The UK Govt could be kick-starting a revolution. Its motives are sincere, but has it laid down clear enough ground rules?

I’m not sure why but the arrival of the Government’s Cloudstore, a new portal for public sector bodies to procure software, got me thinking about the “Comparethemeerkats” campaign. Bear with me…

Even if you are suffering ‘meerkat fatigue’ I don’t think many would argue this campaign has made a dull subject (price comparison websites) somewhat entertaining.

And without wishing to offend those who spend their lives processing public sector tenders I wonder whether there is something to be learnt from this approach. Many people would agree that the mere mention of ‘Government Procurement’ would be a powerful sedative. I’m not sure what the Cloudstore equivalent of meerkats would be, but surely greater emphasis should be placed on properly promoting the service so that both buyers and the SMEs who are meant to benefit from access to Government procurement maximise the opportunity?

While the tone is generally positive there are outstanding questions. Mark Say’s article in the Guardian worryingly saw an admission from Phil Pavitt, CIO at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC): “How big departments are going to use it (Cloudstore) has not been fully thought through…"

At the very least the Cloudstore signals an intention from Government to act upon long harboured aspirations to move away from expensive, long-term IT contracts and enable more UK small businesses to overcome the bureaucratic nightmare that is Government procurement.

As Stuart Lauchlan suggested this could be a quiet revolution. Yes many of the well-known vendors have made it onto the list, but the message is fairly clear. Be prepared to deliver short-term contracts and strip away the complex implementation costs or we have alternatives. It could be argued that the mere suggestion of alternative is enough to focus minds and deliver greater efficiencies for the public sector (and us taxpayers).

Perhaps when we look back on it we’ll see this decision as one of those moments when Government intervention sparked a truly revolutionary moment.

Question marks

However, the Government’s approach does leave a few questions unanswered. Stuart pointed to learnings from the US’ project on Cloud Computing, which shows there is a lot more to consider than simply listing an application  or service on a portal. Likewise Clive Longbottom welcomes Cloudstore, but recognises that the public sector has to embrace it if it is to be successful.

From my perspective the key questions are:

Buyer/end user education and empowerment:

Using a service from Cloudstore will never be quite as simple as Amazon or the Apple iStore, but it will be consigned to history as another Government-backed dodo without significant investment in buyer education. If we look at SaaS adoption it has often seen end users circumventing frustrating IT policies to use the software they want. While I’m sure central and local Government departments will have checks in place to prevent a ‘free-for-all’ Cloud Computing should empower users and buyers to make choices. But how do they choose between the solutions on offer? What considerations should affect their decision? 

Integration:

Of the 250 vendors already registered on the Cloudstore 50% are supposed to be small businesses often providing just a point solution or at best a suite of similar products. In the main they will be built on one platform, such as Solidsoft on the Microsoft Azure platform. They do not have the resources to integrate their offerings with those of all the major vendors. That is a problem, because central and local Government have invested heavily in IT and cannot afford to discard these legacy systems. So how does the Cloudstore administration ensure smaller vendors can integrate as effectively with existing solutions to ensure the playing field is truly level?

Marketing:

In any industry if a buyer has to choose between a known entity and an unknown one it is no surprise they usually go for the safe option. With Cloudstore there has already been some debate about how the vendors present their offerings, because it is clearly not uniform. That makes marketing these solutions hard and obviously it is going to be harder for the smaller vendors to compete against recognised brands. With culture of risk-aversion heightened by all the high profile IT failures how is Cloudstore going to help to promote the ‘Davids’ to ensure the Whitehall politicos don’t just pick the ‘Goliaths’ they know?

I do believe the Cloudstore can deliver significant value, but as Michael Krigsman has said many times successful IT implementations are a combination of the software working, the implementation sticking to a mutually agreed schedule using the right resources and the customer understanding exactly what goals they want to achieve through the adoption of IT. 

While the Cloudstore could be the start of something the spectre of the ‘IT Devil’s Triangle’ still looms large and these fundamental issues have to be addressed for it to a long-term success

@cairbreUK

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“Why Cloud will only see widespread adoption if the IT industry has a Stock Market-style crash”

Given that my job is providing PR consultancy to the IT industry I appreciate the absurdity of recommending some kind of Stock market crash as the way forward for the IT industry. I went through the dot com bubble – it wasn’t pleasant. However, I am not making this suggestion because I enjoy scaremongering or want to see anyone out of a job, but because I am at a loss to understand how else we can correct and move beyond this ‘Age of Institutionalised Complexity.’

Enterprise IT departments, ever since the early days of mainframes, have built up stockpiles of hardware and software, which I would contend they rarely fully use. Sure, technology has pushed greater integration and commoditisation, but major organisations are left with bulky IT infrastructures creaking under the weight of their inefficiency.

