Tag Archives: Zara

Winners and losers in retail

There’s a lot of talk in the media at the moment about the soft retail market. Consumer confidence is down1)Australian Consumer ConfidenceTrading Economics and we (as we’re all consumers) are not spending like we used to, or at least we’re not spending like the retailers would like us to, and that when we do spend that we’re running to cheaper online retailers. I’m not sure that this is the whole story though.

With a spare Sunday afternoon on my hands I decided to spend some time trawling through the ABS retail data and take a look beyond the month-on-month trends. Working on an Australian version of the Shift Index2)The Shift Index: Measuring the forces of long term change, Deloitte has nudged me to wonder about the long term trends that are affecting retail.

Continue reading Winners and losers in retail

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As retail dies, who will be the winners?

The high street is dying. Retailers are struggling to attract customers to their stores. When they do manage to get them in the retailers worry about the same customers using their smartphones to buy a product they've just picked up from the shelf, from an internet retailer. Retail gurus are telling the high street that they need to make their stores more inviting if they want to continue attracting an ever more fickle public; ensuring that there's accessible parking for baby boomers who don't like walking, QR codes on all the products for smartphone wielding Gen Ys, and so. This ignores the fact that globalisation, the internet and mobile phones have fundamentally changed the way we shop. Consumers haven't just become more fickle, how we go about buying the goods and services we need is in the process of being transformed and any retailer that is little more than the last step in someone else's supply chain has a poor chance of surviving.

Continue reading As retail dies, who will be the winners?

Death of the shopping mission

When did you last go on a mission to buy something? Something specific that you had decided you needed. Were you looking for a book to read, heading to a nearest bookstore to browse the shelves? Was it a trip to the local big-box store to stock up on toilet paper and other household odds and ends? Or did you wander around a department store at the local mall looking for something to wear? Our behaviour – consumer behaviour – has changed. Shopping has historically been a search problem: how do we find the products we need need? Today, though, we increasingly buy on impulse, selecting the cheapest – or the best at the most competitive price – from the wealth of products and merchants around the global. The shopping mission is going the way of the dodo. If we see a book we like, then we add it to our list at Amazon or Book Depository and it’s delivered direct to our front door. We’re getting household consumables delivered direct to our homes. And we’re even sourcing clothes online where we can find lower prices and a larger selection. Our behaviour is changing, and the retailers and merchants who don’t adapt are being left behind. A lot of the turmoil we’re seeing in the current economy is likely due to a reconfiguration of business, driven by the changes in consumer behaviour.

We used to engage in a shopping mission, a quest to find the goods we need to solve problems that we know we have. This was a journey that would bring us into contact with quirky in-store marketing displays designed to influence our purchasing decision. Product companies tried to build brand awareness, hoping to create a spark of recognition that, when you found yourselves standing in front of the shelves, would tilt you toward selecting their product over the others. Will be it Heinz tomato sauce? The store’s home brand? Or something gourmet from a boutique manufacturer. Merchants worked hard to ensure that they had the best selection of products they could find – the brands that would pull the customers into their store rather then those of the competition.

Standing before the grocery shelf or clothes rack, we would sort through the brands on offer, trying to find the one that we though to be the best value. This roughly translates into selecting the best quality that we could afford. The only products and information at our disposal was what the retailer chose to present us with, unless we were willing to trudge over to another shop so that we could we see what products it had on offer (and what it was willing to tell us about them). The result was usually a compromise: we’d select the best product we could see in front of us, knowing that it was probably neither the cheapest we might find if we kept searching, nor would it be the best we could find. Finding a better solution to our problem – that pair of jeans with a nicer fit, or the tomato sauce with just a hint of something interesting – was too hard.

