Every so often, an idea comes along that stops you in your tracks.
Innovation is happening at the speed of light all around us but most of of the time it consists only of incremental, evolutionary thinking, which takes us a little bit further in the same direction we were going all along. We have become fairly blazé about innovation.
And then you spot something that makes you sit up, pay attention, change direction, and re-think everything. I had one of these moments a few weeks back.
The name “EpyDoc” will probably mean nothing to most of you. Even looking at their existing website I would have dismissed it as a second or third-rate Document Management wannabe. Yet, EpyDoc is launching a new concept in April, that potentially re-defines the whole Data / Content / Information / Process Management industry, as we know it today. You know what happens when you mix comets and dinosaurs? It is that revolutionary.
I have lost track of the number of times over the years that I’ve moaned about the constraints that our current infrastructure is imposing on us:
- The arbitrary segregation of structured and unstructured information [here]
- The inherent synergy of Content and Process management [here]
- The content granularity that stops at the file level [here]
- The security models that protect the container rather than the information [here]
- The lack of governance and lifecycle management of all information, not just records [here]
- The impossibility of defining and predicting information value [here]
…etc. The list goes on. EpyDoc’s “Information Operating System” (a grand, but totally appropriate title), seeks to remove all of these barriers by re-thinking the way we manage information today. Not in small incremental steps, but in a giant leap.
Their approach is so fundamentally different, that I would not do it credit by trying to summarise it here. And if I’m honest, I am still discovering more details behind it. But if you are interested in having a taste on what the future of information management might look like in 5-10 years, I would urge you to read this 10-segment blog set which sets the scene, and let me know your thoughts.
And if, while you are reading through, you are, like me, sceptical about the applicability or commercial viability of this approach, I will leave you with a quote that I saw this morning on the tube:
“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad”
(President of the Michigan Savings Bank, 1903)
P.S. Before my pedant friends start correcting me: I know that dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, not the Jurassic… 😉
Unless you live in a cave, you will have not failed to notice that mobility has taken over our life. As I write this, I’m sitting in a train full of commuters who, almost to a man, are holding a smart phone, a tablet or a laptop. The odd ones out, are reading a book… on a Kindle.
There is no denying that mobility is an established phenomenon and it’s here to stay. The IT industry is actively embracing it as the new Amalthean horn (alongside that other nebulous revolution – The Cloud). With Mobile First (IBM), The Mobile Imperative (Gartner), Enterprise Mobility(Accenture), 3rd Platform (IDC), etc., etc. .. one by one every major vendor and analyst is releasing their “mobile” strategy that will drive growth in the next 3, 5 or 10 years. And undoubtedly, it will.
But is our current obsession with mobility, really that revolutionary? Is the change in our culture and behaviour really so sudden and dramatic? Prompted by a very stimulating conversation at AIIM’s Executive Leadership Council (see the recent paper: The Mobile Reality), I decided to look at the historical milestones of computer mobility. Its heritage, if you like. The picture it paints is very interesting.
Let’s look at the impact of mobility on a decade by decade basis.
The starting point. Computer access was restricted to a single physical location, determined by the location of the computer machines themselves. Access was granted to few, selected, highly trained computer boffins, who were responsible for allocating the computing resource on a time-share basis, and deliver the results to the outside world. There is zero mobility involved at this stage.
The 70’s introduced the first layer of mobility to the organisation, and it had a transformational impact. “Dumb” terminals, could be distributed across the organisation, connected with RS-232 serial connections. Mobility was location-based, since connectivity was hard-wired and employees would have to physically go to wherever the terminal was, in order to access it. Systems became multi-user giving selected, trained, specialist users simultaneous access to computing power on-demand. Suddenly, computing power and business applications were no longer constrained by the physical location of the computer, but were distributed to core departments across the organisation.
The ‘80s saw the introduction of PCs. A hub-and-spoke revolution, where autonomous business machines could execute tasks locally, wherever they were located, and could communicate transparently with each other and with centralised servers. More “intelligent” connectivity through network cables introduced the client-server and email era. Mobility moved outside the constraints of the physical building. With the advent of “a PC on every desk”, users could work anywhere within the organisation and could communicate with each other, from building to building, and from town to town. Or copy their work on a floppy-disk and continue their work on their PC at home.
