A litlle more on clouds …

… originally published in i-CIO based on an interview in mid 2010

“I get somewhat disturbed by the term “cloud.” All the marketing and vendor hype surrounding it is confusing what should be a very important debate about the underpinning technologies and what they can do for your business.

All good CIOs know that they have to be, first and foremost, business leaders. But we are business leaders who have an area of expertise, and we must be able to apply that expertise — which is in how technology enables our businesses. That blend of business and technology acumen is now more important than ever.

The technology that underpins what vendors are calling “cloud computing” is rapidly maturing and does offer some interesting new opportunities, but I believe it’s important not to get carried away here.

It’s not a paradigm shift. It’s not a whole new world. It’s just change. It’s the same kind of change as when we went from the abacus to the mainframe, from mainframe to client/server, and so on. We live in a change industry. Change is what we’re all about, so there’s nothing out of the ordinary in that respect.

I am, however — as we all should be in these tough times — interested in the capex/opex shift that comes from utilizing these technologies, because I think it represents the possibility for a fundamental change to some of our business models.

I am also interested in the potential it has for removing some of the entry barriers to new markets that might otherwise have had a high capital-intensive set-up. And I am very interested in how the technologies will allow us to blend parts of our own infrastructure with the infrastructures of specific partners and public services.

But rather than talking about types of “cloud” — public, private, hybrid, whatever — we should be asking: Do these new models fit with our current sourcing decisions, be they hosting or hosted? And the answer is, in many cases: They absolutely do.

As CIOs — and increasingly this is a truly hybrid role — we need to focus the debate around the economics of our businesses and the appropriateness of the technologies to meet the strategic intent of our companies.

But we must not get wrapped up in the marketing spin and hype. We must focus on the practical aspects. CIOs and the rest of the technology profession have had a hard enough time acquiring sufficient language to engage in business discussions with business customers.

And now our profession — particularly the supply side — comes along and creates some nonsense term for what is actually, underneath, a very valuable and very business-critical technology.

I am worried that the reality of cloud can’t match the hype because it has been hyped out of all proportion. Also, just because it’s “the cloud” does not mean the basic disciplines of technology operations or sourcing can be ignored — they can’t.

So let’s focus on what the technology can do. And, like all new technologies — although in this case the concept is not that new — you need to dip your toe in the water and try it.”

• Follow Ian Cohen on Twitter: @coe62

….. of strengths and weaknesses

“You think that I’m strong
You’re wrong,  you’re wrong
I’ll sing my song – my song, my song”

So sang Robbie Williams in his introspective stadium anthem – Strong.

It’s an interesting thought – do you actually know your own strengths and weaknesses or, more importantly, those of the people you lead. I choose these words carefully because I don’t necessarily mean what people are “good” or “bad” at because that can often be very different.

Think about that for a second. Isn’t there something that you do – that people think you’re “good at” – but frankly if you never did that activity again it wouldn’t be a moment too soon. What would you call that ?? Well, many who believe in strengths development would actually call that a weakness. Any activity that leaves you feeling depleted or drained is a weakness. Conversely an activity that enthuses you, invigorates you – one that when your involved in it time just flys by … that would be a strength

Why the distinction – well for years we’ve all been a bit remedial. We appraise (and actuality also educate) people on the false premise that we are there to fix what we see as their weaknesses (or what’s bad) in the hope we’ll develop strengths or improve performance. The problem is that this rarely works.

Jeez, have you had a good appraisal recently ?? More often than not its 5 minutes of discussing what went well and then 55 minutes of “identifying areas of development”. Oh please – by that very action you’re characterising someone by what they’re not rather than focusing on making more of what they already are. That doesn’t mean you can ignore weaknesses, particularly when they impact ones strengths, but it’s all about were you focus to get the best outcome for everyone involved. Indeed, the research shows people make their greatest leaps in performance when building on their strengths… so why do som many still focus on the complete opposite. We spend our time trying to turn bad into good. Its nonsense. If you invert bad – you get ‘NOT BAD’ which is very different to good great or excellent.

