Convergence in professional services—prepare for a battle with no end

  • Edward Haigh

I joined Sony in July 1998, on the day it launched its first VAIO laptop in the UK and, in doing so, parked its fearsome tanks on the lawns of the IT industry. By the time I left the company, seven years later to the day, I’d worked for an internet service provider; a mobile network reseller; a social networking platform; a music download and streaming service; and a consumer electronics manufacturer. The list of industry conferences I’d attended was long and varied.

What I’d failed to hear, as I pushed open the front door at Sony’s office that day, was the sound of the starting pistol being fired on a phase of massive convergence in the technology, media and telecoms sector (an act that probably ought to be attributed to the launch of Freeserve, the UK’s first free dial-up ISP, in the same year). But it quickly became clear to me that the competitive landscape in which Sony was operating was in a massive state of flux, in much the same way as the competitive landscape in professional services is today.

As a self-confessed late-adopter of just about everything (which, in the case of the Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses I was wearing at the time, was so pronounced that I wasn’t far off becoming an accidental early adopter for the phase where they made a comeback) a big part of the challenge was simply keeping up. I was among the first people in the UK to own a GPRS (2.5G) phone, and a PS2, and had very little idea what to do with either; although the GPRS phone got so hot when I tried to download football scores on it that I used it as a pocket-warmer, and the PS2 turned out to be a DVD player, too, so I just watched Titanic on it. “Jack, I’m flying!” Marvellous stuff.

Another part of the challenge was figuring out where all this convergence was going to end up. Presumably, fairly soon, everyone involved in our particular strain of convergence (which really felt like everyone) was going to meet in the middle, and after an almighty scrap of the sort you see in an Asterix book, someone was going to emerge victorious from the melee.

That assumption turned out to be wrong. Or at least massively premature. We did all meet in the middle, but then we all stayed there, having a right old ding-dong of a battle that never seemed to end. Some got stronger (Google), some got weaker (Sony). Some reinvented themselves so often and to such an extent that they accidentally ended up back where they started, only feeling much dizzier and still in the middle of an almighty scrap (just ask anyone who’s worked for BT for the last 20 years). But at no point did everyone agree that the battle was over and clear the ground so the winners could be announced. It just went on.

As the professional services sector embarks on its own brand of convergence, this is worth bearing in mind. Everyone needs to prepare themselves for the idea that they’re not in transition from one thing to another: they’re simply stepping into the fray, with no idea how long they’ll be there, who else will join, or whether anyone will ever be declared the winner. Success, which will ebb and flow, will depend on a firm’s ability firstly to know itself, and then to re-imagine itself, to have the humility to learn from others, to change itself quickly, and to fend off competition on multiple fronts.

It’ll also need to be patient: For some time we’ve postulated that there are likely to be somewhere in the region of five mega-firms that emerge from the melee, but we have no idea when that will be, and none of the protagonists in this story can afford to spend time fixating on that, because it’ll make them impatient to get to the last chapter at the cost of their inclusion in it. Sony was weakened by the fight because it spent too much time trying to define the way in which it would emerge victorious, and not enough time simply figuring out how to deal with being in a battle.