December 31, 2009

Lifesaving Technology is User-centric

There is no better technology than one that saves lives. That is its very essence.

Lifesaving technologies take many forms, from medical imaging to hurricane prediction, from biotechnology to food safety technology, from lifecycle energy management to emergency alerting and countless others.

I read with great interest in the Wall Street Journal (31 Dec. 2009) about another new life saving technology in the area of transportation safety. It is a simple iPhone app created for $8,000 called R-U-Buzzed? This free application download helps people determine whether it is unsafe for them to drive because they are drunk.

Individuals simply enter information such as “weight, gender, hours drinking, and a tally of beer, wine, and liquor consumed.” The application then spews our their blood-alcohol content and a color-coded safety message, as follows:

· Gray—“No hangover expected.”

· Yellow—“You’re buzzed.”

· Red—“Don’t even think about it...designate a sober driver.”

In some cities (just in the state of Colorado for now), there is even a GPS feature that helps users call a local cab to get them home safely.

While the use of the application isn’t foolproof, and some caution that users shouldn’t depend on it alone for judging their intoxication level, using social computing to appeal to young people who are drinking is a significant potential lifesaver because so many young adults are involved in fatal crashes. In fact, federal statistics show that more than two out of three (65%) of drunk drivers who died in a fatal crash last year were between the ages of 21-34. Another 17% were under 21.

One user of the application raved that it “felt very solid and mathematical and trustworthy, and nonjudgmental.” Hence, the application may be more acceptable to users than hearing from their friends that perhaps they shouldn’t drive.

Applications such as this one are truly user-centric, and because of this I believe they hold even more potential for saving people’s lives than technologies that are difficult to understand and use. As technology leaders and architects, we need to ensure that everything we create is friendly to the user, remembering that we are solving problems for people—not machines—and that often, lives are very much at stake.

As we celebrate the arrival of 2010 with family and friends tonight, let’s make a special toast for the people whose technology needs we’ve supported in 2009, and look forward to many more years of solving business problems and enhancing and saving even more lives.


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December 29, 2009

What Hollywood Can Teach Us About Fighting Terrorism

U.S. law enforcement officials have thwarted about two dozen known terrorist plots since 9/11 and there are probably lots more that haven’t made the papers. Some of them, like this month’s “Underwear Bomber” have nicknames, like the “Shoe Bomber” (2002), the “Lackawanna Six,” (same year), and the “Virginia Jihad” (2003). Others are known by geographical location, such as Fort Dix (2007) and the foiled plot against synagogues in the Bronx (2009). But one thing they all have in common is their determination to threaten and even destroy our freedom and way of life.

As a person who is deeply dedicated to America’s safety and security, both personally and professionally, I worry about the rise of terrorism that has sprung up in the past few decades. Terrorists are relentlessly determined to destroy our lives even if it means taking their own lives to do it. But what is even more frightening is that despite all the actions we have taken to fight terrorism, our culture remains deeply reactive. Can we really stay one step ahead and lucky forever?

The best example of our relative complacency in the face of a deadly threat is the policy of taking off our shoes for screening only after the case of the Shoe Bomber came to light. Now again, we waited for an Underwear Bomber before talking seriously and publicly about full body screening for all?

There is a saying that you can’t drive a car by looking in the rearview mirror, but unfortunately that seems to be the way our culture approaches the fight against terrorism. The focus should not be on stopping the last threat, but on anticipating and countering the future threat before it ever materializes.

To do this, we need to think like the bad guys do as well as conduct more exercises to expose our own security weaknesses (red teaming), rather than be surprised when the terrorists find our next Achilles heel.

In the particular case of the Underwear Bomber, it was particularly shocking that we knew this person was a threat. His own father warned us, yet we didn’t put him on the terrorist watch list or revoke his visa (as the British did). And just today I read that this individual told investigators there are literally hundreds more just like him, all waiting to strike.

Think about that for a second. There are seemingly endless terrorists out there, and they can have a 99% failure rate and still be “successful.” Yet U.S. and global law enforcement can’t fail at all—not even once—without dire and deadly consequences on a massive scale.

However, instead of gripping that unbelievable reality and treating it as the dire situation it is, there is actually talk about “rehabilitating” the terrorists. As if we have succeeded at rehabilitating “normal” criminals…now we are going to try and “deprogram” people who are religiously “inspired” to commit their diabolical deeds?

To adequately manage the new reality we face today, we must not only stay ahead of known threats, but also proactively envision new potential attack scenarios, prepare for them, and thwart them before they become potentially lethal.

A great place to start would be Hollywood; our entertainment industry has done a pretty good job of imaginatively exposing potential attack scenarios—in dozens of films from Air Force One to The Sum of All Fears, Executive Decision to The Peacemaker, and Arlington Road to The Siege, and many more.

There are also television shows like 24, with now seven seasons and counting, that keep Americans riveted to their seats week after week with terrorism plots that play out before our very eyes. We seem to generally view these as serious threats that are possible in our time.

I respect the President for openly acknowledging the "systematic failure," but it is going to take all of us to commit and follow through with ongoing security measures. It is not a one month or one year event (or even an 8 year event post 9/11), but rather a complete new security mindset that stays with us always.

