Of chickens and eggs

While we run helter skelter towards the new, are we doing enough to sustain the business of tomorrow?
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

As I have been thinking more about the content of Vinnie Mirchandani's upcoming book, The New Technology Elite, I've also been thinking about the future of work, culture, strategy and the future of enterprise applications.

Vinnie's book challenges all of us to better understand where value in technology really lays. I make no apology for repeating a partial quote:

For too long IT has been an expensive and low-payback back-office investment. Now technology in the companies’ products is allowing them to generate revenue and growth. Technology is fun and profitable again…

…The more I analyzed operations of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and eBay—their data centers, distribution centers, retail stores, application ecosystems, global supply chains—the more I was impressed with the “industrialization” of their technology. They are considered “consumer” tech, but they have better technology on a greater scale than most enterprises.

But then I see that we are constantly being regaled with what Oliver Marks calls 'shiny new objects,' a blizzard of product announcements (all in the cloud of course) that will bring us ever closer to the latest nirvana - the social enterprise. In the real world companies are not buying this kool-aid. They want to know when the roundabout stops spinning so they can build a foundation upon which any of this might make sense. Oh - and they want ROI. In our consumer lives we may pick up and use or drop the latest shiny new thing but the world of work presents a different reality. As Oliver says in his lament around collaboration:

...there is a world of difference between how we choose to interact and consume as individuals (deciding to devote a lot of time to learning to Shuffle in time for next month’s big party for example) and the terms of how we are expected to collaborate with our colleagues in our various work ecospheres.

And then I turn to professor Lynda Gratton, who reflects on what business and political leaders at Davos are recognising:

Leading in a multi-stakeholder world. There is broad agreement that leaders will increasingly be called upon to operate effectively in a multi-stakeholder world...

...Leading in society. Leaders must also have a point of view about their role and the role of their business in society. Being a bystander will no longer be sufficient...

...Reflecting on what these two themes mean for how leaders are developed, it strikes me that neither can be ‘bolted on’ to current leadership. Instead, they have to be ‘baked in’ to the very core of what a leader does and how they spend their time.

Then I think about the excitement currently being amplified around the future of work and how work patterns will change, how technology will need to accommodate different styles of work, BYOD and goodness knows what.

And then I see how the informal IT that has arisen is often considered 'wrong side' even if it is the right solution. Or how BYOD may not be the great thing that some believe. What about the PO I have been waiting for that's been languishing in some process for weeks? How about the travel that was allegedly approved but not approved and wonder at the waste of time, effort and email on all sides.

I ponder upon the many worthy projects I know about but which may yet end up on the scrap heap of institutionalised bureaucracy. Sig Rinde addresses this in Let the managers go, the most succinct argument I've seen for rethinking what we need to do in order to build the competitive businesses of today and tomorrow:

Most people manage themselves with great success: they manage to get out of bed in the morning, they manage to get dressed, they manage to get to the office on time.

Then, at the office, they meet the "manager" that will manage them until end of the day. That's at best a paradox, at worst a devastating error.

Sig's argument is fact driven, talking of Apple, Morning Star and Open Source - organisations with virtually no 'management' but plenty of purpose driven process with proven ROI and commercial success. Sig's real intent is to draw our attention to a different framework for handling the exceptions that arise daily in our working lives.

As I tried to pull all these threads together I thought also about how the notion that 'culture eats strategy for breakfast' has re-emerged as a tagline that managers want to shout as representative of their thinking, as exemplifying how their culture works better than others to serve the needs of business. As far as I can tell, that is at best delusional. Isn't the reality that aside the great companies that Vinnie describes, we live in a world where:

  • Education and learning is not valued
  • Careers are seen as akin to serial monogamy
  • Loyalty is tied to a paycheck
  • Industrial models of business have been reflected in increasingly bureaucratic processes that slow us down rather than help accelerate innovation
  • We are driven by the fear of litigation

As a consequence, we treat our workforce as children and not adults capable of taking responsibility. And guess what? We end up building our business applications to reflect that landscape. We bow to the presumed inevitability that the old guard will simply sweep up any newcomers and so maintain the status quo. I find that future to be an obscene and cynical outcome.

If we are to adapt to the demands of tomorrow then the pain we feel around economic recession is not going to be enough. We need to know that we will be wiped out, made first irrelevant and then extinct as organisations and nation states with nothing to lose discover new ways of competing that leave us wondering what happened to our supremacy.

It is a chicken and egg problem. How can it be that wildly successful technology companies fall prey to the picture I am painting? Why would they change when the formulae upon which they built greatness continues to deliver results?

The answer is easy to understand but hard to overcome. In my experience companies rarely fail solely because of outside economic conditions or other externalities. They fail because they crush themselves from within. What made them great ceases to serve them going forward but because we can't truly see into the future we always rely upon the past. It is the path of least resistance yet the path that is so fraught with the very risks the business is seeking to avoid. It doesn't happen due to leadership failure or intent but by level 3-4 management resistance, that layer which deftly hides while doing nothing. It is that layer which has been around so long they have become invisible yet know where all the bodies are buried.

It takes the imminent threat of extinction to mobilise everyone into thinking differently. What we can never know is whether by then it is all too late. IBM is a great example but one from which few seemed to have learned. C'mon people, IBMs near death experience was almost 20 years ago. GM's is somewhat more recent.

In the meantime, re-inventing the past, layering shiny new objects and force fitting what is genuinely useful to clunky systems alone will not solve the problems. We need to fundamentally rethink what we need to build as a response to the new realities. It is a business and technology problem of equal measure.

Sig is one person who is addressing that. I don't know of too many others who have got beyond the navel gazing stage.

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