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The technology industry, or at least a fair chunk of the technology industry, doesn’t like the notion of more than one way of doing something. It is at its most comfortable with clear cut migrations of the ilk of VHS tape to DVD. “You now have this, so you won’t want that any more” is the thinking. New supersedes old. And it’s not just that new supersedes old, but that this happens in its entirety. Things move forward along predictable lines based on wholesale replacement.

So the report i recently stumbled across here, about IP-TV (connected TV) as well as this article about NetFlix releasing new content online ahead of television are both interesting on a number of fronts. Not for the first time, the implications in both is that television is about to be shaken to its very foundations.

With the number of reports and amount of research, speculation, conjecture and general cerebral cortex being dedicated to this topic over the years, I am amazed that television has any foundations left. Yet television is still in a very strong position and shows no signs of being overtaken by IP, Cloud or other Internet-based TV options of the sort these reports describe.

And let’s be clear. The reason this isn’t happening is much the same reason radio didn’t disappear a decade or more ago.

In fact if we look back, it turns out that radio is a medium people have been writing off for 50 years. It survived “you won’t need it any more because we now have television – you know, with pictures” in the 50s and 60s, and “you won’t need it any more because of compilation tapes and Walkmans in the 70s and 80s, and “you won’t need it any more because of downloads” in the 90s and 00s. The latest onslaught – the ability to download or stream podcasts, music when you want and programmes when you want hasn’t made much difference to radio’s popularity. The last research I saw on listening habits suggested something like 90% of the UK population listen to radio at some point during the week. Pretty impressive considering I was reading articles 5 or 6 years ago by assorted ‘experts’ and ‘visionaries’ predicting that all of this would kill it off once and for all.

Downloading stuff in no way replaces the immediacy, ‘newness’ and (if it is done well) unpredictability of radio. A collection of downloads does not a radio station make. No matter how big your music collection, no matter how many gigabytes of ‘stuff’ you have, much of the time you will be quite happy with the radio providing a schedule of something that someone has compiled in the hope you might like it.

Often you won’t, but often you will.

And pretty much the same philosophy applies to television. The ability to download or seek out what you supposedly might “want” when you want doesn’t undermine the fact that people will often be quite happy with viewing a channel or maybe a series of channels without having to spend time making selections – exactly the same as they do with radio. That is not to say that they will not also use on demand services, But this will be at different times and is based on occasion, mood and and a whole range of subjective reasons that – thank heavens – the market research folks will never be able to fully categorise, pin down and document for administrative convenience. The issue isn’t that different people adopt different technologies. Nor is it about ‘migration’ from one thing to another or ‘replacement’ of what is supposedly ‘old’. The issue that people can’t come to terms with is that the same people may use all of what is available. Just at different times.

“Both” is good. Unfortunately it doesn’t make for a very lively PowerPoint presentation.

A bit of research via the Internet and some business analysis textbooks and you arrive at the conclusion there are five common problems encountered with requirements gathering.

So far so good. Unfortunately there is no agreement on what those ‘five’ actually are.

I have come across these:

  • Customers don’t (really) know what they want
  • Requirements change during the course of the project
  • Customers have unreasonable timelines
  • Communication gaps exist between customers, engineers and project managers
  • The development team doesn’t understand the politics of the customer’s organisation

And these:

  • Teams speak a different language
  • Pushing for Development to start
  • Delaying the documentation – We will document along the way
  • Keeping requirements Feasible and Relevant
  • Inadequate Review, Feedback, Closure

And many more.

Everything above is correct of course – these are all perfectly valid. But I have written previously on these pages about a trend in recent years for the technology team to be approached even without any detailed requirements at all. “Make it work” is the “requirement” – such as it is – and technology are expected not just to deliver a solution but to create requirements themselves, on behalf of the customer. I personally don’t have an issue with technology operating like this, though I have encountered people over the years that would throw their hands up in absolute horror. Even more discomfort is in store for those who (wrongly) seem to view technology merely as a ‘supplier’ of solutions – much like the people supplying the coffee machines or photocopiers…. Another topic for another time perhaps.

