It has been an interesting year. In the private sector we have seen a number of the key cloud vendors change their leadership and enter a new phase, in terms of strategy and product. Customers meanwhile continue to get more sophisticated in their approach to ‘frictionless enterprise’, the use of digital technologies and people change. And finally, whilst the public sector in the UK has had to grapple with the ongoing Brexit drama, there were also some clear signals for what to expect over the next 12 months. I try to make sense of the year that was with a list of my top stories from 2019.
Google Cloud Platform causes a flutter in the enterprise
Google is very much at the beginning of GCP’s plan for the enterprise. Can it make good headway? It has a lot of things going for it - leadership, an understanding of data, an infrastructure footprint, brand awareness, a focus on open source. Enslin and Kurian certainly make a formidable team but they will need to convince many Googlers that the direction of travel makes sense at a company that has found it hard to move beyond its advertising business model.
Why? I can’t think of a single instance during 2018 when I thought or wrote about Google Cloud Platform (GCP). In many a buyer’s mind, the market was sown up by AWS and Azure. However, that all changed in 2019 when the vendor brought in enterprise heavyweights Thomas Kurian (ex-Oracle) and Rob Enslin (ex-SAP). The pair make a formidable engineering-sales duo and it forced the market to pay attention. Couple this with GCP’s focus on multi-cloud at the core and adding value beyond IaaS for buyers (data and intelligence being the key) - and its position became very compelling. Why? Because those are the use cases and challenges that customers are speaking to us about, regularly.
Return of the Oligopoly...just in a different form?
This is a complex story to tackle. One that comes with a weighted history, lots of anecdotal evidence, vested interests, a quickly changing socio-political-economic backdrop and plenty of grey area. However, we at diginomica/government believe that it’s one that’s worth attempting to tackle, at the very least, given what’s at stake (particularly in Brexit Britain).
Why? The public sector in the UK has pretty much been at a standstill over the last three years because of the Brexit deadlock in Parliament. The decade prior saw Whitehall making huge strides in rethinking its approach to service creation, user centred design and the use of digital tools. Central to that was the idea that the ownership of services shouldn’t be outsourced to a few large companies, which could exercise control in ways that were adverse for the taxpayer. Measures were put in place to reduce the power of the ‘Oligopoly’. Despite progress over the years, there is a concern in the UK SME market, which benefited from this new approach, that it is now being reversed. And that there is a new Oligopoly in town - AWS, Azure and GCP. Is that true? Maybe. Does it matter? Too hard to tell just yet. But it was a story in 2019 that attracted some attention away from the disaster that has been Brexit, so is worth highlighting.
Infor enters a new phase
I think, to be very explicit, if our products are not either generating more revenue or more profit for our customers in some way, they’re not succeeding. In its most simplest form.
Why? It has been genuinely satisfying to follow Infor over the past decade (not something I can say for many enterprise tech vendors!). But since the company brought Charles Phillips on board as CEO, it has slowly but surely executed on a cogent strategy that has made sense for buyers and analysts alike. And it has benefited not only from some big customer names as a result, but also some eye-watering multi billion dollar investments. However, Infor is entering a new phase in 2020, having announced that CFO Kevin Samuelson will be stepping up to the role of CEO and Phillips will be taking a step back to sit on the board. According to the pair though, it’s business as usual. Prior to the announcement, Phillips also provided some insights into and added some flesh to what Infor 3.0 might look like (clue: it’s all about people). The next 12 to 24 months will be interesting for the company and we look forward to seeing what it has in store.
All change at ServiceNow
What the customers are saying to me has not changed over the past two years, it's incredibly consistent. Every company has declared digital transformation to be one of their top priorities. What may have evolved, is that ‘digital transformation’ was maybe still more of a buzzword two years ago. Now it’s a strategic requirement.
Why? It has been a strong year for ServiceNow and the vendor made some strong progress in redefining its role within the context of buyers’ choice of enterprise cloud platforms. John Donahoe’s rebrand of the company and it’s proposition to ‘make work, work better for people’ resonated well. However, it is also in the midst of a serious shake-up as it was announced that outgoing SAP CEO Bill McDermott would be taking over the top job at ServiceNow and Donahoe would be exiting to become CEO at Nike (going back to his consumer roots). Much like Infor, we argued that ServiceNow is entering a third phase, where the vendor is now looking to put itself at the centre of buyers’ transformation stories. McDermott brings with him this enterprise clout and the company looks set for an interesting 2020, where we will be watching closely. I am heading to interview McDermott in the New Year, so keep an eye out for that update.