The world has changed a lot since then. Firstly, globalisation means that it is now possible to reach around the global, conducting an extensive search for the cheapest, or the best (at the most competitive price). This is as simple as typing a few words into Google or visiting you favourite comparison shopping site. Secondly, quality is a solved problem. Twenty years ago that store brand ice-cream or tomato sauce, or the no-name t-shirt, were obviously inferior to the brand name product. Twenty years is a long time, and manufacturing’s relentless focus on quality management over that time means the cheapest product in the market is virtually indistinguishable from the brand names. They were probably even made in the same ingredients or components in the same factory by the same people.

Consumers no longer need to compromise. With little difference between products and the ability to source them from around the globe, many consumers opt for the cheapest they can find from the global market. Nor are consumers who are willing to pay a premium restricted to selecting from the products on offer locally, reaching around the globe find to the exact product they want at the best possible price.

“Price comparisons would be between first and second, or fourth and fifth. What we’re seeing now is a consumer who shops either on price, or on quality – the number one premium, or the retail price point. All the middle brands have gone.”

Sue Morphet, CEO PacBrands1)Speech at the Australian Institute of Company Directors lunch in Brisbane, May 26, 2011.

The balance of power has shifted from retailer to consumer, and the shopping mission is collateral damage. A consumer standing in front of the gaggle of tomato sauces offered by a merchant now has enough information to make an informed decision, and a brand means nothing unless it offers something unique. Consumers are buying the cheapest product, or they are buying the most interesting product (to them). The mass-market brands we grew up with, those labels we trusted because they were reliable, are being demolished, caught in a no man’s land between cheap and premium.2)Eli Greenblat (Aug 30, 2011), Heinz cans Coles, Woolworths, The Sydney Morning Herald

An avid reader wanting a specific book will source it from an online retailer such as Amazon or Book Depository who can offer lower prices and a larger selection, delivered direct to the front door. The time poor professional at the supermarket will often simply pick the cheapest bottle of tomato sauce they can see in front of them, knowing that it will be as good as any of the other. That teenager interested in those green sneakers with black skulls will try on their friends for size and then use an comparison shopping site on the Internet to find the best deal globally. Now that the consumer is in control, and they have the information and services they need at the tip of their smart phone, they are becoming much more impulsive with their approach to buying the goods they want.

The cost of finding the goods and services has plummeted, and consumers are responding by taking a much more opportunistic approach to purchasing. Rather engaging in a search to find goods we need, we’re deciding to buy them impulsively once a need is recognised. Consumers are building relationships with organisations that provide the premium products they desire, or who can be relied on to provide them with the lowest cost items that can be found. Purchases are made opportunistically, built on the shared social connection that has already been established. Customers skip across channels – both real and virtual – learning more about the company’s products and how they can help them. Eventually they realise that there is something they would like, and purchasing is now simply a matter of acknowledging their desire. They might purchase a TV from a company known for bringing cheap but innovative electronics to market, one more focused on putting all the features the customers want into one box, rather than trying to up sell and cross sell. It might be an expensive meal at a restaurant, triggered by the knowledge that a table had just become free for that night. It could the milk man offering to drop off some veg and a steak with the morning milk and bread, guaranteed to arrive before you leave for work. Or it might be that premium computer or tablet with that carefully designed case that you were playing with at your friend’s house.

Retail is reconfiguring, splitting into the cheapest and the best, with a gap appearing the middle. Apple, for example, seems to be the only consumer IT brand still experiencing robust growth and profits,3)Charles Arthur (July 2011), Apple profits up 124% year-on-year after record iPhone sales, The Guardian with the majority of PC manufactures struggling to pull slim margins from a declining market. At the other end of the market, Kogan Technologies is rapidly building a profitable business4)Neha Kale (August 2011), Kogan Technologies reports 100% increase in revenue, PowerRetail around a low cost, direct to consumer model founded on using a community of low cost manufacturers to rapidly create cheap but functional products target at specific consumer needs. Harvey Norman, a traditional bricks-and-morter retailer, is seeing revenue fall and profits slump.5)Anhar Khanbhai, Harvey Norman profits fall 20%, Connected Australia

