The rise of the Intelligent Machine

So it’s Tuesday evening and I’m watching the BBC 10 O’clock news. There’s an article being aired around the impact that technology-driven automation is going to have on the labour market which is suggesting that by 2035, 35% of the total UK employment market may be at risk of displacement. This is a pretty sobering statement, and gives rise to philosophical debate around the impact that this will have – not just on those members of the workforce affected, but also on our education system and the nature of employment opportunity in the advent of the automation revolution. Should we be teaching our children differently, right now, to prepare them for this? How do we second guess those jobs that are likely to become obsolete and thus help our children to focus their energies in those areas less likely to be impacted? Are we in danger, as some have prophesised, of creating an unemployable underclass?

Only time will tell, and it’s human nature to want to predict the worst case scenario, but quite often the reverse scenario is the more likely outcome.

Historically speaking, advances in technology, robotics and automation have not resulted in a commensurate rise in unemployment numbers but have actually increased employment

Deloitte executed a study on this subject using census data going back to 1871 and found that, whilst certainly some jobs have been made largely redundant by technology, the labour market has responded by switching to roles in care, service and education sectors. Knowledge-based industries in particular have benefitted from the ubiquitous availability of data, and increasing ease of communication. People are generally wealthier as the costs of goods and services have dropped which, rather amusingly, has seen a 1000% rise in bar staff (so we now know where all of our extra cash is going).

But this new wave of technology, the rise of artificial intelligence and intelligent machines, will likely have an equally material impact on knowledge based industries as robotics and technology assisted machinery has had on manual labour based ones. Companies such as IBM are spearheading this movement with technologies such as Watson. Cognitive computing platforms that are able to ‘think’ in human-like ways, they can reason, understand context, and use previous experience to make future predictions and inform decision making. They are capable of conversing in natural language and, when used in conjunction with big data repositories, are able to present insight that would otherwise be impossible to achieve using conventional computational systems. Perhaps more importantly, when used in conjunction with process automation engines, they are able to execute tasks. Process automation is not a new technology – we’ve been achieving this to varying degrees of complexity for many years now. What cognitive technologies bring to the table, however, is the ability to deal with decisions. Theoretically a cognitive system can execute complex processes that, under normal circumstances, would be wholly reliant on human interaction to complete due to the inherent necessity to think, to reason, and to bring knowledge into the equation. The future potential for such technologies is only now starting to be truly understood.

If, like me, you have an overactive imagination you may be imagining a cognitive system like IBM’s Watson to be some kind of huge supercomputer with flashing lights akin to the WOPR in the seminal 1983 classic film, WarGames. Indeed the WOPR was capable of natural language processing (it could talk), it could ‘learn’ through trial and error (albeit via circa 1000 games of tic tac toe) and it was capable of making informed decisions based on access to a wide range of data (Russian nuclear missile launch trajectories). But the reality is that Watson is highly scalable and not nearly so resource hungry. When it won the US TV show Jeopardy! in 2011, beating two of the show’s most prolific and successful contestants in the process, it did so running on 100 IBM POWER 750 servers running in a massively parallel computing cluster. Since then, IBM has refined the code for enterprise use such that it can now run on a single server platform, or directly via the Cloud. The Watson algorithms are being embedded in multiple different enterprise applications, tuned for different use cases, and are already being adopted in major banking and healthcare applications, to name but a few.

Other companies are also now offering enterprise solutions that have cognitive capabilities behind them, and one area that is garnering quite a bit of interest of late is the Virtual Digital Assistant, also commonly known as (an intelligent) chatbot. If you’ve ever used a customer service chat box online, you may be familiar with the concept of a ‘bot’ that can ask certain pre-canned questions or relay information prior to handing you off to a human operator. Bots are also often used in web chat applications for things like providing help on how to use the service itself.

Historically bots have been pretty dumb. They possess no innate intelligence, and simply work from a script. Go off-script, and the bot will simply not understand the question.

