Out of town

I’ll be out of town the rest of this week and all of next week. I’m going to take some time out to come up with some new ideas, talk to some interesting people about what’s new in technology and innovation and get some rest. I might post from where I’m at if I get the chance, otherwise I’ll put what’s new up week of the 9th December. To the Americans out there, have a good thanksgiving; the rest of you take care.

Open season and hold the front page?

The e-summit last week prompted coverage across most media, including a pretty good piece in Tthe Guardian. I say pretty good, because it essentially rehashed old ground – the Self Assessment problems, the PRO problems, Iraq dossier and so on. All of those are good and true things, but they’re a bit tired – it’s not as if every time I read the Guardian (which is not often) I lambast them for being wrong so many times – wrong at spelling, wrong on opinion and wrong on page layout or whatever. The article did give some options for the future – a weekly webcast for the PM or a new hompage for No10. If that’s the limit of innovation in the Private Sector who are so hot to trot on this stuff, then really we should be worried. People don’t come to government sites to see the PM and they don’t particularly go to No10’s home page (although it is one of the more regularly visited sites, partly because it has regular news updates, speeches from the PM, briefs from Alistair Campbell and partly because it’s a good tourist site) – they come to government for help in solving problems that only government can help with. So information on tax, setting up companies, claiming benefits, finding a job – those are all common search terms on ukonline. Now more importantly I suspect, over time they will come less and less to government sites for those problems because the services will be available through an increasing variety of intermediaries who take the base offer from government and wrap an additional layer of value around it. We’re not at that point yet, but suspect we will be 2, maybe 3 years from now.

So that brings me to the other post of the day, from James Crabtree over at Voxpolitics. “Hold the front page” he says … and links to yet another turgid report on how awful government websites are. Same old, same old. Another company with a service to sell (in this case, about some large number of pounds for a full report on a big government website) issues a press release, vaguely touting their service and pointing out how they can help. Can they? Well only if you want to know that x% of the errors on the site are badly formatted HTML that remains invisible to the client, y% are other invisible errors and there are a few broken links. I can come up with a bit more than that without spending that kind of money. But so little innovation in thinking about what services to put online, how to make them easy to use, how to genuinely do new things that are not available offline. Now that would be good info and would help us tune our own work. Instead its open season on the easy target. James – I thought you knew better.

Nothing much has changed since 1400 and whatever

I came across two great quotes from Niccolo Machiavelli today …

“Innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime and only luke warm support is forthcoming from all those would prosper under the new”

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things”

These two should be the mottos of e-government pioneers.

Standalone

Out of all the press coverage over the last couple of days on e-summits and the like, only one article stands out for me. It’s a small piece in a journal I don’t normally read that tells the story seen from the Benchmarking report (and yes [Bill] I know that sometimes benchmarking is not a good tool but, in this case, it positions us clearly against some other countries and shows where we are weak – and gives us a legitimate focus for effort. That’s far, far better than either no focus or focus on the wrong things). And then it goes on to say, referencing making e-government work effectively, “But it’s a difficult thing to do” and “The scale and complexity of the projects are such as to make them challenge even the most battle hardened project manager. They are tackling these projects though and, gradually, they’re delivering real value at grass roots and corporate level.” Absolutely right. It’s going to happen though. Thank you to IT-Analysis, I’ll read you more often – or maybe it’s just one author, “Jack Of Hearts” (the name gives it all away, he’s obviously get a soft heart).

And there’s even a quote that I like … “Everyone has his day and some days last longer than others.” – Winston Churchill. When my day comes, I hope it’s very, very long.

Sony’s new czar? A metaphor for Government’s need?

There was a great article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal yesterday. I won’t link to it as, although I subscribe to the print edition, I don’t have access to the online version (you have to pay extra and since I read the WSJ every day in the dead tree version, there seems little point in paying extra to read it again on a PC). The issue presented is one of a dinosaur-like Sony experiencing slowing growth, strengthened competition across many fronts and a business where the bulk of profit for the last 2 years has come from the Playstation franchise. Idei-san, the chairman, thinks that that the head of the Playstation unit, Ken Kutaragi, may be the man for the future – the catalyst. He says “if his personal ego is stronger than his will to keep Sony prosperous, then he will fail … [the question is] whether he can change, can be a god.” Those are powerful words coming from someone like Idei-san who goes on to say “Most people think Sony in 2010 will be a continuation of today’s Sony. I don’t think so”. Kutaragi will be charged with injecting the lessons learnt from the video game business into the rest of the company and will be part of the 3-man team that runs the whole Sony group. That’s some promotion. But Kutaragi says he doesn’t want to run the show – he would have “to sacrifice myself endlessly for the coming years. My health would be ruined … [it’s] not for me.” Kutaragi is billed by one senior manager as the “Michael Jackson” of the business – quirky, but creative. Idei-san even told Bill Gates at one point, after an aborted (and secretive) plan to join up with Microsoft, that “he doesn’t control Mr. Kutaragi.”

