In spring 2017, my colleague and co-author Henry King led a future of education project, one of the highlights of which was the first blockchain prototype in the higher education space. Exciting as this was, Henry found his imagination caught by a much lower-tech development: Slime.
As the father of two teenage boys, much of his spare time was dedicated to supporting their sports activities. But both his partner on the project and his client had two young daughters and all four of these girls were up to something very different. Along with millions of other girls (and a much smaller number of boys) all across the US, they were taking over their parents' kitchens and having friends round to make slime, a stretchy, highly tactile substance made from a combination of white school glue and borax (although other recipes without the risks of borax also became popular especially with the parents of even younger kids). At the same time, my three children were also completely covering our house with slime. The girls would be on mobile video, sharing slime stories and comparing creative ways to use slime.
What made the slime craze so interesting to us was not really the slime but the nature of the craze itself. This was not an advertising-fueled fad centered around a commercially owned and controlled product like Webkinz but a grassroots and influencer-driven movement. It exploded from obscurity in 2016 and catapulted a few influencers like Karina Garcia, "the Queen of Slime", to fame and fortune almost overnight with her Youtube videos routinely receiving 10 million to 20 million views. But at heart, it was all about the kids themselves. They bought out the nation's supplies of white school glue, made and watched each other's DIY slime videos on Youtube, broadcast real-time demos using Instagram Live, and even bought and sold slime on Etsy.
It was at once a highly tactile, very traditional communal practice and an ultra-modern, online phenomenon that engaged millions and spread internationally.
Eventually, of course, the slime thing did get turned into a product. Elmers itself started to sell Slime Kits, Karina did similarly and was able to secure distribution through Walmart and Target. But the moral of this story is not just about companies being slow to respond to what their customers and their markets are up to (although, of course, it is that too!). What is really at play here is the future of work. You see, the girls in this story were neither "playing" nor "consuming", at least not in the traditional senses of those words. Rather, they were designing and developing and marketing products, they were buyers and sellers, directors, distributors, and stars of online entertainment and video training materials, they were content producers, ecommerce developers, and storefront owners. In short, as 10 to 14-year olds, they were already building practical experience in nearly every business discipline as we understand it today.
We are living in a time when young people are more connected to each other and more connected to new capabilities and new potentialities than ever before, all thanks to technologies that are just going to keep evolving, and they are beginning to make companies look slow and out of touch in comparison. These girls will have completed their formal education and will be coming into the workforce in only a few years. When they do, they will come armed with all this experience and more and they're most likely not going to be interested in taking entry-level positions in companies that have whole departments dedicated to just one of those disciplines. HR and other business executives have maybe five years to figure out a solution to this unprecedented problem; how do we reconfigure our businesses to attract and empower the future workforce, understanding that their individual capabilities, empowered by digital technologies, are now as great as ours?
To answer this we first have to connect with that workforce and those emerging technologies to understand what they're becoming capable of as keenly as we must connect with our customers, partners and other stakeholders for many of the same reasons. We must become flow-based companies.
Connection and Flow
Flow is an emerging design paradigm for business success in today's ever-changing world. Our research has shown that all flow-based designs share seven principles, Connection, Distribution, Integration, Autonomy, Mobility, Continuity and Holistic Success. Flo- based entities, unlike their silo counterparts which tend to isolate themselves (read more here), are connected to the outside world, market or ecosystem of which they are a part. They sense what's happening in their environment and with all members and parts of it.
Among us humans, connection is established via the sensory organs, the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. These organs are how we connect with and interact with the world about us, although we are also learning that there may be other ways of sensing that we have not known about before, e.g. proprioception or that science has not proven, e.g. energy transmission. Other animals have more or less advanced forms of the same five senses and here too we are learning that many have additional ways of connecting to each and their world. Some dolphins, whales, and bats navigate and track prey using echolocation. Sharks also sense changes in their surroundings via electroreception, taking advantage of the ability of salt in the water to conduct electric currents emanating from the muscular movement of fish. And many birds, as well as honeybees, ants, and termites, can navigate via magnetoreception, connecting to the world in a way we still don't truly understand.
In trees, connections are made via leaves and the bark above ground and via roots and mycorrhizal fungal networks (which are not parts of the tree themselves) under the ground. The recent (by humans at least) discovery of this so-called wood wide web has shed light on the ability of trees, even of different species, to communicate and share resources with one another and increase their own success as well as the overall success of the forest of which they are a part.
The point perhaps is this; the more we learn about our own species, other animals and even plants, the more we learn about living systems, the more connected with each other and with the world about them we find them to be.
Extended and Enhanced Connections
We humans have always used technologies to connect us, physically as well as virtually. Our houses are physically connected to their surroundings not only by the driveway and the garden path but also by the sewer system, the electrical grid, the natural gas network, the phone network (in the case of the traditional home phone system), the TV network, and the internet.
The house is also connected by intermittent or periodic systems, most importantly by weekly garbage disposal, by mail and newspaper delivery, by daily milk delivery (traditionally), and increasingly by ecommerce package delivery. The ice cream van may also serve to connect the house to the community in the summer months.
