Next generation IT

Stefan Cronholm is a professor of informatics. He emphasises that IT services are consuming more and more business resources. Frequently they represent the largest budget item, second only to personnel costs. Nevertheless, IT is still viewed through a prism of old-fashioned assumptions.

“Many people are still under the misconception that IT is a matter of computers, wires and high-speed connections – infrastructure in other words,” Professor Cronholm says. “But actually it is a network of products and services.”

For instance, a smartphone manufacture sells not only a product but the ability to communicate. Customers are not particularly interested in the product or infrastructure per se, but what they can do.

“It’s like riding in a lift,” Professor Cronholm says. “You could care less about the actual equipment, all you want to do is go quickly and safely from one level to the other.”

Thinking along those lines would bring a paradigm shift. IBM, Ericsson and other IT giants are increasingly acting as service providers. But the frameworks, values and symbols that shape how we look at IT have lagged behind. They are still caught up in the perspective of suppliers and products, often targeting big companies.

As part of the research project, entitled “Improved Process Efficiency and Quality in IT Service Management,” Professor Cronholm and his team are devising coordination and analysis methodologies for small and medium-sized IT suppliers, as well as their customers. The goal is to come up with IT services that are both better and more customised to the particular business. That way every company will not need to drown in large, inaccessible frameworks with thousands of pages of manuals – no doubt a good way to establish best practice but laden with a host of processes that may be unnecessary in the individual case.

“Best practice is expensive and often oriented towards a kind of perfection that may be overkill,” Professor Cronholm says. “Our focus is on ‘good enough,’ which offers faster and more realistic startup potential.”

Strategic research in data science
A number of projects are looking at how large quantities of data can be used:
- Long-term effects of drug consumption by using patient and pharmacy records
- More efficient drug discovery and development
- Fuel consumption by lorries
- The quest for the perfect golf swing
The setting consists of seven researchers under the direction of Professor Sándor Darányi.
Funders: Knowledge Foundation, Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research, EU

Not to mention being cheaper and more user-friendly. The idea may seem rather obvious, but it has been a blind spot in previous research. The team is a pioneer in the area of IT service management. Professor Cronholm himself has won a number of personal awards for useful and scientifically rigorous research.

But how do you know what is going to prove useful? Let’s see, how about asking the users? Twelve different businesses and municipalities are participating in the project – not only as spectators but as active members of the team. They articulate questions, and they help test and improve analytical tools and working methods. Bottom line is that they make sure that the findings will be put to use. Ordinarily innovations run into a speed bump at this stage: the results of research take time to generate and are far from an ideal fit with the real world because prospective users have been sitting on the sidelines.

For that very reason, Sweden has not created new products and improved services at the rate that might be expected in view of its world-leading per capita investment in research and development for so many years. Professor Cronholm is dead set on seeing to it that the situation changes. Involving users recalibrates research so that it will be applicable from the get-go.

Strategic research on IT service management
The research programme includes a number of projects, the largest one being “Improved process efficiency and quality in IT service management.”
The goal is to devise cheaper and better IT services. A total of 12 businesses and municipalities are participating in the effort: Bankgirocentralen BGC AB, City of Borås, Fritidsresor, Profecto Service Management AB, Pulsen AB, Sogeti Sverige AB, TeliaSonera AB, 3gamma Sverige AB, Varberg Municipality, Volvo Personvagnar AB and Volvohandelns Utvecklings AB.
Director of Research: Professor Stefan Cronholm
Funder: Knowledge Foundation

“And not only for the businesses and municipalities that participate, although they certainly have a head start,” Professor Cronholm says. “Our research is published in well renowned journals and is disseminated to the community at large.”

PhD student Hannes Göbel is a member of Dr Cronholm’s team. He is working on a model and tool for helping suppliers and customers learn from each other and develop better processes for IT services. At first glance, it is a form that captures what is and is not working in existing customer-supplier relationships. The form, which has been designed and modified along the way, is now available online. It zeroes in on seven processes that both the business and supplier regard as crucial. If both of them are already completely satisfied, only minor adjustments may be needed, but that is a rare occurrence.

“I have tested this tool more than 600 times and the pattern is unmistakable,” Mr Göbel says. “They think that they see eye to eye but it frequently turns out that they have radically different perceptions of the service in question.”

The customer is often the aggrieved party, but not always.  Sometimes the customer is in high heaven but the supplier has reason to grumble. That’s when things really get interesting.

“Perhaps the supplier has put together a package of services that the customer doesn’t think it needs,” Mr Göbel says. “Responsiveness has been wanting and the supplier has taken matters into its own hands.”

Mr Göbel and Professor Cronholm are defying the traditional view of market competition from a number of different angles. The common perception is that A purchases a service from B, and if B doesn’t deliver as promised, A votes with its feet and picks somebody else the next time around. Not that such behaviour is unheard of. But a growing phenomenon is for a business to rely on a number of different suppliers instead of putting all its eggs in one basket.

Every supplier and customer has its good and bad sides. A new supplier might resolve issues that have already been identified but create new ones in the process. Mr Göbel and Professor Cronholm suggest a more reasoned approach whereby the two sides get to know each other and forge a mutual bond. Something like a marriage – you work on improving the relationship instead of filing for divorce as soon as the sledding gets rough.

“It’s an awfully good analogy,” Mr Göbel says. “Everybody is aligned in the same direction – getting along better and making the whole arrangement work as intended.”

