IT Outsourcing Is Now At The Heart Of Smart Corporate Culture

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

I have often written on this blog about the nature of outsourcing and how it is changing and evolving – especially in Europe. For several years now I have been exploring how modern delivery methods for software and IT services have been changing – especially the way that enterprise software has followed consumer behavior towards cloud-based services or systems available using a method similar to the App Store.

This isn’t a controversial view, unless you are still defending the traditional method of IT outsourcing, but it is always worth backing up an opinion with research. Scan the pages of the Deloitte 2018 Global Outsourcing Survey and you will see that outsourcing is not only changing because of delivery methods, but also because it is more often being used to drive transformational change.

The business case for IT outsourcing today often depends on how disruptive a project can be. How can we replace the traditional way of delivering a service and completely disrupt the market?

The Deloitte research involves feedback from over 500 executives and 86% of them work in companies with revenue above $1bn a year, so this strategic use of outsourcing is becoming mainstream in large organizations. It is becoming clear that outsourcing is now seen as a highly strategic strategy for a number of reasons:

  1. Skills; It allows access to expertise in emerging technologies such as cloud, RPA, and data analytics, without the client needing to redefine their own skills.
  2. Innovation; Service providers are taking on a new role that is more explicitly about seeing the future – they are expected to not just deliver IT projects, but to offer ideas on how the client can operate in future.
  3. Security; traditional structures never placed data security at the heart of an organization, but modern service providers can introduce these practices.

The use of outsourcing is accelerating. In some industries it is dramatically increasing, such as 39% of Finance managers now working with partners for technology services compared to an expectation that 89% of them will soon be seeking a partner.

One of the most interesting findings from the Deloitte research is that the changing nature of outsourcing is not just about finding a new partner. Most of the time companies are using outsourcing to find a new solution – an entirely new way of working. Often this does also require a new partner, but it doesn’t need to, especially if IT companies, and others offering outsourced services, are proactive and start offering new ideas and solutions to their clients.

At the end of the day the changing nature of the outsourcing relationship is really being driven by innovation. Companies today are finding that the competition they face next year may not even exist today. It is possible for entrepreneurs to have an idea and then to create a global service thanks to the scale offered by cloud and app infrastructure.

Services such as Transferwise, Spotify, or Uber would not be able to function without this kind of IT infrastructure – and the ability to scale up so rapidly is dramatically changing many industries forever. I think it will take a while for some executives to stop thinking about outsourcing as a cost reduction strategy – this is still how the business press largely talks about it. However, as the cloud and RPA become more common and more important across all industries, it should become clear to most management teams that their approach to outsourcing is now strategically important for the future of their business. Transformation is getting disruptive.

IT Outsourcing Is Now At The Heart Of Smart Corporate Culture

Why Should I Be Thinking About DevOps?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

What is DevOps? If you don’t directly work on the development of IT systems then this might be a strange concept, but for any executive who needs to purchase new technology systems, or modify existing ones, this is an important concept to be aware of.

In short, DevOps refers to Development Operations. It is a combined set of software development practices that bring together the development of software with IT operations. The aim is to create an environment where the systems development lifecycle can be shorter and more features and updates can be performed – in general, it aims to bring IT development much closer to the business that is being served.

The broad goals span the entire lifecycle of a software project:

  • Increased frequency of project deliveries
  • Faster time to market on the original delivery
  • Lower failure rate of delivered software
  • Shorter lead time between business requests and fixes being applied
  • Faster recovery time when failure does occur

By using a DevOps approach the IT team can maximize the predictability of new releases. Efficiency and security are both increased and the code becomes easier to maintain.

IBA Group has conducted research into the effect of using a DevOps approach to software development – although this research was focused on mainframe DevOps. These are some of the key findings:

  • 20 x faster to recover when software fails
  • 22% less time spent on rework to fix problems
  • 30 x more deployments of new software
  • 40 x lower failure rate of delivered software
  • 50 x greater IT team satisfaction

All this data comes from real mainframe client projects at IBA Group. Deployment becomes more reliable and more frequent when people work together using this type of framework. The IT team uses a form of system thinking, which really means that they create a culture of shared responsibility for the project. This culture encourages transparency and shared responsibility – problems that one team member may have hidden in a regular organization are shared and managed together.

Automation is also an important part of the DevOps culture. The aim is to automate all the routine tasks a developer usually needs to manage. This also creates a far more satisfied developer who can focus on the more interesting and challenging parts of the project. This naturally leads to better quality and performance – enhancing the reputation of the team.

Most executives outside IT are not really familiar with software development practices, but it is becoming more important to understand because a different approach to the way that software development is managed leads directly to business effects, such as better quality, fewer failures, and a team with higher satisfaction in their job. DevOps is well established as a practice with a decade of conferences and articles all exploring how it can be used effectively. If you need to purchase any form of software development from an IT company then how they are managing DevOps should be one of the first things you ask.

Why Should I Be Thinking About DevOps?

Outsourcing Has Evolved – Has Your Business?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

The evolution of outsourcing is fascinating because it has evolved so quickly. Treated initially with some suspicion and largely considered to be a procurement exercise, outsourcing has matured into an important business strategy and most modern companies will work with suppliers to buy in their expertise. But have our attitudes changed?

To many managers, outsourcing is still a subject they avoid. Many have memories of failed projects or comparing suppliers and asking them to all compete over the price. Some aspects of procurement don’t seem at all strategic, but outsourcing has matured right?

According to PA Consulting data, it has. 64% of managers are using outsourcing as a way of driving business transformation – so the introduction of a partner allows them the opportunity to redefine how they do business. 35% of companies that are already outsourcing IT functions are planning to increase the work they give to their IT partner.

But the same study also finds that 69% of managers are using outsourcing to reduce costs. So is it still all about cost reduction or business transformation?

The reality is that working with a partner can now be both. Accenture has argued that we are moving to a business environment they call a “corporate marketplace” where many companies have relationships with many others – there is more of a value web rather than a value chain. This will also include on-demand work platforms, such as UpWork, where experts can be called on for very specific tasks for a short period of time.

It’s clear that outsourcing as a term is becoming dated. The corporate marketplace doesn’t sound much better in my view, but it is clear that companies will be employing a more fluid relationship with employees, individual subject matter experts, and suppliers with specific expertise in future.

Largely this is because of the service complexity. Look at customer service as a classic example of what has changed. A few years back a consultant would analyse your customer interactions and then lift and drop your entire contact centre from your business into a service company – possibly located thousands of kilometres away.

The ambition was largely to save on operating expense and to encourage suppliers to make capital expenditure (basic infrastructure required to deliver the service) in return for a long-term contract.

This approach seems quaint today. Look around at the fast-moving customer service environment and you will see that suppliers today need expertise in Robotic Process Automation, Artificial Intelligence, multiple service channels including social, emerging channels such as smart speakers, and an ability to analyse vast amounts of data in real-time.

None of this implies that a lift and drop solution to the other side of the world would be a satisfactory solution. The supplier today needs to offer deep expertise and an ability to help the client transform their business using the available technologies. They also need to be able to advise on the future – which trends might shape how the client does business next year?

Combine the supplier taking on this role as expert advisor with the more common use of individual subject matter experts and outsourcing looks completely different to how it was 10-15 years ago. It’s time for the business media and managers in general to change their views – for outsourcing in 2019 read partnership and transformation.

Outsourcing Has Evolved - Has Your Business?

What Are The Top Cloud Management Platforms?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

In my last couple of articles here I explored Cloud Management Platforms (CMP), both to define what they are and to give some ideas on how to choose the best one for a particular business. It was therefore interesting to see that a recent article in ITPro Today explores the top ten CMPs available today, assessing all their strengths and weaknesses.

All CMPs need to provide lifecycle management – this is the ability to track cloud resources over a period of time – and data protection, in addition to the main functionality of controlling and automating cloud-based processes. John Webster, a senior partner and analyst at the Evaluator Group, managed the research published in ITPro Today. One of his main concerns when comparing the different CMPs was that not all of them are keenly focused on data protection – they are focusing mainly on basic functionality.

John explained: “Data protection and disaster recovery is an IT responsibility, a bedrock function, and I think that the vendors in this space have to really start looking at that seriously.” He added: “Vendors will likely provide these capabilities through extensions to data protection and disaster recovery applications that are already available in the market.”

The top ten list of CMPs was created by weighing up several factors, including:

  • The quality of the user interface
  • Ability to manage various groups of users
  • Complexity of the service

Cost control is an important area of functionality that most customers want to use, but many CMP vendors find it very difficult to offer because they are constantly updating their products. The ability to create efficiency is much easier to plan when the software is stable. If the CMP is constantly being improved then there is an almost constant need to explore efficiencies.

John explained that support for Artificial Intelligence (AI) is likely to be an important capability in the near future. He said: “Support for cloud-native including Kubernetes, and application migration will be key functions in cloud management platform tools. AI assistance, or the assistance of artificial intelligence, will become more and more important as time goes on.”

Some of the CMPs on the market at present have been built from trusted and tested systems that were essentially managing IT estates – they have been converted to managing cloud-based systems, but others are built from scratch. It’s important to be aware of this when selecting a supplier. The start-ups might move faster and add more features all the time, but their platforms may be less stable and less tested in real-life situations.

The ten CMPs are not listed with the best in position one; they are just grouped as the ten best CMPs. This is because ultimately the right choice of CMP will be based on the different priorities and needs of each company. Follow the link to the article and you can read the top ten free, providing you submit your contact details to the magazine.

Click here to see the list of the ten best CMPs according to the research by Evaluator Group.

How Do I Choose A Cloud Management Platform?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

I introduced the concept of a Cloud Management Platform (CMP) in my last article here on the IBA Group blog and closed by saying that it’s a complex process to choose a specific platform. However, that’s exactly the decision that many managers are exploring right now and it can be even more complex when you need to buy a cloud, but it is your service provider that will actually be using it.

This white paper from the IT research firm Neovise gives some excellent advice on this particular issue. The white paper introduces the need for CMPs, as I did in my last article, but then it lists some specific questions you need to ask when determining the best system to use:

1. Business Requirements:

• What customers do you plan to serve, and what are their requirements? How well will the cloud platform serve them?

• How much additional work is required for installation/configuration? Integration? Adding missing features?

• How quickly will the cloud platform let you get to market and start generating revenue?

2. Product Requirements:

• Does the platform enable the right compute, network and storage capabilities?

• Are there specific hardware requirements for the platform? Or can you choose hardware from any vendor? Can you leverage existing hardware investments?

