OPENING COMMENT: Merv, you have a remarkable and compelling history of successes. We thank you for taking time out of your demanding schedule to do this interview.
A) Thanks for the kind words. It’s been a hectic month!
Q1: As a top-ranking international executive in the business technology industry, can you profile your four current challenges, how you are solving them, and the lessons that you want to share?
CHALLENGE 1: Balance
Solution: Anyone in the research industry is here because we love the play of ideas, the constant change and renewal that our industry has shown ever since its inception. It’s hard to keep up with all the things I try to follow and still step back from it and take the time to “have a life.”
Lessons: I’m blessed with a wife who understands the demands it puts on me (and that I put on myself), and two sons who have grown into strong, independent young men – they are both in college. I’ve learned that I do my best work when I’m NOT working all the time – you need the other parts of your life to keep an even keel. And I’ve learned to focus – although I’m interested in many things, I don’t have time to keep up with them all. The good news is that since I work for a research company, I don’t have to! I have the luxury of following the work of the best people in the business.
CHALLENGE 2: Relevance. What should I focus on?
Solution: It turns out that this is easier than it seems. My instincts seem to be good based on feedback from Forrester’s clients. I publish a bi-weekly summary of Forrester’s work that represents a very personal take on what is most meaningful, useful, provocative, etc. and their response to it is very positive.
Lessons: Listen to your customers. Within Forrester, we have a mantra: for whom? It centers us and reminds us that everything we do is for someone, not for ourselves. If it will help them, it’s good. It’s that simple. And more and more of our research, and mine, is done in direct response to their input – we actually have a voting process called Client Choice that allows our clients to tell us what they want us to work on.
CHALLENGE 3: Staying connected
Solution: Basic professionalism in communications. I’m frankly astonished how many people have answering machines with “system messages” on them that provide no information about where the person is or when I should expect a response. People need to find you. I learned early on to set and meet expectations. This interview is a good example – we’ve had some challenges getting it done, and I missed a deadline or two – but I always tried to make sure you knew where I was and when I expected to complete it.
Lessons: Communicate clearly and frequently. Check in, set milestones for longer projects, make sure your correspondents know how to find you. And with respect to balance above – set boundaries too. It’s OK to be unavailable in personal time if your contacts are not unaware of when and where you will be available. And some obvious stuff – use wireless email and scan everything every day; do triage – respond to everything that needs a response, even if just to say, “I’ll get back to you in 2 days.”
CHALLENGE 4: Accuracy
Research people have the challenge of being expected to know about everything in their field – and most of the fields we cover are vast. As commercial beings, we are eager to see our names and our companies’ names in the press, so we place a high value on responding to requests for comment. In such an atmosphere, it’s easy to get it wrong sometimes.
Solution: Use your network and always verify information before you act on it.
Lessons: Be clear about what you know and don’t know. It’s OK not to be expert on everything. This applies to anyone who has to make a call – rushing to judgment often leads to bad decisions. Don’t base things on one source, and use the growing power of social computing to leverage a network of trusted source before you make major leaps. At Forrester, we have been adding Leadership Boards to our mix – facilitated peer groups of people with similar job responsibilities – because they get great value out of talking to one another, not just us, about key problems and challenges. They give us great direction, push us towards topics that matter, and help us to refine our own work.
Q2: What are the five biggest issues facing the business technology industry in 2006, and in 2007? How can they be solved?
A) This is an interesting question, no matter who you ask. These responses are mine, not official Forrester positions – we have not published a ranked list of the most important issues. In no particular order:
ISSUE 1: Effective innovation with minimal disruption of existing business. This is a perennial dilemma. Invention is not innovation – innovation occurs when invention changes the way we live or work. But once a high-tech company experiences some success, maintaining its position becomes a tightrope walk – you need to support your installed base and still continue to innovate. How to balance those vectors is an eternal problem – look at the time it takes Microsoft to put out a new operating system, or Intel its next chip generation, as examples. They are always carrying their legacy along for the ride, and it slows them down.
