A Little TLC: Thought Leadership Critique

Written by John R. Thompson, Ph.D. on May 30, 2017

Blog Image - Critical Communications AP/Eric Riseberg

For years, Microsoft suffered from a unique indignity: absolutely a cornerstone of the present, but somehow missing from the conversation about the future. Things have changed more recently and since thought leadership in the technology industry is almost always about connecting the present to the future, I thought it worth giving a little TLC to Satya Nadella’s breakout speech at the recent Microsoft developer conference.

When viewed through the lens of thought leadership, what’s really going on here?

I say “breakout” speech because Nadella was well reviewed in the media (look here and here for instance) and did an effective job of stepping out of the shadow of those who occupied his office before him. And as I will argue below, he connected Microsoft’s present to the future through both a compelling story and a subtle argument.

And let me be clear that I had nothing to do with this speech.

Stories have characters and conflict. Nadella’s headlines focused on a call to action for developers to help us all avoid a dystopian future of surveillance and servitude. Developers, according to the Microsoft CEO, must accept accountability for the algorithms created and design choices taken to shape what’s possible in the future computing environment – and one way or another that’s the environment we will all exist within. This fear of dystopia drew on current fears about technology’s impact on society (killer robots, mass unemployment, lack of privacy – oh my!) and cast his audience as the potential heroes.

Conscious decisions made by the people in the room will determine whether the future computing environment serves us – or we serve it.

The notion that a major tech CEO would acknowledge this potential resonated with the media as news. The speech was not focused on fear, however. Through certain programming rules (that Microsoft will tell you more about here), today’s developers can call a better future into being. It’s a story that casts the assembled developers (and their peers elsewhere) as creators of the future, not just its programmers.

Stories also have morals, and Nadella paraphrased Spiderman’s Uncle Ben in saying that “enormous opportunity” must come with “enormous responsibility” for the good and evil available in that future environment. Conscious decisions made by the people in the room will determine whether the future computing environment serves us – or we serve it.

That’s the story framework. The subtle argument involves the path these would-be heroes take to that valorized future. It goes through Microsoft.

Ubiquity has long been Microsoft’s greatest strength (and, of course, one of its weaknesses but I will sidestep that here because it makes me WannaCry). Under Nadella’s leadership, the company has updated that strength through massive investments in cloud computing, reorienting the Office franchise to a SaaS model, continuing investments in Windows, a big bet on LinkedIn and I’m sure this list could go on. And the net of this footprint, in the logic of the speech, is not just the sum total of Windows 10 devices (though it’s 500 million if you’re interested), or the number of Office 365 users (100 million if you’re counting). No, today, it’s worth noting the 12 million “organizational entities” active in Azure and the fact that “90 percent of the Fortune 500” are using Microsoft Cloud on top of those Windows devices and Office applications.

Ubiquity, then, is still a Microsoft strength with its roots in the recent industry past. But, ubiquity in this speech is now measured in scope of influence on the future. And the implied message is that developers who see themselves as the architects of a humanity-friendly future should see that the Microsoft landscape – by its nature today – gives them the greatest scope of influence on creating the future. You can start on the future today by leveraging Microsoft’s ubiquity as measured by the number of entities Microsoft influences every day – entities building their own segments of the future.

And ubiquity, measured in this way, becomes the foundation (along with AI, UX design and a few other components) of the corporate vision Nadella ultimately shares of intelligent cloud and intelligent edge (which Microsoft will tell you more about here).

Reasonable people can disagree with him on several points and this is no cheerleading shout from the sidelines. For instance, Microsoft needs to redefine ubiquity so that people aren’t just counting the number of Windows phones versus iPhones. It’s also fair to point out that Nadella still needs to count those Windows PCs to out-flank those who would compare his cloud business with Amazon Web Services as the sole definition of ubiquity.

But, Nadella’s argument is plausible. And the story framing that argument has a compelling resonance to it and is focused on a specific audience while containing goodies for secondary and tertiary audiences.

And it makes Microsoft’s contemporary business part of the conversation about the future. If you’re Microsoft, it’s an argument worth developing beyond this one speech.