The new generation of companies – the Apples and Kogans, the Zaras and the explosion of boutique fashion houses – are playing to our new tendency to buy impulsively. They build relationships with their customers, allowing them to skip across channels without purchasing, to reduce the resistance to transacting when the time comes. They avoid sales and regular discounting so tht there’s no reason to hold off a purchase. Some, such as Betabrands, are turning this art into a science, using our desire to be seen as original and our tendency to want to grab bargains when we stumble across them to overcome our reluctance to buy something we can’t touch and feel and accelerate their sales cycle.6)Amy Wallace (October 2010), Whimsy (and clothes) for sale, The New York Times

A chasm is opening up under the traditional mass-market brands, brands that rely on the shopping mission, while companies which can establish themselves at one of the two ends of the spectrum are seeing robust growth. Companies caught in the middle, companies built around the traditional shopping mission are seeing their margins decline and revenues fall, unable to compete. The shopping mission is dying, and it appears that many companies might die with it.


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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.

Cloud computing’s long game

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{{1}}, 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.

[[1]]Samuel Insull @ Chicago “L” .org[[1]]

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{{2}}. 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.

[[2]]Kasra Ferdows, Michael A. Lewis and Jose A.D. Machuca (2005), Zara’s secret for fast fashion, Harvard Business Review[[2]]

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.

How to cope with an IT transformation

Once started, an IT transformation is hard to stop. Such huge efforts – often involving investments of hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars – take on a life of their own. Once the requirements have been scoped and IT has started the hard work of development, business’s thoughts often turn from anticipation to dread. How do we understand what we’re getting? How do we cope with business change between when we signed off the requirements to the solution entering production? Will the solution actually be able support an operating and constantly evolving business?

Transformations take a lot of time and huge amount of resources, giving them a life of their own within the business. It’s not uncommon for the team responsible for the transformation to absorb a significant proportion of the people and capital from the main business, often into the double-digit percentages. It’s also not uncommon for the the time between kicking off the project and delivery of the first components in to the business to be five years or more.

The world can change a lot in five years. Take Apple for example: sixty percent of the products they sell did not exist three years ago{{1}}. It’s not rare for the business to have a little buyers remorse once the requirements have been sign-off and we sit waiting for the solution to arrive. Did we ask for the right thing? Will the platforms and infrastructure perform as expected? Are our requirements good enough for IT to deliver what we need? Will what we asked for be relevant when it’s delivered?

[[1]]60 percent of Apple’s sales are from products that did not exist three years ago @ asumco.com[[1]]

Apple quarterly sales by product
Apple quarterly sales by product

The business has placed a large bet – often putting the entire company’s life on the line – so it’s understandable to be a little worried, and the investment is usually large enough that the business is committed: there’s no backing out now. However, the decision to undertake the transformation has been made, our bets have been placed, and there’s no point regretting carefully considered decisions made in the past with the best evidence and information we could gather at the time. We should be looking forward, focusing on how we can best leverage this investment once it is delivered.

We can break our concerns into a few distinct groups: completeness, suitability, relevance and adaptability.

First, we tend to worry that our requirements were complete. Did we give IT the information they need to do their job? Or were there holes and oversights in the requirements which will require interpretation by IT, interpretation which may or may-not align with how the business conceived the requirement when we wrote down the bullet points.

Next, we are concerned that we asked for the right thing. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to imagine a finished solution from tables, bullet points and process diagrams. And I know that if I’m having trouble, then you’re probably imagining a slightly different finished solution than I’m thinking of. And IT probably has a different picture in their heads again. Someone is bound to be disappointed when the final solution is rolled out.

