ICAEW Cloud conference - missed opportunity?

I was unable to make it to Moorgate on Friday for the IT Faculty's Cloud computing conference, but a great many members of this discussion group were there. To help the wider community absorb the themes raised, would those of you who attended be able to add your thoughts here?

Richard Messik got the ball rolling in his Internet Accountant blog, but was disappointed with the overall content.

But he did comment: "The one bright spot was the break out session I attended which consisted  of an excellent presentation by Matt Holmes of Liquid Accounts who gave a first class presentation on the Cloud and the relevant issues which was followed by a panel session of 4 practicing accountants who gave short presentations on why they had moved tto the cloud and their experiences in so doing. This is what the conference should have been built around."

How does this gel with your experience of the event?

Comments
garyturner's picture

Group-think

garyturner | | Permalink

I attended the event (disclosure - I sit on the IT Faculty's Technical Committee whose baby this was, but I do not speak on their or the event's behalf).

A year or eighteen months ago, the prospect of the ICAEW hosting a Cloud Computing event of any kind would have been remote and therefore in that context I think it should be applauded (even by early adopters who have been on this bandwagon for years) for picking up this nascent and controversial emerging aspect of professional life and giving it a right good shake. For a first go it passed off well and will have obtained some good critical feedback about where to take the next one in terms of content. 

An opportunity missed? I think that's a little binary and more a measure of the gulf between Richard's passion for the subject and the collective stage at which the profession is at, albeit moving in his direction.

However, upon reflection as both a delegate and a cloud vendor, one aspect in which I do think the event struggled is a common problem with most events of this kind, and that is the blanket ban on sales pitches and, by associated guilt, software demonstrations.

I can only imagine that at some past mythological event, a evil vendor presentation took such an unsightly form of unwelcome, silicon snake oil bonanza and overt selling and was so unspeakably bad that it screwed the pooch for every event thereafter.

The resulting default group-think that remains universally among event organisers is that sales pitch laden presentations and flashy demos are completely taboo and verboten.

Thus an unfortunate victim of this censorship is the sometimes truth that technology can be truly revolutionary and transformative, only you'll never discover that through the medium of an affected professorial delivery style and a faux-academic presentation deck.

Take a bunch of passionate technologists who spend 10 hours a day doing what they do best; evangelizing about their products and then ask them to pretend to be all sober and literal for 20 minutes through the medium of 14 point font and some bad clip art.

No prizes for guessing what results. 

It's also remarkably patronising to an audience to assume that they don't know when they're being pitched and when they're not.

A good, short and insightful software demonstration is unbeatable for conveying the real value of a solution, no doubt about it.

I'd recommend that all event organisers get some perspective about this silly demo ban thing - and at the least stitch in a handful of 5 minute demo slots during each event. Clearly signposted to the audience, clearly constrained in time and let the vendors do what they do best.

Had that happened on Friday, I suspect that many more people would have gone away with not only the grit about online accounting, but also a few more enlightening epiphanies about the state of the art as it is today.

With hindsight, I'm sure it would have radically changed the complexion of the event.

Gary Turner,
UK Managing Director, Xero.
 

Adrian Pearson's picture

+1 for demos

Adrian Pearson | | Permalink

I did not attend because I fall into the category of those who prefer hands-on practical information as opposed to technical, academic and sanitised bullet point presentations.  So, I agree with Gary's views.

It's much easier for most people to "get" a new concept when they can see it being demonstrated in front of them. And, as Richard Messik said in the blog post referred to by John above, most users just need to know what new technology does - not necessarily how it does it.

A mixture of demos/polite pitches in amongst the "serious" stuff would enhance a future conference in my opinion.

daveforbes's picture

All demonstrations are perceived to be sales pitches.

daveforbes | | Permalink

Clearly the answer would have been to get Duane to demonstrate the benefits of cloud using Xero and Gary do the same using KashFlow.

David Forbes

dahowlett's picture

Gaming

dahowlett | | Permalink

 @gary - I've commented separately on Richard's post but to repeat and for @adrian as well: yes, demos are a decent thing when done right but too often I see them gamed. I've seen that in SaaS shoot outs so let's not kid ourselves here.

As for a missed opportunity - well - vendors don't always get things their own way and neither should they. I understand the general feedback was pretty favourable though I've not seen any analysis.

And let's not forget the agenda has been out there in the public domain for months. If there was any major problem with it then how did ICAEW get 100+ people to tip up? And as an aside, unlike Larry Ellison's (CEO ORacle) closing keynote, attendees remained to the end. At Larry's gig, by the time he'd finished boring everyone about the Exalogic machine, even the sound engineers had disappeared.

