I got the text around 6:30 p.m., while I was still holed up in my hotel room trying to finish a story: Michael Dell had unexpectedly shown up at the party I was supposed to be attending, and if I ran I might have a chance to talk with him in person.
Unfortunately, some deadlines cannot be ignored, even for the kinds of business leaders who have shown remarkable tenacity and fortitude during several waves of technological innovation.
Had I been able to meet Michael Dell, (who I will refer to with both names throughout here so as to avoid confusion), I would have started out by congratulating him. Anyone whose company has survived three and a half decades has done something right. To go through such turmoil that you take your company private, then back to the public market again, is an almost unheard-of achievement.
Then would have come the awkward part. The part when I tried to find a way to make a gentle suggestion that, in his keynote speech at Dell Technologies World in Las Vegas this week, he might have done more than faithfully read his TelePrompter. That his core message — technology continues to change the world, Dell has the products and services to meet the needs, etc. — are virtually identical to that of its major competitors. That it might have been more interesting to have the big customers come up for a live conversation, rather than show us a series of canned case study-style videos.
Of course, I’m not trying to be harsh, and Michael Dell has no particular reason to listen to me. Having led publications for CIOs and other IT professionals as well as for those in marketing and sales, though, I can say with confidence that there’s a gap in Dell’s messaging — and that of many companies like it — that needs to be closed.
Dell wants to be a leader in helping companies through digital transformation, but for everyone in the C-Suite other than the CIO, ‘digital transformation’ is not about the servers, cloud services and virtualization software that onboard new employees or provision applications. If you talk to the CMO, the head of sales, HR or almost anyone else, digital transformation is what they want to happen on the front end — the web sites, apps and other digital experiences directly involving their buyers.
The problem for too many B2B companies, meanwhile, is that they start on those customer-facing things and then find out they don’t have the underlying compute power to run them. Expectations aren’t met, return-on-investment isn’t achieved and customer centricity stays maddeningly off-centre. Marketers, sales and other line of business functions often either aren’t aware of how their IT infrastructure runs, or don’t care until it becomes an issue.
In Dell’s case, no one is in a better position to articulate that chicken-and-egg aspect of digital transformation than Michael Dell. As CEO, he sits at a level above all other executive roles, giving him the perspective to coach his traditional base of IT decision-makers on managing up. (Disclosure: I was paid by one of Dell’s agencies to work on a social media project for several years, and now realize I should have tried to get this thinking into the work I did for them, too).
This is not a Dell-only problem. It’s similar to many other enterprise tech firms who don’t do the “sexy” martech stuff, or the things that require a basic understanding of IT management to appreciate. It’s why I want to spend this month looking at other disconnects in B2B that CEOs are particularly suited to address. When you grow a brand to a certain level, you have to be more holistic in how you lead its go-to-market strategy and think about your audience. If more CEOs can do that, Michael Dell won’t be the only one ready to party.