Thirdly, we have relevance. Five years is a long time. Even three years is long, as Apple has shown us. Our requirements were conceived in a very different business environment to the one that the solution will be deployed into. We probably did our best to guess what will change during the delivery journey, we can also be sure that some of our predictions will be wrong. How accurate our predictions are (which is largely a question of how lucky we were) will determine how relevant the solution will be. If our predictions were off the mark, then we might have a lot of work to do after the final release to bring the solution up to scratch.

Finally, we have adaptability. A business is not a fixed target, as it constantly evolves and adapts in response to the business environment it is situated in. Hopefully we specified the right flex-points – areas in the solution which will need to change rapidly in response to changing business need – back at the start of the journey. We don’t want our transformed IT estate to become instant legacy.

A lot of these concerns have already been address with ideas like rapid-productionisation{{2}} and (gasp!) agile methodologies, but they’re solving a different problem. Once you have a transformation underway, advice that you should hire lots of Scrum masters will fall on dead ears. While there’s a lot of good advice in these methodologies, our concern is coping with the transformation we have, not to throw away all effort to-date and try something different.

[[2]]Rapid productionising @ Shermo[[2]]

So what can we do to help IT ensure that the transformed IT estate is the best that it can be?

We could try to test to success, making IT jump through even more hoops by create more and increasing strenuous tests to add to the acceptance criteria, but while faster and more intense might work for George Lucas{{3}}, it doesn’t add a lot of value in this instance. Our concerns are understanding the requirements we have and safeguarding the relevance of our IT estate in a rapidly evolving business environment. We’re less concerned that existing requirements are implemented correctly (we should have already done that work).

[[3]]Fan criticism of George Lucas: Ability as a film director @ Wookieepedia[[3]]

I can see two clear strategies for coping with the IT transformation we have. First, is to create a better shared understanding of what the final solution might look like (shared between business and IT, as well as between business stakeholders). Second is to start understanding how the future IT estate might need to evolve and adapt in the future. Learnings from both of these activities can be feed back into the transformation to help improve the outcomes, as well as providing the business with a platform to communicate the potential scale and impact of the change with the broader user population.

There are a number of light-weight approaches to building and testing new user interfaces and workflows, putting the to-be requirements in the hands of the users in a very real and tactic way which enables them to understand what the world will look like post transformation. This needs to be more than UI wireframes or user storyboards. We need to trial new work practice, process improvements and decisioning logic. The team members at the coalface of the business also need to use these new tools in anger before we really under their impact. Above all, they need time with these solutions, time to form an opinion, as I’ve written about before{{4}}.

[[4]]I’ve already told you 125% of what I know @ PEG[[4]]

Much like the retail industry, with their trial stores, we can create a trial solution to explore how the final solution should move and act. We’re less worried about the plumbing and infrastructure, as we’re focused on the layout and how the trial store is used. This trial solution can be integrated with existing operations and provided to a small user population -– perhaps a branch in a bank, an single operations centre for back-office processing, or a one factory operated by a manufacturer – where we can realise, measure, test and update our understanding of what the to-be solution should look like, bringing our business and technology stakeholders to a single shared understanding of what we’re trying to achieve.

Our trial solution need not be on the production platform, as we’re trying to understand how the final solution should work and be used, not how it should be implemented. Startups are already providing enterprise mash-up platforms{{5}} which let you integrate UI, process and decisioning elements into one coherent user interface, often in weeks rather than months or years. Larger vendors – such as IBM and Oracle – are already integrating these technologies into their platforms. New vendors are also emerging which offer BPM on demand via a SaaS model.

[[5]]Enterprise Mash-Ups defined at Wikipedia[[5]]

Concerns about the scaleability and maintainability of these new technologies can be balanced with the limited scale and lifetime of our trial deployment. A trial operations centre in one city often need not require 24×7 support, perfectly capable of limping along with a nine-to-five phone number of someone from the development team. We can also always fail back to the older solution if the trial solution isn’t up to scratch.

