Sep 032015
even the biggest businesses can die if they don't understand the world around them

“From the EMC boardroom you can see the carnage of the mini computer industry – Wang, DEC, Data General – you can see their buildings from the headquarters,” said VMWare’s CEO Pat Gelsinger during an interview this morning.

Gelsinger’s point is well made, those companies were victims of the last major computing shift which saw the minicomputer fall out of favour and be replaced with workgroup servers largely running Windows.

For VMWare, those Windows based servers were the basis of their successful virtualization product and the company was one of the winners of the shift to Personal Computers.

Shifting to the cloud

Now a shift to the cloud, something that Gelsinger sees as a bigger and more fundamental change than the one that dispatched companies like Wang, DEC and Data General to the deadpool in the 1990s, threatens to do the same to the companies that did well in the PC era.

That shift is seeing VMWare repositioning their business to their “unified hybrid cloud”, Dell shifting away from being primarily a PC manufacturer and Microsoft rethinking its entire existence. All of these companies are deeply threatened by IT’s move to the cloud and mobile services.

Watching for unicorpses

It isn’t just today’s incumbents that are threatened by shifting markets, a few of the current crop of today’s billion dollar unicorns will almost certainly become ‘unicorpses’ warns Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair.

That some of today’s seemingly untouchable tech startups may also join venerable older companies in the history books may surprise some but the risks are high, the shifts are great and the successful business strategies are not always obvious early in a technology shift.

One clear point is that size is no barrier to eventual failure, as we see with once untouchable giants winding up after technology and markets move against them it’s only the fast moving and flexible thinking that will survive.

Sep 022015

“It’s no longer the big beating the small, it’s the fast beating the slow,” says Eric Pearson, CIO of the InterContinental Hotels Group.

Pearson was quoted by VMWare CEO Pat Gelsinger in his five imperatives for digital business keynote at the VMWorld 2015 conference being held in San Francisco this week.

The five are an interpretation of the trends in a radically changing business environment where the barriers to entry have fallen dramatically, industries are globalised and the time to market for new products has collapsed.

Put together, Gelsinger believes established businesses have to be more nimble as market and industry forces are going to punish those who are too slow to adapt.

Elephants must learn to dance

Gelsinger’s initial point is the world of business is now asymmetric – incumbents have everything to lose in the face of new businesses where upstarts have nothing to lose.

Part of that asymmetry comes from the world of shared resources, which gives startups and smaller businesses access to tools that were once only available to large organisations.

An obvious example of this are the cloud computing services that is concentrating VMWare’s minds, however another good example of how shared resources will change industries is the self driving car where Gelsinger cites vehicle utilisation will go from 4% to 71%.

Gelsinger points out using a car on a pay for use basis will change the structure of our cities which in turn changes the economics of living in suburbia and the business models built around it.

Standardising the cloud

Cloud computing is at the end of its formative, experimental phase and entering into a professional era where different types of services are going to have to work together.

“We have the private cloud which is focused on IT as we know it today, pulling out costs, slow and complex applications but also has powerful governance and does what I need it to do while meeting compliance purposes,” said Gelsinger. “On the the other side we have the public cloud which is fast and is able to scale effectively but has weak governance.”

In a perverse way, it’s Edward Snowden’s revelations that are driving many businesses to maintain their own private cloud networks due to concerns about foreign powers tapping their information flows and the sovereignty of data.

The consequence of a range of different cloud environments mean they are all going to have to get along with open standards becoming more important as businesses ‘mix and match’ their requirements.

Meeting the security challenge

As the Snowden affair shows, IT Security is difficult, complex and messy and becomes more so as workers start using their mobile devices and data is pushed around the cloud.

Gelsinger sees the online security sector as being the one of the biggest opportunities for startups and one of the fastest growing costs for business, “the only thing growing faster than the spend on security is the cost of security breaches.”

While Gelisinger’s focus is on VMWare’s security proposition, the security mindset is going to have be adopted by all business people. As the Target and Ashley Madison breaches have shown, the damage that can be done by a security lapse can be crippling and is a tangible business risk that senior managements and boards need to be across.

Proactive technology

Artificial intelligence has been through a thirty year gestation and Gelsinger told of his early days as a computer engineer working on AI projects in the late 1980s. Those early days of AI were a failure as the results as the time didn’t live up to the hype.

