Jack Welch and a Roman Centurion walk into a bar…

640px-Roman_soldiers_with_aquilifer_signifer_centurio_70_aC

Image credit to MatthiasKebel of Wikimedia

Imagine you’re in a small theater. The stage is set as a middle class living room of the 1970s. Uncomfortable sofas, Dad’s overstuffed recliner and shag carpeting so green your eyes hurt.

Then, as the lights go down and Act 1 opens, a Roman legion enters stage left for an assault on the ancient Hebrew mountain encampment at Masada.

Wait, what?

Oddly enough, the coverage of GE’s strategic dismantling and sale of GE Capital makes me think of these hypothetical bewildered theatergoers. Here, I want to argue a contrarian view of GE’s moves as a way of demonstrating that technology is changing the way we have to look at the world – and talk about the world.

The action of a play is supposed to be consistent with the stage environment. So, when GE gets out of a business that has garnered a great deal of attention – and profits – in the last couple decades business writers have to select an environment in which to place that action so that it makes sense to them. Thus, GE is “throwing in the towel” on financial markets, according to the New York Times, due to tighter regulation in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Financial markets are a familiar stage setting for business writers. They know how to write those dramas easily, what cast of characters to call on and the familiar lines of dialogue that come out of their mouths. And so it is that GE is exiting this scene, hectored off the stage by regulators and the oppressive barriers to making more than a few billion dollars in profit. It is an easy play to write…as long as you choose financial markets as your stage setting. 

Allow me to send the Roman Legion through this setting, muddying up the already ugly shag carpet. The GE situation is an example of a crucial change in understanding a technology-driven world where every company is a technology company.

When you’re telling a story today, the setting is a critical component to get right. It is the foundation of any understanding of what you’re doing and it is the easiest part of your story to take for granted. Technology makes environments much more fluid than in the past where there were walls between industries and opportunities and threats did not cross boundaries. You have to spend some time describing the scene or the action will make no sense.

GE is going to focus on its industrial businesses such as transportation systems, aircraft engines, railroad engines, turbines and other huge equipment that somehow manages to disappear into modern infrastructure. For many business writers focused on Wall Street, this is boring compared to the masters-of-the-universe world of financial markets. It’s like you woke up from a Ferrari-infused dream and discovered that you’re driving your grandfather’s Oldsmobile.

But, what if we shift the setting to the technology industry instead of Wall Street? GE is loading those boring jet engines and trains with sensors that produce data, an industrial implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT). All of that data is then processed in a Big Data analytics platform GE has branded Predix. Predix enables GE to add huge, recurring services revenue streams to these manufacturing businesses. Do you want to predict jet engine failures? Predix can help. Do you want to schedule maintenance downtime for your trains so that it’s least disruptive? Predix can do that.

Of course, these are just tips of the many icebergs GE has access to through its dominance of these old-line manufacturing businesses. These systems will be everywhere, blipping out data that will give GE an unprecedented view of the 21st century. That is an incredible position for a diversified conglomerate.

Change the setting, and you must write a different play. In this setting, GE Capital is a distraction, a competitor for investment capital and a potential albatross the next time Wall Street destroys the world economy. The 21st century masters of the universe are to be found in the data business, not derivatives.

Like the aforementioned business writers, we are still drawing on familiar plots to describe the actions we see. However, the environment has changed and the way we talk about that environment is still catching up. We are still adjusting to this world where everything is fluid.

You can’t assume that your audience sees the same environment you do anymore. If you’re selling an idea, you need to focus first on the problem you’re solving. If you’re making a speech, you better talk about changes in the world before you mention your strategy. What’s obvious to you might not be obvious to someone else. That’s always been true in communication, but this maxim is a tangible force in a technology-driven world where people can connect old dots in new ways.

Setting the stage is now crucial to any discussion of what’s happening in the world. If you skip that step, technology could turn your 1970s family drama into a 21st century farce.

The Moore’s Law Moment

cyborg-438398_1280 copyIf you have kids, you are familiar with the question that never stops: Why?

