The following analogy popped up the other day in an email discussion with a friend.
Running a business is a bit like being the Fat Controller, running his vast train network. We spend our time trying to get the trains to run on time with the all too often distraction of digging the Troublesome Trucks out of trouble.
Improvement often means upgrading the tracks to create smoother, straighter lines. After years of doing this, any improvement to the tracks can only provide a minor, incremental benefit.
What we really need is a new signalling system. We need to better utilise the tracks we already have, and this means making better decisions about which trains to run where, and better coordination between the trains. Our tracks are fine (as long as we keep up the scheduled maintenance), but we do need to better manage transit across and between them.
Swap processes for tracks, and I think that this paints quite a nice visual picture.
Years of processes improvement (via LEAN, Six Sigma and, more recently, BPM) had straightened and smoothed our processes to the point that any additional investment has hit the law of diminishing returns. Rather than continue to try and improve the processes on my own, I’d outsource process maintenance to a collection of SaaS and BPO providers.
The greater scale of these providers allows them to invest in improvements which I don’t have the time or money for. Handing over responsibility also creates the time and space for me to focus on improving the decisions on which process to run where, and when: my signalling system.
This is especially important in a world where it is becoming rare to even own the processes these days.
We forget just how important a good signalling system is. Get it right and you get the German or Japanese train networks. Get it wrong and you rapidly descend into the second or third world, regardless of the quality of your tracks.
Here’s an interesting and topical question: is the market for enterprise IT services (SI, BPO, advisory et al) growing or shrinking? I’m doing the rounds at the moment to see where the market is going (a side effect of moving on), and different folk seems to have quite different views.
It’s shrinking as the new normal is squeezing budgets and OPEX is the new CAPEX.
It’s growing as companies are externalising more functions than ever before as they attempt to create a laser like focus on their core business.
It’s shrinking as the transition from on-premsis applications to SaaS implies a dramatic reduction (some folk are saying around 80-90%) in the effort required to deploy and maintain a solution.
It’s growing as the mid market is becoming a lot more sophisticated and starting to spend a lot more on enterprise software (witness Microsoft Dynamics huge market share).
It’s shrinking as SaaS is replacing BPO, in effect replacing people with cheaper software solutions? (Remember when TrueAdvantage, and Indian BPO, laid off all 150 of its workers after being purchased by InsideView?)
It’s growing as the need for more mobility solutions, and the massive growth in the mobile web, is driving us to create a new generation of enterprise solutions.
It’s shrinking as cloud computing and netbooks remove what little margin was left in infrastructure services.
It’s growing as investment in IT is a bit like gas, and tends to expand until it consumes all available funds. (Remember integration? As the cost of integration went down, we just found more integration projects to fill the gap.)
Does location matter? Or, put another way, is the world no longer flat? Many cloud and SaaS providers work under the assumption that where we store data where it is most efficient from an application performance point of view, ignoring political considerations. This runs counter to many company and governments who care greatly where their data is stored. Have we entered a time where location does matter, not for technical reasons, but for political reasons? Is globalisation (as a political thing) finally starting to impact IT architecture and strategy?
Thomas Friedman‘s book, The World is Flat, contained a number of stories which where real eye openers. The one I remember the most was the McDonald’s drive through. The idea was simple: once you’ve removed direct physical contact from the ordering process, then it’s more efficient to accept orders from a contact centre than from within the restaurant itself. We could event locate that contact centre in a cheaper geography such as another state, or even another country.
Telecommunications made the world flat, as cheap telecommunications allows us to locate work wherever it is cheapest. The opportunity for labour arbitrage this created drove offshoring through the late nineties and into the new millenium. Everything from call centres to tax returns and medical image diagnosis started to migrate to cheaper geographies. Competition to be the cheapest and most efficient service provider, rather than location, determines who does the work. The entire world would compete on a level playing field.
In the background, whilst this was happening, enterprise applications went from common to ubiquitous. Adoption was driven by the productivity benefits the applications brought, which started of as a source of differentiation, but has now become one of the many requirements of being in business. SaaS and cloud are the most recent step in this evolution, leveraging the global market to create solutions operating at such a massive scale that they can provide price points and service levels which are hard, if not impossible, for most companies to achieve internally.
Where we store our assets is important. Organisations want to put their assets somewhere safe, because without assets these the organisations don’t amount to much. Companies want to keep their information — their confidential trade secrets — hidden from prying eyes. Governments need to ensure they have the trust of their citizens by respecting their privacy. (Not to mention the skullduggery this is international relations.) While communications technology has made it incredibly easy to move this information around and keep it secure, it has yet to solve the political problem of ensuring that we can trust the people responsible for safeguarding our assets. And all these applications we have created — both the traditional on-premesis, hosted or SaaS and cloud versions — are really just asset management tools.
