Envisioning a new type of Microsoft conference, but it's not here yet

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan April 4, 2016
Microsoft's trying to do something different in New Orleans this week by talking to business leaders, not techies. If it wants to succeed, it needs a new approach to keynotes.

Kelly and Nadella

And now for something completely different. Or is it? In New Orleans this week, Microsoft is running a new event, Envision 2016 and it’s an attempt by the firm to do something a bit different.

Or as CMO Chris Capossela put it:

For years, Microsoft has been holding events for IT professionals and developers and our partners, but we’ve never before done an event like this dedicated to business leaders from all different roles and all different industries…Sales leaders, marketing leaders, IT leaders, finance leaders. We’re really excited to have a first-ever conference dedicated to business leaders of different types.

So maybe a different format for the Microsoft universe, but the underlying themes are of course exactly the same as every other business/tech conference in 2016 - business transformation and digital transformation.

But CEO Satya Nadella was adamant that the event is about having:

a conversation about what that means and how…business leaders can take advantage of technology to shape what we do as businesses as a society.

He said there are two key questions he wanted to ask:

How is your business being changed by digital technology? As well as: How is your core business model being changed by digital technology? These are the two questions that need to be asked and answered as part of your digital transformation.

To do that, each of you, irrespective of the industry you are in, you have to start thinking and operating like a digital company. It’s no longer just about procuring one solution and deploying one solution, it is not about one simple CRM or ERP or even office automation solutions that you get from us or others, but it’s really you yourself thinking of your own future as a digital company, building out what we refer to as systems of intelligence. These are these digital feedback loops where you’re building systems that help you engage with your customers, empower your employees, optimize your operations, and reinvent products and business models.

It is about the combination of technology, people and process that you put in place to drive these feedback loops. It’s that systems approach to how you become a digital company that I think is going to define your competitiveness, your ability to, in fact, change the landscape of the industries you participate in.

Space, the final frontier

To illustrate his point about the changing nature of technology, a number of special guests were cited, starting with an appearance by Captain Scott Kelly, an astronaut with NASA who's just spent 340 days in space. He said:

When I originally became an astronaut in 1996, I was coming from the United States Navy. And this was at a time when we, at least in the Navy, were just starting to use email. The Internet was something that was relatively new that I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with. The space shuttle was actually flown using a 486 processor. And we used checklists, pieces of paper. Fast-forward 20 years on the space station, and the space station is basically operated with a bunch of laptop computers using different types of software, some of them use Microsoft.

Which version of Windows though? Er, Windows 7 it seems. Or as Kelly put it:

We’re a little behind there.

Oops. Still, never mind, you're not alone.

On the other hand, Kelly and his crew have had a chance to play with the HoloLens - and they liked it:

I was a little doubtful that we would be able to make this technology work on the space station, at least initially. Usually, when you’re doing anything, there are start-up transients and we have a Wi-Fi network up there that isn’t always working top-notch.

But when we turned it on, I was pretty amazed at how seamlessly it worked with our system on board the space station and was very impressed with what will, in the future, be its ability to help us do our work.

On the space station, you know, we’re the scientists, we’re the plumber, the electrician, the doctor, the IT guy. We have to fill all these roles. And when I put that HoloLens on and had the experts on the ground, some of them were from Microsoft because this was a test, when they could see what I could see, when they could write things in my visual field, things that when I went to another part of the space station, and then when I came back, it was still there.

It has an audio system that is incredible. I hope soon it’s going to come out to where I can just have the audio system, because it’s really unbelievable. But not only does it give us the ability to have these people on the ground helping us, it lets people on the ground experience what we’re seeing in the space station. So I just think it has incredible applications not just in space, but throughout all kinds of different industries.

Kelly’s cameo was fun, but other contributions were less impressive. Virgin Atlantic, for example, came in the form of a canned testimonial video, while a potentially interesting use case of water management provider Ecolab was fatally undermined by a lack of presence on stage from the firm itself, replaced by a product demo from someone from the Microsoft Azure team.

This is a flaw that afflicts so many business/tech events - the lack of real customers on stage, telling their own stories, rather than streaming anondyne corporate puff on a video or having vendor employees go through excrutiating demos based around fake grocery stores or online book shops. (You know who you are!)

Nadella said the ambition of Envision was to:

think about that mainstream role of technology, the responsibility that business leaders have now to be able to understand this force and then to be able to use it to shape your own destiny has become much more crucial.

Good plan, but not one realized during this particular keynote however. Kelly may have been a quirky user to have on stage, but by no means could he be described as a mainstream business leader.

Of that breed, there was no sight on stage.

My take

Something completely different? No. Well, not yet at least.

The grand ambitions articulated in the opening remarks quickly gave way to the traditional Microsoft product pitch, one that anyone who watched last week’s Microsoft Build event would have been familiar with.

There’s a good idea in here somewhere, but Microsoft’s events and marketing team have their own transformation journey to go on yet.