Thursday, March 17, 2011

Skills for Building a Smarter Planet

This is the transcript of a talk I gave to a group of sixth formers, who are considering a career in IT, at a UK university this week. The theme was "What do IT architects do all day" however I expanded it into "What will IT architects be doing in the future?".

What I want to do in the next 30 minutes or so is not only tell you what I, as an IT architect, do but what I think you will be doing should you choose to take up a career as an IT architect and what skills you wil need to do the job. In particular I'd like to explain what I mean by this:

Today's world is full of wicked problems. Solving these problems, and building a smarter planet needs new skills. I believe that IT architects need to be a versatile and adaptive breed of systems thinkers.

Here's the best explanation I've seen of what architects do:

Architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways. (Seth Godin)

As an example of this consider something that we use everyday, the (world-wide) web. Invented by Tim Berners-Lee just 20 short years ago, Tim basically assembled the web from three components that already existed: hypertext, internet protocols and what are referred to as markup languages. All these things existed, what Tim did was to assemble them in an "interesting" way. So what I do is to use IT to try and solve interesting and important business problems by assembling (software) components. I'm not just interested in any problems though, the type of problems that interest me are the "wicked" variety. What do I mean by these?

Wicked problems are ones that you often don't really understand until you've formulated a solution to it. It's often not even possible to really state what the problem is and because there is no clear statement of the problem, there can be no clear solution so you never actually know when you are finished. For wicked problems 'finished' usually means you have run out of time, money, patience or all three! Further, solutions to wicked problems are not "right" or "wrong". Wicked problems tend to have solutions which are 'better', or maybe 'worse' or just 'good enough'. Finally, every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique. Because there are usually so many factors involved in a wicked problem no two problems are ever the same and each solution needs a unique approach.

But there's a problem! Here's a headline from last year Independent newspaper: "Labour's computer blunders cost £26bn". What's going on here? This is your and my money being wasted on failed IT projects. And it's not just government projects that are failing. Here's an estimate from the British Computer Society of how many IT projects re actually successful. 20%! How poor is that? It projects 'fail' for many reasons but interstingly it's rarely for just technical reasons. More often than not it's due to poor project and risk management, lack of effective stakeholder management or no clear senior management ownership. So we have a real problem here. As we'll see in a minute,  problems are not only getting harder to fix (more 'wicked') but our ability to solve them does not seem to be improving!!

So what are these wicked problems I keep talking about? They are many and numerous but many of them are attributable to inefficiencies that exist in the "systems" that exist in the world. Economists estimate that globally we waste $15 trillion of the worlds precious resources each year. Much – if not most – of this inefficiency can be attributed to the fact that we have optimized the way the world works within silos, with little regard for how the processes and systems that drive our planet interrelate. These complex, systemic inefficiencies are interwoven in the interactions among our planet’s core systems. No business, government or institution can solve these issues in isolation. To root out inefficiencies and reclaim a substantial portion of that which is lost, businesses, industries, governments and cities will need to think in terms of systems, or more accurately, a system of systems approach. This means we will need to collaborate at unprecedented levels. For example no single organization owns the world’s food system, and no single entity can fix the world’s healthcare system. Success will depend upon understanding the full set of cause-and-effect relationships that link systems and using this knowledge to create greater synergy. Basically many of the problems the world faces today are cause by the fact that our systems don't talk to each other. What do I mean by this? Here's a simple example to illustrate the point.

Imagine you are driving your car around town trying to find a parking space. You can be sure that somewhere in town there's a parking meter looking for a car to park in it. How do we marry your car with that parking meter? Actually the technology to do this pretty much exists already. However the challenge of actually fixing this problem stretches beyond just technology. A solution to this problem includes at least: intelligent sensors, communications, public and private finance, local government involvement, control and policing as well as well established open standards.

