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Evolution and the IT Industry – Part I

25 Oct

(I’m cross-posting this from the Fujitsu RunMyProcess blog where I am now a regular contributor).

A few years ago I wrote a (rather long) post about evolution in the context of business and in particular the use of emerging business architecture techniques to increase the chances of successfully navigating its influence.

Prompted by two recent posts on this blog, however – ‘Software Darwinism’ by Malcolm Haslam and ‘The Death and Rebirth of Outsourcing’ by Massimo Cappato – I thought I would simplify my original piece to create a much shorter and more IT-centric two part set of observations on this theme.  I basically wanted to pick up on the concept of evolution raised by Malcolm and use this as a vehicle to explore the potential impact on businesses and IT of the disruption described by Massimo; how have we arrived at the landscape of today and what can we learn from evolutionary processes about the likely impact of the disruption on the businesses paying large amounts of money for ‘artificially alive’ systems.

In part 1 I will introduce some ideas about evolution and discuss the current state of businesses in this context.  In part 2 I will continue the theme to discuss the way in which current disruptions represent a ‘punctuated equilibrium’ that demands rapid business evolution – or creates a high likelihood of extinction.

Evolution as an Algorithm

A fascinating book I once read about ‘complexity economics’ described evolution as an algorithm for exploring very large design spaces.  In this interpretation the ‘evolutionary algorithm’  allows the evaluation of a potentially infinite number of random designs against the selection criteria of a given environment. Those characteristics that are judged as ‘fit’ are amplified – through propagation and combination – while those which are not die out.

In the natural world evolution throws up organisms that have many component traits and success is judged – often brutally – by how well the combination of traits enables an animal to survive in the environment in which it exists.  For instance individuals of a particular colour or camouflage may survive due to their relative invisibility while others are eaten. Furthermore this is an ongoing process – individuals  with desirable traits will be better equipped to survive and the mating of such individuals will combine – and hence amplify – their desirable traits within their offspring.  Over time the propagation and combination of the most effective traits will increase in the population overall and where this happens quickly enough a species will evolve successfully for the environment..

Punctuated Equilibrium

Another interesting aspect of evolutionary systems is that they often exhibit long periods of relative stability until some set of external changes creates a ‘punctuated equilibrium’; that is a change to the environment which brings new selection criteria to the fore.  Such changes can have a devastating effect on species which have evolved successfully within the previous environment and lead to new periods of dominance or success for new or previously less successful species whose traits make them better adapted to the new selection criteria that result from the change.  Such species then continue to evolve towards mastery of their environment while others which are too specialised to adapt simply die out.

A particularly dramatic example of this process was the extinction of the dinosaurs, where a change in the environment lowered temperatures and destroyed the lush foliage they depended upon.  This led them from masters of the world to extinction in a relatively short period – the combination of traits that previously made them highly successful was no longer well aligned to the selection criteria of the new environment.

Markets as Evolutionary Systems

It has been argued that the complexity of markets (in terms of their scale, their breadth of participation and the differing intents of the participants) means that they can effectively be viewed as evolutionary systems.  Markets are essentially an environment in which we participate rather than something that can be clearly understood or designed in advance.  They are effectively a very large design space where the characteristics for success are often not known in advance and must be discovered through experimentation and adaptation.

When we look at businesses in an evolutionary context we can therefore hypothesize that those which converge over time  towards successful combinations of traits – as judged by their stakeholders through a process of interaction and adaptation – will be the ones best adapted  to market needs and thus chosen by consumers.  These traits – whether they are talent strategies, process strategies or technology strategies – are then copied by other businesses, replicating and amplifying successful traits within the economic system.

The Influence of IT

If we focus specifically on IT,  we can see that even today IT systems have a large influence on the quality of the business capabilities that underpin a company’s offerings.  Every business is competing for selection against competitors with other applications – and software is increasingly moving to the core as business becomes ‘digital’; as a result it is clear that IT is a major (and increasing) factor in deciding the ‘fitness’ of any particular business versus another.  In this context we can see that the degree to which IT helps or hinders a business makes a huge difference to the quality of its ‘traits’ – both individually and in aggregation.  IT can therefore be a significant influence on whether a business’s offerings are ‘fit’ when judged by the evolutionary algorithm of the market.