Gelsinger sees this as the next wave of computing as it moves from being reactive to proactive as systems become able to anticipate actions based on the data they are seeing.

While this has major ramifications for the computer industry, it also promises to change management and the role of many professions.

“This is going to change human experiences,” says Gelsinger however there will be challenges as businesses strike a balance between creepy versus convenience and invasive versus valuable.

Welcome to the age of rattling the cage

Half of the firms on today’s Tech 100 list will be gone within 10 years, was the warning in Gelsinger’s final point and he focused on the need for businesses large and small to break out in order to stay relevant.

“Welcome to the age of rattling the cage,” stated Gelsinger. “A time when taking risk is the lowest risk.”

Paul travelled to VMWorld 2015 in San Francisco as a guest of VMWare

Aug 132015
General Electric GEnx jet engine is social media enabled

Technologies like the internet of things, cloud computing, 3D printing and big data are changing our industries and society. At the ACI Connect event today, I gave a presentation on some of the opportunities, risks and ethical issues facing technologists and engineers in the connected economy.

While many of the engineering principles underlying these technologies aren’t new, their scale and the power they give businesses and governments means there are serious ethical, security and societal issues we have to consider.

This presentation explores some of those issues and the technologies and trends driving them.

Entering the Data era

A conceit among technologists is that we’re in an unprecedented era of change. This is not true.

The Twentieth Century saw massive restructuring of our society as the telephone, mains electricity, the motor car and television changed our society. Many of today’s settled industries came out of the huge technological steps forward over the last hundred years.

Just as cheap energy – delivered to us through the motor car and mains electricity – defined the Twentieth Century, this century will be defined by easily accessible and abundant information.

Those changes over the last hundred years give us some hint as to where we are going; the shifts that saw coal carters, newspaper sellers and night soil men eventually become extinct, along with a shift from a largely agricultural workforce to industrialised employment, is going to be repeated this century as information becomes abundant.

Harnessing the Internet of bees

Cheap and small sensors mean it’s easier to put a chip on something. In this case we have a CSIRO project tracking bee activity where Tasmanian scientists have put tracking devices on bees.

Those tracking devices would have weighed several hundred grams and cost hundreds of dollars ten years ago but today they are small and cheap enough to fit onto the backs of bees.

Being able to deploy these sensors means we can fit them to things we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago and the data they generate is going to give us insights into patterns and behaviours we couldn’t have contemplated.

However not all of this data is useful or necessary and some may even be damaging to individuals and groups. One ethical question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is in the community’s interests to collect this information.

Another aspect of connecting devices, or even animals and people, to the Internet or a network is it opens the possibility of hacking, as we’ve seen in the recent Jeep case where engineers showed they could control a vehicle remotely. The security and privacy aspects of the IoT are critical and something designers and product engineers can’t overlook.

Decoding the data

It’s often said that Data is the New Oil. In truth it isn’t, data is increasingly cheap and easy to access. Being able to analyse that information is where the power lies.

Data analytics is probably going to be one of the most important fields in an information rich economy and already we’re seeing companies springing up to help farmers estimate crop yields, truck drivers plan their routes and even organisations like the Royal Flying Doctor Service using cloud services to better plan their operations.

Again these services plan a lot but there’s also downsides as inappropriate data matching risks breaching consumers’ privacy and even drawing false conclusions from confusing correlation with causation. A good example of this is Facebook being used to judge credit worthiness.

Removing the human element

Automation – whether it’s through robotics, machine learning or algorithms – will change many industries and the workforces employed by them.

One understated field is management where many white collar supervisor jobs are at risk from business automation. It may be that the executive suites are the next sector to be decimated by computers and robots.

Similarly, many services industry jobs such as taxi drivers and baristas are at risk from robotics while large scale 3D printing of buildings threatens to put many building trades under pressure.

No more truck drivers

Driverless vehicles have a whole range of applications, in logistics were seeing them put forklift drivers out of work while mining companies are rolling out massive dump trucks in their new mines that don’t require $200,000 a year drivers.

One study estimates that half the police workforce in the United States would become redundant as law abiding driverless cars become common.

