Public sector IT successes showcased at BCS

Last night I attended a significant BCS meeting, organised by the North London Branch, featuring very senior IT executives talking about the challenges they have met. The focus ended up being very much on high-profile public sector enterprises, since the one private sector (vendor) speaker was unwell. None the worse for that.

We began with an outline, from Bryan Glick, Editor-in-Chief, Computer Weekly, of their 2010 UKtech50 review and awards – the panel included the chair of the Corporate IT Forum’s Advisory Board, John Harris of GSK, and with my links both to the Forum and to GSK that was good to see!

Bryan outlined the criteria for selection, and led us through some highlights of the awards: not just the top of the overall list, but other selections including the “top 5 promoted CIOs” who have made it as overall business leaders. The top 5 in public sector IT included John Suffolk, at the time UK Government CIO but who stepped down shortly after the awards; but not including either of the evening’s major speakers … Life moves fast, as Bryan commented. Similarly the top5 innovators included, predictably, Tim Berners-Lee (number 4 in the overall list); but also Eric Huggett, responsible at the BBC for many developments including the iPlayer, who’s also moved on.

The conclusions here? Perception of influence is determined by context and by key IT trends. It’s a high turnover field; the 2011 list could be very different.

Then to our two public sector leaders. Christine Connelly, UK Health CIO since 2008, is a former colleague from my time in BP Exploration. Her business calibre is illustrated by the fact that when most of us techies were made redundant, as John Cross began the outsourcing revolution, Christine stayed as someone who could interface with providers across a contract and develop the business-oriented approach that was needed. Since then she’s worked both in IT posts as such, and in other areas of business.

The Department of Health manages not only healthcare delivery (through the National Health Service) but also social care (delivered through local authority social service departments). Bringing together the business of the NHS and the wider Department is a major challenge, and Christine’s mission is to facilitate this: the IT budgets alone are around £1.8 bn and £1.3 bn respectively. In the NHS, for example, there are around a million primary care interactions every 36 hours. It’s a massive undertaking. IT provides the infrastructure that facilitates other parts of the business; and participates in re-inventing healthcare.

Innovation here can clearly be about smart uses of conventional technology. Christine’s example was the website that was built in short order to cater for the rush of swine flu business (which could have been massively greater). It was a “boring” website, but it worked; it handled the volume; and, more importantly, it re-invented healthcare by enabling people to self-diagnose and be given access to prescription drugs without involving (and therefore without overloading) the front line practitioners.

By recognising there is “no chance anything will not be influenced by IT”, and by avoiding getting trapped by running the infrastructure, you identify yourself as a business participant not a pigeon-holed techie.

Phil Pavitt, CIO for HM Revenue & Customs, followed and illustrated many of the same points from a different angle. A very different person, by background, from Christine: he began as a debt collector for BT’s civil-service precursor (Post Office Telephones) but started having bright ideas which were taken up by management; and the rest is history. In HMRC, he is challenged to both reduce costs and collect more revenue. And he has to change the wheels while the bus is rolling; there is no way any HMRC systems can be taken down, as the operation really is 24×365.

It’s a story of considerable achievement, moving services to outsourced suppliers who are willing to carry the cost of substantial changes (cost to HMRC, therefore, zero) in the context of the longer term contracts. It’s also a story of recognition, since he has also been appointed as Director-General for Change – with responsibility for the overall business change agenda in HMRC. And those of us who use the online systems, whether it’s to find information or to do online returns, appreciate the quality, reliability and speed that have quietly built up over recent years. The information’s there, it’s well designed, and the stuff works.

And when it comes to professional standards: he’s mandating professional accreditation (largely through the BCS) for all his staff. A great segue to the next speaker, who was David Clarke, the BCS CEO. David gave us a personal insight into why he started the BCS’s Professionalism push, and mapped this against the Capability Maturity Model which, initially, showed how far behind the curve we were (“we”, because I’m a member …). Now, BCS membership and professional accreditation is growing rapidly.

