September 16, 2011 by Jim Morton
In the early to mid nineties, the typical ICT department were entirely in charge of what went on with your computing experience at work. New requirements were dealt with by an expert 17 year old technician (with a massive pile of 3.5 inch discs) manually installing new software on your computer, or by developers knocking up an application, which (after the 17 year-old had been out to install it) may or may not have done what you asked them for in that meeting six months previously. If you weren’t happy with things, well then, tough – business ICT was by its very nature a closed shop, run by people who had technical knowledge that you couldn’t possibly hope to comprehend, let alone argue with.
Gradually this pattern began to change, as general ICT know-how increased and the software market matured to the point where you didn’t need programming skills to knock up a simple macro or application, staff with an interest started trying things out for themselves. This might have just been a bit of tinkering in Excel or maybe a little Access database, but in other cases it meant people wanting to use different technologies or equipment than ICT wanted to provide, openly challenging the technical status quo and the authority of the ICT professionals.
Unsurprisingly the ICT professionals didn’t like these people at all, they dismissed them as hobbyists and treated them with the sort of suspicion and scorn that society usually reserves for the type of people who go around scraping up roadkill and popping it in the freezer to save for dinner at a later date.
To be fair, their suspicion and scorn were often borne of sound instincts, if anarchy and discord were allowed onto their carefully configured and maintained network, how could they possibly guarantee to provide a stable and reliable service, particularly as ICT was now a critical part of any large organisation’s day-to-day operation. QUICK ASIDE: I was working at ICL at the time as a sandwich year undergraduate and wrote my dissertation on why this was the case. A dissertation that really hasn’t aged well.
This logic kept the ICT department in clear control for some time, right up until the point that the underground, hobbyist, ‘it’ll never catch on’ phenomenon of the World Wide Web started proving itself useful for more than just academic bulletin boards about particle accelerators and role-playing games.
Initially the web didn’t offer much of a challenge to the ICT establishment, it was more of a concern for HR, as staff used it to waste time during the day, while occasionally finding a practical business reason to justify their continued access to it.
Fairly soon however, the sort of people who liked to try stuff out were downloading and installing all sorts of software left, right and centre – much to the displeasure of ICT professionals who now had a whole raft of new problems to deal with including security threats, viruses and staff behaving, shall we say ‘inappropriately’, in their use of the web.
These things were causing problems to whole organisations, not just the ICT component, so a technical clamp-down approach was adopted. PCs were locked down so that users couldn’t download and install anything they liked. Access to the Internet was monitored and blocked to make sure that people couldn’t look at things that they shouldn’t or use sites that we in ICT didn’t approve of (usually for very sound reasons). We were slamming the stable door, but unbeknownst to us, it was too late, the horse had already bolted.
Staff interest in ICT had developed from a small segment, to a much wider proportion of the workforce. This much wider proportion were not impressed that they couldn’t access their hotmail accounts at work anymore, or use the software that they had downloaded onto their PC at home which they thought was much better than the stuff their company made them use.
The ICT industry responded by creating a delineation between what was proper, industrial-standard, professional ICT and what was lightweight, consumer-focused, amateur ICT: The stuff you used at home might be nice to look at and easy to use but it wouldn’t stand up to the hardcore requirements of operating in the enterprise, where security, scalability and reliability were concerns. This was analogous to reinforcing the stable door, but by this point the horse was enjoying a successful career in flat racing.
The development of what became known as web 2.0 led to radical changes in the way that organisations were able to offer services over the web and the nature of the tools web sites and applications that we all now take for granted. The move to heavy use of the AJAX approach to web engineering meant that it was now possible to build fully fledged applications that would run entirely within the browser, across many different platforms. Thanks to the ingenuity (and massive investment capability) of a number of technology businesses such applications were suddenly available for everyone to have a crack at, often for free in non-commercial, ‘we might support it if something goes wrong’ offerings
This model started to change as the capabilities of web technologies improved and the ingenuity of web developers led to richer, more functional services becoming available over the internet. Soon it was possible for applications and services that were traditionally installed on your PC (or run off a server from a room in the bowels of your office building) to exist entirely on-line, requiring the user to just have a compliant bit of browser software (ironically the corporate choice of internet explorer was often not considered up to the job) and an internet connection. These were now fully fledged business applications that began to eat away at the market share of traditional, well established rivals.
