“Going to the Cloud” is a Psychological, Not a Technical Hurdle
Don’t worry, this isn’t yet another post about Cloud Computing, written by someone who isn’t an engineer. Well, actually, it sorta is… but not like all the other ones you’ve read…
Preamble: Move, Get Out the Way
A colleague and I were discussing a client’s massive organizational and technological inefficiencies. The situation was hampering people’s ability to get things done and I remarked that if only this client got rid of their cumbersome IT infrastructure and policies, and used more outsourced “cloud” solutions, everyone would be better off. My colleague — who shall remain nameless but who is legendary for his cynicism — said, “Really Dan, since when have you met an IT guy who willingly gives up control of his machines??” At first I thought he was right… but then later, in a moment of l’esprit d’escalier, I realized the answer to question: “Yes, yes, I have met them… and they are some of the best IT professionals out there — network administrators, technology and operations (tech & ops) managers — who have given up control of their boxes and have made their lives — and the lives of their clients and organizations — better run, more effective, less costly and less stressful. Yes, they are out there and I even know some of them personally.” Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a bit biased because I have some clients who are major suppliers of “cloud” solutions. However, I’ve also observed large cloud implementations from the end user perspective and — even with my extremely limited level of subject matter expertise — I’ve seen how joyful their lives have become at the other side of the Cloud rainbow. I also know that sometimes the Cloud turns dark and ugly… so if you’re gonna go clouding, make sure to work with a professional. So that’s the background story… now, let’s jump in to the topic at hand….
Leaping into the Cloud
This is not a post about the technical features or business benefits of Cloud Computing, SaaS, Virtual Storage or other, related techniques and technologies. There are literally over 150 million of those. Besides, it’s easier and cheaper than ever to “go to the Cloud” ..and by the time you finish reading this, it will have become easier and cheaper yet. This is a post about the psychology of fear involved in making the leap to Cloud Computing. Granted, there are only about about 44 million of these sorts of posts… one order of magnitude down the Long Tail, but still… This is also a post about the fears commonly involved in changing an entrenched system or process… in other words, this post is not just for IT geeks.
Fear of Flying
The top cited fears of “going to the cloud” are usually couched as supposedly rational concerns: data security (“you wanna put our stuff on someone else’s machine??”) or certain user requirements (“but i need to have x available even if I’m not connected to the Internet!!”) ..which are both readily solved in the specifics of a cloud implementation… but perhaps more tellingly, these are not concerns that are necessarily solved by “traditional” (non-cloud) IT implementations… particularly, poorly designed IT implementations that are resource-challenged. No. The fear of “going to the Cloud” often boils down to an unwillingness to give up a (false) sense of control.
What is a Fear of Losing Control?
In his book, Human Universals, anthropologist Donald Brown seeks to reduce what he sees as the 20th century academic dogma of cultural relativism and provides an inventory of “human universals,” that is, traits that appear to be common to all neurotypical people, across all cultures, everywhere. Brown discusses things like aesthetics in art, binary cognitive distinctions, classification of the natural world, division of labor, property, rites of passage, fear of snakes but not of flowers, and so on. There is some fabulous stuff in this book… plenty of material for people like Steven Pinker to expand on, for many years to come. One distillation of Brown’s book was done by Marcus Buckingham in The One Thing You Need to Know, where Buckingham takes Donald Brown’s hundreds of human universals and reduces it a snackable, StrengthsFinder-esque Top 5 List. Here are his five pairings of universal fears and needs:
Fear of Death (self or family) … Need for Security
Fear of Outsiders … Need for Community
Fear of Future … Need for Clarity
Fear of Chaos … Need for Authority
Fear of Insignificance … Need for Respect
I like to use the above list when diagnosing and working with fearful individuals and groups. As a diagnostic model, it’s quite effective. Let’s see what happens when we apply it to our scenario of an IT professional who fears losing control: Sometimes when an IT professional resists giving up control over part of their infrastructure to a cloud-computing-based solution, it’s really about the fear of death (aka, resulting job losses) or the fear of the future (aka, resulting obsolete skills and/or need to learn new stuff). This can be tricky to navigate, as macroeconomic platitudes (“our workers will get up-skilled”) don’t satisfy microeconomic concerns (“i’m three years away from retirement”). Sometimes it’s a more general change-aversion, aka, the fear of chaos resulting from things being done differently… but those fears are usually quelled pretty easily by a little bit of self-guided research and education… cf. the 150 million web pages, referenced above. The fear of outsiders may also be a factor, particularly when IT managers have adopted a technological religion for (or holy war against) a particular IT solution type… or operating platform… or cult-like figure. As a boss and technological agnostic, I’ve played referee to more than my fair share of such holy crusades. Get over it folks… or, at least go find an actual (preferably mature, instrinsic) religion to get inspired by. Finally, giving up control may trigger a fear of insignificance for the IT professional. After all, the clunky old systems they manage — and the clunky old rules and regulations needed to administer those systems — serve as a badge of authority for them. However, not letting go will, over the long term, increase that insignificance… and decrease the respect they get.
It is precisely the act of giving up control — appropriately, skillfully — which separates the top-notch IT professionals from the also-rans. Giving up control is what allows an IT professional to raise their performance and become more valuable members of their teams. Giving up control is what frees up a smart person from just doing maintenance and repair, and allows them to think about their client’s personal/business goals and to make improvements to achieve those goals. ..and guess what? This principle is not just limited to IT professionals. The above to all kinds of managers… line managers, project managers, learning managers… leaders, teachers, parents….and anyone managing any kind of resource, especially, “human” resources.