Sometimes what you hear at conferences makes you bored, sometimes it surprises you. On very rare occasions, it does both. The opening of the UK Technology Summit, run by the European Technology Forum last week, certainly did both for me.
The lineup was good: as well as Ben Verwaayen, the chief executive of BT, we had Richard Christou, the head of Fujitsu Services UK. Who? Well, it took me a while to remember, but Fujitsu Services used to be ICL. So we actually had the two great flagships of UK IT in front of us.
Both of them looked somewhat sadder than they might have done a few years ago -- though, as befitted chief executives giving a keynote, they talked up the opportunities they face. But what made my jaw drop, however, was that both of them said (more or less) the same thing and it was this: in facing up to their current ills, technology was not the answer.
Now, this is a departure. For the last few years, we have heard little else but how some new aspect technology (usually the Internet) will revolutionise the business, give company X "first mover advantage" and create buckets of dosh for us all.
Usually, the speech sets up a problem -- say, revenues are down due to the difficulty of handling transactions with multiple companies, or some-such -- followed by the explanation of how the new technology wipes that trouble away.
But both Verwaayen and Christou said growth was down, and there was no magic answer. Both of them said, more or less, that unless you make products that people want to buy, that help them succeed in what they are doing, then you will not make a profit. You have to make something that people want. You have to be "partners" with your customers. Verwaayen got particularly warm on this issue, but Christou was not far behind. "Customers have to be partners on a one-to-one basis," he said.
Now, normally, at an IT conference, you'd expect a problem statement like that to shift smoothly to a technology answer. Indeed, we've all heard the customer relationship management (CRM) pitch deployed in just this way. "At this time, you need business, you need customers, we can automate that process for you so you won't lose your customers!"
The current vogue for CRM is no doubt justified, I'm sure. But I think part of its popularity may be due to our desire for a technology fix to the most obvious real problem of the day. Technology slowdown means fewer customers buying less, so let's find a technology that makes them buy more!
Verwaayen and Christou are to be congratulated for not taking that route, I suppose. Christou made a gesture towards outsourcing as a strong growth market -- "It's not the Holy Grail, but it's a good place to play," he said, showing a forecast that outsourcing would be the only sector (just) in double digits growth.
But both said there was no magic. Both were feisty, both managed to be upbeat, and both said that that there was a chance of success. But in their admission, that meeting customer needs was more important than bringing the next technology to market, they reversed what we are used to hearing at these events.
The moment was extended by the late arrival of the chief executive of Symbian, that UK company central to the wireless data movement, who was stuck in the Tube strike chaos. His delay meant that the opening Q&A session went on longer than planned. I was grateful, even though the discussion became almost uncomfortable. At a technology conference, once you've said: "It's not the technology," you've said the unthinkable. What else can be said?
In any conference, of course, there are plenty of people who like the sound of their own voice enough to try and move the discussion on. We heard numerous efforts to find an answer. But nothing shifted the mood of the twin colossi of British IT.
And looking down the programme, we could see that, eventually, the day would continue. There would be presentations on wireless data, on business process outsourcing (which differs from conventional outsourcing by being "new" and "exciting"), and on other great hopes of the industry.
But for that long, extended moment, the IT industry faced the awesome prospect that (maybe now, or maybe sometime in the future) it may finally be unable to innovate its way out of trouble. It may finally become an industry like any other, dedicated to simply selling products that users want. Many of us will find that more shocking than any technology revolution we have seen.
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