Let The Network Do The Work

One of the most striking things I see when watching organizations make the transition from legacy industrial models of working to new network-based models, is that we keep trying to employ the new tools and ideas in the same old ways. Certainly, it’s quite hard to unlearn the old methods, so deeply instilled are they by prior experience, history, and momentum. But as businesses, even today, we largely still try to create all the ideas, try to control everything, and focus on doing all the work to produce outcomes within the organization, team, or enterprise, with a little help of perhaps a few closely held suppliers and business partners.

In short, most organizations still have an out-dated and overly centralized model for working, and it’s turned out to be a very difficult habit to break. Unfortunately, these old models are also inefficient, highly resource intensive, low in innovation, short-sighted, and ultimately counterproductive, when we have such better — and increasingly proven — models that greatly outperform the old ones.

All too often I still encounter enterprise collaboration efforts, customer communities, and CRM projects that make the same essential mistake: They literally transplant how they do things today into emerging digital environments such as social networks, online forums, and collaboration suites, instead of tapping into the new ways of working that these new digital environments enable. This misses the whole point of adopting innovative new ideas and technologies that can unlock deeper opportunities that just weren’t possible before.

If I have a single key lesson that every organization seeking to digitally transform must learn it’s this: You must let the network do the work. It has the bulk of the ideas, it self-organizes at scale, it needs only a little control and guidance, and it has all the productive capacity, no matter how large your organization.

Let The Network Do the Work: Using Online Community and Social Business to Scale Cost Effectively

This was driven home yet again over the weekend when I came across the story of CrowdMed, a service that aims to diagnose some of the trickiest unsolved medical problems of patients with maladies that have resisted all previous attempts. Jared Hayman, founder of CrowdMed, which uses an external community of several thousands doctors and nurses, currently claims a 50% success rate at solving this difficult cases, just by letting the network do the work.

This is just one of thousands of similar stories of network-based peer produced solutions that work far better than their traditional, centralized counterparts from another era.

Of course, the challenge is to retain essential control. I find that the list of reasons companies give to why they can’t plug networks directly into the way they work, into their products and services, into their business models, even into the own personal workstreams is nearly endless: “We can’t trust it”, “We can’t rely on it”, “Our culture isn’t ready for it”, “That’s not how we’ve traditionally worked.” The list goes on.

In the end, unfortunately, these arguments don’t really matter, other than identifying and articulating one’s obstacles to change. That’s because the competitive implications are increasingly clear to anyone who does a cursory examination: Network models are far more cost-effective, richer, and higher scale than old models of working. So we simply must find ways to adapt in order to survive.

At the highest level, the future of the enterprise is inextricably entwined with social business, crowdsourcing, the collaborative economy, etc. These are the network models that are creating the next generation of fast-growing businesses, many, such as Airbnb and countless others.

The fundamental principle then, which we put as fundamental principle #1 about getting value from the network in Social Business By Design, to tap into the most value is really quite simple: Anyone can participate.

When you prevent this from happening, intentionally or otherwise, you sharply limit the value created and opportunity accessed. But most businesses today still let very few participate: They try to do it all themselves. For most types of work, this results in outcomes that are simply uncompetitive and unsustainable in terms of the cost, quality, and effort of the outcome.

So, why aren’t more companies doing making the transition then? I’d argue they are. Most companies are slowly moving towards network models. But far too slowly, given the growing digital competition.

Thus we are still in the midst of a global transition to network models that will likely take many us a decade longer. But the writing is clearly on the wall: Most industries are filling with new digital competitors who understand the fundamental rule of creating value using networks, and unless industrial age organizations can adapt, the upstart will win (and largely have been re: open source, social media, digital ecosystems like Amazon, Google.)

Fortunately, effective transformation is still accessible to most organizations if they are willing to change their mindset and think like digital natives.

Additional Reading:

Shifting the Meaning of Hierarchy to Community

The Role of the Leadership in Digital and Social Business Transformation

Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

The emerging case for open business methods | ZDNet

What Is the Future of Work?

Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

Much has been made recently of the imperative to fully transition our businesses into the modern digital world. It now hardly needs to be said at this point. There is even some encouraging news for traditional enterprises: The latest data from Forrester shows that companies are indeed at long last making digital transformation a top priority, with 74% of executives saying that they currently have a strategy to get there.

Yet “having a digital strategy” can also mean just about anything, depending upon who you ask. At this point however, there are basically two main forks in the road to digital for most organizations:

There is the ‘bolt-on’ strategy, which typically means adding a few new digital channels to existing touchpoints — typically social and mobile — and maybe creating an associated but minor sideline business with some digital revenue.

