Flight to the future

Profile picture for user Peter Coffee By Peter Coffee April 21, 2015
A plan to create a new future isn’t a list of technologies to acquire, or of individual activities to begin. From silos to systems, it's time to fly high, says Salesforce's Peter Coffee.

[caption id="attachment_1629" align="alignright" width="300"]Peter Coffee Peter Coffee[/caption]

A plan to create a new future isn’t a list of technologies to acquire, or of individual activities to begin. Companies talk about future-enabling their business as if that process were a series of modular replacements, with on-premise tech simply swapped out for cloud-based improvements, or as if it were a to-do list of new activities like “start being social”: these are much too limited visions, because we’re talking about a leap from one environment into quite another. That kind of transformation requires thought and concurrent preparation involving several different disciplines, because lack of readiness in any of them can limit success with all of the others.

Ask anyone who’s ever gotten a pilot’s license, for example, about the combination of new subject matter—aerodynamics, propulsion, weather, radio procedure—that all have to be ready on the day of the first solo flight. Future-enabling a business is a lot like becoming airborne: it’s easy to do the fun part of takeoff, but harder to get to the intended destination and deliver the payload or passengers.

What got me thinking about this, today, was this year’s annual “Phorum” conference hosted by the Greater Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies. I always enjoy this conference, because it consistently asks and answers the “so what?” as well as the “what’s new?” questions at the intersection of business and technology.

In addition to prepared presentations at each of these events, I’ve fallen into a role of delivering a closing “What did we hear today?” wrap-up before I introduce the winners of each year’s “Demo Pit” competition. Looking over my end-of-day notes from a few days ago, I realized that the day had offered an all-around view of some non-obvious issues in becoming a next-generation organization.

Silos and systems

As this year’s conference theme, we chose the mission statement “From Silos to Systems.” This speaks to something that I feel needs more emphasis, in conversations that think they’re talking about new capability – but really, are only addressing the relocation of a decades-old IT mess of non-repurposeable data.

Even the most modern mobile devices are fighting a downhill slide into silo-style design. Look at the panoply of icons on the screen (or the multiple side-swipe pages of screen) on your smartphone: there’s not even the clumsy information bus of a PC’s file system to enable your data to take on multiple roles. It’s as if any given app is saying, “You used me to create it? Then I own it.”

Fortunately, we can see a new model emerging when you swipe your finger down from the top of the screen to reveal your Notifications: a feature, and nomenclature, that’s refreshingly common to both iOS and Android platforms.

What we see in Notifications is an important re-answering of the question, “What is an application?” Instead of enterprise application silos, or mobile app (or software object) micro-silos, we’re seeing a shift from nouns to verbs: from the data store and the logic wrapped around it, and the UI wrapped around that, to the APIs that we add to an environment when we “Install.”

In a world of Notifications and similar platform conventions, installing an app is like adding new, domain-specific vocabulary to a person’s command of a general-purpose language. Instead of needing to write several lines of code, like a person forced to say “that thing that spins around the whatsit,” a developer making an API call has a concise and precise way of saying “spin the rotor.” Or “engage the warp drive,” I suppose.

Yes, an app will still typically provide its own UI, but that’s what I call (borrowing the phrase from a former CIO of Caterpillar) a “serving suggestion.” A particular app’s distinctive capabilities are now readily integrated into other tools for seeing, deciding, and acting on information and possibility.

When APIs start to collaborate, instead of having the separate conversations in separate rooms that our applications used to be, we get the same explosion of new value that comes from putting multi-disciplinary teams of people around the same table.

For example, at the Phorum event there was a candid moment when a panelist from a property-management firm said, “Wouldn’t you think that asset management was something we knew how to do?” In fact, he went on to say, his company is only now beginning to achieve a state where it can think about its inventory of rooms; its inventory of air conditioners; its inventory of light fixtures, and so on.

The company is tearing apart its old silos, based on a hierarchy of fixtures in rooms in buildings, and starting to have an ability to slice and rotate its understanding of its physical and digital assets around any axis that’s useful at that moment.

Innovation gap

Also an insight from Phorum 2015 was the gap between leading-edge innovators and the vast mass of firms. In one panel, for example, discussing the applications of “big data” technologies such as Hadoop, one survey was discussed that found 54 percent of companies “have no plans” at this time to implement any such tools.

My feeling on this is that having no big-data plan, today, is like having no plan to adopt electrical power in your factory because the water wheel is still spinning just fine. The power and flexibility that more aggressive competitors will enjoy is quickly going to become a profound gap in many industries.

A final point from the day, however, was an important question of just where a company can expect to find the talent to do these things. If companies don’t already have this expertise on the payroll, what makes any of us think we can assume that universities or other institutions are any better off? Where are they supposed to find faculty or trainers in fields that are only just starting to be defined?

Fly high

I’m reminded of job listings looking for Java project managers, back in the early 2000s, seeking “ten years experience” in a domain that had only existed for half that long.

Therefore, as one of the day’s other panelists admonished the audience, “start something!” The day after your first big-data exploration yields an unexpected, totally counterintuitive insight, will be a day when you have more experience with these ideas than at least 54 percent of your competitors.

Note, moreover, that this has almost entirely ceased to be a conversation about lowering the cost of IT as an overhead activity. Does Uber think of IT as an overhead, or does it wield its technical skills as its most important tool for creating new value?

As I observed in this space about a year ago, “‘Cloud?’ is no longer a question: rather, ‘cloud!’ has become the new context, in which every institution of society and commerce is asking how it must re-invent its mission.” The huge scalability, the rapid-response elasticity, and the inherent mobile connectivity of the cloud make catapult launches into the future both possible and necessary for every organization.

Yes, it’s like flying – and Sir George Cayley didn’t have the option of taking flying lessons. In this environment, we’re either discoverers or followers…and the view is better from above.