It’s one of the first annoying questions our kids ask us. Why do I have to go to bed? Why can’t we have pizza every night?

The question never goes away and somehow “because I’m big and you’re little” stops working once the questions get more serious. For instance:

Why is tech anxiety showing up in so many places?

I have written in recent weeks about the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) concerns over the Internet of Things (IoT), the European Union’s concerns over privacy and the right to be forgotten in Internet searches, and the sprawling megaplex of Hollywood movies telling us to be afraid of artificial intelligence, our reliance on technology, Big Data etc. etc. To this list I would add more recent examples such as technology’s role in income inequalitythe fear of drones, and others.

Why? Why is there a regular pulse of tech anxiety in the news, in government pronouncements, in popular culture and in public policy discussions?

I believe we are having a Moore’s Law Moment (MLM). What is an MLM, you ask? It is the popular recognition of a change in the way the world works driven by technology’s expanding capability – defined by Moore’s Law. And change can create anxiety.

In 1965, Gordon Moore observed that “the number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months.” The physical manifestation of this simple observation was recently termed “one of the most explosive forces in history” by Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard. Moore’s Law and the predictable growth in computing capability – measured in performance, miniaturization or the integration of more and more disparate functions on a single chip without melting it back into sand – has moved well beyond engineering science.

We now live in the “world of Moore’s Law” according to Forbes. That’s a profound statement and arguably is the root of current MLMs. If Moore’s Law equals “the world” then everything has to be considered in the context of Moore’s Law. When we do that, we quickly glimpse the future. The FTC has been doing so with the IoT. Policymakers and economists are doing so with income inequality between those skilled in technology and others. Bill Gates and others have been doing so with artificial intelligence. In a more positive light, medical researchers are having an MLM with the plummeting cost of genomics, the auto industry is experiencing an MLM over autonomous cars, and Apple has brought apps to our wrists because of Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law is now embedded in the very grammar of a technology-driven world. We have an innate understanding that any capability that comes into existence – no matter how rudimentary at first – will get better, faster, cheaper at a pretty fast clip. This colors the way we talk about technology. It is getting harder to stay in the present tense when discussing computing capabilities. If you talk about technology for very long, you will end up making a claim about how the world will work in the near future – and you will experience an MLM.

With all the amazing possibilities that Moore’s Law brings, the MLM can be a very positive experience. But, not always as we are seeing today. Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard is a fine exemplar of the anxiety that potentially comes with the MLM.

“We’ve grown so accustomed to living in the world of Moore’s Law that we forget we’re dealing with one of the most explosive forces in history. We’ve become so adept at predicting, incorporating and assimilating each new, upward tick of the curve that we assume we have this monster under control. We don’t.”

Karlgaard is clearly in the grips of a debilitating MLM but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. He and I appear to agree that these MLMs will be more frequent going forward. That has huge implications for technology communicators, for policymakers, for those studying a globally integrated technology-driven world and people leading a contemporary life.

Tech anxiety is real. Why? Because Moore’s Law is impacting the way we talk about the present, the future and how we consider the digital world in which we live.

At the Movies: Tech Fear

Fireworks ShowSpoiler Alert! Technology is a fearsome force in 2015 cinema. The movie “Blackhat” is about hackers with nefarious intent. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” comes out this year and it has a sentient form of artificial intelligence turned evil. The “Terminator” series is back and, according to the Super Bowl trailer, there are several Terminators trying to, well, terminate someone.

Get the picture? We need saving from the technology-driven world we created.

Now, these are all just silly movies, of course. Mere entertainment. Trifles really. Nothing anyone should spend time thinking about. Move along. These are not the droids we’re looking for.

Yet, beyond the multiplex, there are a lot of legitimate questions being raised, some proposals floated and august bodies convening. These growing themes in technology discourse are not so easily dismissed. A growing number of influential people are talking about the future of our technology-driven world and they are questioning the plot of the movie they are watching. Tech executives and communicators should not be cavalier toward these fears, and make the mistake of assuming that if we build Skynet we are in control of it (whoops, Spoiler Alert!).

