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  • John Chambers, PhD

Cloud -- Ancient Silk Road

I can’t say what Greg Newbold’s characters are thinking in his Cloud Watching artistry. But I know that each of us sees something different in the sky.

That is the strength of diverse visions in the well-run firm.

Perhaps the little boy sees cumulus shapes as toothy dragons and puffing locomotives. The old man sees them differently. Was the dragon actually a camel, a pack-laden working animal on the Silk Road, while the locomotive was an ancient fortress?

Clouds above me paint perspectives. And my lens differs from yours. The ice particles inside those atmospheric shape-shifters bring humidity on land, for good or ill.

They are food for crops or maybe unwelcomed mold.

They are opportunity or aggravation.

As managers and executives, we are moved by diverse and interrelated dynamics – other business factors that deliver opportunity or aggravation.

So how do we see the cloud?

Is it promise or pain?

By now we have been “clouded” to death, as the buzzword laces every other IT discussion and Sourcing analysis. On the other side of our protective gateways, services are constructed and delivered by complex technologies. From hosting the data, securing the access, parsing the privileged access, logging against regulatory standards, transferring the content, and flawlessly operating shared instances, an army is required.

Service offerings, XaaS things -- Software/Infrastructure/Platform/IDentity and whatever else comes tomorrow -- take shape in their own cloud-resident fortresses. They are dependent on skilled engineers, designers, marketers, and sellers who can promise value for your company. Your IT leaders will also have perspectives -- defend or dissuade usage of the cloud.

Is it a boon or is it a risk?

The answer is... yes!

So you have two prerequisites for cloud decision-making: your business processes and your application portfolio. I am not diminishing the factors of resources, skills, contracts, security…. But fundamentally your workflow (customer to value) is the navigation map, like parchment in the hands of adventurer Marco Polo. Before you see business opportunity, do you have your priceless map?

Armour of the value chain

Document your business processes and socialize them repeatedly. Now let me pause; yes, I tend to elicit hypersensitivity with a response I often hear -- “We’ve already done all that.” Okay, I believe the statement. Sort of. I appreciate the perspective. But optimal business process analysis is achieved when all managers and all leaders can reference the end-to-end workflow, see it in the corporate value chain, and point right at their contribution.

Business processes are not done, if they haven’t been updated, secured and referenced in infrastructure analysis, customer impact analysis, operational analysis, and utilized in virtually every department. I don’t often hear assurances that the corporate business processes are understood and employed in tactical or strategic analysis, week by week, among all corporate leaders.

There is a continuum of business process discipline, from the absence of any business process documentation (Gartner maturity Level 1) to a Level 5 machine-like integration. At a minimum, please ensure you’re not at Level 1.

Business factors and technical processes

What is the sensible taxonomy for your process analysis? It should reflect the competencies that are expected within every workflow, used to identify risks.

Are there security issues?

How is speed to market affected along this path?

Do we have supplier confidence and predictability along this domain?

Are customer confidence and expectations lightly or heavily impacted on this roadway?

Do we take a detour in this workflow because we need more highly-skilled resources?

Are we at an impasse due to power of competitors?

In every departmental or functional stream, your leaders must consider the taxonomy by which they assess impact to the workflow. The art of executive management is determination of the business categories that will advance or undermine your process and delivery.

Are there "bandits" along the highway ready to crush your products’ destiny?

Holistic views of application portfolio

You already use applications that are sourced elsewhere.

Basic office tools, business applications, scientific and statistical analysis products have been purchased and housed in your, or someone else’s, data center.

Try to avoid cloud-assigning an application until you have an understanding of your application typology, and an understanding of your application instance footprint.

Your application portfolio should be associated with your business processes. And the processes are associated with risk analysis and corporate impact.

If you’ve not performed an application portfolio analysis, then you will lack a holistic view of your cloud rationale.

Your reasons for leveraging the cloud will be scattered, one-off reasons rather than a holistic strategy.

You are not prepared to leverage the sky when you haven’t assessed its impact on your business processes and your current-state application portfolio.

Ancient Craftsmen to Millennial Technologists

Step back for moment and ask how much has changed, historically, in the life of commerce.

Not from a technology perspective but a business perspective.

No doubt technology evolves exponentially, but you must arrive at cloud decisions as a business-savvy technologist.

As a business leader as well as a thought leader in one or more disciplines (Technology, Marketing, Digital, Sales, HR, Administration...) you leverage the knowledge we’ve assimilated in our 21st century moment.

But you apply business principles that are not new, and never will be. Immortal business aptitude has been weaponized since ancient Egyptians traversed the Nile, and ancient Mongols bartered in arid market places.

Are the business sciences we employ now more sophisticated? To be sure, they are. We thank the entrepreneurs, scholars, and students of countless generations to create taxonomical frameworks, algorithmic approaches, and social science.

Yes, business is more sophisticated.

But the fundamentals are the same. The fundamentals shall always be the same.

In the past century we have dealt with brick and mortar problems of infrastructure and communications. This morphed in a Berners-Lee laboratory of engineers and visionaries who were propped up by the wealth of history. Like Nicolas Carr, we realized maybe IT didn’t matter, then in a turnabout we refracted our lens and realized it’s almost all that matters.

And now, like the centuries-old travelers on the East Asian Silk Road, we see the cloud is our marketplace.

We prepare for that market, just as they did in ancient times:

We face cyber security risks instead of horse-riding mercenaries who infect the pathways.

We depend on sales brokers seeking the green fields, like tent-covered pawn brokers who "story-tell" to differentiate their product.

We seek the guidance from the agents of commerce and the legal minds who understand the institutions that underwrite us.

Those underwriters then audit our Good Manufacturing Practices, whether we time travel to a blacksmith’s shop of 1,000 AD, or a factory floor last century, or a clinical lab yesterday.

Our engineers are like gold-plating craftsmen in a smoky, Arabian bazaar.

And HR bolsters our means to capture talent, like early second-millennium watchful eyes, who advised Bedouin gamblers on their horse racing wagers.

Tomorrow's History

The fundamental business necessity -- understanding the landscape -- has not changed. The skills of business are more refined, more scientific, more formalized.

But they are the same types of skills.

How different is the cloud from ancient pathways of danger and promise? Fundamentally it differs not. Your teams, across your company’s towers, must understand the processes before they move them into other "cloud-based" environments.

I’m reminded of an old, very droll YouTube animation where the sales rep was engaging the CIO on the benefits of the “cloud…”

The puzzled CIO replies, “Uhh, isn’t that what we used to call the internet?”


For our evolving cyber-structured web, we can stretch the metaphor further:

Isn’t the Internet what we used to know as the highway? Or the marketplace? Values to be obtained from outside vendors?

Isn’t the mesh of cloud entities yet the latest manifestation of the Silk Road, which has long since decayed – a remnant of ancient times, whose few sections remain for tourists and historians...

And a hundred years from now, our lexicon will have evolved further, and the application of our capabilities will morph again.

But business fundamentals will not change, even though a century from now tourists will be walking through preserved data center museums of today, showcasing old-fashioned racks of computers, which represented a "node" in something very foreign to their ears -- “the cloud.”

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