Then there is the ‘digital transformation’ approach to digital. It’s a full-on, meaningful reconception of the business, often using a startup or incubator model, with the intent to re-imagine a digital native organization with all that it entails, from new business models, culture shifts, remodeling of the structure and processes of the business, and rethinking of the very foundations of the enterprise across the full spectrum of digital possibility.

Enterprise Digital Business Transformation

Unfortunately, the latter approach also has many of the characteristics that corporate leadership tends to avoid: a) The big bang initiative which has a high likelihood of failure, b) cross-silo involvement, meaning it will encounter numerous bureaucratic and political obstacles, and b) the likelihood of of success being dependent on securing rarefied talent with scarce expertise that crosses the domain of the business, the world of strategic emerging technology, and next-generation IT.

The reality is that both forks have real risks: The bolt-on approach is too little and too incremental to have the requisite strategic impact, though it’s certainly a valid interim approach (as long as it’s not the only one.) On the other hand, the full digital transformation model entails a major investment and commitment across the organization with a seemingly all-to-uncertain outcome.

Yet, the latest data tells us unequivocally that the act of doing nothing — or just too little — is also sure to fail. The march of technology is wiping out traditional companies faster than ever before, and the pace is only accelerating.

Another way of putting it is that the CEOs, CIOs, COOs, and CMOs — the four roles most directly responsible for guiding this transformation — will secure rewards for their organizations that are directly commensurate with their commitment to drive broad digital adaptation and change. For the data is unambiguous: Those that don’t fully align with the state of the marketplace will be absorbed by those that do.

Forrester Digital Business Strategy Not Yet Business Strategy
Many industries even today are resistant to digital. Source: Forrester

Thinking Like a Digital Business

What can organizations do if they are serious about their responsibilities to lead the business into the future? Several clear options are emerging:

  • Seek out digital change. Avoid having it imposed. Successful next-generation enterprises — see the start of my 2014 NGE target here — won’t wait until adopting new digital channels, tech, and business models are unavoidable. They will pro-actively seek them out, learn them early on, experiment, and be ready to grow when they mature. Even fast-followers will be at risk if they don’t avidly seek out new opportunities. Dave Gray has previously pointed out research from Shell showing that the longest-lived companies are pro-active seekers and explorers of new markets. What’s more, digital change is now nearly continuous, and the organizations must establish long-term processes that tap into and pull these changes into a new “digital metabolism” that makes incorporating strategic innovation both routine and sustainable. Organizations that only respond to change will always be several steps behind those that are change-seekers. Finally, be bold it seeking out these changes. As the latest McKinsey report on digital transition notes, the winners will “be unreasonably aspirational.”
  • Cultivate capabilities to support multiple operating models. As John Kotter pointed out this week, there is now “an inseparable partnership between hierarchy and network.” We will have two and probably more major operating models in our organizations going forward, at least the legacy and the digital. We must operate and exploit each of these systems to their fullest — and together — to produce competitive and effective results today. To get there, successful leaders will strategically enable the shift of hierarchy into much more network-centric models, while cultivating the strengths of both simultaneously. Since most organizations currently have significantly underdeveloped networked operating models, this will require special investment and integration into the digital transformation process.
  • Understand and absorb the new competencies of digital across the organization. If one thing stands out clearly when I look at digital transformation efforts, is that they are often led by those who are experts in the existing business, who often don’t have the competencies in the digital space. It’s not that it can’t be learned, but it is a fast-growing and already enormous field. The profound difficulties that many transformation efforts have encountered, despite the vast on-hand resources including thousands of workers and millions of customers, has been to the distinct boundary of and very different rules for success between legacy business and digital business. I recently summarized what many business leaders don’t quite get right in their mindset and assumptions when it comes to digital transformation, but it boils down to deeply understanding and emulating what those successful in digital have done to get there. Understand the power laws of digital business, deeply absorb the concept of engaging with and co-creating new products and services with digital ecosystems, and wielding powerful new ways to scale innovation.

This is not to say that businesses have not already extensively digitized. They have, but as Sameer Patel recently pointed out, they generally have not transformed. The single biggest obstacle to successful digital transformation is a broad shift to a ‘native digital’ mindset that will consistently inform broad action. I’ve come to believe that traditional companies can make this transition, but only if they decentralize tech innovation that is coupled with a supportive new network operating model, while carefully controlling downside (typically security, data control, etc.).

So, while bolting-on a digital mindset may lead to some short-term successes, it will certainly stunt the future of your organization. Instead, employ internal and external networks to create a naturally-supportive environment where digital change is far more scalable, emergent, adaptive, and continuous.

