--> Gill Blog: April 2004

Gill Blog

Monday, April 26, 2004

The New Millennium Memorex

“Is it live, or is it Memorex?” – a memorable line from a 70’s marketing campaign where the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, both live and on a recorded tape are used to shatter a wine glass. The point of the spot? The prevailing technology was so good, it created a state of being virtually there. Stick with me here, this is a story of Memorex on steroids.

I start by taking you back to the summer of 1984, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. It was a memorable one, as I spent those four months in southern Africa – mostly Malawi, but also visited Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Amidst all the stimulation that was my life during those months, it became part of my routine to be out of bed by 5:30 in the morning. Unfortunately, this wasn’t for any reason that would particularly impress you – in fact, I was up at dawn every morning to ensure I could hear baseball scores.

Let me explain, if you happen to live in North America, you take for granted that every day, you can pick up a sports page and instantaneously see how your favorite team was doing. Not so in Africa – in fact baseball was about as familiar to Africans as reindeer racing is to North Americans. It so happened that my favorite ball team had just had a breakout year the season prior, and I felt a tremendous need to stay connected to them, by hook or by crook.

Crook, in this case, came in the form of the Voice of America whose announcer would read the sports once per day – at 5:40 a.m., and this would include baseball scores. Getting out of bed ten minutes prior gave me a chance to prepare for the broadcast with pen and paper in hand. When the announcer would read the scores, I would frantically write them down in my own version of shorthand. When this was done, I would painstakingly use the information I had just gathered to construct daily standings, and in the process of this grand exercise, I actually felt quite connected to what was going on in the bigs (this became particularly useful at parties when I would meet Americans, who themselves would be out of the loop until I told them precisely what was going on). Sadly for me, it became abundantly clear after three months that the Detroit Tigers were an unstoppable juggernaut of a squad, and by the end of July, decided to start sleeping in (my decision was the correct one, as the Tigers cruised all the way to a Series championship).

Let’s fast-forward 20 years. Today, I find myself in Chandigarh India, here to explore the whole phenomenon of business process outsourcing to India (as it relates to decentralization) from an on-the-ground perspective. Despite the importance of the mission, there was a part of me that was reluctant to leave North America – you see, I have left just as the annual rite of spring for any northerner who knows the joy of lacing up a pair of skates and taking to the ice with puck and stick. I’m talking NHL playoffs.

Despite the veneer of professionalism and dedication to all things associated with workplace continuity, I must confess a lifetime love affair with my beloved hockey team – the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs, you see, are currently two games into their best of seven second-round tilt with the hated Philadelphia Flyers. Had this been twenty years ago, I would probably have to do the same thing I did in the old Voice of America days (in which case, I would have likely passed on the trip and stayed home).

Today – it’s a whole new ballgame (or should I say hockey game?). In addition to listening to the game from the team site using a high speed connection at a local Barista (India’s version of Starbucks – it opened just after 6 this morning, which was about an hour after the first drop of the puck), I was able to quickly disseminate specifics of the game through my regular local media sources (the Leafs took it on the chin in a 2-1 setback). I also found out about the health of a couple of key players who have been on the shelf over the past few games. The power of the internet also afforded me the opportunity to get some objectivity, as I was quick to read the Philadelphia media’s take on the game.

When it actually came down to doing some work, my old friend – MSN Messenger 6.1 - notified me a friend on the west coast (another lifelong Leaf devotee) was on line. I initiated our conversation with a simple “ya think they can come back from being down 2-0”, and a lively conversation ensued. When it became apparent the typed word wasn’t doing justice to the pace of the conversation, we switched to camera mode, where we proceeded to micro-analyze the game and debate the survivability of this team in this year’s run for the cup.

Let’s stop for a second. When you think about it, this is mind-boggling – one guy in San Francisco, and the other, half a world away in Chandigarh, chatting face to face about a hockey game that just ended in Philadelphia. The point of all this is not only to suggest how far I have come from the days I had to listen to a scratchy radio signal to hear sports scores, but to say that if it’s possible for two people to be using the infrastructure I just described and being just as informed (if not more so) than a guy who was actually there, how difficult would it really be for a well-configured work group remotely scattered, to solve the same type of organizational problem that is dealt with by millions of office workers around the world in one central location.

Is it live, or is it our well-connected world?

