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Technology and the Zone of Uselessness

They let me out for a short trip to the shops today, and whilst I was waiting to pay, I watched an old geezer struggling to put his chip'n'pin card in the right way round.  Which set me off thinking about what happens when you get old, and at what point does the pace of technology evolution overtake and you are left in the dust, a crumbly, fumbling, useless old curmudgeon, no longer able to function properly nor interact sensibly with the environment.

To further the analysis we can consider this table of the evolution of user interfaces (keeping a fairly tight scope to cover mainly electronic means)…

Primary Mode
of Interaction
Examples Era of invention
Tap Telegraph key (button) Late Georgian
Shout Candlestick phone Victorian
Rotate Rotary phone, Wireless with Bakelite knobs, steering wheel (drive by wire) Victorian
Bash / Prod  QWERTY keyboard, keypad Victorian
Look Eye tracking Early Miss-Marple
Wiggle Joystick Wilson-WhiteHeatian for electrical (although Early Edwardian/La Belle Époque (for mechanical)
Blow Typing aids,
Blow controlled mobile phone, ignoring the Captains speaking tube…
Waggle Mouse Engelbarto-Xerox PARCian
Scribble GridPad, Apple Newton, Palm, Ipaq, Tablet PC Yuppie-time
Fondle & Stroke Smart phone, tablet SonyEricssonian-Jobsian
Wave Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect, data glove TomCruisian
Shout 2 Speech Recognition Rock and Roll, but it hasn't really happened yet properly, maybe JeremyClarksonian, when it does (JC is famously unable to use any voice operated equipment)
Think emotiv EPOC neuroheadset Yuppie-time

…and whilst you can see that a lot of stuff was actually invented a long time ago, having been around for over 100 years in some form, there has been quite a rush of invention in more recent years, hanging on the cot-tails of the primary evolution of computing technology, no surprise there, I suppose.

One of the more interesting insights, for me as an analyst and connoisseur of number crunching, is that whilst many of the newer inventions have been for various methods of computer control,  there is a paucity of newly invented data entry methods, beyond the humble and ancient keyboard.  

With the dominant design of the QWERTY keyboard to the fore, there have been really no successful disruptive plays, and most inventions have focussed on just reworking the layout (e.g., DVORAK, frogpad, FITALY and their kin).  Chord keyboards made a bid, but, of course, like any shorthand method you need to learn a new language, and they never took off.

The FITALY keyboard is a nice design that fits well with modern joy-pad units like xBox and smartphone touch interfaces, as it minimise the amount of clicks, or finger movement movement to type a letter so is quite fast , however at $49 for a tablet computer it is never going to amount to much

Extending the idea of chord keyboards and use of non-verbal language, there is undoubtedly some scope for non-keyboard data-entry devices using gesture control  to recognise sign language (and that hopefully avoid Gorilla-arm that afflicted early days vertical touch screen users).   Although, the new “language” learning problem still exists, and Babel will always be an issue, unless we all adopt Ameslan or Microsoftlan, or AppleJobsLan.

Now I believe that I can rightly consider myself  pretty well up on the world of technology and there is very little that fazes me.

In fact, many pieces of broken equipment will just fix them in my presence, or so it seems, when my family call the DadHelpdesk, and I just lean over languidly and in my calming presence, and the recalcitrant kit just bursts in to life (maybe with a judicious key press or two)

But don't ask me about *&^$*^%ing plumbing – compression joints, meh!

So I do think that my threshold of uselessness is likely to be pretty high (or do I mean low), and consoling me today, my elder son told me that “people don't get dumb, they just get old” (i.e, if they were stupid to start with, they will be stupid, old people), so maybe there will be some hope…

However, like VCRs, which kids can programme with ease whilst their parents just fumble, the evolution  of new technologies and UIs in particular, is much influenced by the volume of fluent, capable users, which itself flows with the generations.

To this, one area of technology that I do not really bother with is computer games beyond a half-finished PC version of Dune in 1992, I'm just not interested in playing them (I can feel my life slipping away).  Therefore I am not particularly adroit when it comes to using a joypad, and have not built up great dexterity and flexibility in my hands and fingers (unlike most teenage boys) for that type of device.  The one time I played Castle Wolfenstein, I spent the whole game bumping into walls whilst staring at the floor or sky!  And Second Life, oh so bad!

More so, I  have never been able to make the three-fingered boy scout sign – I never was a boy scout, also just not interested – my hands just don't bend that way.

And finally, I have a very highly tuned embarrassment inhibitor which tries to stop me doing things that would cause a red face (it doesn't always work, even with my personaility type…)

So what is my old-age technology nightmare scenario?

  • having to visit Castle Wolfenstein to get my pension…
  • …electronically bruised after a long, slow, meandering (virtual) walk from the entrance of the Cyberspace Business Park…
  • …inputting my data by waving my arms wildly whilst holding my walking stick trying not to fall over…
  • …and making complex mudra with my crippled and twisted old hands.

Ye gods!  Build me a Bluetooth neural uplink, and make it snappy!


