Back around the middle of 2001 after the fear, excitement and expenditure surrounding the Year 2000, or ‘Y2K, ‘problem’ died away and the then promise of the Internet as a force of transformation was being talked about, a colleague started talking about ‘the Null Zone’. He drew a neat little PowerPoint which showed a classic ‘crossing the chasm’ bell curve going from a slow flat start, ramping up sharply as the market grew, before flattening out again in maturity. He designated this model as classic IT. Next to it and rising above it he drew a second representation of the same curve which he called the Internet era. His point was that he expected a flattening of the market around traditional IT, meaning back office and ERP, before the start of the boom in the market around using the Internet to create online business.
People weren’t blogging in any obvious way back then which is a shame as it would have made a nice piece to refer back to. What he, and most of us frankly, got wrong was that the Internet wasn’t ready, and I do mean the Internet, as in the bandwidth and universal access that was holding business use back. It wasn’t just the dubious business and commercial models of the time; it was quite simply that Internet wasn’t ready to do what business wanted. You may remember that whatever you did it was an agonising wait, and the better the site in terms of rich features, the worse the wait.
But what I do think he had right was his concept of ‘the Null Zone’, that moment when a potential switching of focus can happen. I have a strong feeling that this is where we are right now, and the three questions are:
- Is the technology ready for what is required of it?
- Is the business ready to make a bold step change to use the technology?
- Is the timing right?
Starting with the first question, of course it did turn out that it wasn’t the Internet that was the real focus, it was the Web, but are we now at a point when the Web can support something of real business value? The answer seems to be yes, and there are plenty of high growth new business examples to prove it. But that’s if you frame the question around business using the Web to build new go-to-market capabilities, products and services. It’s hard to find any reasonable business that is not present on the Web and the gradual move into increasing sales volumes by moving online is well documented with a current record of $913 million in one single day last December! Look more closely at the web-based part of the business, it’s also the most likely to be run and managed separately from the enterprise IT operations.
Here is the crux of the issue; is cloud technology ready in the eyes of the IT department? The answer is arguably a question mark. If the question phrased as; “Are CIOs ready to risk their reputations and the enterprise commercial operation on cloud-based technology?” then the comparison is based on the ability of clouds to provide the reliability and security in line with the in-house data centre running a tried and tested ERP and other apps. But that’s like making a comparison between living in your own home and living in a hotel. If you refuse to use a hotel on the grounds that it can’t reproduce everything your home has then you, and I do mean you, will be the loser. No holidays for a start! Just visualise never being able to venture further than you can reach in a day and still return home in terms of how much your experience of life would be diminished!
First venturing out and staying in a hotel is a big step, as are first holidays away from home. Yet all of this plays a formulative part in our personal development. The gap between when we could have done this, and when we did first do it, is our own personal ‘null zone’ which once crossed resets our comparisons and expectations.
So is it enough to look at the cloud and see virtualisation as an IT cost cutting opportunity, or is it in fact that the technology is ready to support something very different: something that business managers are hungry to have? Given the volumes of growth enjoyed by any one of the major cloud service providers, from Google, to Amazon, and Force.com to any number of specialists, the answer seems to be that business managers are prepared to put their money down now to pay for what they see as technology that is ready for their business use.
It’s the third and final question that is hardest to resolve. Is now the right time to make a determined move forward and provide your enterprise with the technology and support for business change? Well, here is my practical tip, and one that has proven to be successful for many Capgemini clients. Ask the CFO if together you can take a look through the corporate credit card bills and see if you can spot payments to cloud service providers. If you can, and so far every CIO I have discussed this with has found there are payments, then its time to act, time to leave the safety of home to stay in a hotel, not as an alternative to home, but as a base for a very different set of life experiences.
I hope my point is clear, and for those of you who developed the use of PCs whilst the data centre manager denied their use on grounds of comparisons to Mini and Mainframe computers, maybe you should do some soul searching. I would like to self indulgently add a further point. I have been concerned for a year now that most of what I read about cloud computing is about the technology itself and very little is about how to use the technology to build business solutions. The notable exception is the business book, Dot.Cloud: The 21st Century Business Platform by Peter Fingar. As with mashups, which now seem to be called portals, or with social networking and collaboration tools, the gap between understanding how the technology will be used and the ins and outs of the technology itself remains huge.
In MashUp Corporations, co-authored with Chris Thomas of Intel, then in Mesh Collaboration with Nick Earle of Cisco, I took on the Null Zone. Now working with Peter Fingar, former CIO and professor, and Jon Pyke, noted authority on process management, we have written a companion to Dot.Cloud that is aimed directly at Enterprise Cloud Computing to provide insights and guidance for business and technology leaders caught in the Null Zone for the cloud. Both books are available at Amazon, including the Kindle versions in the cloud. Let me know about your Null Zone moments.