In the 90’s mobility went through another revolutionary phase. PCs gave way to laptops, work would be taken anywhere, and modems could allow dial-up connectivity back to the office. Location, for users that had been issued with a company laptop and modem access, was no longer constrained to the confines of the organisation. They could easily work connected from home, or from a customer site anywhere in the world. Mobile phones became a corporate tool, eventually obliterating phonecards and phoneboxes, and wireless handsets, brought telephone mobility within the home. All that mobility created its own cultural revolution, bringing faster on-site customer support, home-working and flexible hours. At the same time, the internet and world-wide-web broke out of the military and academic domains, and the first commercial internet applications started appearing.
With the millennium Y2K scare out of the way, mobility re-invented itself again. Website access and intranets, meant that every employee could access the corporate environment regardless of the physical machine they were using: A corporate notebook, home PC, Internet café, or hotel lobby, would be equally useful for checking emails, writing the odd MS-Office document, or finishing the latest marketing presentation. Virtually every employee had remote access to the organisation, and was actively encouraged to use it to reduce travelling and office-space. Internet commerce became universally accepted transforming the retail market. Computer form factor started reducing, with lighter notebooks and PDAs with styluses, touch screens and hand-writing recognition (remember Palm and Psion?), became the first truly portable devices. Mobile phones penetrated the personal consumer market, while Email and text messaging (SMS) started replacing phone calls, as the preferred mediums for short conversations. ADSL networks brought affordable broadband connectivity to the home, and the first 3G networks and devices allowed internet connection “on the go”.
Which brings us to today: Enter the iPhone and iPad generation, where the preferred device factor is smaller (smartphones), more portable (tablets, phablets) and more universal (Smart TVs, Wifi Cameras, etc). Mobile connectivity became a bit more reliable and a bit faster, using faster 3G and 4G networks on the street. WiFi Fibre optic broadband at home, in fast-food restaurants and at coffee chains, brought faster downloads and HD streaming. Consumers are moving to apps as the preferred interface (rather than websites) and internet access has become accessible to everyone and the preferred customer interaction medium for many businesses. The delineation between personal computing and work computing has more or less disappeared, and the internet (as well as the office) can be accessed almost anywhere and by everyone. SMS text messaging is still prevalent (but virtually instant and virtually free) but asynchronous email communications declined in favour of synchronous Social Network access, Instant messaging (Skype, Twitter, FB Messaging, WhatsApp) or video chats (Skype, Lync, FaceTime, Hangouts).
But we’re not quite there yet! The much heralded “ubiquitous” access to information, or “24×7” connectivity, is still a myth for a lot of us: While I constantly have to worry if my phone should connect via 3G or WiFi (a cost-driven and availability decision), while I can have internet access on a transatlantic flight, but not in a commuter train, while my broadband signal at home drops the line every 20 minutes because it’s too far away from the telephone exchange, while my WiFi router signal at one end of the house does not reach the dining room at the opposite end, and while I need a 3G signal booster at home (in a 450,000 people town) because none of the mobile networks around me have strong enough signal, mobile connectivity is not “ubiquitous”, it’s laboured.
Having lived and worked through 30 years of mobility transformation, I would argue that today’s “mobile revolution” is more evolutionary than revolutionary. What we are experiencing today is just another step in the right direction. Mobility will continue to have a transformational effect on businesses, consumers and popular culture, just as computer terminals transformed the typical desktop environment in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and as modems enabled home-working and flexible hours in the 90’s and 00’s. I expect that in the next 5 years we will see true “permanently on” connectivity and even more internet enabled devices communicating with each other. I also expect that businesses will become a lot more clever and creative with leveraging mobility.
Nevertheless, I don’t expect a mobile revolution.
I’ve been wanting to write this article for a while, but I thought it would be best to wait for the deluge of 2014 New Year predictions to settle down, before I try and look a little bit further in the horizon.
The six predictions I discuss here are personal, do not have a specific timescale, and are certainly not based on any scientific method. What they are based on, is a strong gut feel and thirty years of observing change in the Information Management industry.
Some of these predictions are more fundamental than others. Some will have immediate impact (1-3 years), some will have longer term repercussions (10+ years). In the past, I have been very good at predicting what is going to happen, but really bad at estimating when it’s going to happen. I tend to overestimate the speed at which our market moves. So here goes…
Behaviour is the new currency
Forget what you’ve heard about “information being the new currency”, that is old hat. We have been trading in information, in its raw form, for years. Extracting meaningful value however from this information has always been hard, repetitive, expensive and most often a hit-or-miss operation. I predict that with the advance of analytics capabilities (see Watson Cognitive), raw information will have little trading value. Information will be traded already analysed, and nowhere more so than in the area of customer behaviour. Understanding of lifestyle-models, spending-patterns and decision-making behaviour, will become the new currency exchanged between suppliers. Not the basic high-level, over-simplified, demographic segmentation that we use today, but a deep behavioural understanding of individual consumers that will allow real-time, predictive and personal targeting. Most of the information is already being captured today, so it’s a question of refining the psychological, sociological and commercial models around it. Think of it this way: How come Google and Amazon know (instantly!) more about my on-line interactions with a particular retailer, than the retailer’s own customer service call centre? Does the frequency of logging into online banking indicate that I am very diligent in managing my finances, or that I am in financial trouble? Does my facebook status reflect my frustration with my job, or my euphoric pride in my daughter’s achievement? How will that determine if I decide to buy that other lens I have been looking at for my camera, or not? Scary as the prospect may be, from a personal privacy perspective, most of that information is in the public domain already. What is the digested form of that information, worth to a retailer?