Solution: To the degree we have a solution at all, it exists in building what Forrester’s Navi Radjou has labeled the Innovation Network. I’m leaving most of the richness out of his model, but the essence is that stakeholders are all involved, (including your customers, suppliers, financiers, brokers, etc.), in the process. This acts in part as a guide to keep you on the rails – if something is too far off the mark, you’re likely to know it. And if something truly disruptive comes along but clearly meets the needs of this wider network, you can be bold with some confidence. And then separately, you have to solve the problem of how to bring everyone along and support them effectively through the transition.
ISSUE 2: Economic uncertainty – where will the next tranche of revenue come from for high-tech?
Solution: Incremental growth will continue to occur in the enterprise business market, but that is what it is likely to be for some time – incremental. We have penetrated the enterprise market with today’s technologies and until a truly new thing comes along, the model will not shift dramatically. We are “doing verticals” already, and technologically in most spaces the big directions are the same – there’s no radically different technologies competing. The next large piece will come from SMBs and new geographies. Neither of those markets will be amenable to a direct sales model for most business technology – it will be about channels. The battleground for the reset of this decade for the biggest suppliers will be in building the biggest and best partner ecosystem. Good technology is table stakes. For the smaller companies, it will be about using the Net creatively to compensate for not having the channel organization, and about partnering carefully with the big players where it makes sense to.
ISSUE 3: People. The loss of experience.
Solution: I have to get on a soapbox here for a minute; our industry must be involved in policy decisions about these things. From retirement to education to immigration to whether IP law will support people who want to create new things, we are surrounded by legal, political and governmental issues and only a few companies know what to do about it. If there is a solution, it lies in the traditional path of getting involved with trade associations – in the US, the ITAA is a good example – and making our voices, as an industry, heard. The technology industry needs to engage.
And there are some technology solutions– eLearning has enormous intellectual and economic promise, for example. And knowledge capture, expertise location, the use of social computing techniques like wikis, blog crawling – all these things play a role too.
ISSUE 4: New economic and licensing models – software as a service, open source, value-based pricing, etc.
Solution: This is an uncertainty for any individual company, but it’s healthy for the industry as a whole. There is a new IT ecosystem emerging that will create a new model of pricing, licensing and payment mechanisms. Its shape is uncertain, but the best guidance for most companies is to watch closely and listen to the customer’s needs. Forrester spends a lot of time tracking how companies want to buy, and they are as uncertain as the suppliers are. But one thing remains clear – if the offering has demonstrable value and the price is fair and in keeping with that value, we’ll find a way.
ISSUE 5: Technology change. Everywhere we look – chip architecture, communications protocols, software architecture – everything seems to be undergoing wrenching redefinition. What to do?
Solution: This is often perceived as a problem, but in fact, it’s a sign of health. Nobody is suggesting that the basic problems have been solved and we don’t need to change anything. We continue to improve – more power, less cost, easier management, more flexibility. Arthur Clarke once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Sounds like a good goal to me. We simply need to keep up – and remember that it’s about the customer.
Q3: Provide your five predictions of future trends, their implications and business opportunities?
TREND 1: The transformation of software applications architecture to more modular, standards-based, composition –oriented form.
Implication: The history of software has been about ever-increasing levels of abstraction, where the artifacts we create and manipulate look more like what business people understand as their business processes. This continuing evolution is creating more and more collaboration between business executives and IT, and will continue to improve that dialogue as the next generation of software is released and installed in the second half of this decade.
Business Opportunity: This transformation is resulting in the creation of business ecosystems around the major platform players such as SAP, Oracle and Microsoft. Many business markets are too small for them to go after directly, so there will be great opportunity for niche products to populate these “micro-verticals” as part of the big players’ partner programs, using services-oriented architecture (SOA) as a way to bind themselves in.
TREND 2:The growth of more sophisticated Information Workplaces that put a premium on collaboration and seamless movement from task to task.
Implication: Today’s information worker – and that group is coming to encompass more and more of the work force – spend a great deal of time in task switching, looking for people, information and resources. But the economic underpinnings of that model, which was created when computer time was expensive and people were cheap, have been blown up. Now we understand that computers should serve people, not the other way around, to maximize what is clearly the more valuable economic resource – our people. Systems will transform to leverage that.