There is a growing sub-plot of dystopian future in technology discourse and it promises some disturbing sequels to a romantic comedy about smartphones and cat videos. I wrote earlier this year about the Federal Trade Commission chairperson lecturing attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show on privacy concerns around the Internet of Things. The FTC has since issued a report detailing those concerns.

The FTC is joining the European Court of Justice and the EU in general in taking a stand on privacy and security as a social issue rather than a purely technical one. We also see this concern over technology’s impact in Microsoft’s study of global attitudes toward technology. In addition to gauging how much people like technology, the report gave voice to global user fears over technology’s ability to violate privacy.

The impact of technology on job destruction is also a hot topic among economists. Ultron might be a comic book monster, but there are real worries that many categories of knowledge-based jobs will appear and then be eliminated by AI before our kids finish their resumes to apply.

Not to be outdone by surveys and economists, no less than Elon MuskBill Gates and Dr. Stephen Hawking are predicting doom over the evolution of artificial intelligence. Gates is worried, but also chuckles that he would likely have been an AI researcher if Microsoft hadn’t worked out so well. In other words, we’re lucky that he got rich enough to save the world rather than destroy it.

These concerns about where we are heading are all valid questions that call for some industry response. In my next post, I will argue that concerns over the future are essentially built into the act of considering technology in our lives. For the moment, I will close by torturing my movie metaphor. Many actors seem to be reading from a script about a dystopian future while the technology industry thumbs through its proudly written romantic comedy.

Spoiler alert! This movie needs a hero. Are you the entrepreneur that can respond to these fears? We may need one. Apparently Tony Stark is busy battling a Terminator.

3 Ideas in the FTC Speech at CES

federal-trade-commission-seal-36081_1280Privacy concerns are nothing new for the technology industry. Yet, many outlets (like this one and this one) rightly noted that there was something newsworthy when Federal Trade Commission Chairperson Edith Ramirez shared her perspectives on the Internet of Things (IoT) at the Consumer Electronics Show last month. The details of what she said have been well covered so I won’t dwell on them here. Suffice to say that the government is not worried about the IoT as an industrial Internet making manufacturing and distribution systems more efficient. The FTC chair is worried about the consumer implications.

I was not directly involved in any speech at CES this year, so I feel a little freer than usual to share a reverse engineering of the FTC speech. Here, I want to read her words more closely to spy the ideas that motivated them. These ideas are percolating through the US government to the point they found some expression at a forum as high profile as CES.

Make of this what you will. I am not attempting to make value judgments here though many enthusiastic discussions could grow from these seeds. With those disclaimers, three ideas arise from a close reading of the text of the speech.

1. The IoT is not a technology, it is an environment

Privacy concerns have been around many years. The IoT is different, though, according to the FTC.

Sharing is a conscious action we take. We give up information knowing we will get that “like” from a friend or free shipping from Amazon etc. The IoT, however, removes this necessity for conscious action to produce data. It creates an environment in which the motions of everyday life are harvested as data without anyone needing to consciously take an action (like posting a status update) to produce that data. The FTC sees this as a game changer.

The word “ubiquitous” shows up quite often in the prepared remarks. She notes the 25 billion connected devices expected to be out there – everywhere – this year. She speaks of data being collected in any space – even “intimate spaces” – and the “ocean” of data that will be produced. All these images speak to the IoT being an environmental phenomenon that we cannot escape – like the earth we walk on, ocean we swim in and the invisible atmosphere in which we exist. The FTC sees the IoT as a new invisible atmosphere that we exist in – willingly or not.

2. Such an environment will incubate new kinds of players

In the shadow of the Sony hack, FTC Chair Ramirez reminded people of the security concerns created by this new environment that will have billions and billions of entry points to hack your personal data. Yet, she did not stop there. This environment will create new kinds of people who are simply creatures of that environment as sure as evolution created big fish and little fish to populate that enormous ocean.

