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A Tale of Two Conferences, Part I: Forrester Digital Transformation Fizzles

A clash of Nerds versus Suits at two industry events


I’ve been oddly procrastinating on writing a recap after attending SpeechTek in Washington, DC (April 24-26). I liked the conference and had quite a few takeaways, but prioritized other work. Then, Mission Data was a sponsor Forrester’s Digital Transformation conference in Chicago (May 8-10), so my writer’s block now enables me to contrast a conference focused on tech and one oriented to business.

All-in-all, I’ve always thought I was more of a business person than a techie. I love tech but it’s mainly been about how it enables businesses to evolve. That is, what are the current and potential business solutions or ideas the tech enables?  

Forrester — Lots of Teasing and Marketing

I expected that kind of real-world thinking from Forrester’s conference. Their analysts and research are highly regarded and in past conferences they did a fine job of showing how wide spectrums of tech come together to establish markets and IT-enabled business solutions. This year, the Digital Transformation conference didn’t deliver as it had in the past. 

The mainstage discussions were a combination of reasonable high level best practices and trends with only the slightest of hints of tangible concepts, trends, and implementations. The analysts did a good job with respect to explaining that digital transformation goes beyond digital products for marketing, customer interactions, and consumer transactions. They clearly repeated the correct view that digital tech such as the IoT, mobile, Web, AI, and low code solutions likely have a huge ROI for business operations and new product/service innovation.  Further they did a fine job of introducing how the nearly ubiquitous set of platforms out there — think AWS IoT, Alibaba e-commerce capabilities, etc. — enable small to large enterprises with a treasure of building blocks to assemble either new customer-facing interactions or innovative employee productivity and process improvements.

They also did a great job of teeing up the concept that digital transformation is hard. It is no longer the domain of CMOs who are building out impressive websites, or CTOs and COOs collaborating on nifty mobile apps that support customer interactions with retail and services companies. For the latter, consider mobile apps for insurance companies that allow customers to make claims or track their behavior, or mobile apps for ordering pizza. 

Forrester emphasized that digital investments and change require the insight and vision of CEOs. The transformations created by tech cascade throughout an organization and cannot be compartmentalized. The whole business needs to be considered.

 I didn’t glean any insights beyond the fact that failure is part of the process; fail quickly so as to not waste time or money.

However, the conference speakers did not consistently make the possibilities for digital transformation tangible, and when they did it was superficial — perhaps a quick video, a bullet point on a slide, or a hand waving reference to a well-known company. They offered few case studies, and even those did very little to discuss the transformation of the businesses.

They did bring out some heavy hitting executives from companies that are incredibly influential and innovative, but in lieu of presentations from these companies there were fireside chats on couches with analysts leading a discussion. The questions rarely went beyond the philosophy level into the big ideas. Broadly, I didn’t glean any insights beyond the fact that failure is part of the process; fail quickly so as to not waste time or money.

We were told that there would be more substance in the individual non-plenary sessions. In some cases this was true. Certainly Michele Pelino did a great job on IoT as she introduced an easy to follow landscape and then went ahead and provided great case studies. However, several sessions seemed more of an opportunity for higher paying sponsors to discuss how their services or products affected change. It was bit too much marketing and far too little research.

Face-to-Face: Real Stories of Transformation

Basically, Forrester turned what was billed as a conference for a technical crowd into a discussion for “suits.” As a booth sponsor, Mission Data met many impressive technologists interested in how our IoT and voice solutions were applied to our clients. We discussed real examples and they asked some pretty insightful questions. So as to make sure I don’t just gloss over what we mean by digital transformations, our discussions included:

  • The use of sensors to monitor temperatures of food in grocery stores and how those sensors communicate via ZigBee’s protocols to a software solution that records the data and sends out instructions via WiFi to associates to take action (e.g., restock). The transformation changed operations and store layouts while saving the business critical expense in lost inventory.
  • The use of Alexa to help a manufacturer quickly gain a sense of current inventory by SKU, enabling them to determine product location within a warehouse. This provided operations a low cost alternative for employees who can’t be looking at a screen all day.
  • The simple application of machine learning and augmented reality to help users of a city’s bike sharing system find the closest bike stations and determine if there’s a bike available or a slot to park the bike they’re using.

The booth visitors had their own examples or thoughts about the use of technology. I was glad they were there as I gained quite a bit of insight on the digital transformations they were achieving or aspiring to achieve.

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