I have spent a fair proportion of my professional life untangling applications and processes that nobody in the company properly understood. Quite why organisations let themselves get into this situation when very often they will have built the applications in the first place (they didn’t appear out of thin air), is an interesting question for another occasion. For now though, let’s just acknowledge that we’re stuck with situations like this.

I’ve met many Business Analysts who aren’t concerned in the slightest about what I have just said. Many even purposely steer clear of looking too carefully at any pre-existing applications. The belief seems to be that looking at what already exists in some way contaminates their judgement.

To be fair, there is something in this. What already exists can be a constraint to peoples thinking. But equally it can give useful insight. We can learn from the past. The reason things are the way they are is often significant.

Technology isn’t just about building something new. Sometimes it is about getting more from what we have. Reverse engineering can help us stabilise and improve what we have, improve our acceptance testing and knowledge generally. I find it surprising it is not used more, and why so many people (analysts, developers and others) try to steer clear of it.

If we can reverse engineer a UFO (as I saw on TV a while back) why not use the technique on software more regularly?

It’s hardly a Damascene moment, but it occurred to me the other day how rarely these days you see people reading printed newspapers.

There is nothing good about this.  Like HMV disappearing, it isn’t just a matter of people getting content from somewhere else.  It isn’t like buying your salad online rather than in a shop.

The issue is that it represents a loss of revenue – or perhaps a transfer of revenue – away from ‘makers’ and towards ‘distributors’.  For the newspapers, struggling to maintain quality journalism and reporting – together with all the infrastructure that involves – people not buying a newspaper is money going out of the industry.  It’s not like buying your salad from somewhere else.  That money might end up in a different part of the salad industry, but it at least stays somewhere in that industry.

As a senior figure from, I think, the New York Times said not too long ago – “Google may do a good job of aggregating content, but we’re the ones that have a bureau in Iraq, not Google”.

Or something like that anyway.

It seems to me something very radical might have to happen to newspapers.   Perhaps a public wi-fi that can be only be used to access Newspaper web sites?

Get me Mr Murdoch on the phone, will you? *

 

* This isn’t just a flippant comment – The Cloud Public Wifi is already part of his empire….

I have an appraisal objective this year to identify the skills and techniques I believe are needed in my role as a BA. The next step is to create a scheme for rating myself against them and then, finally, to perform the rating itself.

This is similar to a skills matrix that most teams I have worked on have had to one extent or another. I don’t think many people would disagree it’s a useful tool to have, but the problem tends to be that people have a tendency to devise them from scratch each time. This is time consuming and inevitably a lot of effort is spent constructing the matrix itself rather than getting to the whole point of why it exists. That is to help us get better at what we do and to discuss the techniques themselves.

My approach has been to start by looking at what materials and resources already exist. We can be sure others have been through the process also and have created at least a basis for us.

Further, there are professional bodies representing our industry. After all, if I wanted to identify the skills and techniques that say, a surveyor used, The obvious place to start would be the professional body for surveyors – the RICS.

I have been an IIBA (International Institute of Business Analysts) member for some time so my first port of call was the IIBA’s BABOK. Specifically the ‘Techniques’, ‘Underlying Competencies’ and ‘Other Sources of Business Analysis Information’ sections. This gave a good list, if a little generic in places.

I then moved on to look at what the IIBA’s UK equivalent body – the British Computer Society have to offer. This happened to coincide with me undertaking the Business Analysis BCS training pathway (part of ISEB as it used to be called).