Additional Reading:

The New Top Level Operating Models of Business

Digital diaspora in the enterprise: Arrival of the Chief Digital Officer

Shifting the Meaning of Hierarchy to Community

Over the last year or so, a fascinating bow wave of interest has been converging on a growing cadre of companies who appear to be doing something quite novel and seemingly new. Specifically, these organizations have apparently thrown off many of the traditional structures and processes of corporate management. Interestingly, all of these organizations are focusing on change through people first, technology second, if at all.

Though sometimes employing the language of social business, these innovative organizations aren’t just centering their efforts at rethinking their business around digital/social. Instead, they are focused primarily on fundamentally changing their thinking and behavior around work itself. This is something Hugh MacLeod noted last week that is likely to literally become one of the next big industries, albeit in a virtual sense, as we seek en masse to adapt our organizations to much faster rates of change and innovation.

Ironically, as the changes being made aren’t primarily technological but cultural, it’s the organizations which don’t have a strong or healthy culture that are finding that technology revolutions like social media are greatly amplifying their shortcomings in this regard.

Management Hierarchy versus Online Community

Some of the notable exemplars that have been held up as poster children for this trend include Southwest Airlines, W.L. Gore, Valve, Zappos, and Morning Star. All of these firms have realized in some form a contemporary new and self-organizing way of working that pushes action, responsibility, and change directly to the edge of the organization, where workers are essentially free from unnecessary bureaucratic and political constraints to take initiative, make decisions, and act on their insight.

It’s not fully clear yet if we’re seeing the emergence of a broader trend or if these are isolated examples, but the overall success of these organizations is well-established, as most of them are leaders in their industry. Side note: By isolated examples, I mean in the traditional enterprise space. There are countless successful examples in the digital space.

So, as we try to understand these examples, I’ve wondered what is really happening in this new wave of how we manage and structure the traditional organization. Fortunately, I do believe we’ve started to get a good sense of this and it helps us understand how these ideas could possibly work. An important discussion recently of these changes by Steve Denning makes a rather convincing case that hierarchy is not exactly what’s being eliminated in these new models. Instead, hierarchies themselves are shifting from org charts, fixed responsibilities, and formal titles to a more fluid and competency-based model:

Thus I often hear it said, and see it written, that firms [...] have done exactly that, i.e. “gotten rid of managers” and “abolished hierarchy.”

This is a misunderstanding. This is not what these organizations are doing or what the ongoing paradigm shift in management is about at all.

In networked organizations, where work is self-managed, there are still managers. The managers have become enablers of self-managing teams and networks rather than controllers of individuals. In those organizations, someone has to sign checks. Someone has to sign legal documents on behalf of the organization. Someone is legally responsible for what is done by the organization. That someone is a manager. A manager after all is simply someone who is responsible for getting things done. If anything is to get done, an organization has to have managers.

There are still hierarchies in a network, but the hierarchies tend to be competence-based hierarchies, relying more on peer accountability than on authority-based accountability, that is, accountability to someone who knows something rather than to someone simply because they occupy a position, regardless of competence. It is a change in the role of the manager, not an abolition of the function.

Based on my work, I think Steve’s analysis is very close, yet not the entire picture. The part that is missing is that indeed there is a broader move in many organizations towards a networked structure, one based on earned, peer recognized competency and manifesting itself in loosely-coupled, dynamically formed, and freely participative teams (pods in Dave Gray’s language.)

It’s a Community, It’s a Networked Hierarchy

However, it’s also becoming increasingly clear to me that the part of this story that is left out here is the very notion of the enterprise itself. Our increasingly antiquated view of companies as self-contained entities with leaders and workers working within rigid and slow-to-change functional silos that are also supposed to provide all the ideas and all the motive force is no longer effective or accurate. In fact, the single most disruptive force shifting hierarchy is the same force that is also expanding the meaning of hierarchy beyond the boundaries of the organization.

This force is community, and by that I generally mean online communities, although their incarnation in the digital is not always required, as we clearly see from the examples above. I’ve long believed that communities are moving to the very center of our organizations — this means operations, structure, and yes, even business model — and it’s really the community model that is being replicated in today’s new corporate hierarchies.

What does this shift mean to businesses, specifically? Functioning organizations will soon rely on, as they already do to hundreds of organizations today, communities that will deliver essential capabilities to the enterprise that used to be intrinsic to self-contained organizations: Marketing, advocacy, pre-sales support, product development, customer care, operations, and other functions. There are excellent examples of community-centric versions of all of these functions happening at scale in traditional enterprises.

