The Walkman, the iPhone, and Innovation’s Perfect Storm for Convergence

If you’re a little bit longer in the tooth and have a good memory, you may remember June 1980, when the world’s first low-cost portable stereo, the Sony Walkman, was launched in the U.S. for $150. Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka wanted to be able to listen to operas during his frequent trans-Pacific flights, and the Walkman was marketed as an opportunity for listeners to be able to take back their lost time while commuting.

Various iterations followed as Sony’s products shifted from cassette to CD, then mini-disc and the digital world of MP3. Sony defined a new, personalized approach to listening to music that fended off competitors throughout the 1980s and 1990s. For a time, the Walkman and its subsequent iterations were the de-facto choice for listening to music on the move. That changed in 2001 when Apple introduced the iPod, and subsequently the iPhone. Underpinned by the iTunes ecosystem, the iPod disrupted the music market as we knew it. Alas, the Walkman was no more.

Yet, rather than focusing on how individual devices such as the iPod changed the way we listen to music, think instead about the convergence of several macro factors—a perfect storm of business, societal, and cultural factors that preceded the actual device and inspired this shift in behavior. In my view, the iPod is an iconic representation of a convergence of changes. It did not appear and cause these changes to happen; it was the result rather than the driver of change. That is, the iPod’s success resulted from the increased prevalence of digital music, which allowed consumers to carry not just a customized playlist but thousands of songs with them, and iTunes shifted from a way to organize digital music to a marketplace that allowed artists and record companies to monetize digital music.

A convergence of megatrends and technological developments came together at just the right time to fundamentally change the landscape.

These Apple-led disruptions aren’t isolated incidents. Let’s take the “office wars” of the ’80s and ’90s, when Microsoft, Borland, WordPerfect, and Lotus—among others—fought to become the choice of computer users. This was fueled by the emergence of increased processing power enabled by Moore’s Law, and also by the changing demands of computer users. People wanted to be able to create graphics, build presentations, and share files faster at home as well as at the office. Such demands created the need for innovation and products to allow computer users to work from home as they would in the workplace. Again, a convergence of megatrends and technological developments came together at just the right time to fundamentally change the landscape. Microsoft won that battle, yet the need to connect and learn from one another would result in another disruption—the world’s population moved away from packaged PC software and onto the Internet.

The Changing Relationship Between Finance and HR

When I look at the business world today, especially the world I live in at Workday, I’m seeing a similar shift taking place with several points of convergence redefining the landscape. Take the changing relationship between finance and HR. Both are critical business partners, yet from a business and technology perspective they are traditionally two very disparate functions, both in terms of how they treat data and work with one another to support the business. However, a series of external forces have created a need for these functions to work smarter together, and that requires a technology architecture capable of supporting this closer collaboration.

On the business side, our world has moved from manufacturing to service-led economies, where organizations no longer measure profitability purely through the production of goods (using, for example, traditional ERP systems). Organizations are now moving to a more complex world where they need to measure and report on intangibles such as people and context. This means creating a better understanding of the relationship between people and finance. On another level, the continued globalization of business, and factors such as Brexit in the UK and an overhaul of the Affordable Care Act in the U.S., mean organizations must be more agile and be able to deploy and manage a mobile workforce through times of constant change.

Then there are macro drivers, or what Gartner describes as “the Nexus of Forces: Social, Mobile, Cloud and Information,” coming together to change the way businesses can and should operate at every level. This could include the use of analytics for better decision-making, delivering enterprise applications through a consumer-grade user experience via a mobile device, or encouraging social collaboration efforts throughout the workplace.

It may sound like a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg, but what we’re really talking about is a continued demand from customers to do things better and more efficiently, and to create the technology to help us deal with a business world that is anything but certain. Just as the Apple iPod and Microsoft Office were symbols of change, we believe that cloud vendors, including Workday, Salesforce, Amazon, Google, Box, and Slack will be the iconic brands synonymous with transforming the way we work and will define the “new normal.”

I believe one day in the not-too-distant future, business leaders will ask themselves, “Didn’t it always used to be this way?”

Technological innovation is often delivered by those people and companies that spot these fundamental shifts across business and society—those who have the foresight to recognize that such points of convergence will transform behaviors, business models, and the way we work, and are thus able to create new markets or completely disrupt the old, heralding in a brighter, better future.

I believe one day in the not-too-distant future, business leaders will ask themselves, “Didn’t it always used to be this way?” Relating tales of on-premise systems and having to manually move data from one system to another will be like telling a millennial the way you used to keep in touch with friends before mobile phones existed, cueing looks of sheer disbelief and mock horror. For organizations that find the prospect of making changes to fundamental systems like finance and HR, or who wonder if the cloud can support the most demanding enterprise workloads, remember that at one point in time the idea of a portable cassette player seemed pretty far-fetched as well.