Its not big, Its not clever

I can still hear the words from my schooldays as if it was only yesterday……. “Stop that right now Cohen!!!  It’s not big and it’s not clever!!! “

I can’t really remember what the “it” was, but the sentiment applies absolutely to all the hype around the so called “Big Data” debate….. and what a shame that something which is actually so important has become so embroiled in marketing hype (much the same as where the cloud computing debate was back in 09/10).  I’ve actually grown to hate the term “Big Data” now. For me, there is no “Big Data”, there’s just “data” – always was and always will be.

Now many of you will know that I’m a simple man and I try and think in simple terms and for me there is really only three categories when it comes to data:

  1. The stuff you have and you know where it is, but if only you knew a little more about it.
  2. The stuff you think you have, or believe you should have, but you’re not quite sure where it is.
  3. The stuff you know you don’t have, and may have not even thought about until now, but its stuff that might just be useful, if you only knew what it “did” and where to look.

The first two really should be easy with today’s search, retrieval and data management tools right ?? ….. and even without all that sophistication, if you just organize your own data more effectively, you’ll find more stuff. I mean; when all I owned was a filing cabinet, and the document I wanted was buried among a sea of unfilled papers, just thrown into the cabinet, did I have a big data problem?  I certainly had a big finding problem – but it was one that was quickly sorted by indexing and structure.  And as storage requirements have grown, so have the ‘retrieval’ technologies with increasingly sophisticated structured and unstructured search techniques.

But, its the last category which seems to be where the majority of the big data chatter” lives. This idea that if you analyze huge amounts of data you might just find out things that you wouldn’t have otherwise known. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, because it clearly does. And certainly, there are a growing number of data sources where information about your brand, products or services could reside. However, I would argue that this is just an extension of looking for the things you already know about – or more importantly you should know about. Indeed, it would be good if some organisations just got to grips with the data they already have and know they already have. Surely it makes more sense to leverage and monetize the information you already have before  before moving on.

The thing is, there aren’t that many businesses that need the level of serendipity often used to hype up “big data”. The arguments people often resort to come from social media – that If you mine Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forums etc, and pull all that conversational information together with buying patterns, you’ll get a better view of “the customer”. Maybe you will.  But then what ?? The real skill is working out what to do at that point. That’s a people skill – do you have the right people ?? That’s a business skill – are you equipped to respond (if responding is even the right thing to do) ?? “Big data” systems aren’t going to help you with that. Loads of companies have leapt into social media conversations about their brand only to make the situation worse. And frankly, is this serendipitous searching even necessary? One of the big parts of social media is “conversation” and consumers are more open than ever about their views on your brand, products, goods or services. Why not just ask ??

Perhaps we should focus more on a “bigger understanding” of the stuff we already have, do a bit more “big listening” and have some well considered “big conversations”.

Because as my teacher would have probably said; when it comes to data – its not big and its not clever – it’s just data.

A little more conversation ?

I know Elvis said “a little less conversation a little more action.. ” (Yes, I’m back with the song titles !!) but it seems that when it comes to leadership the reverse is true.

Now many of you will have seen me banging on about this in various presentations where I postulate that we should add “conversation” to the now ubiquitous cloud, consumerisation and collaboration triad. Most of the time I’ve been talking about the conversations we have with our customers and colleagues however in this post I’m going to focused the latter.

Companies are increasingly finding that the emergence of enterprise social tools, that enable “conversational collaboration”, create far more employee engagement than any of the traditional push / broadcast communications. Interestingly they are also allowing large companies to create the intimacy that was always seen as the benefit of smaller organisations. Large disparate and geographically dispersed companies can now seem intimate and inclusive rather than cold and fragmented.

But, just like the best traditional conversations, organisational conversations work best when there is more listening than speaking – particularly from those at the top of the tree. The old “two ears , one mouth” adage is sometimes lost when executives dive into the world of enterprise social. Equally, people who use these tools to simply pontificate or make self-centered pronouncements are reminiscent of the chap who walks into the pub or dinner party and shouts endlessly about me me me … and we all know how we view those folks.

