Archive for the ‘Cloud’ Category

The Elastic Business

Friday, November 28th, 2014

As we hurtle once more into the festive season, retail organisations are bracing themselves for another bumper year of surging sales both on and off-line. Nowhere is evidence of this massive, temporary explosion in sales more visible than on “Black Friday” – a US retail phenomenon that, over recent years, has become more and more popular here in the UK.

blackfridayshutterstock_235089598Black Friday takes its name not, as some people believe, because it is the one day in which retailers push themselves further into the “black” through discounts and other sales promotions, but instead because of the chaos that is created across streets and shops by an overwhelming army of bargain hunters on the busiest shopping day of the year. It’s a term that actually has its origins in 1960’s Philadelphia where it was used by Police Officers, taxi drivers and bus drivers who would bemoan the nightmare that such a sudden, short term, influx of people would create in their normally manageable daily routine.

The Philly cop’s annual headache is something that’s really worth remembering, not just in retail, but for any organisation or industry that experiences wild swings in demand either seasonal or otherwise.

Now, it’s at this point in time that IT cloud providers would swoop in and start talking to you about the amazing benefits of the “elasticity” of the cloud and quite right – if you do experience swings in demand and you’re not operating in the cloud then we really need to talk. But what’s crucial to remember, is that the flexibility of your on-line services represents just one part of your overall business process, and as such fixing it in isolation only serves to move the problem elsewhere in your organisation.

Solving part of the problem doesn’t help, if you want to be truly successful you need to take a holistic view and apply the “elastic” approach to all aspects of your business and your culture. In fact, if you really want to be successful in living up to the potential of significant changes in demand in your business, you need just three things:

  1. You need a better way of predicting what “will” happen, rather than a better way of understanding what “has” happened.
  2. You need an organisation that can react and respond quickly and consistently to changes. Consistency is a key point here – even if you manage to meet the new demand can you be sure that the rest of your “promise” to your customer will be able to cope? Will your customers experience the same level of customer service? Will the products/services be of the same quality? If they won’t you may have won the short term fight, but you run the risk of losing the long term battle.
  3. You need the basic technology infrastructure that enables your business to scale and flex to optimise both your business costs but also your ability to service your customers.

I’m not going to touch number 3 because this should not be news to you and you’re either doing it already or you’re sitting on the fence procrastinating about making the leap (just do it already) but it’s the first two that we’ve historically overlooked but are increasingly becoming possible thanks to advances in both technology and our understanding of its potential.

elasticityshutterstock_190642355When it comes to predicting in the future, the days of consulting soothsayers or settling for “best guesses” are finally coming to an end. The exponential growth (and availability) of data combined with innovations in both the power and accessibility of technologies like Machine Learning is enabling us to move away from a world of mere “reflection” (i.e. using the data to understand what has happened) into a world of “prediction” (i.e. using the data to understand what will happen). A world filled with better predictions is a world full of less (organisational) surprises and provides a backdrop against which better plans can be made.

Secondly, by shifting the culture of the way we collaborate inside our organisations, we can ensure that crucial knowledge, insight and values are not “locked away”, hidden from view from others in the organisation, either temporary staff or even existing staff having to pull extra duties in order to cope with the peak in demand. Crucially here, it’s not the technology alone that makes the difference it’s the culture. Yes you need to break free of old ways of working, moving to new collaborative tools rather than locking crucial information up in email inboxes, but unless you engender a culture that promotes and rewards open sharing of information (where appropriate of course) the tools alone will not help.

Agility is driven (or restricted) by knowledge, the more freely the knowledge flows inside the organisation, the more agile the business can become. It’s that simple.

So, whatever your organisation, whatever drives the spikes in demand, from the one person accountancy business trying to cope with the client demands of the HMRC tax year deadline right through to the big retailers trying to make the most of all that the festive season offers, all you need to do to make the most of the opportunity is to anticipate it, react to it and then deliver on it.

Make that happen, and your “black” day need not be a headache, a period of stress, dread and over-work, but instead a celebration where you and your organisation can make the most of all the upside that a significant increase in demand brings for your business.

RSA Animate: Reimagining Work

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

After months of painstaking work (not by me I might add!). The RSA have launched their own animated version of a talk I gave there recently on re-imagining the way we could work.