So while I do find it quite interesting when we look at new models for recasting the classical notion of the workforce — and look at the classical workforce only — it’s essential that we don’t merely regard the subject through the myopic lens of the old org chart. Instead, we must use the deeper understanding that networked organizations are hybrids that fully merge traditional workforce and online community. Again, the more transformative examples seem to focus on the people more than the technology, though the latter — especially social technologies — does seem vital, as long as it’s not put first.

Implications of Networked Work Hierarchies

The move to networked models of work therefore appears to imply the following:

  • A network of self-interested people organizing dynamically around what needs to be done is more efficient and effective. Forcing work down only through traditional hierarchies produces poorer and much more costly outcomes. This assumes of course, that there are tools, education, and organizational structures to enable the former. Again the evidence is clear that peer production is a richer — if sometimes less predictable — and far more scalable and agile way of working. Therefore:
  • Greater business value is created with least overhead or friction by self-interested and engaged communities. Organizations that try to “do it all” with their own workforce simply cannot compete.
  • The individual/organizational bond is steadily becoming the individual/community/organizational bond. Community is a new emerging construct between our institutions and individuals. Like most major changes to the world, this is neither a complete nor total shift, but a gradual change in the center of gravity. Thanks to Harold Jarche, for a summary of his ideas that helped crystallize this particular insight for me.

Consequently, the enterprises that don’t fully appreciate they are now part of a much larger and richer system-of-systems of people — and redesign themselves around this new reality — will increasingly be at risk. To survive, our organizations must pro-actively seek to efficiently ramp up participation in the richer, shared outcomes that only the productive entanglement with communities — internal and external — can produce.

Finally, if you’re not sure this is a big part of our business future, we have only to look at the mass dislocation that the collaborative economy is producing in so many industries, where communities are at the very center of the business model, to see that this is actually happening today and widely.

Related: Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future

What is the Future of Work?

Much has been made recently about one of the stand out trends of the times we live in: Everything is becoming infused with technology. Software is eating the world it is said. Some have claimed that next it might even eat the jobs, which to some degree is almost certainly the case. With only a little bit of irony, Hugh MacLeod humorously noted this week that software may eventually eat all the people. But even that could be a bit closer to the truth than some of us might expect.

But the point is this: In the last half-decade alone, most of us would admit the societal and cultural shifts that technology and global digital networks have wrought is nothing short of astounding:

Social media is relentlessly chipping away at the power and control that companies and governments have long enjoyed almost exclusively over the rest of the world. Supply chains, talent management (hiring), customer service, product development, and just about every function of business is being transformed by things like 3D printing, social recruiting, customer care communities, crowdsourcing, to only name a few of the more important examples. That’s not even looking at the macro changes (example: Arab Spring), in which digital/social is impacting the fabric of entire nations. In all of these cases, the power and control is shifting to the other side of the network, to what many now call the ‘edge’, where most of us are.

Unfortunately, there remains a constituency that remains stubbornly in the back of the pack when it comes to the large scale changes happening in the world today. Surprisingly, this constituency formerly used to actually lead the technology world. Instead, it is now dragged along by consumer technology companies and their customers. Yes, I am referring to our corporations, to which I’ll add our institutions, including our governments and associated entities.

Related: Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future

The Future of Work, Technology, Business, Culture, and Society

I’ve explored many times in recent years how traditional businesses have essentially lost the leadership mantle when it comes to technology. But finally now there is an increasingly concerted effort to take some of it back, to get back in the game, to use the realization that the methods we’re using in large organizations to apply technology to work is often failing, and badly.

This has led us generally to a broader global discussion on the future of work. With our institutions, expectations, and behaviors undergoing a steadily increasing rate of change, where is all this taking us? What will the workplace of the end of the decade look like and work like? That has been a question that’s been coming up more and more frequently. The answers are often focused purely on the externally obvious — and their easily determined — differences, such as the wide range of disruptive new technologies moving into the workplace today. While the technology is certainly a subject of fascination and I’ve been talking recently to audiences around the world about it, it’s not enough. We must move the conversation up a level and talk about the changes to us, the people that make up our workforces and our customers, and which are taking place as our businesses move deeper towards a very different 21st century model of work.