We can and should learn from the visionary talent in our vibrant entertainment industry and from wherever else they may reside, and adopt creative and proactive thinking about terrorism and make this a regular part of our security culture. I understand that there are many forces at play here, and that most of us are not privy to some of the more sophisticated ways that we fight terrorism every day. But what I am talking about is our collective, public culture, which still seems to shrug off the seriousness of threats against us. For example, just today, I saw a sign in an airport that directed wheelchairs through security screening. It seemed almost an invitation to sew explosives into a wheelchair (although I understand that these are actually screened).

I have the deepest respect for the men and women who serve to protect us every day. But as a culture, it is long past time to wake up. We don’t have the luxury of collective denial anymore. We must embrace security as a fact of life, fully and in an ongoing manner.

Further, as we approach 2010, let us resolve to learn from the most imaginative people in our society about how we may think out of the box when it comes to combating terrorism.

In the real world, we must act now to quickly deploy new, more advanced screening technologies to our airports, marine ports, and border crossings, and employ our most creative minds to “outwit, outplay, and outlast” the terrorists who plot against us—whether in their shoes, their underwear, or wherever else their evil schemes might lead them.


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December 22, 2009

It Pays To Think Big

As a kid, I remember being encouraged by my role models, who taught me to “reach for the stars”. They said things like: don’t be afraid to think big, work hard, put your best foot forward, and so on.

And I learned that in American society, it is a fundamental tenet that if you work hard, you can achieve your dreams. This is “the American dream.”

Sometimes as adults we feel that our dreams don’t matter. We work hard, but our hard work doesn’t guarantee success. We see that many factors determine success, including: talent, whether technical or leadership; a willingness to take risks; personal connections and networking, and sometimes even “just plain dumb luck.”

Nevertheless, our ability to envision success ultimately does affect our achievements. As Sheila Murray Bethel puts it in the national bestseller, Making A Difference: “Big thinking always precedes big achievement.”

It all goes back to: Think big, try hard, put yourself out there, and you can achieve great things.

Wired Magazine (December 2009), in an article titled, “Hiding In Plain Sight,” states that “Today’s tech giants all have one thing in common: They tried to change the world.” For example, look at the mission of the following organizations:

· Google—“to organize the world’s information.”

· Microsoft—“a computer on every desk and in every home.”

· Facebook—“the social graph of the planet.”

· eBay—“to create an entirely new global marketplace.”

Of course, while we know that there are real life constraints and that not every child who wants to President can be and not every company that wants to be Microsoft will be, it is still thought—imagination, big thinking and vision—that creates the foundation for greatness.

We should not only teach our children to dream big, but allow ourselves to do so as well.


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December 19, 2009

How $26 Can Buy You A Billion-Dollar Surveillance System

If $26 software can give our enemies on the ground access to our drone feeds and cyber warfare can inflict indefinite havoc on our critical infrastructure, we need to rethink what technological superiority means and how we keep it.

No defense system is foolproof. That’s why we build redundancy into the system and layer our defenses with “defense in depth,” so that just because the enemy infiltrates one layer, doesn’t mean that our defenses are laid bare.

When in fact, we become aware that our systems have been compromised, it is only responsible for us to re-secure them, bolster them with additional defenses, or take those systems out of commission.

It was shocking to learn this week in multiple reports in the Wall Street Journal that our UAV drones and their surveillance systems that have been so critical in our fight against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan were compromised, and the feeds intercepted by $25.95 software sold over the Internet. These feeds were found on the laptops of the very militants we were fighting against. Reportedly, we knew about this vulnerability ever since the war in Bosnia.

It is incredible to imagine our massive multi-billion dollar defense investments and technological know-how being upended by some commercial-off-the-shelf software bought online for the price of a family dinner at McDonalds. But what makes it even worse is that we knew for nearly two decades that the enemy had compromised our systems, yet we did not fix the problem.

A number of reasons have been circulated about why the necessary encryption was not added to the drones, as follows:

- It would have resulted in an increase in cost to the development and deployment of the systems.

- There would be a detriment to our being able to quickly share surveillance information within the U.S. military and with allies.

- There was immediate battlefield need for the drones because of the immediate concern about roadside bombs and therefore there was apparently no time to address this issue.

Based on the above, one may possibly be able to understand why the Joint Chiefs “largely dismissed” the need to repair the drones’ security flaw. However, it also seems that they were overconfident. For any “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader” contestant can tell you that if the enemy can see and hear what we see and hear, then they can take action to subvert our military and intelligence resources, and the critical element of surprise is gone—the mission is compromised.

Of course as civilians we are not privy to all the information that our leaders have. And one can say that if all you have are compromised drones, then those are what you must use. Nevertheless, officials interviewed by the Journal point to the hubris that influenced the decision in this situation – as the report states:

“The Pentagon assumed that local adversaries [in Iraq and Afghanistan] wouldn’t know how to exploit” the vulnerability. So, the result was that we kept building and deploying the same vulnerable systems, over a long period of time!