Right up there with listening is authenticity. There’s been a lot of chatter recently about celebs who don’t do their own updates – shock horror !! Really !!! You thought it was all Justin’s own words (look up Bieber on Google or ask your kids). But seriously, if your CEO isn’t big on blogging or tweeting then he or she probably shouldnt be spoofed by your corporate communications folks as employees will quickly see through the charade. Better to have someone who is genuinely comfortable with the medium stimulating the conversations….. and that’s where trust comes in.

No one is going to enter into an open and honest exchange if they believe there’s a hidden agenda or worse still inappropriate behaviour. Trust is a hard-won commodity that is easily lost so organisations are naturally cautious but in reality most employees don’t come to work with the intent of spilling the company secrets or damaging its reputation so perhaps a more trusting approach (with some clear policies around “acceptable behaviour” – actually nothing more than you’d expect in a physical conversation) would be beneficial. The rewards can be great so its worth giving serious thought on how to cover subjects that in that past you might have considered off-limits.

So there you go, by no means exhaustive but if I had top pick 3 things to focus on it would be listening loads, being authentic, and creating a genuinely trusted and trusting environment.

I’m sure those of you reading this will have lots more to add and, as usual, this is just my humble opinion.

….. oh, and Elvis has left the building.

We are family….. aren’t we ??

“Are community clouds the next big thing ?”

Well, that’s what I was asked a while back and it was pretty hard to not allow the questioner to see my eyes rolling back in my head.

For those of you who don’t know; a community cloud is apparently “a collaborative effort in which infrastructure is shared between several organizations from a specific community” and can be “managed internally or by a third-party and hosted internally or externally”…. thanks Wikipedia – where would I be without you. By the way Wikipedia also says that “the costs are spread over fewer users than a public cloud (but more than a private cloud), so only some of the cost savings potential of cloud computing are realized”. Interesting that one as I thought we had already long since established that cloud computing won’t not save you any money – please check out Jevons paradox (i know it dates from 1865 but still relevant).

The problem with the current fad for community clouds is it is likely to be just that – as fad. At its most basic the concept seems to have merit given that no one has really cracked the essential “trust” models necessary to fully drive the exploitation of the space between private and public infrastructures (that’s data centre(s) and the web to most of us; but the “hybrid cloud conundrum” to the marketeers).

And yes, it would be a great idea if organisations in similar vertical markets got together to remove some of the security, audit and compliance FUD that is still around. Sadly however, I fear that where genuine “communities” can be created they will be ultimately self serving and in the areas where communities could add some real value – around security, standards and “trust” – they will be far too difficult to create due to competing interests and priorities.

So who will benefit ?? Probably the large holding companies who can use the “community approach” to knit together the spare capacity across their own organisations and create a shared on-demand capability …. or would that just be internal outsourcing ??

I’m bored … the chairman of the bored

Earlier in the year I was interviewed for IMIS magazine by Shirley Redpath on the topic of CIO’s on the Board – a question, as she so eloquently put it that “has has been doing the rounds in the industry Press and IT talking shops for well over a decade.”.

Once again, in my normal understated fashion, I postulated that there were more important things to worry about and that ultimately it was really all down to you and your view of yourself.  A great mantra from my old fiend David Taylor – the Naked Leader – is that if the things you are doing arent taking you closer to where you want to be then do something else – and if that doesn’t work then do something else etc etc. The only true insanity is to do the same things and hope for a different outcome. So if you believe the only way to achieve your goals and be effective is to be on the main board and for whatever reason, you’re not there or likely to get there- then go somewhere else.

Here are a few of the more pithy extracts :-

  • “I’m pretty sure a lot of CIOs who aspire to be on the main Board don’t know what happens in those meetings,” says Ian Cohen, currently Group CIO of international insurance giant, Jardine Lloyd Thompson.  “It can often be quite mundane and procedural, particularly around the sort of governance and compliance activities that the main Boards of regulated businesses have to deal with. A lot of it is actually far less “exciting” than you might expect”.