As Christine Connelly later commented in Q&A: recruitment has moved on. In our early careers we were hired for our knowledge. Mid-career, in the 1990s perhaps, the focus was on skills – not “does s/he know Cobol” (or Fortran) but “can s/he develop programs”. Now, it’s a person’s attitude and approach that matter: making things happen, and being adaptable to different means of delivery. It’s not a technie role any longer.

• BCS North Lond Branch: Tip Top IT, 30 Mar 2011 (this link will be updated when the post-event report is available)
• Computer Weekly’s UKtech50 2010
• Department of Health Senior Team
• HMRC Executive Committee
• HMRC Change Delivery Committee (chaired by Phil Pavitt; page down for links to Minutes of meetings)
• BCS the Chartered Institute for IT

Packet switching: the hot potato technology

Packet switching is technology at the core of today’s networked world. But it wasn’t always so.

Today’s press carries tributes following the death of Paul Baran, one of two researchers who independently defined the fundamentals of packet switching (the other was Donald Davies in the UK). Who? you ask – outside academic computer science I doubt if most of us have heard of either of them. Independently they developed the fundamental concepts of packet switched networks: breaking messages up into small self-addressing units (so that the network doesn’t get clogged by large messages), which travel independently through the network and are re-assembled in the correct order at the destination. Baran, apparently, described this as handing-off the units “like a hot potato”.

The abstract to one of Baran’s early papers (Baran, 1964) describes this

“… distributed communication network concept in which each station is connected to all adjacent stations rather than to a few switching points, as in a centralized system. The payoff for a distributed configuration in terms of survivability in the cases of enemy attack directed against nodes, links or combinations of nodes and links is demonstrated. … [The] feasibility of using low-cost unreliable communication links, even links so unreliable as to be unusable in present type networks, to form highly reliable networks is discussed. The requirements for a future all-digital data distributed network which provides common user service for a wide range of users having different requirements is considered. The use of a standard format message block permits building relatively simple switching mechanisms using an adaptive store-and-forward routing policy to handle all forms of digital data including digital voice. This network rapidly responds to changes in the network status.”

It seems to be the classic story of a technology development which probably wouldn’t get funded in a utilitarian commercially-oriented research assessment. There were technical objections and, in the early 1960s, it would have been expensive to build. But, as is well documented, the US Defense Department was looking for resilient technologies to reduce the vulnerability of their networks. Packet switching (the name was coined by Davies, not Biran) was part of the answer. And, the political environment was one where super-powers were trying to reduce the likelihood of accidental military catastrophe: recognising that communications would play a key role, the work was never classified as Secret. The rest, as they say, is history.

Baran went on to found the influential Institute for the Future (I didn’t realise how long-established that institution is: it dates to 1968) and several technology-based companies. Packet switching went on to become the foundation of modern networking. It’s even displacing analogue networking from its natural base in the world of telephony, where implementation has to make a fundamental switch. For data, it’s important that all the packets arrive and are reassembled; loss of a packet is handled by a request for re-transmission. For a pseudo-analogue output such as video or telephony, loss of occasional packets is less important than avoiding gaps in rendering the output. But, as Baran’s early paper shows, he foresaw this use too.

• Paul Baran obituary, Guardian, 30 Mar 2011 (paper publication, 31st Mar)
• Internet Pioneers: Paul Baran, (this includes one or two links to academic references)
• On Distributed Communications Networks, Baran, P., IEEE Transactions on Communications Systems, 12.1, 1-9 (March 1964), accessible from IEEE Xplore
• Paul Baran and the Origins of the Internet, Rand Corporation (
• UK National Physical Laboratory (NPL) & Donald Davies, Living Internet

For a technical description of packet switching in the context of other network technologies, see e.g. Distributed Systems & Computer Networks, Sloman, M., & Kramer, J., Prentice-Hall, 1987, p 133

Have you seen … McKinsey Quarterly

One of my focus areas at InformationSpan is the wide range of high quality IT insight that’s available for free in the Internet age. Today I want to highlight insight from McKinsey, still perhaps the doyen of management consultancies, via their email Quarterly.

The arrival of the Web, of course, changed people’s perception of intellectual capital: these days, largely, it’s expected to be a free good. You can look at the music industry download saga, for the classic example. There are others, more subtle but none the less real, in any intellectual property business (such as pharmaceuticals, where I worked).

