The Brave Little Toaster

We are currently sitting on the precipice of the fourth industrial revolution which is set to re-think the way we live and work on a global scale.  As with the first industrial revolution, what we know roughly is that change is being driven by technology, but we lack any concrete knowledge of how great the change will be or just how dramatically it will disrupt the world we live in.

The technologies driving the upcoming revolution are artificial intelligence and robotics, technologies which have been the territory of sci-fi for generations which think and act as humans would.  Just as steam power, electricity and ultimately computers have replaced  human labour for mechanical and often mathematical tasks, AI looks set to supplant human thinking and creativity in a way which many see as unsettling.  If the first industrial revolution was too much for the ‘luddites’ doing their best to stamp out mechanical progress, the reaction to AI and robotics is going to be even more unsettling.  There are several clear reasons I can perceive that may drive people away from AI which are:

  • Fear of redundancy: the first reason we can see replicates that of the first industrial revolution. People don’t want technology to do what they do, because if a machine is able to do it faster, better and stronger than they can then what will they do?
  • Fear of the singularity: this one is like our fear of nuclear bombs and fusion. There’s an intrinsic fear people hold, entrenched in stories of Pandora’s Box where we believe certain things should not be investigated.  The singularity of AI is when a computer achieves sentience, and though we’re some way off that (without an idea of how we’d get there) the perceived intelligence of a machine can still be very unnerving.
  • The uncanny valley: the valley is the point where machines start to become more human-like, appearing very close, but not exactly like a human in the way they look or interact. If you’re still wondering what it is, I’d recommend watching these Singing Androids.

Just like we’ve seen throughout history, there is resistance to this revolution.  But if history is anything to go by, while it’s likely to be a bumpy road, the rewards will be huge.  Although it’s the back office, nuts and bolts which are driving change behind the scenes, it’s the front end where we interact with it that’s being re-thought to maximize potential and minimize resistance.  What we’re seeing are interfaces designed to appear dumb, or mask their computational brains to make us feel more comfortable, and that’s where the eponymous title of this blog comes in.

“The Brave Little Toaster” is a book from 1980, or – if you’re lazy like me – it’s a film from about 8 years later, ‘set in a world where household appliances and other electronics come to life, pretending to be lifeless in the presence of humans’.  Whilst the film focused on the adventure of these appliances to find their way back to their owner, what I’d like to focus on is how they hide intelligence when they come into sight – and this is what we’re beginning to see being followed by industry.

Journalism is a career typically viewed as creative and the product of human thought, but did you know that a fairly significant chunk of the news that you read isn’t written by a person at all?  For years now weather reports from the BBC have been written by machines using Natural Language Generation algorithms to take data and turn it into words, which can even be tailored to suit different audiences with simple configuration changes.  Earlier this month The Washington Post also announced that their writing on the Rio Olympics would be carried out by robots.  From a consumer standpoint it’s unlikely that we’ll notice that the stories have been written by machines, and if we don’t even notice it shouldn’t be creepy to us at all.  Internally, rather than seeing it as a way to replace reporters, it’s being seen as an opportunity to ‘free them up’, just like the industrial revolution before which saw people be freed up from repetitive manual tasks to more thought based ones.

Platforms like IBMs Watson begin to add a two-way flow to this, with both natural language generation and recognition, so that a person can ask a question just as they would to a person, with a machine understanding their phrasing and replying in turn without ever hinting that it’s an AI.  At the stage when things become too complicated, the AI asks for a person to take action and from there on the conversation is controlled by them, with no obvious transition.

A gradual approach to intelligence and automated systems is also being adopted by some businesses.  Tesla’s autopilot can be seen as an example of this, continuing a story which began with ABS (automatic breaking) over a decade ago, and developed in recent years to develop a car which, in some instances, can drive itself.  In its current state, autopilot is a combination of existing technologies like adaptive cruise control, automatic steering on a motorway and collision avoidance, but the combination of this with the huge amount of data it generates has allowed the system to learn routes and handling, carefully navigating tight turns and traffic (albeit with an alert driver ready to take over control at all times!).  Having seen this progression, it’s easy to imagine a time not too far from the present day where human drivers are no longer needed, with a system that learns, generates data and continually improves itself just as a human would as they learn to drive, only without the road rage, fatigue or human error.

