Monday, July 25, 2016

The world of technology led disruptions beyond SMACS

It was an interesting conversation with a veteran technology industry observer who had spent more than a decade with technology vendors and users alike, narrating their stories to the world. His insights were always incisive and valued by the industry as key markers towards adoption and success. We ruminated about the past and the fast pace of change that had everyone scampering for a Digital strategy; but even that is now in the past. Execution challenges and failures make better reading than laggards who are yet to decide.

Unicorns aside, disintermediation and asset lite new business models were key digital drivers for startups threatening to disrupt existing business models, only to realize that survival rate for paper tigers has been extremely low after success of first few in an industry segment. Consolidation and shift from broad to narrow and broad again, hyperlocal to nationwide and back again to niche had everyone struggling to find a profitable equilibrium; churning trends also left many on the wayside never to rise again.

Few years back for conventional enterprises enamored by SMACS (Social, Mobile, Analytics, Cloud and Security), the first mover or competitive advantage frittered away with the rest catching up. Digital engagement, delivery, customer service, and experience are beginning to level off, the aura of the brand coupled with carpet bombing advertisements across channels has waning interest in products and services. Customers are expecting more for the same investment, the quality bar is raised in a buyers’ market.

CIOs and CDOs are being challenged to explore new opportunities using old and the as yet untested new, which can offer solutions to the unmet needs or a better value proposition to existing ones. Design thinking and deep learning are no longer buzzwords, they are being applied to invigorate organizations and solve real life problems. Discussions are no longer about incremental innovation, focus is shifting to create exponentially better products and services; and technology is expected to play a role in making it happen.

Watches and wearables – new miniature screens pose new challenges and opportunities with almost complete association with the wearer. Body vitals, moods, behaviors, eating habits, alerts, nudges, tracking almost everything that matters and some that don’t, the wearable is like the IoT device streaming data imploring to be analyzed. Location tracking, your address book, browser history, nothing is private anymore. Fitness is the current killer use, critical care and health monitoring additional benefits to the provider and consumer.

Virtual Reality could not live up to the promise with refinements taking time and the cost of devices; Augmented Reality now creates new paradigms. The future may blur the lines between the real and augmented interchangeably making it difficult to differentiate thus passing control of individual and collective experiences in the hands of ethical providers and willful manipulators. Mind and thereby actions influenced by governments or lawbreakers bring back scary images from the literary world of George Orwell four decades later than his predictions.

Workplaces monitoring of activity and outcomes which otherwise appear unsupervised would create a hyper-efficient work culture with high levels of automation and efficiency. Segmenting performers aided by data shall eliminate the unfit and inefficient; productivity norms would render meaningless the need to publish reports and dashboards, everything tending to Six Sigma. Bordering on utopian ? This scenario can be easily created with culmination of existing technology solutions with some innovative analytical models.

The outliers would be the Digital hermits who have been able to recuse themselves by virtue of their power, wealth, or fugitive status. Digital vacations much sought after to experience real life, real people and the real world devoid of augmented embellishments; the real look, touch and feel, to be cherished and imprinted into real memory. Self-learning computers are already making advancements where they optimize their own learning algorithms to create better neural networks conceptualized by Arthur C Clarke; the tipping point is not far.

Science fiction of the past is no longer unreachable; if you can imagine it, you will find someone already attempting it. Be the dreamer, not the subject of subjugation by others; it does not matter if it is an individual, corporate, government or a nefarious mind wanting to control. It is not about the control, it is a display of power over others destiny. It is not about technology, it is about changing the world because you can. It is a world where the human race is a slave to technology which is a slave of humans.

Sounds far fetched ? Are you really reading this or …

Monday, July 18, 2016

e-learning in the enterprise: pain or gain or ...

The industry required periodic training for new products to have an intelligent conversation with customers; so every company conducted training programs to equip their teams with requisite knowledge which would serve all kinds of customers. It was early days of automation, e-learning was just beginning to raise a baby head; early versions were complex, unwieldy, and ineffective in comparison to conventional classroom instructor led training (ILT). Video based learning was deemed a shade better though expensive to deploy.

Realizing the early mover advantage, the CIO had pushed the management to explore new solutions at a nominal cost which he was able to get from a startup vendor. The system was deployed quickly, the head of Learning & Development partnered to provide content, and sensing success co-owned the pioneering initiative. The sales team embraced the solution which helped them move faster and compete in a tough market. Awards, accolades and many conferences later, the poster boy had recreated the way learning happened in the industry.

What led to the success ? Simplistically the partnership between IT and Business towards achieving a shared objective and a technology solution that works; realistically it was the fact that L&D knew the pulse of the people, IT had high credibility and connect with the business and the vendor ecosystem, and the management was willing to experiment and explore, not averse to taking risks. Management case studies are full of such stories on what works which get labeled as “Best Practices” by industry or department.

