I’m going to talk about the future of the remote work and play industry. Before I do, I want to share some lessons I’ve learned that have contributed to the progress of The International Future Computing Association (TIFCA). I’m hoping that what I’m sharing here explains how and why these efforts by TIFCA are important to helping our industry readers solve their problems and contribute to their growing futures.
For those unfamiliar with TIFCA, it is a non-profit network of technology, media, and standards organization thought leaders that share common interests. The group will be addressing the timely topic of remote work and play—specifically the industry’s challenges and solutions for meeting the needs of those wanting to support this lifestyle—at a virtual free summit later this year.
Let me open with a question and some follow-ups. Have you ever wondered how seemingly out of nowhere, companies from across the ecosystem speak the same language and are excited about the same types of products? How is it possible for certain buzzwords to spread across the Internet and conference floors/stages seemingly at the same time? Why does it happen this way?
Understanding our environment
As someone who invested his career bringing industry together, I’m going to say something shocking. Many industry vendors—especially competitors—do not enjoy speaking together or hanging out in the same room.
When I worked in the stereoscopic 3D gaming industry, one leading vendor commiserated that they were under strict instruction to only to talk with other industry members in a standards work group, and the moment they leave the room, they are forbidden from talking to one another. The punch line was that he knew a married couple who worked for competing vendors.
Another colleague spoke more plainly. He said, “Think of company X, a multi-, multibillion-dollar conglomerate. Company X does not want to have equal voting rights with countless other vendors that are a fraction of their size or expertise. Some even have shareholders to answer to.” In other words, it could be perceived as a vulnerability for some organizations to feel beholden to the wishes or needs of smaller entities or competitors with different interests.
Then you’ve got the listeners. I was at an industry meeting for a different organization, and one of the vendors seemed to laugh this off. I didn’t understand, so I asked him why he was there and spending money if he didn’t take it seriously. He explained that he just wanted his logo on the website, to be seen alongside the others, and he was keeping an ear out for what’s going on.
Last but not least, we’ve got what I call the “last line of defense vendor.” This is the company that will only participate with other industry members in a standards group or forum when they reach the conclusion that they can’t own the ecosystem by themselves. If you can’t beat them, join them as a last resort.
Keep in mind that there are leading vendors of all sizes that engage and want to engage with shared industry interests. However, the above factors have very strong influences on if and how industries work together.
How an industry reaches consistency
Going back to my original question, to achieve consistency, vendors still need to find ways to communicate with one another and share the same intentions. How do they do that?
Let me tell you the story of “Farmer Brown’s pickles.” There are three ways to get competing and complementary industry members to sell pickles: osmosis, disruption, and public agreement.
I’m told osmosis is the most prominent method when it comes to getting consensus among industry-leader competitors.
Farmer Bob wants to know what crop to farm for the next five years. He doesn’t want to talk to the other farmers, and his vendor suppliers don’t really want to talk to one another either. What’s the solution? Private one-on-one interviews.
Every few years, Farmer Bob calls up his short list of influential contacts and vendors—tractor makers, spice makers, seed sellers, fertilizer companies, and so on.
“What are customers going to be excited about next year?” asks Farmer Bob. “Pickles,” says the tractor maker, and “I’ve got a cucumber tractor for you!”
“Pickles,” says the seed seller, “and I’ve got cucumber seeds for you!”
“I’m hearing pickles,” says the spice maker, “and we’re getting spices ready for the cumbers in the market. Your customers will love them!”
Before you know it, farmers and farmer vendors have all gone through their own interview process, and pickles are the hottest thing on earth.
The thing is, Farmer Bob doesn’t interview every seed maker or every tractor maker or every fertilizer company. While it could be all of them, it’s more likely just a handful; a short list of names that are deemed industry leaders and influencers in the field. This means there are a limited number of people who have any real decision power in this model.
Sometimes things happen completely unexpectedly. There is an innovation so surprising and so impactful that the industry is left scrambling to find ways to message and support it. In scenarios like this, a single vendor could have unprecedented power to decide the specifications and language choice that the industry follows and adopts.
Maybe Farmer Brown is the innovator. Instead of growing bland cucumbers first, he’s figured out a way that pickles come out of the ground pre-pickled. Then Farmer Brown tells the world, “This is a pickle, and that green sour thing is not a pickle. Buy my pickle, or you’re wasting time soaking those cucumbers while I’m producing pickles faster and selling them a lot cheaper—join my pickle army, let’s redefine the pickle, and we’ll make lots of money together with my pickles!”