This is not the first time that we have both been overconfident in our technological superiority and underestimated competitors and opponents in foreign countries—with disastrous results. There are the human tragedies of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, to name just two. And then there are the economic challenges of global competition, such as in the automobile industry and overseas manufacturing in general.

And if some terrorist cells on the run can so clearly compromise our technical know-how, shouldn’t we be even more concerned about established nations who are well financed and determined to undermine our security? For example, just this week, a group calling itself the “Iranian Cyber Army” hacked and defaced Twitter and we were helpless to prevent it. Also noteworthy is that this same week, it was reported that our defense plans with respect to South Korea, including operational details, were hacked into and stolen by North Korea.

Unfortunately, however, we do not even seem to take threats from other nations as seriously as we should: As the Journal reported, “senior U.S. military officers working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed the danger of Russia and China intercepting and doctoring video from the drone aircraft in 2004, but the Pentagon didn’t begin securing signals until this year.”

I am deeply respectful of our military and the men and women who put their lives on the line for our nation. It is because of that deep respect that I reach out with concern about our overconfidence that we are technologically superior, and about our dismissal and underestimation of the resolve of our enemies.



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December 16, 2009

Man to Machine--How Far Will It Go?

This is an amazing video of the new FemBots from Japan. These robots are incredibly lifelike for nascent androids. With or without the background music, it evokes an eerie feeling.

The vision of iRobot and elements of Star-Trek (remember the character "Data") are becoming a reality in front of our very eyes.

This is a convergence of humanity and technology, as scary as that sounds. (No not our hearts and souls, but definitely recognizable physical dimensions).

No longer are we talking about simple human-computer interfaces, computer ergonomics, or user-centric architecture design, but rather, we are now moving toward the actual technology with emerging human semblance, charateristics, even some notional speech and affect, etc.

I came across this video the same day today that I saw on FOX news a breakthrough in robotic limbs for people. A man had actually been fitted and was using a robotic hand that responded to his muscle movement. Obviously, this offers huge possibilities for people with disabilities.

Man to machine and machine to man. How far will it go?

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Project Failure, Why People Can’t Own Up

I saw this funny/sad Dilbert cartoon on project management by Scott Adams (BTW, he’s terrific!).

It goes like this:

Office colleague (water cooler talk): How’s your project coming along?

Dilbert: It’s a steaming pile of failure. It’s like fifteen drunken monkeys with a jigsaw puzzle.

New scene….

Boss: How’s your project coming along?

Dilbert: Fine.

END

This common work scenario is sort of like a game of truth or dare: you either have to tell the project truth or take the dare and do something embarrassing like proceed with the project that isn’t on track.

Teammates, colleagues, peers often talk frankly and honestly about the problems with their projects and often the talk may become sarcastic or even somewhat cynical, because they know that they can’t tell their bosses what is REALLY going on.

What a shame in terms of lost opportunities to communicate, solve problems, and drive project success for the organization.

People are afraid to be honest, direct, tell the truth, and work together with their management on constructive solutions.

Instead, people simply say everything is fine, period.

Sort of like when your boss asks politely at work how are you doing? And rather than say, well I woke up late, missed my train, spilled coffee on my tie, and am having trouble meeting my deadlines this week, the person almost always replies, reflexively, “I’m fine” and “How are you?”

Another manifestation of the it’s fine syndrome is with executive dashboards or project scorecard reviews where virtually all the metrics show up as “green”, even when you know they are not—does yellow or red sound too scary to have to put on paper/screen and explain to the boss.

We are conditioned NOT to talk casually or to report to our superiors about issues, problems, or anything that can be perceived as negative, least they be labeled as trouble-makers or “the problem,” rather than the solution. Ultimately, employees don’t want to be blamed for the failures, so they would rather hide the truth then own up to the project issues, and work constructively with their management on solutions or course correction—before it’s too late.

Now isn’t that a novel idea? Management and staff working together, actually identifying the issues—proactively and in forthright manner—and working together to resolve them, rather than sitting across the table, sugar-coating or pointing the accusatory finger.

People have to take responsibility and own up when there is a problem and be willing to talk about them with their management, and management needs to encourage frankness, a “no surprises” culture, and a team-collaborative environment to solving problems rather than instilling fear in their employees or implicitly or explicitly communicating that they only want to hear “good news.”

Good news is not good news when it’s fabricated, a distortion, or a complete sham.

A culture of teamwork, collaboration, honesty, and integrity is the underpinning of project success. If everything in the project “is fine”, it’s probably not.


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December 13, 2009

It's the Customer, Not the Technology, Stupid

Two of the finest customer service companies these days are Amazon and Apple. Amazon with free shipping and generous return policy for just about any reason is amazing in their no nonsense customer-service orientation—they inspire virtually complete customer trust. And Apple with their try it, you’ll like it stores full of computers, iPhones, and iPods, as well as their extended product warranties, training classes on products and awesome service desks is just another great customer shopping experience.

We need more of these positive customer experiences:

· Products—products should be true quality through and through (not the shoddy stuff made on the cheap to maximize profit and minimize customer satisfaction).

