubt that I weighed exactly 39 inches, 39 being the biggest number she knew.
As we discussed last week, plenty of business measures similarly apply precise numbers and inappropriate units to the wrong concepts. Doing it right matters a lot, because once you establish performance and quality measures, employees will move the measures in the desired direction.
They may drive your organization off a cliff while doing it, but they’ll move those measures. You can count on it. And you can’t finesse the problem by using weasel words like, “These measures are important, but use your common sense.” What your employees just heard is, “We know we’re supposed to establish measures, but we’re really running this company according to our daily whims.” If you don’t always want waste, for example, to go down, don’t measure waste – measure something else for which you can establish consistent performance goals. (By the way, a lot of consultants use the term “metrics,” probably for the same reason we call records “rows” or “tuples” when they’re in a relational database. That is to say, for no good reason.)
Enough carping (or trouting, if you like classier fish) – what’s the process for establishing good measures? Here are some guidelines you may find useful:
1. Decide what’s important: List the most important products and services you deliver. The list should have no more than seven entries (more and you’ll confuse people instead of enlightening them). The list should be specific, in plain language, exclude adjectives and adverbs, and should refer to results as end-users define them. For example, you don’t deliver “reliable access to corporate computing resources.” “Reliable” is an adjective which will translate to a measure later on. “Corporate computing resources” is vague and abstract. Substitute “terminal emulation services to corporate mainframe computers.”
Some IS managers like the idea of “Function Points.” Function points may be a really nifty tool for evaluating your effectiveness in developing applications, but in this context all they do for end-users is obfuscate, and that means they give you verbiage to hide behind. If you deliver data-entry screens, reports, and batch maintenance programs, say so.
2. Define, in end-user terms, goals for those results: We’re not ready for numbers yet. We’re being slow and methodical, and for a reason – to force ourselves to think through the issues. The common goals tend to invoke the gods of reliability, performance, and cost. These apply often, but not always, so make sure these are what you care about.
3. Turn your goals into preliminary measures: Here you translate English to Math. Don’t be clever, and above all don’t use indicators – it’s easy to improve an indicator without improving your business. If, for example, you think your end-users value reliable fileservers, establish “Percent Availability” as a measure. Psychologically, positive measures are probably superior to negative ones, so availability has an edge over down-time.
4. Test your measures: Make sure each measure behaves properly. In other words, imagine every situation you can, and make sure the measure always goes up when things improve, and goes down when it gets worse.
Usually, you’ll have to do some fiddling. Imagine a lawn-mower manufacturer that has decided to reduce the number of defects. Up goes a chart showing the percentage of defect-free mowers shipped each week. Week after week, the percentage edges higher as employees drive down the number of defects. That’s good, isn’t it?
Not really. Turns out, mowers exhibit two kinds of defect: bad paint jobs and defective blades that shatter, amputating customers’ feet. Because they can fix the paint problem easily, employees pay close attention to it.
Usually, you’ll have to do some tuning. In this case you’d categorize defects and assign different weights to them based on their relative importance.
5. Publicize the results: Make sure everyone sees how you’re doing. Show graphs on the wall. Share results with key customers or end-users. Don’t forget your boss. And by all means, make a big fuss with your staff when the measures improve. They’ll deserve your praise.
Measurement can be a powerful tool in the IS management toolbox. Use it well and performance will improve. Use it poorly and only the measure will improve.