Tag Archives: Social Media

The destruction of traditional retail

Le Bon Marché à Paris (1875)

A steady stream of news stories is trying to convince us that online is killing retail, that online has an unfair advantage and show rooming is evil. There’s some handwaving around omni-channel and claims that that if you sharpen your approach a bit then you will be able to stand out from the online crowd and stay alive, but it’s all a distraction. The problem is that ‘retail’ is just not something we need as much as we used to.

It’s not that we no longer need retail stores. We don’t, however, need as many of them as we have today.

Retail stores serve many purposes, but the most common is to be the last stage in someone else’s supply chain. This role – the retail store that is little more than a convenient place to make a purchase – is dying.

The internet and smartphones mean that we can now shop and purchase when and were we want. We’re no longer forced to pick between the meagre offerings at a nearby store.

Browsing is something we do in a spare moment, sitting in front of the TV with our tablet or via smart phone during our commute on the train. We purchase when we realise that we’ve found something we want or need, where ever we are at the time.

The other uses for local shops and businesses will remain:– community gathering places, restaurants etc. Life for your typical retail store is looking grim though, as they are simply something that we no longer need as much of as we used to.

Continue reading The destruction of traditional retail

You don’t need a social media strategy

Social media has entered the mainstream and the consultants and gurus are out there telling everyone that they absolutely must have a social media strategy. It's rare for a week to go by without hearing of another company wondering about the wisdom of their new blog, Facebook page and Twitter account, part of a social media strategy someone has sold them. I find this all quite mad. If social media has gone main stream then it has changed from being a tool that you might choose to use to add value, to become something that you cannot afford to ignore if you want to keep up. This doesn't mean that you need a social media strategy though. What you need is a communication strategy. Adding social media to the mix doesn't excuse you from working to understand who you want to communicate with, where they are and what you want to say to them. Social media will be a part of this strategy but it won't be the only thing, and its not a reason to ignore the fundamentals.

Continue reading You don’t need a social media strategy

What recession?

The global financial crisis hit nearly four years ago in 2008 but America and Europe appear to still be stuck in the mud. Even the Asian market has softened. But is this a recession? Or are we seeing a reconfiguration of the economy as the technological seeds laid over the last few generations finally germinated and bear fruit? Prices for made goods are collapsing as the cost of manufacturing has plummeted, while the cost of sourcing and distribution has crashed, caught between globalisation and the Internet. Even innovation, the source of all those sexy new products, has been democratised with the investment required to development new products taking a nosedive. Our existing business models were not designed to thrive, or even survive, this this environment. While the current market is a challenge to navigate, a lot of the problems we're seeing could be result of a collapse of antiquated business models rather than the collapse in demand that these businesses are intended to service.

Continue reading What recession?

Problems and the people who solve them

Note: This is the sixth and final part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. You can find the earlier posts – The future of (knowledge) work, Knowledge Workers in the British Raj, The north-south divide, Working in Hollywood and World of Warcraft in the workplace – elsewhere on this blog.

What impact will Social Media have on your business? Is it evolution, revolution, or a non-event? It’s hard to deny that Social Media is changing how we understand the role of government, and how we interact on the social commons. But what is its impact on the private sphere: the gated communities which are our businesses and organizations? Some folk claim that we’ll see a similar shift in the private sphere as we’re seeing in the public one. A revolution in the workplace as the workers realize that they really do control production, downing tools in search of a better deal and conditions.

This point of view ignores two key facts. First, that private spaces are, by their nature, more flexible than public as we are free to define who can inhabit them. Revolution is unlikely. Business owners still need someone to hold accountable for the performance and behavior of their businesses, just as regulators and governments want to ensure that someone in the organisation is on the hook for meeting their demands. Management will continue to manage, and to be held accountable, no matter how empowered the workforce becomes{{1}}. Second, that the technologies we’re deploying don’t just change how we carry out the tasks our businesses needs, as they also change what tasks we need to carry out. There is no reason for tomorrow’s organizations to operate within the same framework that yesterday’s ones did.

[[1]]The future of (knowledge) work @ PEG[[1]]

The nature of work is changing, and the shift in work practices looks like it will be comparable to the shift we saw during the Industrial Revolution – between the 18th and 19th centuries – when almost every aspect of daily life was influenced in some way. Before the Industrial Revolution people worked from their homes, farming or blacksmithing as the need arose, and the concept of work-life balance hadn’t found its way into the dictionary. After the revolution most people worked in vast bureaucracies, leaving home every morning to travel to work (or, early on, living in vast company owned dormitories next to their work) and fit themselves to into the tasks demanded of them.

The Industrial Revolution gave us Taylorism, a view of business which equates the organization to a vast programmable machine. Businesses were inward looking, intent on improving their internal operations. Optimizing business was the challenge of defining the perfect sequence of tasks, each carefully sculpted to deliver maximum value at minimum cost, and then selecting and shaping employees to fit the tasks.

The environment business operates in today has changed dramatically since Frederick Taylor created scientific management. The world used to be fairly stable; you wore the same clothing styles (more or less) as your parents before you, as would your children following after. Today, however, the environment changes significantly every year, if not every month or week. Nowhere is this more evident than with the creation of fast fashion, with Zara flipping the company’s supply chain on it head to optimise time from runway to shelf rather than cost, swapping the seasonal fashion collection for a constant stream of new products and driving new customer behaviours in the process.