· Commitment—companies stand by their products with hassle-free money back guarantees (forget the 15% restocking fee, the mandatory return authorization number, and the 4-6 weeks to get your money back).

· Service—customer service has got to be easy to access and quick to resolve problems (banish the cold and calculating automated calling systems with the loop-de-loop dialing—“dial 1 if you want to jump out of a window!”—and where routine service problems are resolved without having to escalate numerous levels to get a supervisor only to then get accidentally disconnected and have to start all over again; oh, and did I forget having to give your basic information over 3 times to each service rep you speak with).

Aside from these basics, we need new ways to improve customer experiences to give the customer an absolutely satisfying experience.

In this regard, I loved the recent commentary by Steve Kelman in Federal Computer Week entitled Customer service Tips From Developing Countries, where some simple yet novel customer service innovations were identified, as follows:

· Chinese Passport Control and Customs provides a kiosk for passengers to “report on their travel experience by pressing a smiley face or a frowning face.” Whoola instant feedback!

· Saudi Arabia ATM Machines, while withdrawing money “offered an option of paying parking fines and some government license fees.” That couldn’t be simpler and quicker.

· Singapore Passport Control “placed a bowl of candy at the counter.” A tiny gesture that goes a long way.

From a simple smiley/frowny face feedback mechanism to a candy bowl as a way to say thank you; it is not rocket-science to be kind, gentle, and caring for customers—most of the time, it’s the basic manners your mother taught you.

In technology, these customer services lessons are especially apropos, since it is easy to get enmeshed in the technology and forget the people and processes that we are supporting. (Or to put it in another way, “it’s the customer, not the technology, stupid!”)


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December 12, 2009

EA Can Do It

A number of weeks ago, I was at a CTO Event in DC and got to hear from colleagues about their thoughts on various technologies and IT trends. Overall the exchange was great, and as always, I was deeply impressed with the wisdom and experience of these IT leaders.

However, one particular set of comments set me back in my chair a little. And that was on the topic of Enterprise Architecture. Apparently, a number of CTOs (from a relatively small number of agencies) had not had great success in their organizations with EA and were practically questioning it’s very existence in our IT universe. Yikes!

I believe some of the comments were to the effect (and this is not verbatim—I will put it euphemistically) that these individuals had never seen anything valuable from enterprise architecture—EVER—and that as far as they were concerned, it should be discontinued in their organizations, altogether.

In thinking about the stinging comments from some of the IT leaders, I actually felt bad for them that they had had negative experiences with a discipline like EA, which is such a powerful and transformative planning and governance framework when implemented correctly—with the value proposition of improving IT decision making and the end-user as the focal point for delivering valuable and actionable EA information and governance services—generally what I call User-centric Enterprise Architecture.

Right away after the negative comments, there were a number of CTOs that jumped up to defend EA, including me. My response was partially that just because some EA programs had not been successful (i.e. they were poorly implemented), did not mean that EA was not valuable when it was done right—and that there was indeed a way to build an organizations enterprise architecture as a true beacon for the organization to modernize, transform, and show continuous improvement. So please hold off from dismembering EA from our organizations.

Recently, I was further reassured that some organizations were getting EA, and getting it right, when I read a blog by Linda Cureton, the new CIO of NASA who wrote: NASA CIO: How to Rule the World of IT through Enterprise Architecture.

In the blog, Ms. Cureton first offers up a very nice, straightforward definition of EA:

“Let me step back a bit and offer a simple definition for Enterprise Architecture that is not spoken in the dribble of IT jargon. In simplest terms, it is a planning framework that describes how the technology assets of an organization connect and operate. It also describes what the organization needs from the technology. And finally, it describes the set of activities required to meet the organizational needs. Oh, and I should also say it operates in a context of a process for setting priorities, making decisions, informing those decisions, and delivering results called - IT Governance.”

Further, Ms. Cureton draws some parallels from a book titled How to Rule the World: Handbook for an Aspiring Dictator, by Andre de Gaillaume, as follows:

It is possible to manage IT as an Enterprise.

· You can use the Enterprise Architecture to plan and manage the kinder, safer, more cost effective IT world.

· Transformational projects will successful and deliver desired results.

· IT can be a key strategic enabler of NASA's [and other organizations] goals.”

Wow, this was great--an IT leader who really understands EA and sees it as the tool that it genuinely is for--to more effectively plan and govern IT and to move from day-to-day organizational firefighting to instead more strategic formulation and execution for tangible mission and end-user results.

While, I haven’t read the dictators handbook and do not aspire to draw any conclusions from it in terms of ruling the world, I do earnestly believe that no organization will be successful with their IT without EA. You cannot have an effective IT organization without a clear vision and plan as well as the mechanism to drive informed decision making from the plan and then being able to execute on it.

Success doesn't just happen, it is the result of brilliant planning and nurtured execution from dedicated and hardworking people.

Reading about NASA’s direction now, they may indeed be looking to the stars, but now, they also have their eyes focused on their EA.


