Jon Brodkin recently wrote a thought-provoking, if controversial, piece in Network World highlighting the common misconceptions surrounding cloud computing. Even though it seems like cloud computing and cloud applications affect every aspect of our business lives (which I don’t feel is a bad thing), there appears to be a lot of confusion out there amongst business users as to what the cloud actually provides. And oddly enough, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some IT users that are stumped as well – not by what the cloud can do, per se, but by what it can’t do…which according to Brodkin includes: replacing MS Office, pre-determining legal ownership of IP, and always being cheap.
Jon’s article is less of a celebration of cloud computing and more of a myth-busting “gotcha” segment. I agree that the more information we can share about the intricacies of the cloud and how it compares to traditional on-premise deployments the better, but there is one point in particular with which I take issue, and one point with which I totally agree.
Disagree: Brodkin says cloud computing isn’t as affordable as people think. He uses the example of some cloud apps offering attractive subscription prices and then requiring Internet bandwidth upgrades or bizarre contracts. While it’s up to a customer to read through the contracts they sign (and as a cloud provider I can tell you that no one I know puts out shady EULAs), the Internet bandwidth argument is a little questionable. While bandwidth upgrades can cost upwards of $10,000, it isn’t difficult to find out how much you’ll need for any given cloud app. That’s part of due diligence, and there are thousands upon thousands of cloud applications that will not hog your bandwidth.
Agree: The article’s first contention is that cloud computing will not put IT professionals out of a job and/or make them obsolete. I wish that more IT staffers would absorb this reality and stop worrying that the cloud above their heads is planning to rain all over their careers. “Moving to the cloud” does not need to be followed by IT losing their jobs, and very rarely is. While companies that have been forced to lay off workers due to tough economic times can work more efficiently with collaborative cloud-based BPM solutions (increase productivity, decrease cost) – there will always be a need for management, supervision and technical liaison with cloud vendors. As Brodkin notes, certain skill sets might eventually become less relevant, but employing people with technical knowledge will never fall out of fashion.
Numerous articles have been written over the past several months on the critical role that collaboration and “social” elements will play in helping companies move forward post-recession. The idea that rendering a process or even an entire organization accessible via a public or private network is taking the enterprise community by storm. The premise of bringing people together – especially those who would otherwise not communicate closely with another group – is long overdue. In essence, we’ve gone full circle in how we view collaboration as a business productivity tool.
The very earliest forms of structured organization for the purpose of financial profit consisted of simple business processes – producing a commodity, trading or bartering for another item or service, and a close-knit network of relationships built over years of trust and routine reliability. This is not to say that the earliest forms of incorporation were joyous and peaceful, as the oldest group activity was battle, but each transaction followed a process that was constantly being refined. Business took place face-to-face.
In the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, we saw the proliferation of technology, specifically for manufacturing and mass production, and the propensity for individuals with a common goal and a variety of skills to pool their resources for potential fame and fortune. It was during this time that businesses began a gradual type of disassociation with collaborative thinking; workers were separate from management, plants were separate from executive offices. International travel was becoming less prohibitive and more efficient, and global operations grew stronger, interpersonal communication got weaker.
Now we’ve voluntarily reversed what seemed to be a permanent fact of business life. We’re talking again. Business and IT departments are starting to collaborate (even if it’s not quite mainstream yet) on business process management initiatives, and solutions like workflow automation are making it possible for employees, who would otherwise be preoccupied with mundane tasks, to join the real human conversation. The communication tools we now have at our disposal – from videoconferencing to social networks to instant messaging – can help us facilitate person-to-person interaction no matter where we are and what we’re doing.
I often hear people express reserve at the idea that our daily activities are becoming so driven by technology that society might eventually feel almost robotic. On the contrary, modern technological solutions are helping us communicate more frequently and more genuinely than ever before. If anything, technology is succeeding in making us more human.
Gartner recently released seven guidelines for business process management (BPM) success, all of them being conceptual priorities and strategies as opposed to technical specifications. The recommendations, led by VP and distinguished analyst Bill Rosser, are designed to help companies determine which BPM projects to pursue.