The stability business used to rely on has given way to a more uncertain environment; the predictable progression of the business seasons in a temperate climate exchanged for the unexpected and often unpredictable storms and hurricanes of a more tropical clime{{2}}. Our success used to rely on the quality of our toolkits – the business processes and assets at the heart of our business – as it is these toolkits that enabled us to survive the steady progression of the seasons. Today our success relies on our skill – our ability to leverage the on-demand services and capabilities we find around us – as it is our ability to adapt these tools we find around us to the unexpected threat or opportunity, that now determines our success.

[[2]]The North-South divide @ PEG[[2]]

The old, highly specialized and highly entailed experts we used to rely on are rapidly becoming a liability, and we’re incrementally replacing specialized skills with solutions, frameworks and on-demand services. From IBM’s first election toting machines built with repurposed punchcard readers from knitting mills, through early departmental computers (such a L.E.O., the Lyon’s Electronic Office) to the birth of enterprise IT (and client-server along with it) and more recent web technologies, the history of technology in business has been a story of slowly reifying layers of expertise in tools, enabling this expertise to be distributed and leveraged. Social Media is just the latest step in this evolution, the key difference being that it automates and streamlines the communication and collaboration between individuals, rather than tasks that these individuals work on.

Our companies are being hollowed out, their middle layers of management replaced by software and solutions. Rather than empowering middle management, Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business Design is eliminating them. Social Media is empowering the team at the front line and the executive to connect directly with each other, bypassing the many layers of middle management most organizations contain. They’re externally focused – the front line intent on tending our customers and delivering product, the executive focused on understanding the waves in the market and charting the business’s path forward – where middle management was internally focused, concerned with keeping the bureaucracy functioning, a bureaucracy that many organizations are in the process of dismantling. Similar to the rural Indian civil service in the British Raj{{3}}, we’re moving to flat, or even super-flat, organizational structures which swap the command-and-control of the past for clear objectives and the devolution of responsibility for decisions to the front line.

[[3]]Knowledge workers in the British Raj @ PEG[[3]]

Tomorrow’s business, after it has adopted Social Media, will not just be a new command-and control paradigm (bottom-up rather than top-down, distributed rather than centralized) retrofitted to our existing bureaucracies. Tomorrow’s business will be something different, smaller and much leaner, built from dynamically forming coalitions focused on achieving a common goal. The highly skilled specialists concerned with building the complex toolkits will become a thing of the past.

The transformation from large bureaucratic organizations to more fluid coalitions will result in a similar shift in work practices as we saw during the Industrial Revolution. We can already this the beginnings of this with companies starting to understand that their knowledge workers prefer to supply their own tools (such as mobile phones and laptops), as well as the current trend for organisations to restructure their contracts with suppliers, focusing on the outcome they want delivered rather than quality and cost. Smaller workforces holding more general skills will integrate themselves with a community of partners, suppliers and high value free agents, with the company functioning in a similar way to the studios in modern Hollywood{{4}}. The company sets the agenda by determining what problems it wants to focus on, while providing its staff and the broader community swirling around them with a platform to dynamically form teams around specific challenges and goals, World of Warcraft style{{5}}. Rather than defining the perfect task and then fitting the employee to the task, we need to define our goal and then assemble the perfect team to achieve that goal.

[[4]]Working in Hollywood @ PEG[[4]]
[[5]]World of Warcraft in the workplace @ PEG[[5]]

The most significant shift for our businesses is the transition from being knowledge using organizations, to knowledge creating organizations. While the world might be flat (as Thomas Friedman showed us{{6}}), with globalization and the Internet providing on-demand access to low cost products and services from around the globe, the world is also spikey (as Richard Florida claims{{7}}) as the need for localized and personalised services drive demand for unique and creative solutions which fit into a local context. The winners in this race will be the businesses that can marry the two.

[[6]]Thomas L. Friedman (2005), The World if Flat, Farrar, Straus & Giroux [[6]]
[[7]]Richard Florida (2005), The World is Spikey, The Atlantic [PDF][[7]]

Which brings us back to the impact of social media on your organization. It’s not a revolution that will remove the need for the C-level; someone still needs to sign the books and be held accountable to shareholders. Social media might tip the balance a little toward a more collective form of management, but it will not rewrite the rules overnight. Nor is it little more than better and more efficient groupware. Creating a social business is not simply rearranging the people (and power dynamics) or your existing business; it demands smaller, more dynamic teams with more potent and focused team members who might not be on your payroll full time.

What Social Media is doing is driving organizations to complete the shift started in the last few decades, moving from manufacturing centric enterprises to knowledge creating organisations.

The basic economic resource – ”the means of production,” to use the economist’s term – is no longer capital, nor natural resources (the economist’s “land”), nor “labor.” It is and will be knowledge. The central wealth-creating activities will be neither the allocation of capital to productive uses, nor “labor” – the two poles of nineteenth- and twentieth-century economic theory, whether classical, Marxist, Keynesian, or neo-classical. Value is now created by “productivity” and “innovation,” both applications of knowledge to work.

