Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Why are we here? Answering the question with purpose.

My business is Epion Consulting.  Ask me why Epion exists and I'll tell you it's to enable technology businesses, investors and policy makers to do the right next thing, and to do the next thing right.  Similarly, I'm a member of a church.  Ask us why we're there and we'll tell you what we're looking to achieve.  Nothing surprising so far.

But the answers could have been different.  I might have told you that Epion Consulting exists because I took redundancy from a previous employer and decided to work on my own.  Or, I could tell you that my church is there because in late Saxon times a church building was built, and over the centuries, and through the reformation, it's evolved and adapted.

In other words, a 'why are we here' question can be answered either in terms of purpose, or, instead, in terms of how we found ourselves where we are.  For most of us, regardless of how interesting the latter might prove to be, the former is surely the more important.  Why, as purpose, begins to help me figure out what I should be doing, even how I should be living.  Organisations use purpose to inspire - with vision (the outcome sought by the purpose) and mission as ways of articulating purpose, and providing a rallying cry.  How we came to find ourselves here, on the contrary, tends not to inspire and is unlikely to prompt action.

This is so obvious, that it would not normally be worth stating.  Or so I thought.

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme (8th September) the clearly very brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking was asked what his book The Grand Design was about.  He answered (pre-recorded) that it answered the question of why we are here.  But exploring how the world came into being doesn't begin to say anything about purpose, surely?  So, I guess we're left with an answer to the 'why we are here' question that does little to inspire us to live well, however we would interpret that.

One might, I suppose, at this stage say that this was OK, that we could look to religion or philosophy to answer the 'why = purpose' question.  Intriguingly, the studio interviewee seemed to knock this one on the head too (I missed his name, sorry).  He expressed the view (if I understood him correctly) that contemporary philosophy was failing because it had failed to engage adequately with developments in physics.  Sounded to me like a scientist wanting to limit philosophy to 'how we came to be here' variants of 'why' questions and answers.  I'd rather philosophy explored 'why' as purpose.

I'm clear that philosophy and religion need to interact with science - as a fan of TF Torrance I could hardly think otherwise.  But I want to know my purpose.  I want the answer to the 'why am I here question' to inspire me.  I'm persuaded that 'how we came to be here' answers are typically inadequate answers to the really big 'why are we here' questions.  It's with that in mind that I look forward to reading The Grand Design - as I enjoyed A Brief History of Time.

And I'll continue to help businesses answer why they exist in terms of their purpose, not their organisational evolution.  They find that more useful.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Tripping Over Categories

I'm imagining a conversation between a couple of merchants one or two thousand years ago. One is using a quill to write an invoice, and the other says to him "You need to be careful with that religious technology. It's fine for copying out gospels, but we have to worry about forgery. Seals just aren't up to the job, and the quill manufacturers aren't doing enough to solve the problem". Or, around the same time, can you imagine two monks complaining that religious technology was being used to paint pictures of the local landowner's friends, or to write out stories like "that Beowulf thing".

Our imaginary merchants and monks are tripping up over categories. Pens and paints may have emerged in a religious context, used by one group of people, and their initial use by other groups in other contexts was undoubtably fraught. But to think of them as 'religious technology' seems ridiculous to us, and would have done little to further their successful adoption.

I wonder if we are tripping over categories in just the same way around what we call the consumerisation of technology. So, a couple of recent examples from Gartner analysts. Nick Jones' very fine blog talks of "consumer devices" and "consumer platforms" in highlighting iPhone Exchange / Activesync problems. Similarly, Mark McDonald talks of "consumer-based technology increasingly [becoming] a consumer tool".

Both are, of course, highlighting real issues. I just wonder for how long the distinction between 'consumer technology' and 'business technology' will be sustainable - and whether making the distinction is already counter-productive. Certainly it must surely increase the risk of opportunities being ignored or written off, because they rely on technology from the 'wrong' category.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Moral Business, Enabling Laws

An interesting discussion with a group of IT leaders last week, about sourcing partnerships. The question being discussed was how we can make them genuine partnerships in nature, not just in name. I was really struck (and encouraged) by the group's belief that this was not only desirable but that it was possible too - albeit not necessarily in every situation.

Emerging from the discussion was the conviction that relationship lies at the heart of how this can be done. If partnership is to be real, then it will be underpinned by a relationship of trust. This means (obviously) that the contract is not what makes a partnership really work - although a bad contract can wreck it. Thus the contract's role, in reality, is to define outcomes, to lessen the likelihood of things going wrong, and to address what happens when something does go wrong.

Trust is a moral term. As I form a view about whether or not I will choose to trust someone, I am making (at least in part) a moral judgement about their character and likely behaviour -based on my perceptions. I may form a low view, and still choose to trust them, but I'm making a moral assessment, none the less. The same applies to organisations. The obvious, and non-controversial, conclusion is that business has a moral dimension. I note, though, that relationship, necessitating the forming of moral judgements, is desirable, and a key for success in sourcing.