Security models will turn inside out
Today most security systems, algorithms and analysis, are focused on the device and its environments. Be it the network, the laptop, the smartphone or the ECM system, security models are there to protect the container, not the content. This has not only become a cat-and-mouse game between fraudsters and security vendors, but it is also becoming virtually impossible to enforce at enterprise IT level. With BYOD, a proliferation of passwords and authentication systems, cloud file-sharing, and social media, users are opening up security holes faster than the IT department can close. Information leakage is an inevitable consequence. I can foresee the whole information security model turning on its head: If the appropriate security becomes deeply embedded inside the information (down to the file, paragraph or even individual word level), we will start seeing self-describing and self-protecting granular information that will only be accessible to an authenticated individual, regardless if that information is in a repository, on a file-system, on the cloud, at rest or in transit. Security protection will become device-agnostic and infrastructure-agnostic. It will become a negotiating handshake between the information itself and the individual accessing that information, at a particular point in time.
Oh, and while we are assigning security at this granular self-contained level, we might as well transfer retention and classification to the same level as well.
The File is dead
In a way, this prediction follows on from the previous one and it’s also a prerequisite for it. It is also a topic I have discussed before [Is it a record, who cares?]. Information Management, and in particular Content Management, has long been constrained by the notion of the digital file. The file has always been the singular granular entity, at which security, classification, version control, transportation, retention and all other governance stops. Even relational databases ultimately live in files, because that’s what Operating Systems have to manage. However, information granularity does not stop at the file level. There is structure within files, and a lot of information that lives outside the realm of files (particularly in social media and streams). If Information Management is a living organism (and I believe it is), then files are its organs. But each organ has cells, each cell has molecules, and there are atoms within those molecules. I believe that innovation in Information Management will grow exponentially the moment that we stop looking at managing files and start looking at elementary information entities or segments at a much more granular level. That will allow security to be embedded at a logical information level; value to grow exponentially through intelligent re-use; storage costs to be reduced dramatically through entity-level de-duplication; and analytics to explode through much faster and more intelligent classification. File is an arbitrary container that creates bottlenecks, unnecessary restrictions and a very coarse level of granularity. Death to the file!
BYOD is just a temporary aberration
BYOD is just a transitional phase we’re going through today. The notion of bringing ANY device to work is already becoming outdated. “Bring Work to Your Device” would have been a more appropriate phrase, but then BWYD is a really terrible acronym. Today, I can access most of the information I need for my work, through mobile apps and web browsers. That means I can potentially use smart phones, tablets, the browser on my smart television, or the Wii console at home, or my son’s PSP game device to access work information. As soon as I buy a new camera with Android on it, I will also be able to access work on my camera. Or my car’s GPS screen. Or my fridge. Are IT organisations going to provide BYOD policies for all these devices where I will have to commit, for example, that “if I am using that device for work I shall not allow any other person, including family members, to access that device”? I don’t think so. The notion of BYOD is already becoming irrelevant. It is time to accept that work is no longer tied to ANY device and that work could potentially be accessed on EVERY device. And that is another reason, why information security and governance should be applied to the information, not to the device. The form of the device is irrelevant, and there will never be a 1:1 relationship between work and devices again.