And more than ever in this profession we call technology, we need ‘excellent’ !! That’s excellent engagement and communication skills when working with our colleagues, our staff and most of all our customers – ‘not bad’ is not enough. So we need to get better at identifying people’s strengths and getting them to do more with them.

In the coming years, though many would say “right now” as well, we need a new generation of enthusiastic technology leaders who can engage in new dialogues, articulate new possibilities and listen for the new opportunities in a whole new way. We need them to tell stories and paint pictures about how the new disruptive forces of technology can transform business. These wont be the techie, bits and bytes, propeller head conversations of the past and they will need people with a whole new vocabulary; people for whom driving these conversations into positive and tangible outcomes will be their most dominant strength. The power of the relationship will be the dominant factor in creating the solution, not the technology.

So where are these people ? Do you have them ? and if not, then where are you going to find them ? I wish I had the answer – I don’t – but I can give you a clue about what to look out for…. it might just have something to do with people’s strengths.

CIOs and the recession

I was recently asked to do an interview for the Economist Intelligence Unit on the role of the CIO in a recession.

The interview found its way into a report that is available here >>> EIU Article

Interestingly (or not – depending on your views on these things) it morphed into a panel discussion that is now up on their website. The webcast was set out to “….discuss how CIOs are driving innovation in their organisations today, amidst continued budget stringency and in an uncertain growth environment.

  • How will continued cost discipline affect IT-led innovation?
  • Who are now the CIO’s most important and effective allies as champions of innovation?
  • Has the recession weakened employees’ and managers’ resistance to change?
  • How central are social media and cloud computing to innovation initiatives today?

OK it doesn’t quite have the cut and thrust of BBC Question Time but you can see how we all got on

… or click here for the webcast and content  >>>  EIU Webcast

Enjoy and, as usual, please feel free to post comments, retweet or whatever.

CW500 Interview – IT Leadership

Yes I know …. after months of inactivity, the blog is awash with interviews …. sorry for the absence but at least there’s some content now 🙂
Some original posts will follow soon (I promise), in the meantime here’s an interview from 5th October when Computer Weekly caught up with me at the CIO Connect 2010 conference. As always, your comments and thoughts are most welcome

Ian Cohen is chief information officer (CIO) at insurance and re-insurance group Jardine Lloyd Thompson. Prior to that, he held the top IT job at Associated Newspapers and the Financial Times. On the sidelines of CIO Connect’s Business as Unusual event earlier this week, Cohen talked to Computer Weekly about some current topics around IT leadership.

How important is staying in touch with the latest advances in technology for a CIO?

It is vitally important. If ever there was a time when you needed to be a proper hybrid CIO, the time is now. You absolutely have to be able to seamlessly move between IT and business, because your customers are already doing it. Mass [IT] consumerisation is here and it is a reality, people are increasingly bringing their own devices in and asking why they can’t use them in the workplace.

As technologists, we have to stop apologising for the fact that we understand technology, but we also have to be equally adept in the line of business we are operating in. The CFO never apologises for being an expert in finance, the marketing director never apologises for being an expert in marketing, so why would the CIO need to apologise for being a technologist and be something else? It is OK to be a both a technologist and a business leader. In fact, it is absolutely what you have to be.

Increasingly, CIOs and technology leaders have to understand how to harness that disruption for the positive impact that it can bring to their organisations. For example, the CEO and the marketing director could come to you and say they want iPads. If all you can do is put email on the device and give them a Citrix connection, that is not disruptive technology, it is just another channel.

However, if you understand enough about what’s possible from the technology and how it could interfere in your business processes, you can make that introduce positive disruptions,  shorten workflows, provide data that supports decision-making based on the location of the individual and many other things. IT has the power to transform and does it through the disruptive nature of the technology, so you have to know what that disruption can do.

How can you spot disruptive technologies?

