Thursday, December 23, 2010

Skype went down, so what?

Skype failLast week it was Facebook; every now and then it's Twitter. Yesterday, the often-free Skype communications software suffered a global outage: what does it mean?

The Internet web on which much of life now depends is vulnerable to relatively minor disruptions at a 'central' location (even though Skype prides itself on being a relatively dispersed network). Near-instant globalized communications mean small disruptions scale fast.

Check the Terms of Service: We have no right to complain when the 'free lunch' we've become accustomed to is no longer there, but it doesn't stop us moaning. A better response is to learn:
  • Don't rely on a single service: for example, we run a website and a blog on separate servers; and complement both with Twitter feeds and other means of communication. Yes, we use Skype. But we also have regular phone services (land line and mobile). And one falls back to the other if a message doesn't get through.
  • Carry out a SWOT analysis of your operations, focusing mostly on the "W" and "T" elements. Try to turn "W" to "S" and "T" to "O" - but also spend ten minutes thinking through the risks you face. What's the Impact of each risk? What's the Probability? If the Impact is High, but the Probability really Low then you don't need to spend as much time worrying or preparing as for something that is a Medium or High Probability...
  • Yes, it's boring. But get get into the habit of making regular backups of your key information. And keep a copy away from your main home or office location.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Why worry about tomorrow?

Why worry about tomorrow when today has enough trouble of its own?

Today's challenge came in the form of rustling noises which we assumed to be the folk next door. Then Cathy looked up in the hallway to see something moving in the hole where the heating pipes disappear up into the ceiling. I feared a rat.

Now the challenge: how do you get your daughter's hamster out of the gap under the floorboards into which it has escaped, without ripping up the floor or ceiling and causing more damage than the animal cost in the first place?

Answer, first make the hole in the ceiling bigger; then get a multi-talented and ever-patient wife to coax the creature out with a chocolate drop.

The hamster's called Coco (after Chanel, and about as attention-seeking). Expect trouble ahead for the 14-year old chief hamster keeper.

Unfamiliar business scuba

I was talking with a highly accomplished business operations director the other day. But he'd spent all his career in England and only been abroad for vacations. He asked what my 3+ years working and living in America had been like.

I described it as a bit like scuba diving: you're fully immersed with no easy or quick way back to familiar ground; and you can see the fish and touch the fish, but you're not a fish and can never become one, no matter how hard you try! At the same time, it's full of wonder and fascination and new learning.

And when you come back you see the old with new eyes and a fresh sense of appreciation for the familiar things previously taken for granted: it's great to breathe freely and not have to consider air levels in the tank and decompression stages, etc.!

We've made close friendships with an American family living in the Cotswolds for 3+ years to accompany the Dad's senior banking job. They immediately "get" the analogy and see we English as strange fish, too!

I looked it up: it was George Bernard Shaw who described England and America as two nations "divided by a common language!" True

But what an experience! My family and I learned so much, made such great friends, received outstanding and generous hospitality from such warm-hearted Mid-Westerners. We continue to be deeply grateful and humbled. Despite our hot tub trauma!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's the question?

Yesterday I got asked out of the blue, "How would you describe the sun to someone who's been blind from birth?"

What a great question! Something I'd never considered before.

It would have been easy to answer a different question, "Describe the sun to someone..." but that's not what I'd been asked!!

My questioner was wondering how good I am at conveying complex concepts to people unfamiliar with the complexity and subject matter. I described my approach, my strategy, which is to evaluate the situation and try to find some area of common understanding with which I could draw an analogy.

For example, the sun is not just a source of light (which the blind from birth have little concept of); but it's also a source of heat which they can have felt on a summer's day; of nurture, nourishment and so on. It could be said that the sun is the most important part of the mechanism to nurture and provide what's needed by planet earth in the way that a parent cares for a child...

Years ago I wrote a school essay on the difference between analogy and metaphor. Frankly, now I can't remember the distinction. I'm too immersed in the pragmatism of getting the job done instead of splitting hairs. But yesterday I got another sharp lesson in checking, on the fly, that I'm answering the right question and focusing on the right things, principles and processes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rise of Networked Enterprise

We are beginning to work through the implications of the latest research on the impact of Web 2.0 technologies on enterprises.