When then does the the future of work look like? Nobody has the full picture of course, but I am increasingly sure it broadly looks something like this:

The Future of Work: The Key Aspects

  • The evolution of the business/worker compact We are on a trajectory that has taken us well away from lifetime employment, guaranteed pensions, and single careers where largely benevolent, parent-like corporations looked after their workers, to a model where the principle actors, both companies and individuals, are much more autonomous, self-interested, and dynamic. Like all things this has trade-offs, but in the large this directly facilitates more rapid evolution of those involved and potentially creates a richer, more rewarding — if seemingly riskier — work environment for us, especially if we’re self-actualizing. There are other implications as well.
  • CSR/social enterprise and the need for business to go beyond a basic value proposition. It’s not good enough just to sell products and services anymore. Companies and their workers must be thinking about the bigger picture as the marketplace is increasingly demanding that the businesses they work with are concerned about overall global outcomes. Sustainability, environmentalism, corporate social good/responsibility, and other urgent qualitative matters of policy and governance are going to increasingly infuse how we work. Doing this successfully will require a very different mindset in our workforce than our traditional organizations typically have cultivated in the past.
  • New modes of management and workforce collaboration. The management theory — or more likely theories, plural, as there are probably several good ways of thinking about it as I’ve recently explored — for the future of work is starting to emerge. The same with team, department, company-wide, and mass collaboration. Then there is the collaborative economy that is genuinely remaking very concept of how business works for the digital era. Read some of Harold Jarche’s latest musings on work to get a sense of what the mechanics might look like, as well as Stowe Boyd’s recent thoughts on going back to the fundamentals with social business thinking.
  • New transformative workplace technologies. Everything from wearable tech to mind/machine interfaces and increasingly commonplace social business tools are changing how we will work. This will further change expectations and possibilities. I’ve explored the important technologies to watch this year, but there are many others in the wings and they will only come faster and be increasingly impactful. Our businesses are also becoming platforms in every sense of the word, becoming technologies in their own right. As Fred Wilson observed yesterday, it’s increasingly urgent for organizations to find — and become — the next platform.
  • New approaches for addressing diversity and inequality. While still I’m on the fence about the best ways to address these, you can be sure there will be enormous investments made through the rest of the decade by businesses, government, and other institutions to start tackling the structural issues in the global economy. We’ve increasingly learned and come to accept how much they impact business performance and the bottom-line.
  • A shift in the fundamental relationship between workers and business. This can be most clearly seen in the inversion of the traditional model of business, realized directly by the flourishing of vast numbers of self-organizing online communities. Now people can just come together online and create shared value without an intermediate organization that would otherwise have to the resources required to meet their needs. What does this mean for how important the traditional model business and work will be to people? The classical enterprise clearly isn’t as necessary as before for many purpose. Now we need to look ahead and see how these trends will affect how we structure, manage, and operate our organizations.
  • Co-evolutionary changes in society and global/regional culture that impact the workplace. Technology improves what’s possible by dramatically lowering the effort, time, or cost of doing something, or even makes something entirely new possible that was simply impossible before. This sets expectation and enables/encourages new types of behavior in people and society as a whole. These soft changes in us then drive the exploration of new technologies guided by behavior changes and new norms. We need to better understand where this co-evolutionary process is taking us, as well as anticipating how these new directions will impact it will affect our businesses.

Surely, this list is fairly incomplete. Unfortunately, more change is taking place now than we can really individually know (and is one reason why I believe locally autonomous adaptation is essential to the future of work.) Given how disruptive change has been in the last 20 years, remaking industries, creating giant new entities (Internet, Web, and cloud ecosystems like Amazon, Google), and dramatically changing what’s possible, the next-generation of work is likely to be almost radically different, while also being incredibly interesting. It’s worth it for us to find out as much as we can so we can prepare and anticipate the future, with the goal of avoiding unnecessary disruption — preferably being the author of your own disruption — while capturing increasingly historic opportunities.

Additional Reading:

Ten strategies for making the “Big Leap” to next-gen enterprise | ZDNet

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change | On Web Strategy

Does technology improve employee engagement? | ZDNet

Can technology improve business innovation? | ZDNet

Digital Business Ecologies: How Social Networks and Communities Are Upending Our Organizations

As we’ve watched digital networks reshape just about every aspect of business these days, I’ve found that we’ve struggled to come up with the right words and ways to describe a very different way of working. From vast app stores and pervasive streams of big data to enterprise social networks and customer engagement, the rules that Internet-based models of business impose are often very different.

Yet some well-known elements of business haven’t necessarily changed and have only become more pronounced: For example, scale is one of the single biggest challenges in moving to digital and social business, but has also been a challenge in our globalized world for some time. Today’s pervasive network connectedness is making this factor ever more pronounced. For organizations now this typically means having to maintain tens of thousands, or even millions, of simultaneous conversations with the marketplace for critical activities such as marketing, sales, and customer service. It also means most businesses will have to manage an order of magnitude more suppliers, business partners, and other 3rd party relationships (example: open APIs are a great harbinger of high scale in digital supply chains.)

