The CIO as a Business Service Conductor


Conducting an orchestra is easy; delivering a new CRM service is hard!

A long time ago, someone asked me on Twitter what is the difference between automation and orchestration. It really got me thinking, and eventually I think I answered by using an actual musical orchestra as a metaphor.

In this metaphor, having an autonomous musician play the entire violin part of a symphony is somewhat akin to typical automation – lots of activity and complex interactions all handled without external intervention, but all within a reasonably tight sphere of influence, in large part unconnected with the rest of the orchestra.

In this case, as long as all your automation is well synchronized, then the symphony sounds at least listenable. However, whenever anything goes awry – a string breaks, a bow is dropped – then all of a sudden that instrument is out of time, and the symphony turns into cacophony.

Then there is orchestration, where the complex parts for all the individual instruments are all played individually, but they are further connected to a whole orchestra of other instruments to create a more complete experience. Orchestration can handle greater volume and scale, it is more informed about the musical piece as a whole, rather than just each individual part.

In this case, when something goes wrong, a well-conducted orchestra understands what it means to the larger composition, and can perhaps make adjustments in real time to smooth out any issues (get the other strings to play more forte to compensate for the missing violin, for example).

Yes, it is far from a perfect metaphor, but it still works for me, more or less.

Reading a recent article by Mark Chillingworth (@mchillingworth) in CIO magazine UK, titled Private cloud computing is just a component CIOs say, got me thinking about this metaphor some more. I found the following comment particularly interesting:

A CIO used the example of a customer following an ecommerce transaction with a retailer. The customer will, during the process, actually move across different applications, secure hosted transaction services, logistics, catalogue sites and search engines. The user is rarely aware or cares that they are shifting from application to application, hosted or non-hosted; the experience always feels the same.

This CIO believes that the principals of private cloud computing will be integrated into complex business processes in much the same way to increase organisational efficiency, reduce the number of applications organisations support and improve user experience.

He described the CIO’s role in this new model as that of orchestration of services.

This is a fascinating analogy, and one well worth considering. In most places there is way too much focus from the IT department and its leaders on the technologies, and not nearly enough on the outcomes. From this customer perspective, they really do not care where or how the service they need is delivered; they only care that they get want they want.

In the symphonic metaphor, the customer is the audience, listening to the symphony, occasionally aware but not overly concerned about what player is playing what line, but mainly concerned with hearing the whole composition. Of course, if any one member of the orchestra has problems – a broken bow, a detuned string – then the customer becomes acutely aware – and dissatisfied.

The article also put forward the following comment, which keeps aligning to my theme:

More than one attendee saw the CIO … reflect the same business model as an HR department. Just as HR no longer carries out the provision of staff, but does provide the governance, CIOs will follow the same course, allowing self-provision of technology, but ensuring corporate governance.

I think this is a superb analogy, and have used it myself before. I especially like that it allows me to torture my automation/orchestration-symphony metaphor just a little more 🙂 . Because in my metaphor, this demonstrates the role of the CIO as a conductor.

Consider the role of the conductor. Conductors do not ever actually pick up an instrument. They do not write the music, or build the instruments, or play the instruments. They are given new compositions from time to time – some known, some unknown – which they must review and interpret, to figure out how to bring them to life. For any given performance, some of the orchestra may be permanent members, some may be casual, and the conductor must arrange temporary players to sit in, get them to play seamlessly with the rest of the orchestra. In some cases they need to work with special guest performers to bring something extra special to the audience.

When it comes time to play the symphony, the conductor brings it all together, gets the individual performers to play at the right time, with the right tempo and intensity, adjusting to the piece and to the players to present to the audience a single, seamless, and comprehensive piece of music – despite the incredible complexity that underlies the performance. In the end, the audience recognizes the importance of the players, but focuses on the expertise of the conductor to bring them together, and most importantly on how pleasing (or otherwise) the whole performance sounded to their ears.

And so it is with the modern CIO. In this case the instruments and players are the individual IT components and service owners (whether on-staff or externally sourced, delivered on-premise or off-premise); the symphony is the complete end-to-end business service; the audience is the end user of the business service (an internal end-user, or an external customer).

the CIO is the conductor, with a deep understanding of the composition, bringing together all the stakeholders to deliver a seamless service performance

Here the CIO is the conductor, with a deep understanding of the composition, bringing together all the stakeholders, skills, and capabilities, while detecting and compensating for any real-time problems, in order to deliver a seamless service performance, regardless of the complexity of requirement or the underlying components. In the end, the users an customers realize there are many components that make up a service, but they don’t really care – they judge the outcome based on the service they receive, and will focus their praise and complaints on the CIO as the conductor.We have toyed with the metaphor of the CIO as a factory manager in the time of the industrial revolution, casting the CIO as a new-styled  ‘supply chain manager’. In this metaphor, the factory (i.e. the IT department) is changing from an artisanal model where everything is produced in-house, to a supply-chain model where some capabilities are produced in-house, some are sourced externally, and the CIO’s job is to bring them all together on the production line.

The problem I always have with this ‘CIO as Supply Chain Manager’ metaphor is the industrial nature to it. It implies a certain strict and simple assembly process, executed with a predictably mechanized approach. I think this belies the nature of a modern IT department, where delivering a complex business service is often more an art than a science. Rather than simply setting a service in motion and watching the factory produce, a modern CIO must constantly adjust to the ‘feel’ of business and market requirements, constantly managing many moving  and changing elements to bring together a service in real time.

I think this is a much better way to describe the constant real-time orchestration that the CIO has to accomplish, and much more appropriate to the modern innovative CIO, who is as far removed from the role of factory manager as a modern 8-way quad-core server is removed from a Whitney cotton gin.

What do you think? Does this metaphor ‘play’ for you? Is it ‘music to your ears’? 😉

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