McKinsey have updated their useful interactive guide with the 2010 data concluding that companies using the Web intensively gain greater market share and higher margins.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Password perils

More than a third of people use the same password for more than one online service.

Just imagine: if that single password gets hacked then an individual's entire online life is up for grabs! And it's not that implausible a scenario: this week the email addresses and passwords of more than 1.3m people have been leaked on the Internet. (Details)
  • Use a different password for each service you sign up to
  • Never use a name or a dictionary word as your password
  • Choose a password that is more than eight characters long
  • Do not write your password down where it can be discovered by others - Storing a list as a draft email in Gmail means that Google knows all your passwords, for example!
Why use a different password for each service? You can't assume that the providers of the service you use will encrypt your password information, and keep the details secure enough that no one can hack in to discover them. If you use the same details for each service then a single exposure can lay your entire online life open to others.

Too hard to remember your passwords? Pick memorable sentences, one for each service, and make your password the first (or second) letter of each word from the sentence. Add in a % or * or similar character. And a number or two.

Just think: out of 1.3m people, more than a couple of thousand had either the word 'password' or the first letters of the top row of their keyboard, 'qwerty,' as their login information. And some of them had government email addresses. Chances are they used the same password for their work accounts. Crazy!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Nice comment - thanks, J

One of my former colleagues is an ex-Disney Imagineer and I thought he'd be interested to see the innovative combination of mind map graphics with video in my profile. He wrote some really nice things, "Mike is an excellent leader and innovator. He has the unique ability to take creative solutions and apply them to real world applications in a way that's logical, business-minded, and with a focus on efficiency. Mike works well with others and is great at making a team much better and stronger than they were before."

Of course, I really appreciate him saying that; but I can't help wondering if he's not just feeling guilty about pushing a pie in my face!

Expect increased cyber controls

Expect increased costs for ISPs, data centers and IT service companies; with added headaches for users:

Increased concern over cyber security has been expressed over the last month in western media. The #WikiLeaks controversy will raise the focus still further, causing governments naturally to review and tighten their security procedures. (US military is again attempting to ban physical media like USB drives; UK has another internal review...)
  • Expect further extensions to the provisions of American CALEA legislation that enables law enforcement and intelligence agencies to conduct electronic surveillance, monitoring all telephone, broadband internet, and VoIP traffic in real-time. (More)

  • Expect the UK government to press ahead with plans buried in the 2010 Spending Review to revive the controversial 'Interception Modernisation Programme' which will mandate storage of details of all email, electronic communications and website visits for a minimum of one year. (More)
The US had already spent more than $39m by 2007 on their program; the UK plans are to cost £2bn over ten years. Expect direct and indirect costs to IT service companies to be a multiple of those figures.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Expect a wider net neutrality debate

Until the last few days, the debate over net neutrality in America and Britain has been over whether internet providers could/should be allowed to provide a faster and better class of service to those who pay. Highly controversial and any change would be a major shift of the basic design principles when Internet Protocol was first agreed. Oddly, we've seen UK government trying to argue support for both sides of the debate within hours.

Now, though, #WikiLeaks has raised a new set of concerns. Two articles in The Guardian in the past few hours point out some of the issues:
  1. John Naughton wrote yesterday evening that Western governments have a stark choice either to "learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they [must] shut down the internet."

    He said, "The attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on."

  2. Today Charles Arthur has built on that thought, commenting "The move to cloud computing is unstoppable – but WikiLeaks gives us pause: Putting data in to the 'cloud' suits companies but does not evade political pressures."
Don't be misled. Cloud computing is far from dead: also today, BBC is reporting the massive economic potential of this trend. It's data from a report by CEBR, commissioned by EMC - a cloud computing vendor which claims 2011 will be the year of the cloud.

Of course, they're all correct! There is massive potential in cloud computing to cut costs and increase revenue; and start new business models and revenue streams...

