Flexible approach to working

Going through my weekly news feeds I came across some thoughts by Guy Horton on dissolving office space as we know it. In article “The Indicator: My Head is in the Cloud Office” he discusses flexible approach to work, one that should be embraced by architects. I would extend it to majority of professions where work does not need to happen at work, i.e. people not in front-line services. There are some good reasons for this phenomena, some are described in rather amusing way by Jason Fried in his presentation that can be found at TED web page.

Quite understandably people are more creative and even effective in environments that suite them best. Some are more concentrated and effective at the office, some anywhere, but the office. This is due to distractions in the office. I used to take Friday as my admin day that I spent working from home just to wrap up the week and concentrate on the tasks from that week. On the flip side, managers (and not only those micro-managing their workforce) are afraid of lost productivity.

Guy offered a solution by ‘Cloud Office’ where people actually get together in to office when actually required of when just stopping by. Using the up-to-date toolkit – mobile broadband, Skype, Google Apps, Microsoft Live Meeting, Citrix, Webex, etc. – mobile workforce does not really need the office in its traditional form. What Guy described is actually in existence already – well, at least as a term. It is ‘virtual office’ as defined here and offered by various service providers.

I believe this is the only way in the future for the small and medium size firms. There are yet many team leaders and line managers though who believe that good results can be only achieved by attending the office 9-5 with overtime allowed where required… Instead they should look into offering flexible working to their workforce. At the end of the day, what difference it makes if I my day starts at 11:00 and I finish around 20:00? If I am not a morning person, there is no way I am going to be active and effective before lunchtime.

There are a few factors that may make generation X managers to embrace the approach which generation Y wants to follow:

  • Higher rents in dense urban areas (read: cities) drive people further out to suburbs, smaller towns and countryside.
  • Finding talent from ‘your’ area is getting more difficult.
  • Cost of running the office.
  • Flexibility – contract staff can be hired for when the need is higher, again at lower cost.
  • Weather – no explanation needed here. Just look outside your window, dear UK reader! How is the work supposed to get don in these circumstances when people can’t get out of their homes!?
  • Travel – cost again in many cases. Working in virtual functional or project teams where team members do/can not have in the same location.
  • Time – this is what we usually don’t have. Time spent on travel for average londoner is getting near 2 hours each day.

The cost is only one factor, but a great one. To run an office in a city centre is luxury for many smaller firms. Hence some start-ups rent phones and mailboxes in the City and space (if at all) in less reputable areas.

Those who follow more traditional approach face costs around £2000 for a new office workplace. This takes account all the IT kit, licensing and furniture and is rather moderate.

There are some variations though as many companies only work effectively when there is a number of contributors around the table. Having worked in IT department where the four people dealt with infrastructure and application support sitting opposite to one another, this approach was a necessity to meet the SLA’s. I came across this solution in London advertising agency Mother. They built a long table where everyone sits. Or actually, the staff moves around not to get too comfortable and start nesting in their corner. Being an established, successful agency and part of a larger group one may be able to afford to lease / buy / rent large office space and turn it into creative powerhouse with enough room to think. This is unfortunately a no-go for small start-up’s.

Image courtesy of Mothers Who Work.

In my view there are way more professions than just creative industry that can do without the traditional office. Designers, software houses, roaming engineers, accountants – this list could be quite long. All that businesses need to do is think and plan ahead before making any long term commitments.

We do not need fancy offices to get Britain economy moving again, we need more innovation, creative ideas, less traditional approach and government support.

Smart, smarter and even smarter…

I have been following industry news for smart systems for years. Starting with smart phones back in 2000 (see my first not very smart phone) the communication industry has turned into IT and many traditional electronic companies are where nobody expected them even 15 years ago. Good examples are Siemens, IBM and Nokia whereas some of their competitors (read: Samsung, Sharp, etc.) are desperately trying to tap into every part of the consumer and corporate ICT market. I am slightly puzzled what direction some energy companies are driving – they seem to want to do anything that looks forward-thinking, intelligent and progressive, but seem to go for world domination. Remember ENRON? All the big promises and very little innovation. Nevertheless, we consumers are getting more gadgets to play with, have smarter cars and home appliances and occasional deja-vu feeling when ordering goods or reading news targeted specifically to us.