Corporate IT relies on subscription insight services from the major players like Gartner or Forrester, who by and large are expensive providers (that’s not a value judgement: the value is high, but if you want a Gartner for IT Leaders seat, or its equivalent, it will set you back thousands of dollars or pounds). But in the Internet age, there’s a range of content available for free from everyone from major Gartner analysts to the highly specialised niche players. Our index to Analyst Blogs provides a structured index to Gartner’s Blog Network, as perhaps th eleading example.

There are always additional sources worth exploring, though, and not all of them consider IT their major business sector. Companies such as PwC, A T Kearney and McKinsey all publish serious information on the web. Recently I added McKinsey Quarterly to my subscription list and the most recent edition highlights a short case study of the transition brough about by a new CIO at TalkTalk. It’s a case of a company having grown by acquisition as well as growth, ending up with a variety of non-communicating systems, and in the end being held back by disconnections and incompatibilities. Something about the need for a new broom, to bring in changes, and the way the transition was handled in terms of the existing team. And a couple of lessons learned.

Take a look and, maybe, subscribe.

• Raising performance by reducing IT complexity, McKinsey Quarterly, March 2011 (with subscription links including Zinio digital edition)

You might also look at:
• A T Kearney, Strategic IT
• PriceWaterhouse Coopers, Innovation & Technology
• Outlook from Accenture

Japan’s troubles touch the IT economy

IDC’s Supply Chain Insights blog has taken its courage in both hands: a recent post from Robert Parker looks at the impact which the disruption in Japan will have on the global economy but also, specifically, on the technology supply chain.

This has been discussed in mainstream and specialist press, but rather less in the IT analyst community. Jack Santos, of Gartner’s Burton team, was possibly the first analyst to to cover it from this angle. Forrester’s Andy Bartels offered a note this week too, but he admits he is less expert and seems much more sanguine about a swift(ish) recovery.

Japan is critical for semiconductor supply. Transport, energy supply, and the upstream supply chain itself have all suffered a major impact. IDC note that Apple have already extended lead times for the iPad 2 “largely due to a lack of memory components”. The energy issue is crucial and, even if full-scale disaster is averted at Fukushima, it will clearly be some time before energy supply is back to normal.

As well as looking at the impact of the current crisis, IDC make some strategic comments. They believe that these events have shown lack of capability to respond to this level of disruption. They suggest that “More mature industries like automotive are taking much too long to evaluate the impact …”.

But, significantly, they believe that while electronics has responded more quickly their assessment has not reached far enough up their supply chain. The comments go to the heart of multi-outsourced business strategy. In global markets, Parker believes that “it is not enough to simply chase low-cost labor rates”; a more diverse supply chain offers better protection against disruption on this scale.

Gartner’s Santos, looking at the same issues, reaches what appears to be the opposite conclusion: that “the best corporate strategy may be limited and tightly managed externalization” – in other words, bringing things back in house.

It doesn’t stop there. With the Middle East also undergoing disruption, although of a different kind, and recent natural disasters in several other parts of the world, uncertainty is raised another few notches.

So both IDC’s Parker and Gartner’s Santos broaden the lessons about risk management too. In part this is because all companies depend, more or less critically, on the availability of technologies. But the lessons go beyond this to all areas of business.

More comprehensive contingency planning, say IDC, would be highly desirable. Jack Santos’s conclusions about the importance of a deep risk assessment are similar.

• Supply Chain Aftershocks, Robert Parker, IDC Supply Chain blog, 21 Mar 2011
• Quantum Supply Chains: IT Externalization, clouds, and outsourcing, Jack Santos, Gartner Blog network, 15 Mar 2011
• Japan’s Troubles Raise A Red Flag But Don’t (Yet) Alter Our Global Tech Market Outlook, Andy Bartels, Forrester blog, 21 Mar 2011
• Update: Quake prompts supply chain worries, EE Times, 11 Mar 2011

Is genomics finally coming of age?

Last year marked ten years since the Human Genome Project created a database of the entire sequence of human DNA. A recent IDC blog post flags up a couple of recent announcements in the commercial sector which suggest that the potential for exploitation of this enormous data set is beginning to be realised.