We’re reached a point where one of the a larger hidden assumptions of enterprise applications has been exposed. Each application was designed to live and operate within a single organisation. This organisation might be a company, or it might be a country, or it might be some combination of the two. The application you select to manage your data determines the political boundary it lives within. If you use any U.S. SaaS or cloud solution provider to manage your data, then your data falls under U.S. judicial discovery laws, irregardless of where you yourself are located. If your data transits through the U.S., then assume that the U.S. government has a copy. The world might be flat, but where you store your assets and where you send them still matters.
We can already see some moves by the vendors to address this problem. Microsoft, for example, has developed a dedicated cloud for the U.S. government, known as BPOS Federal, which is designed to meet the government’s stringent security and privacy standards. Amazon has also taken a portion of the cloud it runs and dedicated it to, and located it in, the EU, for similar reasons.
If we consider enterprise applications to be asset management tools rather than productivity tools, then ideas like private clouds start to make a lot of sense. Cloud technology reifies a lot of the knowledge required to configure and manage a virtualised environment in software, eliminating the data centre voodoo and empowering the development teams to manage the solutions themselves. This makes cloud technology simply a better asset management tool, but we need to freedom to locate the data (and therefore the application) where it makes the most sense from an asset management point of view. Sometimes this might imply a large, location agnostic, public cloud. Other times it might require a much smaller private cloud located within a specific political boundary. (And the need to prevent some data even transiting through a few specific geographies – requiring us to move the code to the data, rather than the data to the code – might be the killer application that mobile agents have been waiting for.)
What we really need are meta-clouds: clouds created by aggregating a number of different clouds, just as the Internet is a network of separate networks. While the clouds would all be technically similar, each would be located in a different political geography. This might be inside vs. outside the organisation, or in different states, or even different countries. The data would be stored and maintained where it made the most sense from an asset management point of view, with few technical considerations, the meta-cloud providing a consistent approach to locating and moving our assets within and across individual clouds as we see fit.
The wisdom of the crowd seems to have decided that both cloud computing and its sibling SaaS are cost plays. You engage a cloud or SaaS vendor to reduce costs, as their software utility has the scale to deliver the same functionality at a lower price point than you could do yourself.
I think this misses some of the potential benefits that these new delivery models can provide, from reducing your management overhead, allowing you to focus on more important or pressing problems, through to acting as a large flex resource or providing you with a testbed for innovation. In an environment where we’re all racing to keep up, the time and space we can create through intelligently leveraging cloud and SaaS solutions could provide us with the competitive advantage we need.
Could and SaaS are going to take over the world, or so I hear. And it increasingly looks that way, from Nicholas Carr‘s entertaining stories about Sameul Insull through to Salesforce.com, Google and Amazon‘s attempts to box-up SaaS and cloud for easy consumption. These companies massive economies of scale enable them to deliver commoditized functionality at a dramatically lower price point that most companies could achieve with even the best on-premises applications.
This simple fact causes many analysts to point out the folly of creating a private cloud. While a private cloud enables a company to avoid the security and ownership issues associated with a public service, they will never be able to realise the same economies of scale as their public brethren. It’s these economies of scale that enables companies like Google to devote significant time and effort into finding new and ever more creative techniques to extract every last drip of efficiency from their data centres, techniques which give them a competitive advantage.
I’ve always had problems with this point of view, as it ignores one important fact: a modern IT estate must deliver more than efficiency. Constant and dramatic business change means that our IT estate must be able to be rapidly reconfigured to support an ever evolving business environment. This might be as simple as scaling up and down, inline with changing transaction volumes, but it might also involve rewriting business rules and processes as the organisation enters and leaves countries with differing regulation regimes, as well as adapting to mergers, acquisitions and divestments.
Once we look beyond cost, a few interesting potential uses for cloud and SaaS emerge.
First, we can use cloud as a tool to increase the flexibility of our IT estate. Using a standard cloud platform, such as an Amazon Machine Image, provides us with more deployment options than more traditional approaches. Development and testing can be streamlined, compressing development and testing time, while deployed applications can be migrated to the cloud instance which makes the most sense. We might choose to use public cloud for development and testing, while deploying to a private cloud under our own control to address privacy or political concerns. We might develop, test and deploy all into the public cloud. Or we might even use a hybrid strategy, retaining some business functionality in a private cloud, while using one or more public clouds as a flex resource to cope with peak loads.
Second, we can use cloud and SaaS as tools to increase the agility of our IT estate. By externalising the the management of our infrastructure (via cloud), or even the management of entire applications (via SaaS), we can create time and space to worry about more important problems. This enables us to focus on what needs to happen, rather than how to make it happen, and rely on the greater scale of our SaaS or cloud provider to respond more rapidly than we could if we were maintaining a traditional on-premises solution.
