The Power of Convergence

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I’ve enjoyed getting to know Faisal Hoque, CEO of BTM Corporation.  His story is the classic success story.  He moved to the United States from Bangladesh with nothing and now is regularly cited as a business and technology expert.  We discussed his leadership journey, his views on company culture, and his latest book.

Faisal, you’ve had quite the journey.  You grew up in Bangladesh and started a business at the age of 14 in order to raise money to move to the United States and study here.  What a journey it’s been from that point until now.  You’re the founder and CEO of BTM Corporation, you’ve written five management books, you’ve been named as one of the most influential people in technology.  Give me a synopsis of your story.

I’d be happy to, Skip. It’s perfect that you use the word “journey” because that’s exactly how I view life – a journey. To date it has been comprised of a series of events as you mentioned, and each has held a valuable purpose in guiding me through every stage. One of my favorite books is The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho. There are many quotes from the books that I think of often, but the following, “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure,” is particularly meaningful to me because regardless of the difficulties I’ve faced, I have never allowed a fear of failing to dissuade me from pursuing my dreams.

Twenty-three years ago, I had just finished my first summer semester at Southern Illinois University Carbondale after arriving from Bangladesh in 1986. I was 17 and a student in the College of Engineering. After paying my tuition for the summer and fall, I had $700.00 left to survive, secure an education and start my life. I didn’t quite realize how tight of a situation I was in.

I met some local students who became good friends. They suggested I introduce myself to the “art and science” of on-campus “janitorial engineering.” So began my expertise in polishing marble floors, cleaning arena bleachers, offices and bathrooms. My friends urged me to request financial assistance going forward. So my “pitching” career began with efforts to set up meetings with the dean, provost and university president.

It is here in the corridors of Carbondale I experienced rejection when I was told “No” to my request for financial help. The provost began by suggesting I should seriously consider going back home, which I would not even consider. After submitting numerous applications, I received a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota in Duluth. I built my first software/hardware product, which was sold commercially by a local company.

Not long after, I accepted an offer from Pitney Bowes, even though it was not in the financial industry where I initially envisioned myself. From Pitney, I moved onto Dun and Bradstreet and then took the step of building my first company, KnowledgeBase.

I was asked to join GE to launch their first B2B e-commerce spin-off as one of their youngest business executives at the age of 24. Ten years after my journey here began, I started my next company, EC Cubed. We launched in December 1996 and immediately signed up GE as a customer. Less than two years later, after raising millions of dollars from venture capitalists (VCs) and securing top-tier customers, I was fired as CEO. It’s a story many entrepreneurs have experienced at the hands of VCs, and a lesson I will never forget.

Not long after, I returned to the drawing board and wrote another book, then prepared for the launch of my next company in December of 1999, BTM Corporation. Fast forward 13 years, four more books, and many Fortune 500 customer transformations, and I count my blessings each day as I continue to pursue my dreams in this ongoing journey.

Your latest book is The Power of Convergence.  Define convergence.

Our ability to manage business technology has not kept pace with our creation of new technology.

Let me stop for a moment to define ‘‘business technology’’: the application of technology to deliver a business capability or automate a business operation, in other words, the right technology to meet the business objective. In many organizations there are still two camps–technophiles and technophobes–and if they aren’t at war, they are at the very least wary of each other. In too many organizations, the ‘‘business side’’ comes up with a plan and throws it over the wall to the ‘‘technology side’’ for implementation. Because technology is so embedded in the way things work today, these two sides should have been sitting and planning together from the very beginning.

In a converged organization technology and business leadership are able to operate simultaneously in both spaces.  A single leadership team operates across both spaces with individual leaders directly involved with orchestrating actions in either space. Some activities may remain pure business and some pure technology, but most activities intertwine business and technology in such a manner that the two become indistinguishable.

The underlying, critical element of achieving and maintaining convergence involves building and implementing the cross-functional management culture.  It is a continual evolution and revolution of concepts and opportunities that reflect contemporary and future business operations and objectives.

An essential part of this transition requires both left-brained (analytical) and right-brained (creative) talent and culture. Leaders of the future will approach this collaboration challenge by defining cross-functional teams as ‘personas.’ These are roles that one assumes or displays in society or the workplace. Their skills and behaviors influence their interactions with other people. Some personas are analytical, some are creative, and others are a combination. A few personas are as follows:

  • Learning personas that keep an enterprise from being too internally focused and trapped within their comfort zone. Learners need to be sufficiently humble to question their worldview and remain open to new insights every day.
  • Organizing personas that serve to move the innovation lifecycle forward. Even the best ideas must continuously compete for attention, resources, and time. These champions are skilled at navigating processes, politics, and red tape to bring an innovation to market.
  • Building personas are the connections between the learning and organizing personas; they apply insights from the learning personas and channel the empowerment from the organizing personas to make new things happen. Builders are often highly visible and close to the heart of the innovation action.

Establishing these personas creates the capabilities needed to understand how the innovation process works and the role each team plays in it. This allows enterprises to continually drive innovation on two levels: product and business model. Products must evolve with market dynamics and customer needs and desires. Consequently, business models must change or evolve as innovation either creates or changes products. We can see this dynamic unfolding today with the evolution of cloud computing.

They have to embrace right-brained skills, such as creativity, imagination, analogy, and empathy. Unlike most organizations that separate these individuals into silos–such as marketing versus engineering–enterprises in the age of mastery will build teams that morph as new processes and ideas unfold.

