Pete Waterhouse, Senior Strategist, CA Technologies
Spare for a thought for your colleagues in IT. Ever since the first commercial computers hit the streets back in the 1950’s they’ve been struggling (and often failing) to keep pace with our insatiable demand for software applications and services. Of course newer technologies like virtualization and cloud computing have helped, but for the most part IT delivery still looks and feels a lot like three-legged participants in an Olympic sprint – slow, uncoordinated, and clumsy.
Yet keeping up with demand is tame compared to the ‘wicked’ problems now being faced by companies and government departments everywhere. They are wicked because IT and business stakeholders are often placed in the unenviable position of providing solutions before they fully understand problems that continue to change due to three socio-economic forces.
Product to Services: Customers now care less about physical products and more about the total experience – an experience delivered by software. That’s why Tesla routinely delivers enhancements to their Model S via software helping customers avoid visits to the auto shop. It’s why Bosch now provides tailored telematics and software analytics, a service that enables fleet operators to optimize maintenance and cut fuel costs.
Efficiency to agility: Established brands built on decades of stability are constantly being disrupted. Kodak lasted over 100 years, Blockbuster less than twenty. Reputations are now measured according to how digitally adept businesses are in the markets they operate, in the ones they can quickly penetrate- or even create.
Separation to fusion: There is no longer a separation between a physical product and software. Is your smart-phone just circuitry and plastic, or has it become a Spotify music service and smart digital payment system? Is the Nest thermostat on your wall at home an aesthetically pleasing appliance, or has it become an analytical energy management system?
Within this transformational mix, wicked problems continue to perplex businesses; challenging them to question their place in a world increasingly being rewritten by software. Thanks to social media and mobility, customers now call the shots, meaning businesses are placed in a position of having to rapidly respond to their whims, wishes, and behaviors– not (shock horror) the reverse. And, with the producer-consumer relationship upended, executives everywhere are facing a stark realization–digitally transform or risk business irrelevance.
But surely our fine-tuned IT organization can support these imperatives. After all, they’re at the frontline of technology; well-equipped to solve any technical curve-ball that comes our way.Well perhaps, but only if we apply some new “wicked” thinking.
The traditional approach to solving big problems has been to invest in big projects which often end in massive failure. Software folks assess the business requirements, develop features (lots of them), acquire budget, procure hardware – then incrementally design, build, test, and deploy. Finally, if the business agrees it’s what they wanted (very doubtful), the system is thrown ‘over the wall’ for operations to herd and maintain – along with many other application white elephants.
A much better approach is closer collaboration between IT and the business, so that smaller software elements (that only solve one small problem) can be quickly prototyped. Now, and this is the really wicked part, when it’s presented to the business there’s a collective understanding it’ll probably expose other facets of the bigger business problem that needs to be solved. Then, it’s a case of rinse-and-repeat; gradually arriving at a solution - perhaps to a different problem or one you didn’t realize existed at all.
Leaders in the application economy instinctively get this – it’s why PayPal is a powerhouse in digital payments, not just a provider of handheld-device security. It’s why Netflix continuously delivers number one rated TV shows and not DVD’s through the mail.
But back in our own companies where we’re burdened with IT “legacies”, what can we practically do to drive similar transformative thinking? It’s quite simple – in order to make great software that solves wicked problems, we need leverage the agile methods of development I’ve described, fully embrace cloud computing and build highly collaborative cross-functional teams (ala DevOps) – shifting the focus from keeping the technical lights-on, to rapidly deploying high quality software that solves wicked problems - problems customers don’t even know they have yet.
So why are Cloud and DevOps so important? Why are they the essential parts of a connected strategy for meeting digital transformation imperatives?
Firstly, businesses must appreciate that Cloud has transcended far beyond virtualization’s original charter of saving money (shifting CapEx to OpEx). The real value of cloud and new virtualized service techniques lies in removing technical debt and waste that restricts the flow of value to customers; enabling IT organizations to move beyond commodity work to delivering business value. Of course, Cloud is only part of the answer. Even though public-cloud services promise agility, they can only be fully realized when technology silos are breached and onerous change processes lifted. To this end think of cloud as the orchestra yes, but DevOps as the maestro that conducts it.
Secondly, the shift from products to services means that businesses must become software service producers as well as consumers. Customers now demand engagement from mobile apps, passing judgment over businesses according to the quality of digital interactions and how quickly they can be delivered. Once again cloud with its flexibility is well matched to these new dynamics – flexibility that only improve when through agile thinking, DevOps style collaboration and automation, teams can harness its power to iterate quickly, increase deployment frequency and bake quality into every digital interaction.
The transformation we are witnessing has profound implications on businesses in every industry. Those that thrive and survive know implicitly what success now means. They understand it’s not achieved by solving IT problems in the traditional sense, rather its building high-performance teams that use the power of the cloud to create digital solutions for the problems of the future.