— Peter Drucker, The Post-Capitalist Society{{8}}

[[8]]Peter Drucker (1993), The Post-Capitalist Society, HarperCollins[[8]]

Historically companies have provided a locus to gather the capital, resources and skills required to provide the scale needed to manufacture products cheaply and efficiently. Today problems, the problems of our clients and customers, are increasingly becoming the focus of our organizations, as capital, resources and skills are commoditized, caught between globalization and the Internet. The strongest determinant of success in business today is the ability to solve problems that other people (and organizations) care about. Companies are transitioning from an internal focus to an external focus, intent on gathering the skilled craftsmen required to deliver the projects needed to solve the problems that the company concerns itself with. Companies are becoming the focal point for a network for skilled craftsmen and service providers who are required to solve the problems that the organisation is interested in.

Business is increasingly becoming a question of forming the right team, at the right time, in the right place, with the right tools to provide the best possible outcome. We’re also trying to achieve this in an environment where it is no longer feasible to own all the resources and people we need. Consequentially, success now depends on our ability to mobilize the resources and skills we need from across a broader network that includes not only our (few) employees, but our contractors, partners and even customers. Social media and social business are the tools that allow us to tweak our operating models to do this.

So the impact of social media on our businesses is to strip them back to their cores and (re)focus their energies on what really matters in a rapidly changing and unpredictable environment: problems and the people who solve them.

Knowledge Workers in the British Raj

Note: This is the second part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. You can find the first post – The future of (knowledge) work – and subsequent posts – The north-south divide, Working in Hollywood, World of Warcraft in the workplace and Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

Prior to the industrial revolution, most folk, apart from apprentices and other people in training, worked for themselves. Home wasn’t here and work wasn’t there: they were in the same place and tightly intertwined. For the last few decades though, we’ve all become used to working in the large bureaucracies that most modern companies use to manage their workforces. For many pundits the shift to a more social business – driven by Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business Design – is the chance to humanize these bureaucracies that we’ve created, bringing back some of the more personal experiences we used to enjoy. However, this ignores the fact that while we’ve used technology to change business, business has also evolved to the point that it’s changing how we think about and use technology.

Tomorrow’s more social companies will not simply be our existing bureaucracies humanised. They’ll be something more compact and collaborative, extremely flat organisations where the executive is responsible for steering the boat while handing responsibility for operations over to the frontline. Rather than enabling a more human bureaucracy, one where the power structures are inverted or middle management empowered, Enterprise 2.0 is returning us to an earlier time, more akin to the British Raj in India, when the world was more uncertain and communication within a bureaucracy was slow (when compared to the pace of business). We’re returning to a time when self initiative, the ability to collaborate with your peers, and a focus on bringing whatever skills and tools you can to bear on the problem in front of you, is more important than deep specialisation and formal communication and career structures.

Our companies are not what they used to be

The template for our large, vertically integrated enterprises was stamped out for us by the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt{{1}} during through the development of the transcontinental railroads in the U.S., and perfected by the conglomerates and multinationals in the sixties and seventies. Our organisations were seen as vast machines, machines staffed and operated by an army of people.

[[1]]Born the son of an impoverished farmer and boatman, Cornelius Vanderbilt (May 27, 1794 — January 4, 1877), died the wealthiest man in the United States and probably the greatest of the nineteenth century railroad barons. Starting with money he borrowed from his parents to buy a boat which he used to ferry passengers between Staten Island and New Your City, he became a American shipping and railroad magnate who acquired a personal fortune of more than $100,000,000.[[1]]

For a long time a company’s workforce was considered just one of three factors of production{{2}}, and a fungible factor at that – homogeneous and easily interchangeable. Recently companies have taken a more humanistic approach, with many human-resources departments proclaiming “people are our organisation’s most important asset,” and driving companies to construct ever more complex career management, renumeration strategies, and recognition and reward schemes to make the most of each employee’s individual skills and foibles.

[[2]]The other factors of production are stocks (including land) and capital goods.[[2]]

A factory in the industrial revolution, where the key to scaling a business was to employ more workers, and then employ an additional layer of management to manage the workers you hired in the first place
A factory in the industrial revolution, where the key to scaling a business was to employ more workers, and then employ an additional layer of management to manage the workers you hired in the first place

Our organisations, however, have been shrinking over the last couple of decades. Initially this was from automation on the factory shop floor, where repetitive tasks were replicated in technology, man replaced with machine. Overtime we’re used technology to chipped away at increasingly complex problems, working our way from simple manual tasks such as swinging a hammer on command, through to today’s modern, automated production line marvels.

At LEGO HQ in Billund, Denmark, where raw plastic is transformed into finished bricks (including stormtrooper helmets), and packaged into sets, with very little human intervention other than to fix machines when they breakdown.
At LEGO HQ in Billund, Denmark, where raw plastic is transformed into finished bricks (including stormtrooper helmets), and packaged into sets, with very little human intervention other than to fix machines when they breakdown.

A similar journey has occurred inside the office: computers (the teams of people computing ballistics tables and payrolls by hand) have been replace by computers (the electronic gizmos prone to bugs), the typing pool was phased out in favour of management using word processors to automate the creation their own documents, and a large chunk of the customer service team has been replaced by self-service kiosks and web sites which allow customers to attend to their own needs. Most recently, the midlevel management responsible for command and control – both between teams, and between teams and the C-suite – is being replaced by software{{3}} as social media tools automate the communication and information aggregation tasks that have traditionally been the domain of middle management.