The future as I see it is massively augmented and improved by artificial intelligence and advanced automation.  Only, it’ll be designed so that we don’t see it, where the boundary between human and machine input is perceivable only if you know exactly where to look.

What do you think? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.

Augmentation, AI and automation are just some of the topics researched by Aurora, Sopra Steria’s horizon scanning team.

Cloud adoption consideration #3: Avoid overly technology-led approaches

This is the third of a series of blog posts discussing the five main considerations critical to successful cloud adoption by enterprises.  If you missed them, the previous posts are here.

Today’s topic is about a common anti-pattern that we see – when organisations see cloud adoption as primarily a technology problem to solve.

Working on cloud has become great CV fodder in the last few years, and so everyone wants to work on the new cloud implementation project and get exposure to the new technology.  Obviously enterprises want to harness this energy, but there is a trap, and it comes back to the need for a cloud adoption strategy and an underpinning business case – i.e. why are you doing it.  Is it to become the world’s leading authority on cloud computing?  Should your organisation be focusing its energies on its core business operations, markets and customers, or pushing the envelope with ground-breaking cloud implementations?

Technologists (and I’m counting myself as one here) love this stuff – introducing complexity, sometimes at the cost of the original business goals.  So consider the following questions…

How many cloud providers do you really need?

A common emerging enterprise adoption pattern is to manage multiple cloud providers via a brokerage solution that gives a single point of control across them.  It’s a valid strategy, but do you really need this?  Is it to reduce the risk of lock-in?  For vendor negotiation leverage?  The risk here is that a great deal of complexity (a barrier to the very agility you are trying to achieve) is introduced, leading to a “lowest common denominator” set of cloud services and a maintenance nightmare as you engage in a never-ending and never-winning chase of the cloud vendors’ latest feature releases.

Do you really need internal/private and public cloud offerings?

In the enterprise market, we could perhaps characterise the last few years as being very focused on private cloud, as the traditional hardware and software vendors desperately tried to defend market share from the public cloud usurpers.  Now the tide is turning more in favour of the public cloud providers, but there is a massive inertia in large enterprises towards on-premise initiatives hence, for example, Microsoft’s focus on positioning for hybrid cloud with Azure Pack and Azure Stack.  This is understandable – there’s typically a huge data centre investment, and an operating model that has been painfully refined over the years to feed and water that investment.

So ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you reinventing something that already exists from the public providers?
  • Are you pursuing an evolutionary step that you can avoid?

Are you really that unusual?

A common statement we hear is “ah, but we are unique/different” – but we would argue that this is rarely the case.  It can certainly be true in the SaaS adoption case, but is much less likely to be the case for IaaS services.  If this argument is used to justify custom development for cloud services, be suspicious.  It’s unlikely that AWS and their kind have not solved all these challenges already, and if they haven’t, ask yourself why they haven’t…it’s likely because it’s not a genuine need.


If you want to read more about this and the other four considerations for successful enterprise cloud adoption, have a look at our white paper.

What are your thoughts about successful cloud adoption by large enterprises? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.


Beamap is the cloud consultancy subsidiary of Sopra Steria

Cloud adoption consideration #2: Define and implement the revised operating model

This is the second of a series of blog posts discussing the five main considerations critical to successful cloud adoption by enterprises (if you missed it, the first post is here).  Today’s topic is the impact of cloud adoption on your operating model.

A common customer scenario goes like this.  We want to get the benefits of cloud computing.  But our organisation is so…slow…to…change and we have so much legacy to deal with.  So let’s set up a skunkworks team for application X that is coming up on the development roadmap, so that we can develop a small initial capability to design, deploy and operate a cloud-based solution.  So far, so sensible.

But then the advantages that this initial team had start to become disadvantages. They can’t scale. They don’t really have the organisational sponsorship as they’ve deliberately operated in a silo so they could move quickly, avoiding all those pesky organisational constraints. This is the old bimodal IT dilemma which has had far too many column inches written about it already (here is a good place to start on this topic), so I won’t add to them here.