• How extensible is the product? Does it support federation with other providers?

Does the platform allow you to seamlessly integrate new cloud services with your existing hosting services?

3. Support Requirements:

• Will it require significant resources and expertise to deploy, customize and operate the platform?

• What do you do if you need help deploying or troubleshooting the platform? Is there customer support? Or just community support? Both?

Does the platform receive ongoing enhancements? Are new versions difficult or disruptive to install?

These are quite detailed questions and there are different types of CMP as I outlined in my earlier article, but if you go into these questions with a clear outline of your specific capabilities, resource, timeline, and strategy then you can achieve a successful outcome. It’s recommended to include this information on any RFI or RFP process when selecting a supplier so you can work with a supplier that supports your preferences on CMP in addition to just agreeing on a cloud strategy.

Where you have not already deployed a cloud or CMP then it would be preferable to outline your preferences and needs right from the RFI – this way a potential partner can advise on the best cloud to use and the best tools to manage it.

In the early days of cloud adoption, this was all easier. A client would just make requests directly to their supplier if more capacity or storage is needed, but as IT infrastructure has become more complex, and usually involves a mix of cloud and on premises equipment, it is essential to make the right choices about the system you use to manage your cloud – and manage it in a way that works with the needs of your supplier.

Choosing a Cloud Management Platform is a complex process

What is a Cloud Management Platform?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Most people working in IT today know about the cloud and how cloud-based systems can offer immediate access to storage or computing power easily. Many companies now use a cloud strategy to ensure they can ramp up and down on available systems or storage – it’s a common theme of discussion when planning an IT strategy.

But what is a Cloud Management Platform and in particular how can one be useful to service providers offering IT services to their clients?

Cloud Management Platform (CMP) is a term coined by the industry analyst Gartner. The analyst firm wanted a way to describe products or tools that help companies to optimize and manage their cloud infrastructure for cost, security, and operations. A good CMP strategy should allow users to maintain control over dynamic and scalable cloud environments.

So it is really just a control system that allows the user to maintain dynamic control over their cloud system. Instead of frantically calling a service provider and asking them to quickly scale up storage capacity in their contracted cloud, the customer should be able to use a CMP to just scale their cloud – it should be as easy as sliding a bar on a control panel.

The major CMPs on the market today will all offer these different aspects of cloud management:

• Cost
• Security
• Performance

These are the three main areas where the customer can manage their cloud and cover more specific areas such as budgeting, rightsizing the cloud, compliance and monitoring, and creating alerts and other analytics.

CMPs are still quite new tools and so there are still different types of tool available. Some are very focused on specific issues, such as controlling security risk or optimising costs. Some allow the option to manage multiple clouds, so if you are using both Microsoft Azure and Amazon AWS then you can manage both clouds from a single tool. Some CMPs even allow the tool to manage a cloud and systems you have on site simultaneously.

Clearly this is an emerging area. There are many new tools solving problems that have only recently become apparent. It was only a few years back that companies started taking cloud-based services seriously and it has become clear that it can be difficult to control the various aspects of a cloud-based system – such as cost control and security. In addition, if a service provider is delivering services on a cloud that is owned and managed by the client then the client needs an easy way to manage areas such as security in partnership with their service provider.

CMPs are still new and it is therefore difficult to advise on which one is perfect for each client, but there is a clear need to work on CMP selection with your service provider as any chosen solution must work for both client and service provider. I’ll explore this question next time here on the IBA Group blog.

You can also read about the IBA Cloud Platform

cloud management platform

How Is RPA Innovation Taking Shape?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

I have written in the past about how impressed I was when I visited IBA Group in person. They don’t really shout about it, but their Robotic Process Automation (RPA) team has a level of expertise that I was not expecting to find when I visited Minsk last December. I keep recalling this when I see some of the analyst and media coverage of RPA online because there is still a strange mixture of anticipation and hype in most of the analysis.

HfS Research has been one of the main critics of the hype around RPA. They have consistently called on other analysts to provide realistic market projections and to stop using the ‘robots are taking over’ myths that have grown in frequency in the past two years. Their Horse For Sources blog in particular has been scathing when individual analysts have made RPA claims that just cannot be supported by evidence or case studies.

HfS has documented that they believe the ‘big 3’ RPA companies – Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and UiPath – are creating a baseline for the entire industry. It’s messy out there because there are loads of companies that are trying to get a piece of the RPA hype and yet not everyone can succeed – not least because each system needs experienced people who can implement and use it. I believe that WorkFusion should also be on this list as they are not only creating a baseline, but they are disrupting the marketing by even offering basic RPA services free.

On March 3rd the Horses For Sources blog said this: “However, beyond scripts and bots and dreams of digital workers scaling up rapidly to provide reams of value, most enterprises are fast coming to the realization that they need an actual process automation platform capability that ingests their data, visualizes it, machine learns it, contextualizes it and finally automates it. ”

The blog goes on to say: “The implication is that for many companies the dream is over. They thought that RPA would work easily and yet they have found that it’s actually quite complex to integrate into their main business processes. You cannot just point an RPA system at a business and say ‘automate that’ in the same way that computer software doesn’t write itself – someone needs to understand how to code so the computer understands what you need.”

Go and follow the link above if you want to read the conclusion to what they think will happen next, although the short story is that they believe that there may be a new phase of RPA led by AntWorks with a more integrated approach to automation. In a way, we are seeing the process of automation becoming more automated.

I think there are two conclusions that can be drawn from what we are seeing in the RPA market at present. First is that most implementations are started to coalesce around the three top system suppliers and that’s a good thing because the market cannot tolerate the fragmentation that dozens of small systems creates. Second, the RPA story is not over yet. It remains quite difficult to implement and anyone making this process easier could well lead the next chapter in the RPA story.

How Is Artificial Intelligence Developing In The Enterprise?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has moved from science fiction into the enterprise in recent years. Many companies are using AI systems today to intelligently analyse large volumes of changing data and to notice or predict patterns. Typical business uses today include examples such as:

  • Rail operators predicting train delays before they happen because the AI system can extrapolate from small delays to predict the impact on the entire network.
  • Customer service agents being advised on how to help customers by systems that know the answer to every question a customer has asked in the past.
  • Alexa knows how to answer your question because it immediately processes your voice and determines what you are asking before creating an answer.
  • Netflix knows which movie you might want to watch because they know your past behaviour and how similar customers have also behaved.

AI really is all around us today, in the enterprise and as consumers of services. In the present environment it would now be unusual for any company to not be exploring how AI can improve their business.

But AI does have one a fundamental flaw, it is always limited to working on a very specific problem. This means that you can have a very complex system that knows everything that your customer may ask when they call for help or the system may understand how to play chess or Go, but these individual tasks are all that it can do. There is no inherent awareness of the environment around the system – although we use the term intelligence, it’s not really aware or sentient. An AI system that can play Go cannot plan the best route on a map.

This means that the system can only solve the problems it was designed for. Some might argue that this is a benefit, because it means that however good our AI systems get, they never move into the realm of awareness and all the problems that a conscious system might create.

A recent experiment by IBM has demonstrated that AI is developing rapidly though. They demonstrated how an AI system could be asked a random question and it would then have the ability to debate that subject. For example, in the video clip that I watched the system was asked if pre-school facilities should be subsidised by the government. It gave a response, arguing why subsidies are useful for 4 minutes.

This system has been pre-loaded with information on millions of subjects and objects. It’s stuffed full of encyclopedia content and research. But even with all this data it is quite an achievement to turn that into information and then a coherent argument.

Essentially this system is starting to show that perhaps an Artificial General Intelligence might be possible. It would need to be pre-loaded with an enormous amount of general data, and then would need a Machine Learning system to continue learning, but it is looking more feasible than even a year or two ago when Elon Musk started warning that we are heading for an ‘AI apocalypse’ because the machines will eventually have more intelligence than the humans.

I don’t think we will be seeing many business case studies featuring general intelligence just yet, but AI in the form we already know it will certainly be more important. AI is offering companies a chance to identify patterns and trends they could never see manually and this will be a strong source of competitive advantage in the next few years.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has moved from science fiction into the enterprise in recent years

How Do You Understand What Customers Will Want In The Future?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

It was great to read the article published on the IBA Group website about the CXOutsourcers Mindshare event in Windsor, UK. This was a very interesting event hosted by Peter Ryan and Mark Angus connecting together the service providers from the BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) and CX (Customer Experience) industry.

The IBA team was there at the event because their expertise in areas such as Cloud Computing and Robotic Process Automation is highly in demand from the CX companies – hopefully they managed to strike a few new partnerships!

As mentioned in the IBA article, I was speaking at the event about the future of the customer experience – how can you profile and understand the customer of the future?

What I tried to do with this talk was to initially frame expectations. It is easy for people to make wild predictions about how customers will behave in future, but what they often forget is that social and technological progress is not always gradual. Sometimes an invention or innovation can completely change the way that people behave.

A good way to think of this is by considering how railways changed society. Before railways people were forced to live within walking distance of their workplace. Railways created the freedom for people to travel to work and this in turn created the concept of the suburb.

We have seen a similar change in the past decade. Since the launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007 and the subsequent explosion in the use of social networks, the way that people communicate with each other has dramatically changed. This has led to a radical change in the way that people communicate with brands and an evolution in the way that the customer journey works – this is the journey from first hearing of a product to learning more and then eventually buying it.

That customer journey used to be quite simple and was focused on advertising or marketing to create awareness and then a sales process followed by customer support. Now we can see brands that are not building customer service contact centres, they are building customer experience hubs. They are using a mix of human and digital technologies and building an ongoing relationship with customers that can last for half a century or more.

What is so interesting about the present day business environment is that there is so much potential for dramatic change in so many ways. A retailer planning strategy in the era of my parents would only ever be planning new store locations and sales promotions – nothing in the future was dramatically different to the past.

Look at the retail environment today. Not only is online retail creating a new era of competition, but the way that town centres are featuring retail is changing. Other huge factors may also change how society interacts with business, such as climate change, geopolitics and the dramatic rise of China, the creation of social inequalities, and the preference to rent experiences rather than owning products.

You can click the link to read through my slides for some more of the ideas I presented at CXOutsourcers, but I think that what we will see more often today is emerging business models and services driven by the online economy and the desire of the customer for greater convenience. Go-Jek in Indonesia started out as a ride-hailing service with motorbikes – like Uber with two wheels. They expanded into offering services such as medicine or food delivery by leveraging their network of riders and eventually they created such a wide array of services that they introduced their own in-app payment system. They now process more payments than any major credit card brand… they are now a financial service brand and they started out offering rides on scooters.