[[3]]The future of knowledge work @ PEG[[3]]

Our vast, vertically integrated enterprises have been flattened and hollowed out, creating a new generation of organisations which have a large workforce at the coal face working under the direction of a with smaller and more focused team of executives. The frontline is interacting directly with customers and suppliers or managing production, responsible for the day-to-day operation of the business. The executive is looking into the future, responsible for placing bets on where to deploy the organisation’s resources most efficiently to meets tomorrows challenges.

The provincial civil service

The emerging organisational structure we see today is of a different nature to the monolithic institutions required to run the train networks in the 1800s or multinational conglomerates of the more recent past. The impact of the latest wave of automation – the move to social business – is not to simply take the existing organisation and applying a new style of command and control, one based on bottom-up empowerment and where middle management use these new media tools to streamline motivating and managing the teams under their guidance. It’s more akin to the extremely flat structures used by organisations such as the British civil service in India during the 1800s.

As a colonial power, Britain built an administrative centre in India (initially under the monopoly of the East India Company, but later under direct government rule{{4}}), staffed with highly competent expatriate civil servants who had signed on for a tour of duty. This tour of duty was usually seen as the route to wealth and influence, as it was easy to tap-off a little of the money – the vast sums of money – which flowed past these civil servants as it made its way back to the home country. (It wasn’t uncommon for senior members of the British Raj to return to Britain at the end of their tour with suspiciously large collections of expensive trinkets and locked boxes.) A complex bureaucracy developed, constructed around the Governor-General based in Calcutta, with Mandarins gathering staff and wealth as they fed their own feeling of self importance.

[[4]]John W. Kaye (1853), The Administration of the East India Company, Richard Bentley[[4]]

Managing the provinces, however, was a completely different problem. Covering a vast, populated area, and with little incentive for senior civil servants to get directly involved, the provincial civil service had to make do with a very flat organisational structure, one where every manager was responsible for roughly one hundred direct reports. Such a high management ratio naturally precluded many of the practices we take for granted into our large matrix-managed organisations. A manager couldn’t afford to spend more than a few minutes with each of their direct reports in the course of a month, and even those few minutes might not occur as transport and communication were much more expensive than they were today. The high-touch style of management we are familiar with in recent history wouldn’t work.

The expanse of the British empire in India in 1909
The expanse of the British empire in India in 1909

From demand-side to supply-side

The strategy which enabled the provincial civil service to function – and to function very effectively – was clear objectives. Field staff were engaged for their ability and interest in taking on responsibility for a problem on behalf of the management (usually this problem was the collection of the taxes, duties and excises required by the British crown in a specific province). A set of policies and procedures were put in place to ensure that they conducted themselves in a fit and proper manner, however, generally, the field staff were provided with a great deal of discretion in how they achieved their goals, collaborating with their peers were needed.

Behind this flat organisational structure was a hiring and training process designed to find candidates who were focused on solving the right class problem, rather than candidates who specialised in a discipline or process. All candidates had to sit an extensive test covering a broad range of topics, and were then trained in the skills and processes they might need in the field. Their induction was finished off with and apprenticeship under the guidance of an experienced worker. The civil service was looking for those individuals who had the kit bag of skills and the aptitude needed to find their way to their goal on their own. Those selected were then train in the business processes and policies they needed, and provided them with the time they needed to integrate into the community of front line workers. Much like today’s emerging workplaces, the team at the front line was empowered to collaborate as they worked toward their respective objectives, rather than micromanaged.

We like to think that we’re all hired for our unique skills and paid according to the value we bring to the business. Unfortunately this is not generally true. Our large company legacy means that most managers need to think in terms of roles, cogs in a machine that they need to assemble. Measuring each employee by their contribution is a complex and laborious task which does not scale well, so companies manage large populations of employees by defining standard roles tied to specific skill sets, and then measure each employee by their ability to fulfil the role. Hiring then becomes the easier supply side challenge of finding and evaluating people with the requisite skills.

As companies flatten it is becoming less important to assemble large teams with specialised skills. Teams have shrunk as technology has replaced specialists with potent technological tools: the skilled printer replaced by the printing press, the complex task of computing ballistics tables moved from people to machines, the distributed computing specialist made redundant by an open source framework, and your procurement specialist replaced by the on-demand SaaS fulfilment solution.

Our focus has shifted from the capabilities we need to the outcomes we need to deliver. We’re swapped from the supply side problem of finding enough people who have the specialist skills we need to staff our business, to the demand side problem of finding the people who we can delegate some of our problems to. One of the organising principles behind business is changing, driven, most recently by a shift to more social businesses.

The future of our business – post Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business Design – is not in applying a new human-resources paradigm to our existing workforce. Much like the British Raj in provincial India, our businesses need to adapt to an environment where we don’t have the time or resources to micromanage every task. The workforce which staffed our bureaucracy in the past is not the same workforce we need in the future. The future of our business is with a smaller, more dynamic workforce of self-starters, built around flat organisational structures and more general skills which devolve responsibility for operational problems to the front line and empower them to work together and solve these problems under their own direction, while freeing the executive team to focus on steering the organisation through the challenging environment we operate in today.