Chatbots that use cognitive algorithms, on the other hand, possess two unique and potentially game changing characteristics. Firstly, the can converse using natural language, so the experience is a very close approximation to that when conversing with a real human. Secondly, they can go off-script – they can interpret questions or instructions and combine stored knowledge with probabilistic algorithms to provide you with a response that is highly likely to be appropriate and possibly even useful! Such systems need to learn over time, and can even be trained, so their true potential is not unlocked immediately. Their potential, however, is huge, the use cases are many.

So what of the impact of such technologies? For the consumer, the likes of Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri will only become more capable and increasingly useful. Integration with home automation systems and access to consumer services are the obvious starting points. At present, the vast majority of service integration is limited to vendor’s entertainment and media services, but thinking outside of the box, consider the implications of using such technology to engage with other types of service providers. Want to pay your bank bill? Why not ask Alexa to do it for you? Need to register a complaint with your utility provider? Why not have Siri do it for you? Need to book a taxi? …Cortana?! As consumer service provider organisations begin to digitise their customer engagement channels, this kind of opportunity for integration begins to open up, paving the way for a new era in automated service fulfilment.

For the enterprise the impact is likely to be significantly more material. Efficient gains made via labour arbitrage, for instance, will shift to those enabled by technology arbitrage, as automation, driven by cognitive platforms, drives the cost of service down and the quality of service up. The impact this will have on traditional delivery models could be both rapid and significant. Service providers using cheap labour to deliver cost-effective knowledge-centric services will likely need to re-evaluate their models to remain competitive. Junior roles within organisation, many of which may be traditional routes in to the industry, will need to adapt to cater to those areas that support these new technology capabilities, or else see themselves replaced by them. Commercial models too will need to adapt as customers choose to move increasingly toward consumption or outcome based models, rather than those dictated by headcount or traditional performance related targets. The opportunities are there in abundance for those providers – and consumers – who choose to embrace the technology. Indeed, in this particular case, the WOPR was way off target when it philosophically announced that “…the only way to win is not play”. Whilst that may be true of Global Thermonuclear War, it certainly isn’t true of intelligent computing platforms within the enterprise.

As for me, I’m off to play a nice game of chess…

What are your views? Leave a reply below or, if you would like to learn more about these topics, please contact me by email.

Is ITIL dead?

Why ITIL must adapt if it is to remain relevant in the Digital era

ITIL is dead! A contentious view? Almost certainly, and I don’t think I’d need to throw a stone too far in any direction before I hit somebody that fervently disagrees with me.  So why do I say this?  One word – Digital.

Don’t get me wrong, ITIL still has its place, and many, many organisations are still using it just fine, thank you very much. But the writing is on the wall.  Digital is here to stay, and slowly but surely (and in some cases very quickly!) we are beginning to witness a wholesale shift in enterprise technology strategy from traditional, legacy IT service delivery to a model that is embracing the Cloud (in all its guises), platform and device mobility, automation (everywhere!), and focus that places customer experience front and foremost on the list of priorities.

Whilst ITIL can and does still enable the delivery and support of these technology objectives, it is rapidly being considered ‘clunky’, and organisations are increasingly seeking to adopt more flexible operational governance that aligns more sensitively with the change cadence required, nay dictated, by such advances.

Digital technologies, by their very nature, tend to be fast moving and highly volatile. Development of these technologies predicates an equally fast moving service lifecycle to ensure that customer expectations are both met and maintained in a customer environment that now demands swift and constant improvement and innovation.

Agile is one part of the industry’s response to this challenge.

The recent proliferation of tools and techniques to support Agile delivery frameworks is an indicator of the steady rise in adoption of iterative work cadences, and the reality is that many traditional ITSM framework implementations simply aren’t geared up to support this approach.  In many cases, ITSM actively works to impede the delivery of change in an agile manner, and this creates a very real dilemma for IT service management leaders.

The crux of this dilemma is as follows:

  1. Many of the core ITIL processes have been designed to protect production operations from the impact of change, and manage any impact of that change accordingly
  2. Agile (and supporting frameworks) have, however, been designed to increase the velocity of change, and the flexibility by which it is prioritised

As every Change Manager will no doubt surely confirm, increasing the rate of change (potentially to daily or even hourly increments) can put major stresses on a process not necessarily designed to work at this pace. Equally, the concept of ‘trust’, so fundamental to the Agile methodology, may sound great in theory, but is not so alluring in practice when you’re the Head of IT Operations with SLAs to meet and audit controls to adhere to.