How might this happen in your industry? Think about it, your competition in 2020 may not even exist today or they may be working in a completely different industry. Now that’s scary because it means that we are moving faster than ever to stay ahead of business trends, but we are never going to be going this slow again in future.

Mark Hillary for CxOutsourcers
(c) Mark Hillary

How Technology Companies Are Delivering A Wave Of CX Innovation

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

It’s always great to see when the new issue of Intelligent Sourcing arrives. It’s updated all the time online, but there is still something nice about seeing a collection of news bound together in a real magazine. I know that’s old fashioned, but a quarterly business journal is like a collection of thoughts from that time.

The issue is focused on innovation and I contributed a column that you can read if you click the later link to the magazine. Although my article was a focus on Customer Experience (CX) innovation, as I read it again I noticed that so many of the specific innovations I was documenting require technology expertise.

This is quite a change from the days when customer experience was called customer service and involved nothing more than a contact centre full of phones. Handling interactions between customers and brands today is highly complex and operates across a number of channels. Here are some of the key areas shaping CX innovation today as outlined in the Intelligent Sourcing feature:

Customer expectations and journey; interacting with customers today takes place 24/7 across many different channels (including social) and involves thinking about a 50-year ongoing relationship with the customer, not just managing a single phone call.

Technology; almost every emerging technology you can think of is being applied to the customer relationship. To list just a few – Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Robotics, location awareness, cloud computing, the app store. All these technologies are being shaped and influenced by the way that brands are using them to interact with real customers.

Automation; Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is being extensively deployed as a tool to make customer service agents more efficient. The blend between digital service and human service is now one of the most important areas of research in this field.

Customer-centricity; new companies can design their entire service around what customers want in an age of smartphones. There is no need to copy how a bank or insurance company operates – especially if they designed their processes many years ago. This is having an enormous impact on traditional brands that are being challenged by brand new companies that can deliver services better.

CX and Business Process Outsourcing is often presented as an entirely separate type of business that is unconnected to what IT service companies are doing, but I believe that most of the innovation taking place in CX is being driven by IT. In fact, many of the IT experts are now becoming experts in areas such as RPA and that means they are rapidly becoming CX experts. The market for technology services is changing and CX innovation is creating many of these new opportunities.

Spring issue of Intelligent Sourcing

CX and technology

Does Anyone Need To Code When Citizen Developers Build Software?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Will citizen developers really take over software development from the big IT companies in future? The market for citizen development is growing fast and what are often called ‘low-code platforms’ allow people to develop software without much knowledge of software development. The market for these systems is currently worth over $4bn, but is predicted to grow to over $27bn by 2022 – that’s extremely rapid growth for any market.

But let’s take a step back to understand what is going on. In the early days of software development programmers would need to use machine language (or code) to get computers to do anything. This machine language is exactly as it sounds, essentially instructions that are directly manipulating chip functions and data. It was extremely difficult to learn how to do this and because the code was hard to read it was not only hard to create, it was hard to fix problems and maintain too.

These days, machine coding is still possible, but it is only really used where speed is essential or there is some other very specific requirement – such as being able to directly address the functions of a video chip. Most software developers now use a programming language, such as C, Java, or Basic – many are available and they are constantly evolving. These languages are much easier to read and use and the developer can either use a system called a compiler to translate the code into the required machine code, or they can use an interpreter that converts the software in real-time as it is running.

These languages have dramatically increased the productivity of software developers, but to use one of these languages is still a specialised skill. The software developer not only needs to understand the language they are using, but also has to be comfortable with many other basic programming principles, such as how to use variables to store and manipulate data. This is not something that an untrained individual can do easily. So what is low-coding?

Essentially it is software development, but at a high level so the focus is just on business processes or queries. The developer doesn’t need to think about underlying issues such as graphics or data storage, they just need to describe what they want the system to do. A good example might be a Human Resource platform that offers the user the ability to create a filtered interface  – only show me candidates over 21 years old with a degree for example.

These queries are essentially basic coding and this will become an increasingly important skill in the modern workplace. It’s easy to argue that this is not really software development and therefore the companies offering software services can feel safe that their business is not about to collapse, but it does represent an important change in skills that will be required for jobs that are not traditionally connected to IT.

Automation is increasing across many industries, particularly Robotic Process Automation (RPA). This means that some basic coding skills will be required of accountants, credit analysts, lawyers, and HR professionals (to just name a few) if they want to be able to manage and control the software systems they are using.

So low-coding does not mean that citizen developers will be building the software that IT companies are now delivering. However, it does mean that almost all office-based professionals need to consider how they can learn about basic coding skills – their future employability depends on it!

Exploring Projects Where RPA Really Did Change A Business

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Why do companies really implement Robotic Process Automation (RPA)? The technology journals endlessly talk about robotics, framed by ‘Terminator’ images, but what are the benefits reported by those companies that have already explored RPA? According to the robotics consulting firm Symphony, these are the main benefits found after RPA has been deployed:

  • 86 per cent say RPA significantly reduces costs
  • 86 per cent feel RPA reduces risk and improves compliance
  • 86 per cent believe RPA improves process effectiveness and efficiency
  • 89 per cent believe RPA improves the quality of work
  • 91 per cent say RPA saves companies time on repetitive tasks

As you might expect from a system that is focused on automation, the focus is on saving time, improving quality, and reducing risk. RPA is often talked about as a technology that can replace people, but it is smarter to think in terms of how it can help people to do their job better – to always remain inside compliance regulations or to consistently deliver processes without errors.


This feature in IT Pro explores several RPA deployments and asks why the projects were successful and whether the companies involved achieved what they expected. Examples include:

  • A car manufacturer offering a bot that could answer questions about their vehicle, such as what a light on the dashboard means. Additionally the messenger bot maintains a relationship with the customer and sends reminders such as when it is time for maintenance or tasks such as an oil change.
  • A recruitment company used a bot to analyse CVs automatically and submit only those meeting all the required criteria. This allowed the recruitment consultant to scan far more CVs than would be possible manually.
  • A bot that could add information on music concerts to a website focused on music events. Instead of manually Googling for information on events and then copying information to the database, the bot could just search and populate the database automatically.

What’s interesting here is that these are all very different projects, but they previously required a large amount of repetitive manual work – especially the recruitment and music examples. In these examples, people would be performing repetitive manual searches many times. The bot allows them to focus more on the search results, rather than wasting time performing the searches. The car example shows that with a little thought, an existing process such as sending reminders to a customer can be performed in a more interactive way that actually should help to build a closer brand to customer relationship.


HfS Research believes that the RPA market will be big – around $1.2bn by 2021 – but they also exercise some restraint. HfS believes that many of the predictions linked to RPA are ‘ridiculous’ and typical of the hype we see whenever a new technology becomes trendy. This is always a danger when new technologies become popular. They are often seen as a solution looking for a problem. Executives start asking why we don’t have an RPA strategy without identifying where RPA can actually help to improve their business processes. However, as the IT Pro case studies demonstrate, it is possible to take specific processes and to automate them so quality and efficiency is improved.

RPA is not about a robotic takeover and a complete end to all manual work, but it is an opportunity to dramatically increase efficiency in any part of your business that suffers from a need to perform repetitive manual tasks. It will be an important business strategy, but let’s stop framing discussions about robotics with ‘Terminator’ images.

Click here for information on how IBA Group can help design an RPA solution that works for your business.

What is RPA And How Can Automation Change My Business?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is the automation of business processes using software ‘bots’ and allows simple, repetitive tasks to be performed by computers rather than people. RPA covers a wide range of tasks, such as sorting incoming email, responding automatically to chat messages, or extracting useful information from documents using Optical Character Recognition.

RPA offers a great opportunity to streamline your business processes. The wave of Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) that has taken place over the last two decades means that executives are much more familiar with the concepts of workflow – determining how different parts of your business exchange information and interact. This awareness was built up as companies realised that some processes could be performed by a partner through outsourcing. To make these outsourced processes work it was important to define the information interface between the client company and the supplier managing the processes.

This knowledge can be translated well into RPA planning. Where do you have repetitive or rules-based processing in your organisation? Can you create an environment where you feed information to an RPA system and allow it to perform this work automatically?

The benefits of improving workflow in this way are multiple:

1. Optimise the time and potential of your employees by allowing them to focus on exceptions, not routine work.
2. Improve the customer experience by processing this information more reliably and quickly.
3. Achieve stronger control over your processes by ensuring that the system itself processes most work without failure – only a few complex situations need more analysis.

A new report from Forrester Research suggests that RPA will add 500,000 digital workers to the US economy – that’s the equivalent of half a million real workers, but in this case it’s software bots performing the work. In 2018, RPA-based digital workers will replace and/or augment 311,000 office and administrative positions in the US, and 260,000 sales and related positions. As a result, the RPA software market exceeded $500 million by the end of 2017 and will double to $1.06 billion by the end of 2018.

This kind of market growth is hard to ignore. Not only can RPA fundamentally transform your business, creating more engaged employees and more satisfied customers, it can reduce your ongoing cost of business too.

Click here for more information on how IBA Group can help design an RPA solution that works for your business.

How Will Brexit Affect The UK and CEE Nearshoring Relationship?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Europe is in a state of flux at present. British people recently decided that they should leave the European Union – now known as Brexit – and the latest book from Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz suggests that the Euro currency will tear the rest of the union apart.

In this uncertain environment, does the old idea of European nearshoring still work? There are many countries within the EU block and part of Western Europe that now have very high unemployment and low labour costs – look at Greece, Portugal, and Spain for examples. Is it still valid to think of Eastern Europe as a supplier of technology skills to the rest of Europe?

I was thinking about some of these uncertainties when I read an article on the GSA Sourcing Focus site. The article explores some of the issues around Brexit and how it might affect outsourcing relationships.

The three main issues mentioned by Sourcing Focus are:

1.    The cheap pound; it’s no longer so cheap to buy services from outside the UK so with the economic advantage eroded will more UK companies buy services locally or look beyond Europe for better value?
2.    Legal situation – data transfers; The UK enjoys the protection of the entire EU regarding company law and international agreements protecting issues such as data privacy across borders. How will this change if the country has to legislate for every possible situation individually?
3.    GDP collapse; if the UK becomes a much smaller economy as many economists suggest then how will this affect the relationship between UK companies and suppliers across Europe? It doesn’t look good.

The fears raised by Sourcing Focus are valid. It’s clear that the UK market in international services could change dramatically in the next few years, but I think that it is premature to start defining issues just yet. The UK government has not even triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty yet. This would indicate the formal request to leave the EU and begins a two-year process of negotiating how to leave.