But in so many areas of life people fail to take out adequate insurance and don't see the benefits until faced with the costs of a loss. Even fewer understand the implications of new technologies that are brought all too rapidly to the market place. It's the same with cloud computing and smart businesses are exploring the options with the benefit of informed guidance and experienced advice.

Expect savvy users to become more aware of issues surrounding privacy and trust, not just the technicalities and economics of outsourcing what previously had been done in a computer room on site.

Friday, December 3, 2010

MindMap personal profile

A 4-minute intro to me, by video, using the fab iMindMap software from Tony Buzan: learn how to mind map, get the software ... either or both will change your life. Seriously!

Well, I've never tried this as an approach before. Does it work? I ran it past one colleague and his response was immediately to go and buy the iMindMap software for himself and say he was going to copy the idea!

I produced the following script to add to the video as 'Closed Captioning' and I've reproduced it in full here for those who'd rather speed-read:
My name’s Mike Schorah and I’m an entrepreneurial CEO, a bold leader who consistently innovates in the information technology arena so that the organizations with whom I work gain a strategic competitive advantage.

At my core lies inspirational leadership. For example, I worked with a software development team in America that as a result was delivering up to three new software releases each week and with zero bug fixes, which is just astounding.

I’ve been innovative and entrepreneurial in planning so that for example we were able to repurpose assets, to diversify markets and to generate additional sources of revenue after the financial collapse in 2008.

My focus is always on achieving key results and for example I’ve been able to rescue two businesses from loss to operating profit, simply out of cash flow. By holding down cost, increasing revenue, trebling the customer base, achieving a 97% customer retention rate.

And the organizations with whom I’ve worked have been able to cut their costs; and to increase their revenue; at the same time we’ve been able to lock in clients and lock out competitors, to strengthen the positioning of the business.

I have a strong focus on negotiation so that we both win and for example I turned what otherwise would have been a completely failed project into something that had a higher gross profit margin than the original and with a satisfied client as a result.

I’ve consistently held a client-oriented focus and that’s because I had a seven year career at IBM where I learned the mantra that the customer is king. And that IBM background has enabled me to consult at the highest levels on strategy, and change and project leadership; and I’m now advising companies on using IT for strategic advantage and developing additional revenue streams.

I have a very strong personal credibility which delivers solid relationships at the most senior levels of global for profit and not for profit as well as NGO sector organizations.

And a great personal integrity and drive. So that for example, I accomplish a considerable workload as I develop ideas into solid action plans.

And in my last post as a pastor or priest in the Church of England I was leading volunteers to pioneer new ways of achieving objectives. And there one of my colleagues identified me as a “strategic thinking diplomat.”

And yet despite that I’m not too proud to clean the loos or make the coffee or do whatever else needs to be done in order to get the job done right now.

In terms of my background, I have a degree from Oxford University and another one from Bristol University in England. And as well as more than three years experience running companies in America, I’ve spent time working in SE Asia as well as Europe where I’m now based.

I do hope that you’ll be able to visit my website MikeSchorah.com where there’s more information and some contact information. And thank you so much for watching this brief presentation.

Expect cat and mouse arms races

The enormous controversy surrounding the Wikileaks* revelation of yet more documents, this time of US diplomatic cables, is understandable. It's not surprising that the organization has suffered "Distributed Denial of Service" attacks, the cancellation of its hosting arrangements with Amazon, and other difficulties.

What's interesting and important is that the organization is able to continue to find work arounds so that it continues to be available:

WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks moves to Switzerland
WikiLeaks
WIKILEAKS: Free speech has a number: http://88.80.13.160

That's hugely frustrating, embarrassing and inconvenient to the US Government. But it's important in the light of dangerous attempts to introduce an "Internet kill switch" ... simply because the world has witnessed the dangers caused to individuals and societies when authorities stifle freedom of speech, whether in Stalinist Russia or post-Internet modern societies such as Iran.

How can global society maintain freedom of speech with what we'd agree is responsible use of that freedom? This is where technology meets politics, philosophy and values. And we don't all agree about those.

