by Richard Sykes

Richard Sykes: History in the making

Jan 06, 20095 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipManufacturing Industry

I have been mesmerised by Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the US presidency. I awoke in the early hours of 5 November, 2008 to hear his victory speech in Chicago. He is a superb orator and part of his skill is that he tells relevant stories to great effect.

Towards the end of his victory speech he introduced the personal journey of Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106-year-old black women who, earlier that Election Day, had cast her vote in Atlanta – born “one generation past slavery into a world where there were no cars, no planes” – and no votes for women, let alone a black woman. Obama weaves the historic backdrop of a century of radical change and dramatic events against which the journey of Mrs Cooper’s life has been made, returning again and again to the simple message that America can change, can always rise to new opportunities, new challenges.

The great advantage of history is that it is history. A consummate storyteller elaborates the recorded and the known into a rich and convincing tapestry of description, analysis and insight – and even drama. History is storytelling through the rear-view mirror.

In earlier pieces I have introduced the accelerating timescales of technical and business change determined “by the near exponential tick-tock of the Moore’s Law clock” – and I have sketched the new realities of “the virtual and the loosely coupled” that are creating the reshaped landscapes of systems and services that will enable our businesses into the future.

So different are these landscapes that we need to become consummate storytellers in looking ahead. Not to give imaginative descriptions of intended destinations (shades of the Palace of Oz – something we have been all too good at in the ICT industry, I fear) but to share convincing, detailed elaborations as stories of the complexities and risks of the transformational journey necessary to get us there, so that the motivations for making the journey can be given substance, and its planning can be for real.

Imagine yourself the strategically insightful CIO of a major banking group. On the one hand you have under your control a massive state-of-the-art mainframe facility, loaded with the inherited legacy systems at the core of the operations of your bank, reliable to a T, secure, continuity assured, compliant with every regulatory framework required – but costing such a high proportion of your annual spend as to restrict your ability to invest in the new, and with interfaces to the world of the online of such complexity that ensuring a genuine single view of the customer in real time is a challenge. Change is a major exercise time capital-and human-resource intensive.

On the other hand, consider the Palace of Oz, colloquially known as The Cloud. Infinitely scalable on-demand capacity, commoditised transactional costs, a flexibility for change that is awesome, no capital programme ever again – and you can refocus your expensive human resource out in the marketplace to better understand your customers’ requirements and respond to their needs.

And yet getting from ‘here’ to ‘there’ is a long journey. Risk is under tight control – how will it be managed en route to The Cloud and inside The Cloud? And how do you guarantee security en route and inside? And how do you ensure business continuity during that transformational journey, and then in The Cloud?

The “near exponential tick-tock of the Moore’s Law clock” will ensure that our Palace of Oz will be for real, and soon. In 2018, a journalist-as-historian will weave the historic backdrop of a decade of dramatic change in which the journey of the financial services industry into The Cloud has become a reality, articulating the simple message that businesses can change, will change and will always rise to new opportunities, new challenges.

But right now we need a different focus for our storytelling: the creative articulation of the journey ahead, mapping the yellow brick road with all its hazards, detours, landslides, magic forests, and elucidating the intricacies of the journey to be undertaken.

A senior IT leader of a global pharmaceuticals firm recently described an innovative outsourcing deal for his email services. The services were specified in user-requirement terms, not in technical SLAs. The scope and specification of the delivery technology was totally ‘black box’, the responsibility of the supplier, in this case a long established major.

What caught my eye was that the user-specified service requirements could well have been met by Google Mail, and at a tiny fraction of the cost. But of course there was a hitch. Employees of this pharma are only allowed browsers on their desktops and laptops by very special permission for security reasons.

So do I have a storyteller, a creative articulator of the journey ahead along this particular yellow brick road, with the artifice to convince this CIO of the possibility of a transformational journey that could safely yield real dividends well this side of 2018?

Other articles by Richard Sykes:

Richard Sykes: Troubleshooter recalled

Richard Sykes on the lessons of Moore’s Law