X marks the spot for the NHS
I will know I have succeeded if in 2 years we have reduced the crazy amount of time that clinicians spend inputting and accessing patient information, if we have given patients the tools so they can access information and services directly from their phones, and if we have started to build a system in which patient information can be securely accessed from wherever it is needed, ensuring safer and better care as patients move around the system, and saving patients from having to tell every doctor and nurse their story over and over again.
Why? The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has a chequered past when it comes to technology - particularly with regard to the doomed, and costly, National Programme for IT. However, 2019 saw the announcement of NHSX, a new central digital unit that is aiming to drive strategic change across the NHS. The focus is on user-centred design, open standards, interoperability and a cloud-first approach. It also is introducing spend controls, an important lever in driving change for buyers. When Matthew Gould was appointed as CEO to NHSX back in April, he said that the organisation’s single goal is to improve care for everyone in the country by making sure that both staff and patients have the technology they need. No small task, given the scale and complexity of the NHS.
Traditional vs mobile banking
More so than traditional banks, we have to be online. There are no branches, there’s nowhere that customers can go and access their money if our systems are down.
Why? It surprised me somewhat that two of my most read stories of the year related to the financial sector. In particular, consumer banking and it’s changing nature. Two use cases gained traction with readers - the first, a look at how challenger bank Monzo handles critical incidents and stays online; the second, how banking behemoth HSBC is rethinking its back-end processes in a digital age. What’s interesting is that whilst one bank is mobile-first and the other is grappling with legacy, it’s clear that both face the same challenge of a complex environment, with multiple choice, and a need to satisfy the ever-demanding banking customer.
Ethics comes to the fore in the great AI debate
Unbiased data is an oxymoron. Data is biased from the start. You have to choose categories in order to collect the data. Sometimes even if you don’t choose the categories, they are there ad hoc. Data is one thing, but also the models that you use. What is a good thing that is not biased? What is desirable? That is definitely not unbiased. So even if a dataset looks fair, the way we put it together is not unbiased.
Why? If you search the term ‘AI’ on diginomica, you get reams and reams of coverage from across the year. However, what’s notable, is that a significant proportion of that coverage relates to the role of ethics and the responsibility of those building AI systems in society at large. One particular panel I sat in on this year nicely summed up the complexity of the challenge and outlined the ongoing challenge in identifying where responsibility lies and who should be held to account when things go wrong. We expect this to be an ongoing conversation for years to come - with many failings along the way. However, as one panellist rightly noted, it’s up to us how this unfolds.
Conference season theme
Whilst I can’t speak for the rest of the team, these are the key trends that I’ve seen as emerging so far this year.
Why? One of the best parts of my job is getting to go to conferences all over the world and getting to speak to some of the most interesting, forward thinking people working in this industry. It’s tiring work, but it is a privilege. And over the course of these events (of which there are dozens each year) it’s hard not to identify themes and common challenges facing buyers. This year’s themes include reducing friction, multi-cloud becoming mainstream, infrastructure vendors moving up the stack, and a renewed focus on productivity and the future of work. Take a read of the story below for an overview, as well as links to the multiple pieces written from 2019’s conference season.
Data use for public benefit
Using this data we started to think about mapping out: who really owns all of these various buildings and map out the true corporate portfolios? You’re looking at things like the registered business address from tax filings, individuals names, corporation names. You’re talking about 250,000 residential buildings that are private rental buildings in New York. It’s a pretty big network. And we found all these different ways that landlords were purposefully obscuring the ownership of their buildings.
Why? Two of my favourite stories this year were use cases about how organisations are innovatively using data to solve two very pressing public issues. Firstly, New York renters taking on dodgy landlord using open data. Secondly, how data is being used to tackle America’s opioid epidemic. Both vastly different, but a testament to what can be achieved if huge amounts of data can be harnessed in the right way - and for public good.
The impact of Dominic Cummings on UK government
Large bureaucracies, including political parties, operate with very predictable dynamics. They have big problems with defining goals, selecting and promoting people, misaligned incentives, misaligned timescales, a failure of ‘information aggregation’, and a lack of competition (in normal environments). These problems produce two symptoms: a) errors are not admitted and b) the fast adaptation needed to cope with complexity does not happen.
Why? The UK may finally head towards achieving Brexit, thanks to the Conservative’s winning a large majority just before Christmas. Whatever side of the political - or Brexit - fence you sit on, it’s worth considering the impact on UK government operations as a result. One man that has been touted to play an influential role in this is Dominic Cummings, the man behind the Vote Leave campaign and now Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior adviser. One of my other most popular stories this year was off the back of reading a number of Cummings’ blogs and making some assertions around what we can expect in Whitehall, now that he has significant power. One thing is for sure, Cummings sees the opportunity in crisis and doesn’t take any prisoners. With five years of a Conservative majority, it’s fair to say that we can expect significant change.