Santa knows if you’ve been naughty or nice, but at least you also know when you told a fib or stole from the cookie jar. FTC Chair Ramirez raises the specter of a set of people who can at least claim to know you better than you know yourself. These people have access to the intimacies and banalities of your life. They will be empowered to produce a profile of you that others can pay to see, but you will never see. Such people are essentially called into existence by this environment and they can begin reshaping parts of your life without you even knowing it.

Wouldn’t prospective employers want to know who you really are when no one is looking? Wouldn’t universities want to know if you really are the person you claim to be in that entrance essay? Someone who knows how to manipulate all this data can sell a picture of you compiled from your social media accounts, your thermostat, your car and your toothbrush. These voyeurs need not be black hats like the infamous hackers. The environment is capable of producing people who simply take the power they find in this environment as a given and do something with it that others will pay for.

3. Such an environment needs a hero

Spoiler alert! In the film “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” the titular captain foiled a massive data-driven plot to reshape the world to make it “safer” and more orderly. In essence, the conspiracy so offended his values that Captain America was called into action to reshape the environment in which he found himself. FTC Chair Ramirez called for such a hero.

Who is this masked person with the colorful shield? Well, it could be an entrepreneur, someone like Captain America who has certain skills that can be employed when that environment offends his or her values. Ramirez held out the idea that this scary version of the IoT needed consumer “trust” to function effectively and someone supplying that trust would be rewarded. Many CES attendees might respond to that call to action.

No doubt this is the preferred third act in her dystopian tale. Yet, the FTC chair’s trek to CES is a tangible message that government will enter the IoT environment and play that role of hero if necessary. Of course, the European Union and the European Court of Justice have already made that point on the other side of the pond.

These three ideas appear to motivate the speech and set the scene for the relationship between industry and government over the IoT. 2015 will be an interesting year for security and privacy. My thermostat told me so.

Emerging Frames for 2014

992392_77011309Most blogs about the year ahead focus on specific predictions for actual events. How boring.

2014 prediction: Facebook will buy a company that you have never heard of for a price you can’t imagine.

This annual blog post is a different beast. Anyone can come up with a list of predictions. I am less concerned with what is specifically going to happen than how we will talk about the world no matter what occurs. Thought leadership platforms are built on Big Ideas and Big Ideas are essentially frames around events and trends that allow you to connect dots into a picture of the world. In the social sciences, framing is the process by which we understand events in the world as well as the product at the end of that process. Think of a frame as a uniquely curved lens through which you see the world or an algorithm that makes connections among some things and not others.

Frames are not just fancy words. They help people understand the world so they can take action, do some good and achieve goals amidst events that are out of their control. Careful, thoughtful framing is a foundation of thought leadership.

Some frames emerge out of human efforts to make sense of a fast-moving crazy world and that is what we are concerned with here. What follows is an annotated set of frames likely to shape what we are hearing this year. While events and trends are referenced, this exercise is more about how the world sounds when we are talking about those things than the events and trends themselves. We are looking for frames in the making.

1. Edward Snowden + global tech industry + electoral politics = invisibility cloaks

Edward Snowden and the NSA created a big story in 2013 and there is no sign that the Chinese water torture of drip-by-drip leaks will end soon. Yet, at some point, a new frame has to arise to give people a way to start moving forward.

blog_nsa_logoLeaders such as Angela Merkel cannot blithely nudge and wink about the NSA when their citizens read that their cell phones or diplomatic conversations are being tapped. Yet, they still have to do business with the US. The more pragmatic issue though, is that US technology companies seeking to sell gear and software around the world – that would be all US technology companies – now have standard questions to answer in any sales call. “Does the NSA have access to this product?” Every field sales person I have ever known does not like any question that stands in the way of “here is the PO.” That means positions will be created on NSA snooping at every corporate headquarters in America. That no doubt leads to a desire to get those questions off the table with some larger public industry position and the trappings – if not the fact – of real action. Since no one actually wants an arms race between industry and governments over snooping versus cloaking technologies, we need some counterweight that rebalances the Snowden/NSA story. That counterweight will begin – if not end – with a new way of talking about the issue.

