Fear, Frustration and Hope in a Covid19 threatened Digital World


Photo by CDC on Unsplash

We live in unprecedented times. With Covid19, we are in a global war with an invisible enemy – a war in which we are both potential victims of, and foot soldiers for that enemy. We all live in fear for ourselves, and even more so for our families – our parents, children and grandchildren, as well as for all those who are more exposed and at risk to this unseen yet ever-present enemy.

At a time like this we need strong, decisive and transparent leadership at all levels. Leadership that must also be compassionate and comforting in helping us understand that we are all in this together, and that collectively we can and must play our part in beating this enemy. Here, in Canada, and in our province, British Columbia, we are seeing that, as we are generally across Canada. But this is a global war with an enemy that moves fast and silently, and respects no borders and no-one, and that can be anywhere at any time. At a time like this, it is immensely frustrating that we are not seeing a collaborative global response to this global enemy. Instead, from many leaders across the world – some more so than others – we have seen, and are seeing: Denial instead of action; Delay instead of speed; Secrecy instead of openness; Division instead of unification; Competition instead of collaboration; putting Self-Interest ahead of the interest of the people, and (largely driven by that same self-interest) putting National Interest instead of global interest…and the list goes on.

In what we once referred to as the IT space, but what is now increasingly becoming an all-encompassing digital world, we have suffered from similar failures of leadership for decades. We have seen, and continue to see many billions of dollars spent on technology with all too often little or no value being delivered as a result of those expenditures.

In this current crisis, it is frustrating to see the inability of aging technology systems – systems that have been neglected for far too long, to respond to critical needs in an agile and timely way. We are experiencing the result of years or decades of little or no investment in maintaining and updating our technology infrastructure. Where new investments have been made, they have all too often failed to deliver the expected value – assuming that value was even clearly defined at the outset, which is generally the exception rather than the rule. These investments are often made without clear understanding, ownership and accountability from the business or organizational leadership, and without inclusive and ongoing engagement of those who have to use and live with the systems and applications resulting from those investments.

But there is also hope. During this crisis we have seen, and continue to see the ability of organizations and individuals in all sectors to pivot to new ways of delivering their products and services. As Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, summed it up, Social distancing rules have brought forward the adoption of a wide range of technologies by two years. A comment echoed by Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai predicting a “significant and lasting” impact from the forced move to online work, education, shopping, medicine and entertainment.

In the case of healthcare, digitally-enabled services that have been discussed for years or, in some cases decades, have been delivered in a few weeks. Manufacturers have retooled their production to produce respirators and Personal Protection Equipment. Distilleries have switched production from liquor to hand sanitizer.  In response to a request from local hospitals, Quinn Callander, a 12 year old boy scout in Vancouver, Canada answered a request from the local hospitals for a device to help relieve severe pain from pressure and friction of wearing masks for long periods. Working with his 3D printer, and by prototyping several designs, he developed a simple but effective “ear guard” strap. In just a few weeks, he has produced 1,700 such straps, a volunteer group he is part of has made an additional 5,000 straps, and he has made the design available for others to download[1]. Across America, makers of all ages and skill-levels have thrown themselves into helping to alleviate the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Some are actually making masks, shields and gowns. Others are collaborating on designs, and making those designs public. Still others are trying to figure out how to get PPE to those who need it most as quickly as possible. These charitable tinkerers provide ground for both a deeply American sort of hope—strangers doing as much as they can, wherever they can, for the good of their neighbours—and despair, at the colossal federal failure that inspired them[2].

An article in the April 25th edition of The Economist under the heading “Creative Disruption” discusses the pandemic “liberating firms to experiment with new ideas”, and being to do so at breakneck speed, and without huge financial outlays. But, as evidenced above, it’s more than that. It is actually liberating organizations of all types, and in all sectors, as well as individuals of all ages across the world to do so. As Michael Waters said on April 30th in the Financial Times, “The pandemic is working on all the main levers that affect the pace of digital adoption: consumer behaviour, business processes and government regulation”.

We are seeing examples of outstanding leadership coming from everywhere and anywhere, but not, in all too many cases, from those in “official” leadership positions in the public and private sector. The challenge ahead, when the Covid19 crisis is brought under control, to whatever extent that may happen, is how to keep the momentum, and not slip back, as The Economist article says, to our comfortable traditional world of  ‘“analysis paralysis”, an affliction caused by top managers having pored over the same irrelevant case studies at business school.’ We need to tap in to that outstanding, yet previously unrecognized leadership that is everywhere and everywhere. This will require rethinking, or blowing up previous models of leadership and management

We need to ask ourselves, when the crisis abates, are we going to fall back to the traditional world of ineffective leadership, bloated inefficient bureaucracies, and disengaged employees and citizens, or are we going to learn from the crisis and move forward together to a better world. A world in which leadership is a behaviour, recognized, nurtured and rewarded throughout an organization, with leadership at the top playing a role akin to some combination of an orchestra conductor, and an air traffic controller. A world in which: Bureaucracy, a term coined roughly two centuries ago is no longer fit for purpose when today’s employees are skilled, not illiterate; Competitive Advantage comes from innovation, not sheer size; Communication is instantaneous, not tortuous; and the Pace of Change is hypersonic, not glacial. A world in which employees, as in the case of China’s Haier, are engaged as “energetic entrepreneurs, and an open ecosystem of users, inventors and partners replaces formal hierarchy”[3].