It’s 9 minutes of your time, but I think you’ll find it more than worthwhile:

YouTube Preview Image

I’ll post a bit of background on this later, but for now, sit back and enjoy!


Big Data, the Machines and You

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Ah, Big Data, the old IT bandwagon rides again eh?  Who’s with me?  Yeah, you and every other IT consultancy in town.

The thing is, beyond the hyperbole (and of course the ridiculous notion that data can be big or small or even mid-sized) incredible things are beginning to happen with data that affect the products and services we use, how we innovate and even how we understand the world around us.

More and more we are using big data services to help us in our personal lives, they recommend our purchases, answer our search queries, even translate our languages and every day, through the beauty and wonder that is machine learning, they get _better_.

Having access to more and more data, combined with technological advances like the cloud which provide seemingly limitless storage and compute power we are able, finally to start to harness the incredible power and potential it offers not just society at a broad level or just to huge organisations like Microsoft, Google and Facebook but we also start to get to a point where that power becomes accessible to every individual and every single business.

As with all such major advancements, we’ll face our fair share of challenges too; some will be technical – we’re still looking for the needle, but now it’s in a billion haystacks, some will be cultural – how do you ensure that data is accessible and of sufficient quality? And some will be just plain hard – like in a world of data and machine learning, what happens when the algorithms take over?

As it turns out, bandwagon or no, big data is crucial to our respective success.  Don’t believe me?  Well, why not waste 30 minutes of your life listening to me trying to convince you.  This is a presentation I gave at this year’s Turing Festival trying to make exactly that point.  (You can also download the slides here).

Like it or not, the world of big data is here – it is now up to us to figure out how to make best use of it.

(n.b. Thanks and appropriate respect go to both GetAmbition and Interactive Scotland for both organising the event and creating video and supporting collateral).

Voice Recognition: NUI’s Unsung Hero

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

I recently got asked to provide an opinion on “voice recognition”, in particular around our philosophy towards it and how we’ve implemented it across the stack.  If you can stomach it, you can see how it turned out (let’s put it this way, it opens with a comparison to the Hoff’s “Knight Rider”) and it kind of goes downhill from there but regardless, in doing the research, I learnt some really interesting things along the way that I thought I’d share here.

soundwave2First off, let’s start by asking how many of you know how speech recognition works these days?  Well I thought I did, but it turns out I didn’t.  Unlike the early approach, where you used to have to “train” the computer to understand you by spending hours and hours reading to your computer (which always kind of defeated the object to me), today, speech recognition works pretty much the same way they teach kids to speak/read, using phonemes, digraphs and trigraphs. The computer simply tries to recognise the shapes and patterns of the words being spoken, then using some clever logic and obviously an algorithm or two, performs some contextual analysis (makes a guess) on what is the most probable sentence or command you might be saying.

In the early days of speech recognition, the heavy lifting required was all about the listening and conversion from analogue to digital, today it’s in the algorithmic analysis on what it is most likely that you are saying.  This subtle shift has opened up probably the most significant advance in voice recognition in the last twenty years, the concept of voice recognition as a “cloud” service.

A year or so ago, I opened a CIO event for Steve Ballmer, given I was on stage first, I got a front row seat at the event and watched Ballmer up close and personal as he proceeded to tell me, and the amassed CIO’s from our 200 largest customers, that the Kinect was in fact a “cloud device”.  At the time I remember thinking, “bloody hell Steve, even for you that’s a bit of a stretch isn’t it?”.  I filed it away under “Things CEO’s say when there’s no real news” and forgot about it, until now that is when I finally realised what he meant.

Basically, because with a connected device (like Kinect), the analysis of your movements and the processing for voice recognition can now also be done in the cloud. We now have the option (with the consumer’s appropriate permission) to use those events to provide a service that continuously learns and improves.  This ultimately means that the voice recognition service you use today is actually different (and minutely inferior) to the same service that you’ll use tomorrow.   This is incredibly powerful and also shows you that the “final mile” of getting voice recognition right lies more now with the algorithm that figures out what you’re mostly likely to be saying than it does with the actual recognition of the sounds.  MSR have a number of projects underway around this (my current favourite being the MSR’s Sentence Completion Challenge), not to mention our own development around how this might apply within search.