At present the situation is that the UK population voted to leave the EU and the government has said that they will follow the wish of the people, however they are now engaged in a process of negotiation before any formal negotiation begins. Nobody really knows what will happen to the UK at present.

The issue for UK companies at present is this uncertainty. Any UK company bidding for business internationally cannot predict what kind of tariffs or taxes might be applied to their services in a few years and therefore they are at a disadvantage. This could lead to a reduction in international services being delivered from the UK and therefore it could be advantageous for Eastern Europe, but if UK customers suffer in this environment and they are already working with suppliers in the CEE region then this would not be such a great situation.

The real problem now is the uncertainty. The UK government should take action as quickly as possible so that however this story plays out, at least there is more certainty about how the UK will interact with the rest of Europe in future.

New Reality: Technology Trends for Belarus to Apply

IBA Group
Daria Kovalevskaya

On September 30 and October 1, the IPM Business School organized a technology conference in Minsk, Belarus. The conference titled A New Reality: Challenges for Belarus explored the modern trends in technology and how they are applied in the world and, particularly, in Belarus.

The first part of the conference was dedicated to crowdfunding. Speakers highlighted the advantages of crowd economy not only for small businesses and startups but for bigger companies and enterprises as well.

Crowdfunding allows for shaping the entire industries according to what consumers want to see and buy. If they want to read a book by a particular author, see a play with a particular cast of actors, or even buy a chewable ice maker, it’s up to them now to finance it. At the same time, campaign creators are able to validate their ideas (to see if the world is actually interested in what they have to offer) and create relationship with potential clients.

Indiegogo Co-Founder Slava Rubin Talks About Crowdfunding

At the second part of the conference, speakers presented the Internet of Things, drones, and chat bots. The most exciting part was the presentation of Smart Cities, a project by Philips, which uses recent advances in communication and data analysis to make big cities more livable and sustainable. Small sensors and devices work together to collect information that can be used later to save energy and help citizens feel safer.

Advantages of drones and chat bots were also mentioned. The potential of drones cannot be underestimated, as the drone market has recently hit $127 billion. While mostly used in the entertainment area (photography and video shooting), drones operate in construction, agriculture, transport, and security. They can cover areas that are either unreachable or unsafe for humans and substantially reduce the human factor risks. The only stepping stumbling block for drones is the government and rigid drone registration policies.

Chat bots are presented as alternatives to mobile apps. Similar to AI assistants like Siri or Allo, bots provide instant information. The main advantages of bots are multiplatform usage (opposed to mobile apps, bots don’t require different coding for each operating system) and low prices for their development.

The last trend discussed at the conference was Blockchain, a technology that allows for making and verifying transactions instantaneously without a central authority. A great example of Mycella, a company created by singer Imogene Heap, shows benefits of using the blockchain technology. Artists could release their music themselves, gaining control over their earnings and additional information about their songs.

Countries like Belarus may easily adapt to these technologies if they accept them and introduce changes to their institutes.  Crowdfunding is already a triumph here, with the biggest Belarusian platform, Ulej, funding over 40% of successful campaigns since its launch in 2015.

New reality has already made its way into the modern life. Customers, creators, and mechanisms of interaction between them are changing, and those who will be the first to embrace these changes will gain the biggest benefit.

SSON Celebrates Ten Years of Focusing On Eastern Europe

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

It’s great to see that the Shared Services and Outsourcing Network (SSON) is now celebrating ten years of activity in Eastern Europe. SSON has long been a source of useful research and information on outsourcing and over the past decade their research has formed a useful body of knowledge on nearshoring in Europe.

To celebrate the tenth year of activity there will be a conference in Hungary in October featuring over 65 speakers all focused on the opportunities available within the European nearshoring environment.

Typically with these regional-focused conferences there is a competitive element to the talks, where one region will compete with another to describe how they have more graduates each year, or more skilled IT personnel. This approach is rather tired and ignores the wider benefits of working across many European countries as a whole so it’s great to see that the SSON conference is looking at the big picture for nearshoring in Europe and how it affects different industries, such as finance and HR.

I was particularly interested to see that there is also a focus on how the millennial demographic is changing business in Europe today. This is something I have often spoken about in recent years. The millennials (those born from 1980-2000) have a very different attitude to work and technology because most of them grew up in a post-Internet era – they have only ever known a connected society so they are different as both employees and customers.

Many of the people in this age group are now in managerial positions and are determining where their company should invest. It is therefore extremely important for companies aiming to work with other companies B2B to understand this changing dynamic.

It’s great to see that the SSON understands this change in the outsourcing client and supplier relationship and in particular how this can affect European nearshoring. I look forward to hearing more from the event in October.

Are The Robots Taking Over?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Science fiction authors have long predicted a world in which intelligent robots take over the world. Classic authors such as Isaac Asimov even created ways in which humans should interact with robots, predicting that there will eventually be a problem defining the difference between a human and robot. After all, if a robot can learn, is self-aware, and grows in intelligence and human empathy as it ages then how can you define it as “not alive”?

This has created our fear of robots. They are fine if they are just performing repetitive tasks on a car assembly line, but if they can learn and improve then one day they might be better than humans.

But we are not close to that time yet. Anyone who has used the Apple Siri device knows that it can be extremely useful if you ask a question like: “where is the nearest Italian restaurant?” but ask it to define the meaning of life and it will be lost.

However, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is becoming a real thing in the Business Process Outsourcing area of services. RPA allows the concept of robots to be applied to services – so it may often just be a piece of software rather than a physical robot, but if it performs a specific service then it gets the robot name.

A good example in contact centres. A vast number of calls to contact centres are repetitive and don’t require a human. For example if you are calling your bank to change address or you just need a balance on your account or you are asking your telephone company to recharge your account with some extra data. Basic interactions like these can be diverted to software systems that understand the voice of the customer and react as a normal agent would, except it’s the robot system performing actions, not a real live agent.

What is interesting though is that some companies with a large volume of interactions – like telcos – are finding that they can allow the system to learn. The robot can be given basic instructions, but can learn from every customer interaction, so the robot learns how to fix problems it was not originally programmed to fix and it can identify trends and patterns in the customer enquiries.

The fear for many humans working in areas such as contact centres is that these robots will entirely replace them, but as this Chicago Inno article shows, the robots are actually supporting the human jobs. Humans are performing more valued-added tasks that require insight and an ability to analyse the data being created. The robots can remove much of the repetitive work and can do it faster.

RPA is going to be the next step for Big Data. How can companies learn from all the information they have and then create processes that can intelligently interact with their customers?

It’s still at the early stages. Some companies are using RPA to improve their customer experience, but the likelihood of RPA learning how to run the company and replacing the humans is remote at present.

However, they are getting better. Just imagine where we might be in a decade from now? Eventually we might need to start reading Asimov once again so we can figure out how to integrate the robots into society!

Is There A Downside to The Internet of Things?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

I have often written here about the Internet of Things (IoT) and the promise it holds for various industries. Moving on from the cliché of the fridge that knows when you are running out of food, the IoT holds enormous promise for offering the ability for objects and systems to make pre-emptive decisions.

The car is a great example. We have long had warning lights on cars to indicate particular problems such as low oil or a high engine temperature, but by gathering data and having the ability to analyse it as a whole, cars are getting far more intelligent and able to self-diagnose before problems become serious. This becomes even more critical when public or commercial vehicles can perform this kind of self-diagnosis. For example a Boeing 777 can generate twenty terabytes of data per engine per hour – a fantastic resource for monitoring that all systems are functioning normally.

Personal fitness is another excellent example, and being a runner I really like the ability to be able to look back at previous runs. I can see not only the distance covered, but also the weather, the location, and the hills I tackled. I can use this information without additional processing just to plan new runs or I can crunch the data to get a great insight on my own performance.

But is there a downside to all this data collection and could it cause individuals to reject certain products or services?

Facebook Local Awareness advertising allows businesses – especially retailers – to advertise to Facebook users that are geographically close. The business creates an advert and targets it to a particular demographic – a specific age group or people who like certain products – then Facebook takes care of ensuring that when suitable people are geographically close to the business they are served an ad on their phone.

To some people this sounds great. If I’m the kind of person who likes shopping for fashionable clothes and as I walk past a boutique they send a 25% off voucher, but only with validity for the next hour, then I might stop by and buy something. To other people this is going to feel like an enormous invasion of privacy. Not only is a social network – in this case Facebook – monitoring what I like and dislike to build up a profile of me as a consumer, but now they are monitoring where I am too.

A recent feature by Irish technology expert Maria Farrell in The Guardian argued that by 2020 over 100 billion individual devices would be connected to the Internet. With around 7 billion people on the planet that’s around 14 online devices for every person. If anything, I believe that is a conservative estimate given the rate of change.

The implications for this are clear. Even if you don’t agree with the way that an organisation is using your data – perhaps like the retailer example – most people believe that there is nothing they can do. We have accepted so many services as ‘free’ knowing that we pay for them with our data and now that we have come this far there is almost nothing that can be done to reverse the situation.

In The Guardian, Farrell argues:

“The unholy alliance of CCTV, face recognition, mobile phones, fitness trackers and other wearable technologies, data brokerage and analytics, private ownership and control of previously public spaces like city squares, and increasingly wide-ranging policing powers mean we live in an urban world of ambient surveillance we never voted for. We are no longer citizens enjoying civic space; we are crops to be harvested, we are potential risks to be controlled. The internet of things does all that for us and more.”

The implication is that data will not always be used in the way we assume it might be. Health trackers that monitor runs might be informing health insurers about how you are looking after yourself. Cars might not just be self-diagnosing problems, but also telling your insurer if you drive aggressively. Credit scoring agencies might be building up a picture of your likes, dislikes, and habits in addition to spending patterns. Employers may be monitoring your every arrival, departure, and keystroke at the office.

Only the powerful can argue against this. The people who need a job or need to drive a regular or need a health insurer cannot refuse the terms and conditions that are demanded. If a health insurer demands that you offer information on your health habits in return for insurance cover then what can the average person possibly do to protest?

The Internet of Things has many clear benefits to society, but it is this question of data use and privacy that will cause many doubts to surface. Some have rejected social networks because they want to avoid sharing too much information about their life, but when information sharing becomes a condition of employment or insurance, it will be impossible to avoid.

Can we handle the implications of a world where everything is known about you as a person or is there still time to preserve some privacy?

