Last week I attended the Government Leaders Forum organized by Microsoft in Brussels. Unsurprisingly, the event – although targeted to senior government executives and policy makers – mentioned the term “cloud” multiple times. While some of the angles were quite intriguing, e.g. a discussion about how to develop a single European market of cloud services, I could not help notice that cloud is still interpreted by different people in very different ways. One of the panelists made a great observation by saying that cloud is certainly helpful, if he just knew what it is exactly.
I am positive that over time government and industry will achieve a common understanding in most jurisdictions. As Microsoft has just published a paper about The Economics of the Cloud for the EU Public Sector (see previous post) and user organizations agree that cloud can be an interesting delivery model, it seems to me that the discussion is missing an important aspect.
In his keynote at the event, Steve Ballmer said that cloud has moved from the consumer to the enterprise space, which I think most can agree with. But my observation is that there is something else that is moving from the consumer to the enterprise world, and it is the social toolkit that employees will carry with them. This includes technology, consumer technology of course, but more importantly their connections, their external information sources, their networks that comprise colleagues, personal friends, external acquaintances, that they want to access to and network the way they see fit.
The irony is that while so much time is spent in discussing about the characteristics, benefits and challenges of the cloud, as an enterprise choice, employees silently build their own toolkits. Similarly, citizens who are supposed to benefit from the cost savings hopefully accrued by deploying corporate applications into the cloud, are already using public cloud solutions to gather and social information that is relevant to the way they access, complement or replace government services.
This is rarely factored in when looking at the future of government IT. Vendors like Microsoft or IBM focus on how to deliver pretty much the same things (plus additional capabilities in terms of scalability and elasticity) to their clients in different, more cost-effective ways. But while they do so, government agencies may be changing from the outside in, reinventing processes and engaging employees and citizens in new ways.
One great observation that was raised during one of the sessions was that e-government has achieved little more than automating or, at most, optimizing existing bureaucratic processes. Only very rarely have government organizations and vendors taken an opportunity to deeply change a service, even less challenge its need (eg by proposing a technology-intensive alternative). But now technology is the hands of people, the so-called crowd, which comprises many stakeholders, inside and outside government. They can be agents of change, they can reach out to other people, to unprecedented amounts of information, and re-invent the way they do their job.
The future is a shift from cloud to crowd. Cloud is just technology and delivery model, crowd is knowledge and choice.
Crowdsourcing will no longer be the rather messy, politically correct but barely relevant process that we see today and which is celebrated in books that are already dusting on the shelves.
It will be part of every employee’s toolkit, as well as a new way for citizens to both interact with government, trigger change and participate in how that change is implemented.