Those of you that have been following these ramblings in the past will know I’m slightly sceptical of voice recognition, thinking that it is technology’s consistent wayward child, full of potential, yet unruly, unpredictable and relentlessly under-achieved.  I’m not saying my view has changed overnight on this, but am certainly more inclined to think it will happen, based on this single, crucial point.

Kinect too provides its own clue that we’re a lot closer than we previously thought to making voice recognition a reality, not just in the fact that it uses voice recognition as a primary mode of (natural) interaction but more in how it tries to deal with the other end of the voice recognition problem – just how do you hear _anything_ when you are sat on top of the loudest source of noise in the room (the TV) when someone 10 feet away is trying to talk to you in the middle of a movie (or the final level on Sonic Generations, sat next to a screaming 6 year old who’s entire opinion of your success as a father rests on your ability to defeat the final “boss” ).  If you have a few minutes and are interested, this is a wonderful article that talks specifically about that challenge and how we employ the use of an array of 4 microphones to try and solve the problem.  There’s still more work to be done here, but it’s a great start in what is actually an incredibly complex problem  – think about it, if I can’t even hear my wife in the middle of a game of Halo or an episode of Star Trek (original series of course) how the hell is Kinect going to hear? (Oh, I’ve just been informed by her that apparently that particular issue is actually not a technical problem… #awkward).

So these two subtle technological differences in our approach are going to make all the difference in voice recognition becoming a reality as part of a much more natural way of interacting with technology.  Once that happens, we move into the really interesting part of the problem – our expectations of what we can do with it.

expectOur kids are a great way of understanding just how much of Pandora’s box getting into voice recognition (and other more natural forms of interaction) will be and I suspect that ultimately, our greatest challenge will be living up to the expectation of what is possible across all the forms of technical interaction we have, NUI parity across devices if you like.  My son’s expectation (quite reasonably) is that if he can talk to his xBox, then he should be able to talk to any other device and furthermore, if he can ask it to play movies and navigate to games why can’t it do other things?  I was sitting doing my research with him the night before my interview on all of this, and we were playing together at getting the voice recognition to work.  He asked the xBox play his movie, he told Sonic which level to play on Kinect FreeRiders then he paused, looked at me and then back at the TV, cracked a cheeky smile and said, “Xbox, do my homework…”.

The Paradox of IT’s Future

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

I know that as technologists, we live, eat and breathe technology. It’s important to us, we care about it. Hell, some of you even understand it. But in a world that increasingly relies on its use, across all aspects of our lives this presents us with somewhat of a paradox.

itinvsmYou see, for us, our success is making this critical resource absolutely invisible to those that use it. That’s not to say it’s not important, far from it, it’s just that like we mentioned before it’s critical that we focus on the tasks and outcomes not the tools.

As IT professionals we have to find a way to strike the right balance between showing enough visibility that people understand the importance (or even limitations and risks) and getting out of the way to enable others to be successful based on all that we have established from them.

For me, the future of IT lies not in the IT department, but out there, in your businesses, in your communities and with your people and that is where we have to go.

Corporate IT–It’s time to let go

Monday, October 25th, 2010

letgosmNow don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying for a minute that this is about a “free for all” where everybody has access to everything and can do anything they want – that’s not what I’m calling for at all.

But this should be a great time for us, we are sat on top of some incredibly powerful technology with a bunch of people who increasingly want to do more, be more efficient and dare I say it, even enjoy themselves in fulfilling their role. Instead we often find ourselves playing the role we all used to hate – we’re in real danger of being to the business what the IT security guys were back in the mid/late 90’s – the people that “just say no”.

It’s actually quite ironic, we’ve spent years nurturing this environment, creating a place where it can grow and be successful, and now that the time is right for us to start to pull back, to create an environment where we have empowered our people to be safe, productive and successful in their use of technology. Instead we often struggle to relinquish some of the control that we have fought so hard to establish (and which was so desperately needed way back when.)

What is needed now however, is for us go right back to our core principles and instead of providing everything, provide the environment from which people are empowered to drive their own solutions.

Our job in IT is not so much about our success, as it is about how we enable the success of others – understanding this subtle yet key difference is the key to our future success.

