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The Emergence of the Technology Evangelist

There’s a new job role opening up in every industry, that of the emerging technology evangelist.

Written BY

Emily Friedman

May 12, 2020

At last year’s EWTS, Fortune 500 speakers across all sectors shared stories of evangelizing emerging technologies like AR, VR and wearables in their organizations. What they described sounded almost like a new job role involving the setting up of innovation centers, internal newsletters and workshops. Find out all the ways innovators are pushing new tech in the workplace and take notes!

EXPOSURE

Michael Newsham, Global Learning Systems and Development Lead at Bayer, was exposed to immersive and wearable technologies several years ago at EWTS, after which he went on an “internal roadshow” to demonstrate use cases. This turned into “Future Fridays,” where vendors were sometimes brought in, and competitions to fund innovative projects. Mike Baca, Director of Mobility and Edge Solutions at AmerisourceBergen, actually brought business stakeholders with him to an EWTS event, hoping they would catch the palpable excitement of the show attendees.

Carl Rytych, Innovation Leader at Exelon, admits he spends a lot of his time showing people what VR is by taking an HTC VIVE wherever he can. Ever since one of Exelon’s training instructors created a VR app several years ago, Carl says he’s given the demo at least 1,000 times. Exelon co-developed its first virtual pump room with a vendor. Though there was a really small budget for it, it became the ‘show and tell’ VR experience within the company.

Hackathons and the like expose people to new tech, allow them to come up with use cases and thereby improve a company’s innovation culture. JetBlue’s Andy Kozak mentioned hosting a ‘Shark Tank’ to uncover ways to improve the training department, while Bridgestone’s Andrew Warren did a VR scavenger hunt: VPs and engineers alike played a game based on a real machine; they were on their hands and knees looking under the machine and Andy says this did more good for the technology across the company than any PR campaign.

Nathan Yorgey says his efforts to raise awareness about AR/VR, IoT and biometrics as Director of Digital Transformation at Pfizer began around five years ago. At first, Nathan attended EWTS by himself, though there weren’t many pharma-targeted solutions. He spent the first two and a half years in “pure sales mode,” acting as an “internal consultant,” and trying to convince senior executives to put budget aside for emerging technologies. His advice to others in a similar position: “Don’t lead with the tech.” Frame digital transformation to fit with the brand: Pfizer isn’t a tech company; it makes drugs to improve patients’ lives.

Alternatively, Vinzent Rudtsch, Head of Ergoskeleton Project at Audi, recommends starting with the technology sometimes in order to get people to really understand its features and think about how they would use it. At Gulfstream Aerospace, Drew Holbrook realized XR wasn’t something he could put into a PowerPoint. He knew he had to get people to try it and says his team does at least one tech demo every month for different groups, showing multiple headsets and the company’s own CAVE. Drew says they get a lot of proofs of concept this way, but he must then set expectations (i.e. it’s new tech, will take a while to implement, etc.)

SOCIAL BUY-IN

Patrick Bass’ team saw HoloLens and knew they had to have it for Thyssenkrupp. A dev kit was put into multiple centers to get ideas flowing and a lot of time spent taking HoloLens around to skeptics within the company and putting a headset on them. Patrick did HoloLens demos in regional management meetings and also warned: “If you’re not going to change your business model, someone else will do it for you.” (A little fear of competition never hurt anybody.) To make a point, he put a headset on himself to show that someone (even a CEO) who had never done a task before could do it perfectly with HoloLens.

Gensler’s Megan Lubaszka might be the queen of exposing a very large company to both the ‘coolness’ and practical realities of virtual reality. Knowing her audience of designers who’ve been winning awards for years with traditional design tools, Megan realized she needed social proof so she came up with “VR jams,” a weekly meeting in which one design team does a project walkthrough in VR. Anyone can call in – and hundreds do – watching from their computer screens or a VR headset.

As you can tell, a big part of this new job is de-mything the technology. Connected Worker Architect Eric Johnston spends a lot of his time doing just this at ExxonMobil. Inaccurate marketing by XR companies creates false impressions about what today’s tech can do. Employees are being increasingly exposed to ads for XR products and it’s often up to the ‘company evangelist’ to, as Drew Holbrook said, set expectations. Eric advises others in his position to show people why mixed reality is important as opposed to just presenting a headset or relying on what people may or may not already know. What are you actually trying to accomplish?

Elsewhere at Exxon, Kyle Daughtry (Immersive Technology Service Design Lead) and Athicha “M” Dharnormchitphong (Immersive Technology Architect) began with a basic 3D model of campus on an Oculus DK1 to showcase VR. Their advice: Do your research (within your company and on the XR market itself) and always have an SME involved. Kyle and Athicha spoke with the person who scheduled training courses overseas at Exxon, uncovering issues like memory retention and lack of trainee engagement. They also used existing consumer experiences like Google Earth and Walk the Plank to help demonstrate the technology, which led to use case suggestions from the workers themselves. These efforts created demand for VR at ExxonMobil; commitment from IT and management soon followed.

