Friday, May 23, 2008

Roman Holiday!

I have just returned from a weekend in Rome, where I took in some of the sights. Apart from stepping inside every church I came across, I took a bus trip up into the hills to the town of Tivoli. It’s about 20 miles north-east of Rome and has enough elevation so that you can see Rome’s skyline even through the murkiness of a late afternoon.

The picture I have included here is of me alongside the fountains of Villa d’Este, a 16th century site well worth visiting. It wasn’t so much the residence that was the main attraction – although the story of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este is pretty interesting – but the gardens he created draping the cliffs behind the villa. With waterfalls, pools, hundreds of fountains, and even an entirely water-powered “Fountain of the Organ” playing tunes and producing trumpet blasts, it is the impact of this incredibly imaginative garden that is the main attraction!

The Cardinal was very ambitious and viewed himself as a potential future Pope, so the creation of this spectacle was to be a tangible projection of his influence and importance. The river Aniene wasn’t quite close enough to power all of the many garden water features so he simply demolished the town and re-routed the river, via a complex system of underground aqueducts and cisterns, and had it flow to his new villa.

Given that the Renaissance was well under way by this time, it was only appropriate that the architect he recruited, Pirro Ligorio, was keen to explore the limits of the technology of the day. Ligorio had been working nearby at the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa, a sprawling 120 acre compound built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian back in the second century, and had seen the role that baths, and the water that fed them, had played in the layout of that Villa. Hadrian had a number of pools, as well as an artificial grotto, that fed different bath complexes and he really liked to use them as he entertained the elite of Rome. But after Hadrian’s death, the site ceased to be of any interest to the emperors that followed, and for more than a thousand years sit lay in ruin buried under a mountain of earth.

It had to have been quite a surprise for the renaissance architects that unearthed it, and I have to believe that they were a bit overwhelmed as they began to comprehend its complexities. I certainly was, and I spent several hours walking through the ruins. Ligorio recovered from the surprise pretty quickly though, as he then helped himself to much of the remaining marble and statues and used them to great effect decorating the Villa of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. The completed villa and gardens, with the most innovative use of water ever seen at that time, continues to impress visitors as much as it had done nearly five hundred years before.

While Ligorio was building the Villa d’Este between 1560 and 1572, back in Rome, Michelangelo was doing something similar around the same time. Between 1563 and 1566, in the last architectural undertaking of his life, Michelangelo was transforming the old baths of Diocletian into the “Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri” church. What had been one of the biggest public bath complexes built by the Romans back in the 4th century, finally fell into disuse two hundred years later when the invading Goths cut off the water supply.

Following a similar story line to that of Hadrian’s villa, for more than a thousand years, it had lain in ruins before Michelangelo took on the project of turning it into a very unique and highly imaginative church. Rather ordinary on the outside, when compared to other basilicas of the time, Michelangelo mastered some pretty complex architectural spaces and came up with a structure where you can still recognize some of the elements of the former Roman baths.

I had been hoping to visit Florence on this trip and had been disappointed to learn that the boat I had been cruising on didn’t have enough time to make it to the port of Lugarno. The Renaissance has always held a fascination for me and I had been looking forward to it, but having the weekend in Rome more than made up for missing the visit to Florence. And in seeing the creative way the Renaissance leaders leveraged what they unearthed from a thousand years before, was something completely new to me.

Frans Johansson, in his book “The Medici Effect”, talks broadly about the impact the Medici family had on Florence and how that they attracted a collection of artists, craftsman, and philosophers from across Europe that proved to be the spark that ignited the Renaissance. The Medici’s found that bringing people together from different cultures, with different skill-sets, and creating an environment where they could openly interact anticipating that, as Johansson writes, “where ideas collide, innovation happens!” Johansson then goes on to add “breakthrough insights occur at novel intersections (and) is an enduring principle of creativity.”

Ambitious, yet very rich, Cardinals, mixing with a new breed of architects recently exposed to ancient feats of engineering, led to some amazing creativity. And it is the imagination, and engaging the imagination as the Cardinals of the day had done, that really compelled me to revisit the topic of innovation. Whenever we get together, whether at user events or just in our break rooms, there is always “the potential for the spark of a new idea to ignite, as a new opportunity is recognized!” This is a quote from an earlier blog “Preventer of Information Services” that I posted last year, and I continue to see evidence of this regularly.

But today, it’s not jus getting the culture and skill set balance right – we also have to cross the generation divide as well. I was reminded of this in a recent email exchange with Sami Akbay, the VP of Marketing for GoldenGate, when he reminded me that “even though GoldenGate had its origins in NonStop, we deliberately went after a number of key folks from other vendors who brought with them special skills in other areas of data. We also bridged the generation gaps by recruiting a broad mix of age groups to the company." The result was the development of a raft of new products and features.

Innovation is important as it is the special ingredient within all companies that puts distance between those that can innovate and those that fail to recognize opportunities as they arise. The history of NonStop – from the appearance of the first Tandem Computer, to the introduction of ServerNet – has been liberally sprinkled with innovative technologies that contributed significantly to keeping the Tandem Computer ahead of other market entrants. Each innovation simply raised the bar even higher and saw all competing solutions eventually fall by the wayside.

The imminent arrival of the new bladed architecture solutions that further commoditize the hardware will be one more examples of innovation in play. No longer being concerned about the basic hardware building blocs and being able to focus once more on the processes and the data itself, will give rise to even more innovation I believe. In the same exchange I had with Sami Akbay, he pointed out to me that “we have moved to where data itself is what's strategic! Access in real time to operational data allows companies to innovate in ways not thought of, or even considered possible, before."

While there are a lot of papers being generated on innovation, and plenty of surveys being carried out to determine the characteristics of an innovative company – one recent white paper I came across suggested that if a company was deploying AJAX, using BI to boost productivity, and communicating with customers via wikis, blogs, and social networking, then this was clear evidence that they had become highly innovative. If only it was this easy to pinpoint and this easy to check!

I missed going to Florence, and to see more examples of the impact of the Renaissance. But as I thought about it, I found that the contrast between Florence the other cities I did visit – Monte Carlo and Rome – couldn’t be more representative of the alternative paths to innovation. And I had to ask myself – would I prefer to rely on the roll of the dice, as they do in Monte Carlo, and gamble on future innovation, or perhaps go the other route and hope and pray, as they do so frequently in Rome, and rely on faith to get me the results I need?

Innovation is so dependent on seeing opportunities and on engaging the imagination. There are changes coming from HP and I have to wonder, who will be the first to come up with something completely new? Will the new hardware generate a new spurt of creativity and will there be a technology renaissance? Its early days, of course, but I have to believe that just as the architects of old were able to push the available technology beyond previous limits, we will see a something similar occur. Who knows, maybe the next masterpiece is already being sketched on a table napkin …

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