The various BCS BA courses all have a detailed syllabus of topics. The BA pathway is made up of a set of mandatory and optional courses. Therefore combining all of these must give a complete (or very close to complete) coverage of the techniques methods tools required by a BA.   Even better, BCS have a predefined scheme for evaluating an individual against the topics according to:

  • Levels of knowledge
  • Levels of skill and responsibility

I now felt I was really getting somewhere. But to make the interpretation of the information easier, it needed a diagram to map out the commonalities. It needed an ‘at a glance’ view of all the topics across-the-board – and how they link. Some topics appear to a lesser or greater extent in more than one course, but can still be grouped under half-a-dozen or so major ‘themes’.

This was conducted as a post-it-note-exercise initially, with each post-it representing an individual syllabus topic. These were then grouped:


Post it note exercise - Evolving the BA Skills and Techniques Under 'Themes'

And then transferred into a diagram within an Enterprise Architect Model, showing the major ‘themes’ and ‘linkages’:


Skills Matrix Model - Grouped Themes

The finished list, with marking scheme (marks yet to be added) is available here. The list was generated simply by running a report against the Enterprise Architect model.

From here I went on to rate myself against each heading, and thereby complete the exercise.

Final Note

What is possibly missing in the list above, is a way of relating the entries on the list back to the high-level groupings on the diagram.  Having said that, it is possibly easier and more productive to work from the diagram itself and annotate it while rating yourself and then transfer the results onto the list afterwards. It should also be fairly easy to plug this work into a training and development plan.

Most human endeavor ultimately comes down to a process of repetition and continuous refinement, based on some kind of feedback and improvement mechanism.

In previous and arguably simpler times, people would have just called this ‘practice’.

“Practice makes perfect”, “when at first you don’t succeed try try again” etc. is what we are taught from school. And it’s a pretty good mantra for drawing, playing tennis, cooking, driving a car, building houses, Installing kitchens and so on. But I say “most” because it starts to go awry when we apply it to large scale engineering projects. And arguably it often (or even always) goes awry for large scale bespoke activities generally – regardless of what they are.

This is because once we get into bigger and more complex things, the notion of repetition, practice and continuous refinement cannot apply. We can’t repeat the exact same thing again to get better at it, and anyway the pace of change means that what we’ve done previously isn’t necessarily relevant today.

Not too long ago I overhead someone repeating a phrase I have heard countless times over the years: “An IT project should be like MOT’ing (servicing) a car”. Well, what I have just said explains why this isn’t and can’t be the case.

From this we arrive at the theory that maybe the traditional “project” approach doesn’t really work for technology. We need a new approach of some sort.

If we take The Mythical Man Month (first published 1975 and stimulus for much work since) as the first solid documentation that “projects” don’t really work for technology, then we have had nearly 40 years of arguing and philosophising about it. The basis of this is why IT and technology projects aren’t like servicing cars.  It really is time to move on.

If you take away the notion of repetition, practice and continuous refinement, then the only other major technique we have available to us is knowledge management and education. Anyone that knows me, has worked with me or has read this Blog, will know that my view is that this is the route to successful outcomes. Not trying to re-invent the traditional “project” over and over. Not applying more and more command and more and more control.

A project will be successful if you have a knowledgeable team. Simple as that.

This is what the ‘agile’ books call “a good team”. What the project concept can’t do is make the team “good” to begin with. Personally, I think agile is a better way of running a project, but agile can only work if the team have a high level of knowledge. If that is the case they will deliver anyway. The techniques we use to organise things – be it waterfall, agile or whatever else, can only optimise a situation that is broadly already working.

I have to say though, that I am continually frustrated that the notion of the Business Analyst as champion of knowledge management and education, isn’t something I generally see many BAs being interested in. I’m not sure why this is; Admittedly it involves thinking somewhat differently, and perhaps the issue is that we are dealing with collective activities somewhat outside the fray and taken for granted. It involves volunteering information and sharing. Looking beyond the self and helping ensure people are as knowledgeable and ‘up to speed’ as possible.  Because I’ve spend a fair chunk of my career surrounded by people who aren’t, and struggle as a result - through no fault of their own.  I dread to think how much wasted time and money that equates to.

