Monday, April 28, 2014

Budget increase mirage

In the beginning of the year CIO surveys depicted an upbeat mood with redefined priorities, business bouncing back, economic situation getting better and last but not the least IT budgets going up. This was the global optimistic view portrayed and shared by many CIOs that I spoke to also; and everyone wanted to break into a spring dance and celebrate the return of the good old days. Few CIOs enthused about significant increases in their budgets not betraying the fact that they had the benefit of a low base; 100% increase in budget sounds better !

Every organization big or small goes through an annual operating planning of budgeting revenue and expenses. All CXOs play the game with their promoters, headquarters, Board and whosoever is the negotiating and approving authority. Revenues are understated, expenses inflated and the commentary is all about how tough the environment is while we need to invest for the future. Projects get labeled strategic in their quest for approval; expenses become unavoidable, while market conditions constraint growth which is linked to past mediocre performance.

The situation predictably repeats itself annually like clockwork with an element of distrust on either side built out of past experiences. There is an air of wasteful irresponsible spending that needs parental control which needs to be exercised by the approvers. Chastising the minions, the numbers are adjusted amidst protests to reluctant acceptance. If the normalization has been prudent, life releases the brakes and moves the organization into top gear; when the negotiation is unrealistic, then starts the frustrating process of out of budget approvals.

So when I met a large number of CIOs on the unveiling of one such report, I tried to validate if budgets had really gone up; majority in the room had participated in the survey which brought exuberance to the sponsors and vendors in the room as the details unfolded. The dipstick brought in mixed results, the percentage was lower but there was indeed a group which had seen an increase in their budget. The quantum of increase was also a bit lower than illustrated in the report with a higher inclination towards variability.

Deeper analysis revealed increases factored in inflation apart from business expansion or higher levels of dependence on IT with newer technologies taking up a lions’ share. Business As Usual (BAU) spends is under pressure and requires rethinking; there is an expectation of lean thinking but willingness to spend for innovation and quantifiable business value. CIOs are engaging the rest of the company in prioritizing the allocation of funds and challenging status quo. The number of non-participative CIOs is dwindling and that is good news.

I did not hear much about the earlier big discussion on open source towards cost reduction; open source is now a viable alternative for some technology stacks. Expectations of free software reducing costs have withered away with experience of engaging teams to sustain such solutions which require a little more effort, specialized skills and lenient service level agreements. In specific segments the uptake was large and benefit quite visible. The push towards open source personal productivity tools has taken a back seat.

Everyone likes good news ! And budgets going up after a while is indeed good news for everyone. The moot question is how much of this will be discretionary to the CIO, or will the strings be pulled by the business ? The shift of project budgets to business has been gradual but consistent; the perception of lack of control has created many conversations fuelling the insecurity of some CIOs. Though rarely observed now, it is also a check on some not to run away with technology ignoring the best interests of business.

CIOs with strong business connect will continue to innovate and create enterprise value with whatever budgets get thrown at them as they have already aligned the business to what is required and in almost all cases they do end up getting what they wanted. CIOs with patronage of a board member may in the short-term get endorsement, but will be under pressure to deliver more than the first set which is business aligned. So if you have an increase, either way, live with the good fortune of funds availability until the mirage lasts.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Technology shaping human behavior

As a kid I used to watch Star Trek and marvel about Mr. Spock and the technology some of which is reality now. I also devoured (Isaac) Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and other science fiction fantasizing about the future possibilities that will change the way we live. When the internet made its presence felt and mobile technology started gaining traction, the realms of reality stretched imagination. Moving from the humble personal computer to the smartphone, the new world is impacting us in many ways directly and indirectly.

The last few years have seen a lot of technology wanting to attach to human body; fortunately it is still outside the body and not getting inside as yet. Fitness bands gave way to smart watches which doubled up to also show you the time while telling you about who is calling or the latest trends on social media of choice. Glasses anyone ? And there was a queue of people wanting to cover their eyes ! Directions from your favorite map service on your windscreen ? Why not also notify you about what your “friends” are excited about or what is trending ?