Cohen’s view is backed up by a 2011 Gartner survey involving CIOs in both the US and the UK.  It showed that although many respondents had regular engagement with their main Boards, only 21% actually aspired to a place at that august table.

  • Still, according to Cohen, having a seat on the main Board should make little difference to the CIO’s ability to make a value contribution to the organisation.   “For me,” he says, “there is no difference between how effective I was in an organisation where I was on the main Board and the effectiveness that I can have in an organisation where I’m not.  I have the same conversations, I speak to the same people and we run the same programmes.  The point is not whether you sit there or not, the point is how you as a leader focus and enable your function so that the technology capability you build drives your business forward.”
  • “The most important question for me going into a role is am I going to be able to build a great relationship with the CEO; am I going to help the CEO deliver his or her vision for the organisation?  Will technology be able to evolve, mature or develop to enable, support and underpin the business in its drive to achieve that vision?  If I can do that, we will be aligned. You need a good, strong, robust, open, bilateral and challenging relationship with your CEO and executive colleagues so that if they do come up with some hare-brained scheme you can tell them it is hare-brained and they will listen because they respect and trust you,” Cohen says.
  • Ronald Blahnik, VP/IT Engineering for Lowe’s Co. in the US is quoted as saying  the “I” in CIO now stands for innovation, not information.”  That view has Cohen up in arms.  “No CIO owns the right to innovation,” he retorts.  “At our very best, we are the “enablers of things”.  We tell stories and paint pictures about the art of the possible and if they get traction, we create new environments and capabilities that allow great things to happen.

The full transcript is here 

“Think cloud computing will save you money? Forget it”

Well it’s what I said so it must must be true …. but like everything its all in the detail.

The quote came from an interview with during this years CloudForce event in London and, overlooking my indignation at being called “veteran CIO”, I stand by it 100% .

The undeniable fact is that in this time of budget pressures, many companies are looking to cut their costs by moving to the cloud and that may well be possible but only if you avoid the inevitable expansion of activity that will come as a result of this move. You see once you create new capacity, demand will always grow to fill it – its as sure as eggs are eggs (though I never quite understood what that phrase actually means).

If you don’t believe me then its worth considering the observation that  “Technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tend to increase the consumption of that resource”. Ironically its not a quotation from some Cloud guru but is actually called “Jevons paradox”, first postulated by William Stanley Jevons back in 1865. As I blogged earlier – nothing changes, everything stays the same – pretty much.

Anyway here’s an extract from the Silicon interview

Veteran IT chief Ian Cohen has other ideas – telling that any company looking at moving to cloud computing purely as a way of saving money should “forget it”.

JLT’s Group CIO Ian Cohen says any company looking at cloud purely as a way of saving money should “forget it”

Cohen is speaking from experience. As group CIO of Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT) he is helping the global risk management and insurance broker to make greater use of cloud-based services, such as’s CRM platform.

When businesses shift to cloud services, the oft-talked-about savings won’t last, Cohen said, as any reduction in cost or overheads is quickly swallowed up by fresh demand for IT services. “If you go into cloud thinking you will save money, forget it. What invariably happens is that you create more efficiency and headroom. However, demand that previously could not be met can now be enacted and thus your activities simply increase to fill the available resources – be that time, people or infrastructure,” he told at Salesforce’s recent Cloudforce conference in London.

“People will be using your systems to do more. That’s the killer sell as to why people should be looking at cloud: the ability to flex your enterprise into a more extensible model at light speed.”

Cohen also cautioned that shifting operations to the cloud is not straightforward for any business – there will always be resistance and challenges, particularly for a heavily regulated business such as JLT.

“It’s early days. We are working around some of the issues with some of the naysayers and a lot of it is around security and audit, all the usual cloud stuff,” Cohen said. “A lot of concerns are still around data location, traceability and auditability. It’s still a challenge if an auditor comes in and simply asks, ‘Where is the data? Let me see it’.

“We are a regulated business so we have to be more prudent than some other organisations but that doesn’t mean we can ignore cloud technologies and the opportunities they offer.”

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.