Similarly electric cars will have a massive impact on government revenues. Currently Australian governments raise $17bn a year from fuel excise and has ramifications for businesses involved in the supply chain for service stations.

Once driverless vehicles become commonplace we may well see them changing industries like daycare, public transport and couriers as it becomes possible to summon an autonomous vehicle, put the kids or the luggage into it and then send it off to its destination. If you’re worried, you can track the progress on an app.

The effects of the driverless car show how we have to think laterally about the effects of new technologies on our businesses, sometimes the effects of a new way of doing things could indirectly hurt our business or create new opportunities.

Squeezing out inefficiencies

One of the great promises for the IoT, Big Data and business automation is to remove inefficiencies from industry. Cisco believe that up to 14% of the Oil and Gas industry’s costs could be stripped away with today’s technologies. That in itself is worth over a 100 billion dollars a year in cost savings.

GE are deploying their technologies into a diverse range of industrial equipment ranging from jet engines to railway locomotives and wind turbines with spectacular results in reducing costs and improving productivity.

The effect of these improvements means less downtime and maintenance costs which are good news for customers and shareholder of these companies, but bad news if you’re a maintenance business. It also means the speed of change in business is accelerating.

Skilling the future workforce

In summary the skills needed today are very different to those of 1915 and 1965 and those of the next fifty years will be even different.

As a society we have to decide what skills we are going to give not our children but those currently still in the workforce who are going to be working longer and later into their lives as the workforce ages.

We also have to consider what sort of ethical compass we have. While the technology we have today is powerful and capable of great things, it’s also capable of great harm. We need to have an understanding of what the effects and limits are of our actions with the Internet of Things, Big Data and analytics.

Ultimately we need to ask what value we as individuals can add to our communities and society.

Aug 112015

“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.” Writes Larry Page in his announcement the company he and Sergei Brin founded is to be renamed Alphabet with Google as one of its divisions.

The new company, which will continue to be listed as GOOG on the NASDAQ stock market, will have Page as CEO and Brin as Chairman with the various product lines and products split into discrete divisions under the umbrella holding company.

Page believes this will increase accountability and initiative within the divisions.

In general, our model is to have a strong CEO who runs each business, with Sergey and me in service to them as needed. We will rigorously handle capital allocation and work to make sure each business is executing well. We’ll also make sure we have a great CEO for each business, and we’ll determine their compensation.

How well this Japanese style Keiretsu model will work for Google will be interesting. The initial problem for the company is going to be the jockeying for positions within the restructured divisions.

Google’s management is well known for losing interest in projects and products that aren’t working out and those stranded in ‘orphan divisions’ without strong interest from Brin and Page’s team or big revenues are going to find life frugal and discouraging.

The plight of Google+

If you’re a Google employee you’d certainly be lobbying hard today to avoid being stuck in the division lumbered with the dying Google+ social media platform for instance.

The plight of Google+ may give us some clues to Page’s thinking. At the time of the 2008 financial crisis the company heeded the warnings of The Powerpoint of Doom and clamped down hard on costs. Since the crisis passed, Google has steadily become increasingly cumbersome and increased its headcount from 20,000 in 2009 to 54,000 four years later.

A restructure is an excellent opportunity to strip out a good deal of that fat.

For divisions like productivity apps, this sharpened focus may help the product and stir the teams into innovating. A Gartner report last week put Google Apps at a pathetic 2.1% of the global productivity while Microsoft maintains a 94% chokehold on the market. As an autonomous division, the Apps team is going to have to work a lot harder.

Protecting the core

Another question is how this will pan out for the core Google business. The combination of search and advertising remains a monstrous cash generator however its growth is slowing as the company struggles with the shift to mobile.

For the core Google employees, having profits sifted off their division for loss making moonshots may not be the most motivating thing and we may well see Sundar Pichai, the already announced CEO of the Google division, pushing back hard on the claims of other Divisional bosses for capital.

The restructure of Google is going to be an interesting experiment in how well the Japanese conglomerate model may work in the modern tech industry, if it does then we may see the modern equivalents of US Steel and AT&T develop.

For Google’s managers and employees however, having the harsh glare of shareholder accountability may not be the most comfortable experience.

Aug 082015
not listening to your market or industry is a big management risk

Yesterday Decoding The New Economy posted an interview with Michael Rubenstein of AppNexus about the world of programmatic advertising and being part of a rapidly growing startup.