2. Gen X, Y, and Z + retiring boomers = Generational shift

It is easy to find research on millennials as well as complaints about real or imagined entitlement issues and defenses of same. This year, though, the tone will change as these generations are discovered in the demographic mainstream. Think about it. The original coining of the term “digital native” occurred in 2001 to describe a conflict between students (those who grew up in a digital world) and those teaching them (boomers struggling to adapt). Well, the struggle is over and the natives won. They aren’t just in high school anymore. They are front line managers, parents, entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and even teachers. Boomers are increasingly the retired people down the street telling kids to get off their lawns. Acknowledging this generational shift will change the tone of many conversations about technology. The expectation that the world is digital and lots of stuff just happens alters how we talk about new ideas. Of course the Internet of Things will enable your toaster to alert you when it needs replacing. Get over it in 2014. We will stop saying “wow” and start asking “when?”

3. Big Data + new tools + new services = Commoditizing strategy

big-data-hr copyLawrence Freedman’s massive tome on “Strategy” as a concept suggests that new technology has always driven an evolution in what we consider to be strategic. Artillery changed battlefield strategy. Nuclear weapons took military strategy out of the hands of the generals and the Cold War moved strategy considerations into think tanks like the Rand Corp. New tools require new kinds of decisions and often spawn new kinds of decision makers. Strategists have always gravitated to the “new” and find new frontiers when it becomes the “normal.”

Big Data is still relatively new but generating a lot of interest across industries. Technologies like Hadoop are making Big Data analytics available to a much larger cross-section of organizations. Big Data’s promise, of course, is the ability to uncover strategic insights that are already there in your organization’s data if you could just see them. Today, you need really expensive data scientists who craft their own tools to make Big Data viable. That will start changing in 2014 as more Hadoop distributions are available and new tools come to market that allow business managers to perform basic Big Data queries on their own. This will no doubt affect the way we talk about strategy as it becomes much more a science than art. How brilliant do you have to be to click the “insight” button to come up with a new business or service? Push-button insights might drive innovation, but it will no doubt change what we mean when we talk of “strategy.” 2014 might well start raising the stakes on what kind of insight counts as strategic since Big Data will commoditize insights.

4. Obamacare + social media + quantified self technology = new healthcare discourse

mobile-healthcare-emr11I realize it’s a challenge to separate the politics of Obamacare from its pieces, but you have to bear with me on this one. As Obamacare settles into existence, the energy around healthcare discourse is unlikely to dissipate. It will evolve, spawning some painful discussions around the actual cost of healthcare services in this nation. Steven Brill laid the groundwork with his amazing piece in Time on the tortured logic of healthcare costs. Look forward to more because of a few simple forces that are bound to interact.

One way or another, we will get more young people into the healthcare system. Young people are accustomed to using online information and social media. The Medicare system is now publishing what it considers “fair” costs of certain procedures. The result will be more posts like this one as more people lay bear their interactions with a healthcare system that is somehow not bounded by market forces in setting prices. These same new healthcare consumers are also more likely to use new information sources and “quantified self” technologies like Fitbit. And they’ll be sharing all that information and experience across social media. Reforming healthcare will slowly shift its center of gravity from a governmental discourse to one of social movements, social media and new technology.

By no means is this intended as an exhaustive list. It is intended to spark some conversations. Thought leadership goes beyond individual events and trends and provides a way to talk about them all so that we can make sense of a fast-moving world.

…And Communication*

Pink Gerbera DaisiesThe word “and” appears to be fading from the English language, like Michael J. Fox faded from the picture of the McFly family in “Back to the Future.”

SPOILER ALERT!

It took a heroic moment from daddy McFly to bring Michael J. back into the picture and we might need a similar effort to rejuvenate our ability to conceive of two things on an equal footing at the same time.

See what I did there? You probably read right past it. The word “and” connects two segments of the above sentence. Both segments are necessary to understand my point. Even though one of them has to come first, the second segment is just as important.

