The World’s Gone Hybrid

Remember when hybrid referred to cars that run on gas and electricity? How quaint.

Today, it seems that everything is hybrid.

The word hybrid comes from the Latin hybrida meaning the offspring of two dissimilar organisms. Mythical human-animal hybrids — like the half-man half-horse Centaur — evoke images of bizarre creatures that express some attributes of each constituent being. In reality, there are many such hybrids, some that exhibit favored traits. A mule, for example, results from the mating of a male donkey and a female horse and is known to be more long-lived, intelligent, and patient than its parent species. The hybrid tea rose is created by cross breeding two types of roses, resulting in a fragrant, colorful, and hardy flower.

Over time, hybrid has become a descriptor of a general product of two or more heterogeneous elements. Use of the word hybrid has increased steadily over the past two centuries. Engineer Ferdinand Porsche first built a hybrid car in 1899, using a gasoline engine to supply power to an electric motor. Today we also have hybrid bicycles (a mix of a road bike and a mountain bike, designed for general-purposing riding), hybrid sports (like frisbee golf, combining the best of each sport), and hybrid business models (such as companies with both brick-and-mortar and online retail sales). And in the last year alone, the terms hybrid school, hybrid work, and hybrid cloud reached record popularity.

Hybrid School

When I asked my boys what they think of when I say “hybrid,” both immediately responded with “school.” That’s a very pandemic response and reflects the realities young people faced over the past year when schools around the world adopted a variety of remote, virtual, and partial-in-person learning scenarios to keep students safe during COVID-19. In February 2020, China’s Ministry of Education closed schools for the 278 million students across that country. In early March schools from New York to California to Israel abruptly sent students and teachers home with little guidance or plan forward. By the beginning of April nearly all schools across Europe, South America, and Africa were closed, with more than a billion global learners affected.

Schools scrambled to put policies, technologies, and support in place for both asynchronous (posted assignments for unstructured, independent study) and synchronous (students and teachers interacting in real-time via video conference) learning. Some students enjoyed the freedom of virtual learning, rolling out of bed just moments before class, and the ability to learn with new tools and technologies at their own pace. But far more children grappled with social isolation and distraction, and e-learning challenges were exacerbated for disadvantaged children who lacked reliable access to technology, internet, and support.

As a result, many schools are going hybrid — shifting to a combination of in-person and online learning intended to get the best of both models while maintaining social distancing and safety. For my husband, a high school social studies teacher, this means teaching some students face-to-mask-covered-face in a classroom filled with plexiglass barricades while at the same time addressing other students on video attending class from home. It’s a tall order for teachers and students alike, who must swap seamlessly from the real to the virtual worlds. For my daughter in college, hybrid means a few in-person classes under outdoor tents or spread out in large classrooms, with most classes taken online from her closet-sized dorm room. There are certainly many challenges with this model; I’ve watched my own family struggle with the technology and the complexity. I’ve also witnessed my son’s relief at finally meeting his teachers in person after more than six months of remote school.

Hybrid school today is designed largely as a stop-gap measure, something to tide us over until we can get back to “normal.” But I suggest we not go back — but rather go forward and embrace a new normal of “hybrid school” that is inclusive, tech-savvy, and recognizes that effective learning can happen at home, in the classroom, and in all sorts of creative, engaging new ways.

Hybrid Work

The shift that many businesses made to remote work this past year closely mirrors the virtual school story. As COVID-19 spread around the world, employers sent workers home to keep them safe and prevent transmission in the workplace. Only “essential workers” were exempted, those whose jobs require on-site presence: emergency room physicians, supermarket cashiers, pharmacists, nursing home staff, firefighters, and more. In the United States, about 70% of full-time workers went virtual during the pandemic.

For some companies and in certain industries, this shift amounted to a monumental change in ways of working. But many businesses have been embracing remote and flexible work practices for a long time. In fact, 43% of U.S. employees were already working remotely at least some of the time prior to the pandemic, a statistic that has been steadily increasing. Countries like Singapore, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and the U.S. were reasonably prepared for increased remote work, based on the robustness of their digital platforms, internet infrastructure, and digital payments. In contrast, Chile, India, Indonesia, and Thailand were among the countries less prepared for socially-distant work.

