by Richard Sykes

Britain’s canals offer CIOs & vendors a cloud lesson

Sep 09, 20144 mins
Cloud ComputingIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Summer days are a good time to reflect on the myriad of developments  that we are all grappling with in ‘the Cloud’. As I noted in the opening of my most recent (July) blog “the Cloud-word has become a talisman – an ill-defined concept that the marketing folk have run riot with”.

One benefit of the summer break is time to read in peace – and sometimes that reading helps bring fresh thinking and insight. My ‘new insights trigger’ this summer has been a history of the development of the canals in the UK: The Canal Age, by Charles Hadfield (Pan Books, 1971).

A 90-year spread (1760-1850), starting with the raw commercial drivers of coal distribution, maturing to a countrywide network that included regular people transport services (you did have to duck when going under the bridges – but the on-board catering sounds to have been pretty swish) and the distribution of a whole range of bulk goods from flour to sugar for the local shops. And 1850? Well – the coming of the railways! Put yourself in the position of a young business director in the early 1800s, grappling with the ‘Impact of the Canals’…

Here is my set of observations that reflect on the experience of that businessman – but now, two centuries later, focused on the development of the Cloud these last few years – and my experience with clients grappling with this very new world.

First, understand that we are in an era of quite radical transformations. The underlying technological revolution is clear: Moore’s Law enabling the whole management of the raw material of information – data – as software-enabled data storage, data processing, data networking, and thus the virtualisation and automation of the whole exercise. [I have even come across a venture that claims to be able to transfer actively processing virtual servers between geographically distant data centres in real time.]

Secondly, transformations: transformation of the vendor-side of the markets, and their operational and business models: transformation of the user side of the markets and how the current ICT capabilities are to be best exploited.

Thirdly, if you look more closely at the user side, you realise that the real focus of change is now on the behavioural. Youth has lead the way with its exploitation of socal media. How a business interacts with its markets and customers, how its operational and business models are shaped and what the business’ ‘offer’ is – to an increasing extent it is on the behavioural axis that the revolution is gathering pace.

Fourthly, this is not an issue of a fresh ICT-sourcing model for the IT folk to master and deliver – this is a quite fundamental business change opportunity and challenge that needs to be addressed and manged at Board-level. This requires an Executive Team that is well versed in the realities of the transformations I sketch above, is intimately in touch with their customers & markets, and the competitive forces at work seeking to rehape their markets, and who invest significant shared time as an Executive (/Board) regularly re-debating their business, market and operational strategies.

Fifthly, this calls for strategic thinking with fuzzy boundaries! Sucessful management of a business requires clarity as to its purpose, its objectives, the roots of its strategic and competitive edge, who its key target clients are, and its markets positioning. Today every conceptual diagramme that the Executive/Board works with should be drawn with fuzzy boundaries – as a firm reminder that all is in transformation, and they had better be alert to that, revisiting the business’ ‘taken as givens’ on a regular basis with insight, determination- and a dose of courage!

And, sixthly, taking the cycle back to the vendor side, remember that it is the market-close client who is best placed to educate and drive the vendor to re-shape his business ‘offer’ to better meet the clients needs. The long established tradition of vendor-lead marketing seminars aimed at the client’s senior management needs to be replaced now by client (Executive/Board lead with the CIO/IT Director in the lead)-led seminars at which the vendor is given clear direction in how to positively transform his offer.

Back to our young business director in the early 1800s, grappling with the ‘Impact of the Canals’. He saw the opportunity to expand the carrying of passengers (after all the Duke of Bridgewater had led the way in 1772). He invested in carrying a broader range of dry goods to the burgeoning grocery trade in the local towns and villages along the canal routes. But was he alert to a new phenomenon in his business space – Tuesday February 21, 1804, when Richard Trevithick’s first locomotive “propelled itself along a railway track pulling a string of small trucks, some filled with iron, some with men”?