Spring is busting out all over up here in Lincolnshire, spurred on by the lovely weather recently.  The swallows are back in the barn, always good to see that they made it back from South Africa (where the RSPB tells me British swallows over-winter).  The trees and flowers are all blooming, not quite yet into the Bluebell season yet, but plenty of colour… Lincolnshire Spring 2011

Whilst enjoying the sunshine and in the full flush of the other joys of Spring, one of the topics on my mind recently recently has been Service Integration, an important ingredient for delivering excellent IT services.  The nub of the issue that Service Integration looks to solve is like this:

In recent years, the trend for contracting IT Services has been to push beyond the big-bang mega-deals of old to selective outsourcing of like groups of IT services , dubbed “towers” by industry pundits such as Gartner and their ilk, thus:


IT Service Towers

I won’t bore you with the detail here as to why this model doesn’t work that well

However, user services are often a combination of pieces from each tower, so to make users happy, avoid incident “ping-pong” and other good things, services really need to be managed in a joined-up way, orthogonally to the towers, like this

End to end service model

This glues, or integrates, if you like, the different elements of a complete service, hence, this joining-up is “Service Integration”

You could abbreviate Service Integration to SI, but this is ripe for confusion with the older usage of SI, as Systems Integration, all about gluing together bits of software and hardware to make new systems, i.e., Building systems rather Running services.

There have been a number of landmark deals espousing the Service Integration model , from ABN/AMRO and the “Guardian” model back on 2005, through to the most recent state if the art at National Grid with the recently penned deal with HP ( Computing article on National Grid / HP SMI deal and HP Press Release).

One of the usual suspects in building such a model, is dear old ITIL, now ISO/IEC20000

Not to be confused with Tyltyl and Mytyl, characters from Maeterlink’s Blue Bird, a well-known childrens’ classic

ITIL is a worthy model  and has been around for many years since penned by the CCTA, and is now at version 3,. Version 3 is quite good, as it has finally acknowledged that services have a life-cycle, and gosh, this sort of stuff is iterative (what a buzz).  V1 and V2 in contrast had rather static views of the world)

I was astonished recently in one of those rare, but memorable, jaw-dropping, goggle-eyed moments when a sales guy from some other organisation opined in a meeting (to paraphrase) “Why all this fuss about V3, there’s some really good stuff in V2”.  Everybody in the room looked  at the poor unfortunate in deadly silence as he swallowed his foot and half his leg up to the knee and lower thigh, and from that moment he became nobody, a nebbish, a zero.  Ouch!

Nebbish – a Yiddish word meaning “an insignificant, pitiful person; a nonentity”, very effectively characterised in a book I once read but can no longer recall the title so cannot name-check or credit the author (sorry), as a person who when they walk into a room is like someone just walked out

ITIL V3 was published in 2007, but only just really made it into the 21st century with its iterative, nay, agile, flavouring, yet there are a number of “elephants in the room”, major topics not covered that are essential components in the full business architecture of modern IT service delivery…

Elephants in the room

Not just a few elephants, but a thundering herd in fact, in the form of (not exhaustively):

  • Innovation
  • Managing Technology investments
  • Multi-vendor service integration
  • Deal Structure  and Partnership Management
  • Pricing, Billing & Charging
  • People, Culture & Structure (at least 3 elephants, in just this line alone.)

COBIT makes a much broader sweep in its attempt to embrace the whole entity that is a living, breathing IT organisation and seems to fill many of the gaps not covered by ITIL.

Yes, I know I bang on about Innovation quite a bit in these posts, but it is a common current complaint I hear that innovation has been squeezed out  in deals struck in the 2000s, and now the demand is to find ways to enable it again, even to the extent of considering to pay an Innovation “premium”.

COBIT, founded in GRC, and providing an excellent check-list with which to herd most of the elephants, is as blind as ITIL when it comes to Innovation.  If you search through the text of the COBIT 4.1 framework definition doc, you will find the word “innovation” writ not once at all in its 197 pages!

GRC = Governance, Risk Management & Compliance, in case you wanted to know

Risk management is as central to innovation and agility as it is to the philosophy of COBIT with its focus on control.  Yet there is a classic schism between the COBIT GRC-based shibboleths and the ways of innovation and agility, and one might cynically draw the conclusion that COBIT is about stopping things getting done, whereas innovation and agility are the polar opposite – “skunkworks” innovation is the antithesis of the GRC mindset, even anathema.   And, of course, COBIT is process-oriented, just like ITIL.  Good, but rather 1990s Hammer & Champy and still further to go to get into the 21st century.

The COBIT 4.1 Executive Summary contains a hugely contentious and flawed.headline on page 13 vide “PROCESSES NEED CONTROLS”. To justify this you need to follow this syllogism:

  • Processes are risks
  • Risk need controls
  • Therefore, Processes need controls
    (yes, this is, indeed, nonsense)

This does not compute, the base premise is wrong: Yes, High risks, whether processes or otherwise do need controls, but don’t waste time putting controls on low risk processes.

“Quick, evacuate the building, we’ve had a slightly embarrassing failure to detect a root cause in Problem Management”

Also, processes can be controls, so do we add meta-control processes to control the control processes? – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes ad nauseam.

You may think that I am  being rather harsh on the solid works of people who have created ITIL, COBIT et al.  These frameworks are all useful check-lists of best practice, but need to be used with some care, lest the medicine kill the patient.  And they help with the standardisation of service descriptions when making like-for-like comparison somewhat easier in the sourcing and procurement process.  However, they are inevitably behind the leading edge. for example, getting joined-up in the customer experience dimension (orthogonal to both towers and process orientation) is yet another step to go.