Continued in The north-south divide.

The future of (knowledge) work

Note: This is the first part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. I started writing the following to explore a vague idea and see where it might take me, and first stopped writing when it was roughly three thousand words. At that length it was quite a bit weightier than the average blog post – and far too long to read in a lunch break – so I’ve decided to break it into a number of smaller. The first is below, and you can find the other issues – Knowledge workers in the British Raj, The north-south divide, Working in Hollywood, World of Warcraft in the workplace and Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

What impact will social media have on how you run your business? It’s being touted as everything from a better form of groupware or the next step in the evolution of work management — a new layer on the technology stack that’s starting to be called human interaction management{{1}} (HIM), sitting on top of, and bringing together, BPM, workflow and case management — through to a wholesale transformation of the way your business operates and is organized. Reality (as usual) rests somewhere between the two extremes.

[[1]]Human Interaction Management[[1]]

Are the inmates taking over the asylum?

Social media (Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Social Business Design, and so on) seem to be triggering a change in the command and control structures that we have traditionally used to manage our companies. There is an ongoing discussion within the human resources community concerning what form our future organizations will take{{2}}. The key drivers are streamlined communication from social media, both within and without the organization, and the empowerment of the frontline and delegation of authority due to the increasing need to solve problems promptly within a local context.

[[2]]“Social” is now HR’s baby (sorry Marketing Department) @ Fistful of Talent[[2]]

Old power structures seem – in some cases – to be in the process of being inverted as the people at the front line find that they are now better informed and equipped than their management to solve the majority of the problems confronting the business. If people are your most important asset, then we might just be standing at the start of a revolution as the workers realize that they really do control the means of production.

Wholesale revolution is unlikely though. While employees might be an important asset, and one that has a significant impact on the overall performance of your organization, they are not the asset a business is built to support{{3}}. For many organizations the best result is usually to remove the people, such as with lights-out factories, or some of the new SaaS plays which are replacing people-driven BPO with automated self-service solutions. The dirty secret of Enterprise 2.0 is that it’s being used the same way as every other technology to date: it’s being used to remove people from the equation.

[[3]]Why Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business Design might be of marginal utility for most of us @ PEG[[3]]

On the other hand, it has become obvious that social media is having an effect on our organizations. A key assumption behind most organizational structures is that information is rare and expensive to obtain, pushing us to create organizations that gather information from the front line and aggregate it up to the CEO. This also means that information is the currency of company politics. However, with social media and the Internet information is now – on the whole – cheap and easily obtainable. Controlling the flow of information is no longer possible, leading us to think some amount of disruption of the current order is inevitable as the old power dynamics are destroyed and new ones formed.

One thing is clear though: we need to think about work – and the teams and organizations we construct to support it – differently. The formal, siloed structures we find in many organizations don’t map well to the more dynamic environment that social media is bringing to business. Many businesses now have more in common with the British Civil Service in India – flat structures where the people at the coal face work largely under their own direction, collaborating with others as required – than the vertically integrated titans of industry from recent time.

Computer: an electronic device for storing and processing data

Companies have changed dramatically since the days when the term computer referred to someone who manually computed mathematical functions. Technology has slashed the number of people required to support most, if not all, tasks in the enterprise, making today’s companies dramatically smaller and more agile than their forebears. What used to take rooms full of people now needs – at the most – a small team. This is true across the full depth and breadth of our organizations, from the mailroom and typing pool, finance calculating the payroll through to the production floor in the factory.

Williamina Fleming (standing) with her computers in the late 1800s
Williamina Fleming (May 15, 1857 – May 21, 1911, standing) with her computers in the astronomy department at Harvard in the late 1800s, hired to carry out the mathematical calculations required to classify stars.

Not only has the volume of manual work changed, but the nature of that work has also changed with it. We used to deploy our employees to run the business, focused on the carrying out the plethora of operational tasks required to keep the wheels of commerce turning. Automation through technology has largely taken care of this.

With payroll and the shop floor dealt with, our employees are now more concerned with improving and guiding the business. For many companies the center of gravity of their workforce has shifted away from operations, moving to roles more concerned with the performance of the business: supervisory, design, business improvement and customer engagement.

Supermarkets, for example, have been hollowed out by modern management practices. In the past, store managers were masters of their own domain, held accountable for profit-and-loss and not much else. Today, the only real freedom many store managers have is in hiring the team who staff the checkouts, and keeping them motivated. The vast majority of decisions required to run the store have either been pulled up to head office (such as store layout and pricing moving to a centralized category management team{{4}}) or delegated to suppliers or the staff at the front line{{5}} (determining when to restock, for example).

[[4]]What is Category Management @ Category Management Association[[4]]
[[5]]What we’re doing today is not what we did yesterday @ PEG[[5]]

This makes projects the focus of many modern workplaces: projects to improve systems and processes, projects to bring new products to market, projects to expand into new territories, projects to optimize our product portfolio, and so on. One of the main short-term drivers for adopting social media in the enterprise is supporting work in these projects by providing the workers within them with a better way collaborating and searching for answers to the problems they have.

However, while the demand for work on projects has grown, the size of the teams required to deliver our projects has shrunk. Initiatives which required one hundred people and a billion dollar investments in the fifties, sixties and seventies, can now be delivered by team sizes in the low double digits, if not less than ten people.