Yet models exist which could enable CIOs to become more agile and responsive, but adoption – although on the increase – is not widespread.

It would appear to the cynical eye that enterprise IT environments have become so institutionalised by this complexity that wholesale change isn’t possible without some kind of dramatic event, such as a crash.

“Why isn’t every IT department moving wholesale to the Cloud?”

Ok, perhaps I’m being a little too impatient for change – and probably only have a superficial understanding of the technical requirements – but enterprise customers, in particular, are not grabbing the opportunity of Cloud Computing to move wholesale away from hereto expensive and restrictive relationships with their existing IT providers (as Ray Wang highlighted last year at the SAP UK User Group).

If we believe the analysts Cloud is heading in only one direction with revenues soaring and yet we’re still having a debate about the theory of Cloud – how it should be applied, etc (single tenant, multi-tenant, private cloud, public cloud).

Surely the long-term benefits far outweigh the challenges? Yes, cost is stripped out of IT structures, but more importantly it should create IT environments with the flexibility to respond to ever changing business conditions.

Call it resistance to change, fear of the unknown, or plain stubbornness – there is a need to overcome such blockers as the IT industry will collapse under its own complexity unless it adopts new models such as Cloud.

“Stupid is as stupid does…”

Despite the traditional IT vendors taking flak from every angle for their poor innovation (you only have to read Vinnie Mirchandani’s book, which suggests a lot of the innovative application of technology is being done by non-IT companies) we’re still moving quite slowly given that ‘Cloud’ has existed in some form for quite some time. (Simon Wardley suggests the concept first appeared in 1968).

In moments of greater frustration it seems the only conclusion is that humans really are as stupid as some believe. Thankfully, though, further investigation leads me to a different conclusion, one prompted by a term referenced by Dennis Howlett on Cloud – ‘Institutional Memory’.

Like Dennis I reviewed the excellent keynotes by Mark Masterson and Simon Wardley at OSCON and started to build a clearer picture of this notion of ‘Institutionalised Complexity.’

Both speakers underlined the fundamental in the clash between innovation and the desire to achieve predictable success in business. Masterson applies this view to the previous decade, describing an era he calls the ‘Age of Productivity’ which was focused on reducing the likelihood of failure and cost of failure in return for predictable business success.

The outcome has been that companies focused on initiatives – both in business and IT – driven by this need for predictability and as a consequence pushed IT products/service development towards commoditisation. As Wardley explains this creates a fundamental issue for innovation, because it requires a risk-taking, uncertain environment to prosper.

Wardley’s solution for IT vendors and their customers wanting to reinvigorate innovation is to recommend they analyse where products and services have already been commoditised. He highlights functions, such as HR, CRM, and Finance – all mainstays of ERP – as prime areas for exploitation. Areas where value has been eroded so much that they are ripe for the Creative Destruction process. Masterson sees breaking free of the constraints of the ‘Age of Productivity’ as the opportunity for open source software and argues that companies should be focused on the ‘Age of Growth.’

“Trapped in an Institutionalised Mindset”

Logically that should mean the time is right for mass adoption of Cloud Computing. Yet I have a concern that most enterprise IT departments simply aren’t prepared or willing to enter this ‘Age of Growth’ because they’ve become so institutionalised in their adoption of IT. Cloud Computing challenges this mindset at every level, in terms of how IT is acquired, supported and how its success is measured. JP Rangaswami even suggests that attempting to apply traditional measures such as Service Level Agreements (SLAs) is wrong, that IT departments need to be designing their IT infrastructure for a ‘loss of control.’ Applying the linear models of the ‘Age of Productivity’ is wrong, companies need to be thinking in terms of language such as ‘self healing,’ ‘self aware’ and ‘heuristic.’

Having grown up being driven by the need for risk aversion and predictability it will be difficult for any IT department to cope with such significant change, particularly at a time when there is even greater pressure on IT leaders to demonstrate value to their business peers. Therefore I contend that the easiest way for such technologies to gain much wider adoption is that the IT industry has some kind of implosion with both vendors and IT customers being forced to start again.

I appreciate this is slightly insane, well possibly very insane, but let me cite two reasons why:

1. All good things come to an end because they become too complicated: Clay Shirky has written about a book by Joseph Tainter, “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” In it Tainter analyses why supposedly sophisticated societies such as the Romans and the Mayan Indians eventually implode. In his view complexity has stifled each of these societies and it leads Shirky to suggest:

Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond…When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler…Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

2. History is repeating itself: a quick look at any number of examples demonstrates why this logic is applicable to business and therefore IT. The automotive industry went from innovative to commodity driven by Henry Ford and hung on for dear life, until its recent collapse due to the stress of the global economic crisis and changing attitudes to the environmental impact of car travel. While some of the incumbents fight on (eg: Honda, who’s tagline has been ‘dream the impossible’) a range of new manufacturers are emerging. For many the well-publicised collapse of the Financial Services industry has been due, largely, to the complexity of its products and the inability of regulation to cope with this complexity. The Media and Entertainment industry is in the throes of a similar challenge, with various sectors in different stages.

