Digital Transformations and Five Percent Solutions

2 Aug 2019

I am in awe of and enjoy deferring to the incredible expertise of my BCStrategies colleagues. They are not just some of the brightest but also the hardest working people I know, thoughtful and thought-provoking. They have their ears, eyes and minds laser-focused on our industry. It is why they are recognized not merely as trusted thought leaders but also as integral to actually impacting the shape of the future. 

In thinking about what will likely come next – when, where, how, why, etc. – in my 40+ years of industry immersion I have found it useful to review the past for context and perspective. The dog days of summer seems like a good time for such reflection. 

Tech jargon has changed/evolved, and the pace of innovation is inexorably accelerating. However, the actual vision of a more perfectly functioning communications and overall “E”vironment has altered very little over time. The tools for getting there as well as the speed and attributes have just gotten more ingenious, sophisticated and refined. 

The outside of next-generation skyscrapers has been relatively easy to visualize. What goes inside to make them habitable, sustainable and compelling according to multiple metrics, not so much! The devil is in both the details and the execution.

Pause for a moment on the fact that:

  • IBM came up with the idea of Shared Space Computing, aka, the “Cloud” in the 1970s with early communications accomplished over nascent X.25 packet networks.
  • Centrex CO, even before it became digital in the early 1980s was the original “hosted service.” Even in its analog iterations Centrex was a dedicated comms apps server feeding up at its height over 400 features. Again, the Cloud.      
  • Transformation was about going from analog PBXs to digital ones. They were connected to each other by the network which was always given an icon that looked like, you guessed it, a Cloud.

A short list of goals (feel free to add your own) then as now were to use technology to:

  • Make business processes and people more efficient and effective, and hopefully thus more attractive for engaging and keeping customers.
  • Connect people and their devices ubiquitously, continuously and inexpensively.
  • Generate value-added and societal good profitably at scale, safely, securely and reliably.

Two Stories Are Worth About 1,000 Words

Two personal stories are hopefully illuminating. I relate them as food for thought as we approach convention season and the obligatory rush of new product and service introductions.

For those unfamiliar, Avaya was the successor to Lucent Business Communication Systems which itself had been AT&T Business Communication Systems. In the mid-1990s, what was then Lucent BCS asked me to critique a day-long session at their HQ for their biggest customers, CIOs for Fortune 50 companies.The CIO of a Fortune 10 company (who shall remain nameless) and I on the way to lunch passed under a sign over the entrance to the company cafeteria. It read, if memory serves me correctly, “We will be the leaders before, during and after the business transformation.”

The CIO imparted the following observation: “Really! The cuffs don’t match the collar on promises made and kept…They don’t understand that in my world there is only what management expects in terms of performance now and not years from now…The average CIO stay at a company is three years…Real time and crises mode are my perpetual status…Our vendors are (expletives deleted). They don’t get that I am constantly trying to change engines on the airplane when it is flying at 30,000 feet.”

This individual articulated an industry truth. There was and remains a significant disconnect between vendors and their customers. This was what would now be characterized as a “woke moment.” Realities are that technology and its associated jargon are an important but not necessarily dominant part of improving business performance and sustainability. In fact, any CIO will tell you that the solution in some instances was the problem, or certainly a major contributing factor.

The second anecdote is also instructive. I was a founding member of the New York New Media Association. It was the human, and ultimately the capital, foundation for what is now Silicon Alley. It boomed and then bust in 2003 when the Internet bubble burst. Roughly once a month we had industry luminaries as breakfast speakers. Just prior to the Internet’s big bang, the CIO of one of the world’s biggest financial services companies spoke to a standing room only room of over 300 people. And, again I somewhat abridge and paraphrase here, but this individual opined:

I manage a $3 billion with a ‘B’ per-year budget. Because we have a three-year planning cycle, it is actually $9 billion…90 percent of that budget goes to sunk costs. They are roughly split between the costs of people, services and equipment operations and maintenance…Another 5 percent is spent on business development, testing and completion of internal projects…I know you all want to talk to me…However, know this…if your solution cannot be tested and bullet-proofed easily and quickly, deployed globally in a matter of weeks and not months or years as is the case with our CRM deployments, and in a consistent manner so the bank has the same look and feel anywhere and everywhere we do business, is cost-effective in terms of ease-of-use, training, and maintenance, and is highly secure and reliable…KEEP YOUR BUSINESS CARD! DON’T TRY TO CONTACT ME!

I should also add the speaker further noted that because of the size of his operation they wanted as few throats to choke as possible. Vendor accountability was mission critical for IT careers.

The lessons here seem rather immutable. When discretionary spending in tech budgets is a small fraction of said budgets, by their very nature revolutions and transformation for any given vendor are likely to be some portion of that 5 percent. You can do the math on what this means.

It is why in business communications, despite what may seem like the blinding pace of innovation we all like to talk and write about, adoption speeds are more evolutionary than revolutionary. And, this is not just about money. It is also about things like corporate culture, changes in business objectives, the impact of “externalities,” etc.

Taking the two stories together, there is a common thread.

Yes, being “out of touch” in an age of accelerating innovation and dynamic change is a bad thing. Indeed, being an advocate or evangelist for things that hold out great promise on improving business processes, practices and human interactions, whether you are an industry analyst, entrepreneur or a seasoned pro, is a wonderful thing. However, transformations are journeys and not destinations. Having great GPS and the wisdom of the crowd can assure that 5 percent solutions make the journey as seamless and productive as possible.

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