Thus, the challenges of magnitude infuse everything in digital: Distribution, supply, engagement, control, competition, and even — or perhaps especially — security and sustainability. However, in other areas, especially where digital and social networks fundamentally change the fabric of things, we still don’t have clearly identified constructs, or even good words that we can use.

Digital and Social Business Ecologies: How Workforce and Market Engagement Are Blending

For instance, it’s been abundantly clear for a decade now that open digital communities are a new and revolutionary construct that have gone on to literally change the world. From upending media and software (social media and open source communities, respectively) to remaking the fundamental nature of how business in all industries gets done (collaborative economy), large, self-organizing communities are taking the lead. Digital technology even changes the underlying forces of the age-old concept of community. For example, even though the idea of community has been around since there have been people, the digital incarnation seemingly does something a bit different: Instead of forming insular walls that group people together, digital communities tends to group people together and break the walls down.

It’s here that I think we’re missing the name of a key concept, or at least, we’re not using one that needs to be applied here. Specifically, I believe that the relationship between the traditional enterprise and online communities has been greatly underexplored. For sure, we have many good examples now of enterprise communities that have created results across our value chains today.

But what we don’t have is a good understanding of what relationship communities should have to business at a strategic level. Are communities an adjunct to a specific function under certain conditions, such as customer service communities or product development/innovation communities when existing traditional processes underperform? Are communities to be the primary delivery model, or a secondary? My belief is that this thinking is now too incremental.

Instead, I believe businesses should now focus directly on moving to community-led business structures and processes as a first class citizen. The force multiplier of social technology here has simply proven far too great not to put at the core of our businesses, and not doing so has begun to have significant competitive and sustainability implications.

To get there, we need to talk about digital communities and business in new ways that explain their new relation to the enterprise much better than we do today. I’d like to suggest that as digital business practitioners we starting exploring this landscape in the form of ecologies, when we talk about business and community. Why ecologies? Because of what the term means:

Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house”; -λογία, “study of”) is the study of interactions among individuals and their environment.

Therefore, it behooves us to much better understand — in relation to our stakeholders — the exact nature, interaction, and possibilities of communities and business, a twin environment we’ve not really had before in business as the highest order concepts. The motivation here is that the new fundamental environment for business in the 21st century is the digital network, and specifically, online communities of every description. Given the way they are upending what’s possible in terms of how to achieve just about every function in business, it’s time we capture a more complete conception of their role. I believe this means articulating their centrality to the operating model of many or most activities in the enterprise today.  While that sounds like a bold statement, I believe the results we’ve seen so far (see the nearly 100 case examples we put in Social Business By Design for a small sample) fully bear this out.

As my good friend Stowe Boyd recently wrote [my emphasis]:

We need a CDO-style figure in most businesses — if not the CEO — to make that transition to a postnormal footing, where work technology is at the core of what everyone does, not an afterthought or add-on. The inability of traditional IT to deliver on the promise of today’s technology is the universal business facepalm of our day.

Network technology is dominating the transformation of business today. Now we need to successfully adapt our management theories and practices to this new reality.

Additional Reading:

Digital diaspora in the enterprise: Arrival of the CDO and CCO | ZDNet

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change | On Web Strategy

A new reality between the CMO and CIO | ZDNet

Enterprises and Ecosystems: Why Digital Natives Are Dethroning The Old Guard | On Web Strategy

Four key takeaways for digital transformation | Econsultancy

Enterprises and Ecosystems: Why Digital Natives Are Dethroning The Old Guard

Why is it that so many traditional companies with an enormous wealth of assets largely fail to transform them for the digital era? By assets here, I mean established customer base, closely held relationships with trading partners, mountains of data and IP, as well as their bread and butter, the actual products and services they offer. For large organizations, these assets typically represent many billions in long-term investment and accumulated value that is being stranded beneath a digital ceiling they cannot seemingly break through. The lesson has been a hard one: It’s been surprisingly difficult for many companies to make a genuine transformation to digital.

For those just joining this conversation, this transformation is about opening up and digitally enabling the strategic assets of our organizations for better consumption and participation, with as low a barrier as possible. It’s also means doing so in a way that continually maximizes their value over time in today’s deeply networked marketplace. Achieving this triggers the primary engine of growth for digital ecosystems, namely network effects. This is how Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon (new guard), and Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Oracle, and many others (old guard) eventually built hundreds of billions in combined value. They tapped into the relevant power laws of networks by carefully and deliberating cultivating and then closely managing them by harnessing peer production over the network.