BENCHMARK / MINDSET

Several speakers suggested looking outside your own industry: Sanofi, according to Peg Bollella, turned to other industries like home improvement (Lowe’s), while WestRock VR/AR Product Lead Scott Burkey admired Porsche. Kendall Loomis (Manager of the Immersive Design Center) spoke about consumer bench-marking at Raytheon, which looked at the use of 360-degree video in professional sports and entertainment as a way to create awareness and initially orient someone to the AR/VR space.

Christopher Reid, Human Factors & Ergonomics Associate Technical Fellow at Boeing, talked about building “your own crowdsourcing scheme.” Boeing does a lot of benchmarking outside the company, comparing notes and best practices with other aerospace and aviation companies. It’s for the greater good, he said, to not take a proprietary stance on exoskeletons but instead share information to get the technology accepted faster.

Kyle and Athicha spoke about adopting a startup mindset where you’re always looking for more funding, support and talent to scale your efforts. Steve Paul, Director of Visualization and Immersive Technology at AECOM, advised the audience not to think of all big corporations as “monolithic.” Steve’s team works like a small business within AECOM, at first creating XR experiences in their own time on top of everyday visualization projects. Soon enough, the whole company was paying attention. Peg (above) described it as “being like a POC for other groups and divisions” within your company.

FINANCIAL BUY-IN

Why do all this? Hopefully, to get funding for projects. This is often a matter of prioritization for the company. As Exxon’s Eric Johnston said, if higher-ups are given the choice to invest in a new AR headset or pay to fix a broken line, “the broken line will probably win every time.” Find a problem that’s “big enough” for the company to prioritize ahead of time and quantify the value. AR could save X billions of dollars, but what if the line produces more money than that?

Kyle and Athicha choose to focus on high-risk and therefore high-value scenarios. Brandt Wilson, Director of Innovation at Knight Transportation, found “a really small nail that had a big impact.” This was pre-trip inspection, something all truck drivers have to do. Training was inconsistent across the company’s terminals and so XR just “checked a lot of boxes” for Knight. Brandt got the budget to be more explorative after proving one small business case that worked really well.

Of course, company culture is an important factor. Peggy Gulick (Dir. Digital Transformation, Global Manufacturing) struggled with disruption and “obsoleting an old process” at AGCO when she pioneered the evangelist role in 2013 with just one pair of Google Glass.

“Change is inevitable and so is innovation…[the] biggest problem is making innovation the new normal, creating a new culture, engaging employees in innovation.”

Today’s companies support product and customer service innovation but often neglect process and supply chain. Peggy worked to simplify the approval process, seeking out executives who embraced change and now AGCO closes down some of its plants for an hour a week for people to work on new ideas. Peg Bollela (Sanofi) described the challenge of being innovative in a highly regulated environment. Peg focused on the technology instead of the content at first, knowing that the content approval process would be an ‘innovation killer.’ She sat down with the heads of legal, IT, the CMO, etc. to tell them what her team wanted to do and gain their feedback and advocacy. After that, she could worry about getting approval for materials.

A timid approach can work, too, according to Kiewit’s John Rygg: Even if you aren’t ready to make a big investment – perhaps you’re waiting for next-gen devices and platforms – you need to get involved in the space early, to really understand the technology and figure out where it could be used when the time comes. When that time comes, be ready.

To recap the strategies above:

· Go on an internal roadshow, use a ‘show and tell’ experience
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Attend EWTS (and bring colleagues/stakeholders)
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Do lots of demos, putting devices on as many people as possible
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Don’t lead with the tech unless showcasing the tech’s capabilities to inspire others
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Get social proof (weekly project sharing)
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Host shark tanks and hackathons
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Scavenger hunt (make it fun yet demonstrative to orient people to the tech)
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Look outside your industry (benchmark)
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Don’t start with an innovation killer (get people on your side first and solve problems later)
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Begin with a problem that the company will prioritize ahead of time, a small but really valuable use case
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Adopt a startup or small business mindset
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Work to simplify approval processes and seek out forward-thinking executives
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Work with other innovators in your industry to make the future happen faster
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Lastly, be financially timid but have use cases ready to go when it’s time to invest

The new position of Emerging Technology Evangelist is popping up in every industry and over the last five years we’ve seen individuals’ careers grow as a result of taking on this role. Though the job may become easier in a post-COVID world, it’s important to become aware of what’s available and to heed the lessons of those who came before.

Further Reading