Give us some example of  “convergence”.

Anyone raising a child with the benefits of the digital world doesn’t have to look past those tiny fingertips tapping their own apps to realize how quickly we’re transitioning.

Theoretical physicist and futurist Dr. Michio Kaku argues that humankind is at a turning point in history. He claims that in this century, we are going to make a shift from the “Age of Discovery” to the “Age of Mastery,” a period in which we will move from being passive observers of life and nature to its active choreographers. According to Kaku, robots with human-level intelligence may finally become a reality, and in the ultimate stage of mastery, we’ll even be able to merge our minds with machine intelligence. It’s how we harness this mastery that will matter.

Convergence of Disciplines

Science fiction is becoming fact. During a recent visit to Google headquarters, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on the state’s roads. Brown touted the signing of the bill as “turning today’s science fiction into tomorrow’s reality.” California is the third U.S. state to legalize self-driving cars, following Nevada and Florida, where similar laws were passed earlier this year.

This is just the beginning. We need to be ready for the next set of intelligent innovation, in any field. Hospitals are embracing robotic surgery, and patients are choosing it more and more for many procedures. Robotic-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy is minimally-invasive laparoscopic surgery and has become the standard of care for prostate cancer patients. It offers lower morbidity, less pain, less blood loss and increased precision.

Education too needs to evolve to prepare people for an integrated world, where science converges with every area of practice and development. People training in or committed to a single discipline in a traditional manner won’t succeed in tomorrow’s marketplace. For more than 30 years, the Fisher Program in Management and Technology has combined two of th University of Pennsylvania’s greatest assets into one educational experience: Penn Engineering and The Wharton School. Schools that fail to offer true cross-disciplinary study are going to fall behind in creating future leaders of a converged world. And leaders who fail to create a cross-functional, cross-industry workforce will lose to their competition.

It is the leader’s responsibility to prepare his or her organization for what lies ahead–and that will mean changes in what we are doing now to break down the silos and create multi-disciplinary teams–in order to prepare for the unknown.

You talk about the dangers of using technology improperly.  How do businesses misuse technology?

Technology utilization in the absence of a thorough plan is a recipe for failure. A contractor would never build a house without a clear blueprint, yet technology teams frequently execute programs in support of business objectives without an understanding of what they truly are – there is a massive disconnect – and as a result, money, time, and resources are wasted. I constantly hear stories of woe from business leaders on multi-million dollar initiatives gone awry on delivered outcomes that did not match actual goals. Rolling the dice and hoping for the best is not a strategy. Such careless methods must be replaced with precise metrics and provable outcomes.

Properly implemented, operating blueprints allow businesses to prioritize and guide improved performance, value, and sustainable growth through the effective use of technology. Clearly, new ideas, strategies, and management tools are essential as the business climate changes. In today’s volatile market, the success for an enterprise is often driven by its ability to recognize significant challenges and immediately identify the strategic imperatives necessary to address them.

In this constantly changing business climate, I’ve heard you speak about the need for business leaders to move with speed to stay a step ahead of competitors.  You write about agility as the essential competitive element.  How do companies stay agile?

Agile organizations are like veteran athletes, aware of what is happening around them and understanding how information, events, and their own actions will impact their goals and objectives, both now and in the near future. They position themselves to observe what’s happening and have the wherewithal to act upon this intelligence.

An agile enterprise is able to sense and respond to both a competitor’s strategic moves within existing product markets as well as environmental signals arising from shifts in customer desires or in new technologies by continuously demonstrating the following four following practices:

  1. They continuously scan their environment to identify both threats to existing positions and opportunities to forge new positions.
  2. They regularly engage in strategic experiments by implementing small-scale strategic initiatives to challenge internal or external work environments to gain experience with emerging technologies, work practices, product or service concepts, customer segments, or product markets.
  3. They devise adaptive business architectures so that their competitive assets (as well as those of partners) can be realigned quickly–shutting down activities, commencing new activities, or shifting resources among activities.
  4. They learn to radically renew the competencies that characterize their competitive nature.

How does a smart leadership team view technology?

A smart leadership team views technology as a fundamental enabler of business, regardless of industry or company size. One of the greatest mistakes made by many leadership teams is to view technology as little more than a basic function of operational support – i.e. help desk, network systems, etc. There is a reason why you never hear me use the term “IT.” Technology is far more than just information technology, and to categorize it as just IT shortchanges the value it can deliver. That’s why I believe it’s so important to have cross-functional, multi-disciplinary management teams in place to fully understand the needs of business and the ability of various technologies (Cloud, Business Analytics, Mobility, etc) in driving value.

How do companies foster a culture of innovation?

Discipline and innovation are not opposites, but complements. Establishing an innovation culture consumes a great deal of organizational energy in overcoming the forces of inertia and entropy. But once an idea has been successfully commercialized, respected champions emerge to drive new sources of the energy, creativity, discipline, and resources that sustain and grow an enduring culture of innovation. Successful organizations manage innovation from concept to commercialization so that good ideas not only get created but also continually find their way into the products and services portfolio.

In his classic book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Peter Drucker describes innovation as a delicate dance between perception and analysis. Analysis, with all its discipline, must be based on a perception of change: “This requires a willingness to say, I don’t actually know enough to analyze, but I shall find out. I’ll go out, look around, ask questions, and listen.’”

In an age of unanswerable questions, asking the right question might just be the answer.

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