Like I said, from a pure technology point of view we are in pretty good shape to solve problems like this. We now have an unprecedented amount of: instrumentation, interconnectedness and intelligence
such that organisations (and societies) can think and act in radically new ways. However in order to solve problems like the parking one as well as significantly more 'wicked' ones I believe we need skills that stretch beyond the mere technological. If you are to help solve these problems then you need to be a versatile and adaptive systems thinker. A systems thinker is someone who not only uses her left-brained logical thinking capabilities but also uses her right-brained creative and artistic capabilities. Here are six attributes (from Dan Pink's book A Whole New Mind) that a good systems thinker needs to adopt which I think will help in solving some of the worlds wicked problems:
  • Design – It is no longer sufficient or acceptable to create a product or service that merely does the job. Today it is both economically critical as well as  aesthetcially rewarding to create something that is beautiful and emotionally engaging.
  • Story – We are living in a time of information overload. If you want your sales pitch or point of view to be heard above the cacophony of background noise that is out there you have to create a compelling narrative.
  • Symphony – We live in a world of silos. Siloed processes, siloed systems and siloed societies. Success in business and in life is about breaking down these silos and pulling all the pieces together. Its about synthesis rather than analysis.
  • Empathy – Our capacity for logical thought has gone a very way to creating the technological society we live in today. However in a world of ubiquitous information that is available at the touch of a button logic alone will no longer cut the mustard.In order to thrive we need to understand what makes our fellow humans tick and really get beneath their skin and to forge new relationships.
  • Play – In a world where we are all having to meet targets, pass tests and  achieve the right grades in order to get on it is easy to forget the importance of play. There is a lot of evidence out there of the benefits to our health and general well-being of the benefits of play, not only outside work but also inside.
  • Meaning – We live in a world of material plenty put spiritual scarcity. Seeking meaning in life that transcends above “things” is vital if we are to achieve some kind of personal fulfilment.
A Gartner report published in 2005 predicted that by 2010, IT professionals will need to possess expertise in multiple domains. Technical aptitude alone will no longer be enough. IT professionals must prove they can understand business realities – industry, core processes, customer bases, regulatory environment, culture and constraints. Versatility will be crucial. It predicted that by By 2011, 70 percent of leading-edge companies will seek and develop “versatilists” while deemphasizing specialists.

Versatilists are people whose numerous roles, assignments and experiences enable them to synthesise knowledge and context in ways that fuel business value. Versatilists play different roles than specialists or generalists. Specialists generally have deep technical skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by peers, but it is seldom known outside their immediate domains. Generalists have broad scope and comparatively shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly, but often at a cursory level. Versatilists, in contrast, apply depth of skill to a rich scope of situations and experiences, building new alliances, perspectives, competencies and roles. They gain the confidence of peers and partners. To attain versatilist skills, IT professionals should..

  • Look outside the confines of current roles, regions, employers or business units. The more informed a professional is about a company, its industry segment and the forces that affect it, the greater the contextual grasp.
  • Lay out opportunities and assignments methodically. Focus on the areas and challenges that fall outside the comfort zone; those areas generally will be the areas of greatest growth.
  • Explore possibilities outside the world of corporate business. Not-for-profit ventures, startup companies, government agencies and consumer IT service providers offer powerful ways to bolster experiences, behavioral competencies or management skills.
  • Enroll in advanced degree programs or in qualified education courses to expand perspective.
  • Identify companies, projects, assignments, education and training that will increase professional value.
I believe we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what's possible on a “smarter planet”. However if we are to really address the truly wicked problems that are out there in order to make our world a better, and maybe even a fairer place, we need people like you to make it happen.

Finally you might be tempted in these hard economic times when you are being asked to pay outrageous amounts for your education not to bother with university. However bear this in mind:

"Unskilled labor is what you call someone who merely has skills that most everyone else has. If it's not scarce, why pay extra? Skills matter. The unemployment rate for US workers without a college education is almost triple that for those with one. Even the college rate is still too high, though.  On the other hand, the unemployment rate for skilled neurosurgeons, talented database designers and motivated recombinant DNA biologists is essentially zero, despite the high pay in all three fields. Unskilled now means not-specially skilled".

The only real investment you have for the future is the piece of grey matter between your ears. Make sure you continue to nurture and nourish it throughout your life by stimulating both the left and right sides.

Thank you and good luck with whatever path you choose to take in life.

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