The lesson of disruption

Learning from distinguished fellows

Recently, I was fortunate to attend the BCS President’s Dinner.

Every year, this dinner allows leaders across the IT industry to come together and discuss trends and changes in technology. This year the dinner was of special significance. The BCS Distinguished Fellow list is a very small group of individuals who have advanced computing and technology to shape our world. And at this dinner, two people from the UK technology industry were honoured: Dr Hermann Hauser and Warren East. Their speeches were fascinating.

Companies who leap ahead, and companies who fall behind

Dr Hermann Hauser, the entrepreneur and leading light of ‘Silicon fen’, spoke about the 5 waves of computing over the last 50 years: mainframe, minicomputer, workstation, PCs and now mobile plus cloud computing. He explored the dynamics of the companies that led each of the waves, pointing out that no leader of one wave went on to dominate the next. Instead, more mature companies were unable to respond quickly enough to competition and opportunity – even when they caught a glimpse of the new opportunity on the horizon.

Hauser reminded us that each wave has seen compute power increase by a factor of 10, and price decrease by a factor of 10. This has made computers part of every day life. It also means that businesses and ordinary people alike are riding the waves of IT disruption. None of us can predict the future trends of technology, other than saying the use of data (Big Data) and mobile will be crucial! No wonder, many enterprises are struggling with how and what to build to serve customers.

My conclusion from Dr Hauser’s talk was that since no-one knows what is best, we should stop trying to copy some illusory best practice, and instead develop a compelling vision for products and services that matter. To test our vision, we need to experiment, learn and improve. The last five decades have showed that the innovators won; companies who copied have done less well over the medium to long term. And, that’s what the next speaker, Warren East, has managed to achieve.

What drives success: technology or business awareness?

Last year, nine billion ARM designed chips were produced. That’s more than one for every person on earth. It’s also 20x more than Intel built, who were the previous market leader.

Warren East, CEO of ARM, spoke about the change that had led to this spectacular success. Mobile devices require lower power usage and less heat while operating. As East said, they need to do ‘better Miles Per Gallon’. The ARM chip, is the first to go against Moore’s law about speed doubling and cost halving. The ARM chip wasn’t faster, but more efficient. It was a perfect chip for the growing market of mobile devices. It may also be a real solution to growing power consumption and heat generation in servers. And it is being shrunk in size to ‘nano’ and already being used in implants and other futuristic applications.

ARM are not only successful right now, but they have clearly built a competitive advantage for the future. What’s so interesting is that although this success is about a technology, it is not technological in essence. The ARM team didn’t get it right first time, but they used the whole business to search out the solution, with all those running and shaping ARM intimately familiar with technology and its future possibilities.

Learning from Hauser and East: connecting to VFQ

What can Enterprise and Agile learn from these two entrepreneurs?

Although both men explicitly referenced the pace of change, in essence their stories were less about technology itself, and more about business. They talked of enterprise and entrepreneurism; of disruption, strategy and vision; trying and failing, learning and courage. They both described experiences where there was no division between business and technology. Whereas I’m afraid I often see enterprises separate off their IT from the day-to-day leadership of serving markets and contributing to society.

Putting technology at the heart of business essentially makes it easier to address the hectic rate of change in technology, and take advantage of the opportunities, rather than being overwhelmed by it. The waves of computing are coming faster than ever before. Speeds increase, costs come down. These advances enable us to share ideas and hear what customers want better than ever before. Digital products and services are changing customer expectations, our ability to serve the customer, and the very products and services being sold. The race for the next big idea is constant. The pace of R&D, innovation and creativity is such that the whole organisation must be involved in developing and improving products and services. It cannot be hived off to one department.

Being Agile is sometimes seen as ‘nice-to-have’, a kind of icing on the cake of business. On my way home from the event, I thought about how the ability to respond effectively to fast-moving markets and expectations is the very essence of business, the difference between success and failure, between thriving and bankruptcy. It doesn’t matter what process you use, or what name you call it, every business needs to exploit technology to deliver more value, at the quality required and at the pace the market is demanding. Everyone is involved in serving the customer, but it requires everyone collaborating and learning fast. That’s what VFQ is about. And that’s what we at Emergn are helping companies to do. The stories heard at this event make me more determined to help great companies adapt to the realities of the business and technology environment, the ubiquity of software-based products and services and help them thrive in the 6th, 7th and 8th waves of computing in the future…

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