Monday, September 29, 2014

Survival of the Paranoid

She received an alert from credit card Company of a debit of $50 from the neighborhood grocery store. She panicked and then remembered that it was probably the refrigerator ordering replenishments (My refrigerator has gone shopping). She was however worried about what did it end up ordering. Having finished the orange juice from the last purchase and not wanting anymore, nor the horrible cake that came as an offer last time (She was anyway trying to lose weight). She then received the e-bill on mail and was shocked to see sausages and beef steak ! These did not exist in the master list and decided to visit the store on the way back to find out what had gone wrong.

Recently I was at a cybersecurity conference in the country which boasts of the maximum number of IT security startups and companies. They continue to redefine information and cyber security in ways that most of us would find hard to imagine. The new and old are not focusing just to make better antivirus or firewalls or mobile device management solutions; their R&D has transcended conventional boundaries. With Internet of (Every)Things and all kinds of devices communicating with again all kind of devices, the channels need to be secured.

The use cases discussed sounded straight out of science fiction or futuristic movies except that all were stark reality which we are rarely exposed to. The innocuous IP audio-conferencing phone in the meeting room as a listening device or the video conferencing equipment transmitting images or streaming live unknown to everyone. Directional antenna sniffing the airwaves and breaking wireless networks or RFID tags or readers in a manufacturing facility misbehaving and making a mess of the inventory and production plan.

At our homes the number of connected devices is increasing; for me it started with my streaming media box, then the television followed by the gaming console which was fighting with multiple tablet and laptop computers. My new car wants to send messages to the service station when it felt sick and my GPS has a mind of its own routing me through lesser known roads in a quest to get me to my destination faster and screwing up. When I have not finished my daily dose of walking my fitness ban posts on social media embarrassing me.

It is not a stretch of imagination to believe that these devices can be infected with malicious code which may change behavior or purpose. Individuals unknowingly changing their daily pattern or nudged in an alternate direction by compromised devices can impact their professional actions and outcomes. Why do you need to break into a trading system, break the trader, it’s easier ! Shutting down an electrical grid is big effort, shut down people or change them; use sensors to hack into the system. I was stunned by the possibilities.

In the future with every device connected and transmitting or receiving information, intelligence is corruptible and creates new scenarios of what can go wrong. Recent demonstrations though not malicious in intent of some highly computerized cars being hijacked predict an unstable future. The ability to patch or secure the large number of devices (estimated at 20 billion plus), company provided or individual owned BYOD enabled will be a veritable nightmare for the enterprise security managers and CIOs.

Enterprises are pushing to create new opportunities that become possible with IoT; some of these maybe seeded with hare brained ideas though I believe many will survive and become the next big thing of tomorrow. I believe that everyone needs to be cognizant of the fact that IoT is here to stay; how we leverage it within our ecosystem will give a differentiated advantage that success stories are made of. Every new hyped technology falls through the trough of disillusionment before becoming mainstream. Stay invested.

She reached the store and challenged them demanding a refund and the fact that they had goofed up majorly. In return they showed her the order which did contain specific brand of sausages and steak. She called the refrigerator company who informed her that the last software upgrade had added social media features and her refrigerator had accepted a request from the specified company to receive promotions. The conversion of the promotion to order was probably a bug which they will investigate and patch the firmware.

I wonder if a virus were to infect the refrigerator, what would it do ?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Big Brother is watching you !

“We are sorry Sir, we are unable to accept your order; thank you for calling your favorite dining place”. I am sure you have also received or read some of the messages floating around on social media where the protagonist is unable to order his favorite pizza or pasta or whatever dish you may want to imagine. He is repeatedly denied his request to quench his craving with inferences about his cholesterol or past illness or health insurance coverage; you can imagine the rest as it would probably pan out for the majority of us.

The situation is not too far in the future ! In an interconnected world, combination of personal, medical, social, financial and professional data creates new possibilities of analytical correlations that can be used or misused depending on how you look at the situation. Connected netizens fill in void hours in their lives on multiple devices through the day with status updates, browsing for information or clarifications on something that they are unable to comprehend. They leave behind a trail that can be picked up.