Competition in an Age of Universally Bad IT

Despite the illusion of change over the last 30 years, at the macro level things have actually been relatively static from  a technology perspective.  While we have moved from mainframes to client-server and from client-server to the Web the fundamental roles of business and IT have remained unchanged (i.e. firms exist to minimise the transaction costs of doing business by building scale and such businesses spend a lot of money on owning and operating IT in pursuit of efficiencies and consistency across their large scale operations).  In reality most IT investment has therefore been inward facing and viewed as a cost of doing business (a ‘tax’ as Massimo would describe it) rather than a platform for the delivery of innovation and differentiation from an external perspective.

Under this model we have seen large businesses use their scale to pay for IT products and services that are inaccessible to smaller organisations.  Over time -because the focus has often been on efficiencies and standardisation – many IT estates have tended to converge around similar packaged applications and technology.  This convergence has all but wiped out the flexibility required for business differentiation while simultaneously placing organisations functionally and temporally in lockstep (as a concrete example it is no surprise that all companies are facing huge challenges as a result of mobility or that their challenges are more or less the same).  Together these developments have led to a broadly static business environment in which a smaller number of large companies dominate each market segment, providing mediocre levels of innovation and service while dictating both the shape of industries and the kinds of offerings consumers can expect  from each.

As a result while IT has enabled large scale efficiencies, it has led to the situation outlined by Massimo – a situation in which businesses have huge investment responsibilities, a crushing burden from bloated support and delivery organisations and a limited ability to evolve quickly (if at all).  The irony is that it has done this equally to all organisations who could afford it, however,while simultaneously acting as a competitive barrier by limiting the economies of scale that can be achieved by organisations who could not.  As a result the costs, complexity, inflexibility and balkanisation around industry boundaries – along with a lack of innovation and customer-centricity – have become part of the settled fabric of business.

While this has not been a significant issue for large organisations during an extended period of relative stability, it does however threaten to create significant challenges as a result of any disruption to the status quo.  It is perhaps interesting to think of today’s businesses as the dinosaurs of the modern age – large and perfectly adapted to the warm and plant rich environment in which they exist unchallenged.

A Punctuated Equilibrium for Business?

Over the last few years, however, we have seen the genesis of a major disruption – a disruption that is going to change the evaluation criteria of the market and require the development of wholly different traits to succeed.  As cloud delivery models, large scale mobility and the mass sharing of content in social graphs converge I believe that they herald a ‘punctuated equilibrium’ whose effects on business will be profound.  These are not just technology changes but rather a change to the fundamental environment in which we all work, play and socialise – and a signal that business models and even industry boundaries are up for radical change.

The possibilities that these advances create in tandem are akin to an emerging ice age for large businesses and their technology providers – an age in which businesses must fight for every customer and must mutate their organisations, business models and technology to attain a new definition of ‘fitness’.  The easy days of domination through mass and an abundance of low hanging cash to be grazed are passing.

In part 2 of this post I will therefore talk more about the nature of this punctuated equilibrium and my personal views on the shifts in business and technology models that will be required to survive it.

Is Social Media Rubbish?

8 Jul

I’ve read a few interesting posts recently relating to Social Media and ‘Enterprise 2.0’.  First up was Peter Evans-Greenwood talking about the myth of social organisations given their incompatibility with current structures and the lack of business cases for many efforts.  From there I followed links out to Martin Linssen and Dennis Howlett – both of whom commented on the current state of Enterprise 2.0 and social business, in particular their lack of clarity (i.e. are they primarily about tools, people or marketing efforts), the often ironic lack of focus on people in favour of technology and the paucity of compelling business cases.  Furthermore they also highlighted the continued migration of traditional vendors from one hot topic to another (e.g. from ECM to Enterprise 2.0 to Social Business) in order to support updated positioning for products, creating confusion and distraction by suggesting that success comes from owning specific tools rather than from particular ways of working.

Most damningly of all I found a link (courtesy of @adamson) to some strong commentry from David Chalke of Quantum Market Research suggesting that:

Social media: ‘Oversold, misused and in decline’

All of these discussions made me think a bit about my own feelings about these topics at the moment.

