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We have to rethink data

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In today’s era of global digitalization there are many examples that show that IT matters. Developments like cloud computing, the IoT and AI are proving that IT has again become a business driver, says WERNER VOGELS, CTO of Amazon.com.

How companies can use ideas from mass production to create business with data

Strategically, IT doesn’t matter. That was the provocative thesis of a much-talked-about article from 2003 in the Harvard Business Review by the US publicist Nicolas Carr. Back then, companies spent more than half of their entire investment for their IT, in a non-differentiating way. In a world in which tools are equally accessible for every company, they wouldn’t offer any competitive advantage – so went the argument. The author recommended steering investments toward strategically relevant resources instead. In the years that followed, many companies outsourced their IT activities because they no longer regarded them as being part of the core business.

A new age

Nearly 15 years later, the situation has changed. In today’s era of global digitalization there are many examples that show that IT does matter. Developments like cloud computing, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are proving that IT has (again) become a strategic business driver. This is transforming the way companies offer products and services to their customers today. Take the example of industrial manufacturing: in prototyping, drafts for technologically complex products are no longer physically produced; rather, their characteristics can be tested in a purely virtual fashion at every location across the globe by using simulations. The German startup SimScale makes use of this trend. The founders had noticed that in many companies, product designers worked in a very detached manner from the rest of production. The SimScale platform can be accessed through a normal web browser. In this way, designers are part of an ecosystem in which the functionalities of simulations, data and people come together, enabling them to develop better products faster.

Value-added services are also playing an increasingly important role for both companies and their customers. For example, Kärcher, the maker of cleaning technologies, manages its entire fleet through the cloud solution “Kärcher Fleet”. This transmits data from the company’s cleaning devices e.g. about the status of maintenance and loading, when the machines are used, and where the machines are located. The benefit for customers: Authorized users can view this data and therefore manage their inventories across different sites, making the maintenance processes much more efficient.

Kärcher benefits as well: By developing this service, the company gets exact insight into how the machines are actually used by its customers. By knowing this, Kärcher can generate new top-line revenue in the form of subscription models for its analysis portal.

More than mere support

These examples underline that the purpose of software today is not solely to support business processes, but that software solutions have broadly become an essential element in multiple business areas. This starts with integrated platforms that can manage all activities, from market research to production to logistics. Today, IT is the foundation of digital business models, and therefore has a value-added role in and of itself. That can be seen when sales people, for example, interact with their customers in online shops or via mobile apps. Marketers use big data and artificial intelligence to find out more about the future needs of their customers. Breuninger, a fashion department store chain steeped in tradition, has recognized this and relies on a self-developed e-commerce platform in the AWS Cloud. Breuninger uses modern templates for software development, such as Self-Contained Systems (SCS), so that it can increase the speed of software development with agile and autonomous teams and quickly test new features. Each team acts according to the principle: “You build it, you run it”. Hence, the teams are themselves responsible for the productive operation of the software. The advantage of this approach is that when designing new applications, there is already a focus on the operating aspects.

Value creation through data

In a digital economy, data are at the core of value creation, whereas physical assets are losing their significance in business models. Until 1992, the most highly valued companies in the S&P 500 Index were those that made or distributed things (for example the pharmaceutical industry, trade). Today, developers of technology (for example medical technology, software) and platform operators (social media enablers, credit card companies) are at the top. Also, trade with data contributes more to global growth than trade with goods. Therefore, IT has never been more important for strategy than it is now – not only for us, but for every company in the digital age. Anyone who wants to further develop his business digitally can’t do that today without at the same time thinking about which IT infrastructure, which software and which algorithms he needs in order to achieve his plans.

If data take center stage then companies must learn how to create added value out of it – namely by combining the data they own with external data sources and by using modern, automated analytics processes. This is done through software and IT services that are delivered through software APIs.

Companies that want to become successful and innovative digital players need to get better at building software solutions.We should ponder how we can organize the ‘production’ of data in such a way so that we ultimately come out with a competitive advantage. We need mechanisms that enable the mass production of data using software and hardware capabilities. These mechanisms need to be lean, seamless and effective. At the same time, we need to ensure that quality requirements can be met. Those are exactly the challenges that were solved for physical goods through the industrialization of manufacturing processes. A company that wants to industrialize ‘software production’ needs to find ideas on how to achieve the same kind of lean and qualitatively first-class mass production that has already occurred for industrial goods. And inevitably, the first place to look will be lean production approaches such as Kanban and Kaizen, or total quality management. In the 1980s, companies like Toyota revolutionized the production process by reengineering the entire organization and focusing the company on similar principles. Creating those conditions, both from an organizational and IT- standpoint, is one of the biggest challenges that companies face in the digital age.