We already see this happening with targeted advertisements across various sites depending on our browsing behavior. Would you turn off cookies or stop accessing popular search engines from your mobile ? What about all the apps on the smartphone ? Some nifty utilities that make life so much easier; finding great restaurants, booking tables, looking up flight schedule or delay. Can these apps pry at other data on your smartphones or the remnants of bread crumbs and widgets start snooping around your laptop or tablet ?

I get this weird feeling when advertisements remind me of my visits to some websites like someone has been looking over my shoulder spying on me all along in my public and private moments. So I decided to confuse the intruders by randomly checking for exotic locations which I would never visit or check out merchandise that most sane people would shudder to buy. The trail it created led the crawlies on a red herring trail. I felt elated as if I had won a major war by thwarting the evil shenanigans in their quest to hound me.

Our dependence on technology is slowly and steadily shifting our thought patterns and the way we think. Intuitively we reach out to query a term or gather additional information adding to the vast amount of data we assimilate. We also seek help for simple and complex problems or situations rarely exerting our thinking prowess. I am not sure if this is good or bad, healthy or not, this has become a way of life. The extreme dependence of the newer generation also known as Digital Natives on technology is exciting and scary.

CIOs have struggled with BYOD getting entrenched across their enterprises and made half-hearted attempts to rope in the rogues with Mobile Device Management and other tools. But that is only part of the story; our incessant need to be online across all our devices adds to the trail we leave behind. Most of the providers have become our shadow with embedded trackers hiding their intent in fine print over 30 pages of agreements which no one reads and clicks “I Agree”. And guess what ? In most cases we don’t really care.

Every day we are flooded with huge amounts of quotes, stories, posts, pictures, videos sent to us by people we know. No one knows the origin or validity of the content we receive. Are we at the cusp of incremental revolution nudged by technology that is controlled by few who are playing with our decisions ? Are our cognitive behaviors are being shaped by some manipulative story teller who is pulling at our heartstrings in ways unknown to us ? Are we really in control of our actions and destiny anymore ?

The digitization of the world is an eventuality that cannot be wished away. It is gaining momentum every day and encompassing every aspect of our lives slowly and steadily. We are given choices on how we would like to engage with technology but peer pressure breaks down resistance quickly. I wonder if I have a mind of my own as I keep going back to technology to assist me with every step I take. As a kid I read the Orwellian tale about Big Brother watching me; I think the future has arrived stealthily without telling us !

Monday, September 15, 2014

My Refrigerator has gone shopping !

I was at this conference where one of the streams focused on Internet of Things or as some speakers preferred to call it Internet of Everything. Every speaker had statistics on the number of “things” that will connect to the Internet and communicate with other devices or the Cloud; the number range varied from 25-50 billion depending on who you would like to believe. The “things” with intelligence could be for specific tasks or multi-faceted to do a range of activities like personal health monitoring, cooking, cleaning, etc.

Every speaker without exception talked about smart refrigerators which will connect to the nearby or your favorite grocery store and proactively order provisions you consume and debit your credit card/bank. One of the speakers dramatized the situation with driverless cars going to the store getting filled by a human. The collective hypothesis was that this is no longer science fiction but reality as it will pan out by 2020, the year by which the number of 25-50 billion devices would be reached; cars, fitness bands, microwaves, light bulbs, interesting thoughts !

As I thought about it I wondered about the situations in my life. For one I like variety in my food and cannot imagine eating the same stuff every day or week. Probably the refrigerator can be taught to have variety. I also don’t want stuff ordered when I plan to eat out go on vacation or call friends over for a dinner; maybe calendar integration will solve the problem to some extent. I hope that leftovers management, use of partially used open packs and managing short expiry products is part of the functionality.

Let us assume that the refrigerator is intelligent enough to not order one item at a time and creates a list of item taking care of minimum order quantity or bill value to avoid unnecessary shipping charges. What happens when the store does not have the items or in the pack size that I prefer ? Will the store substitute another item ? What if I don’t like to substitute ? The store supply chain is probably connected to suppliers’ warehouse system which through predictive analytics understands demand forecasts generated by connected refrigerators.