“An alternative solution would be to simply embrace the chaos”

The simplest conclusion for the IT industry is to embrace collapse and its accompanying chaos, but perhaps we don’t have to see Rome burning. Rather enterprise IT users should prepare for a period when IT structures and their accompanying ‘rules’ have to be reset. Cloud Computing is the vehicle for that change and there is a significant opportunity for Cloud vendors to help their customers move towards this ‘post-proprietary’ era of adoption.

To encourage change Cloud vendors need to follow a number of steps, mainly to appeal to the current institutionalised mindset, but also to lead their customers to place where they believe that risk-taking isn’t dangerous.

Step one – build trust: recognise that technology> won’t lead to change alone – accept Simon Wardley’s point that it is only one of four triggers that drive uptake. Unless the concept for a new technology is clearly defined, unless the customer recognises its suitability for its environment and the customer has been convinced to change their attitude, the technology will always sit on the shelf, no matter how good it is.

Step two – change the benefit discussion around Cloud: both Nicholas Carr and Paul Strassmann have said – in one form or other – that there is little value in IT spend and in fact Jevons Paradox showed that technology adoption increases consumption, rather than saves money. There is a need to appeal to the predictability mindset, because cloud will never achieve widespread, commoditised consumption – similar to other utilities – unless vendors show how Cloud can bridge the default position regarding risk aversion and the desire for repeatable solutions. But making  a conversation solely about cost reduction will never move IT users out their comfort zone to experiment fully with the Cloud.

Step three – embolden customers to take risks: for me this is encapsulated by provoking customers to respond to Shirky’s question: “Would this be an interesting thing to try?”

It goes to the heart of the point about moving the discussion beyond cost. If Cloud vendors can show the benefits of piloting their technologies can be done at minimal risk, they can begin to break down linear approaches to IT adoption. However, to do this they must bring customers on a journey that explains what their roles will be in the future, because a guaranteed blocker to change is an IT Director, who sees his or her role being replaced by a new technology. (Classic example – which I’ve witnessed – try selling database automation technology to a room full of Database Administrators)

Cloud Computing suppliers are beginning to reassure more and more enterprises that they have a role in their IT infrastructure, but they are yet to build significant trust among the broader ‘Church’ of the enterprise IT industry. The danger is that the traditional vendors are not only feeding that hesitation, they are using this period to catch up, so the Cloud specialists don’t have long to drive their advantage home.

For this ‘Age of Growth’ perhaps the new motto should be: “Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.” (Samuel Beckett)

Or as Mrs Doyle said it more succinctly, “Ah go on, go on, go on…”

@cairbreUK

As I am in the process of buying a new house the Estate Agent’s mantra of location, location, location is ringing in my ears. Well actually it is interesting how having spoken this truism they then seem to spend their time showing houses that break the rules of location being the prime determinate. It struck me that a similar game might be occurring with cloud and new computing models. Bear with me.

There was a great article in the Observer this week on the launch of Google’s new OS highlighting how it was likely to change the rules governing computer operating systems. Rather than being the heart of the PC the OS would become simply a “life support system” for a browser, which you use to pull down computing services from server farms over the web. Radical thinking but this chant of location began to ring in my ears.

Well it was at a breakfast to discuss the future of cloud computing that it first began to ring. At this talk Professor Nigel Shadbolt, among others, pointed out that the problem is with access. If you are dependent for a broadband connection on being able to access your computing tools, there will be many times (particularly for the nomadic business person) when you simply can’t compute because you don’t have access. The obvious times are planes and trains but within the office every network failure would mean not just inability to access the web but also your desk top and even LAN. Moreover, this access when it is available is not cheap; with everywhere from a hotel to hotspot, the cost of access, while seemingly small, would actually add up dramatically when used for such a mission critical purpose.

The breakfast revealed many other challenges from legal issues to knotty interoperability challenges, but it did seem to me that the prime determinant for access, if not free access, was being overlooked in the face of exciting new models and futures. Admittedly one option was the idea of software and services put forward by Microsoft, but as one observer pointed out, this was perhaps paying twice. A simplification of a grand vision, never the less it still strikes me that amid all the talk of new futures we should be thinking of access, access, access first.

Jon Hargreaves (@Naked_Pheasant)

In the interests of disclosure we represent Microsoft, HP, Motorola, Orange, Symantec and broolz, all with interests in the field of cloud computing.