Business Opportunity: For technology vendors – finding ways to get into that stack – RIM figured it out, for example. So did Google. Their next challenge is to keep their niche if they can while cutting deals with other people to participate in the broader stack – nobody will own it all, even if they think they have enough money today to try to.
For consumers of technology – leveraging these new capabilities to build new business models. We all remember the IBM ads about people selling olive oil worldwide out of their basements over the Net. Today’s entrepreneur may be building mashups – combining Google maps with weather news and the sporting schedule to show you whether your game tonight will be rained out. Who knows? The possibilities are endless. More concretely, training employees to use these new capabilities with just-in-time learning, role-based interactions, etc. will spawn a whole new series of creative opportunities – and will let us do more in less time. It will be another step up the productivity ladder when we harness it effectively.
TREND 3: The data flood. Although there are inevitable stumbles along the way (slower than hyped takeup of RFID, for example) the world of things is increasingly connected to the net.
Implication: Forrester calls this the Extended Internet and it has enormous implications for everyone – remote medicine, device monitoring, etc along with the more mundane logistics applications like tracking goods. But it will also create a flood of data that will impact storage, networks, analytic software, operations management, and many other areas.
Business Opportunity: all of the above are markets in IT today, and everywhere you look there are startups looking at new ideas. Solving this problem will not be easy – we’re about to be inundated with more data than we’ve ever had. Will a combination of search and analytics be the answer? Sorry to answer a question with a question – I’m as eager as anyone to see what happens next.
TREND 4: Globalization
Implication: The world continues to shrink. Products need to be internationalized, distributed, marketed and managed globally – competition can come from anywhere. For many of us in North America, this is radically new. We are much less aware of the rest of the world than, say, our European counterparts, who speak more languages, are more aware of cultural differences, and are comfortable in more places where their native language is not spoken.
Business Opportunity: Learn to be an international businessperson. At an individual level, the next generation of managers from North America needs to be much more savvy about the rest of the world than we are today. Academia and business will need to step up to provide that seasoning. And there will be a great deal of opportunity for companies that learn to service those needs. Travel companies should be playing here – it’s tough to make money in the airline business, but what if you taught your customers how to live in the wider world instead of just carrying them there, or giving them a room?
TREND 5: Environmental challenges. I could talk about several – pollution, global warming, etc. – but here’s one that’s already bubbling up: power. Hardware manufacturers from chip to system are all touting their new focus on reducing power consumption, heat dissipation, etc.
Implication: Like any other issue, many of the environmental ones, and especially power, can be tackled with engineering and information. There will be huge opportunities for companies that can find breakthroughs here, and there is a great deal of research going on that is ripe for commercialization.
Q4: For the future, which specific new technologies do you find will have the greatest impact on history?
A) Nanotechnology. I realize this is an enormous and very broad area, but that is precisely the point. The applications are so varied as to be staggering, and we have only scratched the surface here. Nanotech will be as significant as the industrial revolution itself has been.
Biotechnology. The mapping of the human genome was one of the supreme intellectual achievements of mankind and its application to solving problems of disease will only be the beginning of its usefulness.
Q5: Provide commentary on three topics of your choosing.
TOPIC 1: Space
TOPIC 2: The Oceans
TOPIC 3: On a more mundane level – legacy transformation in IT.
Q6: Now for some lighter questions: What is your favorite passion?
A) After my family? The arts. One of my personal sanity mechanisms is finding time to visit museums when I travel, and I’ve had the good fortune to see many of the world’s great ones. Plenty more on the list, though. But of all the arts, the one that rises to the top for me is music – I’ve hit a lot of great concert halls, too.
What is your favorite gadget?It’s not really a gadget. My guitar is the one “thing” I own that I want with me whenever possible. I usually have it with me on trips of more than two days, and an hour with it in the evening is as important to me as a fine meal or a massage is to many of my friends.
As for business gadgets – I’d have to say my Blackberry – it’s my phone, my calendar, my email, access to the web now that networks are faster. I work with my laptop, but I live with my Blackberry.
FINAL COMMENT: You have contributed significantly throughout your career to the business technology industry. We are fortunate to have you share your deep insights with the audience. Thank you for this interview. We wish you continued success for the future.
A) Thanks for asking. Every day is a learning experience for me – and I wish the same for everyone who reads this.
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