I am a shopaholic and love to spend time in the stores. My young daughter who grew up traveling in the shopping carts still wants to go back occasionally to now push the cart that was her vehicle. In most of these trips we end up buying a lot more than what we had planned. The visual merchandising appeals to the senses and impulsive buys are triggered by material and inane offers that scream at you while you walk the aisles. So what about cross-sell and upsell that is the hallmark of a good store which entices you to fill up ?

If the above were to translate to reality all the high street and neighborhood stores would struggle to survive and probably turn themselves into warehouse type stores which don’t need a storefront. It would significantly change the way we shop and ruminate over products on the shelves where we can compare not just the price but other attributes. Packaging could be dumbed down to basic, no need for creative colored eye catching wrappers. How will marketers of new products reach out to me on TV or print when I rarely walk the lanes in a store ?

Maybe big data analytics would churn offers to me on the screen of my choice from which I could put it into the refrigerator’s shopping list. I hope that the cold creature (refrigerator) will know its capacity to order only as much as it can store adjusted to my variable consumption pattern. I wonder if my Robot can take out the right quantity of ingredients and cook a meal that I browse and drop it into the task list for the mechanical cook and keep it hot for me when I arrive home. Maybe I am getting a bit ambitious now in my expectations.

The one thing I could not fathom through all the presentations; the bright and intelligent refrigerator knows what to order; the store knows who the order comes from, the car knows where to go to pick up the groceries and brings them back home. I stay on the fourth level of an apartment complex. How do the packages get to my apartment and inside of the refrigerator ? Now don’t tell me that the Robot will do the job, as it would end up compromising the security of the house ! Even a dumb crook will see the pattern and break the system.

I hope you can fill in the missing link for me.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Value Destruction

For every organization that invests in IT there is an expectation that IT will contribute to one of the outcomes from topline or bottom line improvement, customer or employee satisfaction which in turn impacts profits or revenue, operational efficiency or regulatory compliance or a new capability that creates a differentiation in the competitive market. After all if none of these will be impacted then why invest? Many times there are IT investments labelled “strategic” normally endorsed by named consultants specializing in business transformation or strategy, or the Board.

The company hired one of the premier consulting firms to help them with an IT strategy that would align to their growth objectives. They did not have success retaining talent at the top and had a string of CIOs who took up the challenge and left within 2-3 years unable to create sustainable change. Every CIO to his/her credit tried to approach change in a holistic way and when they realized that the inertia from people was strong, processes rigid and everything required measurement, they were unable to sustain the rigor.

The company had always measured every investment using financial metrics and did not believe that IT should be any different. The owners and management acceded to all new technology solutions and investments but many times changed CIO decisions to select the most cost effective solution which offered the highest ROI. Lumped with at times unaligned solutions or vendors who had been squeezed so badly that they ended up cutting corners, the CIOs had not been able to recoup the situation to create visible success.

After quick succession of CIOs they determined that consultants would be able to help them solve the enigma of unsuccessful IT driven projects. After all they had been diligent in their choices, the loyal CFO had worked hard to create models for measurement of success. Their prudent financial decisions had paid off in many functions which is why they wondered why it is not working in IT. The consultants conducted their diagnostics rummaging through history, talking to business, some of the old timers and the IT staff on the journey.

Their report was presented after a few months; there was a lot of anticipation especially within the IT team who saw a ray of hope in the study. The management had a heated discussion with the consultant refusing to believe what was presented. They debated and defended their past actions and labelled the report biased and the consultant ineffective. They still needed a silver bullet and thus decided to hire another competing consulting firm to repeat the exercise. The consulting firm agreed; they were the best and the most expensive.

One of the beliefs that I have inculcated with my teams and others who I have had the opportunity to work with and mentor, is that everything can be measured. Maybe not always using the conventional measurement criteria of Return on Investment or Return on Capital Employed. There is also a category called soft benefits or non-quantifiable returns which has fuzzy terms like better awareness or connect to people with no defined baseline or clear benchmark against which it can be compared. Even these could have been measured with proper definitions.