Bite the bullet

At some point, the enterprise has to bite the bullet, define and then implement a revised operating model for the design, deployment, operating and retirement of cloud services at scale.  It needs to become the default model for the scenarios defined in the strategy that we did such a great job of earlier, not the exception.  Regardless of the technology selection, the operating model within the IT function needs to change, and in some respects this needs to be defined before the implementation phase.  This is a non-trivial undertaking and requires serious management commitment.

Most non-cloud-native, large enterprises have not got to this stage yet, regardless of what case studies are available in the trade press…digital flagship projects get all the coverage but the reality is that the vast majority of enterprise workloads are still in the data centre as we are just a few years into a very long journey, and so the evolution of operational models is tracking this trend.

So what does a cloud-ready operating model look like?

Well, it considers cloud adoption in multiple dimensions:

  • design, build and run…
  • …using the full range of cloud services – SaaS through to IaaS…
  • …considering the people, process and technology implications

Some of the aspects of the operating model can be radically new for an organisation, e.g. DevOps processes, multi-skilled teams.  And some can be refinements to existing processes to better support an environment that has greater and greater dependence over time on cloud-based services.  For example, vendor management needs to change to cope with the differing innovation pace, commercial models, legal implications and billing models of cloud providers.

The risk here is that your technologists do a fantastic job providing your staff with access to the underlying internal or external cloud services, but a pre-cloud-era operating model destroys the benefits by constraining the achieved agility and innovation.  In addition, the new operating model needs to be much more responsive to change itself, so there is a “one-off” redesign required here, but also an ongoing process of adaptation to respond to the still rapidly changing cloud landscape.  It’s still relatively early days…


If you want to read more about this and the other four considerations for successful enterprise cloud adoption, have a look at our white paper.

What are your thoughts about successful cloud adoption by large enterprises? Leave a reply below, or contact me by email.


Beamap is the cloud consultancy subsidiary of Sopra Steria

Is Blockchain in the MASH for Local Government?

In their latest insight briefing, SOCITM pose the question, Blockchain technology: could it transform digital-enabled councils?

They urge councils and wider public sector authorities to follow developments around blockchain Distributed Ledger technologies with a view to experimenting with their potential use in the development of future service transformation plans.

It is safe to say that blockchain is currently one of the hot technology topics trying to establish itself as a new way of handling trusted transactions. The rise and publicity surrounding BitCoin has driven this current hype and whilst the underlying technology of blockchain is very appropriate for financial-based systems, it is still unclear what viable (and practical) uses there will be across other sectors.

UK Government has issued a number of articles and papers regarding this topic, and they are actively investigating the potential of the technology to support a number of public-facing services. But the challenge is: ‘what is the use case that can exploit the capabilities of blockchain?’.

As an organisation, Sopra Steria sees the potential of this technology to provide immutable chain of evidence based systems and we are actively working on a number of potential use cases across a number of sectors.

The opportunities for Local Government need further investigation to consider how blockchain could be used to improve services, reduce costs, or help tackle fraud. As the SOCITM article suggests, these opportunities have yet to be clearly defined and articulated. Whilst G-Cloud 8 now shows services related to blockchain, there are only two of any real substance – one from a leading provider of blockchain Distributed Ledger Technologies, and the second a consultative service on what, and how, to use blockchain.  The others simply make reference to blockchain – so there is still a substantial way to go before there are pre-defined services available for Local Government.

Should Local Government be investigating the opportunities for blockchain/Distributed Ledger technology?  Absolutely!

There are a number of potential areas where the ability of providing chain of evidence based capabilities could be used, but the challenge for Local Government is to define the business and application processes needed to use blockchain. One of the areas in which we see major opportunities is the ability of coordinating MASH (Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hubs) by providing a means of identifying master records across different agencies. The ability of establishing a clear data level trust relationship is going to be critical to delivering successful MASH services.