We should be the facilitators of success, empowering our people to be productive and free to chose the way in which they fulfil their roles but all the time, providing that safety net that ensures that they are able to do so within an environment that is supportive and protective in how technology is used to make us all more productive and successful.

The Changing Role of the IT Department

Friday, October 22nd, 2010


I think the change that has been brought about by the consumerisation of technology has put us in a really difficult position in how we manage technology across an organisation.

Think about how the role of the IT department has changed over the last 50 years.

We’ve gone from being computer scientists in lab coats

Data processors running around with punched cards trying to help people make sense of the world

The heady days of success where we had the advantage – we were the only guys that could finally unlock the knowledge economy that exists inside our organisation

And what’s next?

Well that’s kind of up to us, we have a choice, continue to be hounded by people who want more (but care less) or should we get back to our roots, reaching out into the business and getting back into the business of enabling our organisations and people to be at least as productive at work as they are at home?

Technological Change–Above and below the water line

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

In the final instalment of our systemic view of the changes that surround us we com to the area we talk most about, but perhaps understand the least – how technology has changed around us.

When I started my career (and I suspect it is the same for many of you), the only place I would see a personal computer was in a place of work or a place of study. Think about how different that world is now. We are surrounded by technology, much of it has become so pervasive to our everyday lives that it has started to become invisible.

When was the last time you thought about how the internal combustion engine actually works? Apart from a few petrol heads which are undoubtedly reading this, what do you do when you get in your car? Do you sit and think, <nerd voice> well, turning this key activates the fuel pump which even as I sit here is preparing the correct amount of fuel to be compressed in the cylinders and ignited at precisely the right moment, the resulting explosion creating sufficient force to drive a powertrain supplying the correct amount of longitudinal force to each of the driving wheels </nerd voice>. Of course you don’t, you get in turn the key and crack on with getting to your destination.

TechChangesmIT is becoming no different. Although the way in which we use it becomes increasingly sophisticated, we care less (or we should care less) about the specifics of what makes it work. This is a good thing. In my book, a minute spent thinking about the tool is a minute wasted as it should have been spent thinking about the task.

I like to think of it as a water line that we continue to push up as we are able to effectively “commoditise” the core elements of technology. Above the water we see the graceful, pretty technology that helps us be productive. Below the water, we know there is a complex eco-system that drives it, but we don’t necessarily need to understand every intricacy of what makes it work.

Increasingly, understanding and using this commoditisation will be the difference between success and failure.

Thinking Out Cloud

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

I was recently involved in a roundtable discussion (first of series) that aims to try and dispel some of the myth that surrounds Cloud Computing and attempts to get the focus away from the technology and more to the business outcomes it affords.  For my part I was asked to write a pre-amble to frame the discussion which I thought some of you may enjoy…

image“I signed up for a career in IT because I was a dreamer (and maybe I watched a little too much Star Trek as a kid). My dream was all of the great things that technology could enable in a modern society. 20 years on, I’m still here and I’m still living the dream – great things have happened, massive change has taken place and technology is pretty much a pervasive part of the way we each live, work and play.

So when a couple of year ago, we began down the hype curve of cloud computing being "the future of IT" you can imagine my interest, what is this thing that could be so important and yet so elusive to describe, understand and in some cases deliver? I set out on a quest to find out the transformative outcomes that cloud computing would enable.

If cloud really was the future, I wanted it to solve world peace, find cures for major medical problems, save the planet, hell, I also secretly wanted it to give me that hoverboard I’ve been promised in so many late night low budget sci-fi films.

But as you all well know, and as I now understand – cloud computing in itself is not an outcome, it is merely an enabler, a quiet, yet substantial, aid to let us be better at doing what we do.

Starting a conversation with cloud computing is a bit like standing up at the beginning of the movie and declaring "Bruce Willis is a Ghost!". Ultimately that’s the destination, but in itself it’s meaningless. Without understanding the context of where you actually are and, more importantly, really getting underneath the outcome you want to achieve, you’re going to struggle to make sense of why cloud is even relevant, never mind so beneficial that it could completely transform the way you do business.