Is that a distraction to driving ? Let’s make cars that can drive themselves while you immerse yourself in the pervasive world of noise from all over. Traveling somewhere ? Write reviews and tell your friends, too bad some burglars also took notice that you are away from home. Stay connected wherever you are on WIFI, 3G, 4G, LTE, on your tablet, phablet, phone or at least the watch ? Your health parameters are being monitored and stored by some app. You can use it later to determine your health; so can someone else who you don’t know !

Will you scan before you eat ? Supermarkets would like to help you create your personalized basket of products which they can remind you to buy. All the packaged food companies would also like to know the products you consume so they know more about your eating habits. Next time you renew your health insurance, don’t be surprised by a markup or discount; the health insurance company also has vested interest in this data ! The situation is becoming Orwellian with Big Brother watching every move you make using Big Data.

The question that bothers me is why are we willingly obliging everyone ? What makes us want to obsessively stay connected and share the important to obscure to inane details of our lives ? Why are we allowing personal data to be used in a way that influences our actions and our behaviors ? This was not anyone’s favorite part in any futuristic idea or science fiction ? Digital addiction especially for the new Digital Native generation is rewiring responses; the thinking process is changing, our dependence on technology complete.

People have reported withdrawal symptoms when they are unconnected; the thumb is getting used beyond its evolved state leading to new diseases. Accidents are increasing with distracted mind unable to focus on walking or driving. Eyesight is adversely impacted while our hearing ability is impaired due to constant high volume sound from earphones. Over and above all of this, the expectation to respond to any stimulus (email, message, alert) instantly is putting psychological pressure on the connected generation.

Enterprises want productivity with the connectivity; corporate apps hijacking the personal phone, information driven process velocity is the new normal stretching the already challenged balance between work and life. The lines are blurring and both have intertwined into our awake hours in a way that does not leave any personal space or time. The resultant pressure and stress is increasing rate of heart ailments and lifestyle diseases in 20 something youth that were associated with 60+ in the past.

Some companies and governments have begun to take cognizance of this and are enforcing work hours in an attempt to wean off the addiction. How can parents do the same with the upcoming generation which is born to technology ? I believe that they will have to lead by example for the young ones and also at work for their teams. Wearable technology is here and urging you to participate; I know what you did last summer is now more like I know what you just did and what you are likely to do !

Digital free day anyone ?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sick IT, Healthy Life

I have been sick for most of the week; on Monday there was a niggling pain which I hoped would go away like it did most times. By mid-week it had aggravated considering I ignored not just the pain but also the cause which I was not consciously aware of. Once the connection was made I aggressively tried to remedy the situation, except that it was out of control now and needed expert attention. On Thursday the Doctor looked gravely, a long prescription and pronounced that it required a specialist to treat it.

The specialist sympathized and made it look innocuously simple to fix; for him it was a routine escalation to manage. On Friday he did what he was good at and fixed the root cause with knowledge that the rest will fix itself if I followed the defined SOP. The prescription was not too much, the lingering pain and inaction that restricted me to a bed with limited ambulation was. Daily checkup visits add to the agony as I am now in a state of mind, when will this ordeal end and I declared fit and healthy again to get back to work.

When you have a lot of time to do nothing, run out of music to listen or have no inclination to read with half the senses dulled due to heavy dose of pain killers and antibiotics, you start thinking; Doctors also refer to some of the extreme thoughts as hallucinations. To me my chain of thought was lucid and it created many correlations in the swarm of random disconnected millions of thoughts. Analogous to associations created in a data warehouse by a skilled analyst, I picked associated groups which made a lot of sense.

Early pain = project not on track; you know something is not working, you think it will get better, it doesn’t. Falling sick = project misses milestone; you get the vendor consultant to help, he refers to subject matter experts who have been there done that. SME educates on root cause, defines road ahead and KPIs to keep the project healthy. Recovery = always slow and painful; getting back on track takes a lot of effort, following the prescription, no shortcuts. Most of the time you do get back on track with no further slips; you have lost time, money and momentum.

I realize how we can create correlations between totally disconnected facts and make them look like similar data sets or for that matter draw analogies that sound quite logical. The event graph appears to follow a perfectly aligned path drawn by the same artist. Retail has been doing this with disjointed sets of data and have hit upon success many times; we don’t know what happened to the ones that did not work though. But then maybe life does have predictability that it wants us to find and we are getting better at it.