Our second strategy might be to experiment with new ideas and wholly new models of operation, collecting data and insight on how the transformed IT estate might need to evolve once it becomes operational. This is the disruptive sibling of the incremental improvements in the trial solution. (Indeed, some of the insights from these experiments might even be tested in a trial solution, if feasible.)

In the spirit of experimental scenario planning, a bank might look to Mint{{6}} or Kiva{{7}}, while a retailer might look to Zara{{8}}. Or, even more interesting, you might look across industries, with a bank looking to Zara for inspiration, for example. The scenarios we identify might range from tactical plays, through major disruptions. What would happen if you took a different approach to planning{{9}}, as Tesco did{{10}} or if we, like Zara, focused on time to market rather than cost, and inverted how we think about our supply chain in the process{{11}}.

[[6]]Mint[[6]]
[[7]]Kiva[[7]]
[[8]]Zara[[8]]
[[9]]Inside vs. Outside @ PEG[[9]]
[[10]]Tesco is looking outside the building to predict customer needs @ PEG[[10]]
[[11]]Accelerate along the road to happiness @ PEG[[11]]

We can frame what we learn from these experiments in terms of the business drivers and activities they impact, allowing us to understand how the transformed IT estate would need to change in response. The data we obtain can be compiled and weighted to create a heat map which highlights potential change hotspots in the to-be IT estate, valuable information which can be feed back into the transformation effort, while the (measured, evaluated and updated) scenarios can be compiled into a playbook to prepare use when the new IT estate goes live.

Whatever we do, we can can’t sit by passively waiting for our new, transformed IT estate to be handed to us. Five years is a very long time in business, and if we want an IT estate that will support us into the future, then we need to start thinking about it now.

Innovation [2010-07-05]

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

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

Inside vs. Outside

As Andy Mullholland pointed out in a recent post, all too often we manage our businesses by looking out the rear window to see where we’ve been, rather than looking forward to see where we’re going. How we use information too drive informed business decisions has a significant impact on our competitiveness.

I’ve made the point previously (which Andy built on) that not all information is of equal value. Success in today’s rapidly changing and uncertain business environment rests on our ability to make timely, appropriate and decisive action in response to new insights. Execution speed or organizational intelligence are not enough on their own: we need an intimate connection to the environment we operate in. Simply collecting more historical data will not solve the problem. If we want to look out the front window and see where we’re going, then we need to consider external market information, and not just internal historical information, or predictions derived from this information.

A little while ago I wrote about the value of information. My main point was that we tend to think of most information in one of two modes—either transactionally, with the information part of current business operations; or historically, when the information represents past business performance—where it’s more productive to think of an information age continuum.

The value of information
The value of information

Andy Mulholland posted an interesting build on this idea on the Capgemini CTO blog, adding the idea that information from our external environment provides mixed and weak signals, while internal, historical information provides focused and strong signals.

The value of information and internal vs. external drivers
The value of information and internal vs. external drivers

Andy’s major point was that traditional approaches to Business Intelligence (BI) focus on these strong, historical signals, which is much like driving a car by looking out the back window. While this works in a (relatively) unchanging environment (if the road was curving right, then keep turning right), it’s less useful in a rapidly changing environment as we won’t see the unexpected speed bump until we hit it. As Andy commented:

Unfortunately stability and lack of change are two elements that are conspicuously lacking in the global markets of today. Added to which, social and technology changes are creating new ideas, waves, and markets – almost overnight in some cases. These are the ‘opportunities’ to achieve ‘stretch targets’, or even to adjust positioning and the current business plan and budget. But the information is difficult to understand and use, as it is comprised of ‘mixed and weak signals’. As an example, we can look to what signals did the rise of the iPod and iTunes send to the music industry. There were definite signals in the market that change was occurring, but the BI of the music industry was monitoring its sales of CDs and didn’t react until these were impacted, by which point it was probably too late. Too late meaning the market had chosen to change and the new arrival had the strength to fight off the late actions of the previous established players.