Virtual reality is a good example of this. Seemingly overnight, a certain Kickstarter in the VR market resulted in all kinds of decisions in what is and isn’t considered good virtual reality, who is considered part of the VR industry, whose content is promoted as being available for sale, the capabilities and limitations of tools, whether there are there standards, and so on.
There are a few ways this method can take hold.
Customers are king, and sometimes they have a requirement so great that the industry has to move in a direction to meet their clients’ newfound needs very quickly—even without talking to one another directly ahead of time.
So maybe there is an unforeseen drought and there are stockpiles of cucumbers that are going to go to waste. To feed the nation and keep their businesses open, Farmer Brown and all his suppliers quickly make efforts to convert their cucumbers into long-lasting pickles that won’t perish and still sell until the weather clears for the next harvest.
We’ve experienced this in real time with the remote work/remote work and play industry. When Covid struck and society was in a shared lockdown, there was a natural need for remote work and play tools and services across the client, cloud, and network ecosystems. Someway, somehow the term “remote work” took hold, and here we are.
There is also leadership through example. In one case, a colleague of mine was thrilled when a multinational several times his company’s size was releasing directly competing technology products. He explained that the success and leadership of that bigger and more dominant company justified the existence and value of his much smaller start-up and what they do.
Lastly, you’ve got the conferences and events—the willingness for industries to share the stage talking about their work and showing collective strength. When stereoscopic 3D took off as an industry, I enjoyed going to the 3D Entertainment Summit each year. Something was in the air that vendors of all sizes saw it necessary to gather as an industry and talk about what they do and why stereoscopic 3D entertainment is here to stay. I have fond memories of direct competitors eating lunch across from one another—it was just positive and productive energy all around.
Why this matters
For members of the technology ecosystem, there are limited opportunities to influence the road map of the industry around us because:
- It is exceeding rare to be members of the interview osmosis group.
- As valuable as many innovations are, few approach the point of true industry disruption.
- By the time we’ve reached the public conference circuit, many of the big decisions about an industry’s future have already been made.
For argument’s sake, if any given industry sector has 50 companies and maybe the top three are the influencers through osmosis or disruption, then it means a lot of industry growth opportunity and valuable perspective could be missing. The interests of companies 1, 2, and 3 may not share your interests or build on the needs that drive your company or your organization. It’s not nefarious or purposeful—there just isn’t enough time for everyone’s input to be accounted for.
So how could a road map be influenced?
This article isn’t just about Farmer Brown. It’s also about Farmer Grey, Farmer Wilma, and Farmer Joe and their fried green tomatoes. They should have an important role in this story too. How? With leverage.
Leverage is achieved through numbers: a diverse group of companies or organizations with a willingness to share or contribute to a position. While each may have unique solutions or ways to contribute to a solution, it begins with agreeing on a problem or something that is important to all of them.
In my opinion, it’s this cohesiveness that earns the right to be on the osmosis interview list. It’s this cohesiveness that communicates industry strength and confidence to future customers on a shared industry stage. It’s this cohesiveness that could enable the birth of new disruptive techniques and technologies that could grow industries further.
What is TIFCA to Farmer Brown and remote work and play?
If TIFCA was in Farmer Brown’s story, we’d be the county fair. We’d be the place where all the farmers get together and show their stuff. The place where the tractor makers and seed sellers and fertilizer makers meet and talk and agree that farming pickles is going to be an important harvest this year. Maybe Farmer Joe needs help meeting the right suppliers so he could harvest pickles too. Maybe Farmer Wilma wants to show the shiny new thing in her barn and is looking for the best contacts to show it to.
When it comes to feeding a town, there needs to be regular opportunities for all the farmers and suppliers to be in on the big decisions as the climate changes and harvests need to adapt.
At TIFCA, our mission is to develop frameworks and initiatives that enable technology adoption. We support this mission through an ecosystem called CORA (Create Once Reach All). The goal of CORA is for content to be distributed to the best of its ability across diverse client devices. CORA is made up of industry and thought leadership across the client, cloud, and network industries.
Remote work and play is a use case direction for TIFCA and the CORA ecosystem, and we are looking for specific challenges that TIFCA could contribute to solving.
In the Farmer Brown spirit, on December 6, we’re holding a “county fare” for the remote work and play industry. The summit will focus on the industry’s future as well as its challenges and solutions for meeting the needs of employers, team leaders, and users wishing to engage and support this lifestyle.
Held virtually, the International Future Computing Summit is welcoming speakers and participants from the remote work and play industry and the CORA ecosystem.
Be seen, be heard, grow your influence and reap the benefits. Join TIFCA.
Neil Schneider is the executive director of The International Future Computing Association.