Prior to COVID-19, I commuted to the office daily and only worked from home if one of my kids was sick or the roads were impassable due to snow or ice. I felt the need to be in the office, to show up face-to-face with my local team; in reality, though, I work in a global organization, so while I was in person with some, I was still connecting with many more via phone or video. In early March 2020, I quickly set up my home office and proceeded to spend the thirteen months since working virtually with colleagues around the globe. Finally, we are all on a level playing field, everyone’s face in an equal-sized rectangular box on our web conferences, democratizing work in a way that I’ve never experienced before. No longer do I waste time commuting, and I enjoy a new degree of flexibility to integrate my work and family life. At the same time, I haven’t met my new team in person yet, and I don’t know when that will be possible.

For employees, benefits of remote work include lower distraction, higher engagement, and increased flexibility. Employers that embrace remote work save on real estate costs and enjoy reduced absenteeism and improved retention. But concerns remain about how well teams can maintain collaborative relationships and sustain impacts and innovation. The solution? Hybrid work, which blends the best of both in-person and remote solutions. Companies including IBM, Microsoft, Slack, JPMorgan, Citigroup, Ford, and Target all announced that they will embrace the hybrid model — flexible virtual work combined with in-person collaboration days that bring teams together in workplaces for co-creation and even to make possible those spontaneous “water-cooler encounters” that are notoriously hard to replicate digitally.

Hybrid Cloud

The future of information technology (IT) is also hybrid. Most simply put, the concept of cloud computing is this: easy access to nearly unlimited IT resources from anywhere at any time. Picture lots and lots of servers and storage sitting up there in the fluffy white cumulus clouds, all reachable through your secure Wi-Fi network. Need more processing power or storage space? No problem, the clouds are big and interconnected, secure and flexible. Cloud computing is ubiquitous IT delivered as a service, similar to electricity you get out of your wall socket. This allows enterprises to spend less time, effort, and resources on building, maintaining, and running their own IT infrastructure and instead focus more on the needs of their businesses.

We’ve been on a long journey of transforming IT infrastructure and services, from the early days of client-server architectures to distributed computing to virtual private networks. Cloud computing is a natural extension, enabling massive interconnectivity and resource sharing. Cloud promises to abstract out the complexity of application development and deployment, imagining a “serverless” execution model in which developers spend little attention on capacity planning or management and leave that to the cloud provider.

The reality is that the move to cloud today is far more complex than this simplified ideal. Of course, servers and storage and networking still exist in real datacenters. Of course, it still matters where data resides, mandated by privacy regulations. Of course, legacy IT environments endure and carry with them unique capabilities and challenges. And, of course, each cloud provider offers their own distinctive flavor of cloud computing. As a result of this and more, today only about 20% of enterprise workloads have migrated to cloud. So how do we get the benefits of cloud computing within the realities of real-world constraints?

You guessed it: hybrid cloud. Hybrid cloud incorporates flexibility to port, deploy, and manage applications across multiple private and public cloud environments. Separate clouds become hybrid when they are connected together seamlessly, avoiding lock-in to a particular vendor solution. Hybrid cloud requires adopting a modern cloud architecture consisting of a common operating system and orchestration platform. The result?  Higher developer productivity, greater infrastructure efficiency, better regulatory compliance and security, and faster business execution.

Why Hybrid, Why Now?

I believe that the prevalence of hybrid today reflects a society determined to have its cake and eat it too. We want the best of both worlds, where we enjoy the benefits of different solutions at the very same time, with fewer associated downsides. We want a great career and a wonderful family; a meaningful job that also pays well; a vehicle that is environmentally-friendly and powerful. We don’t want to compromise by choosing one flawed option, so instead, we select the very best of different scenarios and create a new and better solution. We must take care that our hybrid answer is not a grotesque amalgamation of different piece parts — in other words, not an unnatural man-horse Centaur, but rather an integrated, carefully-architected best of both, like the beautiful and robust hybrid tea rose.

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