If there was a missed opportunity then it comes form the vendors inability to explain the differentiated value proposition they offer. You all know this is one of my favourite topics so don't shoot the organizers, look to your own efforts. 

garyturner's picture

You must have missed..

garyturner | | Permalink

@Dennis

You must have missed when I said above "should be applauded", " For a first go it passed off well..", "An opportunity missed? I think that's a little binary...".

My point about demos pertains to _all_ events like this, not specifically the ICAEW event.

The fact that Friday followed this predictable course is a chronic symptom of a long standing issue event organisers have with people pitching, even more acutely when delegates pay for the privilege of attending.

All I'm saying is get some perspective. I think it's a myth and worth dismantling to prove that, or otherwise.

Or maybe I'm being too idealistic.

It's not for nothing that Xero chose not to participate as sponsor on Friday. Having sponsored a number of initiatives with other bodies I wholeheartedly support the purpose of endeavours like this, but as sponsors who get effectively gagged (maybe too strong, let's say creatively curtailed) there are more commercially fruitful ways of expending one's limited marketing budget where you own the agenda, decide what gets said and stand or fall on your own merits or otherwise.

Happy to live and let live.

mkcdavies's picture

The ICAEW needs to think more clearly about how it manages vendo

mkcdavies | | Permalink

I agree with Gary that it was good to see the Institute putting this event on, but I strongly agree with Richard - the Institute missed an opportunity to give members real insights into the opportunities of cloud computing.  Instead, we heard generic presentations that raked over the same old coals.  I've no doubt that the presenters were experts in their fields, but they made almost no connection between what they were saying and the role of an accountant.  The short break-out sessions were more successful in this respect, but the main agenda failed badly.  There should have been a much greater emphasis on examples of cloud computing that have been successfully deployed by accountants. 

Accrding to John Oates (who chaired the conference), the Institute was highly delighted to have so many sponsors for the event.  No surprise given that there are many vendors chasing a limited number of opportunities to connect with accountants.  Having a good number of sponsors may help bring funding into the Institute, but I suspect that too much focus went towards meeting the commercial business case for running the event and too little on ensuring that the event content would help members understand what cloud computing can do for them.

For instance, the conference started with a presentation from Microsoft that sought to define the term "Cloud Computing".  A long presentation with some crazy slides.  Couldn't this have been summed up in one sentence?...  It's just a name (like "The Internet") for receiving and consuming IT services from remote locations via the worldwide web.

Then we heard about so-called legal issues.  What this actually amounted to was a list of areas that should be included in a risk analysis when outsourcing an IT function.  These "risks" have already been addressed by establshed vendors of cloud computing solutions long ago (otherwise, they wouldn't have built such large customer bases).

All these presentations did was raise issues of terminology definition and risk analysis, they did nothing to show how cloud computing is actually being used in practice.  If anyone is pleased with the event, maybe it's the Luddites who like to argue that cloud computing is an ill-defined and immature technology full of pitfalls and best steered clear of.

Whereas folk who have businesses that benefit from cloud computing every day are left fuming about the missed opportunity.

dahowlett's picture

I didn't miss it but...

dahowlett | | Permalink

 @gary - yes I saw what you said. You raise several fundamental points:

1. vendors want bang for buck - i.e. sales leads. Nothing wrong with that.

2. vendors want to pitch. OK - but as I have said,when it's done right then I don't have an issue but it is naive in the extreme to believe that all players play well at this game. They don't and any organization that puts on this type of show needs to be really clear about what it's getting into.

I don't think you're being naive at all but I am wary of demos for all the reasons we both know about.

dahowlett's picture

Did you miss?

dahowlett | | Permalink

 @mark - I think you caught my presso where I talked a LOT about benefits for accountants but equally talked about fake clouds and issues that some vendors have had? Is there something wrong in applying that balance? The presso is here.

It's a pity I ran out of time as there is an embedded video that talks to benefit across multiple dimensions. FYI - it's been viewed 379 times as of today. Someone somewhere must be interested...

One of the vendor sponsors

bryanrichter | | Permalink

As one of the vendor sponsors of the event, I actually thought the ICAEW got it about right. The purpose of the event as I understood it was to educate the members. Anything objective and independent that gives the accountancy community confidence in the subject and gets them to investigate in more detail is good as far as I am concerned.

My one concern would be that some of the content strayed into areas more relevant to large enterprises who are establishing straegies for the adoption of Cloud computing. I suspect this would not have been so relevant to many of the accountants who would have been representing smaller practices and who have largely SME clients. But ICAEW will have known the profile of the attendees and will no doubt have taken this into account.

