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It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place

09 February 2012 | Alan Merrihew, Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy, Worldwide Public Sector

One question I often get asked by government leaders that I meet with is "Why should we move to cloud computing?" The interesting thing is that I usually am only asked this question by government leaders from developed nations. In my opinion, these leaders tend to see the cloud or a new technology paradigm as something they have to thwart and/or manage versus looking at it as an opportunity to think about government computing in a completely new way.

This reminds me of a recent meeting with a group of government leaders from a European country, where I was asked to talk with them about cloud computing. They started the meeting by telling me that their country would not be moving ANYTHING to the cloud. I asked them to explain their reason for such a statement. They told me that they could already do everything they needed to do without a cloud, and that they would rather manage IT resources themselves.

I couldn’t help but feel this response was lacking vision. My next thought was that perhaps someone’s retirement was in the not-too-distant future, making the status quo a comfortable choice to cling to. I think that what these leaders - as well as those from many other developed nations - do not realize, is that this is a situation where the "Red Queen Effect" applies.

The Red Queen Effect is a term that is taken from Lewis Carroll's book "Through the Looking-Glass," in which the Red Queen character says, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." Deciding to continue run all of your own IT systems, when advances like cloud computing make IT resources available as a utility, will leave you in the throes of the Red Queen Effect. You will most likely be spending much of your valuable time trying to keep your IT systems running and have little time left for more important government initiatives that could move your government forward. When looking at an evolutionary system like the world order of countries, countries must continue to adapt and be willing to embrace new ways of doing things to maintain their relative competitiveness.

The position of a developed nation in the world is not unlike an incumbent vendor in a marketplace. An incumbent vendor may often enjoy the advantage of being on top and may not have experienced serious competition for years. They can become large, complacent, bureaucratic, and unaware of the market changes happening beneath them. I contrast that with developing nations, which clearly have ambitions to move up in the world order much like a business start-up. When talking with them about the cloud, they express excitement, curiosity, and pepper me with questions asking "What if…" and "What would we have to change to accomplish that?" They exude a "can do" attitude and a positivity that is inspiring. They appear undaunted by the challenges they face and are clearly excited by the opportunity for change, anticipating the great adventure that lies ahead. 

The World Economic Forum, in a paper titled "Exploring the Future of Cloud Computing: Riding the Next Wave of Technology-Driven Transformation," identifies many potential benefits of cloud computing. In particular, the paper identifies the "leapfrogging" opportunities offered by cloud computing. What they mean by this is that cloud computing has the potential to dramatically level the playing field for developing nations by allowing them to skip over several generations of information and communication technology (ICT) investments and begin adopting modern ICT solutions that have historically been exclusive to the world’s leading nations. In other words, cloud computing gives everyone access to the same computing resources, thus allowing the previous "have nots" to leap forward.

The possibilities for how a country can take advantage of this new paradigm in computing is really only limited by the ambition, imagination, and vision of those in leadership positions. I think it is incumbent upon those leaders to embrace this new model and ask how they can apply cloud computing and other technologies to move their country forward so they can continue to ascend in the world order of countries or, at the very least, not fall prey to the Red Queen Effect.

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Have a question for the author? Please e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.

Alan Merrihew
Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy, Worldwide Public Sector

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About the Author

Alan Merrihew | Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy, Worldwide Public Sector

As chief technology strategist for the government team, Alan regularly engages with senior government officials and policy makers worldwide to help them leverage technology to help make government more efficient and effective.