The whole concept of programmatic advertising is a good example of a business, and a set of jobs, being disrupted.

Media buying has been a cushy job for a generation of well fed advertising executives. David Sarnoff’s invention of the broadcast media model in the 1930s meant salespeople and brokers were needed to fill the constant supply of advertising spots.

Today the rise of the internet has disrupted the once safe world of broadcast media where incumbents were protected by government licenses and now the long lunching media buyers are finding their own jobs are being displaced by algorithms like those of AppNexus.

A thought worth dwelling on though is that media buyers are part of a wider group of white collar roles being disrupted by technology – the same Big Data algorithms driving AppNexus and other services is also being used to write and select news stories and increasingly we’ll see executive decisions being made by computers.

It’s highly likely the biggest casualties of the current data analytics driven wave won’t be truck drivers, shelf pickers or baristas but managers. The promise of a flat organisation may be coming sooner than many middle managers – and salespeople – think.

Aug 062015
Skilled workers are essential to building industries

We need to rethink how we measure performance in the workplace says Andrew Lafontaine, Senior Director Human Capital Managemet Strategy & Transformation at Oracle Australia.

As business adapts to a changing society and mobile technologies, one of the questions facing managers is the mismatch between the Millennial generation and those GenX and Boomers who make up most of the executive suite, Lafontaine sees this as been in how the younger cohort approaches authority.

“There certainly can be a disconnect between Millennials and boomers. Millennials don’t see hierarchy the way boomers see it as important,” says Lafontaine. “Boomers have ingrained view of the way they have come through the workforce.”

Breaking the old rules

Unfortunately for those older managers, their world was based on a formalised, ‘straight line’ hierarchy dating back to the days ships’ captains used flags and voice tubes to communicate.

That rigid military style worked well for nearly two hundred years of business with mail and then the telephone only reinforcing that management model. Now newer collaboration tools mean different ways of working becoming possible.

A problem with those different ways of working in teams is how performance is measured warns Lafontaine.  “What they are not measuring at the moment are what I call ‘network performance’. How workers they helping their colleagues, collaborating and working together.”

Separating home and office

With mobile technologies becoming ubiquitous it becomes harder to separate work from home life, “we working now from home and on the tram. You don’t need a nine to five workforce nad companies have to deal with and embrace the technology,” says Lafontaine.

In the context of babyboomers and GenX workers, that technology meant longer hours in the office but Lafontaine suggests things are now changing. “There other areas to measure. How are they looking after themselves? The days of babyboomers working 12 or 14 hours a day and neglecting their health or outside life are over.”

For the future company, the key to success lies in engaging their employees Lafontaine says. “A more highly engaged workforce delivers better outcomes. Engagement is the three S’s: Stay, Say and Strive”

Those S’s come down to three questions for the worker; should I stay? What should I say? and How should I strive to do a better job?

For managers the challenge is engage all workers regardless of age, the task of finding what engages and motivates workers of the computer generation is only just beginning.

Jul 122015

New York Times writer Nick Bilton delves into Twitter’s search for a new CEO and comes up with a left of field conclusion – the company doesn’t actually know what it is.

Twitter has certainly been casting around to define itself, particularly after its stock market listing that saw it valued at over twenty billion dollars.

Bilton flags one reason why management is so uncertain about their company’s identity, that it’s directors don’t use the service themselves.

As I see it, the problems at Twitter come down to a lack of leadership and a micromanaging board.

And the churn is constant: many of its founders, chief executives, numerous product directors and other top brass have been fired or pushed out. Three of the eight positions on the current board belong to Mr. Dorsey and the former chief executives. About half of the board barely tweets.

The lack of social media credibility on the board raises another issue about how much direct industry expertise should a company’s directors have. While it’s almost certainly not desirable to have insiders dominate a board certainly some, if not the majority, of directors should have some experience in the industries the company operates in.

For Twitter though they desperately need to define the business and what its valuation really is. Even more pressing is to show how the platform differs from Facebook as the confusion of investors, users and advertisers isn’t helping.

Ultimately as Bilton suggests the direction of a business is determined by the board, it’s time Twitter found at least a few directors who at least use social media, if not have some understanding and experience in the business.