Friday rant - get back in your silos folks, before it’s too late!

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton November 22, 2019
A controversial wake-up call around cloud, irresponsibility and the intellectual laziness the internet has created.


We’ve all heard it at conferences over the past decade: digital transformation speakers tell us that we need to come out of our ‘silos’. We need to abandon those relics of the past where people hoard their data – and connect, share, and communicate. We should be working in a flat, peer-to-peer way that will somehow magically unlock the expertise in our organisations – and, ultimately, within ourselves. Our very humanity depends on it!

Now if you work in an organization where none of your enterprise acronyms are talking to each other – your HCM doesn’t connect to your ERP or your EAM or your CRM or your RPA – then fair enough; finding a way to join up those assets and the data they hold so you can gain real insight into your organisation is a good idea. Assuming it’s legal. Especially if it reveals new efficiencies or the potential for greater productivity.

Scratch the surface of any ‘smart’ initiative and you’ll find a quest for productivity and cost reductions, not some deep-rooted programme to be more intelligent.

Analytics, AI, software robots, and other automation tools can certainly help you to delve deep into the reality of how well you and your colleagues are working or your numbers are adding up, freeing you to be more creative, think strategically, support the business, or simply to have an existential crisis about your place in the universe.

But in every other aspects of our professional and personal lives, do we really need to come out of those silos? Consider this: aren’t silos where people store things in depth? Isn’t the word ‘silos’ really code for expertise, skills, and sector experience? Don’t we risk climbing out of those deep knowledge repositories that we all once lived in to exist in a world of surface noise, chatter, misleading headlines, and hype?

‘The cloud’ itself is a prime example of this. We have all got used to imagining that our data, our apps, our memories, are somehow held in some free-flowing, egalitarian, democratic fog of code in the sky, a hippie dream world of peace and universal love that renders borders irrelevant and lets Californian algorithms relax our liberal knots.

But ‘the cloud’ doesn’t exist, and it never has done. The reality of ‘the cloud’ is data centers built on land, under national laws, in different data protection and sovereignty regimes. ‘The cloud’ is something Silicon Valley CEOs dreamed up to persuade you to keep your crown jewels in America – then pay to take them out and gaze at them when you need to. ‘The cloud’ is a revenue stream for someone you’ve never met.

If people stopped saying, ‘Yeah, my data’s in the cloud’ and started saying ‘My data’s in an industrial park in Utah’, or ‘All of my applications are on a rack in Estonia and a no-deal Brexit may mean that I can’t get it back’, or ‘My data is on a server farm somewhere in the world, but I don’t actually know where’, they might start making better decisions and asking more sensible questions.

Epic irresponsibility

But the noise, the hype, all that surface thinking, has replaced rational thought. We’ve become irresponsible on an epic scale, which is why we are such easy prey for anyone who has no interest in verifiable facts.

I was in San Francisco when I first heard the term ‘the cloud’. It was years ago at the press launch of what became a Software as a Service platform. I sidled over to the CEO, who I knew personally, and said, “What’s all this ‘cloud’ nonsense, then? Isn’t this just a snappier name for Application Service Providers? What does it actually mean?” And he smiled, nodded, and said, “Well, we had to give the consultants something to sell.”

Suddenly ‘the cloud’ was everywhere.

The ‘we’ in that statement was perhaps more revealing than he intended. Because who was that ‘we’? Rather like being able to infer the Big Bang from observing that the universe is expanding, one thesis Is tempting: at some point 15 or 20 years ago a group of San Francisco CEOs must have gathered in a room and agreed to start saying ‘cloud’. They were probably all ex-Oracle employees.

For years, Larry Ellison railed against ‘the cloud’ - “it’s water vapor” -  saying that it was all about hardware. Eventually, of course, he bowed to the branding, called in his investments, and dubbed it ‘Oracle Cloud’. But the irony is he was right the first time – (Editor’s note: he usually is!) - and he knew it.

But ‘the cloud’ has given us all access to an infinitely expanding universe of data, a vast amount of knowledge, unprecedented in human history. The problem is that almost none of us are paying any attention to it in our quest to abandon those silos. We have all become impatient and lazy, like the pleasure-driven, primitive apes that we are, pressing a button to get the data banana. And then we tweet about it.

We are all looking at that vast repository through smaller and smaller apertures. Google is like trying to see and capture the universe through a pinhole. Is the result we’re looking for on page one, above the fold? No? Then it can’t be worthy of our attention.

We’ve lost even the ability to look for information ourselves, to devote time to acquiring knowledge, to finding the best and most reliable source, to comparing sources, to finding things out at first hand. Noise has replaced signal everywhere we look.

As a university student I would sit up all night in the library with piles of books. The fact that most of us don’t do that anymore isn’t because what we’re looking for is easier to find; it’s because we’ve stopped looking. And we ignore the fact that the link we’ve clicked is probably only on page one because someone has found a way to game the search algorithm and has SEO’d their content into a meaningless grey goo.

And when we find what we’re looking for, all of the engagement data and web usage statistics say that we don’t even read it. We spend 10 or 15 seconds, at the very most, on every webpage, in most cases a fraction of that. We speed-read perhaps the first paragraph, glance at the second, and then we click on somewhere else, and somewhere else, and somewhere else again – adrift on a sea of surface noise and meta-noise: noise about other noise. We read headlines about stories, not the stories themselves.

A brilliant journalistic coup exposed this problem on Facebook a few years ago. A popular science website ran a publicity campaign for an article which, apparently, claimed that cannabis contained alien DNA from outer space.

Thousands of people Liked and shared the story, with many of them commenting in discussion threads about it. Many of the replies were along the lines of ‘WTF! Have you seen this!’ While many others were of the huffy ‘What a load of nonsense! Why is a supposedly intelligent science website publishing this?’ variety.

What almost nobody did was click through to the article itself and actually read it. Had they done so, they would have found a very insightful analysis about how people Like things on social media without reading them.

Get back in those silos, people, before it’s too late.