Sopra Steria supports SOCITM’s call to identify the appropriate uses and applications of blockchain which will stand the test of time. As an integral part of their design process, councils should now be considering the advantages of using both blockchain, and other emerging technologies, when shaping future transformation programmes.

Take a look at our paper, “Blockchain: harnessing the power of distributed ledgers”, earlier posts on this topic on our blog or leave your thoughts on this subject below.

Have you reached your digital tipping point?

Here at Sopra Steria we have been talking to our clients about their plans for digital for several years. We’ve seen them move from mild curiosity, through active experimentation towards full-scale transformation activity.

Given the diverse nature of our customer base, spanning public and private sectors and the many and varied organisations that comprise those vertical markets, you’d expect each and every one of their experiences to have been different. You’d be right, too! But you might also be surprised at the similarities across businesses of all shapes and sizes as they evolve to greater levels of digital maturity.

Certainly, many organisations over the past few years have focused their early digital efforts on enhancing the customer experience. Driven by an ongoing consumer-driven demand for better services, across an ever-lengthening list of channels and devices, companies have recruited creative agencies, consultants and advisory partners to help to introduce compelling new user experiences, in order to retain both relevance and customers in an environment of swirling change.

Many of these organisations have had some outstanding results. However, many others have found themselves frustrated at an inability to transition their successful experiments, whether working in-house or with partners, across to their mainstream delivery portfolios. Knowing that businesses need to ‘keep the lights on’ whilst also transforming their culture in order to be more responsive, more agile and altogether more digital is proving to be the real challenge of the day.

This is where Sopra Steria makes a massive difference, as it helps its clients recognise this digital ‘tipping point’ and, more importantly, move beyond it!

Years of experience delivering and assuring large scale business and IT transformation programmes for our clients, combined with UX leadership, agile expertise and a growing network of emerging and established tech partners, puts Sopra Steria in the ideal position to work with clients to identify and select early digital wins in order to inject them, via a proven digital integration layer, into in-flight business and IT transformation programmes.

The ability to demonstrate the innovation required to retain market position, attract new customers and transform not only the infrastructure of the organisation but its culture is the key challenge our clients face today and the key reason they are turning to Sopra Steria as their digital partner of choice. View our interactive cityscape to see how such organisations are digitally transforming.

Digital at scale: how digital can transform business

If you spend time at pretty much any tech company, from startups to big corporates, you’re likely to hear the word ‘digital’ a bit too much.  Some people are doing it, some are making their journey towards being more digital and others are still struggling to define what exactly it is, and in many ways, it’s that final category that have the most honest answer to the question – What is digital?  And this is what experts from the technology and financial services industry discussed during a recent seminar at London Technology Week.

It’s easy to define digital as being about technologies – that digital is at its core the binary ‘0’s and ‘1’s, on and off and all the brilliant devices and interfaces that have spawned out of it.  While that’s not entirely wrong, it paints a picture that everything digital is very clean cut, with a definite right and wrong answer that follows any question – but the truth is very different.  The technologies are far from a constant, and everything from the technology chosen to the implementation will change not only for different demographics but from person to person, and will adapt to their current situation, desires, needs and moods.  Technology then, is transient, and to be truly digital you must be open to constant and relentless change, throwing away technology, processes and ways of working constantly, and ensuring that the new tool adopted is chosen intelligently, to be the best tool for the job, and the most commercially viable solution.

This however all sounds like the territory of startup businesses.  Businesses that are new to the scene, or with very flexible business models are often far more adept to change as they do not have the long-standing commitments to clients, legacy platforms and some of the regulatory requirements of their big corporate counterparts.  Some may suggest that these big corporates should simply throw away the legacy platforms, circumvent the regulation and transform their clients, and noble though that may be, it’s a fool’s errand.  For these businesses, what they really need is to find a way to take advantage of new technology, whatever that may be, and develop systems that allow them to adapt to change which work alongside and complement their legacy ‘technological debt’ and support their regulatory requirements rather than dispose of them. This is digital at scale.

Put simply, digital at scale explores how businesses can leverage digital, be it technology, ways of working or any other idea that comes under the umbrella of digital to transform their business, supporting existing technologies, commitments and regulation where appropriate, and disposing of them where necessary.

