Real-World Service Management

Ivor Macfarlane: Recollections and Take-aways from Pulse 2012

Pulse is about much more than just the session talks

Service Management in Action

Recently I went to North America to attend Pulse 2012, and I’ve collected my thoughts on the event here. This, however, shouldn’t be read as an official IBM Pulse report because:

I really enjoyed my trip. And it’s interesting—to me anyway—to consider all the different reasons I enjoyed it; all the ways in which such a trip is relevant and useful to attendees.

First, let’s take a quick look at the core of Pulse itself. It used to be that you might simply judge a conference by the quality of the presentations, and perhaps the contacts you made there. But nowadays most of the sessions are on video. Some of them are streamed in real time; many more can be downloaded online for months afterward. So a conference like Pulse has to offer a lot more than that—and Pulse did.

(Of course the talks did involve fascinating material, and as I have already mentioned, you can watch the general sessions online now, which has certain benefits. For instance, you can fast-forward through the bits that are no longer applicable or useful, like references to evening social events that have long since taken place).

My Best-in-Show Award goes to the Watson discussion

My favorite of the talks, and for me the highlight of the show, was Manoj Saxena’s discussion of Watson.

If you haven’t heard of Watson yet, it’s IBM’s technology that tries, often successfully, to answer complex questions posed to it in natural language.

Apparently it does this by running many different algorithms simultaneously, and then weighing all the results those algorithms generate against each other, to zero in on the best or most likely answer to your question. But the real point for us non-technical souls is that it listens and answers, like a person would but more accurately. Watson recently became fairly well known (even to the general public) by defeating two champions from the game show Jeopardy—a very public showcase of its strengths and weaknesses.

One thing that made Manoj’s talk so appealing to me was the way it confirmed the power and value of research-driven development. This is something I’ve appreciated for many years.

My first-ever published article (in my primary school newsletter in 1961) was about Yuri Gagarin’s recent space flight, and I recall then how people said it was pointless and would not generate applicable technologies (they were quite wrong). I also recall going to university to study physics; I was young, idealistic, and certain that pure research was the real lifeblood of human progress. And now, many years later, I continue to believe something pretty close to that. Human beings, after all, are clever creatures, and once we make new discoveries we quite often find a way to leverage those discoveries to improve our lives. Of course we are also well known for turning them into weapons, but let’s stay in brighter climes.

Now, I have heard Watson described as pointless research and also as unsubstantial marketing intent—aimed at impressing TV viewers rather than addressing real business requirements. Yet Manoj’s talk made it clear that Watson’s innovative capabilities really do relate to real-world needs. If you think about what Watson can do—dredge through a massive range of sources, weigh possible answers, and then decide which answer is best—that maps clearly onto many everyday situations.

For instance, IBM is already applying Watson to helping doctors make medical diagnoses. In that context, the huge data pool is the input of symptoms and medical history, referenced through medical, personal, family, and cultural knowledge. And the possible answers that need weighing and prioritization, to arrive at the best answer, would be the final diagnosis. You can see right away what an excellent fit Watson is for that kind of situation.

That doesn’t mean you should seek out doctors who have won on game shows. It does mean you should be reassured in the future if your doctors say IBM technology helped them diagnose your problems. You’ll know that diagnosis wasn’t created by the technology per se, but the technology did help to support or confirm it—so it’s almost as if you’re getting a very well-informed second opinion for free.

Learning in the Expo is faster, easier, and more eclectic than learning almost anywhere else

Another aspect of the Pulse experience I should mention—and one you really can’t get a good sense of online—is what it’s actually like inside the expo hall.

This works something like a good supermarket—you might come in looking for new information on one or two specific things but find very quickly that you’re interested in other things too, and can learn about them in whatever depth or detail you need.

It isn’t necessarily that you will buy lots of stuff you don't need (it isn’t exactly like me in the supermarket) but you are likely to come out aware of possibilities that might influence business strategies down the road. Because whatever the theorists might tell you, successful shopping for IT solutions depends on knowing what is available as much as it relies on knowing what you need.

So, for instance, if you go to the Pulse expo and hear about the latest in security and storage, you can then return to the job that much better informed, and ultimately your (or your customers’) data will be that much better protected.

And that kind of learning isn’t constrained by on-the-job pressures and distractions—making it faster, easier, and definitely worth the investment of attending Pulse.

The service management simulator game brought together teams from all over the world for a genuinely fun learning experience

Another highlight for me: two service management (cloud readiness) simulation games on the Saturday and Sunday before Pulse.

If you haven’t heard of these workshops, the idea is to put players in small teams. The players are all assigned “jobs” that represent different roles in a logistics organization. So you have executives, line of business staff, IT service desk staff, IT domain staff, all of whom have to collaborate as well as possible to get things done. Their progress is measured with real-world metrics like business revenues.

Then you simulate the real-world service management challenges an organization like that might face—really hammering the players in ways they didn’t expect, and also underscoring the practical importance of best practices frameworks like ITIL. It turns out that quite often, the most efficient and business-effective way to solve the game challenges amounts to implementing one or more ITIL processes. (And, as an ITIL expert, I usually manage to resist the urge to say “I told you so.”)

These games also make yet another case for the importance of a real-world event like Pulse instead of just watching sessions online from your desk or home. The simulator workshops rely totally on real people actually being together and talking to each other—and both games were, besides that, great fun and very business-relevant. While our virtual versions do have real value, in my opinion, they cannot quite compare in terms of either genuine fun, self-learning, or business-relevance.

The participants came from all over the world, too. This clearly illustrates how such a high-profile conference can get a message out very quickly. If I had wanted to talk to that range of nationalities directly, I’d have to be a super-elite platinum-plus frequent flyer. And that process of flying around from country to country for months would be dramatically less efficient and cost-effective than everyone simply getting together face to face at Pulse at the same time for four days.

Some of the game participants, in fact, came from countries where IBM does no direct business at all right now; you can imagine just how valuable that kind of interaction could turn out to be for everyone concerned. They got to learn everything IBM has to offer (which is quite a lot) and IBM got to interact with potential future clients—a classic win/win scenario.

Social interaction in person trumps social interaction online

Finally, one of the best things for me personally about Pulse was just getting to catch up with colleagues and meet others for the first time. On Saturday evening I was with my favorite IBM business Partners (no names needed; they know who they are!).

And it was especially good for me, on the Monday evening of Pulse, to attend the UK and Ireland Reception at the Hard Rock Café. Not only did I see many old friends, I made some great new contacts. And OK, though all of them live and work within a few hundred miles of me, it was still great to be able to see them all at the same time, in the same place, which normally doesn’t happen—plus be able to discuss all the things we’d collectively seen and heard about at Pulse. There’s nothing like getting someone else’s take on something really innovative and different, like Watson.

This social angle, in fact, is always a big part of my enthusiasm for being at Pulse year after year—there are always more new interesting people to meet, interact with, and learn from. I’m hoping to get the chance to indulge in more such pleasures at Pulse Comes To You through the rest of 2012. You should too!

About Ivor

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After 23 years working for the UK government, moving from forestry to IT Service Management via prisons, stores and training, Ivor now works for IBM’s Tivoli organization helping customers understand and improve their Service Management. Ivor was an ITIL author (versions 1, 2 and 3), part of the panel that wrote BS15000 (fast-tracked to ISO/IEC 20000), an ITIL trainer and examiner since 1991 and active in itSMF since 1995, having spoken for them in 34 countries.

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