In the Waterfall world change, to a degree, works coherently with ITIL and the phased approach to delivery (design, build, test), gives service management functions the time and space to perform the necessary activity required to protect service.  In an Agile world, however, this paradigm is challenged, and what were very well structured, methodical, and well understood governance controls, suddenly become a blocker to the realisation of business value (at the pace with which the business wants to realise it). In some cases this can happen almost overnight, as businesses take the decision to cut to iterative software development methodologies in a big bang approach, often with scant regard for the impact on service management and operations functions.  Almost instantly we witness the clash of worlds (Old versus New).  And word to the wise my friends, the business is normally championing those in the New camp.

It is at this point that we hit the dilemma.  What takes priority – the rapid realisation of business value through the swift release of change, or the protection of production systems (and thus the customer experience) from potential availability or performance degradation as a result of change?

The answer depends heavily on the type of organisation and system/service being changed, but of course the real answer is that both are equally important.  The issue, however, is that Agile is considered new, revolutionary, and progressive (it isn’t really but that’s beside the point). ITIL, on the other hand, is considered by many to be overly bureaucratic and a constraint to the realisation of business value. And remember, perception is reality, especially when those doing the perceiving also happen to be holding the purse strings.

The result is that IT service leaders, in the face of a business strategy that promotes a fast pace of change that it is perceived to be constrained by service management control, quickly become guilty by association. An inability to respond quickly to this challenge will only compound the issue.  The next logical step from there is the disintermediation of IT altogether, as business change leaders look to more flexible ways to deliver value to their customers, unhindered by legacy constraint.

To avoid this scenario IT service leaders, and the processes that they adopt, must adapt. Long term proponents of existing models must wake up to this notion. This change train is most definitely coming and it’s not showing any signs of slowing down.  We have a lot of baggage to carry, so getting on the train will be hard, but it’s also absolutely necessary (I think I may have stretched that analogy a little thin).

Thus ITIL, whilst perhaps not dead per se, is certainly badly wounded and in desperate need of triage.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson is famously quoted as saying, nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. Well now is the time to get enthusiastic, because if enough of the community are, perhaps ITIL might just survive after all.

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

What IT service management can learn from CrossFit

Six months ago, when my children told me I was “great to bounce on”, I decided to sign up at the local CrossFit gym. I’d heard from friends that it was a good way to get in shape fast. CrossFit has a reputation for being somewhat tribal, with participants enthusiastically cheering, back-slapping and wearing garishly coloured clothes, so it was with some trepidation that I signed up for the induction to my local ‘box’ and set myself on a course to…

Forge. Elite. Fitness.

Two days later, it hit me hard. I couldn’t bend down far enough to put my socks on. Even brushing my teeth hurt! My head was full of acronyms such as WOD, AMRAP and EMOM and strange expressions such as “I totally RX’d Linda today, but I know I can lift more on the clean.” In short, I was a confused and broken mess. But something inside me clicked. I liked it and strangely, I embraced the pain. I was hooked.

I gave myself a week to recover and then bit the bullet and stepped back into the fray, partly because of what it could help me achieve over the longer term. I knew results wouldn’t come quickly, but with perseverance I was sure I could reach my objectives.

As weeks have turned to months, I’m still going, getting fitter, faster and starting to become a little less bouncy around the midriff. It still hurts, but I push past this and keep going because the will to succeed outweighs my desire to be a children’s trampoline.

For me, IT Service Management sometimes feels the same.

Bonding through adversity

It can get pretty intense in the box. Everybody is competing against themselves and the pain is very real even though the barriers to success are often more psychological than physical. A strong spirit of gym camaraderie is essential in getting the best out of everyone. Encouragement and praise is plentiful and audible; this helps maintain commitment and energy levels even when the going gets really tough.