In my view we can split the smart systems into two broad categories – IT systems that provide rich content by manipulating data (collect via sensors, mine and report) and utility services that have IT attached to them to provide the users all sorts of outputs.

Let’s take a look at some of the components that form ‘smart systems’. Please bear in mind this is a very simplified take.

First – the data. Data is all around us. Over past 20 or so years we have seen more and more sensors popping up that gather data about our behavioural patterns. The way we go about our everyday business, where, how and what do we spend our (occasionally not disposable) income. In order to make sense of that data, it needs to be structured and then manipulated. Once past data structuring we get to information layer. This is where some intelligence is applied which results in customer-based suggestions like Amazon and many other on-line retailers do.
Any business that wants to stay on top of and exceed their customer expectations need to gather and manipulate data, and action on it. This is becoming true for the other service providers as well. Take utilities for example. Here in the UK we are very good at switching the suppliers like socks. There are even specialised services that keep us all informed of the best offers. Good magazine came up with an infograph about the world of data. Looking at sources, I have a rough guess it amounts for the data generated by non-corporate users.

Second – devices. Smartphones, laptops, netbooks, tablets, wireless appliances, home electronics – the list is endless. Those are all must-haves today. At least it seems to be true for the western society. All these gizmos and gadgets are here to enhance our on-line experience. Which does not mean these devices always improve our productivity. Turning on location sensor on our smartphone lets our Facebook friends know that we are in Liverpool this weekend, not in London. This can be positive, as your friends will know they can’t land in your flat after night out. Similarly there are cases where people have been burglared due to over-eager tweeting while on holiday. Moving away from the devices that we carry along to more integrated systems takes us… home. Smart homes are the next big thing when the technology becomes available to the majority of public. Currently it is too expensive to sway average Joe over from his more traditional systems. Another side to the ‘smart’ problem is fear of losing control over one’s home appliances. Or even worse – giving it to the energy companies who can then decide how and when to tell your washing machine to start to save you more. Energy companies should do a bit more to persuade their customers to be more trusting if they want to succeed. as you leave home by car, you’ll meet even more smart systems hidden in your vehicle (well, at least the newer ones). BMW and Audi are taking it a step further working towards Smart Cities which have energy flowing and cars take care of driving. Which nicely ties into IBM Smarter Systems for Smarter Planet programme. IBM has taken its intelligence gathered over the years and plugged it into the project to make this world a better place. Or so I hope. Another similar programme is launched by Sony – Open Planet Ideas. I can’t help, but some of it looks like a greenwash to me as a large number of companies are trying to boost their credibility by being green. I mean – literally redesigning their products and websites from black (equals luxury) to green (equals err… environmentally positive?).
Back in April Intel was announcing its ever growing interest in energy sector. Their approach is again customer centric. PCWorld article “Intel’s experimental sensor analyzes appliance power consumption from single outlet” describes this as something wanting to be your best friend. What many customers do not get is this – what’s in this for the utilities supplier? What value is generated to the shareholders by ensuring your customers consume more efficiently and pay lower bills. There are more unsolved mysteries out there…

Third – consumerisation. Consumerisation ties closely in with previous component – devices. This term came into use in 2009 when major players started to talk about need for flexibility among corporate workforce. Let people decide what devices they want to use (latest technology vs. corporate tool-set) and improve their productivity this way. What many are not talking about is supportability. Apple mobile products are very smart, but those are targeted for the consumer market. Large corporations CIO’s are not simply wiling to take on supporting unsupportable user hardware. Good luck fighting the Y-generation!

Fourth – optimisation. When it comes to re-engineering business or any other processes, the first step should be optimisation. Having meaningful information make optimisation way easier. IBM worked with City of Stockholm to optimise its traffic system. They set out to collect toll charges electronically, predict traffic flows/patterns and provide live information to the commuters. The strategy was to use workload optimised systems, virtualisation and flexible delivery models. Result?
* City traffic is down by 18%
* CO2 emissions have been cut by between 14-18%
* Ridership on public transport has increased by 60,000 passengers per day

I would call this an optimisation and progress. There are many cities in Europe that should try to catch up and exceed these results (hint: London).