The number and variety of careers – the professional community – supported by these projects has shrunk in response. This started with the specialists, but soon moved on to more general disciplines. For example IT platforms and frameworks used in the enterprise today have eliminated much of the need for specific technical specialists (there’s not much requirement for a distributed transaction specialist on most projects now). Some of the new frameworks eliminate the need for even quite common skills, as with databases and Ruby on Rails.

Flat, but not quite flat as it could be

Social media – as with many of the technologies preceding it – streamlines previously manual tasks by capturing knowledge in a form where it is easily reusable, shareable and transferable. What is different this time is that social media is focused on the communication between individuals, rather than the tasks these individuals work on. By simplifying the process of staying in touch and collaborating with a large number of people it enables us to flatten our organizations even further, putting the C-suite directly in contact with the front line.

This is having the obvious effect on companies, eliminating the need for many of the bureaucrats in our organizations; people whose main role is to manage communication (or communication, command and control, C3, in military parlance{{6}}). The big winners from social media will not be, as we first thought, those white-collar knowledge workers who spend their days herding those at the coalface, crafting policies, and worrying about organizational dynamics. The winners will be the team at the frontline and C-suite, as they both bypass the (soon to be removed) mid-level functionaries and engage with each other directly{{7}}.

[[6]]C3 defined @ Wikipedia[[6]]
[[7]]Rise of the task-worker 2.0 @ PEG[[7]]

The net effect of all this is that our organizations and teams are being hollowed out as the middle layers are replaced with software{{8}}. To some extent the chickens have come home to roost; technologies that replaced the people at the operational coalface are now being used to replace the people in the project teams that brought these technologies to the enterprise in the first instance.

[[8]]The IT department we have today is not the IT department we’ll have tomorrow @ PEG[[8]]

Continued in Knowledge workers in the British Raj.

Social media: bubble, definitely not; revolution, probably not; evolution, absolutely

Is Social Media in general (and mobility in particular) a bubble or revolution? Is it a a powerful and disruptive force that will transform governments and social organisations? Or is it no? There seems to be a few{{1}} people{{2}} pondering this question

[[1]]The video above is less than a minute long. Please … @ bryan.vc[[1]]
[[2]]Is The Mobile Phone Our Social Net? @ AVC[[2]]

Mobile phones are interesting as they are addressable. Two-way radios made communication mobile a long time ago, but it wasn’t until mobile phones (and cheap mobile phones, specifically) that we could address someone on the move, or someone on the move could address a stationary person or service.

The second and third world showed us the potential of this technology over ten year ago, from the fishermen using their phones to market and sell their catch while still on the boat, through to the distributed banking based on pre-paid mobile phone cards. Image/video sharing is just the latest evolution in this.

The idea that this might be a revolution seems to be predicated on the technology’s ability to topple centrally planned and controlled organisations. Oddly enough, central planning is a bad enough idea to fall over on its own in many cases, and the only effect of mobile technology is to speed up a process which is already in motion. The Soviet Union might well be the poster child for this: collapsing under the weight of it’s own bureaucracy with no help from social media (or mobile phones, for that matter). Even modern democracies are not immune, and the US energy regulation policies leading up to deregulation in the late 70s is a great example of the failures of central planning{{3}}. The (pending) failure of some of today’s more centralised, and authoritarian regimes, would be more accurately ascribed to the inability of slow moving, centrally managed bureaucracies to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Distributed planning always trumps central planning in a rapidly changing environment.

[[3]]The Role of Petroleum Price and Allocation Regulations in Managing Energy Shortages @ Annual Review of Energy[[3]]

If we pause for a moment, we can see that governments do a few distinct things for us.

  • They provide us with what is seen as essential services.
  • They create a platform to enforce social norms (policies and laws).
  • They engage with the rest of the world on our behalf.

The reality is that many of the essential services that government provides are provided by the government because it’s too difficult or expensive for citizens (and to some extent, corporations) to access the information they need to run these services themselves. Mobile phones (and social media) are just the latest in a series of technologies that have changed these costs, enabling companies and citizens to take responsibility for providing services which, previously, were the sole domain of government. From energy, water and telecoms, through FixMyStreet and the evolving use of social media in New Orleans, Haiti and then Queensland during their respective natural disasters, we can see that this is a long running and continuing trend. Government is migrating from a role of providing all services, to one where government helps facilitate our access to the services we need. Expect this to continue, and keep building those apps.

As a platform for agreeing and enforcing social norms, then it’s hard to see anything replacing government in the short to mid term. (As always, the long term is completely up for grabs.) These social norms are geographical – based on the people you interact with directly on a day-to-day basis – and not virtual. Social media provides a mechanism for government to broaden the conversation. Some governments are embracing this, others, not so much. However, while people like to be consulted, they care a lot more about results. (Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs{{4}}.) Singapore has a fairly restrictive and controlling government, which has (on the whole) a very happy population. China is playing a careful game of balancing consultation, control and outcomes, and seems to doing this successfully.