And finally, we can use cloud as the basis of an incubator strategy where an organisation may test a new idea using externalised resources, proving the business case before (potentially) moving to a more traditional internal deployment model.
We’re getting it all wrong—we focused on managing the technology delivery process rather than the technology itself. Where do business process outsourcing (BPO), software as a service (SaaS), Web 2.0 and partner organisations sit in our IT strategy? All too often we focus on the delivery of large IT assets into our enterprise, missing the opportunity to leverage leaner disruptive solutions that could provide a significantly better outcome for the business.
IT departments are, by tradition, inward looking asset management functions. Initially this was a response to the huge investment and effort required to operate early mainframe computers, while more recently it has been driven by the effort required to develop and maintain increasingly complex enterprise applications. We’ve organised our IT departments around the activities we see as key to being a successful asset manager: business analysis, software development & integration, infrastructure & facilities, and project or programme management. The result is a generation of IT departments closely aligned with the enterprise application development value-chain, as we focus on managing the delivery of large IT assets into the enterprise.
Building our IT departments as enterprise application factories has been very successful, but the maturation of applications over the last decade and recent emergence of approaches like SaaS means that it has some distinct limitations today. An IT department that defines itself in terms of managing the delivery of large technology assets tends to see a large technology asset as the solution to every problem. Want to support a new pricing strategy? Need to improve cross-sell and up-sell? Looking for ways to support the sales force while in the field? Upgrade to the latest and greatest CRM solution from your vendor of choice. The investment required is grossly out of proportion with the business benefit it will bring, making it difficult to engage with the rest of the business who view IT as a cost centre rather than an enabler.
Unfortunately the structure of many of our IT departments—optimised to create large IT assets—actively prohibits any other approach. More incremental or organic approaches to meeting business needs are stopped before they even get started, killed by an organisation structure and processes that impose more overhead than they can tolerate.
Applications were rare and expensive during most of enterprise IT’s history, but today they are plentiful and (comparativly) cheap. Software as a Service (SaaS) is also emerging to provide best of breed functionality but with a utillity delivery model; leveraging an externally managed service and paying per use, rather requiring capital investment in an IT asset to provide the service internally. Our focus is increasingly turned to ensuring that business processes and activities are supported with an appropriate level of technology, leveraging solutions from traditional enterprise applications through to SaaS, outsourced solutions or even bespoke elements where we see fit. We need to be focused on managing technology enablement, rather than IT assets, and many IT departments are responding to this by reorganising their operations to explore new strategies for managing IT.
Central to this new generation of IT departments is a sound understanding of how the business needs to operate—what it wants to be famous for. The old technology centric departmental roles are being deprecated, replaced with business centric roles. One strategy is to focus on Operational Excellence, Technology Enablement and Contract Management. A number of Chief Process Officer (CPO) roles are created as part of the Operational Excellence team, each focusing on optimising one or more end-to-end processes. The role is defined and measured by the business outcomes it will deliver rather than by the technology delivery process. CPOs are also integrating themselves with organisation wide business improvement and operational excellence initiatives, taking a proactive stance with the business instead of reactively waiting for the business to identify a need.
The Technology Enablement team works with Operational Excellence to deliver the right level of technology required to support the business. Where Operational Excellence looks out into the business to gain a better understanding of how the business functions, Technology Enablement looks out into the technology community to understand what technologies and approaches can be leveraged to create the most suitable solution. (As opposed to traditional, inward focused IT department concerned with developing and managing IT assets.) These solutions can range from SaaS through to BPO, AM (application management), custom development or traditional on-premises applications. However, the mix of solutions used will change over time as we move from today’s application centric enterprise IT to new process driven approaches. Solutions today are dominated by enterprise applications (most likely via BPO or AM), but increasingly shifting to utility models such as SaaS as these offerings mature.
Finally a contract management team is responsible for managing the contractual & financial obligations, and service level agreements between the organisation and suppliers.
One pronounced effect of a strongly business focused IT organisation is the externalisation of many asset management activities. Rather than trying to be good at everything needed to deliver a world class IT estate, and ending up beginning good at nothing, the department focuses its energies on only those activities that will have the greatest impact on the business. Other activities are supported by a broad partner ecosystem: systems integrators to install applications, outsourcers for application management and business process outsourcing, and so on. Rather than ramping up for a once-in-four-year application renewal—an infrequent task for which the department has trouble retaining expertise—the partner ecosystem ensures that the IT department has access to organisations whose core focus is installing and running applications, and have been solving this problem every year for the last four years.
This approach allows the IT department to concentrate on what really matters for the business to succeed. Its focus and expertise is firmly on the activities that will have the greatest impact on the business, while a broad partner ecosystem provides world class support for the activities that it cannot afford to develop world class expertise in. Rather than representing a cost centre in the business, the IT department can be seen as an enabler, working with other business to leverage new ideas and capabilities and drive the enterprise forward.