I got on this hunt for the “and” after reading a piece by business guru Geoffrey Moore about the slavish and exclusive (Look, there it is again!) devotion we have to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. To be clear, he was not advocating against STEM education and neither am I. Moore and I agree that STEM education is a vital part of our nation’s future. Bring on the robotics competitions and the baking soda volcanoes.

The troubling thing, though, is that “and” is missing from this equation.

Moore used the writerly strategy of a flower metaphor to illustrate his point. The stem is a vital part of the plant. Without the stem, the plant is not a flower as we understand what it means for something to be a rose or a daffodil or a carnation. The stem is only one vital part of our understanding of flowers. The stem supports a complex of petals, pistils and stamens that work with the stem to create what we define to be a flower. To intellectually reduce the flower to any one of those structures is to destroy what we all mean by the word “flower.” To act on that reduction in the physical world is to rip up a flower.

Try giving Mom a handful of stems – no pistils, petals or stamens – on Mother’s Day and this richer understanding of flowers will become abundantly clear.

So by all means, let’s teach these budding inventors and designers to invent and design – AND – how to sell their ideas to investors – AND – how to inspire others to follow them in their passions. STEM without communication skills is a flower…without the power.

*This post first appeared on the Cicero’s Academy web site and is republished here with permission.

What’s in a Name?

On Mark Twain, Sam Palmisano and the “Internet of Things”

ImageDo you agree that words matter? Mark Twain did. In the vast library of Twain quotes that should get its own Internet, he said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is
really a large matter – ‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Naming something properly is a key aspect of thought leadership. It is a blend of strategy and tactics framed by words. The right word calls the right concept to your audience’s mind. The right concept has a gravitational pull for other ideas that help the audience understand your point and even make their own contribution to it. A haphazard effort to name things drives haphazard outcomes.

To illustrate this, let’s consider a great example – by way of being a bad example – of the strategic nature of naming things properly. Let’s talk about “healthcare.” It’s a word we hear often. It’s in the news. “Healthcare” is a big part of our lives.

Now, do a thought experiment.

Take a moment to survey everything that is currently circulating in your thoughts, called to mind by that one word. Are all the thoughts, concepts and mental images swirling in your brain related to taking care of your health? Or are they actually about taking care of illnesses? Are you picturing people exercising and snacking on edamame? Or do you see people taking pills?

We spend a lot of time and money talking about “healthcare.” Would we have so much controversy about “illnesscare?” Would we have more discussion about exercise, cooking good food, redesigning cities for better lifestyles and a host of other things if we could call all that “healthcare” instead? But, we can’t. We have to invent other, more abstract, words like “wellness” because healthcare is taken. How much more popular would My Fitness Pal be if it were called “My Healthcare Pal?”

Naming things well provides a springboard in thought leadership. When Sam Palmisano, then-CEO of IBM, bet the corporate farm on services (even more so than his predecessor Lou Gerstner) he named his customer the “global entrepreneur.” The name called to mind a certain persona that could be translated into any national character or regional market. It simultaneously spoke to aspirations of those in emerging economies and the new-found opportunities for those in developed nations. It also carried a sub-text of the infrastructure such a person would need to operate globally right from the beginning of an enterprise and that was what IBM wanted to sell.

Obviously, some thought went into Palmisano’s naming of this archetypal customer. A more organic effort has supported the name “Internet of Things.” The name struck me as a bit dubious until I started investigating the concept for a client. You might wonder why you want your toaster watching cat videos. Most likely you don’t (but for those who do there’s an app for that I’m sure). It’s a comical image that keeps you thinking and soon you are hooked. You might want your sensor-equipped toaster, refrigerator and dishwasher on your home WiFi network connected to a hub that can alert you when things are getting out of spec (“Honey, the fridge is making that noise again!”). Likewise, when you’re driving into town from the suburbs you might want to know where the open parking spaces are. Imagine parking spaces that look for you rather than you hunting all over town for them. I could start liking this “Internet of Things” thing.