[[4]]Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs @ Abraham-Maslow[[4]]

Finally we come to the most interesting question: government as a means for us to engage with the rest of the world. In this area, government’s role has shrunk in scope but grown in importance. Globalisation and the Internet (as a communication tool) has transformed societies, making it cheaper to call friends across the globe than it is to call them around the corner. We all have friends in other countries, cross-border relationships are common, and many of us see ourselves as global citizens. At the same time, the solutions to many of today’s most pressing issues, such as global warming, have important aspects which can only be addressed by our representatives on the global stage.

So we come back to the question at hand: is social media a bubble, a revolution, or an evolution of what has come before.

It’s hard to see it as a bubble: the changes driven by social media are obviously providing real value so we can expect them to persist and expand. I was particularly impressed by how the Queensland government had internalised a lot of the good ideas from the use of social media{{5}} in the Victorian fires, Haiti et al.

[[5]]Emergency services embrace Social Media @ Social Media Daily[[5]]

We can probably discount revolution too, as social media is (at most) a better communication tool and not a new theory of government. (What would Karl Marx think?) However, by dramatically changing the cost of communication it is having a material impact of the role government in our lives{{6}}. Government, and the society it represents is evolving in response.

[[6]]The changing role of government @ PEG[[6]]

The challenge is to keep political preference separate from societal need. While you might yearn for the type of society that Ayn Rand only ever dreamed about, other people find your utopia more akin to one of Dante’s seven circles of hell. Many of the visions for Gov 2.0 are political visions – individuals’ ideas for how they would organise an ideal society – rather than views of how technology can best be used to support society as a whole.

China is the elephant in this room. If social media is a disruptive, revolutionary force, then we can expect China’s government to topple. What appears more likely is that China will integrate social media into its toolbox while it focuses on keeping its population happy, evolving in the process. As long as they deliver the lower half of Maslow’s Hierarchy, they’ll be fairly safe. After all, the expulsion of governments and organisations – the revolution that social media is involved in – is due to these organisations’ inability to provide for the needs of their population, rather than any revolutionary compulsion inherent in the technology itself.

Consulting doesn’t work any more. We need to reinvent it.

What does it mean to be in consulting these days? The consulting model that’s evolved over the last 30 – 50 years seems to be breaking down. The internet and social media have shifted the way business operates, and the consulting industry has failed to move with it. The old tricks that the industry has relied on — the did it, done it stories and the assumption that I know something you don’t — no longer apply. Margins are under pressure and revenue is on the way down (though outsourcing is propping up some) as clients find smarter ways to solve problems, or decide that they can simply do without. The knowledge and resources the consulting industry has been selling are no longer scarce, and we need to sell something else. Rather than seeing this as a problem, I see it as a huge opportunity; an opportunity to establish a more collaborative and productive relationship founded on shared, long term success. Sell outcomes, not scarcity and rationing.

I’m a consultant. I have been for some time too, working in both small and large consultancies. It seems to me that the traditional relationship between consultancy and client is breaking down. This also appears to be true for both flavours of consulting: business and technology. And by consulting I mean everything from the large tier ones down to the brave individuals carving a path for themselves.

Business is down, and the magic number seems to be roughly a 17% decline year-on-year. One possible cause might be that the life blood of the industry — the large multi-year transformation project — has lost a lot of its attraction in recent years. If you dig around in the financials for the large publicly listed consultancies and vendors you’ll find that the revenue from IT estate renewal and transformation (application licenses, application configuration and installation services, change management, and even advisory) is sagging by roughly 17% everywhere around the globe.

SABER @ American Airlines

Large transformation projects have lost much of their attraction. While IBM successfully delivered SABER back in the 60s, providing a heart transplant for American Airlines ticketing processes, more recent stabs at similarly sized projects have met with less than stellar results. Many more projects are quietly swept under the carpet, declared a success so that involved can move on to something else.

The consulting model is a simple one. Consultants work on projects, and the projects translate into billable hours. Consultancies strive to minimise overheads (working on customer premises and minimising support staff), while passing incidental costs through to clients in the form of expenses. Billable hours drive revenue, with lower grades provide higher margins.

This creates a couple of interesting, and predictable, behaviours. First, productivity enhancing tooling is frowned on. It’s better to deploy a graduate with a spreadsheet than a more senior consultant with effective tooling. Second, a small number of large transactions are preferred to a large number of small transactions. A small number of large transactions requires less overhead (sales and back-office infrastructure).

All this drives consultancies to create large, transformational projects. Advisory projects end up developing multi-year (or even multi-decade) roadmaps to consolidate, align and optimise the business. Technology projects deliver large, multi-million dollar, IT assets into the IT estate. These large, business and IT transformation projects provide the growth, revenue and margin targets required to beat the market.

This desire for large projects is packaged up in what is commonly called “best practice”. The consulting industry focuses on did it, done it stories, standard and repeatable projects to minimise risk. The sales pitch is straight-forward: “Do you want this thing we did over here?” This might be the development of a global sourcing strategy, an ERP implementation, …

Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set
Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set

This approach has worked for some time, with consultancy and client more-or-less aligned. Back when IBM developed SABER you were forced to build solutions from the tin up, and even small business solutions required significant effort to deliver. In the 1957, when Spencer Tracy played a productivity expert in The Desk Set, new IT solutions required very specific skills sets to develop and deploy. These skills were in short supply, making it hard for an organisation to create and maintain a critical mass of in-house expertise.

