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Change and the Cloud

Mar 25, 2016, by Shelton Waggener
Tags: Executive Insights, Internet2 NET+

I have been in information technology a long time – in fact when you start counting in decades rather than years you know you have been at it awhile.  During that time, I have been involved in more major operational improvement initiatives than can be counted on two hands – as a participant, manager, sponsor, leader, in just about every role as a member of an information technology organization. Each time I worry about the time and effort it takes to do it right, though I always end up supporting the endeavor as I have seen the many benefits that this work can bring.  Even with the number of updates I have been through, across different organizations, budgets, and goals, I am amazed at the similarity of the results. Even more surprising is how predictable they are to everyone involved – because more often than not we all know the areas we can improve, its just a matter of focus and alignment to achieve the needed results. That’s not to say that its easy, and in fact most OE related projects eventually suffer from fatigue as it takes so long to implement the needed changes. However, in the last few years, I have noticed a change in the success of operational excellence projects; today we have access to something not previously available and I think it makes a difference in improving the odds – cloud services.

The elements of the new cloud environments that are both critically and uniquely suited to enabling efficiency projects are flexibility and speed. Often quoted as important elements in cloud service adoptions, they become even more important as teams work together to identify process problems, improve workflow, eliminate redundancies and overlaps, and close the gap. Historically before business processes were automated, you could make individual methodical changes to each manual process and in doing so, see continual improvement. Later, once we automated everything, process changes required changing systems, which required technology staff and another layer of change management, often cross multiple IT departments (applications, databases, infrastructure). Each step adds time, cost, and complexity and given the well known challenges of system modifications (and the pain that went into their original implementation) individuals and teams are often reluctant to under take changes which may destabilize current environments or at the very least, add to an already high workload. The introduction of cloud services changes that calculus, as your ability to quickly trial alternate approaches at low or very low cost is available for experimentation and demonstration before investing in what might be expensive technology (and business) changes.

In practice, to fully implement a cloud service requires quite a few steps and not many of us have the time or operating model that supports purchasing a cloud service for every business process change. Still, if you plan ahead and take some steps in advance, you will be able to leverage the cloud to model and prototype your changes (or examples of possible changes) to improve both your speed to evaluate a change and accuracy in meeting the hope for goals. To make best use of this opportunity, cloud savvy campuses are taking some key steps in advance of big projects to help make it easier to access those services. 

Test Data: Nearly all production systems require a solid set of test data. You want to make sure its cleared of all sensitive, personally identifiable, or other real information but have it match the data schema of your core systems.  Then you are ready with a data set to test against a cloud offering.

Business Process Ownership:  Do you know who has the authority to make a decision if you want to make a change?  On the IT side you probably do, but make sure you document, in advance before you need it, the named owners for any given business process.  Its also a lot easier to have those discussions and get clarity during regular business than when its time for a change.

Integration Tools:  Even if your campus hasn’t implemented a cloud services strategy or adopted many cloud services, integration is something you are likely already doing well and will need to expand that skill to include integration with cloud services. Do it now, with small services you (or your departments and staff) are already using so you can make decisions about an integration architecture in advance of needing it.

Careful of the click throughs: We often wait until the final stage of a procurement to consider the legal terms associated with a technology acquisition. That process might have worked when you could take months (or longer) to decide to bring a service into production. However, in a world where it takes longer to read the click through than it does to actually install the application, danger can lurk in those click through agreements. Consider participating in the NET+ program where contract terms with national scale have been vetted by member campuses and include best-in-class protections.

Staffing:  Relying on staff who currently operate your in-house systems to be cloud experts is a long term strategy – that is it will take a long time to train them all on the new technologies and methodologies associated with best practices in cloud computing.  Consider using some of your limited resources to staff a few dedicated cloud program managers who can begin the process of expanding cloud expertise as their primary responsibility.  You might also consider sending staff in these roles to the “How to Cloud” Workshop at Internet2 Global Summit 2016 at Internet2 Global Summit 2016 in Chicago this May.

Our ability to move quickly is clearly a function of advanced preparation, but very often we forget the most important element– culture.  Regardless of the business process change planned, the technology selected, or how easy it is to implement that tiny little cloud service that seems to fit so well, recognize that if you want to improve the way you deliver to your customers, you will have to move much faster than you ever have previously.  Expectations are higher, individual technical choice dominates the landscape, and time from idea to execution is now measured in hours or days not weeks or months.  Make sure you start the process of setting those expectations with your team, giving them a chance to work on smaller, quicker projects where they can experience operating at cloud speeds.  

Internet2 also undertakes our own Operational Excellence projects—thinking about what we can do to improve our services to members recently with the implementation of new business systems needed to accommodate the growth and increasing needs of our members.  New solutions are being implemented including Salesforce, Zuora, NetSuite, and soon a service management platform.  Each of these major systems have been surrounded by the adoption of many smaller ones as well like Bluejeans, Box, and SmartSheet.  The decision to move to these solutions has happened as fast as the business has required, and we are getting better at it – and since they are cloud based, we pick up the pace every day.