Big Data Market Set to Grow 600% by 2019

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

I have talked a lot about Big Data on this blog. It is a technology that is now becoming normal and accepted in the enterprise, largely because of two factors:

1. The Internet of Things (IoT) means that every electronic device is becoming connected. Even light bulbs can now be assigned an IP address so you can connect them to a home control system. All these connected items generate vast amounts of data…

2. Consumer behaviour and their relationship to brands has been entirely reversed in the past five years, from brands offering a way to get in touch to consumers defining exactly how they want to review or criticise products. Now brands need to seek out comment and to engage wherever the customers are located.

There are many more factors, but I believe that these two broad changes are responsible for creating enormous amounts of data – amounts that seemed unfeasible a decade ago.

The industry analysts support this view. Ovum recently announced their own research, which indicates that from now until 2019 they predict that the Big Data market will grow 50% each year. Compounded annually this means that by 2019, the market for Big Data software and expertise will be six times bigger than it is now.

Six times. That’s a lot of market growth. The Ovum Big Data Practice Leader, and co-author of the report, Tom Pringle, said: “The experimental era of big data is coming to an end, organizations are formalizing their use of big data technology to realize the business value they expect to find.”

The important factor to note here is that Ovum is suggesting that the time for experimenting with Big Data is over. Many companies have tried it, toyed with open source software and systems, and experimented with the insights they can gain from Big Data analysis, but it is now proven that many companies need these insights.

The time has come to call in the experts.

Taking Mobile Tech From Home to Enterprise

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Think about the consumer technology that you regularly use today. You probably have a smart phone, maybe a Kindle or other e-reader, maybe an Apple Watch or similar device that can access information from your phone. Maybe your car can hook up to your phone to offer in-car information. Maybe you have an Amazon Echo at home so you can access the Internet just by speaking?

All these consumer devices are available today and are accepted as normal. Most consumers expect to have a device that gives them 24/7 access to all the services and information that the Internet can offer.

So why isn’t enterprise technology like this? Many companies still issue phones that are not even smart and laptops that are too heavy to really be portable. The concepts of cloud computing and app store flexibility remain conceptual in many organisations. Why?

The obvious answer is that consumers have far less to invest than large companies. When purchasing technology, a CIO needs to set the agenda for several years. If things change during that time it can be difficult to shift direction or to keep up with the change. Individuals don’t face this problem.

This has led to the popularity of Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies in many companies, where employees are offering cash to use their own equipment instead of what the company can supply.

But a small change in the strategic mindset can also have a major benefit to the enterprise. Commissioning new software solutions as apps, rather than desktop tools can encourage the workforce to be mobile. This can even encourage companies to create entirely new solutions for customers.

An app developed by IBA for use by a bank in South Africa allows bank employees to sign up new customers on the move. They can photograph the customer using their phone and capture details which are then shared with the central system of the bank – no forms, no waiting for an appointment. The new customers, the mobile bank employees, and the bank executives all benefit from the app approach.

It used to be that enterprise technology was years ahead of what people had at home, but now the reverse is true. It’s time for more company executives to take inspiration from the tools they use everyday – how can we use mobile devices and other common personal technology to create better business solutions for our customers?

Business Intelligence is Being Led by Data Intelligence

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

The analyst firm Gartner recently published some fascinating data trends in Forbes magazine. They summarised how important Big Data is becoming for business intelligence in three clear trends:

1. By 2020, information will be used to reinvent, digitalize or eliminate 80% of business processes and products from a decade earlier.

2. By 2017, more than 30% of enterprise access to broadly based big data will be via intermediary data broker services, serving context to business decisions.

3. By 2017, more than 20% of customer-facing analytic deployments will provide product tracking information leveraging the IoT.

These trends are exciting because what they point to is how communication is changing between individuals and how this is now affecting the way that companies do business.

Mobile, social, cloud, and shared information are all forces that have really only grown in importance over the past 5-6 years. Many company leaders have not realised how all these factors will change the way that companies do business and how decisions from new products to choosing a partner company will all be data-led.

The Gartner predictions are point at corporate behaviours just 18 months in the future. Have you explored how your own organisation is using data today and if not then can you be sure that your competitors will not be making better business decisions a year from now?

Outsourcing Trends Becoming Important in 2015

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

I was recently asked about the classic price vs service argument by a consultant who advises on IT outsourcing. I replied that I am surprised there is still a debate over this. You can compare IT supplier based on the quality of what they do and then compare equally competent suppliers on price, but price is not a primary variable that should be used to compare companies.

After all, if the service delivered does not work then how much have you saved? The price debate reminds me of where IT outsourcing was a decade ago – it was surprising to be asked about this in 2015 when most organisations have a far more mature approach to finding expert partners.

I looked at CIO magazine to see what they considered the key trends in IT outsourcing would be this year. They published a good summary at the beginning of the year and never once mentioned that price would be an important comparison point.

Several of the trends they identified are very important though and I don’t feel that they are being given enough focus in the business and technology media:

1. A focus on outcomes: outcome based pricing has been around for years, but is often focused on BPO outsourcing where specific business processes can be priced. A focus on the outcome rather than process of delivering IT will be how many projects are charged in future.

2. The business ordering direct. The CIO used to manage all information systems, but now the business units are doing far more ordering direct because many solutions can be delivered using apps or the cloud, therefore not impacting on the infrastructure managed by the CIO. This means that suppliers need to develop new relationships and change their sales strategy.

3. Analytics taking over. In areas such as CRM and customer service technology systems data is all that matters now. This approach to data-led decision-making is affecting many business functions including the more creative ones such as sales and marketing.

The IT outsourcing trends are changing and developing as the IT services space develops, but sometimes it seems that the advisors cannot escape some of the old debates.

IAOP Recognizes IBA Group in New Global Outsourcing 100

IBA Group
Irina Kiptikova

On April 16, the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals (www.iaop.org) released the second blog article devoted to The Global Outsourcing 100® list. This article recognizes companies for innovation programs.

The Programs for Innovation category of the IAOP’s Global Outsourcing 100 focuses not just on specific examples but on the programs that service providers and advisors have in place to identify and implement innovative solutions.

Today’s customers demand innovation from their providers and the outsourcing industry is looking for new ways to meet this growing demand. IAOP evaluated programs for innovation in The Global Outsourcing 100 for the first time.

IBA Group earned the highest 8 points in this category. The company received a full star recognition and its achievements in innovation were marked as the ‘Highest Rated’. This accomplishment looks especially impressive because the average score for innovation of the participating companies was 3.52.

IBA Group showed in its application that innovation is not a one-shot job for the company. IBA Group set up a Committee for Innovations headed by the IBA Group Chairman and created a company-wide Registry of Innovations. A special procedure on how to apply and approve or reject the ideas was implemented in the IBA intranet and a special venture fund was formed to finance the innovation procedure.

IBA Group implemented many successful initiatives through this procedure, including a mobile version of the IBA’s enterprise content management system and an Automated Fare Collection (AFC) system that earned a European IT & Software Excellence award for IBA Group.

IAOP Recognizes IBA Group for Delivery Excellence

IBA Group
Irina Kiptikova

The International Association of Outsourcing Professionals launched a series of blogs devoted to The Global Outsourcing 100® list that recognizes the world’s best outsourcing service providers and advisors. The blog articles are focused on the four judging categories of The Global Outsourcing 100 and on what it takes for companies not only to make the list, but to achieve distinguishing ‘stars’.

“Hip hip hooray…it’s not the New Year but it sure does feel like it around here with the buzz and excitement of IAOP’s 10th edition of The Global Outsourcing 100®!” – This is how IAOP opens its first series of blogs on The Global Outsourcing 100.

Each organization completed a rigorous, opt-in application to compete for inclusion in The Global Outsourcing 100. The achievements were assessed based on the following four distinct areas: Delivery; Programs for Innovation; Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); and Size & Growth. Those companies that have distinguished themselves receive half or full stars in one or more specific judging category.

IBA Group has been enrolled in the rating, which is actually organized as a contest since 2006. The list has been evolving and the rules have been changing, but IBA and other outsourcing providers keep applying to be among the best 100. It is not only a good chance to receive exposure. It is also an opportunity to see how the company is doing against others and to set targets for improvement.

The first blog article by IAOP is devoted to the Delivery Excellence judging category. The category includes company recognitions, customer references, company certifications, and the number of Certified Outsourcing Professionals on staff.

Delivery Excellence is a strong area for IBA Group. This year, the company received the score 7.25 for delivery excellence of the highest 8 points. It is a distinguishing accomplishment, given that the average score of the participating companies in this category was 5.86. IAOP awarded IBA Group a half star for Delivery Excellence.

The future for IT – apps in the cloud?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Technology is continuously evolving at such a rapid rate – it is impossible to predict with any certainty how it will impact on our lives in coming years. When people make predictions about how technology will evolve, try this exercise. Look back ten years and think of all the technologies you take for granted today: social networks, smart phones, mobile Internet, tablet computing. None of them existed even a decade ago – or were so nascent an elite few were the only users.

Think back a decade more and you will find yourself at the birth of the web. Adverts for major consumer products did not even feature URLs until the late 1990s. Now you see how difficult it is to predict what technologies will be common by 2015.

There will always be winners and losers in the search for new ways to use technology to achieve business success. The downfall of companies such as Nokia, Kodak, and Blackberry illustrate the consequences of not understanding how society is changing and using new technologies.

But one development that is likely to evolve further is technology outsourcing. As the world becomes more complex, it is even more unlikely that companies will retain the right kind of expertise internally. IT services will be outsourced more often because only the IT companies understand the complex technological solutions – rather than some of the drivers we saw a decade ago, such as labour arbitrage.

The globalization of IT is itself becoming more complex anyway. There are still IT service companies all over the world offering their services, but now they don’t always need to directly contract with a customer to provide a specific service. The cloud-based model allows service providers to offer a specific service – storage or computing power – that can be turned on and off as desired. The app store model many people use on their phone can also be used in the enterprise to create an environment where end users on the business front-end (not the IT department) can choose and install technology solutions themselves.

Change is taking place fast in the IT services market and nobody can predict how it will look in ten years, but one thing is for certain, IT experts need to offer a variety of delivery methods because enterprise IT is borrowing many of the ideas that consumers are already familiar with.

European IT Excellence Awards and IT Developments

IBA Group
Irina Kiptikova

Last Wednesday, IBA Group was awarded for implementing the best vertical solution of the year. It happened at a gala reception organized by IT Europa to recognize the winners of the European IT & Software Excellence 2015 Awards.
Gyles Daubeney Brandreth, an English writer, broadcaster, and actor announced the results to the audience of more than 350 contestants and their colleagues, friends and families. Winners were selected from 83 finalists that represented 32 European countries. IBA was honored to be one of the winners.