Large data-generating projects, once completed, spawn investigations and developments for a very long time. There are similar-scale projects in, for example, astrophysics. I was on the fringes of one, a few decades ago now; there have been others since. The expectation is that researchers will analyse the data, taking advantage of its scale to do serious statistical analysis; and then, based on this, design further practical experiments to test hypotheses drawn from the data. In the case of the IRAS infrared sky survey: the mission flew in the mid 1980s and the draft catalogue was published in 1984. New research based on the data is still being published, thirty years later.

So, maybe, the expectations of a revolution in medicine based on genome data were appropriate but the expectations of immediacy were not. When all this began to happen, I was working for SmithKline Beecham (now part of GlaxoSmithKline). Like the other major pharmaceutical companies at the time, SB acquired a pharmacy benefit manager. But we also had a clinical laboratories business. The vision was that we would be able to aggregate and analyse data from different parts of the healthcare chain: the scripts being written (that is, what was being prescribed for a large representative population), the laboratory tests being requested (giving a picture of pathological conditions again across a large population), and clinical trials data for new drugs. And it was anticipated that new knowledge based on the genome data would link with these.

Pharmaceuticals are developed for populations: and within populations there is variation. So not everyone’s version of a disease is the same; not everyone responds in the same way to a treatment; and, in some cases, there are side effects which outweigh the benefit of the drug. The vision of genomics was – and still is – that by understanding an individual’s genetic make-up you can design a treatment for that individual, rather than prescribing something based on the normal response of a large population. Especially in genetically-oriented diseases.

SB’s former clinical laboratories business became part of Quest Diagnostics. And the pharmacy benefit managers all (I think) returned to independence. Quest has just acquired a company called Celera; and one of the pharmacy benefit managers, Medco Health (formerly Merck Medco) last year acquired another genomcis company, DNA Direct. In different ways, these acquisitions mark a significant stage in the transition of DNA analysis and screening, in the US health sector, from academic and specialist laboratories into the healthcare mainstream. Quest will be able to offer genomic profiling as “just another lab test”.

And Medco, as a benefit manager, will be able to use similar data to select more directly appropriate treatment. DNA Direct offers physician, client and patient support services alongside its testing.

In technology terms, these are data analysis businesses. Like IRAS, whose database is still creating new science, genomics will surely have a very long tail. It’s only just starting.

• Major Signpost #2 for Genomics Growing Role in Healthcare: Quest Buys Celera, Alan S Louie, The Changing Life Sciences Value Chain (IDC Health Insights), 21 March 2011
• Quest Diagnostics to Acquire Celera, Strengthening Position as World’s Leading Innovator in Molecular Diagnostics and Development. Quest Diagnostics press release, 18 Mar 2011
• Medco Acquires Leading Genetics Healthcare Company, DNA Direct, DNA Direct press release, 2 Feb 2010

United Healthcare announces sale of Diversified Pharmaceutical Services to SmithKline Beecham for $2.3 billion, press release, 3 May 1994 (archive at Highbeam Research)

• IRAS satellite: see e.g. Beichman, C.A., et al (1987),  Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), Catalogs and Atlases, Vol. 1, Explanatory Supplement; NASA-RP-1190

• A vey recent IRAS-derived research paper is: Iwasawa, K., et al (2011), C-GOALS: Chandra observations of a complete sample of luminous infrared galaxies from the IRAS Revised Bright Galaxy Survey, Cornell University (Astronomy & Astrophysics, to be published)

A new InformationSpan website

I’d like to announce a complete re-make of the InformationSpan website.

The new site is structured to reflect who clients are: large enterprise IT groups, smaller business IT users, or insight services providers. There are also sections linked directly to what InformationSpan offers: insight services support, technology services, insight coverage reviews, and so on.

Actually: not quite a complete re-make. The Analyst Blogs index, which provides a workable index to the Gartner Blog network, and includes other major blogs, is unchanged (and we’ll update the data soon!)

It’s still a work in progress; the styling may not be perfect on your browser. But we think it should be vastly easier to navigate and use. Do visit, tell me what you think, and let me know of any problems.