by Greg Simpson

Directing the Technology Orchestra

May 22, 2017
IT Leadership

Orchestrating the world of cloud, big data, analytics, AI and the Internet of Things. Don’t let the buzzwords become buzz saws. They all work in concert for the customer experience.

Writing blogs about emerging technology puts you at risk of becoming enamored with buzzwords. Cloud this, big data that. AI is taking over. So, where does this all lead? Is analytics where I should go? Is there a new bigger buzzword around the corner that overtakes all the others? My belief is that these phenomena are all interwoven and working toward the same enabler: Speed. Frans Johansson of The Medici Group likes to say, “Speed is the new IP.” Speed enables the end goal: a uniquely engaging, highly satisfying, constantly evolving customer experience. This is what all companies strive to deliver.

However, the need for speed to achieve customer value is not a new phenomenon. Japanese manufacturing techniques—which ultimately became known as lean manufacturing—long ago focused on the removal of waste from a process. This approach was to enable “just in time,” or flow manufacturing. The goal of flow manufacturing was perfect flow, where customer-valued features were pulled through the system as needed. Only customer-valued features were awarded “points” and other improvements were by-products. One of the primary goals was a stable but increasing velocity. This is not unlike today’s agile software development methods. The goal is not just velocity, but a stable increasing velocity through the system. This enables continuous deployment and cycle time reduction. Simply put: speed, and a constantly evolving customer experience.

Our world is changing rapidly. Today’s innovations are tomorrow’s table stakes. Depositing a check by taking a picture on your smartphone used to be an innovation; now it’s an expectation. Today’s reality is that you can’t provide the best customer experience if you aren’t fast. The innovation that you deploy six months late becomes old news. The new feature you just deployed on your website? I already have an app for that. Speed is the necessary “how” for achieving the imperative “what.” Speed of delivery leads to the ability to continuously improve the customer experience. Jeff Bezos talks about the need for high-velocity decision making in his annual shareholder’s letter. He talks about embracing external trends. Many of your competitors make high-quality decisions, so you need to make both high-quality and high-velocity decisions to differentiate your company. You need to ride the wave of change, not be pulled into the riptide. This is how you stay relevant.

What does this mean to those of us in technology? In technology, the hard part is bringing the entire symphony together. The cloud isn’t about reducing hardware costs, that just happens as a side effect. It’s about enabling more agile development models using microservices. These microservices are designed to make it faster and easier to innovate and incorporate new ecosystems in your product delivery. Ultimately, it is about speed of delivery of the customer experience. Big data is about having the insights to enable machine learning so that your analytics become predictive. This in turn allows you to leverage AI to make better higher-quality high-velocity decisions. The difficulty is that you can’t just do one of these things. You must orchestrate them together, knowing when to emphasize the horns or when to bring in a drum solo, but never missing the need to coordinate the entire symphony. Here is my summary of advice for the technology conductor:

  • Embrace external trends. The buzzwords are interlinked, you can’t pick and choose. Cloud is a key enabler to innovation. If you missed this train, you are late to the party. This is the foundation of our “lean” factory, enabling you to tap into new innovation ecosystems that you won’t deliver on your own. Similarly, data is the foundation for AI. Without a clear data strategy, and the ability to easily leverage that data in new ways, you will miss out on the opportunity to apply AI to your business processes. AI doesn’t just make your analytics predictive, it enables automation across many parts of your business process. IoT, the Internet of Things, is how you instrument the world of the customer experience. The data you bring back feeds your AI. This enables you to alter the experience in a positive way. As Jeff Bezos said, “you must embrace the external trends.”
  • Agile. Agile is transformational for your enterprise. This isn’t just an “IT” thing. This is about product leadership instead of project leadership. This is about cross-functional teams driving prioritization in product features in weeks, not annual financial prioritizations by year. Agile software development is not sending specs to an offshore development team and seeing the results every two weeks. One of the core principles is business people and developers work together daily throughout the project. Be hyper-vigilant in your migration to agile.
  • Don’t be bi-modal: design your organization for the future. You live in a continuous spectrum world. You need to swing the pendulum hard to find your company’s balance point on the spectrum. Yes, you will have legacy systems and you will have new technologies at the other end of the spectrum, but don’t design your organization to do both. Design your organization for the future. There is more than enough legacy momentum to keep you from going too far to one side. You’ll find the right balance.
    snail rocket fast speed Thinkstock
  • Stable velocity. You want speed, but you also need stability. Don’t drop the ball on operations during the massive transformation before you. You’ll need to protect this core capability and recognize its importance. Reward those teams as you do the transformers. They will enable you to take the big transformational bets.
  • People. My last blog was on how it’s all about the people. This holds in all cases.

As the conductor of the technology symphony, your job is to pull everything together in the right proportions for your industry. Perhaps your customer’s experience is more impacted by predictions, perhaps it’s more impacted by efficiency. You need to understand the customer experience levers and then apply the technology in the right proportions to produce the music your customer wants to hear. However, in the end, I come back to the how. The how is speed. If you haven’t learned how to change your organization to work in today’s high-velocity way, then you will always be late to the party.

So, stay passionate and take big swings. Know when to pull back the investment in the past and when to allow the future notes to soar. The difficulty is balance. You need to keep the factory running and the processes flowing, but you need to invest in the innovations of today because they are the table stakes of tomorrow.