Technology has enabled us to not only connect with the world but also to extend ourselves into it and to have influence beyond the limits of our physical bodies. For instance, every single form of human communication, beyond talking face to face or calling/shouting/whistling from a distance, is mediated in some way by technology. From smoke signals and hillside fires to clay tablets and knotted strings, from telegram and Morse code to Facebook and Snapchat, all communication is technology-enabled. And communication extends our selves, our thoughts, and desires, out into the minds of others.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) draws attention to the role of technology in extending, or providing, capabilities to those that have lost them or were born without them:
"Tools provide us with delicate control and prodigious strength and speed. For example, telescopes, cameras, infrared sensors, microphones, and other instruments extend our visual, auditory, and tactile senses and increase their sensitivity. Prosthetic devices and chemical and surgical intervention enable people with physical disabilities to function more effectively in their environment." (Science for All Americans Online, Chapter 6, The Human Organism)
Marshall Mcluhan developed the theme in his analysis of electronic media, noting that more recent technologies extend not just our physical capabilities but also our sensory and cognitive ones:
"During the mechanical ages, we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electronic technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing time and space as far as our planet is concerned." (McLuhan, 1964, p. 19)
And now, we are in the early years of the autonomous era, when sensory devices rather than organs are enabling things -- machines, tools, products, built systems -- to connect to one another and to carry out work without direct human intervention. As we discussed in an earlier post, the connection of the autonomous car is achieved by sensors, in particular camera, radar, LiDAR, GPS and IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit). All of these provide a real-time moving picture of the car's immediate road and roadside environment including other vehicles, traffic lights and signals, road markings, pedestrians, cyclists, vehicle attachments (like bikes on bike racks) and all other components of the immediate surroundings. Connection is also achieved via the internet to the vehicle's manufacturer or other sources to access software downloads to enhance or modify the vehicle's performance, and we can expect greater connection over time between the vehicle and others nearest it, potentially enabling collective intelligence and decision making (e.g. herding or flocking behaviors) that will increase the efficiency of the traffic on the road as a whole.
Living systems and Autonomous systems alike are dependent on connections with the world around them to survive and thrive. This is no less true for Business systems. So what are the eyes and ears of a company? What is its skin? Any organization must be able to sense all customer touchpoints, whether those are in person, by phone, email, website, etc., and whether they are informational, transactional or assistance related. Without effective ecommerce, PoS, help-desk and other systems and processes to enable those touchpoints, the company may simply be blind or deaf to their customer needs. For a company to remain successful it must become increasingly connected and its connections must become increasingly sensitive.
Other direct touchpoints include those with supply, channel and/or distribution partners with whom the company does business, followed by investors and other stakeholders. Maintaining direct links with schools and other parts of the community enables them to understand the needs and skills of the future workforce, like the slimers, and other key stakeholders.
Secondly, the organization must be aware of changes to the environment, broadly the market, and economic conditions in which they operate, including the actions of competitors, emergent technologies, new regulations and any other factors that change the nature of the ecosystem. Maintaining an active investment capability is one way that companies can keep current on new technological developments.
The extent to which a company can sense its customers, its ecosystem and the environment more broadly will dictate the extent to which it will be able to perform the six other principles of flow and operate successfully. And this is not a one-time activity but a continuous one. As new technologies continue to emerge and evolve, customers and all other stakeholders will have new superpowers, new ways of connecting, and they will expect their providers to be able to respond.
A lesson from 2020 is that every business must be digital. So how can companies know that they are on a successful digital business transformation journey? How can these companies develop a mindset and framework like elite athletes, whereby they are consistently able to measure their ability to achieve peak performance?
Peak Performance Indicators
In our previous post, we introduced the concept of Peak Performance Indicators, the components of each flow principle that are most likely to deliver the highest impact and which are therefore characteristics of the most disruptive companies.
For the principle of Connection, we believe those PPIs are Trust, Relationships and Edges. Here's why:
Trust: The vast majority of us, 95% according to the Salesforce Connected Customer report, are more likely to be loyal to companies that we trust. And being loyal means that we're likely to buy more from them, try out their new products, and refer and recommend them. Reports from Harvard Business Review and others suggest that the costs of retaining customers are anywhere from 5 to 25 times less than acquiring new ones. So there's a direct line, from trust to loyalty to reduced costs and increased revenues. All of which suggests that trust should be a top priority for CEOs and a core part of any organization's strategy for growth. But being a strategy is not enough. To be authentic, trust needs to be a core value, one that all employees, not just the CEO, model and strive after in all their activities and behaviors.
Relationships: Business is still, for the next decade at least, a fundamentally human enterprise, and while technology provides us with the means to connect, it is the relationships we form that keep us connected. Therefore, the most important component of a company's growth strategy focuses on improving and even transforming the relationships between the company and its customers, its employees, its partners, and even its communities. This includes both the everyday operations of the company where its goal should be to nurture and build its relationships continuously, and exceptional circumstances like security breaches, pandemics, major failures, where the company has to work under stress and often demonstrates, consciously or otherwise, its true values.
Edges: When we talk about putting the customer at the center of our companies, we're using the old thinking, the wrong metaphor. To paraphrase Einstein, we're trying to solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. It keeps us looking inwards, towards the center, as if the center is where the important things happen. But in the connected world the company's internal hierarchy is irrelevant. Everything that is actually important to our business success and growth, namely our customers, our partners, and our communities, is on the outside. So it's time for us to create and use new metaphors. We need to learn how to be part of networks, which we do not control or own. We need to spend less time thinking like companies and more time like our customers. Which means we need to spend more time focused on the edges, on the outside. After all, as customers, as individuals, as families and as communities, we're all already there.
Using these PPIs as focal points for connection strategies will deliver the most transformational impact possible in this time of continuous and even turbulent change. Our previous post focused on COVID-19 and the accelerated emergence of the distributed world, demonstrating the importance of the second principle of flow. In our next article, therefore, we will discuss its third, Integration.