Smart421 sponsored the Market Trends Report at the Nimbus Ninety IGNITE event this week. Robin Meehan (@SmartCTO) was a member of the panel that discussed the key themes and observations unearthed by the Market Trends survey.
I took the opportunity to catch up with Robin after the panel session, to discuss these points with him in a bit more detail – here’s the transcript of our conversation…
(Kerry Vince) What is Smart421 all about?
(Robin Meehan) Smart421 is a UK focused Consultancy and Systems Integrator. We’re wholly owned by the KCOM Group, a FTSE250 company, which gives us the financial backing we need to service the markets that we do.
(KV) And which industry sectors do Smart421 operate in?
(RM) This is generally highly regulated commercial sectors such as retail and London Market insurance, telco, travel and logistics such as shipping, railways and airlines and the like.
(KV) How does Smart421 adapt to disruptive market trends?
(RM) As CTO, my role is to keep adapting the services we offer to help our customers maximise the benefits from disruptive market trends – whether it’s cloud adoption in the UK rail sector for ATOC, mobilisation of enterprise functions for shipping companies, or taking the fear out of big data implementation for companies like Aviva.
In terms of how we do this – it’s the whole lifecycle really from engaging with the business stakeholders through our Business Architecture team to refine what the real opportunities are, then Enterprise Architecture to shape a portfolio of change initiatives and roadmaps, to Solution Architects who work with our customer’s delivery teams to execute those roadmaps, followed by a 24×7 ITIL-based support model to give rock-solid support to those implementations.
(KV) The Market Trends report found a high percentage of organisations have to fundamentally change their business models, how they communicate with customers and the way they deliver their products and services as a result of emerging digital technologies. Does this align with your experiences?
(RM) Yes – absolutely, although we find the market to be quite polarised – some sectors are just traditionally slow to innovate, but it always surprises me the range of “visions” out there. Some CTOs are driving real change via sensible risk-managed adoption and some most definitely are not! As an example, we implemented an extension of Haven Power’s IT estate using Amazon Web Services in order to provide a tailored disaster recovery solution – they could have gone down a more traditional (I’d say old-fashioned!) disaster recovery route but now more than a year and a half later this is massively paying off for them. With the cloud model, they now have a data centre extension strategy that is way more flexible than they ever had before. They are using it for many IT workloads, other than disaster recovery, to drive changes about how they serve their customers and perform analytics.
(KV) Few organisations feel fully prepared for the opportunities and threats that digital disruption presents but sense this could enhance long term growth. So is it a case of nerves of the unknown? Is it even possible to be fully prepared?
(RM) It’s easy to delay due to fear, even though you know there is business value in it – “we’ll do that in the next year’s budget” – we don’t know everything and so we’ll do nothing. My advice; get out there and do SOMETHING. Low risk, low cost – sure, but get some validated learning done. It’s not expensive – especially in a cloud-enabled world. For example, we ran a big data cluster on Amazon Web Services in the insurance sector and showed that the cost of a daily analytics operation was of the order of £20/day. We also showed that we had mechanisms to reduce that by a factor of 10! So – jump into the unknown blindly? No – that’s foolhardy and might get you sacked. But take some measured steps and just accept you won’t have complete insight as to where it might lead? Absolutely…maybe that’ll get you promoted! In fact, that exactly what happened for the customer I just referred to.
(KV) Mobile and cloud computing remain at the leading edge of technology. How intertwined are these technologies in unlocking true potential?
(RM) For me, in the enterprise space, the key intersection between the growth of mobile and cloud computing is that customers don’t want to bring their peaky and unpredictable mobile traffic into their corporate data centres. Organisations have spent years pursuing security and maximum utilisation, so using a cloud environment to handle the mobile load – and typically an API management product to secure, throttle and manage the service calls back to the business – makes a lot of sense. And it’s a whole lot quicker to deploy and more flexible too, so fits nicely with the agile development methods used for the inherently “visual” mobile development projects. For example, one of the mobile apps we implemented in the insurance sector uses a “database-as-a-service” model as there are no sensitivity issues with this particular dataset.
(KV) Company size seems somewhat related to adoption of big data initiatives. Is there more opportunity for small companies than they realise?
(RM) There are a few factors at play here. Big data is generally collected and owned by big organisations – not a universal truth but true more often than not. And they’ve also got another advantage – they’ve typically been doing it for a long time and have a heritage in large scale BI and data warehouse implementations – as they traditionally also had the deep enough pockets to implement them. But the key transformative effect in the big data space is not really the creation of new technologies (though that is moving at an amazing pace – as Hadoop is joined by others – Accumulo, Storm, Stinger initiative, Impala etc) – it’s the new economic model that is driving adoption – with the happy marriage of cloud + big data meaning that the entry barrier has dropped from £500k up to £1000 down – making it within the reach of very small companies. There’s a whole bunch of startups that I encounter who are doing exactly that.
(KV) Financial restrictions are a principle barrier to new technology being implemented. Does the emphasis on budget restrictions result in other significant barriers being underestimated, such as a lack of key skills or security?
(RM) Skills are definitely an issue. If you want a pay rise at the moment, just edit your CV and cross out “CIO” and put “data scientist” instead. Organisations have no choice about embracing disruptive trends (eventually) – you can’t hold back a tide this strong. But they DO have a choice about how they execute to harness them. For example, you can build up an internal “centre of excellence” if you feel this is differentiating for your organisation (unlikely for an insurance company!) or use a 3rd party to obtain the capabilities more quickly and at an ‘economy of scale’ that is difficult to do internally. Smart421’s business is based upon the 2nd approach. For example, for one mobile telecommunications company, over the last 2-3 years we have designed, implemented and supported around 700 or so virtual machines running on Amazon Web Services. Providing them with the agility and cost saving today, not once they’ve got an internal team up and running.
We experience the security side more often as an “early days” customer objection when someone has as a serious and clear concern. For many IT workloads (but not all of course!) this is NOT a barrier. The patterns and best practices exist to overcome any CISO concerns. But my key advice is, if your organisation doesn’t REALLY want to do it, then don’t hurt yourself on that hill just now.
(KV) My last question is, there is almost an equal split between technology and business stakeholders for new IT services. Are there any concerns in the rising power of non-technology leaders in decision making?
(RM) I see this as a positive trend. As we know, the CIO and their functions need to be an enabler and work in concert with their peers at the top table. Too much power either way is a negative thing, i.e. passive IT departments who speak when they are spoken to or IT departments who push technology on their customers without really understanding what they need (not want!). One thing is for sure, regardless of the technology aspect of any disruptive trend, this is ALL ABOUT CHANGE – running change programmes, driving through change – and as we all know, change is HARD. So leadership, and the vision and the energy to go with it, are absolutely key.
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