So given the rewards that can flow from all this I find this bizarre and more than a little annoying, but with the dawn of a new year comes new possibilities. I hope.

Happy new year!

There are various reports in the press that HMV are having poor pre-Christmas sales, and this perhaps means that my prediction of them not being with us for much longer will come true.

I for one will feel sad about this: I’ve spent a fair chunk of my life in various branches of HMV and a good proportion of my CD and DVD collection is from there. I still think the shared experience of a physical shop is important. Their demise is therefore significant.

It is fashionable nowadays to not be emotional about such things. One must write it off as an agnostic “one of those things”; others lapse into phrases and clichés such as “flawed business models” as if they have any idea of what is really going on.

Bizarrely, I found myself saying all of this at a work event recently where I ended up sitting next to someone who turned to be a board member of my company. After all, what better way to break the ice than to talk about the future of digital media?

It is worth reminding ourselves that the drift away from CD – a key element of HMV’s woes – is in no way similar to what caused people to adopt it in the first place. People switched to CD originally from other formats (vinyl, cassette) because of ease of use. Not, as many ‘experts’ had predicted, because of durability and sound quality. In any event, claims of durability and sound quality turned to be highly contentious and still are.

By contrast, people switched away from CD – generally to MP3 – because they realised they could download them for free. Once word got round that this was possible, why buy a CD when you can get it for nothing from some eastern European web site? So the motivation for MP3 in no way mirrored a technical choice or decision making process in the way that the past – Vinyl versus CD, VHS versus DVD, Blu-Ray versus HD-DVD or even more dramatically, analogue versus digital, did.

Obviously not all MP3 downloads are illegal, but I would still say that for people to claim MP3 has revolutionised music is rather like saying shoplifting has revolutionised high street fashion retail, or train fare evasion has made the country more mobile. The genie is now well and truly out of the bottle. And not necessarily entirely for the good.

Quite where that leaves people trying to make it all pay, and more serious still, for those creators trying to do something new whilst paying the bills and putting food on the table?

I haven’t the faintest idea.

But we were out of time. And coffee.

I have always objected to this phrase as it is generally used in a rather disparaging and pompous way. The message tends to be “old crap from a bygone age that we have to reluctantly tolerate until such time as we can get rid of it”. Some people don’t seem to realise that “Legacy” simply means “successful live application”. Therefore it represents the technology that is running the business.

In my experience people are far too quick to jump to the conclusion that they are costly or difficult to maintain. This opinion is often formed on hearsay and lack of knowledge (and, more alarmingly, an unwillingness to acquire that knowledge or approach people that have it).  I have to add that even if a legacy application is “difficult and costly to maintain” the reasons for this need examination.  And it shouldn’t mean that the whole underlying basis for the application’s existence is flawed.  But that is another subject entirely…

In my view, projects don’t go wrong because of ‘requirements’. Requirements are merely a convenient hook on which to hang any issues encountered on the project – whatever they may be.

Projects go wrong because of a lack of understanding of how the requirements actually fit into the global game. This in turn is simply down to a lack of knowledge. There is no need to philosophise further. If you have pre-existing systems and infrastructure – as almost all projects nowadays will have – then this problem will increase dramatically if that pre-existing landscape isn’t understood. And frequently it isn’t.

I once attended a post implementation review for a project that had encountered overruns and a host of other issues. Much time was spent recounting tales of woe about the requirements. Yet it was pretty obvious to me that it wasn’t really the requirements at fault at all. The knowledge deficit (which was not the team’s fault, I would add) meant that any piece of work – big or small, simple or complex, would have caused them a problem. Even leaving requirements out of it entirely and having a bug to fix would have been a major challenge.  The only ‘safe’ way out would have been not doing anything at all.

