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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

If anything threatens the career of the average CIO, it's the rapid pace of change. In the second half of the 1990s, the relentless march of technology is matched only by the celerity with which companies must reshape themselves to meet new global realitiesImplementing systems that change as the business changes has become one of the IS mantras of the decade, and never is this more essential than for the start-up company. For the nascent Optus Vision, for instance, establishing a platform for managing change was vital. Commercial systems manager Therese Linton-Whiley is justly proud of her entire IT department, which has set up an entirely new data centre, established a large and effective marketing system and implemented SAP in world-record time.

But this achievement would have been meaningless unless all those systems were able to accommodate the massive changes that have occurred and will continue to occur within Optus Vision's business structure and processes.

"Flexibility is something IT needed to be prepared for in all areas.

Flexibility was combined with enthusiasm, hard work and creativity. As a result, IT has been able to survive start-up and come out the other side ready to respond to any challenge, as well as improve and consolidate our services," says Linton-Whiley.

Indeed there is one reason above all why flexibility is more vital to start-up companies than to others. The simple fact is, few start-ups can pay anything more than lip-service to that other mantra of the decade: the need for CIOs to align the business and IT strategy. The Optus Vision story is the perfect exemplar.

In the beginning . . .

Optus Vision was established to own and operate a broadband telecommunications network to provide pay television, local telephone and high speed access to online and Internet services. The plan is for all these services to eventually be available to more than two million Australian households.

As just the 56th employee, and the one charged with developing the new company's IT systems, Linton-Whiley took the advice of a peer who had been through previous start-ups with AUSSAT and Optus Communications: "Populate or Perish." She immediately put that tip-off to use and began an intensive recruitment drive that was not completed until some 18 months later.

She also recognised from the start the need to work in small, incremental steps.

"We had to start off small, determining the vital organs of our IT platform and implementing them as quickly as possible," she says. Only after the basics were in place would come time for reflection and the process of managed improvement.

Set up as a joint venture between Optus Communications, Continental Cablevision Inc, The Seven Network (owners of Channel 7) and Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (owners of Channel 9), Optus Vision was established with an intention to invest more than $3 billion in the development and provision of services.

Yet the IT budget in the high-level business case was just enough to fund the corporate communications data network and desktop acquisitions.

That meant no money left over for package implementation, systems development or ongoing support. One of Linton-Whiley's priorities was to develop a business case based on critical core functionality and services in order to win urgently-needed additional funding.

Her team did succeed in gaining more than twice as much funding for the first three years, but only subject to rigorous monitoring of their expenditure. In preparation for the launch of cable TV, developing customer care, billing and fault management systems were crucial.

"Until we implemented our own backoffice systems we had no visibility of our revenue for products, capital or operational costs by project and cost centre - vital information required by our executive directors to make decisions and identify risk areas," Linton-Whiley says.

Finance and logistic systems could wait a little longer, because Optus Vision was able to temporarily use the services of Optus Communications. But in rushing to help develop those critical backoffice systems, and as such an early employee, Linton-Whiley faced a major challenge from the start: the non-availability of business users.

"IT was [put] in a position of leading the business and needing to make assumptions on their behalf, just the sort of position in which an IT professional would prefer not to be," she says.

"No sooner had decisions been made by the people that were on board, when new people started with different ideas."Filling a void . . . As a forward-thinking company, Optus Vision established a Business Process Engineering team almost from the start. But with a complete void of policies, procedures and processes to work on, the team had to concentrate on customer interface areas like sales, service activation and service assurance. Other areas had to forge ahead as best they could, choosing flexible, reconfigurable systems and accepting system defaults wherever possible.

"Once we went live a major task was to constantly improve and complete the policies, procedures, processes and supporting systems," says Linton-Whiley.

The team's response was to establish basic standards, build an IT infrastructure, develop key partnerships, implement core systems quickly and prepare for ongoing change, all the while maintaining flexibility as a key word. Without basic standards, Linton-Whiley maintains, the proliferation of platforms, software and databases would have proved unmanageable and unsupportable into the future. Yet flexibility did mean compromises had to be made in some areas of critical business need.

"For example, our broadcast scheduling system runs on DOS clients over a Novell network and uses a Ramis database. No Macintosh-based systems were available and the competition offerings were also non-standard."Optus Communications provides some key systems and data interfaces, including telephony billing, network fault management, a telephony rating engine and telephony interconnect and revenue data. This left Optus Vision free to identify core systems in all areas in the recognition that only the most essential needed to be delivered prior to the product launches of both cable TV and local telephony.

"Basic finance and logistics functionality was required before the cable TV launch - if possible," says Linton-Whiley. "This would remove our dependence on Optus Communications and enable product revenue and cost tracking.

"The only way this could be achieved was to choose a flexible, configurable package and embark on a time-boxed implementation, making lots of assumptions along the way."SAP was chosen as that package after a lengthy evaluation. Optus Vision spent nine months evaluating finance and logistics systems to April 1995. Flexibility was an overriding criterion for system selection.

"We knew that our basic processes, account structures and product to revenue splits would change, so we chose a package that could be configured to accommodate those changes," Linton-Whiley says.

SAP also fitted the bill for an integrated system that would eliminate the need to build and support large numbers of interfaces. Nonetheless, Optus Vision still has around 10 interfaces, including payroll, billing, expenses and interconnect revenue.

SAP also met more than 80 per cent of the detailed requirements listed in the RFQ, with most of the other areas due to be addressed in the next version, including serial number length, equipment tracking and warehousing. SAP would also comply with the Optus Vision architecture: Oracle database, Digital Unix Server, TCP/IP Network and Macintosh clients.

