Strategy clinic: Readers' replies

Do you disagree with expert opinion, or have you some new ideas of your own? This week readers add their suggestions to the...

Do you disagree with expert opinion, or have you some new ideas of your own? This week readers add their suggestions to the answers provided by our panel of experts to recently published questions.

Is certification worth the paper it is written on?
Are product certifications, as a rule, relevant to how those products are used in the real world? Are they worth the paper they are printed on? Or are they just another hoop for techies to jump through?

In this new world of interconnectivity, of optimised supply chains, of online marketplaces and business-to-business information exchanges, the need for standardisation and compliant operating environments has become a real issue.

Industries vary in how far they have adopted these paradigms and how strictly they are able to regulate member companies in their use of technology.

The more regulated industries, such as pharmaceuticals, healthcare, chemicals and petrochemicals take the whole area of certification for supplier products very seriously.

For example, a pharmaceutical company is legally required to show how a drug that it wishes to sell has progressed from initial discovery through to licensed product - essentially through the four phases of a drug's life cycle from discovery and patent through to general public availability. The Federal Drug Agency in the US and the European Medicines Evaluation Agency in Europe are two examples of government agencies with wide and sweeping powers to deny a licence for a drug, to audit and investigate the processes and procedures within a pharmaceutical company and even to order the shutdown of a production process. The agencies demand that pharmaceutical companies are able to demonstrate their supplier's conformance to their regulations.

This is where the certification of products becomes important and why organisations that operate in regulated industries, or even self-regulated industries such as financial services, rely on certification processes within the supplier community.
David Gingell , marketing director, Documentum

How can I keep costs down?
Like many of my peers in IT, I am under pressure to contain costs at the moment - can the members of the panel give me three easy wins that I can put in motion straight away?

Many of our clients face problems relating to IT costs - they seem to rise inexorably, often without tangible benefits to the business. Whether easy wins are possible will depend on the availability of detailed analysis of where the IT spend is being consumed.

To answer the question directly my suggestions are:
  • Encourage the consumers of IT spend, for example business units accountable for costs of consuming IT services, to start to cross-charge. No one has an incentive to reduce consumption of a service unless they benefit by doing so. Equally, few people value a service that has no direct cost implication for them

  • Create a transparent pricing structure so the true cost of consuming services is understood by the business and, therefore, minimised. This will help to reduce requests for new reports, systems enhancements and helpdesk calls

  • Do not cut back on training for new implementations and actively pursue additional training for users of existing systems who routinely use the helpdesk (often a significant IT cost).

Longer term but other valuable points are:
  • If you are a relatively small business then consider teaming up with others (perhaps via a chamber of commerce) to create a collective weight when negotiating for hardware and licences

  • Thoroughly analyse, on a yearly basis, whether the internal resource meets with company requirements. In many companies, large, permanent in-house IT departments are being reduced. When extra, often specialist, resource is needed an outside consultancy is used

  • To reduce overheads consider whether all applications need to be provided and maintained by an in-house team. Though clients have concerns about control, using hosted solutions can save costs on hardware, implementation, support and ongoing development.

All the above points rely on detailed expenditure information being available. If this is not, an analysis should be done.

Ease of implementation may vary from one organisation to another.

However, it if were that easy, everyone would be happily reducing IT costs rather than struggling to stop them rising.
Mark Clewett , director of technology, Moliere

How can we protect open standards?
What can be done to ensure vital open standards are not hijacked by the suppliers that are already fighting to control them?

When you are in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging. Proprietary suppliers only succeed in subverting standards when silly users buy their "extensions" instead of the standard, thereby paying for the "privilege" of lock-in and extortion.

Once you are locked-in, it really does not make any sense to dig into a bigger, universalised, variation on the theme. Yet, this is exactly what much of the UK IT industry is planning with .net and Java-based XML Web services.

This is not necessary. Any technically competent team can create simple bespoke solutions for the most complex systems, merely by reading and implementing the publicly documented standards. Even the technically incompetent can hire open source developers to do the job - free source code enabling real competition to supply maintenance, add-ons or further development. So why do so few organisations do this?

Because standards are not products which are sold, marketed and purchased with big budgets and an audit trail.

Assuming that a standard is truly open, the most effective general solution to this problem is to develop a freely available reference implementation (ie a "product"), which covers the vast bulk of its functionality. It is also in the interests of genuine open standards suppliers to fund low-cost testing and certification.

By ensuring that products which contain proprietary extensions are only compliant if they fully implement the reference model, we ensure they are sufficiently similar to be interchangeable and, hence, competitive with one another.

Even without effective certification, free reference implementations have proved they can stimulate enough competition to ensure standards compliance from reluctant suppliers. Witness Microsoft's adoption of the BSD Unix TCP/IP stack or Sun's adoption of the Linux-based Gnome desktop.

A free, but commercially oriented, reference platform for XML office and Web services, backed by the likes of IBM or Hewlett-Packard and based on Linux, would guarantee a revolutionary change in behaviour.
Dave Fisher , e-business analyst, GBdirect Consultancy and Training

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