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December 7, 2009

Let's Not Understate the Cyber Threat

Wow. I read with some surprise and consternation an article in Government Computer News, 4 December 2009. In this article, the author portrays the fears of a “digital Pearl Harbor” or overwhelming cyber attack on the United States as overblown—almost as if it’s of no real possibility or significant impact. In short, the article states:

“What good would it do an attacker to take down the vital U.S. networks? While the damage to this country could be great, the benefit to an attack would be nil if it could not be followed up. The real threat of cyber warfare is not in stand-alone attacks, but in attacks coordinated with military action.”

While, I agree that a coordinated attack is obviously more dangerous than a cyber attack alone, the threat and potential damage of a cyber attack could potentially be devastating—with or without military action.

Let’s think for a second about how the military traditionally projects force around the world through conventional warfare—taking control of the air, land, and sea. Control the sea-lanes and you have power over 90%+ of international commerce. Control the land and you have power over people’s daily lives—including their ability to satisfy even basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter, their personal safety, and even their ability to govern themselves. Control the air and you control freedom of movement on the ground, people’s basic comings and goings. Traditional military power can affect just about every facet of people’s lives including ultimately the taking of life itself i.e. paying “the ultimate price.”

Now think for a second, about what a massive cyber attack could potentially do to us. At this stage in history, we have to ask ourselves not what elements could be affected by cyber attack, but what elements of our lives would not be impacted? This is the case since virtually our entire civil and elements of the military infrastructure are dependent on the Internet and the computers that are connected to them. If you “pull the plug” or corrupt the interconnected systems, “watch out” seems apropos.

The same areas that are vulnerable to traditional military attack are threatened by cyber attack: Commerce, Energy, Transportation, Finance, Health, Agriculture, (Defense)…are all deeply interwoven and dependent on our interconnected computer systems—and this is the case more and more.

Think e-Commerce, online banking and finance, manufacturing production systems, transportation systems, food production and safety, the energy grid, electronic health records, C4ISR, and so on.

While thank G-d, we have been spared a really devastating attack to date (if you exclude the massive data compromised/stolen in recent cyber attacks), we would be derelict in responsibilities for ensuring safety and security if we thought that was it.

Further, while unpleasant as it may be, we should consider the impact in terms of potential for physical harm or loss of life in the event of a serious cyber attack?

While many brush aside this possibility, there is certainly the potential. Even putting aside the potential public panic/chaos and ensuing loss of life and property that could occur in a serious attack, how about just taking out a single, major facility—like a dam, power plant, reservoir, electrical hub, transportation system, and so on. This is an important focus of efforts to ensure critical infrastructure protection, a public-private sector partnership initiative.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas said "Until we secure our cyber infrastructure, a few keystrokes and an Internet connection is all one needs to disable the economy and endanger lives.”

Sure, a severe and consequential attack would require ample skills, knowhow, resources, and sophistication—it is no small feat—but with the hosts of cyber criminals, terrorists, and hostile nation states out there increasingly trying to hack our systems, there is valid cause for concern.

This recognition of what’s possible does not mean it is probable or imminent. However, the awareness and understanding of our increasing dependence on the Internet and related systems and the acknowledgement that there are those out there—as in 9-11—who seek to do our country harm, should not blind us with fear, but rather spark us to constructively deal with the challenge and take proactive actions to secure the ever expanding realm of cyberspace.

The Executive Summary in the CyberSpace Policy Review that was conducted by the White House in 2009 sums it up, this way:

“The globally-interconnected digital information and communications infrastructure known as “cyberspace” underpins almost every facet of modern society and provides critical support for the U.S. economy, civil infrastructure, public safety, and national security. This technology has transformed the global economy and connected people in ways never imagined. Yet, cybersecurity risks pose some of the most serious economic and national security challenges of the 21st Century.”

We should not and cannot understate the possible threats against our nation, but rather we need to act responsibility and rationality, with resolve to protect our nation, before and not only after. As the CyberSpace Policy Review states:

“The Nation’s approach to cybersecurity over the past 15 years has failed to keep pace with the threat. We need to demonstrate abroad and at home that the United States takes cybersecurity-related issues, policies, and activities seriously.”

Fortunately, our nation has recognized the potential threat and is acting, as Security Focus reported on June 24, 2009: “The U.S. Secretary of Defense ordered the military to create a unified command to act as the nation's central hub for cyber capabilities and commanded the Pentagon to develop a policy framework for cyberspace operations.”

On a personal note, I am grateful for the many good, hardworking people in our military, civilian and private sector that are working to secure cyberspace for us, and believe we need to do this with vigor and resolve. It’s necessary in order to safeguard our future that is ever reliant on technology.


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December 5, 2009

Tech is Threatening to Some and A Savior To Others

As technology advances and supplants the “old ways” of doing things, some people are threatened that they are being put “out to pasture” and others find opportunity in the emerging technology—they find in it something new to learn and grow with, perhaps an opportunity to shine and become the resident subject matter expert at work or at home.