So, a dinosaur like operation is going to get consumed from the inside out by its own video game franchise, led by a maverick who has minimal respect for the overall sense of things who in 1999 declared (loudly) at a conference that “the old guys [in Sony] should make way for the young guys”.

Now there’s something to conjure with.

Disappointments of the day

Biggest disappointment of the day? Overnight fog. Last night we were supposed to get a ‘stellar’ performance as the Earth moved through the Leonid meteor shower. When I went to bed at 11.30pm fog so enshrouded London that I couldn’t see the dome of St. Paul’s (which is about 500′ from my back door). At 4am, when the peak of activity was supposed to be, there was nothing to be seen but cloud. This was supposed to be the asteroids’ finest performance for 100 years and something not to be seen again for another 100 years. So it was a huge disappointment. I felt like I’d just missed Halley’s comet again.

Second biggest disappointment of the day? The Prime Minister speaking at the UK’s e-summit and not mentioning e-government. At least not in the sense of what we’ve done so far is ok but here’s what we have to do to change it: fewer websites, greater focus on integrating personal, relevant information with intuitive transactions and so on.

Prime Ministerial speeches come and go (hey, even Prime Ministers come and go); there’ll be another chance to get the message across. The Leonids won’t be seen the way they were today (in some parts of the world) for 100 years.

Ellison gets it … I can’t believe I’m saying that

Larry Ellison spoke at OracleWorld last week, beaming in via satellite from New Zealand. He had a few things to say that are relevant to some of the points I’ve made recently. Rather than have you link, I’ll post the quotes I want to highlight:

He said the three biggest problems in information processing today are data fragmentation, incomplete software integration, and incomplete automation.

1. “You have so many separate databases all over your organization, all over your industry, that it’s very difficult for you to know where to look when you need some information.”

2. Customers have also bought too many software applications that don’t work properly together, he said, leading to poor integration.

3. “It turns out that as we sell you these general ledger systems, these ERP systems, these CRM systems that, historically, they haven’t been complete. By that I mean you couldn’t just take them and plug them into your business and operate your system.”

4. “We would like every one of our customers to run the same exact software configuration; that’s how you get software quality,” he said. Altering products too much makes them harder to support and maintain.

So … we have too many software products with too many databases, none of which integrate well, all of which have been customised. Well at last he realises. Of course, Oracle (just like every other company) has spent the last n years pitching us umpteen solutions for infinite requirements. Suppliers have not managed their customers to help create replicable solutions that could be widely deployed with minimal customisation and customers have not managed their suppliers to hone down the requirements and facilitate the deployment of simpler solutions. Today, we have a huge mess of systems and databases that we must now draw together. The graph I put up a few days ago showing my forecast for the trend in government website growth could equally apply to back end legacy systems and databases, although everything in me says that it will take longer to realise that vision.

So, Larry does get it. A bit. But he wants you to buy the next version of whatnotgadgetrelease that will make it all better. Right. But then, on the other channel, there’s Scott McNealy lamenting that buying products from one vendor alone is not a safe route either (he’s talking about Microsoft, but it doesn’t really matter who). One quote I’ve heard from Scott a few times is that Microsoft products are “integrated”, not “integratable”. Looks like Oracle wants to go the same route too. If it helps make implementation simpler, I’m all for it. No matter who sells it.

But then, on yet another channel, we have McNealy again saying something different … One of the first initiatives is to bundle Sun’s applications onto Solaris servers by June next year. “It’ll all work,” claimed McNealy. “It will all be integrated: you don’t have to assemble it; you don’t have to do all of that integration.” So just imagine … perhaps it doesn’t work today? But no need to worry whether that might be the case, Scott tells you it is … “I’ll let you into a dirty little secret,” he confided. “We’re not sure that all Sun’s software all running on one Solaris machine actually works, so we’re testing it.” What? Testing it? About time. And, as for Microsoft, some veiled praise … “The software is all welded together and welded shut,” he insisted. “You don’t get best of breed, [and] you can’t mix and match.”

Fascinating stuff. But the clear point is that the IT industry has had an epiphany. Having fallen over itself to sell us, the customer, endless upgrades, endless databases, endless incompatible systems, endless functionally incomplete solutions (and I use that last word in its loosest possible sense), they’ve woken up. Maybe the lack of money available for investment means that the customer is being forced to get intelligent; maybe the failures over the last 2 years have been the catalyst to get that intelligence; maybe the focus on accounting shambles and CEO accountability is giving us that intelligence. I don’t care where it’s coming from, stronger performance from customers backed up by commitment from suppliers will get us there. Anything less won’t.

I’m in the middle of compiling a “Seven Deadly Sins” article – seven for customers and seven for suppliers. Be interested in thoughts from anyone, either on your blog or by email to me at the Cabinet Office.