By contrast, more recently I was involved in a complex set of changes to one of our key systems. The requirement from the business area was little more than ‘make it work’. Yet this was implemented relatively smoothly as it turned out, because – more by luck frankly – we had a knowledgeable team. We were able to shape what needed to be done based on our knowledge and come up with a set of actions that could be played back to the business for comment. In effect we were writing the requirements for them. They would then approve, reject or modify.

The whole situation could well have been very different and potentially disastrous with different people involved.

None of the above is actually to do with the ‘requirements’ per se in my view. Whilst some would argue that we should not even have gone ahead without something more substantial to start with, you also have to recognise that not everyone is good at articulating requirements. They are not always able to get their objective across, even if buried within it is the kernel of a good idea (which in my experience there generally is).  We in IT have to be alive to this. We should be prepared to put ourselves in the customers position and if necessary help create the requirements for them. The ‘alternative’ (if that’s what it is) is to do nothing and wait. This is futile and does untold damage to the reputation of our industry.  We should be in there proactively collaborating, assisting and doing whatever we can to move things forward swiftly. Not pushing people away and waiting.

Difficulty in creating requirements and expecting IT to help create them, doesn’t in any way mean the customer is disinterested or lacking in knowledge and commitment. In the example above they were anything but. They simply needed IT need to take a creative lead.  Once that had been established, they were more confident and more involved.

Neither does it mean there is some sinister rule violation taking place in IT or a flaw in our processes. I personally have no problem with IT getting involved like this and it is central to what IT should be doing in my opinion.  But it is possible only if you have a knowledgeable team.

How to get there is the big question. Sadly this is a much larger challenge than it perhaps should be.

 

I’ve written previously on these pages about the prolonged ‘future of television’ debate which has been simmering away on the back burner of the technology industry for years. The debate centres around two main arguments:

Firstly, so the argument goes, the advent of on-demand Internet and cable based services renders the traditional ‘channel’ and ‘schedule’ obsolete. Why passively sit in front of a TV or listen to a radio dispensing a schedule when you can seek out exactly what you want, when you want it? In other words, If on demand services are available, why would you want anything else?

Secondly, young people (whatever that means – that let’s take it to mean people of school age) are turning their back on traditional media. The Internet must hold the answers, since this is where they frequent.

Yet TV and radio audiences are still strong, and despite all the online and on demand services people still seem to value them and give them high approval ratings. It wasn’t too long ago I frequently read articles predicting how podcasts and on demand music services would kill off radio. But radio listening seems to be going up. In television, it is certainly true that audiences aren’t what they were: The days of shows getting 20 million-odd viewers on a Saturday night are over, but the point is those days were over long before the Internet – and certainly long before any on-demand services enabling you to watch TV content.

As for young people drifting away from traditional media, well, the argument seems to be that because they are not consuming television and radio today, they never will. This is a pretty weird idea because people’s views, opinions and attitudes change over time. How do we know they won’t ever come back later in life? Some people seem to think that by observing young people today, they are in some way predicting the future: that those behaviours will continue forever.

So I don’t accept these two arguments.

The big question is, why does all this perpetuate?

Part of the reason comes from the fact there is a portion of the technology industry that can’t come to terms with the idea of more than one way of doing something: There is something in the DNA that is focused on technology always bringing about total migration, replacement, and a single solution.

And to be fair it did. At one time. In the 1950s and 1960s say, technology would bring about wholesale replacement of football pitch sized offices of people processing billing or payroll. These were clear migrational changes and they were beyond dispute. But our modern world is different. The way people consume media and entertainment is fragmented. As a result the technologies delivering it are fragmented. People are quite happy with having alternatives, even if this involves including the tried and tested and the ‘traditional’. Having a microwave in your kitchen does not mean a conventional oven is no longer needed. Blu-Ray disks don’t mean the end of cinema. And ‘on demand’ internet services don’t mean the end of the schedule. Far from it.

Like most people, I’m happy with a bit of both please.