Lately I’ve been taking note of how many BPOs are marketing their transformation into new kinds of service providers. Earlier this month I went through an exercise with a client where we examined the messages being articulated by all the providers out there emphasizing their shift toward digital perfection.
Digital transformation services. Process automation. Tech-infused agent journeys. New and agile ways of working. And so on.
But making fundamental shifts under competitive pressure isn’t always easy. Degrees of success will vary. Not a few providers will exaggerate their progress.
Which is understandable. Because everything is changing so quickly these days. Every organization and individual is in a race to keep up.
But it wasn’t always thus. Ideas used to have space and time to breathe. Transformation could be a lengthy process.
As I've been awaiting the vaccine here in the Owl's Nest (or is it a Covid cave?), I’ve been stretching my mind at night with a book called, The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.
It’s all about the power of ideas to influence the world, how key concepts can spark new ideas that further enrich what was already there.
The results of such a process can impact societies in dramatic ways. But for most of history, such changes have taken time – as in, centuries.
The book is a page-turner. It reminds the reader that way back in fifth century Athens, Socrates made an astonishing proposition – each person’s fundamental essence and identity existed outside their body, he said; each individual possessed a timeless, rational soul. Socrates’ student Plato then proposed a theory of transmigration and reincarnation of souls, that all knowledge is actually a continuous process of recollection.
So far, so good.
Until one of Plato’s students, a young guy named Aristotle, pushed back against this idea of transcendence. Instead, Aristotle focused on the material world and offered a philosophy of Being based on scientific causation anchored by something he called a “Prime Mover.” An initial powerful idea presented by Socrates and Plato was being refined and transformed, waiting for yet more bright minds to have a go….
Sure enough, centuries later, in the third century C.E., a mysterious figure named Plotinus appeared in Roman Egypt. He scratched his head and put the ideas of Plato and Aristotle together in a thoroughly original way, transcending the traditional limits of ancient thought; this “Neoplatonism” suggested new opportunities for a rational Platonic soul in combination with some kind of Aristotelean Absolute.
I’m sure it’s much more complicated than that, but you get the general point. Reasoning about the possible nature of a human soul was a process, and over time it was filled with twists and turns….
By the year 410 C.E., Rome had fallen to the Goths, and a genius named Augustine was fresh off his party years, spending more time in the library thinking about his existence, embracing Plato at the expense of Aristotle; and it was from Plotinus that Augustine came to understand man’s reason as resembling some kind of flashlight of the soul….
Eventually, by the thirteenth century, the single greatest creative mind of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, would waddle into the classroom of the great Albertus Magnus (Thomas wasn’t afraid of a good meal) and started devouring not only the works of Augustine, but the rediscovered, newly translated works of Aristotle.
Over time, Aquinas would synthesize the best of both Plato and Aristotle. For Aquinas, human beings are the only material being gifted with a soul and the only spiritual being gifted with a mind and intelligence capable of wrestling with an ever-changing material world.
This fusion of ideas was one of the great achievements of Western civilization, because its effects would redound through the ages, impacting history in countless ways.
But that’s another story entirely, of course.
The point is, for me The Cave and the Light reinforces the concept that innovation is iterative and sometimes hugely impactful. But throughout most of history, change was also a relatively lengthy process.
Ideas had time to marinate before they were hoovered up by guys like Plotinus and Thomas Aquinas.
Now imagine technologists and engineers and computer scientists and a range of other professionals and dreamers obsessing over technological innovation rather than philosophers and theologians debating the nature of the human soul. The subject matter of The Cave and the Light focuses on abstract, sometimes radical ideas rather than technology, but the fundamentals are similar enough.
The key difference is that these days we live in a world where the exchange of information, data, knowledge, and insights happens at a much faster rate than it used to.
Today, transformation can happen quite suddenly, even unexpectedly. After all, technology is racing ahead at ever faster speeds. As I suggested a year ago when Covid hit, it really does feel like we’re living in a sci-fi world.
