The Accidental CIO

A collection of thoughts about business, digital, people, technology and all that stuff…

Please don’t let me be misunderstood

In this fast moving digital world there are even faster moving digital dangers that everyone needs to understand

When things go wrong, I seem to be bad.

But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good:

Oh Lord! Please don’t let me be misunderstood.

The blues classic, written for Nina Simone and made famous by the Animals, got me thinking about what one needs to understand and to what level.

In a recent article Ian Cox quite properly asserted that CIOs needed to know many things to be successful, but how to code wasn’t necessarily one of them. A reasonable perspective given the broad range of topics your typical CIO needs to understand. But in what, if anything, should a CIO be an expert?

Sure, it’s useful to know about coding and possibly recognise the good from the bad – but how much detail do you need to know? As Edmund Blackadder once said during his time as a butler, when asked by the Prince Regent about a machine called The Ravelling Nancy…

PR: What does it do?
EB: It ravels cotton, sir.
PR: What for?
EB: That I cannot say, sir. I am one of these people who are quite happy to wear cotton, but have no idea how it works.

Most CIOs have the breadth of knowledge and experience and have members of their teams who understand various levels of detail – few are expert at all levels of their operations.

Which might be fine until we have a week like this one when in the wake of the Talk Talk cyber attack, CEO Dido Harding visibly struggled under some very precise BBC questioning over the exact nature of the attack and the levels of data protection offered by her company. Should she have known her ‘SQL Injection’ from her ‘IRC-Worm’? More importantly, perhaps – would you? And does the fact that she didn’t make her any less effective as a CEO. A straw poll of CIOs suggested that most would have been equally flummoxed by the detail of the questions and would have reached for their trusty Security Architect or CISO.

What becomes very apparent is that in this fast moving digital world there are even faster moving digital dangers that everyone needs to understand. In a previous post I suggested that the days of C-Suite executives wearing their lack of IT knowledge as a badge of honour were over and the last week’s incidents only serve to amplify that fact.

I’m not saying you need to know every detail but there should be a minimum level of competence. If the BBC reporter was asking about the company’s financial performance, it would be inconceivable that a CEO wouldn’t understand their balance sheet sufficiently to handle the questions – so why not technology or indeed data security? Customers will rightly expect organisations to protect their information and it therefore behoves executives to have a certain level of security savvy and vocabulary.

Equally, I’m not saying they should know how to build or maintain a Ravelling Nancy but at least they should know that they own one, that it ravels the cotton and it’s responsible for the shirt on their back.

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.

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 ??

“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 Silicon.com 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 silicon.com 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 Salesforce.com’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 silicon.com 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

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.