A decade later, the same CIO in the same industry with another company unsuccessfully attempted to repeat his success; the company had shied away from new technology with a business as usual approach preferring to maintain status quo. After all they were growing with the market and were reasonably profitable without technology interventions. The CIO tasked with the agenda to refresh IT had struggled through the journey with pushbacks and total abdication of responsibility by the business who had more critique than suggestions.

In the ensuing half a score years, the solutions had matured to provide seamless access across multiple channels, the learning experience far easier than the clunky interface of the past. Mobile based rendering with interactive features and extensive library of content has made learning fun and easy. Gamification adds to the intensity of engagement increasing levels of competition between participants. For the industry, ILT is no longer the primary mode of learning with economics and efficiency in favor of technology solutions.

In the first case learning was seen as an integral part of evolution for everyone; learning was encouraged and the company culture and spirit of harmony created a positive environment thereby increasing the propensity of success. Technology was just the enabler creating better outcomes; so a new way of learning was welcomed and embraced with open mind. The platform was not the best, but that did not matter; technology complexity was accepted as a part of progress, the organization was undeterred by these metrics.

The recent experience of the CIO was starkly different; given the dimensions of the new enterprise, he was in a position to choose the best at his terms. Global solution providers sought his attention to demonstrate their wares, the enterprise chose the market leading most widely accepted solution by the industry. It was the deal of the year that had everyone else sit up and take notice; the vendor made up margin with other deals that followed the announcement and captured enviable market share in the process.

Then what challenged execution ? The large ageing workforce in the monolithic enterprise fought to keep the legacy processes alive which had served them well for the last few decades. They had seen the industry adopt technology and excused themselves citing size, complexity and various other reasons for not following the trend towards technology led business interventions. Comfort zones prevented new opportunities and learning was brushed aside lest it become an obstacle in the way of retaining comfort, employment and past glory.

In difficult times companies have been known to cut training budgets; L&D is also a casualty during fast pace of growth when everyone believes they don’t have the time. Learning is also killed by operational pressures and prioritization of the urgent; managerial attitudes overpower leadership principles in many enterprises. That unfortunately ensures that companies stagnate or do not achieve their potential. The medium is incidental, however the ability to reach a large cross section frequently can only be enabled by technology.

I close with an interesting insight circulated on social media over time: CFO asks the CEO, “Why spend so much on training when people will any way leave ?”; answers back the CEO, “What if we don’t and they stay ?

Monday, July 11, 2016

The threat of Private Social to B2B business, especially in IT Products or Services

In the early days of the internet era, an IT consulting company started a forum of decision makers and senior IT leaders to gain insights on their pain points and opportunities to engage. Participation was by invitation to begin with, later opened up for aspirants, selectively approved. To keep the group focused, membership closed when the count reached 200. The forum created multiple threads on technology, leadership challenges, industry specific groups, and finally groups for current and potential users of vendor solutions.

Driven by some early adopters, the forums gained popularity offering candid and uninhibited sharing of views on various subjects, much to the nervousness of the company. They appointed a moderator who befriended the group fairly quickly with her friendly yet incisive comments, making her part of the inner circle. She seeded thoughts and discussions which benefited the company and thus no censorship was imposed. The most commented and visited forums pertained to ERP and other solutions gaining popularity with enterprises.

Quickly it became a forum that the group depended on for most of their technology decisions driven by experiential sharing overriding the marketing case studies shared by vendors or paid research from esteemed consultants and haloed market leading research entities. Pain points, what not to do, what to be wary of, formed bulk of the content; shared learning improved the possibilities of success for the receivers. Observing the unprecedented success, the idea was flogged by some of the IT vendors with limited traction.

The first mover advantage sustained itself even when the seeding company changed hands through multiple acquisitions until … on behest of one of the sponsors, the acquirer attempted to clamp down on some of the negative comments. The group had gained life of its own; senior IT leaders used their collective clout to create an independent group with no sponsors or any strings focusing on the magic sauce that kept the group cohesive; the unbridled sharing of knowledge and discussions on the now fast pace of technology change kept the group going.

At their annual conference, the Vendor’s senior leadership probably feigned surprise when the CIO mentioned that he was part of a closed mobile messaging group which discussed threadbare every vendor, their solutions, pros and cons of implementation partners, and at times even pricing ! The closed group on one of the most popular messaging solutions was a sought after group by CIOs. Most of them visited the group multiple times a day and posted their queries, trials and tribulations, to which responses were quick and worthy.

