I was delighted to be invited to lead a series of private fine-dining events on behalf of RingCentral for IT leaders in Denver, Minneapolis and Miami respectively. The guests included a variety of CIOs and senior IT executives from a wide range of organizations spanning the public and private sectors. Local representatives from RingCentral were also in attendance.
Both myself and RingCentral VP of Product Marketing, Richard Townhill, kick-started the conversation with briefings covering digital transformation and how the world of work is changing. Richard provided an example of the wine industry to highlight that while there has been little change to the manner in which wine has been enjoyed over the centuries, there have been radical changes in respect of the associated production technologies. Similarly, digital transformation is much more than just a superficial interface refresh. You might say that digital transformation is more than skin-deep.
I followed Richard by taking an anthropological lens to the topic of the digital age, concluding that it is much more than the industrial era amped up on tech steroids. I proposed that the digital age is in fact a return to mankind’s true nature, and therefore, we must build environments for our workers and our customers / citizens that meet their anthropological needs. These include the need to:
- Be mobile
- Be social
- Have work and life integrated
- Be creative
- Experience some degree of autonomy
- Be productive
I also proposed that risk management in the digital age means risk acquisition. Consequently, organizations must transform from the factory model to becoming more akin to a portfolio of experiments.
These introductions sparked lively discussions amongst all the guests.
Customer experience was a common theme. Given the extent to which we are becoming augmented through new technologies and the rate at which the augmentation is taking place, we explored the evolving needs of the customer. Interestingly it was acknowledged by the public sector guests that even they must compete with other local governments, given that citizens will gravitate to where they will get the best return on the taxes they pay.
This is in stark contrast to the industrial era. Also some people do not want to have a digital communications experience, particularly senior citizens. Meeting the needs of all customers and employees is a real challenge. That said, an increasing majority of people prefer a digital experience. One where their engagement with an organization is through the customer’s preferred medium (voice, video, messaging, social) and no matter what medium they choose, the organization provides a unified view of their data and interactions.
However, it was generally recognized that an omni-channel, people-centric approach benefits both the consumer (internal or external) and the provider. The challenge here is to create an integrated enterprise data model. One health sector executive took the opportunity of asking fellow attendees around the table what they would like from a health service in the digital age. His question triggered an animated response from all corners. The RingCentral Executive Forum events clearly provide an excellent environment to crowdsource ideas. Single view of the patient was a recurring theme, as was putting the patient and their family at the center of the service.
Richard pointed out in his briefing that the cloud in its modern form has been around since 2006, so why is it still being discussed in this day and age? One or two people felt that its capabilities had been overhyped over the years, but admitted that in respect to voice and data integration, it was a game changer. To elaborate, the cloud now allows a single coordinated set of communications across multiple modalities. You can engage with people on their terms, be it calling, messaging or video conferencing. All with a unified experience. Moreover, with the introduction of so called omni-channel, you will be able make the correlation that the person you are talking to on the phone is the same person that was just tweeting about your company. This would be simply impossible without the transition to cloud.
We discussed strategy quite a bit. I suspect that was in part because I provocatively suggested that strategy was dead. We settled on agreeing that business strategy was becoming increasing like military strategy and that situational awareness was critical to thriving in the digital age.
Richard punctured all illusions around the correlation between doing well and being prepared for digital disruption. He told us how Blackberry had ignored the arrival of the iPhone. Blackberry continued to make a profit for a number of years, despite the iPhone’s presence, and no doubt thought that it wasn’t a threat. Until one day, Blackberry’s world collapsed. In effect, there are many organizations today that are dead firms walking, but they don’t even realize it.
The subject of artificial intelligence (AI) created a clear division of opinion, which can be summarized as the robots are coming – great! and the robots are coming – not great if you are a human. Much of the discussion was centered around the contact center. Compelling arguments were made on both sides. It was recognized that jobs would be lost, but more jobs would be created. Nonetheless the volume of new jobs was unlikely to totally replace the old jobs, so both business and society must act now to put policies in place to ensure everyone has equal opportunity in the digital age. After some vigorous discussion, we netted out with the view that AI and robotics augmented our human capability and as such would enable contact center staff to deliver more value by letting the tech deal with routine matters. Specifically, the introduction of AI means that call agents are no longer forced to read dumb scripts but can have dynamic guided conversations relevant to the customer. With collaboration at the heart, it also means that they can get answers from internal experts on any topic that the customer might have a problem with. This results in greater customer satisfaction, greater employee satisfaction, less time being frustrated and therefore time and cost savings.
The millennials in attendance rightly pointed out that it is unwise to generalize about them. Assumptions about work ethic, resilience, and aspirations are not universal truths. But it was recognized that different generations have different strengths and weaknesses. One public sector leader consequently expressed how difficult it was to manage multi-generational teams. But it was recognized that harnessing the skills and experiences of all generations led to more creative solutions and less likelihood of groupthink.
Security came up in discussion. It was recognized that organizations must balance security policy with the needs of employees and customers. Making your communications secure is clearly table stakes for an IT organization. However, locking things down too much will cause “creative” employees to work around the carefully deployed security. With a myriad of options for communication (FaceTime, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Slack, etc.) striking the right balance between closed (most secure) and open (anarchy) is critical. Having a secure communications service that will run on any employee device is a smart
way to go.
One of the attendees in Denver produced two phones from his pocket. This is the perfect example of getting the balance wrong. No one wants to carry two phones. It would be better to have software on a single phone that can behave as a work phone and be easily distinguishable from any personal communications.
Quite naturally, when we start to think of the next generation of employees and consumers, we start to think of how perspective needs to change to reflect the shift from a “career for life” to a “life of careers.” Leaders from the education sector acknowledged this. Whilst in some cases they are adapting to the post-industrial world, they recognized that there is still much work to do.
To summarize, the dinners provided great insights and a real opportunity to extend our executive networks in a relaxed and upmarket environment. It was fascinating to hear how IT executives spend their free time. As well as martial arts, we had rock climbers, wrestlers, brewers, classic car restorers, spear fishers, and triathletes in attendance.
We learned that the digital age brings with it profound changes across all domains. Specific learning points include:
- Digital citizens and consumers need cloud-based services that are finely tuned to their personal needs and available where and when desired.
- The cloud is critical to meeting their needs.
- The robots are here and so we must embrace them.
- AI has the power to really unlock value in respect to call centers.
- We need to get the balance right between security and productivity and to do so across all devices.
I was uplifted by both the wisdom the senior executives brought to the events and the good-natured manner in which these important issues were debated. For forward-thinking IT executives, the RingCentral Executive Forum dinners are a hot-ticket experience.
As I mentioned during my opening comments at the Executive Forum events, today is the fastest day we have ever experienced in respect of technology evolution, so it is a cause for celebration. But by the same token, it is the slowest day we will ever experience again. The uncertainty and volatility we are experiencing today is simply a warm-up act for what is to come. Those that embrace this reality will be best placed to thrive in the digital age.