So, the name “Internet of Things” quickly challenged me to turn some whimsical images into what might be possible if objects really could talk to each other.

What other names of concepts or market dynamics are misnomers with potentially disastrous results or useful terms to spark understanding? Are we respecting the power of the lightning to illuminate the night sky? Or are we chasing lightning bugs in the dark?

 

PpT: Thinking by Powerpoint

powerpoint graphicPowerpoint is evil.  Did I just say that out loud?  OK, call it a necessary evil, then.  Powerpoint has imposed its own structure and grammar on business communication, creating a generation of slide jockeys rather than strategic communicators.  It has changed the way we think.

I was in a meeting recently with a potential startup client.  The senior execs and technologist were raising their first big funding round, the money that could make them a recognized player in a growing niche.   They struggled to explain their company.  The story was disjointed, but the guy who created the slides was still a true believer.  He kept interjecting “this is what you say here” while stabbing his finger at a printed Powerpoint slide.

It was an example of what I call Powerpoint thinking, or PpT for short.  People get wrapped up in the tool and how easy it is to create simple graphics, charts and bullets.  Producing a good slide deck becomes the real goal rather than achieving a business objective.  Presenters end up narrating their slides rather than making an argument or telling a compelling story.

The topic at hand was how to explain a complex technology to potential VCs.  The technology in question has some buzzword status, so the VCs are likely seeing pitches about it on a daily basis.  The team had some artfully produced slides but struggled to tell a compelling story and differentiate their approach.  Whenever the thread of logic got lost, this person reliably piped in: “This is what you say here…”

PpT essentially puts the slides at the center of the thought process and then bends the story around them.  That stands strategic communication on its head.  A few bullets here, a few bullets there, a couple charts and what do you have?

Bullets and charts.  Not an argument.  Not a story.

This particular management malady comes in various forms.  At larger companies, perfectly competent marketing people will labor to get their CEO slotted as the keynote speaker at an influencer conference; but then prepare a speech that starts with last quarter’s product launch slides.  Any sophisticated audience expects something more and will be disappointed – even a bit insulted – at such a performance.  That’s a lot of effort for a negative result.  CEOs would not accept that equation in a sales force and should expect more when competing in the marketplace of ideas as well.

Powerpoint is a fine tool and we should all know how to use it.  But, PpT is a state of mind where the tool uses us.

Emerging Frames for 2013

By John Thompson

Part of the secret sauce of thought leadership platforms is choosing the right frame for presenting an idea, initiative, product, company or what have you. To put it simply, by “frame” I mean the Big Idea that shapes how you present everything else.

992392_77011309A good frame operates at several levels. It provides a backdrop for your content, giving it a stage on which it can operate. It also calls other associations and emotions to the foreground for your audience members. This allows them to see your idea rubbing shoulders with other related concepts. It also informs what you are doing by answering the question: So what?

Some frames are evergreen, such as human achievement or aspiration. Why are we sending motorized cameras and science labs to Mars? Humans have an innate desire to know what is on the other side of the mountain.

Some frames emerge from specific sets of conditions and that’s what we are talking about here. What follows is an annotated list of five frames that seem to be emerging for 2013. This should not be considered an absolute list, but these are interesting for different reasons. They could animate a wide number of keynotes, strategy sessions, contributed articles and the like.

1. Business solving problems

It was not a good year for governments around the world. In Europe, the euro crisis lingers with no clear avenue toward solution. In the US, the metaphor of a cliff, as in the fiscal cliff, has entered 862197_73586101the lexicon as the government seems incapable of solving problems everyone acknowledges. The Washington Post published a chart dating back 60 years showing that Congress passed fewer pieces of legislation – even including naming post offices – than ever before. Polls from CNN and Gallup put Congressional approval ratings anywhere between 11 percent and 33 percent over the course of 2012. The Edelman Trust Barometer reported that, in 17 out of 25 nations surveyed, less than half the population actually trusted their governments to do the right thing.