As we get older, it’s natural that some people may not be as flexible in “starting over,” learning something new, or changing the way “we’ve always done things.” It’s reminiscent of the sort of unflattering old saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”—a saying by the way that I don’t really believe (you should see my Dad on email, Internet, and so on—he’s great!). But at the same time, people, as do all things, have a life cycle, and our strengths and weaknesses go through peaks and valleys at various points on the cycle. For example, “with age comes wisdom.” Years ago, getting the chairman or CEO to use email was a corporate challenge. Now, young people are migrating to Social Media for communications, and email is the technology dinosaur. It’s a constant technology transformation.

In November 2009, the Wall Street Journal reviewed a new book by Sci-Fi author Cory Doctorow, called “Makers”. “This novel is set in a not-too distant future when the creative destruction of technological change has created an economy so efficient, with profit margins so thin, that traditional companies can hardly stay in business.” In this book, the inventor “uses three-dimensional printers to produce copies of machines and most anything else at close to no cost.” Now “good ideas are copied so quickly that they become commodities. Every industry that required a factory yesterday only needs a garage today.” Where this leaves us is in a time with “competition and invention getting easier and easier—it’s producing a kind of superabundance.” And the result is widespread unemployment and stress.

As we are presumably heading out of a major recession now with unemployment topping 10% (and some would say the real figures, including the underemployed and those that have stopped looking for work, at closer to 20%), we must but wonder whether the recession/unemployment is due to the financial crisis alone or is there some element that is due to our new high-tech economy, where everything in the manufacturing sector has either been tech-enabled or outsourced to Asia. And where we are left in a primary “services economy—pushing papers and flipping burgers? Is there a time coming when we become so technologically advanced, like in the Makers, that there is a very real threat of leaving hundreds of millions of people behind, while the few technology mavens “have it all”?

Interestingly enough, with the advancement of technology, the income disparity between rich and poor has grown where the top 1% of Americans own more than a third of the wealth, compared with a fifth of the wealth in the 1970s (according to Robert Reich).

I think it is critical that smarts and performance be rewarded (i.e. performance-based), but that we cannot let things get out of control and unjust. Billions cannot starve while the ultra-rich hop from rural mansion to Park Avenue condo and from private plane to recreational yacht. Technology must be used to level the playing field and not abuse it. Some like Bernie Madoff used systems developers and technology to create and issue phony financial statements to Ponzi-scheme clients showing trades that never occurred. Instead, we need to use technology to educate, communicate, share, and advance the opportunities for all and overcome the technology divide through amazing advancements here and yet to come. To do this, we must focus on continuous innovation and application of technology to the challenges we face—whether alternative energy, health care, world-hunger, global warming, and so much more. There is no shortage of issues for us to apply our minds and technology to—there is plenty for everyone to contribute to.


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December 4, 2009

Playing It Safe or Provoking to Action

Which does your leadership do? Do they play it safe--staying the same familiar course, avoiding potential change and upset or do they provoke to action, encourage continuous improvement, are they genuinely open to new ideas, and do they embrace the possibilities (along with the risks) of doing things better, faster, and cheaper?

Surely, some leaders are masters of envisioning a brighter future and provoking the change to make it happen. Leaders from Apple, Google, Amazon, and other special leaders come to mind. But many others remain complacent to deliver short-term results, not "rock the boat," and keep on fighting the day-to-day fires rather than curing the firefighting illness and moving the organization to innovation, ideation, and transformation through strategic formulation and execution.

Provoking to action is risky for leaders as the old saying goes, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down," and often leaders that make even the best-intentioned mistakes in trying to do the "right thing" get sorely punished. Only enlightened organizations encourage innovation and experimentation and recognize that failure is part of the process to get to success.

While responsible leaders, almost by definition, provide a stable, reliable, secure, and robust operating environment, we must balance this with the need to grow and change productively over time. We need more organizations and leaders to stand up and provoke action--to drive new ways of thinking and doing things--to break the complacency mindset and remove the training wheels to allow a freer, faster, and more agile movement of organizational progress. To provoke action, we need to make our people feel safe to look out for long-term organizational success strategies rather than just short-term bottom line numbers.

Harvard Business Review (December 2009) provides some useful tips for provoking action called "Five Discovery Skills Separate True Innovators from the Rest of Us."

  • Associating--Develop a broad knowledgebase and regularly give yourself the time and space to freely associate--allow your brain to connect the dots in new ways and see past old stovepipes. Fresh inputs trigger new associations; for some these lead to new ideas.
  • Questioning--”Innovators constantly ask questions that challenge common wisdom. We need to question the unquestionable as Ratan Tata put it. We must challenge long-held assumptions and Ask why? Why not? And What if? Dont be afraid to play devils advocate. Let your imagination flow and imagine a completely different alternative. Remove barriers to creative thinking and banish fear of people laughing at you, talking behind your back, dismissing you, or even conducting acts of reprisal.
  • Observing--Careful observation of people and how they behave provides critical insights into what is working and what isnt. There is a cool field of study in the social sciences called ethnomethodology that studies just such everyday human behavior and provides a looking glass through which we can become aware of and understand the ways things are and open us up to the way things could be better.
  • ExperimentingWeve got to try new things and approaches to learn from them and see if they work and how to refine them. Productive changes dont just happen all of a sudden like magic; they are cultivated, tested, refined, and over time evolve into new best practices for us and our organizations. Experimentation involves intellectual exploration, physical tinkering[and] engaging in new surroundings.
  • NetworkingIts all about people: they inspire us, provoke us, complement us, and are a sounding board for us. We get the best advances and decisions when we vet ideas with a diverse group of people. Having a diverse group of people provides different perspectives and insights that cannot be gleaned any other way. There is power in numbers”--and I am not referring to the power to defeat our enemies, but the power to think critically and synergistically. The group can build something greater than any individual alone ever could.