At a bit of a tangent, admittedly, this resonates with questions about the nature of law. I suggested that sourcing contracts are there to stop things going wrong, and to address the situation if they do. That's a classic view of what laws are for - and one that relies on agreement re right and wrong (or on the ability of one group to impose their view on the whole). I find it interesting that we seem increasingly to be passing laws to enable behaviour, rather than restrain it (eg The Human Fertilisation & Embryology Act of 2008) - and we're doing so in areas where agreement is far from uniform. That troubles me.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Jobs vs Flash: Just which battle has Apple won?

I read with interest Steve Jobs' open letter about Flash and why Apple won't use it on iPad, iPod and iPhones. Well constructed is the least one could say about it. It's been followed by a WSJ interview with Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen, summarised on WSJ blogs. Both are well considered by Charles Arthur on Technology Guardian - here on Jobs' letter, and here on the Narayen interview.

It posed two questions for me. The first is 'has Apple won this battle?' My bet is yes. And I think this has at least as much to do with the time Adobe seems to be taking to bring fully-featured Flash to mobile platforms, as to do with Apple's behaviour. Will Flash be as key on mobile devices as it has been on desktops and laptops? Don't think so.

But the second, and more interesting question, is exactly which battle has Apple won? Is it just about Flash on mobile devices? I suspect not. Here's the hypothesis:
  • Mobile device (smartphones, tablets, media players, etc) uptake, I think, is growing faster than desktop and laptop, and will continue to do so
  • So, mobile devices account for larger and larger shares of use, and begin to set the direction, rather than desktop / laptop devices. We'll see (five years? ten?) a time when mobile establishes the pattern and desktops and laptops follow. Already there are signs of this in user interfaces and application design.
  • At the same time, and symbiotically, consumerisation of IT proceeds apace. So, developments in consumer technology point the way for corporate computing. Think about it - Apple vs Adobe in setting consumer technology standards relating to media. Make a call.
So, the battle Apple has won (or the war it is winning) is surely against Flash overall. Note that most of Jobs' arguments don't apply to mobile devices alone. If this is true, then there are implications for the corporate IT world too. This includes how long we go on using Flash for web applications.

But, that's only part of it. Apple's strategy for corporate penetration seems very different from (say) 20 years ago. Then it was about attempting to demonstrate that the Mac was a better solution for the corporate desktop - I remember a KPMG-produced analysis arguing that the Mac had better corporate connectivity than the PC, for example. Now, the strategy includes ensuring that there is a foundation for integration with eg Exchange, but the battle is fundamentally being fought elsewhere. The pattern I see is Apple fuelling and riding the wave of technology consumerisation and then surfing it all the way to the corporate desktop (and perhaps more importantly, whatever follows on from 'desktop').

So, watch how this one plays out. It's about much more than iPhone apps and browser functionality.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A World Without Secrets (Part One)

So, Gordon Brown has been caught saying one thing publicly, and another in private. That's a bad day for him - both because of the displayed disparity between public and private, but also because the private comment was unjustified.

Integrity has sometimes been defined as the absence of any difference between public and private person - and I get that. I want to be the same person in public as I am in private. On that basis, Brown got it badly wrong.

On the other hand, I know that I don't live up to this, not by a long way. I therefore find it far easier to identify with Gordon Brown in his frustration, his fault and his apologising than I do with George Osborne who said:

"We have found out the prime minister's internal thoughts... and I think they speak for themselves ... What people will see is the contrast between what he was saying publicly and what he was saying privately"

It must be nice to be as confident about your own behaviour as that - or perhaps he's being a tad hypocritical? I'm with Nick Clegg who told Radio 4's PM programme:

"If we all had recordings of what we mutter under our breath we'd all be crimson with embarrassment... Gordon Brown has now gone out of his way to apologise. He was quite right to do so, and I think that's that."

Good on him. We really do live in a World Without Secrets.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Unwritten Rules

So, there's an unwritten rule that you shouldn't blog in your 52nd year. Because it's unwritten, I think I'm the only person that knows about it. Well, that's my excuse for not posting for a year.

What have I learnt during this silence?
  • Blogs can continue to resonate - one ex-colleague, reading my blog in March this year didn't notice posts were 12+ months old, and said he liked them. I suspect it's a bit like stopped clocks being right twice a day.
  • An increasing proportion of the insight I come across is in blogs - which sets a higher threshold for me subscribing, but means blog results are a much bigger part of business-related searches. Sets a higher threshold if I expect anyone to read anything I write. And I like some corporate blogs too.
  • It was all too good to last. The Obama Car Wash on the Cowley Road is now The Only One car wash - I suspect this is about disillusionment with the president rather than a car wash with messianic pretensions - but, on the other hand, this is the Cowley Road.
  • Having a daughter marry can be a wonderful experience
  • Establishing a network that works both online and offline is immense fun - and that CIOnet appears to remain the only international online and offline network for CIOs and IT leaders. You're not a member yet? I think we're doing something a bit different, and of real value. Contact me for more
So, there's another unwritten rule about blogging in your 53rd year. I'll follow that one.