On the other hand, getting up the curve to build Innovation into modern IT service deals, well, that can be done right now (give me a call!)

Three Laws of Innovation?

A couple of topics popped up together recently to make me think some about Innovation and maybe what might be considered as the “Three Laws of Innovation”

Yes, again, why not, Innovation theory (and practice) is very interesting and a favourite subject area of mine

(Embedding further) Three laws were good enough for Newton, Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Kepler, and Thermodynamics (Thermo-man?), so is enough for us here

The two topics that pinged on my radar were the DAB radio switch-over and  the growth of mobile “apps”.

Very observant, young man, you might say with cutting irony, considering how the latter elephant is not exactly a not a small thing to notice, however, the specific shading that drew my attention is the conflation of “apps” with the relatively absurd concept of the “Consumerisation of IT”, but that is something for another day

As is generally well known (maybe at least to the connoisseurs of such), there are two great peaks of thinking about Innovation (or at least well promoted, anyway), which are strong candidates for Laws 1 & 2:

  • Utterback’s theory of “Dominant Design”, and
  • Christensen’s “Disruptive Innovation”

I shall ignore Foster’s S-Curves, fun but largely useless without 20:20 hindsight.  Although his retrospective observations on historic R&D yield in mature industries were also interesting

It happens that both of these theories are about competition – essentially, quasi-Darwinian “survival of the fittest” ideas in the commercial eco-system.  This prompts the thought that ideas are like animals or plants colonising new territory and perhaps supplanting existing species.

Indeed one can conceive the evolution of computers in just such a way,   In the first stage, the mainframe mega-dinosaurs lumbered in to empty lands and all five of them hunkered down in their primeval swamp…


The slower and smaller minicomputers grew up and ate some of the mainframe lunch but otherwise nested in  vacant slots in the eco-system…


Then the nimble and populous Personal Computers burst on to the scene and set up home next to the others, but also occupy some completely different space…


And most recently, the little amoebal-mobile devices sneak in, erode some of the desktop territory but also set home home in a new country (and they opened a shop too, well, a marketplace, and everything)


The point here being that it is not all about competition although this does impact some of the legacy techno-animals but, in many cases, the new mechanisms opened up new territories and enabled some new things.

It should also be observed that Christensen’s theory applies well here as the cost performance of computing has fallen dramatically so that the dinosaur mainframes are now well and truly outclassed by the lower performance systems that came in from underneath, such that, that a typical mainframe is no more powerful than reasonably sized Wintel enterprise server, but about 100 times more expensive to feed and water!

In the model above, although there are some new territories to invade, the spaces between older technologies are getting ever smaller with the “idea-space” becoming ever more congested and the eco-system constipated.  The niche features and almost fractal scale of new mobile apps squeezing into uses not previously envisaged…

just how did we ever live before without those iFart apps?

…together with the growing variety of device formats seem to mirror this reducing space into which new things must fit.   Just so, oh best beloved, indeed, this is a feature of another evolutionary effect: specialisation.

Tangentially, this notion of congestion does raise the question is that can/will the total “idea-space” fill up?

At the end the of 2010, the US Patent Office (profligate as it is in granting patent “all-sorts” due to its perverse budgeting incentives) records shows that there were 4,767,685 utility patents (broadly, “inventions”) granted in the 47 years between 1963 and 2010, and the annual rate of grants is increasing.  If you project the growth curve (it is a good fit for a third order polynomial), then in just the next 20 years, the number of utility patents will double to over 10 million…


…something is going to break…

Consider, for example, the evolution of electric tools, for example, a thrilling topic perhaps of rather particular interest, but well known to DIY old-timers.

In the early days, a power drill was a treasured item, costing a kings ransom to buy, and then enhanced by the ingenious design of various add-ons that allowed the drill to power other devices.  However, the combination tools were rather average at the job and you spent ages swapping attachments to get a job done.

Now, the cost of base motor-drive parts has reached the point (relative to average income) that dedicated tools are generally in B&Q and all good local stockists (yes, even here in Lincolnshire).  The evolutionary generations are broadly thus…


….and the key point is here that specialisation has followed an age of standard/generic, multi-purpose designs.

On the topic of power tools and attachments, we shall not dwell on a very dark DIY episode many years ago, when one gimlet sharp child of mine watching out of the window said, “Mummy, why is Daddy hitting that piece of wood with the jigsaw?”. Gilly wisely closed the curtains and drew attention away from the gathering storm clouds outside, &%@+^$(&^%$%$%^^%&$…

In the evolutionary context, the thin-client Internet browser has much in common with the 1970s Black and Decker drill, it performs some functions well (the hole-making ability) but does others really badly.  The central management of pages on a web-site and server push for software add-ons is very good but, in contrast, browser-based transactional applications are appallingly bad (vide the immensely frustrating and totally unacceptable experience of the https payment page in a checkout process that displays “page not found”, cue lost or duplicated orders and payments).  In other words, a very poor substitute for a properly constructed fat-client, event driven, distributed application

As an aside, the nineties/noughties Browser can be considered an example of the “When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail” principle, graphically:Hammer

The pendulum is now swinging away from the generic macro browser to micro apps as fat clients, with a huge range of variety, diversity, and utility.  Whilst there is a potential for a tremendous mess and confusing mishmash, some of the previous lessons have (fortunately?) been enshrined within the application architectures with common frameworks and interfaces (e.g., Android security permissions and sharing” model) and UI design (e.g, Windows Phone 7 Metro style guide)

Considering that “apps” are no more then evolved, differentiated versions of web-pages, recasting Apple’s trademarked bon-mots “there’s an app for that”  back in time becomes “there’s a web-page for that”….