As technologists, our job is to make technology as transparent as possible, we must resist the temptation to lead with the solution. I firmly believe our job is to ensure that people are focused on the actual task in hand not on how to operate the tools – the less people have to worry about how the technology works, the more they can focus on whatever it is that is important and unique to them.

To do this we really need to stay focused on the (holistic) outcomes that our customers are looking for, and then find the right way to make technology as transparent as possible to ensure their success and in a way, this becomes one of the key strengths of the cloud approach. Like so often in this game, we tend to view everything in a binary manner – all or nothing. When talking about cloud, we assume it’s everything to the cloud or nothing at all. In reality it will actually is much more fluid than that.

There are four key pillars that provide the cloud platform for our success, each are important and relevant, but for different reasons and applications. The pillars start on the far left with the traditional on premise datacentre, next the same but virtualised. For the third we make a big leap out of the organisation to a private cloud and finally on the far right, our old friend the public cloud. The important thing to recognise is that each of these pillars are essential in the delivery of a technology foundation and what is really required is a way of seamlessly moving from left to right as the solutions and economics allow. Public cloud has a lot to offer, by sheer virtue of the economies of scale, at the other end, the on-premise data centre is still important for some who may have more significant demands around control and performance. Many organisations get lost in this discussion, spending countless hours debating where they want to be on the scale. The simple truth is that the economics of each pillar should actually make the decisions obvious. Ideally all the commodity, infrastructure stuff should exist where it’s cheapest and all the complex, unique stuff where you have more control. Ultimately the answer will be that organisations will exist in multiple places, creating the concept of the hybrid cloud.

One of the other common problems stemming from the ambiguity of "cloud computing" is the confusion between infrastructure and innovation in how we procure and design cloud based solutions. I think of cloud computing as a spectrum, at one end there is the infinitely scalable, ultimately agile promise that has received so much of the cloud computing limelight and at the other end, there is the no-frills, black box, commodity service – IT’s equivalent of the electric grid. All too often we see customers trying to be agile and innovative with a no-frills commodity service and ultimately getting frustrated with the results. This is not helpful and it adds to the confusion and concern about the viability of cloud computing in any context. If we identify and separate out the areas where we want basic, commodity vs those where we want the agile and flexibility cloud also affords, we will enable far greater success not just in the use of cloud computing, but in the ultimate outcomes our customers are looking to achieve.

I suspect that in 10 minutes, I’ve not managed to help clear any of the confusion or ambiguity that exists around this critical area, but I do hope that I’ve at least managed to set the stage for what promises to be a fascinating debate.

Finally, all to often when I’m talking about cloud computing I’m reminded of a conversation I had as a kid with my Dad, an engineer of some repute who wanted me to follow in his footsteps but was obviously frustrated at my lack of talent in the key areas of thermodynamics and thrust co-efficients – he used to watch me, bumbling my way around the workshop, hammer in hand looking for things I could hit, he would simply smile and say "Dave, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". Cloud computing represents a very powerful hammer – our responsibility as technologists is to make sure it strikes home on the right nails…”

The Future of Public Libraries

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

A few months back we were approached by the Society of Chief Librarians to provide some insight on how changes in society and technology may offer some opportunities for us to radically change the way in which we live, work and play – a topic regular viewers will know we enjoy and have some opinion on :-).

Fundamentally – I am convinced that the library is one of the primary pillars of community and as such it’s role in developing and nurturing that community is absolutely essential – however, my view is that some things need to change if we are to make the most of the opportunity (and the challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves today).

madplaceI was captivated by Alberto Manguel’s concept of the library as a "pleasantly mad place" – it struck a chord with me and re-enforced my opinion that the library needs to be many different things if it is to survive in the current environment – but whatever those things are they need to be built on the principles that have made libraries successful for thousands of years.

You can find highlights of the key recommendations I made to the SCL in this episode of the Envisioners:

Download the webcast here –

The Envisioners Episode 6

or click here to subscribe to the Envisioners podcasts on iTunes.

You can also download the slides I used here –

Open Government and the Future of Public Libraries

– like all the content we create, they’re available for use under Creative Commons license, so feel free use them if they’re helpful to you, but please respect the copyright of the image authors (see speakers notes in each slide) and ensure you are licensed properly for their use.

If you’re a sucker for punishment, a webcast of the full presentation is also available here for download: