IT in a Flat World

By Mike Scheuerman

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In his book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century , Thomas Friedman argues that global supply chains have become an integral part of the modern business landscape and national borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Delivery of goods and services is no longer done in a single location or even in a single country. Your shoes may be delivered to you at the department store or by a delivery man at your front door. You may have paid for the shoes with a credit card or with bill pay from your checking account. The manufacturing of those shoes may involve dozens of suppliers and sub-assembly locations anywhere on the globe. The complaint department that you call when they don’t fit well, may be in yet another part of the globe that has no relation to the manufacturing.

In this environment the CIO becomes a master of logistics and partnership management. For a global supply chain to function effectively, the technology that delivers information to the myriad parts of the chain must be as varied and flexible as the chain itself.

Building Blocks

In order to build a flexible technology strategy for a flat world, the CIO first must understand the components of the supply chain. For each step in the process there may be multiple sources providing similar products or services. In order to keep the supply chain flowing smoothly, the technology that receives and demands data must be able to accommodate multiple inputs and outputs.

This could be a Babel fish problem. How do you translate from anything to anything? Or is it really about coordination of multiple partners, each contributing a portion to the whole? If you look at it from the latter perspective, it begins to look like an information supply chain—building up data just like you would build up a physical product. Each step of the process adds to the whole.

Throughout the process the CIO’s control of the details of data production is limited or non-existent particularly when production is outsourced. However the CIO does have control of the final product and so needs to focus on that outcome rather than attempting to control the intermediate steps. The final product needs to satisfy the information requirements of the ultimate consumer.

This building block approach to information presents somewhat different challenges in the management of IT. It’s a bit like doing object-oriented programming. There are operations that expect certain inputs and will produce expected outputs. How those outputs are arrived at is unimportant as long as the results are consistent.

Choosing Partners

Choosing the right partner and defining the rules of engagement become as important as the data production. These are service-oriented partnerships. As such, examining the process by which services are produced is almost as critical as the service itself. There are dozens of partners to choose from so picking one that has a sustainable and expandable process will serve you better than the ad-hoc service provider.

The rules of engagement must be clear so that each partner understands their role in the overall production process. A partner that doesn’t understand that you are their customer and tries to build relationships with your customers isn’t truly a partner. Spend some time looking at how they work with others and how they define their core competency. If they can show that their core competency is delivering the very best service that you need then they’re more likely to be the kind of partner with which you can build a solid relationship.

The world is going to continue to flatten and as it does building and delivering services to customers that are derived from widely separated sources is going to be challenging. However if you can focus on getting the right components from the right partners, you will be a winner in that world.

Mike Scheuerman is an independent consultant with more than 25 years experience in strategic business planning and implementation. His experience from the computer room to the boardroom provides a broad spectrum view of how technology can be integrated with and contributes significantly to business strategy. Mike can be reached at mike@scheuerman.org.