Unfortunately, the software industry has created a bad reputation for itself by overhyping and overselling their latest shiny toys and that doesn't mix well with a community known for conservatism and fear of change. ICAEW can perform an important role in bridging that confidence gap.

I actually think it's a bit of a shame that the attendees had barely left the auditorium before there is already talk of a missed opportunity. The event was held by the technology faculty for their members. Surely the success of the event should be determined by the 100+ members who attended, and as Dennis points out, actually stayed the course. 

richardanning's picture

Feedback from the attendees

richardanning | | Permalink

In answer to John’s original question, ‘How does this gel with your experience of the event?’, you may be interested to know that, based on feedback forms submitted, delgates rated the event 83% overall. @mark, careful what you say about luddites, these are your future customers.

Feedback on the plenary sessions was very positive (3 out of 4 presented by non-sponsors), with particularly high feedback for the legal session (82%) and the first session defining the cloud (79%). Similarly, feedback for the panel sessions (the majority of which were not sponsored) was excellent. (The agenda for the event was confirmed by our Technical Committee well before we went anywhere near potential sponsors.)

I think vendors need to realise that accountants are risk averse – it’s in their DNA. Accountants have a perceived issue with security, availability and loss of control; these perceptions need addressing, however perverse they may seem. Hence the (well-received) sessions on legal issues and risk and return.

Our final interactive question asked ‘Do you think the finance department has been one of the laggards of cloud computing adoption?’ 48% of attendees admitted this is the case (and 21% had no view). 

I hope this gives you a better view of how the event was perceived by attendees.

challisc's picture

Laggards

challisc | | Permalink

Interesting that delegates on Friday acknowledged that "the finance department has been one of the laggards of cloud computing adoption". Conversely apps such as CRM (customer relationship management) have blossomed. In the case of CRM, a centralised system that the salesforce can update from virtually anywhere on the move is clearly attractive. Add that cloud CRM systems are typically more secure and recoverable than whatever systems people had been using, the switch to SaaS becomes compelling for that app.

These factors are typically not as strong for accounting, either in industry or practice. This is because the existing systems are typically more robust. Nonetheless areas such as better recoverability, and a system shared between practitioner and client, makes SaaS attractive. But there are also very real concerns. As the industry body Intellect say in their recent whitepaper "While the SaaS model offers significant advantages over on-premise, it does carry potential risks that must also be considered"

Having experienced the pain of some of these first hand, caution is certainly warranted. The better SaaS providers are fine. It's the rest that are of concern. One FD needed encouragement from me recently to take a look at SaaS solutions when he wouldn't otherwise have done so. Should he be criticised? He has a thousand and one other things to think about, and caution is both sensible and professional.

The IT Faculty's approach of balance betwen pros and cons therefore seems entirely appropriate.

 

 

mkcdavies's picture

@Dennis, @Richard

mkcdavies | | Permalink

Dennis - yes, I was present during your presentation and I agree that it was one (actually, the only one) of the plenary presentations that directly linked the conference topic directly to accountants' needs.

Richard - useful feedback from the results of the event questionnaire, thanks.  Of course accountants tend to be conservative, not just in relation to the adoption of new technology.  The reason for that is obvious and, I hope, respected by all software vendors.  When I used the term "Luddite" it was not done in a disrespectful way, but in case there is a danger of it being perceived so, let me be clear:  Calling someone a luddite is just shorthand to describe the attutude or feeling of opposition that some people have towards innovation.  Dictionary.com defines a luddite as "any opponent of industrial change or innovation".  It does not imply that their views are wrong!

This conference was a step in the right direction, what next?  The Institute has the power to make vendors and consultants provide better information that will help members assess whether cloud computing is useful to them.  I'm sure that accountants would welcome any initiative that enables them to make an earlier decision about something that has the potetial to deliver value to their practice or employer.

John Stokdyk's picture

Thanks everyone!

John Stokdyk | | Permalink

You've provided a brilliant collective critique of the IT Faculty event - more than I ever bargained for. I think the IT Faculty is to be applauded for bringing together the interested members and speakers, and while Richard may have felt "here we go again", the feedback suggests that accountants will want to worry about the risk factors too.

My attitude (based on member feedback) is that finance departments and their advisers are moving towards the Cloud, but they do need to see real benefits for the potential disruption to their current work and technology habits.

For wider consumption, I've asked Julian Shaw to collect together some material and observations drawn from the event itself that we'll publish in IT Zone later in the week.

dahowlett's picture

Pinch the presso and videos

dahowlett | | Permalink

 @john - you can take any of my presentation/videos and publish them - they're all under creative commons. The videos definitely provide a flavour of end user interests and concerns but speak loudly to benefit.

Add comment
Log in or register to post comments