Of course, we cannot drive change like a speeding, runaway train until it crashes and burns. Rather, change and innovation must be nurtured. We must provoke to action our organizations and our people to modernize and transform through critical thinking, questioning the status quo, regular observation and insight, the freedom to experiment and constructively fail, and by building a diverse and synergistic network of people that can be greater than the sum of their parts.


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December 3, 2009

Federal Computer Week - Discussion of ITIL and EA

Services listed under ITIL and enterprise architecture models are
different in nature, said Andy Blumenthal, chief technology officer at
the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who did not
speak on behalf of the agency.

“When we talk about services in an EA context, we refer to those that
are used for mission and business purposes,” he said. “In contrast,
ITIL-type services are underlying support functions to the customer,
such as problem identification and resolution. An example of an EA
service versus an ITIL service would be a document management solution
versus a help desk or network management function.”

...

“Traditionally, architecture efforts have been notorious for being an
ivory-tower effort that results in shelfware,” Blumenthal said. ITIL
proponents also tend to be squirreled away in data centers and not
inclined to consult with architects.

A cultural shift is necessary, Blumenthal said. Enterprise architects
in particular must become more user-oriented if they’re going to stay
relevant in a changing technology environment, he added.

To read the entire article go to:
http://fcw.com/articles/2009/12/07/comparing-ea-and-itil.aspx


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November 30, 2009

Leadership: Fight or Flight

When we are confronted with difficult situations, people tend to two different responses: fight or flight.

Generally, people will stand and fight when they are either cornered and have no other option, when they will suffer undue harm if they just try and “let it go”, or when the issue is something that they really believe strongly in (like a principle or value such as equity, justice, righteousness, etc. that they feel is being violated).

In contrast, people typically will flee when they feel that they can get out of a bad situation mostly unscathed and their principles will not be violated (such that they can live with their personal and professional dignity intact). Often, people consider fleeing or a change of venue preferable to “getting into it” when it’s possible to avoid the problems that more direct confrontation can bring.

There is also a third option not typically addressed and that is just “taking it,” and letting it pass. In the martial arts, this is akin to taking someone’s best shot and just absorbing it—and you’re still standing. You go with the flow and let it go. This is sometimes feasible as a less dramatic response and one that produces perhaps less severe consequences (i.e. you avoid a fight and you still yield no ground).

Harvard Business Review (December 2009) in an article called “How to Pick a Good Fight” provides some guidelines on when as a professional you should consider standing up and fighting, as follows:

  1. “Make it Material”—Fight for something you really believe in, something that can create real value, noticeable and sustainable improvement.
  2. Focus on the Future”—Don’t dwell on the past or on things that cannot be changed. Spend most of your time “looking at the road ahead, not in the rearview mirror.”[This is actually the opposite of what 85% of leaders do, which is trying to figure out what went wrong and who to blame.”
  3. Pursue a Noble Purpose”—Make the fight about improving people’s lives or changing the world for the better.” I’d put it this way: stay away from selfish or egotistical fights, turf battles, empire building, and general mud slinging.

“The biggest predictor of poor company performance is complacency.” So leaders need to focus “the good fight” on what’s possible, what’s compelling, and what’s high impact. Great leaders shake things up when the fight is right and create an environment of continuous improvement. Leaders create the vision, inspire the troops, and together move the organization forward to greater and greater heights.

As for fleeing or “turning the other cheek” those venues are best left for issues of lesser consequence, for keeping the peace, or for times when you are simply better off taking up the good fight another day.


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November 29, 2009

A Young Adult Chooses To Give Rather Than Take

Here is a poem written by a young adult who was recently confronted
with a difficult choice - whether to go on a fancy trip to Europe or
Peru, costing thousands of dollars but promising "the time of your
life," or to spend a week participating in a Habitat for Humanity
project, and giving back to those in need.

I am humbled and inspired by her words and her choice.

In terms of tikkun olam (repair of the world - a Jewish term for an
individual's purpose in life), this is a great lens with which to view
many of the choices we have day in and day out. Our investments in
people and those less fortunate are often the best ones that we can
make - and those with the highest return, personally and for the
organizations we represent.

_____________________

"What is a Good Feeling?"

A dream maybe that looks me in the eye,

I try to catch it but it just flies by,

A short second ago there was my chance,

I was even just about ready to dance.

The question is always asked: why not me?!

Why can’t I be lucky!

The sun, the moon, the stars,

Waken me up oh mars.

Shine that light on me,

Guide me to what is happy,

Pearl, silver, and even gold,

It’s now time to think beyond what is displayed and told.

Look beyond the light,

Into the darkness of the night,

Like others, it is even hard for me,

When I even dare to see reality.

