The Power of Peer Networks: An Interview with Katharyn White, Former CMO, T-Systems (Part I of II)

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Katharyn White, Former CMO, T-Systems and now IBM General Manager, Federal Ecosystem about some of the challenges and growth that she experienced in building an advisory network at T-Systems amidst a pandemic. This is Part I of a two-part interview; please click here to read Part II.

Q: What challenge were you addressing when you sought a customer advisory board consultant?

A: “We were looking at how our strategy resonated in the marketplace. Did clients understand it? Did they understand it well enough to affect their decisions and were they engaging us effectively in that discussion?

I was not sure how much input was getting filtered during the normal process of client interactions. Were we hearing the truth or were they making it more palatable for us? I wanted a neutral, third-party player to help us discern what was true.”

Q:  Was your management team aligned with this quest?

A: “There was work going on within the system to create advisory or user groups for such things that may come up. I was reticent to engage in something that wasn’t connected across the company and specifically connected to our overall strategy.

I had worked with Farland Group in the past at different companies. I knew Farland had a particular approach that I thought would be helpful to this situation and could engage with us as an organization constructively, while at the same time providing value and insight to our clients.”

Q: How did your initial engagement with Farland lead to the virtual advisory network construct?

A: “In working with Farland, we took a step back and said, what do we want to communicate to clients and how do we want to get feedback? We went through a process of recruiting and defining our goals. About the time we were deciding how we wanted to engage this advisory body, we were gifted an opportunity to change, because of the pandemic. So, we moved from advisory as a physical moment in time to advisory as a network where we might have many small moments in time.

Even pre-pandemic, Farland had started to do client interviews with the intention to lead to a physical engagement. It was in that process where we ended up moving toward the network as the design instead of advisory as a physical event.”

Q:  What were the advantages of the shift to the virtual advisory network?

A: “I think that really helped us think about the right content and the right channel in retrospect. At the time, people were disappointed at lack of in-person touchpoints. People liked that the virtual advisory network gave us flexibility to calendar, and flexibility in content and frequency. It’s a different cost equation as well.”

“In working with Farland, we took a step back and said, what do we want to communicate to clients and how do we want to get feedback?”


Q: As you refined the approach, what insights did you gain?

A: “As we moved forward, we would test strategic elements, the clients’ understanding, the relevance; refine that, go back, and show them adaptations and get further refinements.

Things we thought were very clear weren’t as clear when we were describing it or trying to simplify for clarity. Our organization believed in showing every detail in content so being able to ladder that up while still having it be differentiating was part of the dance we were learning with the client and Farland’s help. Changing and refining the strategy, as well as reinforcing parts that were foundational, were the pillars of this initiative.

The process opened different kinds of discussions with the clients who participated. They really had not seen the strategy from our perspective. They also gave us good tactical advice such as, ‘Even if what you are saying is relevant, we are not experiencing it like that on the ground.’ Then the strategy loses its credibility. We knew we had to engage different aspects of the organization in proving the strategic relevance, or at least our strategic direction touchpoint by touchpoint, versus signaling something that was going to happen in the future.”

Q:  Let’s talk specifically about the network component. How did that work?

A: “Our discussions weren’t all one-on-one. We would have a collective discussion around an issue and, with the support and facilitation of Farland Group, we were able to play off one another’s comments and then engage individually as they saw fit.

A peer-to-peer experience is not easy virtually. They aren’t having side conversations, but in sharing their perspectives we had clients say, ‘I’ve just gone through that and had a very similar experience.’ We saw the clients benefiting from the discussion, because there’s managed space for interaction as opposed to the sponsoring company doing all the presenting.”

Q:  Do you think virtual advisory networks are here to stay? 

A: “I would like to think virtual advisory networks taught us what content belongs in what channel, but I fear people will jump to in-person (after the pandemic) without thinking through those tradeoffs. Of course, in-person enables a different conversation, but you can also get clarity when you have to engage a different way. We have the risk of missing that if we rush only to ‘oh good, we can be in person again.’ It will be a new balancing act for every organization. We’re all figuring this out.”

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