Not so impressive, but invokes a scary vision that there are over 20 billion pages indexed on the surface of the WWWeb, and many more in the deep, suggesting that if even a fraction of the pages and their features were to escape as mobile apps, then there could be millions, if not, billions of apps to come, and then die on our phones like the husks of a defeated blue-bottle infestation

So what about the DAB switch-over, I hear you cry, what does this have to do with the price of fish?  Well, DAB is an example of a somewhat different trend of technological sophistication, and growing complexity.

A quick trip to the dictionary confirms that “Sophistication” and “Sophistry” have the same root in the Ancient Greek word for wisdom (σοφία, sophia) which should be a good thing, you might think. However. the fallacious, specious and dishonest taint of sophistry slops over into a pejorative meaning, and so your average fashion-victim socialite may be unaware that being called “sophisticated”  is not cool and an oh so subtle insult!

Unlike the rather simplistic two-dimensional competitive territory model above, of course, the “idea-space” is much bigger and more multi-dimensional. Consider here an abridged picture of the evolution of the modern auto-mobile, from fire and wheel to pinnacle of multiplexed CAN-bus wiring and other goodies that can no longer be fixed with a few Lucas connectors and the ubiquitous half-inch spanner of my youth.  Each generation of innovation is built on the foundations of previous, and also mashed up from wildly different sources to build a pyramid of complexity


So. back to DAB, in my mind which is tuned always to consider contingencies, it is a comforting thought that when civilisation falls and we are hiding from the hordes of flesh-eating zombies, we can at least make an AM radio from a handful of salvaged components, whereas DAB FM is at least two orders of more complex – no, it’s just a recipe of the end of humanity as we know it.

So drawing this monologue to a close, which Innovation mega-theory would make a good candidate to sit in a trinity of the Laws of Innovation together with with Dominant Design and Disruptive Innovation?

Might be interesting to draw in something around that is not just about competition as the other two, but perhaps combination / complexity.   Food for thought and an ongoing search, I think.

Professor Pages and the Productivity Paradox

On a plane flying back from Boston (Mass.), eaten second breakfast of the day, watched a bit of “Where the Wild Things Are”, annoying, fractious kid who needs therapy (or a sharp slap) and a bunch of needy, fractious rather dopey creatures, disappointed, switched it off, didn’t even care to see if he was reconciled with his poor benighted mother, bored, listening to Muse, need a coffee, some battery life in laptop, here goes…

Recently, I was working with a colleague who exclaimed “You’ve got to be a professor to understand that page” when looking at a consulting 2×2.   Indeed there are some great pages in the world that capture some key thoughts or concepts so concisely that they can be expressed just on one page, but need a voice-over to talk through the layers of meaning embedded, maybe like one of those pointillist paintings or a fractal montages that is made up of pictures that are made up of pictures…(but perhaps not a Dali-esque or Picassoid other world view?).

This diagram below (not the one being commented on, I hasten to add), captures the entire eco-system of outsourced application development on both technical & commercial dimensions, ranging from the narrow individual project up to the strategic vendor relationship level

Very clever, of course, but it really deserves to be supported by 20 following pages to unpeel the layers and break out the key concepts, etc., etc.

(oohh, a quick round of orange juice…)

But it looks like this when you morph it Dali-style…


…but that is just plain silly, of course. (but an excuse to try out the Virtual Plastic Surgery Software, why don’t you give it a go on one of your favourite photos, and make your self look like your favourite film star, or the Bride of Wildenstein…)

Battery dying….break to watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine, just another load of shouting and uber-angst


Down on the ground now…

However, there are some charts that are very easy to understand, but they do convey a message that is counter-intuitive, and so take a while to get your head round.

This chart is a good example


This shows the output of a model of software development productivity which paradoxically shows that total coding cost falls whilst the developer daily rate increases.  This is, of course, quite counter to the expectations of typical Aggressive Sourcing gigs which tend to focus on bashing down the daily rates.   The Old Wives and proverb writers of yore new about this since the principle of “Pay peanuts and get Monkeys” is well known.

This is what they used to say, but I do wonder if this phrase might be considered racist in these days of off-shoring, say maybe it should now be “Pay Peanuts, get Numpties” or something like that…

The twist in the tail on this analysis is that in the formula P x Q, where P is Daily Rate, and Q is the number of days needed to complete the project, some people (yes, them) are not aware that Q is inversely proportional to P.  This is the essence of the move to Agile development methods, which favours people over process (amongst other things).

Finally, I also offer you the 2×2 I wrote all by myself one day after an afternoon’s presentation by one of my erstwhile colleagues, a quite (self) important and entitled sort of chap who gave a long presentation from which I came out reeling with “Framework overload”, having survived the discourse from the evolution of Sailing Ships to Dell’s policy build to order policy and positive cash to cash resulting…

So I drew this…

Smoke_And_Mirrors (web)

So there you go…

Aristotle and all that

I have been away from my desk quite a lot recently cavorting around the motorways of England, racking up the miles on my poor hard-worked steed, but now I have a few minutes to sit down and pass on an interesting observation….