But I am digressing now, rambling about febrile correlations. IT gets sick quite often; whether it is business as usual or new initiatives, they do face challenges and require fixes from specialists and experts depending on the nature of ailment. We have prophylactic technology to keep things going while the next piece of hardware finds itself being resilient or more reliable than a decade back and networks become self-healing and storage can survive failure of a disk or two; Software still requires human intervention.

Human life expectancy has in the same vein gone up as we find better medicines for micro classified diseases. Our way of treating different patient types has been evolving rapidly with Internet of things allowing embedded Nano sensors connected to Big Data repositories analyzing symptoms as they happen and trigger corrective actions almost instantly with novel drug delivery systems. Okay, maybe the entire chain is not yet feasible, but getting there. Affordable access to such innovation would definitely be a paradigm shift.

As IT gets better, projects get more manageable, technology commoditization makes itself ubiquitous, IT wouldn’t matter ! What would matter is how we apply it to real life and help solve problems that have eluded solutions thus far. As more solutions go open source or relinquish patents for global availability, there would be a new world order where healthy humans will score over sick IT. Some of us will be part of this evolution if it happens within this generation. I hope our contributions would have made some difference.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Can Big Data deliver Big Insights ?

The other day I met a CIO friend who wanted to discuss a tricky situation in which he had landed; he worked in an industry which was in the thick of being projected as one of the industries that will benefit from investments in Big Data. His CEO wanted him to build a data warehouse to rival some of their global competitors, at least one of which was prominently talked about as the poster boy of Big Data analytics. He was thus under pressure to invest while the rest of his IT budget was under pressure.

Having a keen understanding of technology, his company and the industry, he was a non-believer in the Big Data story; according to him the hype around some of the Big Data insights were not commensurate to the investments made in the overall project. And there was nothing new since the first story broke out of one of the companies having found a use case that conventional technologies would not have delivered. He had many data warehouses and Business Intelligence successes in the past for which he was well known too.

By definition Big Data was all about big data sets that earlier available technologies could not bind together within tolerated elapsed time and budgets. Volume, Variety and Velocity defined Big Data; (Business) Value was added later. The availability of high compute resources and ability to store large volumes of data had made solving some problems easier, faster and cheaper; that is not necessarily success from the capitalized Big Data. It is just that larger data sets were analyzed as compared to the past.

The question at hand that needed an answer was whether he should let go and invest as directed by his CEO or he should help the business with a scalable data warehouse which would deliver immediate value. Is it possible to get started small with Big Data (an oxymoron if there was one) and then work with the business to find the needle (if they wanted to find the needle or a pin) in the haystack; after all Big Data is expected to throw up unknown possibilities by random correlations that human minds are not able to pick.

Big data works on “found” data, i.e. data that you have and complex algorithms which can provide some statistical probabilities. Analysts predict the value that different industries can gain from investments; no one is talking about the real value derived. Governments have been making investments with equal zeal as are large enterprises; the providers and consultants are happy to make hay not just while the sun shines but until by accident they discover a needle in the haystack and make a case study out of it putting pressure on the rest of the gold diggers.

What about the data that you don’t have ? Can you draw negative inferences from Big Data ? For that you have to know what you don’t have ! Can what you have tell you what you don’t ? The answer to that is still to be found; available data in a Big Data repository cannot indicate to what is missing. The concept of “found” data predicates that available data set is the whole universe from which correlations are to be created. And that is where many Big Data implementations are unable to deliver any meaningful insights.

The veracity (the 5th V) of information in a Big Data store can throw up many false positives which have been the bane of many projects. Data will never be clean unlike conventional data warehouses and the velocity will keep you challenged to move with agility. The ability to come out of the clean and complete data mindset is the beginning of what Big Data may enable. From here to get to Value is a long journey with no near-term goals; if you hit something, consider yourself lucky and celebrate.

My suggestion to my friend was to get started the way he believed he will be able to deliver what the business wanted. Forget the discussion on technology and focus on what matters, insights driven by data. If he can get traction from some CXOs based on the results, no one will grudge whether they came from Big Data or Small Data. The business leader in him understood while the technologist wanted to fight; for his benefit, I hope the business guy prevails.