Examining the ongoing challenges of delivering high-quality, value-added ERP services in Higher Education.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cloud Strategy? Hm.

We had a long talk last week at the senior information technology leadership team meeting on the subject of “cloud.” I’ve grown to hate all the IT buzz phrases, my adverse reaction about those marketing terms, in almost all cases, the polar opposite to my feelings about the actual technology the buzz phrase intends to describe. Most of the “trendy” technology topics are potentially revolutionary and every day I think about how we can harness these technologies to deliver value to my institution; what gets my goat is what happens when complex topics are boiled down into one-word over-simplifications. Cloud. Social. Big data. Useful shorthand but also veneers of simplicity and straight-forwardness that can get you in a heap of trouble. 

Take this simple question: what is your cloud strategy? That is like asking (apropos of today’s holiday) me to define the “cooking strategy” at my home. What’s the context? Is the question whether I believe in cooking? Am I trying to bake a cake or scramble eggs or braise kale? There are common tools (for sure) and ingredients (perhaps) but the only unifying strategies across those three challenges are to avoid hurting oneself, burning down the house, or over/under-cooking. (And to extend the metaphor, even if I mostly cook at home, some nights we’ll go out to dinner and other nights we’ll have pizza delivered).

Yet executives expect and rely upon neat, pretty, and formal strategies (I am far from immune to this desire). The question is how to write the strategic vision while preserving flexibility and supporting a vast array of use cases that will change the day (hour?) after we remove the “DRAFT” watermark.

There have been many articles already written about cloud and I’m not going to add a lot to that discourse. The business executive who says “I want the cloud!” doesn’t know what he’s saying but proves the efficacy of marketing. It is an old problem: users postulating business requirements in the form of solutions. We fight this tendency all day in the applications arena. I need a red button! No, you need some capability to perform some function; we’ll decide later if a red button is the best solution.

So here is my answer to the question of enterprise “cloud” strategy. 

1. Educate. Develop an educational program to unpack that word so that people outside Central IT need to understand the diversity of information technology solutions buried within the buzzword. This runs contrary to the reductio ad absurdum marketing tactics, but cloud technologies need to be understood for what they are—powerful technology capabilities, neither magic bullets nor terrifying monolithic monsters. 

2. Keep pace. The landscape changes rapidly -- and although many in IT pride themselves on being nimble, few are truly accustomed to the plate tectonics in the cloud computing arena. Service offerings change daily; books are outdated before they are published; best practices emerge in real time. Get on Twitter and find a way to get your teams there, too.

3. Ask the right questions.  What are you trying to achieve? How long do you need it for? How much do you want to spend? How fast do you need it? What skills do you have? What assistance do you expect to receive? These are the questions one must answer. 

4. Exploit the technology where it fits. I don't quite know how else to put this. There is no one-size-fits-all rule that you can (or should) follow. There are a million choices we make in IT every day, and cloud computing technologies, in all their variation, are no different. Remember that and apply the same thoughtful logic you should be applying in other cases, matching your budget, capabilities, and requirements against the choices and making the best situational choice you can.

So to distill things back again: the best “cloud strategy” I can muster is to build and sustain competence, ask the right questions, and know what to do with the answers.


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