I tend to think of Fortune Brainstorm Tech, which happened last week in Pasadena, as a conference for industry titans. Last year's event was held amid tight security and featured the likes of Rupert Murdoch (News International) , Philippe Daulman (Viacom) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) in a foggy northern California Half Moon Bay.
This year, despite being held in old money Pasadena, the event was more laid back and I thought all the better for it. What I really like about Brainstorm is the big business picture conversation - this isn't yet another in-the-moment, up-to-the-second technology geek fest, it's all about how technology can serve business goals. ('Harnessing the transformational power of technology', as Fortune put it).
Where last year I seemed to be one of the few people using Twitter (my various session notes were my Tweets), this year live blogging and Twitter was everywhere, including Twitter's Biz Stone @Biz discussing with Fortune's Adam Lashinsky how Twitter would always remain free and how they really did have a business plan.
The Twitter session was one of the few 'empty calories' sessions where there was nothing new being discussed. Michael Arrington was in the room so there was a certain frisson as the Twitter business 'notes' stolen from Google docs and subsequently published by Michael's TechCrunch were mentioned, but apart from this the conference largely avoided the frothy 'new tech' gossip column ephemera which plagues credibility.
Like last year, there were main room sessions and panel discussion breakouts, with the breakout panels providing the most depth of conversation, while the main room (set up with Herman Miller Aeron chairs and monitors showing close ups of a main stage that is not far away) focused more on conversations with big wigs.
As with all good conferences it's the hallway conversations that differentiate, and Brainstorm Tech is a particularly good space to build relationships over a couple of days. Like San Francisco's Supernova and Web 2.0 Summit, Brainstorm attracts a seasoned business oriented crowd prepared to really explore the commercial value of a wide variety of ideas, with few bandwidth hogging lightweights confusing discussions.
A breakfast panel I was particularly looking forward to was 'Eastern Philosophy: Management Lessons From Emerging Markets' with John Hagel III, co-chairman of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge; Michael Hsieh, president of Fung Capital USA Investments, Inc.; William A. Haseltine, president, William A. Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts; and Bright Simons, coordinator of the mPedigree Network, moderated by Fortune’s Michael Copeland.
This was essentially a discussion around western perceptions of business in India and China (and also Africa, since Bright Simons was on the panel). Far from merely being outsourcing resources for western companies, John Hagel again pointed out the levels of collaborative sophistication Chinese companies employ to problem solve and produce products between dozens of partners. 'Innovation blow back' increasingly means Chinese entrepreneurs are out-innovating their former Western contractual partners, with India also rapidly moving up the value chain.
There was a fascinating conversation around trust, counterfeiting and work process, with particularly Africa cited as an example of place where constant innovation and speed to market is essential to survive in business due to a lack of intellectual property protection.
The management lesson for western leaders was to underestimate the level of agile work flow collaboration and innovation coming out of these 'emerging markets' at your peril: the concept of collaboration networks is driving Chinese business partnership successes, particularly for their domestic markets, at an ever greater pace.
Large scale western technology was mentioned as being a significant barrier to participation in these partnerships, being deemed too monolithic, inflexible and cumbersome to map to these modern work practices.
This panel was one of six running concurrently in that time slot, and none of them to my knowledge were formally recorded. While I understand the need to fill the main room when the CEO of AT&T is speaking (and incidentally getting beaten up about the terrible quality of iphone cellular service coverage from the audience) in a single session format, this will be available as digital video. I'd really like to be able to see recordings of some of the other panel discussions I couldn't attend due to conflicts.
I recorded a video conversation with John Hagel about the Edge Report which I'll put up here shortly, and was also briefed, along with ZDNet colleague Dennis Howlett, by SAP executive board member John Schwarz and also with SAP CTO Vishal Sikka.
Overall I thought a terrific conference with plenty of substance and food for thought, highly recommended for anyone focused on the putting appropriate technology to use to execute their business strategy and tactics - and also identifying which technologies may be holding them back in that execution...