You need a good personal radar. If your chief executive asks you what you think of the iPad, you need to at least know what it can do. So you need to be a little bit immersive in technology and try these things, so you have a practical experience – but not to the point technology becomes the end of itself.

You also need a good network and contacts, as well as incredibly bright people around you. It is part of the CIO role as a leader to harness the talent around them. It is not a one-way thing: I don’t create the space for people to do great things and then not expect anything back in return; what I expect back in return is an insight into the things that may become practically useful.

Given that users are becoming increasingly tech-savvy, will we reach a point where business people will be IT leaders and vice-versa?

I don’t think it is as black and white; there are lots of shades of gray around this. Those shades can be determined by the industry sector you are in as some are more advanced than others; the degree of regulation in the environments their businesses are in as that would drive some of the behaviours around data. It won’t be a one-size-fits all kind of thing. What will happen is that the boundaries will blur to varying degrees and we’ll start having some new and exciting conversations about the are of the possible.

Would you say that the business-IT divide many technology leaders have talked about is a self-inflicted problem?

Yes, it is. Shame on us! I have a huge problem with anybody who still talks about business and IT alignment. If you spending you time talking about this and using the word “alignment”, you are reinforcing separation. Those days are gone – if you are still having that debate, go to somebody else.

If you have to talk about alignment, you should be thinking about alignment with your customers – understanding how they want to interact with technology and how you can the information they require. What you should be worried about is understanding and enabling the strategic intent of the organisation, because when you get to the board table that is what you talk about.

What advice would you give to IT leaders looking to get that much-coveted place on the board?

Just get over it. No-one has a G-d given right to be at the board table and we have to earn our place. There is nothing wrong with being a service provider. The only thing that is wrong about it is delivering bad service and we’re all only as good as our last outage. If you can’t handle that, go do another job.

When you are delivering great service, the prize you get as a CIO is immense. No one in the organisation can see the world through your eyes or engage with the CEO the way you can: the marketing guy can change the brand, the CFO can make the numbers add up, but CIOs can transform. So get over the whole service bit, because that is what you have to do, that is your job. Once you do that brilliantly, everything else is available to you.

What CEOs expect from a top-performing CIO

….and what does outstanding CIO performance even look like?

A few weeks back I did an interview with Mark Samuels for Silicon.com as part of a piece on “What type of skills does the CEO want from his or her CIO?” For those of you who missed it here it is with some bits that missed the final edits :

The starting point, says Jardine Lloyd Thompson CIO Ian Cohen, is to understand your personal attributes (or strengths)  and those of your team rather than focussing on potential weaknesses and trying to fix those. “You cant ignore weaknesses but an outstanding leader will focus on their strengths – and those within their teams – and look to exploit them. For example , they will seek out their natural communicators – the ones who have a talent (or strength) for building great relationships – and orientate them to towards their customers so that thay can do even more with that talent. Effective dialog, in business speak (not techno babble), is your currency and you need people who have this as their strength.

“We spend way too much time trying to turn people into something they are not and fix their weaknesses,” he says. “It’s complete nonsense to think that fixing something bad will create something great. If you take ‘bad’ and just invert it – you get ‘not bad’, which is light years away from ‘great’. Find the activities that strengthen you personally, and the people you lead, and look to do those activities more often.”

When it comes to personal capabilities, Cohen is well aware of his own strengths. He says he “happens to be good at technology” because of the chronology of his career and an employment path that has included senior IT positions at media giants Associated Newspapers, Financial Times and Lloyds TSB.

Technological nuts and bolts
However, Cohen is also open enough to recognise that an aptitude for IT is not necessarily his most important individual asset. “For me, focussing on the nuts and bolts of technology doesn’t make the working day whiz by. Sure I know how stuff works and increasingly the hybrid CIO is going to have to stay abreast of how things work (our customers are becoming far more tech savvy), but it’s not exciting emotionally,” he says.