We’ve become quite sophisticated at looking out the back window to manage moving forward. A whole class of enterprise applications, Enterprise Performance Management (EPM), has been created to harvest and analyze this data, aligning it with enterprise strategies and targets. With our own quants, we can create sophisticated models of our business, market, competitors and clients to predict where they’ll go next.

Robert K. Merton: Father of Quants
Robert K. Merton: Father of Quants

Despite EPM’s impressive theories and product sheets, it cannot, on its own, help us leverage these new market opportunities. These tools simply cannot predict where the speed bumps in the market, no matter how sophisticated they are.

There’s a simple thought experiment economists use to show the inherent limitations in using mathematical models to simulate the market. (A topical subject given the recent global financial crisis.) Imagine, for a moment, that you have a perfect model of the market; you can predict when and where the market will move with startling accuracy. However, as Sun likes to point out, statistically, the smartest people in your field do not work for your company; the resources in the general market are too big when compared to your company. If you have a perfect model, then you must assume that your competitors also have a perfect model. Assuming you’ll both use these models as triggers for action, you’ll both act earlier, and in possibly the same way, changing the state of the market. The fact that you’ve invented a tool to predicts the speed bumps causes the speed bumps to move. Scary!

Enterprise Performance Management is firmly in the grasp of the law of diminishing returns. Once you have the critical mass of data required to create a reasonable prediction, collecting additional data will have a negligible impact on the quality of this prediction. The harder your quants work, the more sophisticated your models, the larger the volume of data you collect and trawl, the lower the incremental impact will be on your business.

Andy’s point is a big one. It’s not possible to accurately predict future market disruptions with on historical data alone. Real insight is dependent on data sourced from outside the organization, not inside. This is not to diminish the important role BI and EPM play in modern business management, but to highlight that we need to look outside the organization if we are to deliver the next step change in performance.

Zara, a fashion retailer, is an interesting example of this. Rather than attempt to predict or create demand on a seasonal fashion cycle, and deliver product appropriately (an internally driven approach), Zara tracks customer preferences and trends as they happen in the stores and tries to deliver an appropriate design as rapidly as possible (an externally driven approach). This approach has made Zara the most profitable arm of Inditex, a holding company of eight retail brands, and one of the biggest success stories in Spanish business. You could say that Quants are out, and Blink is in.

At this point we can return to my original goal: creating a simple graphic that captures and communicates what drives the value of information. Building on both my own and Andy’s ideas we can create a new chart. This chart needs to capture how the value of information is effected by age, as well as the impact of externally vs. internally sourced. Using these two factors as dimensions, we can create a heat map capturing information value, as shown below.

Time and distance drive the value of information
Time and distance drive the value of information

Vertically we have the divide between inside and outside: internally created from processes; though information at the surface of our organization, sourced from current customers and partners; to information sourced from the general market and environment outside the organization. Horizontally we have information age, from information we obtain proactively (we think that customer might want a product), through reactively (the customer has indicated that they want a product) to historical (we sold a product to a customer). Highest value, in the top right corner, represents the external market disruption that we can tap into. Lowest value (though still important) represents an internal transactional processes.

As an acid test, I’ve plotted some of the case studies mentioned in to the conversation so far on a copy of this diagram.

  • The maintenance story I used in my original post. Internal, historical data lets us do predictive maintenance on equipment, while  external data enables us to maintain just before (detected) failure. Note: This also applies tasks like vegetation management (trimming trees to avoid power lines), as real time data and be used to determine where vegetation is a problem, rather than simply eyeballing the entire power network.
  • The Walkman and iPod examples from Andy’s follow-up post. Check out Snake Coffee for a discussion on how information driven the evolution of the Walkman.
  • The Walmart Telxon story, using floor staff to capture word of mouth sales.
  • The example from my follow-up (of Andy’s follow-up), of Albert Heijn (a Dutch Supermarket group) lifting the pricing of ice cream and certain drinks when the temperature goes above 25° C.
  • Netflix vs. (traditional) Blockbuster (via. Nigel Walsh in the comments), where Netflix helps you maintain a list of files you would like to see, rather than a more traditional brick-and-morter store which reacts to your desire to see a film.