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Putting Smart Meters to Work

One of the themes we focussed on in our paper last fall on how the blackout might be the catalyst for smarter buildings, we suggested the widespread adoption of simple technologies such as 'smart' meters - i.e. devices that record the time when power is drawn as well as the amount of power used. The need for these devices was further reinforced in the various reports that came out during the last several months predicting a supply shortage for non-renewable power sources. We were pleased, therefore, to read the following piece that was reported this week.

I will be following up on the whole outsourcing/decentralization theme over the next few weeks as I travel to India, where I will explore the phenomenon and hopefully connect a number of dots that have remained unresolved in my mind. Stay close to the blog as I will report my findings periodically over the next four weeks.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Freedom Tower - The Swiss Army Knife of Buildings

There has perhaps never been so much media attention focused on the unveiling of a new building project than there was when plans for New York’s Freedom Tower were unveiled last December. Freedom Tower, if you were not aware, is the structure that will be built on the site of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. The attention this project has generated has been justifiably unprecedented. The detail contained in press releases not only by the lead firm, but the State and City reflect the significance of the project. This is best captured in this quote by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg:
“The collaborative design of the World Trade Center site that has been achieved, exemplified by today’s unveiling of the Freedom Tower, will dramatically reclaim a part of the New York skyline that we lost on 9/11. And it will help catapult Lower Manhattan back to its rightful place as a global center of innovation and great urban design.”
It seems clear architects David Childs and Daniel Libeskind will surely have every aspect of their design and vision scrutinized to the minutest detail.

The challenge is magnified by the need to neutralize dissenting opinion by those who suggest that the risks associated with rebuilding on the site (not to mention the memory of those who lost their lives) far outweigh any benefits yielded by rebuilding. Clearly, there are many concerns that need to be addressed. First and foremost among these is building security. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the issue of building systems had to be thoroughly reworked, from a pre-9/11 framework described in this piece that concentrated on basic elements such as building alarm monitors, lobby security controls, surveillance cameras, and employee background checks to one that is now much more thorough. A recent article by James Glanz of the New York Times described the massive security challenge faced by the design team:
“Any architect or engineer who works on a tall structure is morally and professionally obligated to become something of a safety obsessive. The steel and concrete of every Manhattan skyscraper has to resist hurricane-force winds, for example, as well as the downward pull of the Earth. But only the Freedom Tower will rise over a patch of ground that is forever shaken with the terror and paranoia of the worst building catastrophe in the history of the planet. As with the very first generation of skyscrapers, the work will have to be so visibly solid, so secure, that it will convince an anxious public to step into the building. After all, those who enter will not only be haunted by what occurred at the site in the past; they will also be apprehensive about what could happen again.”
The security measures described in this article are impressive, but Freedom Tower places special emphasis on other elements as well, notably the symbolism of it’s design, as well as its commitment to integrate systems that lessen its dependence on non-renewable resources. The most noteworthy aspect of the latter element will be the integration of windmill power. The plan will call for the installation of windmills that will be installed within the top third of the building that will enable the building to generate 20% of the building’s energy (a schematic rendering of the system can be found here). The integration of this element becomes particularly defendable in the wake of the massive North American power outage last August.

Although critics may suggest that windmill systems are weighted more on the side of form rather than function, those in New York know that this is not the first time smarter building technology has been placed front and center in design. In 1999, The 48-storey Conde Nast Building at 4 Times Square opened to rave reviews. The design team on this project was dedicated to integrating as many renewable building systems as possible, thereby reducing its dependence on non-renewable systems. The results of the project speak for themselves - The Conde Naste building's vacancy rates are much lower than those in other parts of Manhattan.

Regardless on our own take on the long-term viability of skyscrapers in densely-populated urban centers, we can't help but acknowledge that given Freedom Tower's emphasis on multiple design elements, it has metaphorically become the top-drawer Swiss Army knife of building projects.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Rice's Testimony Confirms System-Wide Communication Challenges

As intense global media attention was focussed on the 9-11 hearings in Washington yesterday, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice explained to the 10-member committee that although there were many warning signals of an impending attack within the United States, there was no "silver bullet" that could have prevented the attacks. As quoted in today's Guardian:
"[Dr. Rice] blamed the failure to catch the al-Qaida hijackers before the attack on long-term bureaucratic barriers which prevented the sharing of information between the CIA and FBI."
The Gill blog is not a political forum, but I thought it would be interesting to cite this quote as it directly ties in with our last post about the need to improve communication between different operational nodes. In that post, we noted that Canadian Auditor-General Sheila Fraser had pointed to serious communication breakdowns between operational nodes. Apparently, the problem isn't just confined to isolated governments, but is indeed much more widespread.