*Wikileaks is currently unavailable at its main site. See explanation and also here

Update since I wrote this post:
WikiLeaks
Utterly surreal: Pravda justifiably criticising US for trying to stifle a free press bit.ly/hD2zst How times change.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Expect increased user privacy concerns

No surprise to IT professionals, but websites track browsing history.

The IT industry has long known and exploited a host of tricks, including cookies and link tracking, but reports in mainstream media will bring this to the attention of a wider, and increasingly paranoid, population of users.

On the one hand, people should realize that Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail and Facebook don't provide their services out of generosity and kindness: their 'free lunch' is paid for through advertising, targeted on the basis of what they know about their users.

On the other hand, as this realization dawns more completely, expect users increasingly to place a value on their privacy and ability to have control over their information. So far, users are resisting paid-for web services, but there's every indication that, in some markets, this will change.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Lost in the foggy cloud

I normally find analysis by The Economist incisive and accurate, but one post by the Babbage columnist seems to be missing the point: he's suffered multiple outages from his 'cloud computing' service provider, including power failures in the 'uninterruptable' power supply.
  • Is he choosing a cheap provider with inadequate infrastructure?
  • Does he need to split his service across multiple providers to limit points of failure?
  • What's the commercial balance between fail-safe provision and the direct and indirect costs of fixing the occasional failure? Each business application has to balance risk and reward.
The promise of cloud computing is that the big insurance risks are met by the hosting provider and shared over a large base of users to limit the risks, and costs, for any one application. But pressure on margins at service providers means that the buyer has to beware in this service area as in all others.

Do you trust your service provider? How will you know until a problem occurs? Is it then too late? Should you carry out a controlled test now?!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tweducation

I often get asked what use is Twitter? There are many possible answers, and for some it's true that the jury is still out, despite the hype!

But in addition to the usual marketing- and sales-related answers, I find that Twitter helps me learn stuff I didn't know I wanted to know. More often than not the info comes in useful.

In a meeting yesterday I described Twitter as the electronic equivalent of a lot of people standing on a street corner shouting their thoughts out loud. For me, the trick is to filter out the noise and be selective about following those I think I'll learn from. Here's an example.

Alex Raymond
Plan to counterfeit money on a laser printer? Probably a bad idea.

Now the key here for me is that I know @AlexRaymond personally; and, for the life of me I couldn't think why he'd got an interest in counterfeit money! His wry comment, "Probably a bad idea" seemed too obvious ... So I clicked the link he provided and found there's some sneaky technology that apparently prints near-invisible dots on laser printer/copier pages so the device a document came from can be identified.

That's ingenious. It's interesting. I didn't know it. I'd never even considered using my laser printer to counterfeit stuff.

But I did find myself re-telling the info in a client meeting. We were exploring novel ways to deploy technology and my new additional knowledge enhanced my credibility and standing, helping me to justify the approach I was proposing.

Thanks, Alex!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pressures on privacy

Footballers and Hollywood stars and celebrities of every kind generally get put on a pedestal and then knocked down. The same thing often happens with companies, too, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to be concerned about. Facebook, Twitter and Google have been media darlings, but we're beginning to see a reaction against them.

For example, this year has seen an increase in privacy concerns around web and social media technologies, particularly in Europe where German and Czech authorities have objected to Google's Street View product. As someone who regularly uses Street View and finds it invaluable, I'm not convinced that's the right battle to fight. Frankly, I don't (yet) see the problem in allowing web users to see on screen a dated view of what they could get by driving down my road.

But this week The Guardian has broken a story that concerns me more: a revival of UK Government plans to store email, text, internet and mobile phone details of everyone in Britain. According to the story, the £2bn (USD $3.1bn) plan is buried in the back pages of the strategic defence and security review published on Monday and confirmed by the Home Office.

Of course, as the article points out, many internet service providers keep all the traffic details of their subscribers' web and phone use for billing. But new legislation will also require them to collect and store for at least 12 months all third-party communications data that crosses their networks, including all traffic from sources such as GMail, Skype, Facebook and Twitter.

'The data includes all the "envelope" information such as who is contacting whom, when, where and how – but not the actual content of what was said or written. Interception of contents requires a separate warrant authorised by the home secretary.'