It’s not your cloud, it’s everyone’s cloud
Cloud storage is a reality, but sharing cloud-level resources is yet to come. All we have achieved is to move the information storage outside the data centre. Think of this very simple example: Let’s say I subscribe to Gartner, or AIIM and I have just downloaded a new report or white paper to read. I find it interesting and I share it with some colleagues, and (if I have the right to) with some customers through email. There is every probability that I have created a dozen instances of that report, most of which will end up being stored or backed up in a cloud service somewhere. Quite likely on the same infrastructure where I downloaded the original paper from. And so will do many others that have downloaded the same paper. This is madness! Yes, it’s true that I should have been sending out the link to that paper to everyone else, but frankly that would force everyone to have to create accounts, etc. etc. and it’s so much easier to attach it to an email, and I’m too busy. Now, turn this scenario on its head: What if the cloud infrastructure itself could recognise that the original of that white paper is already available on the cloud, and transparently maintain the referential integrity, security, and audit trail, of a link to the original? This is effectively cloud-level, internet-wide de-duplication. Resource sharing. Combine this with the information granularity mentioned above, and you have massive storage reduction, cloud capacity increase, simpler big-data analytics and an enormous amount of statistical audit-trail material available, to analyse user behaviour and information value.
The IT organisation becomes irrelevant
The IT organisation as we know it today, is arguably the most critical function and the single largest investment drain in most organisations. You don’t have to go far to see examples of the criticality of the IT function and the dependency of an organisation to IT service levels. Just look at the recent impact that simple IT malfunctions have had to banking operations in the UK [Lloyds Group apologies for IT glitch]. My prediction however, is that this mega-critical organisation called IT, will collapse in the next few years. A large IT group – as a function, whether it’s oursourced or not – is becoming an irrelevant anachronism, and here’s why: 1) IT no longer controls the end-user infrastructure, that battle is already lost to BYOD. The procurement, deployment and disposition of user assets is no longer an IT function, it has moved to the individual users who have become a lot more tech-savy and self-reliant than they were 10 or 20 years ago. 2) IT no longer controls the server infrastructure: With the move to cloud and SaaS (or its many variants: IaaS, PaaS, etc.), keeping the lights on, the servers cool, the backups running and the cables networked will soon cease to be a function of the IT organisation too. 3) IT no longer controls the application infrastructure: Business functions are buying capabilities directly at the solution level, often as apps, and these departments are maintaining their own relationships with IT vendors. CMOs, CHROs, CSOs, etc. are the new IT buyers. So, what’s left for the traditional IT organisation to do? Very little else. I can foresee that IT will become an ancillary coordinating function and a governance body. Its role will be to advise the business and define policy, and maybe manage some of the vendor relationships. Very much like the role that the Compliance department, or Procurement has today, and certainly not wielding the power and the budget that it currently holds. That, is actually good news for Information Management! Not because IT is an inhibitor today, but because the responsibility for Information Management will finally move to the business, where it always belonged. That move, in turn, will fuel new IT innovation that is driven directly by business need, without the interim “filter” that IT groups inevitably create today. It will also have a significant impact to the operational side of the business, since groups will have a more immediate and agile access to new IT capabilities that will enable them to service new business models much faster than they can today.
Personally, I would like all of these predictions to come true today. I don’t have a magic wand, and therefore they won’t. But I do believe that some, if not all, of these are inevitable and it’s only a question of time and priority before the landscape of Information Management, as we know today, is fundamentally transformed. And I believe that this inevitable transformation will help to accelerate both innovation and value.
I’m curious to know your views on this. Do you think these predictions are reasonable, or not? Or, perhaps they are a lot of wishful thinking. If you agree with me, how soon do you think they can become a reality? What would stop them? And, what other fundamental changes could be triggered, as a result of these?
I’m looking forward to the debate!
I was having one of these left-brain vs. right-brain discussions with a friend of mine who works in IT and also happens to be a keen photographer, as I am. He asked me: “Do you consider yourself primarily a technologist or an artist?”
I could not answer the question. The obvious answer is “both”, but the more I think about it, the less sense the question makes. Is there really a distinction between these two? I don’t believe so. They are certainly not mutually exclusive.
Let’s look at an example of a software developer and a painter or a photographer or a writer: They all have to start with a vision, they all have to innovate and all have to be problem solvers. Just imagine yourself in an artist’s studio, a photographer’s studio or your IDE environment, and look at each process:
In painting, you chose your canvas, depending on the final purpose of the painting. In photography your format and your output medium, based on the audience. In software you chose the operating system and the market your solution is intended for.
Then you choose your primary crafting tool: Your paintbrushes or your pencils, your cameras and lenses or your coding language. And you start the creative process. Your lines of code are your brushstrokes, the same lights and shadows and colours make up your composition.
In art you use a palette of colours and you combine them to create new ones. In photography you have exposure techniques and filters and in coding you use code libraries.
You step back, you look at your masterpiece or test your code, and then you use turpentine, an eraser, debugging tools or Photoshop to correct minor mistakes.
