Sunday, November 3, 2013

Seeing the Lights: Some Frontiers for Enterprises

It is the morning of Diwali, and already Diwali evening in my Matrabhoomi (country of birth).  As Indians around the world look ahead to lighting Diyas in their houses, and lighting up the skies with fireworks, I've been missing being back home, missing the sights, the sounds and the tastes, and most importantly the lights.  The colors, the glow, the patterns, the beauty, the magic.  Good news is, here in our adopted homeland, there is plenty of Indian diaspora, and there will be, I'm sure, much fun and fireworks for all of us Indians, and the Indians at heart.

But Diwali is about more than the lights outside, and indeed much more about the lights within.  To see, and to reflect on, what is important.  How we should shape and focus our efforts, our intents and goals, and our time.  To work on that which matters most.  The "good", and not the "evil".  I've been thinking about these matters lately.  Thinking that the leading institutions of our time don't do enough to move the ball fwd for humanity, focusing rather on advancing their own agendas incrementally, or worse, their egos and reputations instead.  The big consumer web companies seem driven by taking over more and more of our privacy, and people seem to have a general lack of understanding what they are giving up to receive these "free" services, and end up sharing their information trail to be monetized by others for all it is worth.  Leading companies in all major industries seem focused on dealing with the new technological realities that have enabled new economic models that are profoundly disruptive to the ways they've done business for decades or even longer.  And often an early casualty of this is  investments in research and fundamental work in advancing the important areas.  At a time when we know so little of our world, so little of our own self, our brains, diseases, energy, etc., even less is being done to invest in unconstrained/unburdened and long-term investigations into these important matters.  Learning would be the missing link, but almost all work on rethinking education seems to also be about commercial endeavors that focus on new "learning platforms", rather than on improving our ability to learn.

When I think about the work that can be done, e.g. in the software industry, several things come to mind:

1. Learning of course.  Better environments for learning, a culture of education, so businesses, and employees can better adapt to, and respond to changing circumstances.  This has to be one of the big endeavors in all businesses.  I am working to make this happen at SAP.  Both in our own company's culture, as well as learning related products that SAP can bring to businesses.  And beyond learning, in better ways to communicate, to share, to understand, and to design.  All are needed.

2. Economics.  There is a lot to be done in better understanding economics of the key issues of our time, and to transform our value-generation towards long-term sustainable models.  I believe there are ome key economic tradeoffs that it would behoove us to understand more deeply: e.g. the economics owning assets vs sharing/renting these.  The so-called "rental economy" or "collaborative consumption".  A better understanding of the thresholds at which it makes sense to own something vs to rent/share it, would be very beneficial.  There are similar thresholds in (i) make to order vs make to stock, both in manufacturing as well as in other industries, in (ii) reconstructing things vs simply renovating these, as well as in (iii) when to use a central shared service vs decentralizing autonomous teams.  I've been exploring these issues, and also sharing some of this work in a Stanford Computer Science Class that I'm helping one of my PhD advisors with.  I believe that there is a kind of threshold (a "Sikka Threshold" if you will :-)) that governs all of these tradeoffs, and they all have a structural similarity to each other.

3. Software. And of course, there is tons of room in improving the software situation around us, especially as software becomes the vehicle to bring about, to instrument, this latest great transformation unfolding around us.  Improvements are needed in many aspects of software

a. Such as the nature of software platforms and systems.  At SAP, we've been busy building on HANA's early success to further develop new architectures and landscape designs for enterprises.  We are still in early days of understanding elastic, intelligent, scalable systems.  For instance, the management of time in systems is still quite primitive, typical ACID behavior in databases forces distributed systems to go thru tremendous contortions, when even quantum physics has taught us that absolute time across distances and rigid notions of consistency are not only futile, they are not necessary.  I am writing a paper about relative consistency, and much more simplified notions of time and management of data reliably in distributed, scalable, systems.

b. Such as rethinking the software experience itself.  The software developers' experience leaves a *lot* to be desired and there are fundamental ways in which it can be improved.  We've been working on some of these.  From ways to make software development real-time and totally interactive/responsive, to enabling end-users to do more of the programming work themselves, from better understanding, and articulating, actions, to better ways to articulate software's abilities so strangers (alan would say "alients") can read and understand our code.  In particular, the notion of activities is one of these areas.  We understand so little about how to better articulate actions and processes in richer, yet efficient processes. (I am also doing some work on this area,  there hasn't been a significant advance on articulating activities richly and efficiently, and expect to write a paper on this to a conference/publication this winter).

c. Such as new, unprecedented industry applications.  Our notions of enterprise applications have become significantly limited over the decades.  It is time for a rethink.  As almost all major industries get disrupted or totally transformed by technology, it is time to build the great, intelligent, adaptive, applications, in unprecedented new areas of business.  But especially the purposeful ones.  The ones that move us forward, as they help bring to life the power of software to transform our world and our lives.

I think businesses, corporations, have a tremendous ability to influence the world, to shape the world of the future, and it must be our endeavor to do more fundamental work, more of the important things, the purposeful things, especially ones whose value isn't obvious in the 90-day rhythms and the lenses of the traditional financial metrics that seems to consume most large companies.

So as we get ready to light up the Diyas, and light up the skies with fireworks, I think it is even more important, and worthwhile, to reflect on, and to pursue that other light, the one that's inside of us.  Towards the end of his great book, Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse's title character says to his lifelong friend Govinda, both now old men, that knowledge can be taught, but not wisdom.  That each one of us must find that for ourselves.  Here's to wishing at this Diwali, that each one of us finds, and pursues, and achieves, that light within, our own, unique, wisdom...