D-day arrived and the senior partner from the firm was solemnly ready to present the report. They had also reviewed their competitors report. They had insisted that the entire management team be present. There was suspense in the room and a hush as the presentation began. Through the hour everyone listened with rapt attention as their story unfolded in front of their eyes. When the senior partner completed with an air of authority, there were no questions; the data and evidence presented with benchmarks did not require any clarifications.

The company suffered from wanting to get everything at rock bottom prices; for them L1 pricing was the only way to do business. That is how ROI was always best ! The CFO being in a position that he was everyone was terrified to do it any other way. In the quest for value they took irrational decisions and displayed the fabled “penny wise and pound foolish” behavior. No one dared point this out and the realization came ironically from the most expensive no nonsense consultants. A lesson learned the eminently avoidable hard way.

Value can be created even from high cost investments while value can be destroyed even when you pay less. Value is a perception of price paid and has nothing to do with the price.

Monday, September 01, 2014

The Learning Crisis

I was introduced to the world of books by my father and nurtured by my English teacher, both kept me supplied with enough books big and small, modern and classics. Drowning in their fictional world, late night sojourns with super heroes and supernatural beings completed my days. Growing up surrounded by virtual friends, as I started working they transformed into management and self-help books in the quest to stay ahead in the rat race. Books were interspersed with other trade publications and in recent times by electronic newsletters.

At the turn of the century and thereafter there has been overabundance of management books on colored oceans, climbing mountains, being different and creating strategic differentiators; I remember meeting many luminary authors in conferences which had a mandatory fixture with one such thought leader. As a young professional I enjoyed these interactions and managed to get autographed versions of their publications. Reading voraciously my collection of knowledge started outgrowing the space in my office.

The story tellers and theorists with their postulations evoked interest in some; rest found good slumber value in the books distributed in the conference. Having read some of their books before meeting them I had a few questions; at times to validate my assumptions and many times to clarify a point or two. There were also occasions where my frame of reference did not agree with the writings resulting in good discussions over drinks. Those with good oratory skills enthralled us, for the rest their message was lost in articulation.

Everyone loves to go on company offsite meetings and sponsored conferences, especially to exotic locations with no agenda, devoid of presentations they have to attend or make. Most people love the fun elements, skits, karaoke, and when alcohol is involved. As a good manager, I too indulged my teams which required everyone to attend with only medical emergencies being accepted and excused. There was always excitement about the event and the agenda; there was also trepidation in equal measure with majority of the team members.

Talking to friends and peers I realized that my situation was unique and none of the others had found such behavior. We compared notes, went through respective agendas and offsites structures; there was no evident difference in what they did to what I did. We discussed locations, team profiles, traveling arrangements, accommodation, and day end activities; there was no material difference that could have pointed to my teams’ variant behavior. I sensed it was not the obvious so I popped the question to my team.

I did not know how to react to the revelation, to me it was unimaginable, but it was their reality. They loved everything that we did starting with preparation, planning, fun and games, what have you; the part they hated is when prior to the offsite a book was given to every team member to read which would be the theme of the outing. They were okay with the books being given post the offsite as giveaways as most of them did not read them, but when they were expected to read before the journey, it gave them sleepless nights.

I discovered that even my CIO friends wondered why I insisted that my team spend precious time in reading these “management” books. Do they serve a purpose beyond the hours being occupied ? How does it help understand new technology trends or implement the next system ? As it is, there is paucity of time, where do we fit it in our priorities and urgencies which keep everyone busy ? Their ignorance was appalling and comparable to kids in my team. I also realized that the few who loved books stood out in their ability to engage their enterprises.

With information overload and explosion of news, views and innovative ideas, unfortunately many professionals have deprioritized reading as an investment over other pursuits. The resultant learning crisis is scary to say the least creating educated but ignorant people whose ability to connect across paradigms is challenged. The electronic media pushes information at our faces, we need to embrace it to survive. If you did not change with online retailing of books and then their electronic versions, it is time now before you are made irrelevant in the new digital world.