Mark Beckford

Will the next “thought leader” please stand up? – Part 2

This post is the second part of a two-part series on thought leadership for computer makers in emerging markets. Part 1 focused on the companies striving for thought leadership over the last several years … OLPC, Intel, Microsoft and AMD. Part 2 discusses the characteristics companies will need to develop if they want to become a “thought leader.

What is a thought leader?

There is a great quote from an unknown author that I believe is a perfect definition of thought leadership:

Thought leadership is recognition from the outside world that a company deeply understands its business, the needs of its customers, and the broader marketplace in which it operates. Thought leadership is built on what others say about you. When you have it, companies look to you for insight & vision, journalists quote you, analysts call you.

So you can’t grant yourself thought leadership status. Others must seek you out due to your perceived expertise and credibility in a specific niche. Was Negroponte, Intel, Microsoft, or AMD ever a “thought leader” based on this definition? I think so. Negroponte got Koffi Anan, the UN Secretary General at the time, to endorse his effort. Craig Barrett of Intel, shortly after World Ahead, got invited to chair the UN’s Global Alliance on Information Society Development (UN GAID).

The deeper question I have is: did coming up with a fancy name with supporting pillars and proof point make a difference? Probably. Whether one has expertise or not, creating awareness of this expertise is key to establish credibility, one needs a “messaging platform” and a communication strategy. This is really marketing 101. What’s your message and how do you communicate it?

OLPC had a very simple messaging platform. “One Laptop per Child.” Every child in the world has a laptop. As you peel back the onion, you find it is not just a cheap laptop, but a laptop with content and learning tools tailored for the unique needs of school children. Then one needs to get that message out through a massive marketing communications campaign, including PR, events, and direct engagement with key influencers worldwide. OLPC did this through Negroponte’s “celebrity” status in the industry and his relentless global travels.It was harder for Intel. Because we did so many things in emerging markets, we were lost in the complexity and comprehensiveness of what was already being done. Intel needed to:

  1. Simplify and put more focus on specific areas that supported the goal of accelerating computer access to those that couldn’t afford it (e.g. training teachers).
  2. Develop the proof points to support these focus areas, and fill in the gaps of what Intel wasn’t doing enough of (e.g. not training enough teachers)
  3. Communicate this focused and simplified story more effectively. (e.g. improving a student’s education by training more teachers and getting more computers into classroms)
  4. Say it over and over again. (e.g. after the initial global launch, we re-launched World Ahead country-by-country and announced PC donations to schools and a specific number of teachers we would train).

Simple, right? It would seem so on the surface, but it took many man-hours over many months to get this right.

The leadership void

I think a leadership void currently exists in this space. I also think this void will only get bigger. Thought leadership is not based on market share. It is based on perception. Perception can be short-lived and fickle. The emerging market initiatives from Intel, AMD, OLPC, and Microsoft have been around for several years. Time will erode the luster of these initiatives because:

  1. Hype always fades away (applies to all)
  2. Excessive public scrutiny heightens missteps (OLPC)
  3. The program loses its initial focus and evolves and becomes more complex (Intel)

On point #3, when intel turned World Ahead into a sales division, the World Ahead charter was expanded to encompass “all-things emerging markets” at Intel. (e.g. selling high-end processors in emerging markets while also pushing affordable computing.) In addition, as companies come under increased financial pressure from plummeting computer demand and shrinking IT budgets, these programs will come under increased scrutiny. When AMD’s business began struggling against its rival Intel in late 2006, it had to cut back significantly on 50×15. Ultimately, AMD spun AMD off as an independent foundation. Will something similar happen at Intel and Microsoft? .Possibly. In tough times, companies’ often put renewed focus on their “core” or mainstream business, Strategic, long-term initiatives often get left on the cutting room floor.

Who will fill the leadership void?

I think the time is right for somebody to fill this void. I mentioned in a previous post on my blog on this “mother of all disruptions” (the economic crisis) will create new losers and winners, Emerging markets are definitely struggling, especially those that are over-reliant on exports. Budgets are being cut. But stimulus investments could offset those cuts. Technology is still perceived as an important component of economic development. Thus, I believe the opportunity is still there. But I think governments, development banks and NGO’s will be receptive for something new and different. All the “thought leaders” I have mentioned thus far have done a tremendous job convincing the world that computing is an important part of education and economic development. In my recent travels, every Ministry of Education I have visited has an ICT department. Large bids for computers are still being tendered. I believe the following criteria must be met for somebody to become a candidate for thought leadership.

  • The technology or product/solution from the candidate must be a “disruptive innovation.” Something that truly changes the game for computers in terms of technology, business model, affordability and unique value add.
  • The potential candidate can’t do it alone. It will need to create or lead a consortium of private and public entities that is build around a common purpose or goal.
  • Any new thought leader must show tangible results. OLPC, Microsoft, Intel and AMD all had grand stories and goals. But have they truly delivered to these goals? A thought leader built on press announcements vs. results will be heavily scrutinized. The negative attention in the press and blogosphere on Negroponte is a great example of this.
  • They will need to follow the four steps outlined above in creating a thought leadership platform, specifically: 1) a simple and focused messaging platform, 2) tangible and real supporting proof points, 3) an effective communications strategy, and 4) global and local communications. .

So who are your candidates for the next thought leader?