More than 22 years ago, I met my amazing wife and was welcomed into her wonderful family. At the time, I was a project manager working for Lotus Consulting. I managed the rollout of large Lotus Notes implementations as well as the development of Notes applications. Over the years, I had many great conversations with my father-in-law, Jerry. He was a senior executive at CalTrans (California’s department of transportation), but earlier in his career he had also been a project manager. Did we do the same job? Well, not really. I rolled out email systems. He managed a little project called Interstate Highway 5 from the Oregon border to Mexico — California’s portion of a 1,381 mile stretch of road. While he was far too gracious and modest a person to say so, the scale, complexity, and risk that he managed were far beyond anything I could even imagine. Nevertheless, he spoke to me as a peer and I was honored that he did so.
One of my favorite stories from Jerry was how he drove the introduction of PCs at CalTrans in the late 1980s. At the time, his engineers were wedded to two primary business tools: drafting tables and computing power, the latter of which was purchased from a California government service provider called the Teale Data Center. Jerry recognized two things: Drafting tables were inherently inefficient and the Teale Data Center was really expensive. He saw an opportunity with the emergence of personal computing. Move common tasks done on paper to a computer and move expensive processing to local PCs. The engineers resisted the change. “It will never work!” they cried.
Here’s what Jerry did. He had all of the individual drafting tables removed and replaced with desks. He outfitted each desk with a Compaq PC and VisiCalc (Sun workstations running AutoCAD came later). He left one shared drafting table in the middle of the room. He had a vision and the executive power to take the risk. He saw a better way to work and he hit the fast-forward button. Was it easy? Nope. Lots of issues, lots of complaints, lots of stuff that really didn’t work as well in the early PC world as they did with the old tools. In the end, was Jerry right? Duh? Imagine walking into a complex engineering environment today and finding drafting tables and dumb terminals. Did he move too fast? Some would say he did, others would not. The point is that we now know that the destination was inevitable and the only variable was the pace of getting there.
Are we on the road to social business? Yes. Are there Jerry Russells out there who see the vision and are hitting the fast-forward button? Yes: At IBM Connect, Bosch presented a case study in which all of the content and communications related to moving a manufacturing line were required to be in Connections. Think that resulted in some outcry? No doubt. The result? The time to bring up the new line shrank from 40 days to nine.
Every desk at CalTrans now has a PC. I have no doubt that, in 10 years, every employee at Bosch will interact in a fundamentally more social manner and that those social interactions will become more deeply embedded in core business processes and activities. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that we’re on a journey — and sometimes the journey entails problems and challenges. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that today’s blockers (lack of adoption, path to critical mass, difficulty measuring business value…) are evidence that the destination can’t be reached. Malarkey.