Just a momentary tangent before we head into the main meat, so to speak, there is another blog post that I have been meaning to write about Broadband Britain, Cloud Computing, the Innovators Dilemma, passing by the new statistic that the number of of old people in the UK now exceeds the number of young, and arriving finally at some as yet unthought pithy comment about Silver <read, Grey> Surfers. However, it is really just an excuse to create a comic juxtaposition alluding to the alleged practice of North American ethnic peoples (no longer Eskimo) to abandon their old folk on ice floes, whereas I have observed over the long miles I have travelled in the last few months that we British seem to abandon them at Cherwell Valley Services on the M40…so lets move on

Anyway, my recent revelation is related to this framework below plucked from the world of transformation consulting and change management as relayed to me some years ago by one of my erstwhile consulting chums.  The blobs relate to managing communication with people during significant changes on three dimensions: Rational, Political and Emotional.

rpe balls (web)

The ‘sweet spot’ is in the centre when all communications are most compelling as they appeal to all these three.

Coincidentally, whilst  trying to be a useful parent and reviewing a Classics essay, I prodded Google about some topic to draw back the veil of my ignorance on such topics and it popped up with Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion

  • ήθος – Ethos
  • λόγος – Logos
  • πάθος – Pathos

Thus, in seasonal form…

aristotles baubles (web)

Whilst equating Ethos to the Political dimension somewhat turns my stomach when I think of the more venal and self-aggrandising aspects of the political world, the three blobs of the R…P…E model are a pretty good match for what Aristotle laid down.

So there you go….

Beware of BS Benchmarks & Krap KPIs

Recently our esteemed Green Knight, Sir Jonathan Porritt was attributed with saying  “Overweight people are ‘damaging the planet'”.  Of course it turns out that he said something like this in about 2007, in fact building on a comment by the then Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson.  But somebody else unearthed it again for some typically twisted reason – nothing can be more topical than mixing global warming with a bit of “fatty slapping”.

The hypothesis behind the hype is that fat people use more resources because they eat more food, but why not then include teenage boys (unfillable, as empty fridges around the country can testify), people with very high metabolic rate, and other some such big eaters.  Ah, well, the logic goes that fat people also drive everywhere and so contribute more CO2 than thin people who, of course, walk or cycle everywhere.   Well, maybe it applies in towns, but it is certainly not true in the countryside, so drawing a different intersection in the Venn diagram I am sketching out here in hyperspace, maybe the headline should have read “Teenage boys and country people with very high metabolic rates are ‘damaging the planet”” – not quite so catchy, or right-on, eh?

But, of course, there is a secondary thesis which is that obese people can be “cured”, especially if they all got out of their cars, walked and cycled, and stopped scarfing all the pies, whence their weight would magically drop away and they would join all the normal people in the happy mean.

When you look at whole populations analytically then of course you usually see some sort of distribution (Normal or otherwise) of whatever factor (weight, in this case) that you might be measuring.   So the theory is that by thinning down the fatties, the shape of the distribution will be changed. However, there are flies in this particular ointment, and if you look around you can find suggestions that obesity is actually a structural feature of a/the/any human population, that everybody has got fatter and that you need to treat the population as a whole, not just focus on the upper tail.

All in all, an example of woolly loose thinking gussying up to a political agenda.

BMI  is one of the weapons in the “fatty slapping” armoury, a metric with some very well documented short-comings, yet standard (mis-)guidance would label people like Lawrence Dilaglio, Jonah Lomu & Mel Gibson as over-weight or obese.  Whilst BMI might have some trivial diagnostic uses, some lard-brained, fat-heads try to use it as a decision-making metric, vide ‘Too fat’ to donate bone marrow – the 18-stone 5’10” sports teacher with a technical BMI of 36.1 who was ejected from the National Bone Marrow Register.  To make a proper health assessment, you need to have a more detailed look at structural features, like waist size, percentage of body fat and so on, before pronouncing.

Just pausing a moment to dissect BMI further, it has units of kg/m2 which is not unlike the metric used to define paper thickness.

Many organisations these days used 80gsm printer paper which is more environmentally friendly than the more sumptuous 100 paper of oldAnd even less rich feeling than the 120gsm paper that Tier 1 consultants use to create a table-thumping report – the dollars are in the loudness of the thump.

As Marshall McLuhan told us, the medium is indeed the message, thickness = quality, and just feel that silky china clay high white finish. Oooohhh…

Sorry, started to get rather indented there, must coach self, control tangents…

So a person who has a BMI of, say, yeah, like 25, is like a piece of 25000gsm paper, no really…equally a piece of A4 paper might have a BMI of about 0.08…


Thus BMI is a prime example of a benchmark ratio or KPI that is NOT a good basis for making decisions, as it fails to take account of significant structural factors.

This parable provides an important lesson for practitioners in the world of Information Technology Economics, where many a ratio is measured and analysed by pundits including Gartner et al, a classic being “IT Costs as percentage of Revenue”, one of their IT Key Metrics.