Digital Business: Cultivating and Managing Digital Ecosystems (Open APIs, Social Supply Chain, Web Services, SOA, Online Communities, Peer Production, OEMs)

How exactly was this accomplished? They did it by digitally platforming their businesses in specific ways: Enabling self-service on-boarding, viral adoption, open participation, best-of-breed data capture, ownership and control, and took advantage of the fact that relationships — and therefore, ultimately transactions — must take place on the network with as little friction and cost as possible. They realized that we are now all connected together continuously in a single global network and then designed their organizations around this central fact of the digital age. They are now reaping the results of this mindset:

Networked ecosystems must be a core focus and competency of modern business.

This begs the increasingly urgent question: Why then are a large number of older organizations neglecting their digital ecosystems, often failing to meaningfully cultivate them at all for many of their most valuable assets?

This is a key question that fellow Enterprise Irregular Vinnie Mirchandani recently asked in an internal EI mail thread and later posed on his blog:

But for every Apple which has gone one way, I see so many others piss away this huge asset that is their ecosystem. I hear about musicians and filmmakers auditing, even suing studios for accounting disagreements. I hear SAP mentors complain about legal issues getting licenses and other access to new technology. It’s easy to dismiss Joe Konrath’s litany of complaints against book publishers as one from an unhappy author, but the 230+ comments it has drawn shows a deeper angst about how poorly publishers are managing their author ecosystems.

Ecosystems, communities – call them what you want. They are a vibrant organism which deserve far more ink from all of us. And they need professional managers at the companies at the middle who nourish them and not just treat them as railcars to be hustled away whenever inconvenient.

As companies remain inadequately connected to their customers, partners, and workers via digital ecosystems, many of which they do not control, they are missing a rapidly narrowing opportunity. That’s because it’s very, very hard to disrupt a well-established network effect, which is much more powerful than the equivalent notion in the pre-digital era: traditional market share. Network effects are primary focused on pull distribution, while marketshare is heavily based on push, which is much harder and much more expensive to sustain. As digital natives sew up more and more industries and lay down network effects years ahead of their traditional brethren, any chance to reclaim the throne will be very unlikely.

For leading examples of potent digital ecosystems, see open APIs, social customer care, and app stores.

Why is this? There are a number of reasons but a few are particularly significant. What I wrote in the EI thread in response to Vinnie’s original question was this:

I find that in general, the farther you are from the tech business, the less native skill or familiarity there is with system thinking, which is perhaps the critical capacity to have in order to regard your business in ecosystem terms. This is something that in tech is standard fare with constant discussion and focus on platforms, network effects, SDKs, open APIs, app stores, etc.

Traditional publishers are typical of the technically challenged industries that are being blind-sided by newer, much savvier, techno-centric, network-oriented new digital businesses.

Business leaders that can’t deeply see the way forward for their organizations as flexible, highly dynamic, and organic digital networks of customers, partners, workers, and other (likely and unlikely) participants will ultimately fail. But this isn’t the set of skills or mindset that made them successful in the first place, so they don’t value it and don’t think in these terms. They literally throw off digital rethinking like a sort of corporate immune system. Surprisingly, from my talks in the C-suite the last few years, everyone individually seems realizes they have to change, but collectively they are resistant, it’s fascinating to watch.

A big part of the problem boils down to this: Companies are inherently designed to perpetuate the problem they were invented to solve. It’s a particularly thorny instance of the Innovator’s Dilemma, which ensures that a company is unlikely to aggressively re-invent itself until it’s in the process of being disrupted. Unfortunately, this often means it’s already too late.

In fact, it may be too late for a growing number of industries to fully make the transition to being ecosystem-centric. This includes media, publishing, telecom, retail, and many software companies. Under looming threat is real estate, higher education, financial services, professional services, accounting, and even venture capital. In each of these categories, ecosystem-centric firms are building network effects with open network-based products increasingly built by worker/open communities and delivered to customer communities. Those products are in turn built upon by hundreds or thousands of loyal 3rd party partners to bring their own customers and ecosystems to the table. This is an embarrassment of riches that only a few companies, again mostly digital natives, seem interested or able to tap into.

As Fred Wilson once said, the Web (and therefore digital business) is all about “building networks on top of networks“, which leads to even more powerful outcomes, like 2nd order network effects.

Fortunately, the force multiplier of the ecosystem model can be stated in a simple, fundamental way: It allows one to tap into the vast size and strength of the external network to drive growth, innovation, and revenue for your own ecosystem. As Peter Kim and I wrote in our new book, the fundamental principle of business in the ecosystem era must be to let anyone participate in every aspect of the business, primarily by inverting the facilitation process of driving shared value (i.e. network effects by default.) Being able to elicit the network (Internet, community, shared data, whatever) to maximum effect to fuel and growth your ecosystem is thus the core competency of the digital era. Unfortunately, this lesson is being lost to most organizations that were built well before this next-generation business model was understood. It will be a great loss that doesn’t necessarily have to happen in my opinion, but will ultimately result in the needless disruption of a large number of companies that just aren’t able to become digital natives.