Learn from lean

Can we transfer this success model to IT as well? The answer is yes. In the digital world, it is decisive to activate data-centric processes and continuously improve them. Thus, any obstacles that stand in the way of experimentation and the further development of new ideas should be removed as fast as possible. Every new IT project should be regarded as an idea that must go through a data factory – a fully equipped production site with common processes that can be easily maintained. The end-product is high-quality services or algorithms that support digital business models. Digital companies differentiate themselves through their ideas, data and customer relationships. Those that find a functioning digital business model the fastest will have a competitive edge. Above all, the barrier between software development and the operating business has to be overcome. The reason is that the success and speed and frequency of these experiments depend on the performance of IT development, and at the same time on the relevance of the solutions for business operations. Autoscout24 has gained an enormous amount of agility through its cloud solution. The company meanwhile has 15 autonomous interdisciplinary teams working constantly to test and explore new services. The main goal in all this is to have the possibility to quickly iterate experiments through the widest range of architectures, combine services with each other, and compare approaches.

In order to become as agile as Autoscout24, companies need a “machine” that produces ideas. Why not transfer the success formulas from industrial manufacturing and the principles of quality management to the creation of software?

German industrial companies in particular possess a manufacturing excellence that has been built up over many decades. Where applicable, they should do their best to transfer this knowledge to their IT, and in particular to their software development.

In many companies, internal IT knowhow has not developed fast enough in the last few years – quite contrary to the technological possibilities. Customers provide feedback online immediately after their purchase. Real-time analyses are possible through big data and software updates are generated daily through the cloud. Often, the IT organization and its associated processes couldn’t keep up. As a consequence, specialist departments with the structures of yesterday are supposed to fulfill customer requirements of tomorrow. Bringing innovative products and services quickly to market is not possible with long-term IT sourcing cycles. It’s no wonder that many of specialist departments try to circumvent their own IT department, for example by shifting activities to the cloud, which offers many powerful IT building blocks through easy-to-use APIs for which companies previously had to operate complicated software and infrastructure. Such a decentralized ‘shadow IT’ delivers no improvements. The end effect is that the complexity of the system increases, which is not efficient. This pattern should be broken. Development and Operations need to work hand in hand instead of working sequentially after each other, as in the old world. And ideally, this should be done in many projects running parallel. Under the heading of DevOps – the combination of “Development and Operations” – IT guru Gene Kim has described the core characteristics of this machinery.

Ensuring the flow

Kim argues that theorganization must be built around the customer benefit and that the flow of projects must be as smooth as possible. Hurdles that block the creation of client benefits should be identified and removed. At Amazon this starts by staffing projects with cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams as a rule. Furthermore, for the sake of agility the teams should not exceed a certain size. We have a rule that teams should be exactly the size that allows everyone to feel full after eating two (large!) pizzas. This approach reduces the number of necessary handovers, increases responsibility, and allows the team to provide customers with software faster.

Incorporating feedback

The earlier client feedback flows back into the “production process”, the better. In addition, companies must ensure that every piece of feedback is applied to future projects. To avoid getting lost in endless feedback loops, this should be organized in a lean way: Obtaining the feedback of internal and external stakeholders must by no means hamper the development process.

Learning to take risks

“Good intentions never work, you need good mechanisms to make anything happen,” says Jeff Bezos. For that, you need a corporate culture that teaches employees to experiment constantly and deliver. With every new experiment, one should risk yet another small step forward behind the previous step. At the same time, from every team we need data based on predefined KPIs about the impact of the experiments. And we need to establish mechanisms that take effect immediately if we go too far or if something goes wrong, for example if the solution never reached the customer.

Anyone who has tried this knows it’s not easy to start your own digital revolution in the company and keep the momentum going. P3 advises cellular operators and offers its customers access to data that provide information about the quality of cellular networks (for example signal strength, broken connection and the data throughput) – worldwide and independent of the network operator and cellular provider. This allows the customers to come up with measures in order to expand their networks or new offerings for a more efficient utilization of their capacity. By introducing DevOps tools, P3 can define an automated process that implements the required compute infrastructure in the AWS Cloud and deploys project-specific software packages with the push of a button. Moreover, the process definition can be revised by developers, the business or data scientists at any time, for example in order to develop new regions, add analytics software or implement new AWS services. Now P3 can focus fully on its core competence, namely developing its proprietary software. Data scientists can use their freed-up resources to analyze in real time data that are collected from around the world and put insights from the analysis at the disposal of their clients

The cloud offers IT limitless possibilities on the technical side, from which new opportunities have been born. But it’s becoming ever clearer what is required in order to make use of these opportunities. Technologies change faster than people. And individuals faster than entire organizations. Tackling these challenges is a strategic necessity. Changing the organization is the next bottleneck on the way to becoming a digital champion.