So, we're beginning to see twin pressures affecting our privacy: on the one hand, Facebook and Google and Twitter have business models that are driven by an insatiable thirst for data to target marketing at us. On the other hand, governments claim the threat of cyberwarfare attacks and terrorism to justify knowing more and tracking more closely.

It's claimed that the UK is now one of the most advanced surveillance societies in the world - ranked third after Russia and China. The average UK adult is now registered on over 700 databases and is caught daily on one of the 4 million CCTV cameras located on nearly every street corner in the country ... with the reporter concluding that "although he has nothing to hide, he certainly has something to fear…"

Celebrities lead the way in modelling the erosion of our expectations of privacy. But expect to see increased public concern as the reality of the commercial and state pressures becomes clear.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why the need for privacy?

Maybe it’s a generational thing: many of the young, grown up with phone cameras, Facebook and instant messaging, seem unconcerned about sharing the most intimate details with a global audience. Until they come to find that they are denied a job or a qualification because of a ‘drunken pirate’ photo.[1]

However, in business it is very often the case that information has a commercial or other sensitivity and it can be important to ensure that it is shared appropriately, especially when it travels across borders.

Unfortunately, that is hard to do. This blog post contains a summary of some of the reasons that users are becoming more concerned over privacy:

  • ‘Blackberry phones in the United Arab Emirates recently received a text from Etisalat, a major provider in the UAE, prompting for users to download and install an update to enhance performance. … the "update" downloaded was really software designed to collect received messages and send them back to a central server.’ More
  • ‘India has sent formal notices to the country's mobile operators telling them they must have equipment to monitor Blackberry services by 31 August.’ More
  • ‘China has been monitoring and censoring messages sent through the internet service Skype, researchers say.’ More
  • Google’s business model (in common with Twitter, Facebook and many others) is to sell advertising targeted to the individual based on the content of information they have stored. In discussing this, an American bank executive working in England who has his tax returns sent to his Gmail account by US-based KPMG realized that all his tax affairs from the PDFs are indexed, stored and available for retrieval.
  • ‘Personal details of thousands of Sky broadband customers have been leaked on to the internet, alongside a list of pornographic movies they are alleged to have shared online.’ The list was in an attachment filed with one of 1,000 emails leaked from a law firm’s email archive. More
  • ‘If you have a friend on Facebook who has used the iPhone app version to access the site, then it's very possible that your private phone numbers - and those of lots of your and their friends - are on the site.’ More



[1] ‘Stacy Snyder was weeks away from getting her teaching degree when she said her career was derailed by an activity common among many young teachers: posting personal photos on a MySpace page.’ 6 May 2008 http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=4791295&page=1 retrieved 7 Oct 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Personal data could become a commodity

"The mining of personal data is here to stay; there is just too much money at stake to imagine otherwise," said Sean Murphy of the US Consumer Electronics Association, quoted in a BBC article.

They're right in highlighting an increasing concern over Internet privacy: expect to see users demanding more control over who has access to their data in the months and years to come.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Enforced silence

Think about the balance of power in the modern economy: classical economics talks about 'control of the means of production,' referring to the ownership of Land, Labour and Capital. But in the modern 'knowledge economy' competitive edge comes about through deploying ideas better than others do.

Ideas can't be 'ring-fenced' in the same way as land, labour and capital can. So employers force restrictive job contracts that claim ownership of a knowledge worker's thoughts and ideas conceived during the term of the employee's contract.

My own experience is that this approach kills creativity; and, suddenly free from such a contract, the ideas start to flow again!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

100m Facebook users' data listed

The news this week that “personal” information of 100m people, 20% of Facebook’s users, has been made available in a downloadable file on the Internet is interesting, but not surprising.
  1. Facebook is correct in responding that all of the information (Name, Username and URL) is already visible to Google and other search engines, as well as other Facebook users; and users have some degree of control over their privacy to make that information no longer public.
  2. However, the media hype and scare-mongering is part of a growing privacy concern with web-based applications as fears of data mining activities becomes more widespread.