To pull all these aspects together, we have loads of sensor-rich devices all around us, that generate a load of data of which to some extent can be used to drive our behavioural patterns at home and at work. Do we like it? Well… we don’t actively fight it.
I plan to continue discussion on this topic, watch this space.

#TED ten commandments for creative people and others

Reading through some older unread posts (this time from swiss-miss), I found this rather joyful collection of wisdom dating back to 2006 by Tim Longhurst. I hope I did not leave the author out, this is how far I managed to track the origins of this message.

Anyway, reading through these words of wisdom / advise / commandments, I realised this should be part of every curriculum for the higher education. Young people who are going to lead their lives need to know how to behave in public. Well, most don’t.

And if you do not know what TED is, go to their web site, then events and then start contributing.

Here we go…

The TED Commandments

Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick
Pressure yourself to keep learning about a topic. I have an Information Overload talk I gave a few years ago, and wouldn’t dream of presenting it again without catching up on the latest theories and contributions to the debate.

Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before
Don’t be afraid to experiment with what you’ve already learned. Share not only what you know, but what you’d like it to be. Look at your processes, at what you do every day. If it works for you, it’s quite possible the process is a good one and could be shared, inviting discussion to make it even better.

Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion
It’s your topic, your audience. Own them. Your talk may be at a monthly department meeting or national conference, but most likely you’ve got a keen interest in the subject. Show it!

Perhaps you actually are passionate about the topic, even better. Share your excitement as well as your progress.

Thou Shalt Tell a Story
Involve your audience by giving them someone to empathize with and to make them care. The story might be about yourself or someone else, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s a good tell.

Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy
As you catch up, read and get involved on blogs by those you admire within the topic. Commenting on posts is a great way to become engaged with those who care about the same things you do. Also explore dissenting opinions, adding your own if you have them.

Thou Shalt Not Flaunt thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
No one wants to hear about how wonderful you are because you figured this out, but the different methods you used to get the conclusion. If you’ve learned from your mistakes, someone else will, too.

Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desparate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
While I agree that I don’t usually want to hear a sales pitch, I’d take exception to this when appealing for library funding or for my job.

Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.
I’ve heard different opinions on humor during talks, but I gave this advice to a staff member just the other day: If you’re going to use humor point it towards yourself. I use self-deprecating humor quite a bit, it seems to somehow relax the audience, especially when teaching technology. Also be careful of humor that may offend someone: I thought about writing this post as if I were Moses and God Himself had delivered the tablets and burning bushes were involved. I reconsidered…probably very wisely.

Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
Worse yet, never turn your back to your audience to read slides. Then again, don’t put so much text on a slide that you’d have to read it at all! Text is for handouts.

Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee
Make your talk worthwhile with your passion and your knowledge. Give them one big thing to remember a week later, your chance of retention is better the less you try to put in their heads. Even though some training is repetitive in nature, get them excited, fired up and ready to go use what you’ve taught them!

What’s happening in the cloud this fall?

There’s a lot of talk about cloud computing, IT consumerisation and moving toward smarter systems, but a handful of people only seem to know what is hidden behind these keywords. And more importantly (as the topics are hot!) what’s in this for us as consumers of IT services? I will touch on smart systems and consumerisation later and give an overview of cloud-based trends and approaches in this post.

I went to Business Cloud Summit last week to learn just a bit more from the people who are behind the cloud initiative and vendors who are there to offer anything-as-a-service (xAAS) as I like to call the new offerings in the service catalogue.

Professor Leslie Willcocks gave a great presentation ending with main takeaway – Cloud Computing should rather be calledBusiness Cloud Services. Why? Cloud Computing is a clumsy term for a service platform. The Cloud offers elasticity and consumerisation, ease of use and purchase. Cloud services are available on-demand, packaged are rather flexible and broad. You pay what you need and when your requirements grow, the service providers are more than happy to expand your use of their service platform.

This has inevitably led us to explosion of cloud-based application services. It’s good. No, it’s really good, absolutely fantastic. I would be appalled if in ten years time applications would not be provisioned as services and require application specific plugins to work as expected. What is needed is an open platform for developers to work with. I do like RightNow approach where emphasis is on providing and selling business value, not technology where software is subscription based. This enables the customers to start with manageable size pilots and grow organically.