For additional reading see:

4 Ways to Create Sustainable Business Ecosystems

Why Information Power Is The Future of Business

What Will Power Next-Generation Businesses?

A View of Digital Strategy in the Ecosystem Era

Are We Building Businesses Or Are We Building Platforms? Yes.

How Digital Business Will Evolve in 2012: 6 Big Ideas

Transforming the Enterprise As We Know It

As I was reading David F. Carr’s latest piece on The Brainyard today, it drove home again for me some of the practically insurmountable challenges that many organizations have in avoiding the growing forces of digital disruption. David’s piece talked about Don Tapscott‘s proposition that we have to fundamentally remake the way our organizations engage with the world and produce useful work. The very-near future of business consists of new methods that are effective in today’s world, not for the era they were created in:

“When most people think of Enterprise 2.0, they think of the use of collaborative tools,” Tapscott said. “I’m arguing that something much bigger is happening than the application collaborative tools within the enterprise–it’s a profound transformation of the enterprise as we know it.” Basic principles of organization that have been established over the last 100 years are being upended, leading to “huge changes in how we orchestrate capabilities to create goods and services,” Tapscott said.

Like Tapscott, I’ve long been a proponent, along with thought leaders like John Hagel, that there’s a deep and profound Big Shift taking place as we get deeper into the 21st century. To survive, we must think in deeply networked, decentralized terms now, not in the rapidly receding business concepts of an age bygone. This means platforms instead of products, ecosystems instead of businesses, peer production instead of central production, and networks instead of hierarchies, to name just a few of the more significant aspects of the shift.

Emergent Business Processes and Enterprise Transformation: CoIT and Social Business Implications of the Big Shift

But how can traditional organizations get there? Web companies have a hard enough time getting there themselves, as digital natives. Most of them certainly don’t become the next Amazon or Facebook, two companies that virtually embody much of the changes taking place. Instead, I see many traditional firms engaging in the cargo cult mentality, hoping that by adding window dressing like social media, a few APIs, and perhaps some user-generated content, that they too will suddenly have a healthy, sustainable future.

Well, it’s not going to happen that way. The changes required are deep and sometimes painful. In fact, the more I examine the issue, successful transformation to a new mode of existence that naturally avoids the disruption inherent in these shifts boils down to a surprisingly few number of key changes. But those changes, though not generally that complex in and of themselves, are almost impossible to drive deeply into many organizations by virtue of their existing structures and processes. As they say, culture eats strategy for lunch.

Many of you know that I’ve been exploring how to foster social business approaches in large organizations for a number of years. When I see successes, they seem to have much in common with what made things like social media so successful. Yes, that’s network effects but also, and more to the point, about enabling an environment where emergent change can actually take root and thrive. A network effect can’t take hold if everything about the traditional way a business operates is to lock everything down into fixed transactional processes. That just doesn’t work in a fast changing new era where the value is in sustaining dynamic relationships and not fixed transactions.

As JP Rangaswami recenty wrote, it’s now all about “The capacity to change. Designed as an integral function. Native.

How then can businesses “fundamentally remake” themselves? What critical changes are at the heart of moving from regular business to things like social business? I’ve been exploring the answers to that question recently in quite some detail, but I’d start with these three things:

  • Local autonomy. Effective, resilient response to business change can’t only be driven by top-down, hierachies. It’s far too slow, low in innovation, and far from problems on the ground. Restructure the organization so that change along the edge is not only possible, but well-resourced, common, and effective.
  • Freeform collaboration. Going beyond Enterprise 2.0 to reinventing the way business models scale and provide value. I’ve previously written about the orders of magnitude cost reductions that are possible and the things they enable, plus how to get there.
  • A culture of experimentation. Of the three, this is the hardest. The first two are different; it’s always possible to create a startup culture at the edge of organizations and it’s also possible to drive mass collaboration. We increasingly see it done all the time in large companies, though it takes time to really establish itself in a transformational way. But to get an organization to be fundamentally more accepting of innovation is very difficult to instill when it does not already exist. Some of it is a skill problem, but a lot of it is more systemic. Solving this is going to be one of the great generational challenges of the social business era.

There’s a lot to consider when undergoing the large-scale transformations that businesses must undertake today, but a focus on these core issue will go way towards getting started.

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