Of these seven guidelines (summarized here on eBizQ), amongst them “limited scope,” “high value,” “clear alignment to goals,” “the right metrics,” “goal agreement,” “enthusiastic business sponsor” and “business user engagement,” I want to focus my discussion on the last two.
Gaining the support of a “business sponsor” and engaging “business users” is integral to the success of any BPM project, but for reasons beyond those listed in the original press release. An enthusiastic business sponsor shouldn’t just be the senior executive who will benefit from the project – he should play a primary role in authorizing it, allocating budget for it and implementing it. Rather than be a “cheerleader” for the IT team presumably pursuing the BPM project in the first place, the business leader should be, well, leading it.
The second point of contention is the idea of engaging business users for BPM project success. In the press release, Gartner phrases the advantages of this course of action: “getting them on board typically means offering a fresh perspective on how to look at what they do in their jobs, and making a process view easy to understand and intriguing.”
The idea of encouraging IT to see things from a business user’s perspective is commonly advocated by a variety of BPM experts, not just Gartner, and on face it seems like a very civil, collaborative means of moving forward. My issue with IT trying to make things simpler and more “intriguing” for business users, however, is that it elicits at the very least a mild sense of condescension.
Forgive me if I’m examining this from too granular a perspective, but the vision that comes to mind when imagining IT professionals trying to position the jobs of business professionals in an interesting way is that of a big brother guiding his smaller, less experienced sibling and showing him how to tie his shoes (except in this case, the younger brother is 37 with a master’s degree in marketing). Ultimately, the idea of asking IT users to design a process view so that business users – those who directly drive the creation, implementation and successful resolution of business processes (and therefore BPM) – can understand them is patronizing.
This is the counter-productive result of putting one group in charge of addressing the needs of an entirely different group, and by no means is attributable to any one organization or influencer. I have a special appreciation for business users and their needs because I see the level to which they’re disenfranchised; it’s why my company’s focus is on serving the needs of business users by letting them build and automate every process, saving IT from having to pay a house call and letting both groups focus on their own jobs. The presumption that IT should influence BPM in any way is damaging for both IT and business users because it’s convoluted. Those who need the solution should be able to create the solution. IT professionals will welcome the freedom to focus on things that actually affect them.
In implementing BPM or any sort of organization-wide project, please remember that “business users” are simply professionals whose expertise is in a subject other than programming.
In an interview with Victoria Barret of Forbes this week, IDC Senior Vice President Frank Gens predicted that 2010 would be “a transformational year for IT.” In particular, Gens discussed a potential economic rebound that would see IT growth return to 2007 levels, and a technological renaissance of sorts – “the basis for new leadership around mobile computing, cloud computing and emerging markets.”
I completely agree with Gens’ expectation that 2010 will be a watershed year for priming the future of the IT sector, but not necessarily because of stellar software sales or a new widget. In the wake of a unparalleled recession, preceded by more than thirty years of vendor-driven autocracy, we’re now wise enough – and some would say disillusioned enough – to realize that maintaining a herd mentality when it comes to product adoption and deployment is counter-productive. For years we were sold on huge, enterprise-wide solution suites (ERP comes to mind) that sent our data to silos and hundreds of thousands of our dollars to vendors up-front, even though we knew inside that not all of these applications were necessary, that some of it was merely bloatware. We feared becoming beholden to large vendors and their suite upgrades but we went along with it because that’s just how it was.
Well, in 2010, that’s not how it has to be. Gens likened the old-school model of on-premise installations to pouring concrete and letting it set “for four or five years” as opposed to the cloud computing model, in which you can pay as you go, consume only the elements of a product that you feel you need and execute your company’s objectives with some degree of freedom. Of course it’s a monumental financial relief to not have to pay for unnecessary add-ons, but more importantly, using on-demand solutions is testament to our level of engagement in how we run our businesses.
The good news is that in today’s environment of cloud computing you don’t have to be a fortune 500 company with a multimillion dollar IT budget to get the benefit of the latest revolution in computing. All you need is a little time to put together the list of companies that best suit your requirements, a web browser and you can get started paying as you get value right now. If the past decade has taught us anything at all it’s that everything in IT is transitory – as soon as something is determined as the “new ideal,” it is on its way to being dethroned.