We nominated one project in two categories. Those were Vertical Solution of the Year, and Public Sector and Utilities Solution of the Year. In both categories, IBA Group competed with six other finalists for an award. The Vertical Solution of the Year category turned out to be award-winning for IBA. Congratulations to the winning IBA team!

IBA Award-Winning Team
IBA Award-Winning Team

This year’s award was specific for IBA Group because the winning solution comprises not only software but both software and hardware. The solution was an Automated Fare Collection (AFC) system. All of us who are passengers of the Minsk public transport tested the solution. Visitors of the 2014 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship held in Minsk last year were among those who tried the AFC system in practice.

The project posed many challenges for the IBA team as they had to find answers to quite a few questions. Minsk has different types of public transport, each with specific features. How should we handle the specifics? Should the AFC be fully automated or use fare collectors? Should it use the internet as a communication channel? Which security technology is most suitable? Passengers prefer to use single paper tickets instead of transport cards. Will they agree to change their habits?

However, all these issues were solved and the system was launched. Today it is easy and comfortable to use. Passengers enjoy tapping their cards on validators and ticket inspectors produce proudly their automatic terminals to check the fares. The city authorities are able to analyze the operation of the public transport. This solution is just one example of how IT can improve people’s life.

The European Software & Solutions Summit that IT Europa conducted right before the Awards focused on the changes that the IT industry should be able to accommodate.

ISV Convention
ISV Convention

Presenters from Gartner, Oracle, HP, and other market leaders spoke of the new buyers and how their behavior has changed in the past 20 years. John Chapman of IT Europa said that we live in a new world. It is an interconnected world, where equipment and customers become connected. Gartner predicted that 75B products will be connected by 2020.

Oracle went on to say that Everything as a Service (XaaS) is becoming the preferred consumption model and every company is becoming a software company. Even cloud computing is no longer the same. It is evolving towards a fully integrated digital platform, argued Interoute.

Those businesses that adopt new technologies quicker than others are more likely to have experienced higher growth, concluded Verizon and IBA Group is looking to work with such customers.

IBA Group and IT Europa
IBA Group and IT Europa

For more information about the Awards, visit our website.

Crowdsourcing and Big Data Can Come Together

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Could Big Data help the buses in New York run on time? That’s what one city politician is hoping for. New York City Council Member Ben Kallos has campaigned for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) to openly release all their data on bus arrival and departure times.

Kallos is convinced that the buses never run on time. When he has complained in the past to the MTA they have always suggested that he is wrong. He managed to obtain three months worth of bus data and with the help of some data analysts he proved that the buses only ran on time 58% of the time.

The MTA has pleaded that the data is in a difficult format for it to be quickly released to the public so his project has not moved further than this pilot stage, but this demonstrates the power of citizens and politicians understanding how much data is available from public bodies.

London has released live position data for their buses for several years now. Anyone can create a Google map like this, showing the real-time position of all the buses in the city.

Some of these online maps may appear to have no purpose other than to astonish the viewer – look at how much data is available! However, when politicians start using Big Data projects to help citizens then the value of Big Data is clearly going mainstream and being understood by the general public.

Find Business Everywhere

IBA Gomel
Iryna Zhurava

Keeping log of business relationships is not only the concern of a salesperson but also of everyone who has to work with clients, vendors or suppliers. It is not a newsflash that with the evolved technology there is no more need for long paper forms, notebooks, and business card holders and everything can be stored in a mobile device.

People from different divisions within IBA Group were looking for a mobile application that is easy to use, can store safely business information of a contact person and a summary of the conversation, can get more information about the interlocutor’s company form social media, can be useful in one-on-one meetings and trade fairs, and has other advantages. There are mobile applications that do that stuff, but not all of them together.

Our developers took the challenge and came up with a mobile application for iPhone and iPad called Marketing Application for Leads at Events (IBA.MALE). This application provides a solution for the following requirements:

• Use at events: upload a list of possible persons who will be at that event
• Capture and store interlocutor’s business information:

o by scanning of a business card and recognition of the text on it
o by scanning and recognition of a barcode or QR code and matching these with the person’s data in the pre-uploaded list
o by manual entry of information

• Receive online information on interlocutor’s company. The application allows for retrieving information on the contact person from LinkedIn online. It takes less than a minute
• Log the conversation summary
• Easy search of contacts by name, title, location or interests
• Export of contacts via email or Bluetooth.

With an existing free version of the application IBA.MALE Light you can check most capabilities of the application and decide whether to buy a full version of the application.

The Internet of Things Takes Off at CES 2015

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

The Internet of Things (IoT) is taking off at the Consumer Electronics show (CES) in Las Vegas. The CES is the biggest annual consumer electronics show in the world and often manages to set the agenda for the technologies that will be important in the coming year.

The IoT has been talked of for several years as ‘the next big thing’ in technology. It refers to when everything electronic is connected to the Internet and able to share information in a much more open way than is possible now.

The example often used is a digital fridge that can advise when milk is running low or what you can cook for dinner with the food you currently have, but this is not a good example at all and fails to see how fundamental the IoT could be.

If everything we touch is connected then we will live in a different world. Your phone, car, watch, heart monitor, shoes, just about everything you interact with will be generating information. Your insurance company will know when and where you drive your car. Your employer will know when you are at the office and when you are at home. Your doctor will be able to monitor your health without requiring a visit to the hospital. Your car will alert the dealer directly when there is a problem that cannot be resolved at home.

Many of these actions can be taken now. The ethos of the IoT is just that we will see much more communication from the objects we interact with and that there will be communication between objects. For example, your electricity meter may actually check with electrical items in your house and send a report on which appliances use the most power.

In theory the IoT is a revolution in communication in the same way that the Internet itself created an open communication platform. However, the big danger is that different companies use different protocols and methods of communication.

The CEO of Samsung used his own speech at CES this week to suggest that every Samsung product will be using entirely open IoT data platforms within 5 years. With this kind of leadership, hopefully smaller companies will follow and ensure that all their products are open.

The possibilities for the IT industry are endless. IoT will generate vast amounts of data, therefore the principles and expertise needed to manage Big Data will be important, but when this relates to customers then linking in the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) aspect will also be essential.

IT projects are going to multiply in the coming years. Products that were never previously connected or never required software – a kettle for example – may require new software and systems so that you can send a message from your phone on the way home, so a boiled kettle is ready and waiting for you.

If the CES predictions are correct, 2015 is going to be the year that IoT finally goes mainstream.

The Big Picture on Customer Service, CRM, and Big Data

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Last month I was in London, invited to speak at an event hosted by the IBA Group. The theme of the event was the resurgence of CRM and how it is being combined with Big Data and becoming an important part of corporate strategy today – particularly for companies planning how to improve their customer service.

The analyst Peter Ryan from Ovum was up before me. He talked about the strategic use of CRM and how the improved use of information feeds into a customer service strategy. Ovum has predicted that improving the customer experience will be even more important than improving revenues for companies in 2015 therefore this theme is taking on a new significance.

The director of Internet Solutions at IBA, Aliaksei Minkevich, was also speaking. He described some case studies and drove home the real importance of thinking about technology projects and how they can improve the way a business uses data. Aliaksei was particularly focused on describing how a technology solution is no longer as simple as it used to be. Much of the business benefit from processes and systems today comes from the opportunities to use information in a smarter way, rather than just reducing cost or aiming for efficiency.

I started talking about the connection – as I see it – between modern day CRM and Big Data. The way customers interact with companies in all industries has changed in the past decade and this wider social change in how people communicate has to be appreciated by corporate executives.

The two big drivers of this change were the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and the explosion in the use of social networks from 2008 – both very recent dates. Of course it was possible to use the mobile Internet before the iPhone, but Apple made it so much easier and easy access became the expectation from consumers.

And, of course, people were using social networks prior to 2008, but this was when it really went mainstream. Facebook started maturing and Twitter became commonly mentioned in broadcast media, such as radio and TV. 2008 was really the tipping point when social networks became normal for everyone.

These developments have changed the way customers interact with companies. It is now fairly normal for any customer to use at least six different channels when interacting with brands – email, voice, chat, Facebook, Twitter, and review or rating websites like Tripadvisor. There are more and this changes all the time, but this is already a very different environment when compared to those days before social networks and the mobile Internet were common.

So companies should no longer be exploring how to improve customer service as an activity, they need to be working harder at Customer Relationship Management – back to CRM again. This is because the real measure of success with customers in this multichannel environment is the quality of the engagement between the brand and the customer.

Getting this right demands the use of some serious technology. Running a customer service team no longer means just answering the phone, it needs data analysts, knowledge of Big Data, and a CRM system that allows the customer to engage and enjoy interacting with the brand.

Companies that can deliver this kind of technology in a way that improves the experience of your customers are going to lead the way. Tech players will become customer service experts as the use of technology underpins how companies interact with their customers.

Underneath all this remains the fact that how we all communicate has changed. If you want any executive to understand why this is important, then just ask them about the last time they needed to select a politician to vote for, a restaurant to eat in, or a hotel to stay in. If all these decisions are now being shaped by data, then don’t you think that the relationship between your own customers and your company are also about to be shaped the same way?

 

The Return of CRM Technologies

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Last month eConsultancy asked their readers which digital marketing technologies they have increased investment in during 2014. The number one response, at 49%, was CRM and number two was business analytics.

It is like CRM is undergoing a renaissance, an acceptance that after all the failed projects and strategies, it is really important after all. But why has this happened now?

The eConsultancy article does list several points, but in my view the top three are:

1. Customers are defining how they interact with companies. They choose the channels and companies need better analysis tools to find where customers are talking about their products, and how they prefer to interact. Customers do not just call a pre-determined phone number today.

2. Access to mobile Internet means that customers are engaging far more often. They want information before, during, and after a purchase.

3. Knowing your customer is vital for loyalty. Traditional loyalty programmes are dying out and being replaced by better engagement. Customers want a real relationship with companies, not just some points.

This change in CRM technologies strikes at the heart of how modern companies are organised. Many companies will need to change their internal structure to meet customer expectations, but one thing is clear, CRM is making a comeback.

Belarus: Old Masters of IT in Europe

Mark Hillary

Last month, I visited Minsk in Belarus. It’s not a place that too many Europeans visit because a visa is required to enter the country and at this time of year it is bitterly cold. But I wanted to see what was happening in the technology industry in Belarus so I went as a guest of IBA Group along with Peter Ryan, an analyst from Ovum.