The story more or less repeated itself with another major global IT solutions vendor and a couple of amused CIOs who were giving feedback to the CEO and the Sales/Marketing team about why they have had challenges and slower takeoff in recent times. Their monopoly was shaking; while they had some doubts on seeds of the root cause, their fears were confirmed in this discussion. There was no social media feed alert or trends to analyze, this was scarily hidden from public view and it impacted them in a big way.

For the CIO group – of the CIO, by the CIO, for the CIOs – loved by the customer, the global giants as yet have no antidote; closed conversations within the group virally impact revenues and profitability though miniscule at the moment, can potentially grow to gargantuan proportions. Technology led disruption to technology providers who also offer social listening tools ! No one anticipated or were prepared for this impact. Consumers have used public social media to get better customer service, private social media opens new channels for B2B.

My CIO friend who coined the term Private Social, attempted to provide steps to reduce the impact to business (Click here). Largely behavioral, the outcomes will depend on the ability of individuals to imbibe them and practice with consistency. Reality is that vendors have to treat their customers with TLC to keep them happy; I am not recommending that they out of the way and pamper them, but sticking to the basics of supplying a product or service with fidelity to the promise made during the pre-sales period.

Is there a positive side ? But off-course, it’s a windfall for vendors who get leads out of the blue with customers calling them for discussions about their products and services referred to by existing satisfied customers. They should take the upside as an endorsement of living up to commitments, thank their customers and continue to use their mojo with the new wins too. The digital world continues to create new disruptions to entrenched forces, be prepared for the next unknown threat and opportunity !

Monday, July 04, 2016

Death of a rising star, how promising startups fail to live up to their promise

I have formally resigned from the company I started 7 years back. I am now just a shareholder, ready to move on”. The email arrived on a Sunday evening surprising me, the sender was the Founder of a purported unicorn in a not so crowded space which had also led to funding offers from some of the well-known names in the industry. We had not connected for some time and thus I wondered what happened; was the exit a happy one or strained ? Curiosity had to wait for the meeting to happen.

He had challenged conventional wisdom going back to the foundations from which all the currently available solutions were born in that category; taking an alternate path, his team had created a new way of solving the problem and also addressing the constraints that most industry solutions faced. It took some effort to find the first paying customer who also became referenceable. Step by step he built the business with a motley team that kept going despite ups and downs in the industry and the economy.

The Intellectual Property they built was granted patents bringing joy and high expectations. Funding came with a promise to help scale up and scale out the business; it was before the startup hype hit the roof where investors offered money for any idea that connected mass of consumers, with a hope to achieve 10X growth or 100X return. In comparison his journey was slow and steady, sales cycles being long when selling to enterprises; in the market of consumer scale up hares, the tortoise failed to get its due.

Losing patience, the moneybags started challenging the ability to execute and meet expectations; discussion, debate, and some antacids later, experts were implanted to take stock of the situation and recommend changes required to achieve the true potential. The new team conducted an assessment promising to help realize and unlock value. They also suggested changes to key portfolios which were grudgingly accepted by the founders. The reorganized gung-ho team set about to conquer the world.

Founding team members aligned to the new, hoping to see their passion child grow and make a mark globally. After all if the new strategy were to work it will multiply their success and thus was worth the calculated gamble. Quick wins and good news came early with expressions of interest from potential large customers wanting to evaluate and explore. The team redoubled their efforts charged by the positive momentum they felt; the sweet ring of cash registers appeared to be beckoning the business.

Many moons later the potential failed to convert, the costs rising with the additional management overhead; product development was reprioritized based on anticipated global business leaving the local market hanging. With money slowly running out, the promise of a better tomorrow started losing interest it sheen, survival mattered on the ability of the new leaders to live up to their lofty goals; blaming the lack of success on the products inability to meet requirements, they attempted to shift the blame.

The company disintegrated with infighting between the promoters who were now divided into two camps and the capitalists who wanted to take over the company at a significantly diluted valuation. Employees started leaving with uncertainty over the future of the once lauded company which had won recognition from many quarters. They still had an edge over competition who were unable to replicate the offering with the same level of engineering; customers continued to use the solution oblivious of the battle within.

I was exhausted hearing about the journey; he was fresher than I remember him being in a long time with the travails behind him and ready for a new start. He was bubbling with excitement on the new venture of which he apprised me with the same enthusiasm that I had seen at the beginning of his earlier venture. This time around he was vehement in his decision on not raising money from the sharks (reminded me of a popular TV show), he showed no angst at the loss of value and control of his passion child of 7 years !

The story repeats itself many times over with startups who have been finding it difficult to sustain their easily copied innovations or their inability to scale to promises made at the time of funding. Forced mergers and shutdowns have been the norm; technology led disruptions continue but sustaining the euphoria requires razor sharp focus on the strategy and direction. Squabbling only serves to defocus the team and diminished value for everyone; competition is few steps behind in most cases, they catch up quickly.