“My real strength – the activity that strengthens me – is creating an environment where bright people can do great stuff. I’m a story teller; painting pictures about what might be possible through the exploitation of existing and new technologies. That’s when time races by and I’m at my most animated and enthused.”

That sense of creation is something Cohen believes is a core feature of an outstanding CIO. Top technology chiefs, he suggests, will recognise how different members of the team contribute to the organisational whole: “You need to orient people, and the business, around individual strengths. You need to know how to combine people to create more effective teams and to develop next-generation leaders.”

If Cohen is right, helping to make the most of your – and your team’s assets – is crucial for the successful CIO. But what does the boss think? What type of skills does the CEO want from his or her CIO, and how can an IT chief develop the leadership skills that constitute an outstanding executive?

Customer awareness and project skills
For Vin Murria, CEO of Advanced Computer Software Group, strong customer awareness and an ability to deliver projects are of paramount importance.

She is an experienced business leader, having previously been CEO of CSG and chief operating officer at Kewill. Drawing on her experiences, she suggests the CIO’s job is really no different to the CEO’s.

“We’re both here to help deliver benefits to our customers. It’s just that, in most cases, the CIO is great with technology and the CEO is more attuned to the business,” says Murria. Sceptics might suggest that the second point is the difference.

Too many CIOs lack ofbusiness acumen. But it does not have to be this way, suggests Murria – and a new cadre of business-savvy IT executives are coming through.

“It’s not so much the technology bent, it’s the commercial recognition that helps them prove why it is worth investing in new IT,” she says.

Development of the next generation
Like Cohen, then, Murria recognises that technical aptitude is just one tool in an outstanding CIO’s kitbag. And like Cohen, she also says a top executive will prioritise the development of the next generation: “IT has really created the foundations for its own success but you have to be constantly thinking about what you’re going to do next,” she says.

A focus on the career ladder comes naturally to recruitment specialist Tim Cook, who runs the CIO practice for Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA), a search firm with more than 300 consultants based in 40 offices around the world.

Cook receives regular briefings from CEOs about the type of CIO they are looking for. And such searches, he says, are often framed by the question: “What does outstanding look like?”

When it comes to answering the question, Cook says CEOs often frame their description in communication terms: “We want someone that’s one of us; someone who can talk about the business and be part of the business,” he says, referring to the specific language of business leaders.

Strong business communicators
CEOs do not talk about technology but they do talk about specific IT issues. Cook says UK bosses talk about how technological innovation can be used to address modern business concerns. Here, they might talk about collaboration or the way technology can be used to communicate with customers across multiple channels.

“CEOs are looking for people with strong communication skills. They’re looking for negotiation and the ability to push back. It’s difficult to learn later on in life. Get on top early and you’ll have more chance to move your career on,” he says.

“Business executives won’t care about the specifics of technology. CIOs need to frame the business case in terms of profit and loss. And talking in terms of business outcomes will clearly be helpful. CIOs need to talk the language of business and some are now making that transition.”

I’ve looked at clouds …

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down, and still somehow

It’s clouds illusions I recall

I really don’t know clouds, at all

– Joni Mitchell

I really must stop using song titles and lyrics in these blog entries but ……

Anyway, I recently sat as part of an august panel of CIOs, drawn together to critique yet another a vendor proposition on cloud computing, and listened intently as we all described “Cloud” differently. Chatham House rules apply so I wont name names but it was all kinda worrying as the discussion was actually supposed to be about something called “hybrid cloud” which I subsequentyly learnt is supposed to be  “the intersection of public and private clouds” – or cloud 2.0 as some wags are now calling it.

After much debate one of the attendees lent forward, cupped his head in his hands and proclaimed “What is all this B***s**t ?? Come on guys lets get real !! Am I really going to sit in a room with my CEO and have this conversation ??”

I found myself strangely drawn to his candour. Its bad enough that many CEO’s still think that IT spends too much time with its head in the clouds, now we’re introducing vocabulary that even we don’t even understand.