What could go wrong? User names and profile page URLs are available in the download, so by following them personal information (address, birth date, phone numbers, etc.) can be viewed. Along with a list of their online friends. And their picture. What's more, friends of all those users that have opted to keep their information private - can now be found by clicking through the profiles on the list. And, statistically, it is likely that up to 10% (10k users) have an insecure password that is some variant of their name and/or date of birth etc so this list gives opportunity for great damage.

Social networking really took off in the public domain and now is being used by forward-thinking companies, but still lagging the leadership of the private sector. Once again the private sectore leads: expect privacy calls and an anti-web reaction to increase.

For more on this see this blog post. It's one reason why I recently committed Facebook suicide!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is the cloud beginning to disperse?

"BlackBerrys present security risk" is the alarmist headline from the BBC, reporting that the government of the UAE is trying to crack down on data leaving their national boundaries to be stored on computer servers outside the country. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-10761210)

Last year the UAE tried to impose a software patch to BlackBerry devices in the country, sending a copy of the contents to in-country servers, accessible to government monitoring.

Are we about to see the first moves away from fashionable "cloud computing?" On the one hand, governments are beginning to want to access and control the data within, and across, their Borders; on the other hand, users are becoming aware of this and increasingly unwilling to trust some of their data to a service in the cloud that they can't control.

As I looked at the faded keys on my laptop, worn away through over use, I thought back to one of the "forensic computing" investigations I once performed: I had found that 80% of one employee's emails sent on company time were not work-related. The lesson I learned is that the stuff we do with technology can be found out by anyone who has enough time, motivation and technical skill. Perhaps it's not just the cloud we should be wary of!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Stuck in time

Knowing that one of our sales people was about to become a Dad for the first time, I stepped into a sales situation with one of our prospects in the public sector. (Congratulations, by the way, to Kevin and Wendy who had a little boy of 8lb 2oz this week!)

What a depressing experience!

Some years ago I worked for IBM, a huge computer company. Back in those days we were selling big-ticket systems to an IT department that had a vested interest in buying from us: they could guard their headcount, justify yet more staff and budget, and enhance their personal marketability by training on our systems. And we were selling 100k+ systems with training, support and annual maintenance charges as well as implementation services. So we could afford to put someone on site, free of charge, for several days as part of the sales process.

If we didn't win the business, we'd apportion the cost of sale across rising annual maintenance figures spread across our customer base.

The world has changed. IBM has a very different approach to the market now. And so do we.

We sell the expertise of our people, and our time. We offer "Data Quality as a Service" so that our clients get what they need in an agile, timely fashion without having to buy or lease software and invest in training, support and annual maintenance.

But this means that we can't give away our insights at the start of an engagement before a contract is signed. And our approach won't work if they are trying to buy in the old way.

We faced a prospect that was putting effort into an investigation that currently lacks senior management sponsorship, budget and business case. I had to take a commercial decision to limit our cost of sale. When it became certain that they were choosing to buy in the old paradigm; we chose not to reveal our insights into their data, because we are never going to sell them a software solution that would let us recover the costs of that expert evaluation.

We are "tools agnostic" and prefer that our clients choose which hammer to use and let us help them decide which nails to hit, in which order and with what force; and how not to hit thumbs while doing it! We have several consultants assisting a client to make best use of the software tool provided by the vendor we are competing with; and we are equally comfortable with Business Objects, Informatica and others ...

We are tools agnostic precisely because all IT projects are not about the technology tools, but the people and the processes to support the business.

What have we learned? We confirmed a decision not to sell to IT, unless we're confident that they know how to buy in the new commercial environment.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sports insight

I often say that my surname's "scorer" but I've never won a sports match. But it's been a summer of sports - English embarrassment at the World Cup; now the British hope at Wimbledon over; and today I met with Kevin, a South African colleague who financed himself through university on a golf bursary.

We were talking about the focus that's needed to excel. A golf game is never won on the first shot, though can be lost then. In a tournament, the truly great are the ones who focus on the end result and pace for what they need to achieve. Great golfers focus for the thirty seconds of each shot, then relax and move on to deal with the consequences of their last action. They take responsibility for their performance. They plan for what they have to do to get to their objective, quite literally in the shortest way possible.