It’s the same in an operations team that works in a fast paced, high pressure environment; a strong team spirit is essential in maintaining throughput of work and ensuring the team does not burn out. Give support to your colleagues, whether it’s a pat on the back, a well-timed joke or a few beers, it can make the difference between a team coping and falling apart. Get to know one another, trust each other, and enjoy working together.

Speaking a foreign language

“What on earth is an AMRAP?! You jerked what?! Your favourite Girl is Nicole?!” Such are the musings of a CrossFit newbie, as the acronyms and bizarre phraseology make CrossFit initially impenetrable.

IT Service Management (ITSM) can be just as bad. To the non-initiated, the fact that an issue is not the same as an incident which is not the same as a problem can be something of a conundrum. ITSM has an abundance of acronyms, abbreviations, and terminology that means nothing to your average developer, let alone the Chief Finance Officer (when you are trying to explain why you need £10K for that critical but under-performing SAN array).

I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Sometimes it helps to feel you belong to a private club that shares the same goal and interest. Having a common language helps us talk in a consistent and professional manner.

Scaling enables continuous output

At its most basic, scaling is the use of tools or alternative techniques to make CrossFit exercises easier and is particularly useful when you are starting out. Many routines (such as pull-ups) are beyond the reach of most mortals, so anything that makes the job a little bit easier is a godsend. It’s not cheating; it simply allows you to progress at your own pace and, most importantly, maintain it.

Going lighter isn’t the enemy to CrossFit. Stopping mid-workout is.

This is equally true of ITSM, where the ability to consistently deliver and maintain throughput is key to successful operations. Overburden a vital function and you might as well rip up that forward schedule of change.

We need to scale our operations. The use of tools to automate processes can pay massive dividends through the release of resource. If a process is slowing you down, make it more efficient. This doesn’t have to involve full blown Lean-ITSM. The removal of just one redundant step could mean the difference between getting that change deployed on time and missing the deadline. Consistent throughput of work though the removal of constraints is the key here.

Again, but faster

CrossFit is about getting stronger, faster, leaner and tougher. Athletes achieve this by performing an activity, analysing their performance, and then seeking to improve on this the next time round. CrossFit continuously encourages you to try to go that little bit harder, push that little bit more and find that last little pocket of energy you didn’t even realise you had.

ITSM should be like this. We face criticism for being overly bureaucratic, cumbersome, expensive or ineffective. These criticisms are not without merit and, like my ever-expanding waistline before CrossFit, are often the result of apathy and a reluctance to look introspectively for the source of the problem.

Continuous improvement processes should strive to first understand the baseline. Once this has been established, they must analyse the system to find out what can be added, removed, refined or improved to accelerate the flow of work. Then rinse and repeat. The team should always be challenging itself to go faster and improve performance but not at the expense of the overall machine. The value chain is only as efficient as its weakest link, so focus on the least efficient components first and make sure that when you cut out the fat, you are not losing some of the muscle with it.

“Having arms like Arnie won’t help you run any faster!”

Shout it out

“There’s only one rule of CrossFit and that’s that you never, ever, stop talking about CrossFit!”

CrossFit people can get a little obsessed and it does have a tendency to border on the intolerable for non-CrossFitters.

In my career I’ve come across a lot of ITIL* evangelists; hardcore supporters of the cause, unwilling to accept that there may be other ways of working or that, just perhaps, full blown change control isn’t required to reboot that printer in the lobby. But ITIL and ITSM is something to get passionate about. When I first found ITIL it was nothing short of a revelation. Here was an approach that allowed IT organisations to shine, add value and actively demonstrate, with meaningful metrics, how and why they were doing a good job and making a difference.

ITIL has come a long way since then, and now has global support in industry, but we shouldn’t be devout followers, deaf to all criticism. ITSM practices need to adapt if they are to keep pace with cloud, digital, and similar emerging technologies.

We have built ITIL and helped to promote the ITSM movement that has radically transformed the way that businesses have operated IT and it’s just as relevant now as it ever was, if we keep it fresh.

That is some achievement and, just like CrossFit, I think that is worth shouting about.

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

(* ITIL – formerly known as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library)