[1] Source: Fast Company, April 9, 2020, “This 12-year-old invented an ingenious solution to one of the biggest problems with masks”

[2] Source: The Economist, April 30, 2020, “America’s Makers and tinkerers turn their hands to PPE

[3] Source: The End of Bureaucracy, Gary Hamel and Michael Zanini, Harvard Business Review, November-December 1918 Issue

2012 – A Perfect Storm in IT!

One consequence of a 3 month hiatus, forced initially by surgery and concluded more voluntarily with much needed relaxation in Hawaii, is that I have had time to actually read and digest much of the material that, all too often, I only have time to quickly scan – and then rarely get back to. Amongst all this material was a considerable amount of prognostication on 2012 trends. In many ways, little of this was new, but collectively, it does amount to a “perfect storm” that challenges the way we as individuals, societies, and enterprises – small and large, public and private, look at, use and manage technology, including both the demand and supply side and, probably most importantly, where they intersect. In this post, I will briefly discuss the elements of this “perfect storm”, add the one element that I find to be conspicuously missing from the dialogue, and discuss the implications of both.

  1. The “cloud” – the dream of the “information utility” has been around for decades, and now, with the “cloud”, while there are still significant governance, security and privacy issues to work through (some real, some “noise”),  this is now closer to being a reality.
  2. The data explosion, “big data” – I read recently that 90% of the data in the world today was created in the last 2 years – this exponential growth of data is creating both enormous challenges, and great opportunities – on the technology side, developments include the rise of Hadoop, and recent announcements of Dynamo DB from Amazon, and Big Data Appliance from  Oracle, as well as the growing need for new data visualization and “data scientist” skills.
  3. Analytics, particularly real-time analytics – some of the technologies mentioned above, and indeed those below, are fundamentally changing the analytics landscape. Huge amounts of data – structured or unstructured, can now be analyzed quickly, and data can increasingly be captured and analyzed in real time. The challenge here is to resist the temptation  to succumb to analysis paralysis – to know what information is both relevant and  important, what questions to ask, and to think ahead to what actions might need be taken as a result of based on the answers to these questions.
  4. Mobility – services can now be accessed, data captured, information found, and transactions performed from almost anywhere – other work locations, coffee shops, restaurants and bars, at home, in other countries, in taxis, trains or buses, on airplanes or even on a cruise ship – limitations of distance and time have been virtually eliminated. The challenge here, apart from the security and privacy issues that are common to most of these points,  is to be able to find the “off” button in an increasingly, always on, 24/7 world. On an individual basis we need to maintain a work-life balance, and from a business perspective, “burn out” seriously erodes the effectiveness and value of  their most critical resource – people.
  5. Consumerization, including BYOD and “app”s – while it could be argued that these 3 could each merit their own category, I have chosen to “lump” them together as, collectively, they represent a further significant shift from the traditional “technology push” world, with the IT function in a control mode as the gatekeeper, to the “user tool pull” world with IT, potentially – if they get it right, in a facilitation role as a service broker.
  6. Social Media – this is, to some extent, simply one “flavour” of the previous 2 elements, but a very significant one, with potentially huge implications. While much of the attention to date has been on controlling social media, enterprises are increasingly using it as a communication channel, and beyond that, to tap into it to find out what their customers, and employees are thinking. Here, one challenge/opportunity that I see how we can use social media to improve performance  by tapping into the collective knowledge within organizations – “crowd sourcing” input into decision-making and, as a result, making better-informed decisions, and having employees feel more connected with, and empowered by their organizations.

In all the discussion around the elements of this “perfect storm”, much if not most of the focus had been on the IT function needing to respond more quickly to deliver and/or support capabilities in these areas. There has been much less discussion of how the use of these technologies will be used to lead to positive outcomes – creating and/or sustaining  individual, societal and enterprise value – or of the changes that will be needed in the behaviour of individuals, societies and enterprises if that value is to be realized. If we as individuals and societies are not to become “the tools of our tools”, and enterprises are not to continue the increasingly expensive and value-destructive litany of IT failures, we need to shift our focus from the technology to how we manage and use the capabilities that the technologies provide to increase the value of our lives, our societies and our enterprises.

I don’t make these comments as a later day “luddite”,  rather my focus on value is driven by many decades of frustration at our being nowhere near to realizing the individual, societal and business value that intelligent and appropriate use of technology can create. We will not close that gap until we – as individuals, or leaders in society or business, take “ownership” of how we  use technology, based on the outcomes that are important to us, and the value that we seek to create and sustain! In the enterprise world, this has fundamental implications for the roles and accountabilities of business executives and line of business managers, and for the role of the IT function, as discussed in 2 earlier posts, The Future of IT, and Value from IT – There is a Better Way!

In closing, in the context of individual and societal value, 2 areas that I have long had an interest in, and that I will be watching closely this year are healthcare and education. While we shouldn’t expect seismic shifts in either to happen quickly – it’s just not the nature of the beasts, the ground is starting to move. In healthcare, much of this is driven by the funding crunch, with increase focus on eHealth, based largely on “meaningful use” of EHRs, as well as an increasing number of apps such as Phillips Vital Signs Camera for the iPad. In education, with some exceptions, it is still somewhat more of a grass roots movement, although Apple’s recent iBooks 2 and iTunesU announcements, and organizations such as Curriki may well be  changing this. What I believe we will see here, over time, is an evolution beyond eHealth and eLearning to iHealth, and iLearning, with individuals taking increasing “ownership” of their own health and education.