Standing on the Shoulders of Students

Morning! I just arrived home from an interesting week up in the Pacific Northwest, and wanted to share some insights. As senior architects and consultants, my colleagues and I are often looked to to provide strategic direction, or insight, or innovative perspectives, or that other awful and overused phrase: thought leadership. We do this on behalf of Microsoft for our enterprise customers and other stakeholders in the overall customer ecosystem. And it’s a great gig. But I think we sometimes forget what we can learn from our juniors, especially from those who not only haven’t walked in our shoes but weren’t even born until the 1990s. I’m talking about today’s college students….and I’ve been fortunate to lead and work with two very capable Microsoft-sponsored University student teams over the past 6 months.


In the first case, I was tasked with guiding development of an executive-level paper and presentation for CIOs faced with the challenges surrounding Mergers, Acquisitions, and Divestitures – common business transactions that can easily derail an organization for months even as it seeks to gain synergies directly related to executing the M/A/D in the first place….. my student team was bright, and as is the norm I built an advisory team of Microsoft-internal business architects and consultants to review our work as it progressed. Read more about this project in my CIO’s blog:


More recently, just this week my newest student team gave me and my stakeholders a mid-project update on some work we’re doing around Social CRM. We’re looking to create another CIO-level paper and summarized PPTX deck with actionable advice and a fresh perspective.


If my student teams were simply to stick to the plan and deliver the papers I need, I’d be quite happy. Mission accomplished, right? And they’d be happy with their As and the chance to include a nice little write-up and couple of extra bullet points on their resume.


But here’s the thing, and why I’m writing at 3:00 in the morning. Both of my student teams saw opportunities to take our projects to the next level, to a different place, beyond the picture I painted for them. And they did so effectively – in the most amazing way. Now, I’m not a guy who needs to take credit for things I have no business taking credit for, but I have to admit that I set the stage pretty well. I pushed the teams to think beyond the obvious, beyond the research, beyond what everyone else was saying. I didn’t want reworked advice and tired axioms published again and again over the last 10 years. I especially didn’t want to echo what the analysts were already telling my customers. I demanded – in the nicest way of course – something new. They just over-delivered.


In the first case, my team and I were unhappy with the quality and depth of data we were finding in the contemporary M&A space. We needed something new, and we found that in part by developing and delivering to current and former CIOs a custom survey aimed at identifying real-world lessons learned and if-only-I-could-do-it-again advice. Simply having such primary research at our disposal made our paper much more credible, and yes, full of some very nice nuggets of CIO wisdom and perspectives. But my students took the project further and developed a first-of-its-kind comprehensive M&A framework. Not only is it absolutely unique, but given its chronological orientation, the framework serves as an actionable roadmap as well. I only hoped for a decent paper, but in return I received a differentiating piece of Intellectual Property vetted by CIOs for CIOs. Amazing. And they delivered a great paper and supporting decks (executive-level as well as a very detailed one). Not bad for a bunch of kids….. :). 


In my most recent experience this week, my team has again surprised me. Different team and different students, mind you, but the same promise of shock and awe. We’re only half-way through the Social CRM project and the team has already produced a model that captures and describes the key social platforms in terms of potential revenue impact, time-to-value, and more. The step-wise nature of the model seems destined to provide CIOs today with the kind of carefully aligned insight and actionable guidance necessary to not only identify and navigate the smartest path forward but also to develop the underpinnings of the business case necessary for pursuing that path. I wanted a paper….but I’m convinced I’m going to get a whole lot more. Again.


Sure, we can look at these project scenarios as an example of effective collaboration bounded by decent project management and guided by the maxim ‘show me something new.’ But it’s more than that. My students are looking at the same problem space I am, but they’re synthesizing it differently. As a leader, I might like to think that my team is being enabled, empowered, and positioned for success based on what I’ve provided them. And yes, I’m pretty helpful. :) But at the end of the day, I’m really standing on the shoulders of my students. They’re the giants, and my customers will benefit mightily from their fresh perspectives and our combined work. As for me, I’m just grateful for each of them and for the chance to be part of developing something truly innovative, and truly inspiring. Imagine what they’ll accomplish as they move into our workplace and transform it in front of our eyes. Very cool times ahead of us, for sure…..  :)


Take care all,



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