"When we first started looking at SAP we had no hardware to run it on, so we had to get in operations people to size everything and buy the hardware, install it and make a data centre operational. All of that was done by our operations people and that was just an amazing achievement," Linton-Whiley says.

The possible dream . . . But that achievement almost pales into insignificance in view of the incredibly rapid implementation of SAP that followed immediately after. Linton-Whiley ignored the advice of the many who told her it would be impossible to implement SAP before the launch of Optus Vision's cable TV service in September 1997.

With a great deal of effort and creativity her small but growing team implemented SAP's core financials - AP, GL, Cash Management - and logistics - Inventory, Purchasing - in the staggering world record-beating time of just 72 days. Linton-Whiley says implementing SAP in short order required a highly pragmatic and creative approach.

"We just had to think about ways of doing things very quickly," she says. "We went live with manual interfaces to billing, payroll and the like based on standard reports and a non-integrated interim warehouse management system," she saysOptus Vision implemented phase one in September 1995 and phase two in August 1996. The company is still engaged in ongoing process improvements, activation of detailed functionality, interface automation and development of flexible/integrated reporting systems.

"We were able to implement it quickly because we did a very basic implementation," says Linton-Whiley. "We just did a very simple configuration in SAP and then we went back and we've been adding more options and more detailed functionality later as the business has needed it and as the business processes have been changing."Unfortunately the fact that many businesses processes were not yet in place added an unanticipated level of complexity.

"While we were able to use many of the standard processes within SAP there are still many configuration questions that required policy decisions to be made.

If this was possible within our implementation time frames, that would be great. Otherwise we were forced to make assumptions with our key users and on the advice of our implementation partners."This made rapid change inevitable once the system went live. According to Linton-Whiley, this was the most problematic and poorly managed area of the project. Although senior managers and key users were briefed and supportive, they found it impossible to keep up with the change management and communication needed to inform new staff about the approach taken and the plans for moving forward.

The result? Many new staff, whose expectations had been set by their experiences with other systems which were years in the making and refining, were disappointed with the system, considering it too inflexible.

"An intense period of reconfiguration and the addition of detailed requirements was undertaken in the finance area, while we forged ahead with new and enhanced logistics functionality," Linton-Whiley says.

Shifting gears . . .

Another issue was staff availability and product knowledge. Since phase one coincided with the hiring of both business and IT staff, it was difficult to ensure complete requirements were gathered and ongoing support was possible.

Once the IT staff were hired they were trained, allowing them to take part in implementation. This training allowed them to gear up for ongoing support even though vendors (SAP and BHP), not themselves, had been responsible for configuration and requirements setting.

The approach, if a little unorthodox, seems to have paid off extremely well.

Linton-Whiley says the major ingredient of the project's success was the careful planning done beforehand.

"When you go live fairly quickly and you make fairly high-level assumptions, you need to plan to invest quite a bit of time afterwards tweaking it and putting in those extra layers of complexity into your functionality.

"That's how I advise everybody who asks me [about any drawbacks to rapid implementation]: yes you can put it in quick, but you've got to make sure you've got appropriate support and resources to do enhancements and improve it afterwards."Her other stellar achievement is the very large marketing system developed for Optus Vision in extremely quick time. As a start-up company Optus Vision was prepared to invest a lot of money during its early days, but Linton-Whiley says the company also maintains strict budgetary control and has always tried to be conservative about expenditure.

"We only do stuff when it is really a business imperative," she says, "so the marketing system was a really good achievement.

"We've built a lot of very good functionality, it's a very flexible marketing system in terms of segmentation and so on, it can bring a lot of external list information in very easily, and it's very flexible for products and product roll out.

"We did that system with a lot of help from Oracle, and they keep saying to us: ÔThis is really state-of-the-art. Big companies have tried to do this and they've never succeeded, so you guys are really in front because you did it right in the beginning'. Instead of trying to get by in the marketing space and then coming back and being able to untangle the mess, we really did it right from the start," she says.

The persistence of time . . .

During the entire start-up period time frames were so tight some project deliverables inevitably had to be left until after implementation. Luxuries like system user guides and business procedures just had to wait. The team also needed to make numerous tough decisions and many assumptions in order to meet the extremely demanding time frames forced on them by necessity.

Nonetheless, Linton-Whiley says the lessons to be learned from the entire start-up processes are hardly predictable.

"I think they are your tried and true lessons in IT but they just become more prominent when you are in a start-up organisation.

"Make sure you've got appropriate business sponsorship of all of the projects that you are going to do," she says. "When you are running so quickly and putting a lot of systems in, if maybe there's half-hearted support in one area then you can lose that support and you don't really want to be in that situation.

"So it's really making sure you are doing the lobbying, and getting the business people to stand up behind the IT expenditure," she says.

Most importantly, the lesson is that flexibility is everything if IS is to remain relevant and if organisations are going to survive. Optus Vision has had to reshape itself almost continually in the face of intense competition and a shifting regulatory environment. Linton-Whiley's team has had to support that change all along the way, even during the process of creating IS.

"I learned that if I could be part of the initial start-up then I could also overcome the challenges that are now evident. We have some instant legacy systems and a constant stream of new products that are testing the limits of those systems.

"Other areas have a brain but no heart, no lungs. The business is already re-creating itself and the desire for systems to support every aspect of operations appears limitless," says Linton-Whiley.

And so the process of ongoing change in order to keep pace goes on

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