Sharing the map of the future

I am attending IBM’s Connect conference in Orlando, and there’s some really interesting development work being demoed here, in particular a new take on enterprise email that might be the social email I have been writing about for a few years. But that’s not what this post is about. I will write a posts about IBM Connections Mail Next soon — once I get a demo or better screenshots — but let me quote Jay Baer, the MC of the event and well-known blogger:

@jaybaer: Speaking as a consultant, not emcee: this IBM Mail Next software is straight-up amaze-balls. Want. #IBMconnect

I agree with Jay, but, no, this post is about transparency and the future of work.

IBM is an advocate for partially-articulated vision of the company of the near future. That vision is implicit in the products that the company has in the field, and even more so, in its coming products — like Mail Next, that is going to be rolled out in the 4th quarter of 2014 and after, and other announced products, like new people analytics solutions from Kenexa, and many many more.

And then there are explicit characterizations of this coming new generation company, and the environment that company will have to operate in. IBM boils down the swirling forces impacting the world in may presentations: mobile, social, big data, smarter workforce, analytics, and others. But how does a monster company like IBM boil things down? How do they determine that these factors are critical, and other less so?

Taking a glance at the product rollout of something like Mail Next — which won’t be available for another six months at least, and which integrates to a long list of other moving parts, like IBM Connections work management, chat, and who knows how many other services — I think there is another implicit indication of IBM’s vision of its clients of the near future: they want vertically integrated solutions, and they are not in a hurry. If anything, they are slow to roll out technology, and they want much of the risks of rollout to be squeezed out.

Inside of IBM, product marketing managers, sales leaders, and engineers are tied together in some multi-layered, world-spanning, and multivariate discussion about the future of work, both in general, and specifically with regard to IBM’s customers. But that discussion isn’t really shared with us, outside of IBM. Yes, we see the various outputs and results of the discussions, in both the shape and style of products — and in what those products say is important and what isn’t — and we can read white papers and blog posts that characterize some approved version of the discourse that must be going on in IBM, but we don’t have access to the unfiltered starting points of those discussions.

In fact, we don’t really know how IBM — and other large companies, for that matter — go about their deliberations. Are they running ten thousand small experiments, trying to innovate their way to the future? They may be doing so in research labs, but it doesn’t seem that they are oriented that way in the product teams. So, IBM is not a company that is finding its way into the future by sending out a hundred independent explorers, but rather by compiling a map of the future by looking at dozens of the best existing maps, and then pointing an armada over the horizon in that one direction.

In a sense, the market of start-ups is already in the business of doing the work of the hundred for IBM, and so perhaps the IBM approach benefits from both the innovation at the edge, and the maturation of technologies — and lessened risk — that longer-range development timescales can yield.

But I am reminded of my own words, from a recent IBM get-together in New York a few months ago, when I said,

Because of the increasing pace of business today, the only sensible strategy is to become more risk tolerant, but companies are not in general adopting that mindset. Things are moving faster but business leaders are not moving to reduce the friction in their business to keep pace.

The average company lifetime was 75 years 50 years ago, and today it is fifteen. I bet that in five it will be down to ten, and that’s because management still thinks it’s smarter to operate with a foot on the brake instead of on the accelerator. It seems that should be true, it’s intuitive, but it isn’t true anymore.

We’ve moved into a new economy where the fundamental rules have changed, and the operating premises the past are not only broken, but dangerous.

My bet is that IBM’s customers will need to become more risk tolerant in the near future, but IBM — which may in fact agree — doesn’t want to take on all the ramifications of that discussion, including how it will change the relationship between IBM and its customers.

My final thought: IBM should open up whatever processes exist within the company for determining that map of the near future, to share the discussions — the disagreements and dissent — and not just the final polished outcomes of that internal deliberation. IBM and its customers could both benefit from a more open and transparent sharing of those activities. This is not to say that IBM is actively attempting to conceal something, but just that we are in a time of such rapid change that the map of the future has to be constantly redrawn: it can’t be stable for even 18 to 24 month product lifecycles.

And yes, that fact itself is unsettling for some, but it is better to share that fundamental reality than to pretend it’s not true. There is a saying that you cannot delay the dawn by keeping your eyes closed, and all businesses should start with that as a foundation for all deliberations about the future.