It’s quite clear that cloud-based services may not be treated as hype any longer and those are definitely not aimed for only a specific sector (corporate / SME / individuals). The ‘cloud’ is there for everyone to use, build their business and meet regulatory requirements. Currently there seems to be tendency for business executives to see value and show more enthusiasm towards cloud-based services, than IT management. Is it peer pressure? Everyone is doing it, what are we waiting? With younger and more tech savvy CxO’s around it should be easier for CIO to transition (where applicable and viable, of course) IT services to the cloud-based platform. I believe the problem to lie in the industry standards, or more precisely lack of those. Andy Burton from Cloud Industry Forum gave a good overview of where we are not in terms of standards and where we need to be. And the sooner it happens, the better. Key takeaways from his presentation in panel were interoperability, data locking that should decrease and finding balance between need for security vs. creativity that is required to drive new solutions. Several speakers also brought out exit provisions and compatibility issues that businesses see as potential risk to the cloud-based implementations. IT departments, while wanting to play with new technology, see the cloud-based services as a threat to their future. What needs to be realised is that by moving from in-house operations to the outsourced or hosted services a number of staff can concentrate to actually creating value to the business rather than just keeping the lights on. A good point made by Greg Gianforte from RightNow and something to remember, is that ‘Cloud’ is just a delivery mechanism for the enterprise applications.

Although expectations to the ‘cloud’ are high, according to Gianforte, nearly 30% of SAAS (Software-as-a-Service) products do not get used. This was said pointing openly at SalesForce.com. Many software vendors want to carry on their existing software distribution mode, by selling boxes, not creating value to the customers. This creates something Gianforte called “Shelfware-as-a-Service”. With investments to the cloud services set to double over next 18 months, this is not something business executives want to hear. Still, according to professor Wiilcocks from London School of Economics and Political Science, over 60% of organisations have strong momentum towards cloud computing.

This opinion was also supported by Gordon Frazer from Microsoft by estimating that cloud R&D today is around 70% and it is forecasted to grow to 90% over next three years. I believe this opinion to be slightly too optimistic, but considering a huge variety of applications that are already delivered as services, he may not be too far off. With large ERP providers (Microsoft, OracleInfor) moving towards subscription based services where the subscriber is in need of a good and reliable internet connection we are already seeing the change happening. It would be unwise for the businesses not to embrace the opportunity, but the decision should derive from a solid balanced business case.

Looking back to the event, what did we hear that was worth bearing in mind?

Jürgen Strahwald, Vice President Corporate Information Technology Governance at Siemens, brought out three key points that seem to well summarise what cloud adopters need to do:

·         Services that businesses are looking to transition from own data centres to the cloud service providers, need to be ‘must haves’, not ‘niceties’.

·         Security is important and not only on paper. Businesses need to do penetration testing, not only rely on service specs.

·         Integration to the existing IT systems and services. Unless this is achieved, the whole project is likely to fail.

And more generally, some key points for those who are still in the dark clouds:

·         Cloud-based services are set to grow over the coming years reflecting software licensing and provision.

·         Communication and collaboration are set to improve with cloud-based services.

·         ‘Cloud’ is quick, secure and scalable.

·         Provisioned services are to become more interoperable and vendors should drive towards less data locking. Now, who want to do that?

·         Cloud-based applications need to internet-native applications, not adoptions.

“Fake cloud” providers will eventually fail. The term came again from Greg Gianforte describing service providers who try to provide existing technology in somewhat migrated and adopted way packaging it as cloud services.

Jason Fried / remote work

Just listened to Jason Fried speech / presentation in TED, where he talks about why work does not get done at the workplace. Bizarre, I know. I have been taking Fridays as my ‘admin days’ – just to be away from distraction. Turn Out-of-Office reply on and get on with the stuff from that week.

Sir Ken Robinson talks about the education and how the current system (in the UK and elsewhere I suppose) kill the creativity. I suppose it’s time for UK to start embracing the idea of flexible learning; if not in public / state, then at least in private schools. a good point was made about the value of Bcs degree. I hold one and know how little it’s worth. Even MBA people get needs to be from a leading university, otherwise it’s a debt with not much cover.

Two more videos of his appearance in TED here http://www.ted.com/speakers/sir_ken_robinson.html

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