Sopra Steria’s MiFID 2 project with the FCA is an example of where digital at scale has been implemented. For all the businesses that are wary of how technologies like cloud and open source could work in a highly regulated environment, there’s no better example than that of the regulator itself adopting these technologies.  The MiFID 2 regulatory support service is built for the cloud, ingesting, processing and persisting files on AWS, with innovative open source platforms like Cassandra and Spark ensuring that all submissions are processed quickly and with an extremely high degree of accuracy, with an architecture that supports changes should a specific client or geography require, like private vs public cloud or separate technology components.  What is particularly profound about this solution though is how it backs into and supports the legacy environment, through a simple FTP gateway, ensuring that the wealth of historical data is utilized and, as is so important in an environment like this, remembered with a system that can speak both the languages of the old and the new into the future, maintaining a stream of communication regardless of changes made on either end.

The MiFID 2 platform is only one example of these principles put to work, and though the distant future might see us living in a fully digital world we must be conscious today that whether we transition fast or slowly, we must do so safely too, and with a strong commercial focus to build not simply small digital players, but truly successful enterprises with digital at scale.

Find out more about our FCA Market Data Processing project and Sopra Steria’s #intelligentdigital campaign.

Digital Transformation research – the core versus new tech dilemma

C-suite feedback to Sopra Steria’s Digital Transformation Survey 2016 reflected a critical pain point many commercial organisations face today; the opportunity cost of investing scarce CapEx to sustain existing capabilities versus bolder, riskier transformation of its customer or employee experience as enablers for long term growth.

In fact the survey reported an almost fifty/fifty split between these two competing priorities across most business areas (tellingly over a third of respondents were senior managers from marketing functions, highlighting how such strategic budget decisions are increasingly moving front of house away from IT’s direct control).

So why does this tension exist and how can senior management respond?  Here are some ideas…

Where to start?

Many respondents ranked prioritising investment in new technologies such as virtual reality far below core system transformation. This does reflect a pragmatic approach; radically transforming the customer experience is likely to fail if legacy back office capabilities are unable to effectively support these new engagement channels.

Yet further analysis of the survey results suggests this may be symptomatic of a deeper rooted problem – organisations are still figuring out how to satisfactorily measure the benefits of digital transformation; many respondents struggled to name specific hard or even soft measures for evaluating their initiatives with very few identifying return on investment as a key metric.

Lead or follow?

Despite there being a strong commitment to digital transformation from all respondents (particularly as an enabler for customer experience improvement); many fed back they were making such investments in response to competitor first moves in this area rather than taking a pro-active approach themselves.

But again, this may only be telling half the story; most participating commercial organisations were allocating less than 25% of their annual CapEx budgets to such initiatives and typically only focusing this investment on transforming a single business area.  Digital transformation is still arguably perceived by many senior managers as too immature to use for wide scale business change, despite the strategic risk of their competitors succeeding first using such an approach.

How to integrate?

Many respondents positively felt that the key strength of digital transformation is its ability to cut across organisational silos to innovate the customer experience while lowering operating costs – a solution to the core versus new tech dilemma.

Yet many reported a range of people, process and technology barriers impacting their ability to deliver this integrated approach – especially frustrating given the majority of senior managers interviewed wanted their people to lead such projects directly rather than suppliers.  It’s perhaps no surprise then that the same respondents also want external partners to play a key role in designing and realising digital projects collaboratively with them.

Solving the dilemma: Sopra Steria digital service design

At Sopra Steria, we help commercial organisations turn these digital transformation challenges into sources of scalable competitive advantage.  This is because our people first, technology second approach to digital service design is focused on ensuring the right organisational pain points are being proactively addressed to meet desired business outcomes from day one of a project.

Consequently organisational stakeholders are empowered to innovate the customer and employee experience using an optimal mix of existing capabilities and digital ways of working; we enable a commercial organisation to successfully solve its own core versus new tech dilemma.

If you would like more information about how Digital Service Design can benefit your customers and employees please contact the Sopra Steria Digital Practice for more information.