Send me any examples that you know of (or think of) and I’ll add them to the acid test chart.

An acid test for our chart
An acid test for our chart

An interesting exercise left to the reader is to map Peter Drucker’s Seven Drivers for change onto the same figure.

Update: A discussion with a different take on the value of information is happening over at the Information Architects.

Update: The latest instalment in this thread is Working from the outside in.

Update: MIT Sloan Management Review weighs in with an interesting article on How to make sense of weak signals.

Accelerate along the road to happiness

Our ability to effectively manage time is central to success in today’s hype-competitive business environment. The streamlined and high velocity value-chains we’ve created are designed to invest as little time (and money) as possible in unproductive business activities. However, being fast, being good at optimizing our day-to-day operations, is no longer enough. We’ve reached a point where managing the acceleration of our business—the ability to change direction, redeploy resources to meet new opportunities more rapidly than our competition—is the driver for best in category performance. If we can react faster than our competition then we can capitalize on a business opportunity (or disruption, as they are often the same) and harvest any value the opportunity created.

Time is our overarching business driver at the moment. We hope to be the first to approve a mortgage, capturing the customer before our competitors have even responded to the original application. We strive to be first to market with a new portable music device (Walkman or iPod), establishing early mover advantage and taking the dominant position in the market. Or we might simply want to quickly restore essential services—power, gas or water—to our customers, as they have become intensely dependent upon them. Globalization has leveled the playing field, as we’re all working from the same play book and leveraging the same resources. The most significant factor for success in this environment is the ability to execute faster than our competition—harvesting the value in an opportunity before they can.

This focus on time is a recent phenomena. Not long ago, no further back than the early nineties, we were more concerned with mass. The challenge was too get the job done. Keep the wheels turning in the factories. Keep the workers busy in their cubicles. Time is money, so we’re told, and we need to ensure that we don’t waste money by laying idle. Mass was the key to success—ensuring that we had enough work to do, enough raw materials to work on, to keep our business busy and productive.

When mass is the focus, then bigger is better. This is a world where global conglomerates rule, as size is the driver for success. Supply chains were designed so that enough stuff was available right next to the factory, where supply can be ensured, that the factory would never run out of raw materials and grind to a halt. Whether shuffling paperwork or shifting widgets, the ability to move more stuff around the business was always seen as an improvement.

This is also the world that created a pile of shipping containers too behold in the Persian Gulf, during the Gulf War in the early nineties. With no known destination, some containers couldn’t be delivered. Without a clear understanding of where they came from, others couldn’t be returned. A few of these orphaned containers were opened in an attempt to determine their destination or origin; however the sweltering Arabian sun was not kind to their contents, which included items such as raw poultry, so a stop was soon put to that. The containers just kept piling up. 22,000 of 50,000 containers simply became invisible, collecting in a pile that went by the jaunty name of Iron Mountain.

Iron Mountain: 22,000 containers that became invisible
Iron Mountain: 22,000 containers that became invisible

Our answer was to stop focusing on mass, on having enough stuff on hand to keep the wheels of industry turning. We have to admit that Iron Mountain proves that we could move sufficient mass. The next challenge was to ensure that materials arrived at just the right time for them to be consumed by the business. We moved from worrying about mass, to managing velocity.

Total quality management and process improvement efforts finally found their niche. LEAN and Six Sigma rolled through the business landscape ripping cost out businesses where-ever they went. Equipped with books on Toyota’s Production System and kanban cards, we ripped excess material from the supply chain. Raw materials arrive just-in-time, and we avoid the costs associated with storing and handling vast warehouses of material, as well as the working capital tied up in the stored material itself. Quality went up, process cycle times shrunk, and the pace of business accelerated. Much like the tea clippers from China in the 1800s, with the annual race to get the first crop back to London for the maximum profit (with skipper paid a profit share as an incentive along with their salary), we’re focused on cranking the handle of business as fast as possible.

