Strategy and speed

When Fiberlink Inc. was launched in 1994, mobile computer users were somewhat exotic creatures.

Today’s landscape has changed entirely.

“If you think about the user population today … you realize that there are many more laptops in a lot of people’s hands,” says James Sheward, co-founder and CEO of Fiberlink Inc.

The revolution in remote use has provided both opportunities and challenges for 250-employee Fiberlink, a Blue Bell company that provides secure mobile work force solutions. Because they have to predict what clients will need 18 to 36 months out, Sheward and Fiberlink have to make fast, accurate decisions about the solutions they will develop to meet the market’s demands.

And while the company, with $78 million in sales in 2004, now has more resources to help make those decisions, it still requires a comprehensive, fast and effective planning process.

Sheward spoke with Smart Business about how he plans for success.

You made most of the key decisions when Fiberlink was a start-up, but how do you establish strategy now as a larger company?
There are certain beliefs I have that are important when it comes to any strategy conversation. You don’t want people to come in choosing sides. You want people to come in entering into a dialogue. A dialogue enables you to find what nobody brought to the meeting upfront because there’s new information shared, and that’s where the creative process can be very effective.

It’s important for participants to understand that consensus does not mean that you vote, or that it’s a democracy, but much more important, that everybody’s had an opportunity to understand the issues, to bring their input, and when a final conclusion is reached, everybody’s marching in the right direction.

Our strategy approach is very much one of trying to get all the ideas on the table, trying to understand all the risks, trying to understand what the challenge would be from an execution perspective. And then, once a conclusion is reached, getting everyone marching in the same direction, very much aligned in terms of their roles, their metrics and how they match against the strategies and initiatives of the total business.

How do you stay nimble enough to do that?
A lot of it is having the right team and the right culture. We believe very much that change is rapid in today’s technology space, that people have to be believers in change, aggressive adapters to change, and there are certain types of people who have that in their DNA and others who like a more stable environment.

A big component of what we talk about in the new-hire process and the interview process is that this is a rapidly changing, high-performance culture and that it should be the kind of place that you want to be as opposed to a place that makes you nervous. Because of that, our culture is very consistent as it relates to the pace of change, the pace of work, the pace of the environment, which actually is more a reflection of the realities of the market from a technology perspective.

How do you fashion strategy to meet those rapidly changing needs?
That’s one reason that it’s so important to bring to bear all of the different points of view. Not only your engineers, who tend to think more about the challenges of scaling, more about the long-term issues in terms of the different modules that you bring to your implementation plan, not only the product people who are focused on where the partners and where the analysts are going, and not only the sales and customer support people, who are literally talking to the customers and who know what they need to get their work done in the short-term.

By bringing all those different views together and organizing it in a process that both moves rapidly and values everyone’s input, we’ve been able to understand where the market’s going, build product, build service and meet demand much more aggressively than both our larger and smaller competitors. Product development in an emerging market is very much about process. We spend a lot of time on it because it is about process, but the process needs to bring all of the information in and still be able to move through it rapidly.

And that’s hard work, but it’s a critical component to any successful IT organization, and particularly one that’s focused on an emerging market, like the mobility security space that we’re in.

How does your planning and modeling process work?
On an annual basis, we do both a bottom-up and a top-down business process that starts early in the fall. We go through a series of meetings, both at the field level and the frontline levels … to understand what are the opportunities, what are the key initiatives. As we go through for the last several months leading up to the final business plan, that gets put together and represented to the board in mid-December.

We are constantly adjusting that forecast and that model throughout the year so that we are rightsizing the opportunity, the business and investments based on the marketplace that we anticipate. Our largest costs in the business model that we have are people, so we are constantly trying to apply these people resources to the right opportunities to maximize the return.

How to you keep tabs on the execution process?
I’m a great believer in if you’re not measuring it, you don’t know. We have key performance indicators that we establish at the beginning of every year. They march all the way through the organization.

You measure constantly so you understand which of your assumptions were correct and you can apply more resources to gain more leverage, and which assumptions and measurements were incorrect or aren’t being executed properly. And you need to make a decision about which of those two are the root cause of the mess and apply resources appropriately or change personnel appropriately.

But the real key is alignment as it relates to execution, that the things that marketing’s working on match the things that sales needs, that the product that’s needed in the marketplace can match what R&D and the product team are actually building.

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