So it’s just about a decade now since I had my Damascene moment on Cloud computing. Whilst working at the then Reuters, one of the four main business units came to IT to tell us that not only had they purchased SalesForce, but that they also had the people to be able to implement it. If we wanted to help, then great. But if not then they could manage fine without us, thank you very much.
For a short while there was serious conversation about blocking “salesforce.com” at the firewalls, and mumbling about “don’t they know how much we’ve spent on Siebel?”. That was the moment when I realised that something significant was changing. That was the point at which I realised that the world of “IT” where I’d spent many protected years was irrevocably changed.
Wind back a few years and I’d actually seen this coming, even if I hadn’t noticed. At the BBC we’d delivered two significant projects using what in the day were called “application service providers”; first the backend for the BBC’s online shopping experience (a vain attempt to stave off the hoard of Amazon because all big companies needed an online retail experience back then); second a consumer database platform that provided an odd mix of data protection compliance and increased direct-to-consumer marketing (an elaborate bait and switch if ever there was one).
But it wasn’t until 2007 that the potential of disruption from Cloud became so apparent to me. And then in 2008 I launched into putting some of this stuff (alongside a service-focused mentality) into practice in the three wonderful years at Imagination. Closing down the server rooms was a very physical manifestation of success (ignore the fact that the company’s lawyer turned them into a cupboard for all his paperwork; that ruins the narrative).
In the half-decade since I left Imagination, to an extent I’ve been larking about in the periphery. Two painful years at Microsoft taught me lots, but probably mainly that I’m not a good fit for a Big American Software Company. And then since I’ve been helping all sorts of people and organisations with a shift into a new world.
Where are things at? Well, I think we are still at the early days of transition for most big organisations. On the supply side of the industry the big players have mostly accepted that the Cloud is the future, but many are still only just scratching the surface of what it means to move from being a software vendor selling licences to a cloud provider delivering services. It’s far, far more than a mere infrastructural switch, and the likes of Oracle and SAP and to an extent Microsoft are still trying to work out how their businesses need to adapt an change to become effective in these new delivery models.
For customers, however, the story whilst variable, still has a very long way to go. And it starts with the concepts of “investment”. Most organisations with which I work still govern projects around technology on the basis that it is an investment in capital to purchase an asset that will (hopefully) result in a positive return. That means business plans and very subjective planning processes labouring under the false assumption that they are scientific processes.
But if you are purchasing a cloud service, you’re not investing in an asset in anything other than a trick of accounting light. But more importantly, all of those processes were geared to try to prevent stupid ideas leaking money out of a business. IT projects always used to be be big money spent on things like servers and software licenses. They just don’t need to be like that any more, but they still are.
And not only do the business cases still set big IT projects up for failure in the way that they always used to, our measures of success for IT are also still far to centred around the traditional aims of saving cost. Cost saving is a laudable business outcome, but I’ve rarely seen it work when it’s been the sole objective of a project of work. It’s such a negative concept around which to try to rally people to change. And too often if there is cost to be saved in one budget line then it’s just going to bubble out, often unaccounted, somewhere else. Yes you, every single HR Self Service project ever.
Now one could at this point say “well, it’s only the whizzy innovation stuff that needs to be done in new ways” whatever that might mean. But the reality in many of the organisations with which I work is that it isn’t IT or technology processes and culture that stands in the way of more effective use of such dramatically different approaches to technology. It’s the culture of the organisation as a whole. It’s risk aversion; it’s a converse (and somewhat perverse) attraction to big statements that promise the earth; it’s thinking that everything can be predicted; it’s a lack of curiosity and desire to tinker and experiment. It’s thinking that the world is just so bloody rational.
Has all of this surfaced because of the rise of Cloud computing? Of course not. But what Cloud offers – the ability to take lots of small bets and see which ones come up (if any) – flies in the face of the way that big industrialised organisations are geared to do: big stuff at scale. The next decade’s challenge will be to try to get small thinking happening in big places.