In the 1970s, a psychologist named Noel Burch created a learning model to describe how humans go through four stages of learning when introduced to a new skill. This model is known as The Four Stages of Competence.
“Competence Hierarchy adapted from Noel Burch by Igor Kokcharov” by Kokcharov – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons
Wikipedia does a good job of providing the following high level summary of the model:
1. Unconscious incompetence
The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
2. Conscious incompetence
Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
3. Conscious competence
The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
4. Unconscious competence
The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
Applying the model to the Cloud
This model has many parallels to how I see large organizations adapt to cloud computing. The following stages of cloud adoption are not based on scientific analysis or modeling, but rather how I have seen organizations mature as they progress through the learning curve.
Stage 1 – Cloud Denial
At the unconscious incompetence stage, the lack of knowledge of the underlying technology, organizational impact, and potential business value causes organizations to deny the usefulness of cloud computing. Some call it resistance to change, but it is really a lack of understanding of the core value proposition. Organizations in this stage dispute the benefits of cloud and use things like security, compliance, and outages as justification for continuing to run IT with a legacy data center mentality.
Stage 2 – Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Cloud
At the conscious incompetence stage, many either see tangible value in the cloud or have a mandate from the C-suite to go cloud. However, these organizations don’t necessarily trust cloud providers, especially public cloud vendors, and they continue to apply their legacy data center thinking to the cloud architectures that they build. They also still want to be in control because they think that the cloud is only safe if they build it themselves. A lot of blood, sweat, tears, and money is shed over the next year or two but the business value is rarely achieved at the levels that were anticipated. These organizations are turning their companies into infrastructure companies, instead of turning them into software companies.
Stage 3 – Cloud Transformation
Those at the conscious competence stage have a year or two of hands on experience with the cloud and a solid understanding of IaaS. At this point, most organizations realize the DIY model is complex and time consuming. Now that those driving the change understand the underlying technologies, the organizational impacts, and the potential business value, they often start looking for ways to accelerate their cloud adoption programs. This is where companies who previously said “we will never go to the public cloud” change their mindset to “tell me what I can’t run in the public cloud.” These same companies also understand that they must transform the way they build software and start looking to DevOps as a way to become more agile in the cloud. In this stage, cloud adoption is intentional and rapid. Executives start applying very strategic plans to transform their company to become modern suppliers of IT services and bring in cloud computing experts to help accelerate the change.
Stage 4 – “All in” the Cloud
At the unconscious competence stage, building solutions in the cloud becomes natural. These companies transformed the way software is built and delivered and have created great value for their business. In some cases they may have even enabled new business models and are now looking for ways to accelerate bringing value to the business. At this point, these organizations are “all in” the cloud. They also start embracing PaaS, whether that is from a pure play PaaS provider or higher level services from the IaaS providers or both. These organizations understand that there is little to no business value in infrastructure and the application stacks. The value received from cloud computing is derived from delivering on business requirements that drive more revenue, creating higher level of services for customers, and getting to market before their competitors.
Companies in stage 4 are disrupting industries. For an example of a disruptor, watch the keynote presentation by Capital One at the AWS re:Invent conference. Here we have a large, global financial institution going all in with the public cloud and fundamentally changing the way they run IT.
General Electric is another example. GE is reducing their data center footprint from 43 to 3 over the next few years. They plan on moving over 60% of all global workloads to the public cloud. As CIO, Jim Fowler put it, “This is no longer an experiment. It’s no longer a test. It’s not something we talk about as being probable. It is inevitable.”
Companies like GE, Capital One and many others, have reached the stage of unconscious competence. They know cloud inside and out and understand that they can radically change the future of their company by going “all in” the cloud.
It takes time for large organizations to adopt and embrace the cloud. The patterns that I have witnessed over the years are very similar to the famous “Four Stages of Competence” learning models created by psychologists back in the 70s. If you are trying to lead a cloud adoption program within your company it is important to understand these phases. Your job is not to fight the learning model, but to accelerate through the stages as fast as possible so that your company can reap the benefits of becoming unconsciously competent in the cloud before your competitors read this article and do the same.