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Huawei Mate 20 Pro matches camera benchmark record

A benchmark by DxOMark sees the triple-cam handset tie with the P20 Pro for best smartphone camera on the market.

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The Huawei Mate 20 Pro has come out top in a camera benchmark test that assesses all aspects of smartphone camera performance.

DxOMark, which conducts rigorous hardware testing and is trusted as an industry standard for image quality measurements, has just released the results of its in-depth analysis of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro smartphone camera. 

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is the Chinese manufacturer’s latest top-end device. Building on the P20 Pro’s camera technology, the Mate 20 Pro comes with a Leica-branded triple-camera setup, but swaps its stable-mate’s monochrome camera for a super-wide-angle module, offering a 35mm-equivalent focal length range from 16 to 80mm—the widest of all current smartphone cameras.

The handset is in direct competition with the Apple iPhone XS Max, the Google Pixel 3 XL, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, among other. How does it fare?

“With a total photo score of 114, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro ties the record-setting score of its cousin, the P20 Pro,” says DxOMark. “The overall Photo score is calculated from sub-scores in tests that examine different aspects of its performance under different lighting conditions.”

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro achieves a photo score of 114 points. In stills mode, the Mate 20 Pro’s triple camera captures images with good target exposure and a wide dynamic range, recording both good highlight and shadow detail even in difficult high-contrast situations. Noise levels are well under control down to low light levels, and the camera’s white balance system and colour rendering settings produce a pleasant colour response in almost all circumstances.

At 97 points, the Mate 20 Pro is very close to the best for video as well, thanks to a fast and smooth autofocus system with good tracking performance, accurate white balance as well as pleasant colour rendering, and low levels of noise, especially in bright shooting conditions. Our testers also liked the exposure system’s ability to adapt quickly and smoothly to changes in illumination.

It was not all good news. DxOMark also had some criticism for the device.

Click here to read about the drawbacks of the Mate 20 Pro camera, and other positives.

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SA car wins
Dakar Rally

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The final stage of Dakar 2019 drew to a close at the bivouac in Pisco, Peru, and saw Toyota Gazoo Racing South Africa’s Nasser Al Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel bring home their South African-built Toyota Hilux for an historic victory. Not only was it a first win for Toyota, but it was also the first petrol-powered car to win the Dakar in the South-American era.

The Qatari driver ensured his French navigator, who turned 43 years old on Thursday, 17 January, received a great birthday present, when the pair arrived at the final time control of Dakar 2019 with teammates Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz in close formation. The two Toyota Hilux crews completed the entire stage together, as De Villiers / Von Zitzewitz waited nearly 55 minutes for the leaders to start the stage, in order to shadow them to the finish.

The emotions bubbled over for Team Principal Glyn Hall, who found himself without words as his two crews drove into the media area after the time control. “This victory was long overdue,” he finally managed, before being swamped in a sea of well-wishers.

The winning driver, however, was much more vocal: “We are so happy to win the Dakar – not only for ourselves, but also for Toyota and the entire Toyota Gazoo Racing SA team. Everyone has worked so hard for so long, and really deserve this. Thank you for letting us drive this car.”

Toyota Gazoo Racing SA led Dakar 2019 from the first to the last stage, with Al Attiyah/Baumel drawing first blood, before handing the mantle to De Villiers / Von Zitzewitz during stage 2. But then a disastrous Stage 3 saw the Qatari retake the lead – a lead he didn’t relinquish despite some of the toughest stages yet seen on any South-American Dakar.

“When we first heard that the rally was going to take place only in one country, we were skeptical,” said Hall after regaining composure. “But the organisers made sure that this year’s race will long be remembered as one of the toughest tests in the last decade.”

Al Attiyah / Baumel’s victory at Dakar 2019 means that Toyota Gazoo Racing has now won both of the world’s toughest automotive races – the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the DakarRally.

Click here to read Glyn Hall’s comment on winning the Dakar Rally, as well as the rankings.

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