Does Every Cloud Have a Silver Lining?
I tried to take a vacation—my mistake. The call came; I needed to get back immediately. I booked my return trip, expensive with horrible connections. Generating some anxiety was the fact that one of the segments was a two-hour flight in a six-passenger turbo-prop over the ocean.
It was a gorgeous day. The sun was shining, the sky dotted with the most beautiful clouds. We took off and I spent the first minutes of the flight taking pictures and video. It seemed my fears were unwarranted. Then it happened. As we approached our destination we saw it. An enormous cloud, very wide and reaching high into the heavens. I assumed that we would divert around it. I was wrong.
The pilot leaned back in his seat, turned his head, removed his headphones from one ear and informed us that air traffic control had denied his request to go around the cloud. We were going to go through this behemoth and he warned us to expect some turbulence. We entered the cloud and quickly found ourselves in the pages of a Stephen King novel. The plane bounced up and down, right and left, twisting back and forth like a corkscrew rollercoaster. While I struggled to maintain my composure, some of my fellow passengers started screaming. Hail pelted the aircraft. Lightning and thunder erupted all around us. It was the longest 90 seconds of my life.
As quickly as it began, it ended. We emerged shaken (literally and figuratively) but otherwise unscathed. We once again flew smoothly through the azure sky. We landed without incident.
Cirrus, Stratus and Cumulonimbus...
"The Cloud" as we have come to call it in the information technology lexicon, is much like the real one through which we flew. It is beautiful when viewed from the outside and filled with promise. Inside, however, while not as fraught with peril as my story would suggest, the Cloud has its pitfalls, challenges and complexities. The rewards of leveraging cloud services can be significant but we must take care to recognize and pay homage to critical success factors in order to realize them fully.
To frame the discussion, let's refine our definition of the Cloud. Cloud is a moniker used to describe a broad set of Internet-based shared resources. Among them are the myriad of "as a Service" options that include Infrastructure (IaaS), Platform (PaaS) and Software (SaaS). For each environment, the subscribed services— those managed by the vendor—extend to different layers of the technology stack. The associated costs and benefits vary as does the degree of control over different components of the environment.
We should also differentiate between classes of cloud services and applications. At the most granular level there is a growing cadre of standard utilities that companies can use to "assemble" applications. Netflix has recently been lauded for their use of these components and the agility it has allowed them to achieve. General purpose applications, notably financial and HR suites (e.g. Workday), are increasingly deployed in the Cloud as there exists only minimal variations in accounting and payroll processes across companies and even industries.
Another class of applications consists of those that support critical business functions and processes. In retail, this class might include merchandising, planning and allocation, purchase order and warehouse management, e-commerce, order management and fulfillment—just to name a few. At issue is that there are often significant differences between these processes as executed within each organization.
As companies take advantage of IaaS and PaaS offerings, the direct impact is generally restricted to IT, which realizes the benefits but takes on the effort and risk associated with effecting required transformations. In these cases, as well as with traditional, on-premise environments, data and application management remains the province of IT.
With SaaS, responsibility for managing data and applications rests with the technology provider. Some would use the term SaaS loosely, having it denote subscription licensing and vendor management of monolithic, single tenant applications. We must recognize, however, that hosting a traditional application in Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure or in a provider's datacenter does not magically make it a cloud solution. In this case, SaaS could be construed as an architectural variant of IaaS or PaaS.
In its purest form, SaaS refers to cloud-based, multi-tenant applications—think Salesforce Commerce Cloud—where responsibility for the entire technical stack as well as the data and application layers rest with the provider. Clients reap the efficiency and savings of managed infrastructure and platforms as well as the benefits of continuous development and enhancement. What they sacrifice is some ability to adapt these solutions to their specific, unique requirements.
The Winds of Change are Blowing
Why is it important to distinguish between traditional applications hosted in the Cloud and organically developed cloud applications? It is important because for all the benefits of adopting cloud applications, doing so puts constraints on subscribing organizations. Most of us experience this personally. Facebook, Google Mail and iPhones work generally the same way for all users. Our options to customize these solutions are limited. While many cloud applications are highly configurable, they often support best or more typically, most common practices and processes. The implications of this are profound.
"Adoption of cloud-based solutions doesn't eliminate change; it displaces it!"
The myth is that adopting cloud-based solutions eliminates change. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, adoption of best-practices and cloud-based solutions doesn't eliminate change; it displaces it! Instead of adapting software to a given set of processes, organizations must now adapt to processes supported by a given solution. It turns out that in many cases, this is a very difficult exercise.
Whereas IT was previously tasked with modifying software, the responsibility for implementing new processes is less clear and the impact much more widespread. Being successful with cloud applications requires a new approach, one that demands different skills in IT, tight collaboration between stakeholders and the depreciation of traditional roles.
Historically, when developing software or implementing on-premise solutions, the tendency has been to preserve long-standing processes. While some forward-thinking organizations have taken the opportunity to re-engineer processes and practices, the scales still often tip toward maintaining the status quo to minimize disruption and avoid creating issues within the user base.
With many cloud-based SaaS solutions, this is no longer an option. The onus is now on the business process owners to adapt. Accordingly, the most critical of success factors is recognizing the importance of change management and devoting sufficient resources and time to this activity. It also begs the question as to the role of IT and its various business partners as understanding this informs the skills and capabilities each must build to reach a successful outcome.
For IT, the focus must move from modification and implementation of solutions to a higher-level focus on architecture and integration. Business process knowledge and domain expertise may begin to surpass the importance of more technical disciplines. IT project management resources must develop strong partnerships with business process leaders and training resources to create an effective change management capability. IT resources may be called upon to help the rest of the organization adapt to a new solution and master its attendant processes.
Adoption of new processes can be a trek, a real slog. Change can generate tremendous stress in those most affected. To be successful, an organization must address not only the technical and mechanical aspects of change, but also the emotional ones. As an individual goes through a given change, they will pass through the four stages of competence according to a model developed over 30 years ago by Noel Burch, then an employee of Gordon Training International.
The question is not only who within the organization is responsible for change management but also who is best suited to the mission. Progressive IT organizations must recognize that they need to be a central part of the change management effort. However, responsibility must extend to training resources, irrespective of where they report, and to the management of each business function. It goes without saying that executive support is critical. No doubt, at some point during the transition, the project team will be accused of doing something "to" the organization, rather than "for" the organization. Having a broad and unified change management team with overt executive sponsorship will help mitigate the effects of such countercurrents.
Formalizing the change management process can help ensure achievement of intended outcomes. One framework that has gained popularity is ADKAR. This model identifies five areas of focus: awareness, desire, knowledge, ability and reinforcement. Many companies do a reasonable job of making its associates aware of a coming change and how it might affect them. Most also provide required training (i.e. knowledge) of a new process or system. However, developing the ability to perform at expected levels requires additional commitment. Reinforcing change and confirming the adoption of new solutions and processes is an ongoing effort. Often overlooked is the need to foster engagement and the importance of having people embrace change.
The complexity of undergoing significant organizational and process change eclipses the effort required to modify software. As companies move their application portfolio to the Cloud, the importance of having an effective change management capability grows commensurately. Recognizing the "people side" of change management will make your flight through the "digital transformation cloud" much smoother.