The million-dollar beach home,

The shape of a dome,

An in-door pool,

Oh how mighty and cool.

Pshh, ya right!

Just look at MOST people’s plight,

People losing jobs here and there,

This is in no way fair.

Millions of citizens living on the streets,

On disgusting benches supposed to be used just for seats,

It’s time to wake up and see,

People don’t live all rich and fancy.

It’s time to open our eyes,

We shouldn’t live lies,

I want to step closer to reality,

I’m at the right age to learn more about actuality.

I want to help others,

I want to give to families: fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers

I want to put smiles on children’s faces,

I want to leave some of my traces.

Traces of charity,

What a rarity,

I want to be one who gives and not takes,

For once in my life I am positive that this won’t be a mistake.

This choice is the right,

And I say this with all force and might,

It’s without doubt a chance to make a difference,

This surely makes the most sense.

~THERE IS NOTHING LIKE THE GOOD FEELING OF ASSISTING OTHERS~


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November 27, 2009

Right In Front of Us, but We Are Blind to It

Last week, there was a 13-year-old boy, with Asperger’s syndrome, who ran away from home and rode away in the NYC subway system for 11 days undetected!!!

The boy went missing with $11 dollars in his pocket. “According to CNN, the boy's mother says he survived on fast food and candy he purchased in the subway system. He spent the majority of his time riding the trains. He wore the same clothes for the duration and lived underground, sleeping in subway cars and using underground restrooms.”

Many people were out looking for this boy, including the police, but neither the searchers nor the extensive surveillance apparatus in New York picked him out. Apparently, no one on the trains reported seeing this kid riding endlessly around 24x7, and the boy was invisible to the myriad of hardworking transit workers and officers who are all over the transit system, until day 11 when finally one officer recognized the boy from his missing picture.

How can a boy be there for almost two weeks, but be seemingly invisible to the thousands of riders and workers passing thru the subway system and what can this teach us about leadership and organizations?

Information Overload—This is truly the information age. We have morphed from not having enough information to being flooded with it and not being able to process it. With the missing boy on the NYC MTA subway system, he was literally lost amidst the more than 5 million riders a day and 468 stations. This is a common situation these days where we have access to stores of information, on databases and through the Internet, yet we frequently struggle to find the golden nuggets of information that really mean something. Post 9-11, our military and intelligence communities are being flooded by sensor information from a vast network of resources, and the challenge now is to find innovative ways to process it quickly and effectively—to find the proverbial “needle in the haystack” and to stop the next potential attack. Our organizations in the public and private sectors need faster, more accurate, and finely tuned systems to find the dots, connect the dots, and see the picture.

Process Matters—According to Digital Journal, “the disappearance was reported to police immediately, who treated it as a runaway. After five days had passed, it was being treated as a missing persons case.” The police were following their processes in handling this little boy, but it resulted in five days passing without the assumed more intense search that occurs with a missing persons case. Lesson to note is that having standardized, documented business processes are important in efficiently managing operations, but we should not get so caught up in the process that we become rigid and inflexible in handling cases according to the specific situation. While I am not an expert in this, the question does come to mind, whether the search for a child with a known disability may have been escalated/elevated sooner? And the point, I am really trying to make is that we need to keep our organizations and processes agile and responsive so that we can act meaningfully and in time.

Break through the Apathy—Having been a former New Yorker (and I suppose, it never truly leaves your blood), I am well aware of the accusations and jokes made about rudeness and apathy from people in the “city that never sleeps.” NY is a tough town, no doubt. The people are quick and sharp. They work and play hard. They are good, productive people. But living in a city with 8.3 million people in one of the most dense urban centers of the world can take a toll. Even with major clean-up efforts in recent years, NYC still has its fair share of crowding, pollution, and crime and this can take a toll on even the best people. I remember daily sights of panhandling, poor and ill people, aggressiveness not limited to the yellow cabbies. I suppose, one disabled boy could get lost amidst the city chaos, but the challenge is to break through the apathy or callousness that can easily overtake people and continue to care for each and every person that needs our help. This is no small challenge in a city with a 21.2% poverty rate (US Census Bureau 1999), let along in a world where 1 in 4 (or 1.3 billion persons) live on less than $1 a day. As leaders, we need to push for caring over apathy and for seeing and acting versus blinding ourselves to the pain and misfortune of others.

Could we have found this little boy sooner? Maybe. Could it have ended a lot worse? For sure.

While this missing persons situation is now over, we need to prepare ourselves for future events and contingencies. We can do this by continuing to create better systems and mechanisms to process information better, faster, and cheaper—it’s not longer just the quantity of information, but the quality and it’s timeliness and relevance; by reengineering our business processes so that we are alert, nimble and responsive—rigid processes lead to hard and fast rules that serve no one; and building camaraderie with one another—seeing that we are more the same, than we are different—and that everyone matters—even a kid underground in a subway system spanning 656 long and winding miles.

And lest anybody think I’m giving New Yorkers a hard time, believe me when I say – it is “the city” that has given me the street smarts to navigate the Beltway and challenge anyone who says that something can’t be done!


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