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Thursday 17 May 2007

Professional software business management

I was on a long haul flight last weekend, from Hong Kong to San Francisco – one of those wonderful flights where you land before you take off – on the way to the next installment of the Leadership For growth programme being run by Stanford Graduate Business School and Enterprise Ireland – see one of my previous posts for the background. Picked up the current issue of The Economist at Hong Kong airport, which I read on an occasional basis, the issue with Tony Blair on the front cover, to pass the time. There’s an interesting article on business schools, and how they are beginning to regain their lost vogue from earlier this decade.

I was the Chairperson of the Irish Management Institute a few years back, which was a little strange because I have no formal background whatsoever in business management, economics or finance! One of the raging discussions we had at the board level of the IMI was what should be the future of executive education in Ireland, including the relevancy or not of business school teaching to the needs of modern entrepreneurship and global business development. I found The Economist article thus particularly interesting, since it alluded to discussions about whether international business schools have lost their way and value.

Then, by coincidence, Monday’s Financial Times had a supplement on Business Education, including its international ranking of the top global executive education schools. It carried several very interesting articles suggesting that the top schools have changed their product from business education to business advice, and almost to management consulting. Customisation of curricula and classes lead to faculty not so much teaching, but instead providing insight in a discussion about specifically how to address issues within a client company, and/or specifically how to apply a particular idea or theory within a client company.

One of the things I had asked myself during my years at the IMI was whether there can be such a thing as a management profession. A profession, by definition, implies some core knowledge, which may be expanded and refined over time by appropriate research and in the light of experience; a way of asserting that an individual has attained a particular level of competence in that knowledge, and therefore can be admitted to the profession; and a code of ethics particularly as to service to the public, including appropriate disciplinary actions if these should be broken (The Economist article makes similar comments). As a professional engineer in Ireland, I am comfortable that Engineers Ireland operates our national engineering profession accordingly. The medical and legal professions are of course similar examples.

But can there be a management or business profession ? Is there a body of knowledge, an admissions procedure, a code of ethics and a disciplinary mechanism ? Can there be a guardian organization for the profession ? In fact should there not be one, so as to protect the public and including shareholders and investors ? However would such an organized profession stifle innovation and entrepreneurship ? As The Economist observes, Bill Gates dropped out of university and would presumably never have made the grade to become a “professional business manager”.

Hmmm. So what is executive education all about ? Can business management ever become a profession ?

I hesitate to comment further in general for all industries, but I do have some views more specifically as applies to the software industry.

In the mid 90s I had the sincere pleasure of having John Cullinane on the board of directors of IONA. John, as I am sure you know, founded and ran the first software company to file an IPO, the first billion dollar software company, and the first company to do a Super-Bowl ad! His company Cullinet was well known during the 1970s and 1980s. John has written an excellent summary of some of his lessons from those years, which I believe are as applicable today to software companies as they were then, in his book “The Entrepreneurs Survival Guide: 101 Tips for Managing in Good Times and Bad”.

One of the things John said to me early on as a board member at IONA was “You know Chris, managing a software company is actually easy”. I did a double-take when he said this to me, but he explained what he meant and I now basically believe he is right. Certainly compared to companies with manufacturing operations, managing a pure play software company would appear easier. I personally believe – and I sure some may wish to disagree with me – that the key operations of a software company (in no particular order) - engineering and software development processes; distribution channels and sales management, including compensation structures and channel conflict resolution; market segmentation analysis and product marketing; product management; professional services fulfillment; pre-sales technical support; after-sales support; product maintenance and upgrades; financial management, including financial planning and administration; internal IT systems; HR management, staff compensation, and gaining staff commitment; corporate marketing and PR; corporate governance; board procedures; management metrics and key performance indicator analysis; customer care and stratification; even M&A post-integration – in summary, all the functions of a modern software company are now reasonably well understood. There is – arguably – a body of knowledge out there which I suspect many of us in the industry would agree represents best practice in the industry, accumulated over the several decades of the pure play software industry since Cullinet. Listening and participating in the year long Leadership for Growth Programme here at Stanford has re-enforced my view. Perhaps somebody should write a book some time to capture this current body of practical knowledge – how to run a software company.

I guess if what I suggest above is true, then in principle two rival companies with very similar product offerings, and very similar strategies, and of very similar sizes, in principle should be unable to out-execute each other. That is a controversial claim, since execution is key to the success of any software company: but I do believe that a professional experienced software CEO is unlikely to make mistakes in execution, since what is needed in execution is actually now reasonably understood across the industry.

Competitive advantage then in the software industry is increasingly unlikely to come from execution alone. Instead, in my view, advantage comes from strategic insight and analysis, from new products and new business models. Advantage comes from understanding the current state within a particular segment of the industry, and leveraging that to introduce new products and services, perhaps in new ways, and which add sufficient value to motivate the market to invest and customers to buy.

“Success is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration” said Edison. I think that the 10 per cent inspiration to conceive of a new idea is perhaps right; the 90 per cent comes not from actual execution, but from analysis and consideration of whether that new idea is actually worth executing upon – building a strategic plan and getting comfortable with it. If the strategic plan is worth executing on, then the steps to actually execute, given the body of knowledge about modern software company operations, are reasonably straight forward to identify: it should be reasonably obvious what needs to be done, and it becomes a matter of trying to actually do it.

An accepted body of knowledge will not, in my view, stifle innovation. Bill Gates would not have suffocated had such a pragmatic tome been available to him.

Perhaps I’m just representing a personal bias. I get excited by discussions on the state and direction of the industry, and where the current leverage points and opportunities are. I get less excited by discussions about operational issues, which of course are important and critical, but reasonably obvious in what needs to be done. Innovation in the industry creates competitive advantage; sheer execution is increasingly unlikely to do so.

I’m open to counter-persuasion. Flame suit on. What do you think ?


Ciaran said...

Nice article Chris. I've read some of Henry Mintzberg's books over the last few years and I dug up one of his quotations on the subject -

"Organizational effectiveness does not lie in that narrow minded concept called rationality. It lies in the blend of clearheaded logic and powerful intuition.”

Keith said...

Bill Gates no doubt had great entrepreneurial skills but I never thought he was the best example of management ones (and yours is the second blog I've read this week to use him as an example of one). Maybe his best management act was in recognising his own shortcomings in that area and hiring someone else who could fulfil that role, like Jon Shirley.

latoga said...

Very interesting thoughts Chris. Leaders of software companies still have to maintain a focus on operational issue, I have seen many a company fail (seen it from the inside) because management was too focused on innovation and not enough on ensure operations tuned.

That being said, I do agree that operationally, running a software company is a well known process that doesn't have to be re-invented. Management just needs to keep business 101 seasons in focus.

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