Concurrently, the large ICT players began building huge estates of computing power in order to not only provide you with applications that existed entirely on-line, but also to store all of the information that you wanted to use or produce in an abstract technical space which could be accessed at any time, from any place, potentially negating the need to buy storage technology.
The congruence of Software As A Service and cloud computing has rapidly changed the face of consumer computing, where individuals can quickly evaluate the benefits that they will gain and make the choice to use these types of service. In the professional ICT world, there has been a great amount of resistance, as models of working that have stood in place for the best part of twenty years have been threatened by a world where users don’t understand why they shouldn’t just circumvent the entire ICT department and use services directly from the web, requiring only a device and an internet connection to do so.
The ICT world has put up both rational and irrational arguments about why users still need them to facilitate access to computing services. In the rational camp are issues around reliability, continuity and security of services that are provided from the cloud. While these are valid arguments, the problem is that users are already experiencing a world where the benefits of cloud computing/SaaS are outweighing the risks.
Old-school ICT departments continue to block sites where they can determine that SAAS is being used that they don’t approve of, or discipline users for making use of sites that countermand ICT policies that are no longer relevant and need to be updated. Meanwhile suppliers who have made their fortunes in client-centric software and applications are warning that SaaS services are not as functionally rich as their client based forebears.
Returning regrettably to the previous metaphor corporate ICT are putting padlocks on the stable door – but at this point the horse has finished its racing career, retired to a riding school for a few years and is now quite probably nestling somewhere in a can of Pedigree Chum.
Users are voting with their feet, the SaaS apps may not be as functionally rich as the client versions, but they were never making use of those functions anyway. Where a clear business benefit can be served by ignoring an outdated ICT policy on internet usage, this will happen – particularly in private companies where increasing the bottom line is the absolute priority.
The ICT world has to accept that, as counter-intuitive as it may be, we have to embrace and exploit the wave of consumerisation – not try to swim against it.
So with a solemn promise not to mix and mangle any more dodgy metaphors, how must we as ICT professionals change the way we approach our work?
The encouraging news at WCC is that we have been thinking about this for a very long time and it is already influencing the way in which we provide ICT services and will be a growing factor over the next couple of years.
In the last few years the concepts of SaaS and consumerisation have heavily influenced the strategies that we have written and the direction that projects have taken as a result. This will be clearly apparent when we update our overall ICT strategy in the next few months.
Practically speaking, a number of SaaS services such as Yammer, Google Apps and Prezi have been used informally by WCC staff for some time.
In a more official sense we have agreed that any staff who want to set up a blog for their part of the business can just make use of the wordpress.com SaaS blogging platform, rather than procuring, implementing and supporting a product ourselves. The trade-off is that they will agree to certain branding and security best practice. Such an approach gives us the best of both worlds – the speed, low cost and flexibility of SAAS/Cloud working along with relevant ICT input on security, to enable rather than block people who are just trying to find the most effective way to do their jobs. This is the kind of model we want to expand where it is practical and safe to do so.
In the development arena we have used cloud services from Amazon and Heroku to provide our open data web site and repository, partly as a proof of concept, but also to take advantage of the rapid set up time that such services provide.
By far the biggest example of WCC embracing the SAAS/consumer approach to ICT is the recent announcement that we will be moving our e-mail solution to a cloud based Google model, a model that also allows us to use all the other SAAS products under the Google umbrella – allowing us to move towards a model that will give the council staff greater flexibility in how they work, as well as hopefully saving the authority large sums of money. You can hear our very own James Smith (@jsmi4s on twitter) telling the world about this at a number of conferences in the coming weeks.