Prior to Dr. Rice's testimony, our change management specialist Jo Verde from CAMTOS Solutions offered her comments on the widespread communication problems that exist in organizations at all levels. As Jo said to me:
"The bottom line is that none of the organizations mentioned or indeed any business, will effect any behavioral change in turf protection, power silos until the recognition, rewards and penalty processes are put in place to support the values,strategy and expected behaviors.

Organizations, today, talk about the behaviors but few support them with the required internal processes. Many organizations include teamwork as one of their values but haven't defined what that looks like, feels like or the supporting behaviors a company expects to see demonstrated. Until this is defined so that everyone on the team clearly understands the expectation, we will see, experience and be involved ourselves, in situations that you describe in your blog."
Don't know about you, but it seems to me that Jo would be a pretty good advisor to the National Security Advisor, and the Canadian Auditor-General, in proposing a basis for system-wide change.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Shoring up the Infostructure

Of all the components required to create an emergency preparedness/business continuity plan, one would reasonably assume that shoring up communication and cooperation protocols between functional silos might be a no-brainer. Turns out this is much easier said than done. I begin with a personal anecdote. One of the projects I am currently working on calls for the exchange of documents between different departments within the same organization - a process that will ultimately assist in policy formation. As simple as this may seem, getting those documents has been challenging in the best of circumstances. Despite the increased focus on enterprise-wide planning initiatives, the power structures controlling individual silos can still be quite territorial about the information they generate and provide to others - even if the others are under the same institutional umbrella.

I make this observation in the wake of two significant reports that were released in Canada last week. The first was by Auditor-General Sheila Fraser who pointed out serious deficiencies in security that required immediate attention. The second, "National Emergencies: Canada's Fragile Front Lines" penned by The Senate Committee on National Security and Defence came out the next day. Now, in fairness to the higher powers that be, it should be noted that the audit and research was conducted prior to the reorganization of Canada's security functions into what is now PSEP (and Minister Anne McLellan also has indicated that the government plans to create a secret communication system to help agencies share information more effectively). Disclaimers aside, the story not only caputured the attention of one or two global media outlets, but was included in last week's Homeland Security Newsletter.

In covering the release of these reports, the media has predictably focussed on James Bond-esque soundbites such as "watch lists", "porous borders" and "terrorist infiltration", but suprisingly has also paid attention to another area in critical need of reform - one with a more than familiar ring to it. The item reporting the release of the Auditor-General's reports states:
"(Ms. Fraser's report found) there was a lack of co-ordination between government departments and security agencies in terms of funding...The government as a whole failed to achieve improvements in the ability of security information systems to communicate with each other."
This concern was echoed the following day in this piece that reviewed the Senate Committee's report:
"The report also says all levels of government must better co-operate in developing nation-wide contingency plans...The committee was overwhelmed with evidence that this lack of co-operation and cohesion is a nationwide problem..."
If we put on our enterprise-wide thinking caps, we can see how these principles are applicable in other circumstances. In fact, I will be publishing our latest abstract "The Human Element of Decentralization" next week. In the full paper (which should be published to the website later in the spring), we provide a compelling case example of a New York-based financial institution that had to address the silo management issue head on, and reconfigure its organizational structure to ensure cooperation and communication was coordinated between multiple nodes.

This is also reminiscent of last year's SARS outbreak in Toronto. At the time it was widely reported that although public officials did a commendable job managing the crisis, there were some deficiencies, and in this respect, many fingers pointed squarely toward information sharing. I came across the following piece written by Myrna Francis, the Interim President and CEO of Canada Health Infoway. In it she points to Dr. David Naylor from the University of Toronto who assessed Canada's response to SARS:
"(Naylor) highlighted a number of deficiencies, among them the absence of protocols for data or information sharing among levels of government, and weak links between public health and the personal health services system."
Dr. Francis also points to a quote attributed to Dr. Francois Belanger, President of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians who sums up our thoughts with this simple statement:
"SARS has demonstrated clearly the critical need for integrated communications systems and networks to allow the real-time exchange of information."
Amidst all the talk about security, organizations have to pay just as much attention to the quality and efficiency of information sharing and dedicate themselves to a more unified approach. As Dr. Francis suggests, emphasis should not only be allocated toward shoring up an organization's infrastructure, but its infostructure as well.