The first thing to state is that it seems clear to me that in the broadest sense businesses will increasingly exist in extended value webs of customers and partners.  From that perspective ‘business sociability’ – i.e. the ability to take up a specialised position within a complex value web of complementary partners and to collaborate across organisational and geographical boundaries – will be critical.  The strength of an organisation’s network will increasingly define the strength of their capabilities.  Social tools that support people in building useful networks and in collaborating across boundaries – like social networks, micro-blogs, blogs, wikis, forums etc – will be coupled with new architectures and approaches – like SOA, open APIs and cloud computing – as the necessary technical foundations for “opening up” a business and allowing it to participate in wider value creation networks.  As I’ve discussed before, however, tooling will only exist to support talented people undertaking creative processes within the context of broader networks of codified and automated processes.

Whilst therefore having the potential to support increasing participation in extended value webs, develop knowledge and support the work of our most talented people, it’s clear that throwing random combinations of tools at the majority of existing business models without significant analysis of this broader picture is both pointless but also extremely distracting and potentially ultimately very damaging (as failed, ill thought through initiatives can lead to an opportunity for entrenched interests to ignore the broader change for longer).

Most of the organisations I have worked with are failing to see the bigger picture outlined above, however.  For them ‘social tools’ are either all about the way in which they make themselves ‘cooler’ or ‘more relevant’ by ‘engaging’ in social media platforms for marketing or customer support (looking externally) or something vaguely threatening and of marginal interest that undermines organisational structures and leads to staff wasting time outside the restrictions of their job role (looking internally).  To date they seem to be less interested in how these tools relate to a wider transformation to more ‘social’ (i.e.  specialised and interconnected) business models.  As with the SOA inertia I discussed in a previous blog post there is no heartfelt internal urgency for the business model reconfiguration required to really take social thinking to the heart of the organisation.  Like SOA, social tools drive componentisation and specialisation along with networked collaboration and hence the changes required for one are pretty similar to the changes required for the other.  As with SOA it may take the emergence of superior external service providers built from the ground up to be open, social and designed for composition to really start to trigger internal change.

In lieu of reflecting on the deeper and more meaningful trends towards ‘business model sociability’ that are eroding the effectiveness of their existing organisation, then, many are currently trying to bolt ‘sociability’ onto the edge of their current model as simply another channel for PR activity.  Whilst this often goes wrong it can also add terrific value if done honestly or with a clear business purpose.  Mostly it is done with little or no business case – it is after all an imperative to be more social, isn’t it? – and for each accidental success that occurs because a company’s unarticulated business model happens to be right for such channels there are also many failures (because it isn’t).

The reality is that the value of social tools will depend on the primary business model you follow (and increasingly the business model of each individual business capability in your value web, both internal and external – something I discussed in more detail here).

I think my current feeling is therefore that we have a set of circumstances that go kind of like this:

  1. There is an emerging business disruption that will drive organisational specialisation around a set of ‘business model types’ but which isn’t yet broadly understood or seen by the majority of people who are busy doing real work;
  2. We have a broad set of useful tools that can be used to create enormous value by fostering collaboration amongst groups of people across departmental, organisational and geographic boundaries; and
  3. There are a small number of organisations who – often through serendipity – have happened to make a success of using a subset of these tools with particular consumer groups due to the accidental fit of their primary business model with the project and tools selected.

As a result although most people’s reptilian brain instinctively feels that ‘something’ big is happening, instead of:

  • focusing on understanding their future business model (1) before
  • selecting useful tools to amplify this business model (2) and then
  • using them to engage with appropriate groups in a culturally appropriate way (3)

People are actually:

  • trying to blindly replicate others serendipitous success (3)
  • with whatever tools seems ‘coolest’ or most in use (2) and
  • no hope of fundamentally addressing the disruptions to their business model (1)

Effectively most people are therefore coming at the problem from entirely the wrong direction and wasting time, money and – potentially – the good opinion of their customers.

More clearly – rather than looking at their business as a collection of different business models and trying to work out how social tools can help in each different context, companies are all trying to use a single approach based largely on herd behaviour when their business model often has nothing directly to do with the target audience.  Until we separate the kinds of capabilities that require the application of creative or networking talent, understand the business models that underpin them and then analyse the resulting ‘types’ of work (and hence outcomes) to be enabled by tooling we will never gain significant value or leverage from the whole Enterprise 2.0 / social business / whatever field.