How Does Change Occur?

I was having a DM conversation (140 characters at a time) the other day with network architect.  We were discussing the reluctance of networking people, especially at the CxO or leadership level to do something different.  Personally, I have heard from ~50 people at the leadership level over the past 18 months that state they want to do something different with their network infrastructure.  The network has not changed in twenty years and now the time has come to change the network.  What is the result of all the pent up desire to do something different?  More network incrementalism; at least in the near term.  The DM conversation I was having was around the subject of getting network people to do something different.  Why do people say they want to make big changes and fail to seize the day?  That is the subject of this post.

I have written frequently about change.  I think social change is a well understood process and it is applicable to technology adoption — especially when the adoption of a new technology is truly disruptive.  This is summary version of the very long post I wrote in 2011.

The last significant change in network design occurred in the early nineties when we transitioned from shared networks to switched networks.   We have been building variations of switched networks for twenty years, hence incrementalism creep.  What is required for the world of networking to move on from switched networks to next big design leap?  For this post, I not discussing what that next technology leap is, let us just assume there is a leap and look at what is required for that next technology evolution to take hold.  After all, that is what all the agitation is about in networking over the past couple of years with overlays, OpenFlow and SDN.  Here is the short version of how change occurs in a few simple steps.

Step 1: We need a financial crisis and I am not referring to a recession.  I am referring to a spending crisis, a budget crisis, a forcing function around CAPEX or OPEX that opens the door for new solutions to be considered against the incumbent solution.  Some sort of economic grievance or feeling that the end-user is being take advantage of by suppliers.  I think we had the financial crisis in 2008 and now we are playing out the process of the change that crisis started.

Step 2: We need some sort of structural weakness in the incumbent.  When I started in networking, people always told me that no one got fired for buying IBM and SNA ruled the world of networking.  Novell and IP were technologies for universities and small corporate work groups.  The core IT business of the F500 was done on the IBM network or variation of mini talking SNA.  When I started in the networking business, IBM sold a closed proprietary system.  They built their own ASICs, built their own operating system around the ASIC, sold it as system with expensive support options that required the end-user to have people with specialized training to deploy and manage the complexity of the system.  That is a strong incumbency and it did collapse.

Step 3: Some of the the intellectual leaders (i.e. decision makers at the 75-100 entities that provide leadership) need to transfer their allegiance from the incumbent to the next generation.  Here is what I wrote in 2011:

Once the three foundations of the revolution are in place – (i) financial crisis, (ii) structural weakness and (iii) politics – the mantle of change has to be raised and championed.  This task is undertaken by the intellectuals who provide thought leadership.  The intellectuals are the analysts, consultants, pundits, politicians, leaders, and established thinkers with a reputation and respect within their industry or nation-state.  These people motivate change.  They do this by influencing and creating a state of mind.  This event is called the “transfer of the allegiance of the intellectuals.”  The phrase “transfer of the allegiance of the intellectuals” comes from Lyford P. Edwards in his book, Natural History of Revolution [see Brinton page >41].

The intellectual leaders (i.e. CIOs, CTOs, architects, etc) that espouse change need to do so because they believe that change is necessary, possible and in the best interest of the majority.  In a word courage.

Step 4: There needs to be a strong undercurrent of antagonism that is forcing the intellectual leaders into change.  If leaders are happy and or complacent, change will not occur.  Someone has to be bold enough to step forward and say and I going to try one or two different technologies against the incumbent suppliers of my business.  The result will be a proof of success or a proof of failure.  Again I refer to what I wrote in 2011:

When we refer to class antagonism, we are refereeing to the old market versus the new market, or the old regimes versus the intellectuals who are promoting themselves as agents of change and the desire to change the fundamental structure of the market dominated by the old regimes.  Our class antagonism is a contention between old markets and emerging markets, between old regimes and new companies.  The objective that creates this contention is market share.  Old and new companies have the objective of controlling market share.  The old regime as the incumbent is likely to defend their market and it is up to the new entrant to attack the old regime and create a new market.  Brinton concludes his analysis of class antagonisms, by stating, “…social antagonisms seem to be at their strongest when a class has attained wealth, but is, or feels itself, shut out from the highest social distinction, and from positions of evident political power…long before Marx, long before Harrington’s Oceana, practical men knew that political power and social distinction are the handmaids of economic power,” [see Brinton, page 64].

Step 5: The status quo need to be challenged and it needs to be challenged where it matters and for networking that is in the core of the incumbency — not in the labs, not in small back room proof of concept (POC) demonstrations.  For an incumbent technology to change and a wave of adoption to set in, the new technology needs to be operationally deployed where it matters.  Here is an interesting tweet I read (on Pi Day) from a Cisco marketing person as he was discussing VMware’s recent announcements around their NSX product this week (here is another blog covering the same announcement):

DavidKlebanov's avatar
David Klebanov @DavidKlebanov

@balajisiva @dvorkinista It’s all hype. Many POCs, almost zero biz critical deployment. Nicira is good for mid/small companies or labs.


Another observation to note is that EMC and VMware held strategic thought events during the same week.  EMC/VMW held a capital markets day (CMD) in NYC and Cisco had their top leadership team briefing journalists at their media day in San Jose.  Once again, EMC and VMW executives at one location giving their view of the world and Cisco executives at another location giving their view of the world.  What a coincidence.


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