In an earlier post I issued the plea to stop banging on about what this cloud stuff is or is not and to focus on harnessing the underlying technologies to deliver / enable our business strategies. I still hold firm to this view but the IT industry – particularly the vendor community – do have a responsibility to put some shape and form around this whole debate. Now you can agree or disagree with my previous post about “nothing changes” and that actually this is all just ones and zeros painted a different colour (albeit offered at a lower price point), but one thing that IT supposedly does well is process and standards – so why are we as an industry ignoring our strengths and perpetuating the marketing spin and hype.

So, with that in mind, here are my 3 essential priorities for any supply side cloud advocates – “my 3 x S’s”

1. Shape – put some real and tangible definitions up that give this whole debate some shape and meaning. What do things like Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), Software as a Service (SaaS) actually mean in practise ?? How do you engage and more importantly disengage with suppliers?? What should you really focus on ?? What do you need inside the enterprise to succeed ?? etc etc
2. Standards – we desperately need standards that address the well articulated security and data integrity / audit concerns whether they be fact or fiction – remember that perception IS reality !! The supply side MUST address this and, whilst there are emerging initiatives around data location, exchange/interchange protocols etc these are in their infancy and need to be embraced and accelerated
3. Segmentation – there is no one size fits all “cloud solution” so it is incumbent on the vendor community to start helping different industries and sectors chart a path to meeting their disparate needs.

The onward march of cloud computings underlying technologies is inevitable – what is up for grabs here is whether we can accelerate the road to practical adoption by removing the hype.


Stop your sobbin’ …..

…. so said the Pretenders in their cover of the Kinks classic (yes, I’ve noticed that recently I’ve been using song titles for my posts but why not ….) and those words inspired me into one of my few but sadly repetitive rants.

Why are so many IT leaders and C level technology execs such apologists. “Well, I’ve spent 30 years in IT but I did spend a week in product sales so I guess I really see my future as the MD of one of our regional businesses” …… Oh do you !! ….. Why ?? ….. What wrong with being in IT ?? Whats wrong with being a CIO ??

Here’s my take – the CIO’s job is the best one in the company. OK it has to be the right company and probably needs the right CEO but you made that choice when you joined. However, with very little else you might actually have the best role going. Think about it. The Sales Director can work damn hard and maybe improve sales volume. The Marketing Director can bust his hump and possibly improve brand recognition, the CFO can keep the numbers in line BUT only the CIO can look horizontally across the whole organisation and lay out the art of the possible. Only the CIO can sit with the CEO and chart a transformational journey from where we are to where we could be. Who wouldn’t want to do that !!??

Yes I know it comes with all the other stuff. Of course you’re the only exec who has to justify himself on an almost daily basis. It goes without saying that you’re only as good as your last major project or service outage and of course some wag will always ask you why he can’t have an iPhone but that came with the job. If you don’t like it – go do something else.

…. and please, please, please  !!! …. all this talk of Business/IT alignment….. STOP IT NOW !! If you are still talking about this then its time to get another job. That ship has sailed. There is only your Business. IT is Business and Business is IT. The two are inextricably linked and one cannot exist without the other. So, don’t have a separate IT strategy. The only strategy you have is the one that defines your business and ever other function/OpCo/ Division in the company is there to make it happen. Don’t even use the word “alignment”. By its very use it re-enforces the notion of separation.

I still attend CIO events where the discussions are so ‘poor me’. “Why am I seen as just a service provider – I want to be strategic – I want to be on the board”. Now let’s be clear – there’s nothing wrong with being a service provider – unless you’re providing a cr@p service. Some of our best brands are service providers and are successful because they consistently deliver world class service. The difference is that our job starts from that position. However, if you crack that then the “world’s your lobster”

So that’s it – rant over. To paraphrase Jimmie ‘Brother’ Rabitte in The Commitments Stand up tall and shout it loud …. I’m in IT and I’m proud