It’s almost as though he is providing couples therapy based on confidences that others do not have privy to.

“Most often I face a rather sensitive situation,” Mr Göbel says. “Both the customer and supplier acknowledge that they could do better. Part of my method is explaining that nobody needs to be on the defensive. The goal of a joint effort is to identify problems and solve them together. Openness and frankness are essential.”

He takes a bank and its IT supplier as a case in point. Given that online banking is becoming a core business activity, the supplier and management team must pool their resources in order to understand what makes the other one tick. The method helps them cultivate the trust and confidence in each other that is so badly needed.

Mr Göbel brings to his assignment long years of working as an IT consultant and mediating between customers and suppliers. It may be just another research project, but it is deadly serious for everyone involved. Businesses devote precious time and resources and expect a payoff at the end of the day. Mr Göbel occasionally steps outside his neutral box and suggests improvements – the essence of action and design research.

Linda Persson works as a consultant at 3Gamma, which develops and markets IT services, and participates in the research project. The company has offices in a number of Swedish cities and operates in quite a few other countries. She is stationed in Gothenburg but is originally from Borås, where she went to school to become a librarian. Ms Persson, the other businesses and the researchers get together for a day-long session once a quarter, not to mention regular phone and video conferences, to update each other on the project, as well as refine and modify the model.

“I always learn an incredible amount,” Ms Persson says. “Working with Hannes is stimulating, a chance to hone the tool and look at new versions that are ready for testing. People see things in so many different ways. Hearing what academia has to say is truly thought provoking, a world that we in the private sector rarely glimpse in our day-to-day activities.”

Professor Cronholm has always had a vision of building an international network of researchers in the field of IT services. And now his dream is finally coming true. A startup meeting was held in August with a number of Nordic universities, including the Norwegian School of Economics and Copenhagen Business School.

“Collaboration with international partners makes us stronger and ensures a platform for major research projects financed by the EU,” Professor Cronholm says.

Other teams at the University of Borås are conducting strategic research on data science, an interdisciplinary field heavily influenced by mathematics, statistics, visualisation and information technology. The ability to store enormous quantities of data and use them in brand new ways is revolutionising society from the ground up. The emergence of big data and machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, has opened the floodgates to unending progress. Just take one dizzying example. Within the ten years, everything we know about the universe might be available in digital format. A team at the University of California is hard at work on turning that fantasy into a reality. Sándor Darányi, a professor of library and information science, is anxious to talk about the topic.

He offers more practical illustrations of his point. Political analysts can already follow every little ripple in public opinion by gathering and parsing data about voters. President Obama used advanced data mining instruments during both of his election campaigns to stay one step ahead of the pack. The capacity for predictive analysis makes the discipline highly useful for both meteorology and the social sciences.

Professor Darányi’s argument is that the digital revolution has set in motion a dynamic process when it comes to both society as a whole and science in particular. Traditional disciplinary boundaries may fade and librarians have a key role to play in the process. Systemising, cataloguing and storing data are growing imperatives. And who is an expert in those areas?

“When you keep in mind that big data ultimately boil down to documentation and cataloguing, the information and library sciences provide fundamental skills,” Professor Darányi says.

He notes that the new challenges librarians face as a result may not have drawn much attention yet.

Ms Persson started off as a librarian and morphed into an IT consultant – might she be a role model for the future?

“Hard to say,” is her honest response. “When I was in school back in 2005, I had the unshakable conviction that IT would transform the status of librarians, but nobody else seemed to agree.”

A number of large companies are heavily involved in the big data research projects now under way at the university. The results of the Big Data Analytics by Online Ensemble Learning (BOEL) project will be applied to improving efficiency when it comes to drug discovery and development. Analysing large quantities of medical data will enable Astra Zeneca and other pharmaceutical companies identify the new molecules and compounds that have the most promising characteristics. The number of expensive development stages in the lab and in clinical studies will decrease accordingly.

The same algorithms have already been applied to optimisation of fuel consumption by Scania lories. Not to mention the perfect golf swing! Rikard König, a computer scientist, has devoted his time to the last two projects. He is figuring out how to teach computers to generate better computation models based on large quantities of data obtained from 30,000 different lories.

It comes as no surprise that this research is also a product of collaboration with the business community.

“This isn’t only an advantage, but a requirement,” Mr König says. “Scania has a number of highly proficient employees whose brains we can pick.”

His goal is to quantify the extent to which a particular way of driving affects fuel consumption Scania lories are unique in the sense that each one is customised and you’ll rarely find two that are exactly alike. They are everywhere to be seen and can handle all kinds of terrain: Alpine, jungle, snowy, desert.

“It’s hard to drawn the line between the impact of the particular load and the habits of the driver,” Mr König says.

Developing algorithms gives Scania the chance to monitor the approach that individual drivers take.

“Fuel consumption represents a major slice of a hauler’s budget, so this kind of information is enormously important,” Mr König says. “A driver who turns his vehicle into a gas guzzler may be coached on ways to improve.”

The Scania project is three years old and has one year left to go. The first algorithm has not been named yet but an article is slated for publication.

And what’s all this about the perfect golf swing? Mr König is hot on its trail.

“The phrase may be something of a misnomer because it’s a very individual matter,” he says. ”Nevertheless, machine learning can explain the variables that separate good golfers from bad. The available evidence points to successful golfers having a flatter swing.”

Text: Thomas Heldmark

Photos of researchers available at Exigus

Illustration on the way