The Disruption Dilemma

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The biggest challenge I see when discussing Converged Infrastructure (CI) with new customers has little to do with technology. The technology is ready; it is the people and processes that lag behind. This lag slows the adoption and benefits that technology has been created to deliver. However it does not have to be this way, if we learn from the past.

Earlier in my career I had the opportunity to be part of a major disruptive technology – VoIP. The parallels of that disruption and the converged infrastructure revolution are amazing.

Reflections on VoIP

A typical customer interaction during the VoIP disruption days looked like this: PBX staff on one side of the conference table, networking staff on the opposite side, and executive management mediating the middle. Typically, there was no love lost between those two groups. The discussion would deteriorate into the PBX team saying “there is NO way you are going to run my voice traffic over that upstart Ethernet network. Phones are mission critical to our business, and we have been doing it this way for 50 years!”

Look at the phone on your desk today and you can see which side ‘won’ the war. With VoIP, there was never much doubt. The economics and technology assured that.

My colleague, John Lockyer, recently wrote about other technology shifts that have impacted IT teams and how Converged Infrastructure will change the game – again.

I am going to dive deeper into two specific questions:

  • As technologists on the front end of the disruption, could we have done more to ease the churn caused by technology adoption?
  • If we understood the people and process issues, could we have helped speed adoption, helped companies retain valuable talent, tribal knowledge, and realized the benefits sooner?

Looking back on the VoIP disruption, my answer to both is “yes”.

Ease the Churn

We misunderstood the people problem. The pushback on VoIP was not due to the actual technology, and we should have seen that sooner. Almost without exception, after one of those contentious meetings between the PBX staff and the networking staff, one of the PBX team members would approach, look to make sure none of his team was within earshot, and proceed to ask “so… if someone wanted to learn more about this VoIP stuff, where would they look?” Typically this person was an ambitious junior member of the team or a very perceptive technologist. In most cases, it is that person that survived the disruption and is thriving in the industry today.

So what did we miss? We missed the point that when a person builds a career around a specific technology (or vendor), their value to an organization is based on that knowledge. They know how to install, fix, upgrade, and generally operate the technology; they have attended industry events, know the vendors, and have deep contacts in place. If you threaten to take that value away by injecting something new, they may fight tooth and nail against the change. Their perceived value, and therefore their paycheck, is tied to that knowledge.

This situation is bad for the individual, the team, and the company as it slows adoption of the technology – and therefore delays the return on investment. A great quote by Upton Sinclair sums it up: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Speed Adoption

When confronted by this dilemma, disruptive technology vendors need to go the extra mile to help evolve the value set to a new one that complements the disruptive technology. We need to implement training programs aimed at transitioning employees’ technology skills to the new set, offer access to friendly internal engineers who have already successfully made the transition from previous technology – and we need to do it immediately.

While this will not solve every people problem, it will go a long way to reduce the period of disruption, engender much more good will, speed adoption and advance the ROI. Applying this lesson to the current CI revolution, we need to offer cross training to the storage team, networking team and application teams. We need to foster policy-based integration rather than individual hands-on application built around silos. We need to talk with each other and build confidence, perhaps by establishing internal change agents and mentors.

As vendors, we need to be the champions that guide the direction of organizational value, and accelerate it. We have done a great job of kick-starting this process at VCE. In fact, we delivered thousand of training hours to our customers last year in addition to creating customer and technical advisory boards. This is just the start. I encourage you to take the reins to foster conversation within your organization.

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