The Key to IT Transformation | Article

Customer puzzleWhen a practicing physician and a Ph.D. in biochemistry/molecular genetics decided to co-found a new company, it wouldn’t be amiss to expect that it would operate in the healthcare industry. Jamison Feramisco, as co-founder of a secure web and mobile application that enabled remote diagnosis of dermatology cases, dramatically reduced wait times for patients while driving increased revenues for providers.

When an architect decided to join Autodesk to help them write programs for their Architectural CAD software, it was understood that she would bring the knowledge of the subject matter – architecture, in this case – to the product being designed.

When a graduate from a premium design institute decided not to design clothes or furniture or jewelry, but to instead join a leading cell-phone manufacturer, it’s proof that technology and communications companies are hiring every kind of expert they can find. The domain of the designer thus stretches to “user interface” of the cellphone – and she will use her expertise to ensure that users find it easy (and even pleasurable) to use the phone.

Over a decade ago, people discussed information technology per se, like they discussed the engine of a car more than five decades ago. Today, it’s the car that’s the object of interest. Much like the engine, information technology has now become the basic infrastructure that’s a given and no longer interesting except to the mechanic. The questions that interest people today are: what does the company do, how well does it do it, and how does it benefit the consumer?

Listen carefully, talk meaningfully

Prof S. Sadagopan, founder director of the premier Indian Institute of Information Technology in Bangalore, India, said domain experts and technologists need to understand one another’s fields pretty well if they are to build something unique that works smoothly. Take robotic surgery, for example. The engineer who designs the robot must have deep knowledge of how the surgeon operates on a patient in the environment of a surgery. Similarly, the surgeon who will use the robot must know how the machine was engineered.

Software products have to be designed in the same manner if they have to work with efficiency. Banking software cannot be written without the help of bankers. Online trading would not be successful if brokers were not involved in designing the package. Certainly none of the ERP packages would have taken their first steps in industry if domain experts were not involved. The list could go on and on.

Software services companies are in the same boat. Here, entire teams of engineers, as well as sales and marketing personnel, need to deeply understand the industry they are targeting. The customer’s pain points should not just be understood but felt. Sympathy is not enough, there must be empathy. That is the only way you can distinguish yourself from your competitors.

Then go a step further, offer a solution. Even better, offer to take over the work so that customers can concentrate on their core strengths. Outsourced projects have a high degree of success when the customer can directly talk in his own language with someone in the service provider’s team, without having to resort to an intermediary.

In the beginning was the expert

If you’re a start-up offering products or services in a niche area, one of your co-founders is most likely a domain expert. But if not, you’ll need to hire one soon enough. Hiring subject matter experts may not be the easiest thing for a newly set up company in an uncertain economic environment, so if you cannot afford a full-time expert, go for part-time hires. Young graduates or student-interns may cost less and may bring fresh perspective. A Silicon Valley investor who only invests in high-tech start-ups says good new companies have always had industry or domain experts either as co-founders or as advisers, thus ensuring that a sounding board is at hand.

For larger outsourcing firms, hiring a team of domain experts is advantageous, but having a well-known and reputed domain expert on hand is a great advantage. It shows your willingness to pay top dollar so your customers get the best advice.

Sometimes, experts are humble. It is then the task of the employer to make sure his/her name gets known. Take part in industry gatherings, discussion forums, blogs and, in general, put the spotlight on your expert. Ensure that your domain expert is standing up and being counted – and being counted upon to solve the customer’s unique problem.

Pardon me for mixing up several metaphors and puns here – I would go so far as to say that the customer is king of his own domain, but the king maker (the provider) has a special place in corporate history as well. Dissenters, draw your swords!

How has your organization tasted success by leveraging domain experts? We’d love to hear your story!

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