My first impression on arriving in Minsk was astonishment. I have been to many countries in Eastern Europe and several that were behind the old Soviet Iron Curtain, so I had a preconception of what I might see, but the first thing I noticed was that the road from the airport into the city was so smooth and new, it would be a skateboarders dream surface.

I had expected to see an environment similar to that in Moscow, plenty of historic buildings and many examples of the old communist architecture – big concrete blocks in my non-architect view. However, my first thoughts on seeing the buildings in Minsk were that it resembles East Berlin. The city is felt very European and very modern.

Minsk Independence Square
A local described to me how Minsk has been completely renovated over the past twenty years. Naturally this is the period since the end of the Soviet Union. Many churches that are hundreds of years old, but fell into disrepair during the Soviet era, have been beautifully restored and there is an enormous resurgence in worship. The Orthodox and Catholic churches that I took a look at were all busy even during daytime in mid-week.

During our stay, Peter and I visited one of the development centres of IBA Group. This company was born in Belarus in 1993 and now has almost 3,000 people all over the world and customers in 40 countries. They are now headquartered in the Czech Republic, which means that they are based inside the EU, but they maintained a software development facility in Minsk – a team that is growing so fast they have commissioned an entirely new building that is under construction now.

IBA Group is an interesting company because they are focused on complete solutions, rather than software development alone. A good example is the public transport ticketing system they developed for use in Minsk – it’s very similar to the Oyster card system in London. However, they put together all the card readers, terminals, and software needed to make it work. They are also able to earn from the knowledge the system provides on how people move around the city – sometimes this data can be more valuable that the IT system itself.
Minsk Central Post Office

Minsk does have some distinct advantages for the technology industry that are not obvious unless you have explored Belarus in person. During the Soviet era, Belarus was the IT and technology hub for the entire USSR. Belarus supplied over 60% of all the IT and technology systems used in the Soviet Union meaning that there is a long heritage of technology knowledge as well as deep expertise in a variety of technologies.

This heritage of working with technology may also explain an important cultural difference with other technology hubs, such as India. When teams of techies are assigned to a project in Belarus they usually feature a range of ages, experience, and knowledge of many technologies. The culture of being an engineer or technician remains strong in Belarus, so an expert programmer doesn’t feel shame in remaining ‘just’ a programmer and not pushing for promotion to systems analyst or project manager.

This is a big difference in my opinion. I have worked with many software development teams and trying to maintain some stability was always a challenge with people quitting for a few bucks extra at a competitor down the road or angling for promotion just because their family believe it’s time they had a ‘better’ job title.

The autocratic nature of the Belarus government counts against the international image of the country – this cannot be denied. However, I asked several people about the reality of living there and everyone I talked to dismissed the ‘last dictatorship of Europe’ mantra as a cliché.

The government doesn’t like political opposition very much, but is extremely supportive of international business and it struck me that it would be hard to criticise Belarus and then feel comfortable doing business in China, Singapore, or Vietnam. All countries where the government is far more controlling than Western Europeans are used to and yet it cannot be argued that the regular man on the street is oppressed in any way in Belarus.

I went to Belarus to learn more about the IT industry there, and I learned far more than I expected to. It is certainly a place worth considering for any organisation that needs expertise with a few knowledgeable “grey beards” on the same team as the young technology wizards.

I also reinforced the experience I have had in the past of prejudice and preconception about places. Places that I have worked in the past include Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka. Countries that often suffer negative stereotyping and yet were ready for business when I visited.

Belarus is the same. I’d love to return and perhaps take the train from Minsk to Moscow. I believe that anyone involved in IT, or the services supported by technology, should take a look. But maybe go and visit in the summer because that cold wind doesn’t care how many jackets you are wearing!
Minsk Yakub Kolas Monument
Minsk, November 25, 2014

Big Data and CRM

We have it all in this London event featuring international speakers

It’s good to explore the future. At IBA we are always looked ahead to what is coming next, this is one of the reasons why we host this blog. It’s also why we have arranged an exciting event in London titled “The Big Picture on Big Data and Customer Relationships: Case Studies and Thoughts for the Future.

We have three great speakers lined up for the event.

Mark Hillary is an IT director who became a writer. His most recent book explores the subject of CEOs who blog, but he has also written about outsourcing and the globalisation of services. Mark is based in Brazil. Mark will talk about how Big Data and the analysis of customer information is changing the way companies are structured.

Peter Ryan is a principal analyst at Ovum. He is one of the best-known global analysts focused on customer service and experience. Peter is based in Canada. Peter will talk about the way that CRM is changing customer interactions and how companies relate to customers.

Aliaksei Minkevich, the director of our Internet Solutions Division will present some case studies of our own work in this area. Aliaksei is based in Belarus.

All three speakers are travelling to London to share their ideas and we are thrilled to host this event. It will take place on November 27 at the Institute of Directors in London.

Agile! Why Not?

IBA Minsk
Alex Minkevich, PMP®

Agile is beautiful. Agile is our all. Both developers and customers like Agile. However, there are projects or project phases for which Agile doesn’t work or is worse than the old good Waterfall. In my projects, developers intuitively feel when Agile can work and when it can’t, and it’s time to transfer from Waterfall to Scrum or the other way around. Why and actually when should we do it?

In this article, I would like to discuss project success from a business perspective and not from a developer perspective. What’s the difference? It is very simple. In the view of a service provider team, a project is a success when the application met customer requirements, the client signed the acceptance certificate, paid the money, and the developers received salaries and bonuses.

As for business, a project is a success if it helped achieve a business goal, for which it was approved. It might be earning profit, releasing a new product or service, gaining a market share, meeting law requirements, or serving a social need. A business goal should be achieved on time. It means the time is always limited and quality standards are are high. Imagine you are a customer and let’s see when Agile is not working or working but not that good:

1) Scope of work. A bullshit input leads to a bullshit output. Let me give you a small example here. I am making a small web project. Imagine a dialogue between myself and the developer.
– Are there any requirements?
– No… (face palm)
– I see. Then we use Agile!

This sort of dialogue is quite typical. Agile is good when there are no clear-cut requirements. However, how can one start a project, if there is no understanding, what he or she wants to get? Each value should have a price. If there’s no price, there’s no value. The customer does not want to pay for clear requirements from the very beginning. There’s no time for that. But there is a strong wish to go ahead…. Then one should understand that the requirements will be born in hard labor of many iterations and the customer will have to pay for them anyway. There will be additional cost of rework because something will be done in the way we did not want it to be and changes and revisions will be needed.

It is good, if the project is small and you have excellent communication with the developer, are on the same wavelength and quick on the uptake. What if the things are opposite? The project is big and you are based in the UK, while the developer team is in Belarus. There might be many iterations and revisions. The team will fall behind the schedule and customer requirements will be labeled first as Customer Requirements, then as Urgent Customer Requirements, Customer Troubles, Customer Pain in production… You understand what I mean.

2) The key question is: When will this come to an end? Those who did repairs at home can understand me. “A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” (A GUIDE TO THE PROJECT MANAGEMENT BODY OF KNOWLEDGE PMBOK® Guide, Fifth Edition, Page 3)

‘Temporary’ is a key word in the project definition. Agile does not give strict schedules. If I don’t understand what I want to achieve, how can I know when I will complete it? Therefore, an Agile project cannot be completed. It can just be stopped. Any business person wants his or her project to be completed successfully and not just stopped after 80 percent of the top priority backlog is implemented. It is also clear that there is a direct correlation between falling behind the schedule and a price increase.

3) Management of cross-functional teams. If there is one team of 5-7 people, it makes no problem to manage it. What if these are cross-functional teams? The frontend is in Minsk, the backend team is on the customer site in South Africa, the testing team is in India … The planning and coordination for the customer/project manager becomes a nightmare. One should have iron nerves and fanatic energy to make the work run smoothly. Only a few people can do that.

4) The last but the most important thought in my view is the following: “Agile helps chop off illusions but such project is like trying to catch a rabbit running in circles. We are doing what we can do to meet the current business needs and we are not thinking about what business will need tomorrow.”
© Dmitriy Bezugly http://www.system-approach.ru/

It is clear. I talked a lot with businesspeople in the last two years. These guys want all or nothing. There’s no grey for them, just black or white. By meeting the today’s business needs, you are closing the gaps in the current operations and doing nothing for the future business. To make a solution that will be on demand in a year, one should sit down and think hard, and then document the thoughts as requirements.

Conclusions. We should do what everyone is already doing. We should mix methodologies on different projects and even inside one project. Let it be Waterfall or RUP when you define project requirements, then we can go ahead and use Agile for development, back to Waterfall or RUP when we go to production. The requirements should be developed before DD.MMM.YYYY, the backend with the defined functionality prepared before DD.MMM.YYYY, three weeks from October 6 to October 24 are allocated for testing, and then exactly three weeks for go-live. It is strict and accurate project management in its classical sense.

Which technology to use, be it Scrum, Kanban, Waterfall or RUP is not important. One should be guided by common sense and specific conditions of a specific project. Remember that the aim should be achieving business goals of the customer and not getting as much money or person-hours from the customer as we can. Otherwise, how would we be different from others?

Top Secret of Successful Project: Just do your job

IBA Gomel
Lavy Itzhaky, PMP®

In one of my last projects, where I was asked to step in as a project manager, there was almost everything to make the project a failure from the very beginning. The customer and management were unhappy, the project team was blamed for everything, and other small things topped the list of shortcomings. But eventually this project was submitted to the client on time and to the client’s satisfaction.

The secret in putting the failing project back on track is not in magic or sleepless nights or a magnificent project manager. In this particular project, the secret was in making people do their job and not to expect them to do something they were not hired for. You cannot expect a junior developer to have calls with the customer for clarifying the requirements or providing the project status. It’s not that I don’t trust the guys. They are great developers but they do not speak the same language the customer does.

As a friend of mine told me, a project team is an orchestra, where everyone in it has an individual role to play and there are people behind the scene who also contribute to the success of the orchestra performance, the and project manager is the conductor, who has to make sure that everyone is doing an assigned role. The Business Analyst gets the requirements from the customer and “translates” them to the developers, the Architect defines the architecture of the software solution, the developers develop it, and the testers test it.

In the above example, the main problem was with too many communication channels, when a developer talks directly with the customer and provides him or her with the project status, wrongly assuming the developer knows everything and not only the assigned part. This may serve as a recipe for misunderstanding and trouble in the project. Everyone in the project has to be responsible enough to do his/her own job and not let personal (possible) ambitions ruin project.