It is defined quite simply as:


If you dig into the typical drivers of the top and bottom parts of this formula as below, say,

MicroEconomic Drivers – Typical Examples
IT Costs Revenue
  • Business configuration, e.g., Channel/Distribution infrastructure
  • Organisation structure (e.g., headcount)
  • IT Governance & Policies (e.g., Group standardisation)
  • IS architecture and legacy (complexity)
  • IT Service definitions and service levels
  • Development methods & productivity
  • Sourcing/procurement strategy & execution
  • Supplier market diversity
  • Market Structure
  • Competitive environment
  • Market share
  • Product design
  • Consumer behaviour
  • Sales & Marketing performance
  • Customer Service (retention)

then you might surmise that it is quite possible that the Revenue numerator has significant elements that are certainly outside the direct control of the IT organisation, and indeed outside the control of the company, whereas the IT Costs are defined largely by the structure of the organisation, its distribution channels, and internal policies and practices.  The top line is also, I conjecture, more volatile than the denominator, and being mostly outside the control of the IT so a very unfair stick to beat the IT donkey with.  So in qualitative logical terms this metric is certainly appears to be a very poor ‘apples and oranges’ comparator.

If you stretch the analysis further, you can ask the question “what does it mean?”  Is the ratio intended to show the importance of IT? or IT leverage/gearing (bang for the buck)?

Well, if it is some level of importance we are trying to assess, then we should analyse the relationship between this benchmark ratio and true measures of business value, such as, Operating Margin.  Looking across a range of industries the curve looks like this:


OK, is is a deliberately silly chart, just to make the point that this is clearly a wobbly relationship.
If you do a linear regression analysis of the relationship between Operating Margin% and the IT Cost/Revenue ratio and a sibling ratio “IT Cost as a %age of Total Operating Costs” (or “Systems Intensity” to its friends), then you get these results for R2


IT Costs as %age of Revenue vs Operating Margin%


IT Costs as %age of Op. Costs vs Operating Margin%


What this shows is that there is no particularly significant linear relationship between these two key metrics and Operating Margin, so quantitatively, the ratios do not really tell you anything about how IT costs/investment drive overall business performance at all.

Even within an industry ratio comparisons are fairly meaningless.  For example, in the past UK Banks had an average Systems Intensity around 20%.  If you were to calculate the Systems Intensity for Egg, the Internet bank, at its height, you would come out with a number ranging from about 17% to 25% depending on how you treat the IT cost component of outsourced product processing and some other structural factors.  And I do recall having a conversation with one Investment Bank CIO who declared, “Yes, of course, we do spend 20% of our operating costs on IT, it’s how we set the budget!”

The whole averaging process loses information too.  Look at the four distributions below, they all have the same mean (i.e., average) but are wildly different in shape.


Without further detail on their parameters than just the mean value of the curves,  you cannot make a sensible comparison at all.

So all these ratios give is some rather weak macro illumination of the differing levels of IT spending between industries, like saying to a Bank “Did you know that, on average, Banks spend 7.3 times more on IT than Energy companies” to which the appropriate response is “YEAH, SO WHAT?”…

…Oh, and maybe, some vague diagnostic indication that there may (or may not) be something worth looking at with a more detailed structural review.  So, why not just go straight there, and dig out the real gold!

And so the morals of this story, O, Best Beloved,  are that just because you can divide two numbers, it doesn’t mean that you should, and be prepared to dig into the detail to truly understand how cost and performance could be improved.

Just so.

Just Words

So it has been a torrid couple of weeks for MPs outed having been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.   Schadenfreude, Epicaricacy, aighear millteach and their ilk are good words to roll around the tongue, and savour whilst we lob cabbages and rotten tomatoes at those in the pillory: all the more unattractive being that their “misfortune” was brought about by their own actions and a display of lower moral standards than  is clearly desirable in our political representatives.

Auto-Epicaricacy: a term I just made up, applying some word logic, would mean taking pleasure in your own misfortune. Definitely an unhealthy and paradoxical mental state, but I suppose optimistic, in that every cloud has a silver lining…

I was particularly fascinated and driven to ask “how does that work, then?”  by the declaration of one misadventurer that “Of course I feel that my reputation is tarnished, but my integrity is intact”.

Integrity: the unimpaired state of anything : uprightness : honesty : purity – Chambers 20C 

What logic system do you have to apply, what set of axioms must one have, how must one deconstruct common sense to be able to make this statement?  For a start, you would have to look at redefining some core words: unimpaired, anything, upright, honest, pure – take your pick.

Words are a key part of a consultant’s stock-in-trade, and pictures too.   One of my favourites satirical sites, now sadly defunct, was SatireWire which ran a series of bizarre and entertaining statistical charts like this…

Madrigals By Freshness
… a hearty lampoon of opaque and confusing “Management by Cartoon” Powerpoint presentations (one step up, though, from “Management by In-flight Magazine” which is significantly more dangerous).

And of course every industry has its buzz-words and jargon, which can be useful short-hand for many forms of communication, but often quite poisonous when they leak into other places.

Note the use of the word “key” in the preceding paragraph – a consultant-y sort of word if ever there was one, it means important, significant, stands out from the crowd.  Non-key things are not interesting…now go back and carry on reading here

The recent attempt by the Local Government Association to proscribe some logofluvial jargon-words was a valiant attempt to stop etymological pollution in Local Government communication with the rest of us.  I am certainly a fan of Plain English, and keeping things short and sweet with some sharp Anglo-Saxon monosyllables replacing  loquacious logorrheic verbal peregrinations, but equally a devotee of precision and conciseness which some longer words can bring to a sentence, by conceptual elision, perhaps.