Rather than attempt to build an internal capability — forcing the organisation on a long learning journey, a journey involving making mistakes to acquire tacit knowledge — a more pragmatic approach is to rent the capability. Using a consultancy provides access to skills and knowledge you can’t get elsewhere, usually packaged up as a formal methodology. It’s a risk management exercise: you get a consultancy to deliver a solution or develop a strategy as they just did one last week and know where all the potholes are. If we were cheeky, then we would summerize this by stating that consultancies have a simple value proposition: I know something you don’t!

It’s a model defined by scarcity.

A lot has changed in the last few years; business moves a lot faster and a new generation of technology is starting to take hold. The business and technology environment is changing so fast that we’re struggling to keep up. Technology and business have become so interwoven that we now talk of Business-Technology, and a lot of that scarce knowledge is now easily obtainable.

The Diverging Pulse Rates of Business and Technology
The Diverging Pulse Rates of Business and Technology

The scarce tacit knowledge we used to require is now bundled up in methodologies; methodologies which are trainable, learnable, and scaleable. LEAN and Six Sigma are good examples of this, starting as more black art than science, maturing into respected methodologies, to today where certification is widely available and each methodology has a vibrate community of practitioners spread across both clients and consultancies. The growth of MBA programmes also ensures that this knowledge is spread far and wide.

Technology has followed a similar path, with the detailed knowledge required to develop distributed solutions incrementally reified in methodologies and frameworks. When I started my career XDR and sockets were the networking technologies of the day, and teams often grew to close to one hundred engineers. Today the same solution developed on a modern platform (Java, Ruby, Python …) has a team in the single digits, and takes a fraction of the time. Tacit knowledge has be reified in software platforms and frameworks. SaaS (Software as a Service) takes this to a while new level by enabling you to avoid software development entirely.

The did it, done it stories that consulting has thrived on in the past are being chewed up and spat out by the business schools, open source, and the platform and SaaS vendors. A casual survey of the market usually finds that SaaS-based solutions require 10% of the installation effort of a traditional on-premsis solution. (Yes, that’s 90% less effort.) Less effort means less revenue for the consultancies. It also reduces the need for advisory services, as provisioning a SaaS solution with the corporate credit card should not require a $200,000 project to build a cost-benefit analysis. And gone are the days when you could simply read the latest magazines and articles from the business schools, spouting what you’d read back to a client. Many clients have been on the consulting side of the fence, have a similar education in the business schools, and reads all the same articles.

I know and you don’t! no longer works. The world has moved on and the consulting industry needs to adapt. The knowledge and resources the industry has been selling are no longer scarce, and we need to sell something else. I see this is a huge opportunity; an opportunity to establish a more collaborative and productive relationship founded on shared, long term success. As Jeff Jarvis has said: stop selling scarcity, sell outcomes.

Updated: A good friend has pointed out the one area of consulting — one which we might call applied business consulting — resists the trend to be commoditized. This is the old school task of sitting with clients one-on-one, working to understand their enterprise and what makes it special, and then using this understanding to find the next area or opportunity that the enterprise is uniquely qualified to exploit. There’s no junior consultants in this area, only old grey-beards who are too expensive to stay in their old jobs, but that still are highly useful to the industry. Unfortunately this model doesn’t scale, forcing most (if not all) consultancies into a more operational knowledge transfer role (think Six Sigma and LEAN) in an attempt to improve revenue and GOP.

Updated: Keith Coleman (global head of public sector at Capgemini Consulting) makes a similar case with Time to sell results, not just advice (via @rpetal27).

Updated: I’ve responded to my own post, tweaking my consulting page to capture my take on what a consultant needs to do in this day and age.

What does it take to be an expert?

How do we measure a guru’s worth? In this case, I’m specifically thinking about social media / communications gurus. Do you need 10,000 followers watching every tweet about the incremental progress of your hair cut? Or is it enough to squeeze out one gem a day which then is referred through multiple social networks?

This is a variation of the old (in Internet terms) chestnut, “would you trust a social media expert who doesn’t use social media”. It’s hard to see this as a black and white issue though, as I doubt there’s a communications professional out there who doesn’t use social media in some way. The real distinction is between someone who gorges at the social media trough, against someone who picks and chooses their involvement.

I’m reminded of a comment from rec.food.cooking back in the early 90s:

Never trust a skinny chef.

The assumption was that a chef who didn’t enjoy food enough to over indulge couldn’t be a good chef. This is just wrong, confusing quantity with quality. Just like the critic in Ratatouille, some chefs are more selective about what they consume, but this doesn’t mean that they have less passion or ability than their more indulgent peers.

I don't LIKE food. I LOVE it. If I don't love it, I don't SWALLOW.
Anton Ego

Anton Ego: I don’t LIKE food. I LOVE it. If I don’t love it, I don’t SWALLOW.

So the real question is: do we measure social media professionals by the volume of their engagement with the medium, or by the quality of their engagement. McDonalds (an international chain) vs. Vue de Monde (50 seats in Melbourne). Do you need to tweet 50 times a day to be considered a guru? Or will one well placed tweet a day qualify you?

My preference is for the advice of someone who demonstrates knowledge and insight into the medium, an understanding of the problem I’m trying to solve, and I’ll measure that insight by what they publish. The volume of their engagement is a secondary concern.

Innovation [2009-12-14]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.