I believe that not only software development, but most scientific undertakings are a form of art. If you are experimenting in a chemistry lab, or you are designing a marketing campaign, or designing a new electronic device, you will have to use tools and imagination to create something new. You will use subjective judgements to determine if it’s bad or if it’s good. And once you deliver it you will be critiqued by other people.
So, as a solutions architect, I use artistic processes to bring my visions to life. As a photographer, I use both technology and science to create new art. Can I ever de-couple art from science? No. If I did I would end up being bad at both.
I love the technology behind “IBM Watson“. I think it’s been a long time coming and I don’t doubt that in a matter of only a few years, we will see phenomenal applications for it.
Craig Rhinehart explored some of the possibilities of using Watson to analyse social media in his blog “Watson and the future of ECM”. He also set out a great comparison of “Humans vs. Watson”, in the context of a trivia quiz. However, I believe that there is a lot more to it…
Watson is a knowledgeable fool. A 6-year old kid, that can’t tell fact from fiction.
When Watson played Jeopardy!, it ranked its possible answers against each other and the confidence that it understood the questions correctly. Watson did not for a moment question the trustworthiness of its knowledge domain.
Watson is excellent at analysing a finite, trusted knowledge base. But the internet and social media are neither finite, nor trusted.
What if Watson’s knowledge base is not factual?
Primary school children are taught to use Wikipedia for research, but not to trust it, as it’s not always right. They have to cross-reference multiple research sources before they accept the most likely answer. Can Watson detect facts from opinions, hearsay and rumours? Can it detect irony and sarcasm? Can it distinguish factual news from political propaganda and tabloid hype?
If we want to make Watson’s intelligence as “human-like” and reliable as possible, and to use it to drive decisions based on internet or social media content, its “engine” requires at least another dimension: Source reliability ranking. It has to learn when to trust a source and when to discredit it. It has to have a “learning” mechanism that re-evaluates the reliability of its sources as well as its own decision making process, based on the accuracy of its outcome. And since its knowledge base will be constantly growing, it also needs to re-assess previous decisions on new evidence. (i.e. a “belief revision” system).
Today, Watson is a knowledge regurgitating engine (albeit a very fast and sophisticated one). The full potential of Watson, will only be explored when it becomes a learning engine. Only then can we start talking about real decision intelligence.
(I better caveat this: Any resemblance to actual organisations or events are entirely coincidental! These are my own opinions and not those of my employers…)
Let me tell you a little story, entirely hypothetical of course:
Analyst: We predict… (great fanfare and drum-roll), that by 2015, 85% of business operations will be done on mobile devices.
Vendor 1: Analysts says we’re going mobile. We better jump the competition. We’re buying a small unknown apps company and make a big song and dance about it.
Vendor 2: The Analyst is predicting and our competitors are buying. While they are sorting out their integration issues we’ll write our own apps which will be better, and we’ll jump the market. Let it be known and let it be so!
Vendor 3: Oops – our competition has a jump on us. Let’s build a cut-down version very quickly with limited functionality and launch to the market before the other ones have a chance. While they are fighting for big deals to recover their investment, we’ll gain market share.
Analyst: Look, we predicted this will be a hot market and now three vendors are already competing for that space. We better write a review / scope / quadrant / wave for that market. Let’s see: We predict that Vendor 1 was the inovator in the market, Vendor 2 has the strongest offering, Vendor 3 will appeal to the mid-markets.
All together: (gasp of wonder) All hail the Analyst, for they have powers to analyse the market and predict the future so accurately. What is your next epiphany, oh mighty one?
Ok, ok, so it’s a generalisation, it’s irreverent, and I’ve probably insulted every analyst and IT vendor in the process. Is the scenario so far-fetched though?
A while back, when I was working as a consultant, we used to be the butt of many jokes: “The definition of a consultant, is someone who asks you for your watch before they tell you what time it is”.
The next time you read a great new “innovative” press release from a vendor, or analyst for that matter, just look at it more critically: Is it reflecting a business need or is it creating a new one? After 30 years of constant innovation in the software space, why are we still trying to solve the same problems: Reducing operations cost, improving performance, protecting and sharing information? I can count in one hand the innovations that have fundamentally changed business models: Straight-through processing; Supply chain automation; eCommerce; Satellite communications and precious few others. Most other “innovation” is just giving better sharper tools to do the same job. We’re still building the same cabinet, only we’re using electrical routers instead of chisels and planes.
There is nothing wrong with better, faster, cheaper tools of course. That’s progress. But whenever you come across “The next BIG thing” just take a step back and think: is it really that big a leap? Or is it the bleeding obvious next logical step forward, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?