So I was interested to see some words on the list that I have used myself and as have many of my colleagues.  These are words from the consulting domain that do have proper surgically precise and correct meanings in the right hands, but indeed deadly in the wrong.  Other words on the list would be posionous in any context:

  • Baseline” is a word I know well that has meaning both in project planning and also in procurement – in both areas being the datum from which you measure some sort of progress or achievement.
  • Predictors of Beaconicity“, however,  is never going to win any prizes for clarity….

The list is also very good material for Buzz-word Bingo…

And talking of words and in an interesting juxtaposition of neurons firing, I noticed that the BBC were having a Poetry Season.  Being a self-professed iconoclast and fact-based sort of person, I have a completely tin-ear for poetry which is just a form of “talking funny” (in an unfunny way, unlike puns).

So to finish, I have constructed a Boston grid attempting to make some sense and classify some of the odder behaviours of my fellow human, viz….

“Talking Funny”
  • Poets
  • Committee meetings
  • Consultants (some)
  • Morris Dancers
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Street Mimes
  • Opera Singers
  • Michael Jackson
  • Klingons
  • Most people
  • Cycle couriers
  • Bee-keepers
  • Sports-people (most)
  • Customer service agents in uniform
  • Builders
Normal “Dressing Funny”

Phosphenes & Palimpsests…

About a year ago, I went though one of those few moments when I thought my normal powers of memory had somehow deserted me. It was not really anything important I couldn’t remember, just the word that describes the the lights you see when you squeeze your eyes tight shut. Like this…
So not very significant in the scheme of things: not one of the words I actually use very often in conversation or in Powerpoint presentations. Just annoying, because the word was just lurking on the edge of my perception, out of reach. But something that you can get a bit obsessed about when information normally falls to hand or mind quickly…

So I Googled and Wiki’d and all those searching jobs that normally count as work, and kept finding Tom, Nicole and Stanley and their film, and other flotsam and jetsam on the endless waves of Web surf.

But, eventually, I created a mega-whiz, sharp-as-a-scalpel, spot-on search string that gave me that Eureka moment…Ding!

The word I was looking for was “Phosphene

Mind you the Eureka moment was over quickly, as I came to that odd feeling that I had never known the word at all so how could I have semi-forgotten or demi-remembered it? But let us not confuse the story with such technical plot twists and devices.

Palimpsest is another word a bit like Phosphene, but in reverse, I know what the letters say, but the meaning slips my mind (a reused bit of parchment, in fact). It is however a word that I have read many times but never ever had the need to write down – until today. It is definitely a clever Stephen Fry sort of a word, or maybe a Will Self word

I wrote “normal powers of memory” at the top of this piece, though we Jungian Is “enjoy” the physical aspects of memory that are imposed by our brain chemitstry, being the dominant long acetylcholine pathway, compared the the short dopamine pathway of Es out there.

If you looked inside my head, it might look something like this…
…but brighter and probably in colour.

So I worked out many years ago that I should not waste my time remembering stuff, when a notebook works much better.

And so on into the Wonderful World of the Web, I have always found it useful to clip bits out and paste them into my digital scrapbook for longevity and to act as my long-term cyber memory. I gave up on browser Favourites early, as they quickly became useless signposts to where information was no more.

In my Adobe period, I printed bits of the Web to PDF files and stored them in a byzantine filing structure. But, eventually I settled on Onfolio and paid some brass for a real product…and then Microsoft bought it and gave me back my money because they were giving it away free in the Windows Live toolbar…then to become a zombie, twilighting product. The death knell was when they switched off the licensing servers last September.

RIP, Onfolio, you served me well

So I had to indulge in one of those distress-driven searches to find a new digital brain. I tried Ultra-Recall which can import Onfolio collections, but has the user experience of a broken lift. I tried TopicScape but that felt like I was in Castle Wolfenstein or Jurassic Park (the ” ‘I know this, it’s UNIX’ whilst looking at a mad graphical computerscape ” moment), and a host of other paraphernalia and arcana.

So I have ended up with MacroPool’s Web Research, which feels a bit like Onfolio…but German…so hopefully it will be most efficient. We’ll see…

Bedtime? Says Who?

Last week seemed to revolve around cars and driving, starting the week with long distance trips (to Canterbury and Salisbury), then fixing broken cars, a damaged engine undertray and nixed horns from an unwarranted attack by a particularly vicious piece of traffic calming, plus a petrol leak, culminating in thrashing my old M5 around Cadwell Park on a track day on Friday (a good way to end the week!).

Cadwell Park is mostly associated with bikers, but is also quite entertaining in a car, especially a tail-happy BMW – when I first enquired about track day insurance a while ago, the bod on the phone gave me a quote, and then when I said it was Cadwell, they said, ah, and added another 50%!

Here is the old girl in her war paint…


…none the worse for our trip into the bushes in the snow a few weeks ago.

In a mad moment of preparation before one of the long drives, we threw out the rubbish bag from the back of the car.  I later got a text from home saying that we had just managed to recycle 28 empty Red Bull cans: something of a record even for me.