Everyone needs to do their own part in the “orchestra” of the project. They can and should evolve and learn new stuff but in cooperation with the “conductor”. Otherwise, it will negatively impact the project.

Evolve yourself, become a better specialist, become a manager, but DON’T STOP!

Big Data as part of business in 2015

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Big Data sometimes appears to be a solution that is looking for a problem. It sometimes looks like a technology that has very little use in the real world of business and technologists are rushing around the world looking for examples of how it can be applied.

But I was having a conversation this week with a Big Data expert and I asked a question about customer service in retail – isn’t this one of the areas where Big Data is having the most impact. He agreed that it is one of the most affected industries, but for several reasons.
Everyone knows that customer service in just about every industry has changed. Consumer goods used to feature a telephone number or email address you could use to ask questions or complain. Now customers will use many different channels to comment on a product and many of them have no direct link to the manufacturer.

Customers today are familiar with at least six channels when contacting brands; email, voice, chat, Twitter, Facebook, forums and review websites. These are just the main channels being used now. Many brands are interacting with customers on other social networks, such as Pinterest or Instagram, and other communications tools, such as Whatsapp, are rapidly being adopted.

So customers are using many different ways to communicate. Often there is no formal notification to the brand involved – the brand is just expected to find the question online.

And now consider the retail industry. All these communication changes are taking place, but also the way people want to purchase items. They might buy in-store, online for delivery, online with collection in-store, they might want to return or exchange an item in-store even though it was purchased online.

The communication chain between a brand and the customer is far more complicated than a decade ago, but so is the supply chain. Enter Big Data. These real-life business problems are exactly where Big Data is moving from concept to daily use.

If you want to analyse a complex supply chain in real-time and explore how your customers prefer to shop, how they behave, where are items missing, then all these questions can only be analysed with an enormous data set that is constantly changing.

Likewise for the communications with customers. If they are communicating anytime from anywhere on any channel then there is an analysis function you need just for monitoring communications, but by employing Big Data techniques you can also predict and focus on the most important channels.

I think that 2015 will be the year when we finally stop talking about Big Data as the exception and start considering it just a part of business as usual – in any industry.

Genetic Programming

IBA Group
Pavel Charnysh

Artificial intelligence, intelligent self-learning machines, systems that can advise on how to do work better, and robotics – all of this has always been like magic to me. When I studied at the university, I was carried away by these topics. It is even more fascinating to use knowledge from one field for another and thus solve the tasks that seemed unsolvable.

What do you think about the interaction of artificial intelligence and the theory of evolution, one of the most interesting open issues in biology? As I worked with algorithms and not hardware, I kept wondering, how we can teach a computer to be intelligent. I did research on the topic within an internal project at IBA.  This article gives an overview of Genetic Programming and my speculations on how to use it in software development.

As Wiki says, ‘Genetic Programming (GP) is an evolutionary algorithm-based methodology inspired by biological evolution to find computer programs that perform a user-defined task. Essentially GP is a set of instructions and a fitness function to measure how well a computer has performed a task. It is a specialization of genetic algorithms (GA) where each individual is a computer program. It is also a machine learning technique used to optimize a population of computer programs according to a fitness landscape determined by a program’s ability to perform a given computational task’.

In my view, GP is a way to find a solution using atomic user-defined blocks.

The following are the main principles of GP:

1. Initially, we are given past performance data to build the most suitable program for reproducing the same principles of data structure in the future. We assume that the initial data were produced by a kind of a black box. We have historical input and output data to reproduce this system with the same rules and principles for future use.

2. All programs are members of a population. It means that we get not the only solution, but a set of solutions and can choose the most suitable one.

3. Changes in a population are made using an iterative method. At each iteration, the programs that are most fit for crossover and replenishment of the population are selected.

4. A fitness function is used to determine, if a program is fit for the purpose. It is a user-defined metric that numerically presents the ability of a program to solve the defined task (to fit the mapping of the input and output parameters for a given data set).

5. The fittest individuals of a population are selected to develop the population just the way evolution selects species.

6. Changes that can be implemented in the surviving members are similar to biological evolution. A member can be mutated or crossed with another member of the population.

7. A stop condition is defined for a fitness function, when one can stop GP and pick up a solution.

To grow up a population, a programmer must define primitive blocks which will form an individual. These are terminals, including constants and variables, and primitive expressions such as  +, -, *, /, cos, sin, if-else, foreach, and other predicates. Any program can be presented as a tree built up of these blocks. This way, any individual of a population can be presented.

Genetic Formula
In this case, mutation and crossover are represented as following.

Genetic Figure 1
Genetic Figure 2

We just take a randomly selected node from one individual and use it to replace a randomly selected subtree of another individual. That is a crossover. We can also take a randomly selected node of an individual and replace it with a randomly generated subtree. That is mutation.

Genetic Programming is used for neural network learning and numeric computing, as well to approximate complex functions. I was researching GP to imitate activity of a definite person. An employee while doing his or her job can make both optimal and non-optimal decisions, which makes human thinking different from digital technologies. When you are asked to point to the south, you won’t be able to do it without a mistake, and this ‘white noise’ is our individual quality. Sometimes, we do not need an accurate answer to solve a problem. After gathering the data, we can imitate this employee’s behavior for new tasks using a computer program.

Genetic programming is also useful when creating an artificial player for a game with different difficulty levels. The behavioral algorithms of an artificial intelligent player are typically ideal and therefore a human cannot beat it, if it didn’t play at give-away. Consequently, we need to make the artificial intelligence a little bit human, allowing it to make mistakes from time to time. To this end, the GP algorithms are in place because they teach the artificial intelligence human behavior, including the ability to make mistakes.

 

Isn’t that remarkable? I think it is real magic and those who create smart computers are magicians. Who knows, maybe it’s a way put a soul into a computer.

Is Jargon Preventing an Acceptance of Big Data?

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

The Smart Data Collective blog recently published a view that there is too much jargon circulating in the industry related to Big Data. In fact, as I mentioned in my last blog, Big Data is itself a term that is often misunderstood and needs more clarity.

The blog is interesting because the author takes a good example of an over-used business term, ‘digital’, and explores what we mean when we read and use this term. Many of the definitions from the dictionary have nothing at all to do with the definition of digital business you might expect – modern, hi-tech, and connected.

In fact, many more terms are taken from the dictionary and bent and shaped into something new by technology companies. Innovate, disrupt, and thought leadership are all terms that mean something different if you are not working for a technology company, but how can we improve the use of Big Data as a term?

The advantage we have is that Big Data is a genuine and meaningful area of data science. It’s not just jargon created for use by MBA students as they discuss their plans for ‘wealth-generation’.

Big Data needs to be understood by the general public and by the company leaders that have never really felt that they had to understand technology before. But almost everyone has now used Facebook, or contacted a customer service centre, so it is becoming easier to connect the theory of how Big Data can be used to the ways in which people see it every day.

Understanding Big Data

IBA Group
Mark Hillary

Big Data is a subject we have explored often on this blog because it’s an area where IBA has extensive experience and knowledge, but it is often difficult to explain. How big does a database need to be before it can be considered ‘Big Data’ and why do we need this separate terminology to refer to manipulating and analysing this data when relational databases have been in use for decades?

One example that goes a long way to answering these questions is the way that customer service is changing – especially for retailers. Products used to have a phone number and email address that customers could use to reach the manufacturer or retailer – usually to complain after a purchase.

Now, customers use online forums, review sites, Twitter, Facebook as well as the more traditional and direct channels such as online chat, emails, or a voice call. Customers are not always directly contacting a brand when they comment on a product, yet they usually expect a response.

Exploring this mass of information is a classic Big Data example. The retailers want to connect together all these communication channels into an ‘omnichannel’, yet this is impossible when they are considered to be regular databases.

If a customer emails a complaint, then tweets about the problem because their email is not answered and then finally calls because neither tweet nor email has been answered then the ideal situation for a retailer is that the agent on the phone knows about the earlier email and tweet.

But to make this work is not easy. The company has no control over Facebook or Twitter – it’s not internal data. And how can comments on a tweet be connected to a customer on the telephone?

All this is feasible, if you have enough information from various sources and you can analyse it quickly enough. Every company that interacts with their customers is now exploring this problem so maybe Big Data is about to hit the headlines again.

Messaging and Messengers

IBA Gomel
Ihar Kalesnik

It is common knowledge today that communication is king. The word ‘communication’ refers to face-to-face, online, and telecommunications, video conferencing, and other communication methods, including texting or messaging.

Mobility is another aspect of our everyday life. Mobile devices embrace a growing number of life areas, making our life easier and less tied to specific places, be it home, office or something else.

Accordingly, a growing number of mobile applications have shown up, the old ones are increasingly replaced with new applications. However, mobile applications often fail to meet our expectations. It happens that the features that were accessible earlier and made the mobile applications so convenient are no longer available. Some are too hard to set up or tune. Others on the contrary are installed easily but have too many functions, most of which are useless. Finally, we begin looking for something new again.

This is also true about message exchange software. Depending on personal habits and preferences, everyone has his or her own choice of favorite messengers.

Taking into account our personal experience and preferences, IBA developed a mobile messaging system that functions on Android. IBM Lotus Sametime served as a starting point and a basis for the application.

IBM® Sametime® products integrate real-time social communications into business environment, providing a unified user experience through instant messaging, online meetings, voice, video and data. With just one click, you are immediately connected to the person behind the information, which helps you meet the ongoing demands of everyday business.

In the IBA messenger, we implemented a customary and useful set of functions, making the application easy to customize and utilize. As an option, we added connection with the address book of a mobile device and a possibility to make a mobile phone call to any contact in the address book.

IBA Messenger screenshot1 IBA messenger screenshot 2 IBA messenger screenshot 3 IBA messenger screenshot 4

After the application was published on PlayMarket, many people have been using it successfully. Numerous positive references testify to its usability and popularity.

At present, messaging systems have different approaches to interface, the used protocols, and methods of interaction. Producers and developers keep working to modify the existing applications and create new ones. Using these applications, it is possible to exchange text, images, audio and video files, conduct voice and video communication, and use many other functions.

IBA is also planning to expand the messenger’s functionality. Currently, the IBA team is working on the next release of the application to include new functions based on the user feedbacks from PlayMarket. The release will present such useful features as file transfer, extended status support, and automatic reconnection. We intend to launch the new release on PlayMarket in September, 2014.

In the near future, we are going to develop an iOS version of the application.

I invite you to try the messenger in use. You are also welcome to leave comments on how we can improve it 🙂