For as long as we can remember, technology’s role has been to support business. Identify your target market, product and goals, map out the required business model and then line up technology behind the various activities to drive cost savings and provide scale.
For many people, cloud computing (and it’s evil twin, software as a service) is the ultimate expression of this approach — information technology as a cheap, efficient and flexible utility grade service: utility computing. Just like electricity or gas, we simple turn on the tap (or hit the light switch) when we want some, and the hole in the wall will provide as much as we need.
Many people struggle to look beyond the utility computing analogy, with Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmitt acting as modern day Samuel Insulls, striding across the technology landscape as they build their utility computing networks. This is a view that also equates utility computing with fractionally owned (or leased), multi-tenanted applications and infrastructure deployed at a scale never imagined preciously. Computing that is too cheap to meter.
Utility computing, however, seems to offer a much grander opportunity. When coupled with globalization, utility computing offers us the ability to change the way we think about constructing and managing a company.
Our existing business models are founded on the assumption of needing to manage scarce resources, focused on building command and control structures around leveraging a centrally owned asset. This asset might be monetary deposits, knowledge (often reified through patents), or something physical like a factory or fleet of trucks. Our biggest challenge is marshaling the resources we need to ensure that enough work was done, and the asset provides us with a lodestone to help attract and manage these resources.
Utility computing and globalization enables us to think about this problem in a different way. By providing us with computing power and labor on demand, our main concern becomes what product to deliver (with a second order challenge of where to deliver it), rather than how the product is created.
Zara, a fashion retailer, provides us with a glimpse of the future. Zara has created a pull model where the organization is built around reducing the time from runway to retail. Decisions on what products to produce has been devolved to individual stores who pull in the inventory they think they will sell, rather than head office presenting retail stores with the latest collection. New products rotate through the shelves in matter of weeks, pulled by customer demand, rather than following the seasonal cycle traditional in the industry.
Rapid turnover of products has driven new behavior in Zara’s customers. Customers now visit their local store every week or so, rather than once a quarter, as they are interested in seeing what new products have arrived, slashing Zara’s marketing spend in the process. There’s also a stronger imperative for customers to make an impulsive decision, as they know that the same product will not be in the store when they next visit.
Zara’s approach has made them one of the most successful fashion retailers in the world.
Today’s business models are the culmination of generations of incremental improvements, as successive generations of managers have tweaked their business in an attempt to reach the customer just a little faster than the competition. The first challenge we solved was the one of mass: ensuring that we have enough products available to service the customer, if they choose us. More recently we’ve worried about velocity: aiming to get our product to the customer just when they need it, rather than having to hold stock near the customer on the chance that they might want something we product. The next challenge (as exemplified by Zara) is acceleration: being able to redesign our products rapidly enough to follow customer demands as they evolve.
Utility computing and globalization can provide us with the tools to complete the journey that companies like Zara have started. By commoditizing the basic building blocks of a business — materials, labor and communication — they provide us with the opportunity to make our business models fungible. Why stop at rapidly redesigning our products? Why not dynamically reconfigure our supply chain, following our customers as they move around? Or even rapidly reconfigure our entire value chain, if need be?
The centre of gravity within companies – which for centuries have been built around the management of a central asset held by the company – is shifting. The new centre of organizational gravity will be the ability to rapidly plan and mobilize a critical mass of stakeholders, leveraging staff and assets which you many not even own or directly control.
An agile business will be one that can rapidly evolve its product portfolio to follow customer demand. One that can quickly reconfigure how materials are sourced, products are manufactured and customers are served, across the full breadth of the value chain, allowing it to sail through disruptions that leave competitors stranded. One that can dynamically reconfigure the end-to-end supply chain, delivering the right product to the right customer, just when they realize they need it (or even before they come to this realization). One that can rapidly enter and leave markets and geographies, as need be. And one that can do all of this with resources and services that it does not explicitly own or manage. A company that is built around its ability to mobilize its staff, partners and even its customers. This is the opportunity provided to us by utility computing and globalization.
1. Samuel Insull @ Chicago “L” .org↑
2. Kasra Ferdows, Michael A. Lewis and Jose A.D. Machuca (2005), Zara’s secret for fast fashion, Harvard Business Review↑