Whether real or perceived, a gap is opening between the identification of big problems and the wherewithal to execute a solution. Yet, this is precisely what businesses large and small do and in 2013 businesses can make a claim on filling this gap. This frame is scalable because solving a small piece of a big problem is still valuable in the larger environment. For instance, apps such as MyFitnessPal address a huge health need in a simple, easy-to-use way. Likewise, Food on the Table in Austin, Texas, addresses family health in the 21st century. Educational technology companies such as Compass Learning, also in Austin, can make a claim on solving problems that are intractable at the governmental level.

2. Reshoring of manufacturing and support functions

Not long ago, Apple made headlines with a seemingly casual comment from CEO Tim Cook that the device maker would bring some iMac manufacturing back to the US by financing the construction of a plant. You can also purchase a 3D printer for under $400 that changes the way things are manufactured. Something potentially revolutionary is happening in manufacturing.

I will leave it to others to debate the economics of this (e.g. today’s automated plants need fewer, more highly-skilled workers than the massive numbers of laborers in the 20th century). But, this shift is technology-driven and business-model-enabled. Consumers and their networks of likes and dislikes can effectively tell businesses what to build. The whole supply chain and fulfillment process needs to be rebuilt, so this frame operates in both the business-to-business and business-to-consumer sectors.

3. Resiliency versus security

1338362_48097080I submit that the concept of security is falling out of fashion. We all want it, mind you. But, in a black swan era, we increasingly understand it is an elusive concept. Businesses might claim to be in the “security business” but they are the first to disclaim any ultimate guarantee of security. What’s more, the word has been devalued. If we close our eyes and think of security, most of us picture hassles in the airport.

So, we desperately need a new concept and resiliency offers confidence with flexibility and a dose of reality. You can’t plug every hole, but resiliency provides a flexible framework for action. Things might dent, but they do not break. Systems can recover quickly. The public safety sector is already using the concept.

4. Convergence 3.0, no 4.0, I mean X.0

Unfortunately, we tend to ruin perfectly good concepts by overusing them. About a decade ago we ruined convergence as we talked ad nauseam about computing and consumer electronics coming together. Ho hum. Been there, done that. The wife already threw out the tee shirt.

It is time to resuscitate this term. Convergence is the new normal in a digital world. In recent months, I worked a lot on the convergence of the physical world and the virtual world. Showrooming became a big topic in retail as e-commerce giants like Amazon used brick and mortar retailers as showrooms for goods they could offer at lower prices. Brick and mortar retailers are beginning to fight back by getting more virtual. To make things even more interesting, rumors are flying that Amazon is considering its own brick and mortar presence. In 2013, convergence is about melding online and offline worlds. Next year, it will be a new form of convergence. And the year after that…

5. Cloudy weather

To appreciate this final frame, you must separate the distributed computing resources and data 1104855_46048689centers that make up the cloud as a computing structure, from the cloud as an idea that comes in handy to explain things. If you track the evolution of the cloud as an idea, it is far more interesting than racks and racks of servers. Cloud as a term of technology started life as a handy Powerpoint graphic.  People hawking things that connected to the web used a cloud to represent the Internet infrastructure. They really wanted to talk about their device, app or service but they needed to acknowledge that it didn’t work without a vast amount of Internet resources.  So the cloud was a handy way of recognizing all this important stuff – pay no attention to that man behind the curtain – that made their products possible.

The idea leapt off the computer screen and evolved quickly into cloud computing as a fairly tangible force in the world. I wonder if 2013 will see the cloud return to work as a representational idea. Any effort on the ground (e.g. disaster recovery, economic development, regional planning) draws on massive resources from elsewhere (e.g. money, equipment, expertise, resources of all kinds). The idea of a localized client drawing on an amorphous body of resources from above applies in many situations.

Framing is a key aspect of thought leadership.  It scales the importance of your product or initiative, making it bigger and more relevant to the world around us.  These are not the only frames we will use this year, but they arise from the conditions in which we find ourselves.  Welcome to 2013.