Not-So-Secret (Change) Agents

A team of 25 evangelists, strategists, and technologists helps British Telecom's biggest customers — as well as BT itself — get ready for the digital future. Fast.

You've fired three of your brightest employees — one day before their options vest. Why you fired them is irrelevant. What matters now is that they're bent on destroying you. When it comes to using the Web to reinvent your business, they know your every weakness and worry. And they've vowed to take you apart piece by piece.

It's a nightmare scenario. It's also a "war-gaming" exercise that the Communications Consultancy Group (C2G) , a team of change agents inside British Telecommunications (BT) , uses to persuade change-resistant companies to get with the Web program. "Companies can do three things" in response to new technologies, argues Peter Cochrane, 54, BT's chief technologist, who heads up C2G. "They can ignore the threat, they can build a defense against it, or they can create a new organization that will supercede the old one. Our advice is to build the child that will eat the parent."

C2G is an autonomous, unfettered, mobile team of 25 e-commerce evangelists, strategists, and technologists. Its objective is twofold: to push BT's operations into a profitable future, and to alert BT's customers to the impact of digital technology. The C2G arsenal includes market forecasting, business modeling, and executive coaching. But its initial efforts usually involve a day's worth of war-gaming, along with a technology showcase. "We like to shock people into action," says Graham Cosier, 46, Cochrane's deputy. And the emphasis is on shock: "We go in and out fast," says Dipak Patel, 24, a prodigy whose title with C2G is Young Jedi. "We'll usually have a draft of a report completed by the end of the first day."

Less than two years after its launch, C2G has earned a reputation for fast-track performance, particularly in the financial-services world. For example, the Chicago Board of Trade has taken C2G's advice on how wearable computers are likely to change the dynamics of life in the trading pits. Within BT, C2G's biggest success so far has been to boost the revenues of one unit by more than 60%, to $1.8 billion.

Yet C2G represents only the first phase of Cochrane's experiment in reincarnation. He has persuaded BT to create an incubator fund, and he wants to turn the company's campus in Ipswich, England into a breeding ground for local ventures sparked by BT employees. "I've instructed everyone on my staff to start a company on the weekends," says Cochrane, who is himself a startup vet, with 15 companies on his résumé. "I want a community where people are free to move from BT to a startup and then back again," he says. "Technology helps people catch a vision of the future, but if C2G has taught me anything, it's that the future is about people, not technology."

Ian Wylie (ian@wylienet.demon.co.uk), a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in London and in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. Contact Peter Cochrane by email (peter.cochrane@bt.com).

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