Head in the cloud, feet on the ground
Cloud computing/SaaS ascendancy – used as interchangeable terms in some conversations – picked up lots of media steam last year and continues to be the hot topic of 2010. While this entry is not intended to be an exhaustive dissertation, there are couple of points that resonate with me.
Cloud application services or “Software as a Service (SaaS)” deliver software as a service over the internet, eliminating the need to install and run the application on the customer’s own computers and simplifying maintenance and support.
BI in the cloud could be the next killer application. That word – “next” – is important. Because we must look at the cloud not only for its current limitations and capabilities, but through the filter of what technology means to your business strategy, your identity, and those capabilities that make your company different and special and competitive. Because cloud or no, ultimately you need technological solutions that enable your business success. Altering your business model to fit the platform might fundamentally damage your ability to compete.
Can the cloud do heavy lifting?
I have no doubt that magnificent things are possible in the cloud, but many of the current advances seem more suitable to CRM and the like: collaborative applications like Salesforce let companies offload the cost of ownership of hosting the app, and everybody knows who talked to which customer, about what, and when.
But what happens when a company needs to know what a 10 percent reduction in their product price during Christmas would mean in terms of increased demand, impact on other products, and their industry as a whole? Heavy demand planning and forecasting/modelling functions like this can’t be easily or reliably done in the cloud right now.
Could all this change in the next few years? Absolutely. But computationally demanding, mission-critical practices that require rapid response on massive amounts of data are on the other side of the wall, as it currently stands. So as we rhapsodize over the cloud, it’s important to remember that the cloud can’t solve everything, at least not yet.
Getting your feet off the ground: the leap of trust required to get over the cultural barrier
One of the biggest pros for the cloud is the power of intra-enterprise collaboration – bringing enterprises and professionals together to help improve all participants of the value chain. But what we face here is a cultural obstacle rather than a technological one: companies have the technology right now to collaborate across company boundaries. But can we come to grips with security issues and not owning our data? Can we trust our informational lifeblood to other companies, even our customers?
In order for the cloud to reach its potential, these are the cultural questions that every company will have to solve. We have to trust that the information is secure, and that customers or channel partners won’t take advantage of the information. The real power of SaaS is almost beside the point: the real issues are culture, trust and acceptance.
When Marco Polo and the Italians began opening up new trade routes, cultural differences had to be overcome, new relationships built. Now companies and the professionals who give them voice are standing in front of another huge opportunity, with only mistrust and fear of the unknown in between them and the new possibilities. Seems like the world’s repeating itself all over again.
The dangers of fitting your company to a platform
There are subtle but profound dangers in trying to apply the cloud correctly for your company. Human nature leans towards the comforts of standardization, and it’s no less true in the technology strategy of most companies. Having uniform processes and knowing what to expect every time eases our minds. But there’s an ironic downside to this: the more you standardize, the easier it is for your tech department to be outsourced.
And the more you standardize, the less you focus on competitive advantage. Too many companies fit themselves to the tool, and not vice versa.
You want the power of the Cloud for when it’s appropriate, but be sure not to limit your enterprise in how you can compete and build on your strengths. The ones who stand out over time are the ones who agree on their vision and ensure that everything in the enterprise, including technology, focuses on achieving that vision.
At this particular point in time, with the advent of the Cloud, SaaS 1.0 and the legacy of ERP, what your company needs more than ever is a clear vision of what your competitive advantage is: decide what makes your company better, and find the right mix of technology (and ongoing adaptation/evolution) that’s going to preserve and enhance that advantage.