zaterdag, juni 06, 2009

The Ideality of the Cloud

Genrich Altshuller, the father of systematic innovation, already concluded it more than 50 years ago: the best possible solution to a problem has all the benefits and none of the harm and costs of the original problem. This is what he calls the Ideal Final Result or Ideality. Altshuller should know. Or at least, he had plenty of time to think about it. Way back in the 50’s, he was a lieutenant at the patent department of the Caspian Sea Military Navy. This is where he developed the initial ideas for a revolutionary approach to innovation and problem solving. He was so enthusiastic about his findings that he wrote quite an open, blunt letter to Stalin, who was not particularly renowned for his flexibility or sense of humour. It took Stalin some time to think about it, but eventually Altshuller was banned to the Gulag Archipelago in Siberia.

A minor drawback indeed.

On the positive side of things Altshuller had all the time in the world to contemplate his approach. The rest is history and nowadays TRIZ (Теория решения изобретательских задач, well ok, Russian for ‘Systematic Innovation’) is one of the best known tools for anybody involved in innovation management. One of its key principles is that of Ideality. Applying it helps to overcome psychological inertia and find breakthrough solutions. This is done by focusing on the needed service, rather than on intervening problems or required resources.

Quite a useful approach when discussing the pros and cons of the cloud, so I found out this week when I was presenting a keynote at the very first Swedish cloud conference.
I asked the audience to put themselves in the shoes of the IT manager of a brand new, no-nonsense, agile company. “If you are starting such a company from scratch and have to put together an IT landscape, will you honestly still create your own data center, install software and build applications?” was the simple question. Most of the attendees – including myself - thought they will not.

They will have their virtual servers and storage running somewhere in the cloud (for example Amazon’s EC2). Backups will be taken care of automatically. They may have their email and basic office applications run by Google Applications. They will have their other key applications, such as CRM, HRM and Finance, delivered as Software as a Service as well, for example by or Compiere. And they will find their more value-adding ‘edge’ applications in the cloud too: think about Good Data for analytics, the Cordys Process Factory for business process management and – soon - Google Wave for collaboration.

Come to think of it, employees will bring their own laptops of choice to work, as a standard Internet browser is the only tool needed to work. Actually, they can work anywhere, as the office is no longer the only place that contains the supporting infrastructure and applications. Building on that, the company can have a flexible resourcing strategy, tapping from external BPO suppliers and a scalable network of free agents, whenever appropriate. Then, having fixed offices seems unnecessary and redundant. They can be rented ‘as a service’ as well, if meetings or events require so. Such a company will be flexible and focused, but with the tiniest footprint. Almost a denial of the company as we currently know it.

And that brings us nicely back to Genrich Altshuller, who concluded that Ideal Final Solutions always show the same characteristics: they act as pure services (or functions) because they:

- Occupy no space
- Have no weight
- Require no labour
- Require no maintenance
- Deliver benefits without harm

The ideal washing detergent? Cloths that clean themselves. The ideal tooth paste? Teeth that cannot decay. The ideal insurance policy? Adjusting itself automatically to the behaviour of the insured person.

The ideal IT department? In the cloud.

Ideal, final solutions tend to be invisible, ubiquitous or both. The cloud clearly contains the potential to get us a good step further into that direction. To understand and fully appreciate that, we may want to use the Ideality principle to overcome our own mental inertia. Trust me, it works. Once we have seen the light, it will be time to become pragmatic again. There will be obstacles and constraints in the journey towards the cloud: issues around open standards, integration, migration, security, manageability and governance. They need to be addressed in a step-by-step way, carefully but surely working towards the desired state. After all, most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to set up a business / IT household from scratch.

Vision and direction are great. But often, hard work is just as good or even better. Altshuller would agree (and as I said, he ought to know).

(also published on Capgemini's CTO blog)

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