Quite coincidentally, I was idly running my eye over two piles of books on the table in my study, all in the process of being read or passing through to the bookshelves…


On the right is a workaday pile of business books that show some current industry themes (Semantic Web, Information Security, Agile IT Organisations..).  The left-hand pile, however, reveals my recent predeliction for texts de-bunking mumbo-jumbo in all its irrational varieties, and I wonder if, maybe, this signals the start of the slippery slope to becoming Grumpy?

OK, Step forward, one and all, to tell me I’m already there…

Anyway, connecting Red Bull with grumpiness in any form, whether caused by lack of sleep, or too much blood in my caffeine stream, I was particularly exercised last week by an article in the paper – so, much so that I tore it out and carried it in my wallet, waving it at people, and saying “Says Who?”.

I have it here now and I am waving it at the screen in an agitated way.  It is entitled “Night-owl children ruin body clocks” from the Sunday Times, and the first sentence reads “Children who are allowed to stay up past their bedtime watching television or playing on a computer are at risk of late-night sleeplessness for the rest of their lives”.  To me this is grade A bunkum, as despite the strictest bed-times enforced by my parents, a thin gruel of educational TV and definitely no computer games (not invented), today I inhabit a nether-world of late nights, living in a time zone that is somewhere about GMT – 2 (“Mid-Atlantic” according to Windows clock) or GMT – 3  (“Montevideo/Buenos Aires/Georgetown/Greenland”).

I recall a moment during an interview many years ago with PWC Management Consulting, walking around the offices taking in the atmosphere. My escort said “We have hot-desking here, and starting time is 9-30am” (how civilised, I thought), “but if you don’t get in by 7am then you don’t get a desk” (ho ho, st&ff that for a game of soldiers, I thought)

Who are these mysterious people, “they” who dictate when we should sleep and wake? Who says what bedtime is and should be?  In a world of the Internet, Digital TV and 24hour opening at Tesco who needs to have a set bedtime?  Says Who?  Nanny? Granny? the NHS?

Alvin Toffler put his finger on this point in “Future Shock” many years ago, when he commented on the transition from cock-crow, to factory whistle and school bell – training us all to live, work and sleep to a rhythm of coordinated factory production.  Be a good little robot, and Thank Ford for the Brave New World. (OK, mixed literary allusions there, I know)

Well, ranting aside, I was pleased to see later in the week, another article in the same domain, but this one said  Teenagers improve grades with a lie-in…..    Unlike Matter and anti-Matter which annihilate themselves in a E=MC2 sort of way when they get mixed together, News and anti-News stories just sort of disappear with a slight “moo” and a whiff of fish.

And so to bed…
the worrying aspect is that the article quotes the sort of statistics about insomnia, sleep-walking and sleep-related breathing problems that some intellectually challenged politician might seize on to force us all to go to bed at 8pm…for our own good>

The Rule of 7

Being of a fairly rational turn of mind, I don’t have much truck with Numerology and similar horoscopological mumbo-jumbo, but I have, over the years, observed that product development tends to have difficulties around 7th major version of a piece of software, the antithesis of the “lucky number 7”.  This is not a rigorously tested rule (it could be 5 or 6 or 7 or 8), but something more of an intuition with some empirical basis: rule or not, if it comes to pass for Microsoft, it does not bode well for Windows 7.

…well, not according to the entrails of this goat that I have been using to forecast the future of the global banking system, anyway…

A more robust, analytical explanation is that these difficulties are some manifestation of James Utterback theories about dynamics of innovation; of product and process innovation and dominant designs…


… maybe mixed with a bit of boredom, laziness, hubris, and less rational, human things (lemma  here)

Windows is moving from Vista (6), to version 7, and so maybe it already had its bad moment.  However, it is difficult to see how much more development can go into the product as it is, at 28 years old, quite far down the right hand end of the innovation curve, beyond the flush of youth (worrying about its pension, and oooh, it is so chilly, let’s turn the fire up, and what are we having for lunch, i’ve lost my teeth…)

Exercise for the reader: try plotting where you think Windows 1.0, 3.1, 95, XP and Vista fit on the curve?

Many of the other core information technologies we hold dear today are also really quite ancient: RDBMS, Word Processors, Spreadsheets, all dating from the 1970-80s.  So what’s new in the world, multi-touch, then, the much touted new technology for Win 7, who needs it on a desktop, I ask you?

Don’t get me going about Tom Cruise and Minority Report – although I do still keep half an eye on developments in data gloves…

There is a lot of talk of Cloud Computing and other exciting things, but apart from the fact that it is, in the main, new applications that will drive up usage, not base technologies, there is an interesting trend about where computing stuff actually happens, and more of it is likely to be happening in non-human places, and between consenting machines…
If these population estimates above are any way true, then only about 8% of connected devices are human-type information appliances, the other 92% are machine or devices that do things useful or mysterious – the balance is tilted to the machines by the 50 billion cockroaches in the basement;  analogous to the rat statistic – you are never more than six feet from one, but you may not know it…

If you take this Machine-to-Machine (M2M) intelligent device view of the world and mash it up with the Semantic Web & RDF  – creating machine readable data on the web, and maybe, as a by-product, defining the lingua franca so that machine can talk unto machine.

So, if the washing machine says, “I’ll be back”, get the h*ll out, Judgement Day is coming!