Zara, a fashion retailer, is the poster child for this generation of business. The fashion industry is built around a value-chain that tries to push out regular product updates, beating up demand via runway shows and media coverage to support a seasonal marketing cycle. Zara takes a different approach, tracking customer preferences and trends as they happen in the stores and trying to deliver an appropriate design as rapidly as possible, allowing customer demand to pull fashion. By focusing on responding to customer demand, wherever it is, Zara has built an organization designed too minimize time from design to marketed product. For example, onshore, high-tech, agile production is preferred to low-tech but low cost, offshore production which involves long production delays. Zara takes two weeks to take a product to market, where the industry average is six months; the lifetime of Zara’s products is measured in weeks, rather than months; and the products offered in each store are tailored to the interests of the community it serves rather than a long term marketing plan.

The change in product life-cycle has created a material change to customer buying habits. Traditionally customers’ will visit a fashion store a few times a year to see what a new season brings. There is no real pressure to buy in any particular visit, as they know they can return to buy the same garment later. Zara, however, with it’s dramatically shortened product cycles, drives different behavior. Customer visit more often, as they can expect to see a new range each visit. They are also more likely too buy, as they know that there is little chance of the same garment being available the next time. This approach has made Zara the most profitable arm of Inditex, a holding company of eight retail brands, and one of the biggest success stories in Spanish business.

The dirty secret of high velocity, lean businesses is that they are fragile: small disturbances can create massive knock-on effects. As we’ve ripped fat from the value chain, we’ve also weakened its ability to react to, and resolve, disruptions. A stockout can now flow all the way back along the supply chain to the literal coal face, stalling the entire business value-chain. Restoring an essential service is delayed while we scramble to procure the vital missing part. Mortgage approvals are deferred while we try reallocate the work load of a valuer dealing with a personal emergency. Or our carefully synchronized product launch falls apart for what seems like a trivial reason somewhere on the other side of the globe.

Our most powerful tools in creating todays high velocity businesses—tools like straight-through processing, LEAN and Six Sigma—worked by removing variation from business processes to increase throughput. The same tools prevent us from effectively responding to these disruptions.

Opportunities today are more frequent, but disruptive and fleeting. An open air festival in the country might represent an opportunity for a tolling operator to manage parking in an adjacent field, if the solution can be deployed as sufficient scale rapidly enough. Or the current trend for pop-up retail stores (if new products rapidly come and go, then why not stores) could be moved from an exceptional, special occasion marketing tool, into the mainstream as a means to optimize sales day-by-day. Responding to these opportunities implies reconfiguring our business on the fly—rapidly integrating business exceptions into the core of our business. This might range from reconfiguring our carefully designed global supply chain, through changing core mortgage approval criteria and processes to modifying category management strategies in (near) real time.

Sam: Waiting while his bank sorts itself out
Sam: Waiting while his bank sorts itself out

We’re entering a time when our ability to change direction, adapting to and leveraging changes in the commercial environment as they occur, will drive our success. If we can react faster than the competition then we can capitalize on a business opportunity and harvest any value the opportunity creates. Our focus will become acceleration: working too build businesses with the flexibility and spare energy required to turn and respond rapidly. These businesses will be the F1 cars of business, providing a massive step in performance over more conventional organizations. And, just like F1, they will also require a new level of performance from our knowledge workers. If acceleration is our focus, then our biggest challenge will be creating time and space required by our knowledge workers to identify these opportunities, turn the steering wheel and leverage them as they occur.

Update: A friend of mine just pointed out that the logical progression of mass → velocity → acceleration naturally leads to jerk, which is an informal unit of measurement for the third derivative.