Peter Diamandis agrees. He's the author of Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. Back in 2014, I heard him speak at an event in Boston, where he pointed out what he called the most important trend that not enough people are talking about: the global population of Internet users. By 2020, Diamandis said, some five billion people would be online.
Diamandis urged the audience to think deeply about what that means. Our planet has been adding billions of previously unconnected minds to what has become an increasingly intense global conversation. In real-time. Meantime, the cost to launch tech startups is way down. The number of people trying new things has been sky-rocketing.
Which was why, back in 2014, Diamandis suggested that, “The next five years will show that we are entering the most epic era of innovation in history.”
Consider how the combinatorial effects of so many emerging technology applications have the potential to revolutionize operating models across industries, with broad-ranging effects.
Now add to the intrigue. Think about how many significant inventions have happened by accident or luck.
Because innovation often occurs through serendipity and recombination, as inventors and entrepreneurs interact and exchange ideas. Great learning and advances often happen in groups. Bring the right minds together in the right place at the right time, and exciting new ideas are more likely to catch fire.
I’ll offer one example that captures this phenomenon quite well.
Welcome to the story of the “gated reverb.”
A few years after leaving the greatest rock band on the planet in the mid-1970s, Peter Gabriel was in the studio working on another solo album. He needed a drummer, but he didn’t have a huge budget (I wanted to think of an example relevant to most BPOs)….
Anyway, his friend, ex-bandmate Phil Collins, said he’d be happy to help out.
Collins arrived at the studio in London and took his seat behind the drums. Gabriel told his friend he wanted the drummer to experiment – he could use no hi-hats and no cymbals. The 70s had been great, but a new decade was on the horizon, after all. Fine, said Collins, who started tuning his drums, fiddling with his equipment.
There was a reverse talk-back button in the studio. And a microphone plugged into a console, and a massively huge compressor. Collins wasn’t thinking about any of those things when an engineer named Hugh Padgham pressed the reverse talk-back button with no intention other than to talk to one of the top ten greatest drummers in rock history….
But the sound that boomed out from the microphone was spectacularly unique. It went from utterly ambient to vanishing into a void of nothingness in a fraction of a second….
Like the strange, mysterious course of a human soul.
Gabriel and Collins – the Socrates and Plato of progressive rock – sat up immediately and told Padgham to give them more of whatever it was they’d just heard. Padgham said slow down, he needed a little time to figure out what the hell they had. I imagine Gabriel and Collins heading off for a pint. Padgham, playing the practical Aristotle grounded in the material world, spent the night taking a feed off the mike and rigging the machine with even more compression and noise gates.
In the days to follow, Collins did some more fiddling around until, soon enough, a drum pattern emerged that everyone liked. Gabriel wrote a song around the pattern and built their new discovery – gated reverb – into the mix.
And a classic song called Intruder was born.
Six months later, Collins worked the new sound into his first solo album….
A classic called In the Air Tonight was the result.
Whether one cares for 80s music or not, what had happened was nothing less than musical innovation. Popular music would be transformed. A few talented guys tinkering around in a studio had made a consequential sonic discovery that would define the sound of a decade.
And it was all by accident.
That was forty years ago. Today, at the beginning of a new decade, just think about how enormous the impacts of exponential technological change could be going forward. Even in something as staid as the BPO industry. Because new ideas are now being shared in real-time across that industry, as it is across many others.
Ideas and advances in tech are coursing across our giant, connected, open-sourced studio of innovation called planet earth. Our sci-fi world. And every BPO out there is racing to keep up, pushing the buttons of transformation in a race against time, a battle against irrelevance. Every entity is looking to transform.
Throughout history, nobody ever knows precisely how old ideas might be adapted into new ones, how old songs might become something new. Going forward, none of us knows exactly what to expect.
Because everything changes, ceaselessly.
“The world,” said Heraclitus, “is a living fire.”
Is that the sound of a new kind of CX in the air?
All we can do is stay tuned….
Image: Morrison Hotel Gallery Prints, "Phil Collins & Peter Gabriel," by Bill Green