The Hardest Lesson of Digital Transformation: Designing for Loss of Control

It goes hand in hand with another key principle that sets digital strategy well apart from many other traditional ways of achieving organizational objectives. One of the counterintuitive lessons of digital and social business is that the network itself can and should do the majority of the work, if you’ll only build a little social capital and then enable interested participants — people, in other words — access to a platform that allows the co-creation of shared value at scale. Oh, and yes, you must provide a good motivation for doing so, but they’ll often figure that out too.

By “majority of the work”, I mean that aligned stakeholders in digital platforms that allow participation will help produce literally nearly everything of value to them, from co-creation of content, activities, ideas, to even the very management, governance, and gardening of the digital ecosystem itself. The lesson here is clear from the consumer world where pioneering services such as YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn have long proved the viability and repeatability of this model on a global scale: Today’s most successful open digital platforms create virtually nothing themselves directly. Instead, they have gone through great lengths to provide a carefully constructed platform for their communities of millions and millions to do it indirectly instead.

It’s the asymmetric warfare model for the digital age and far too many organizations do not fully understand how profoundly the rules of business in the digital era have changed. Consequently, they are often at loss on how to lead the organization to better adapt. The test question is this: How can any traditional, internal, do-it-all-the-hard-way model for value creation compete with the hypercharged mass of networked participants — aka social business — that digital savvy organizations have gathering around them and are choreographing to create far richer results, often many orders of magnitude richer than the old guard methods?

The Key to Digital Transformation: Loss of Control

While the consumer space has seen the most success with this model, we now have good evidence that this is happening in the traditional enterprise with organizations like Bosch, Deutsche Bank, and a good number of others, that the same approach is making it into the business world. For the organizations that can fully tap into their stakeholders and inspire them to co-create the future together, nearly anything is possible, and consequently the competitive stakes are unsurprisingly, enormous and have been reshaping industries for the last decade, first media and software companies, and now nearly every industry with the rise of the sharing economy.

But successfully adopting a native digital perspective requires mastering a mindset that traditional management culture is both unfamiliar and rather uncomfortable with. Frankly, of all the top obstacles to digital change, very few are technological. They are almost always barriers created by people, and of the mental barriers, this is perhaps the most foreign concept of all: Deliberately giving up control in a conscious and designed way over your organization’s digital results, while guiding the emergent outcomes in directions that are good for both your business and your stakeholders. As I’ve been clear about before, this very much does not mean all positive control, just the non-essential elements (which admittedly is still most control.)

The motivation for doing so is very clear: Industrial age management structures, while effective (albeit with considerable cost) at producing linear output predictably, actually fail to tap into the lion’s share of potential value. A recent study by Cross, Rebele, and Grant of several hundred organizations only underscores this point:

[The] research we’ve done across more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation. As a recent study led by Ning Li, of the University of Iowa, shows, a single “extra miler”—an employee who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her role—can drive team performance more than all the other members combined.

The key is understanding why this is such a powerful concept and the key to digital business, is realizing that the more control you give up and relinquish to the network, the more value comes back through peer production. A lot more. The secret lies in having something of value in the first place, that can be somehow enriched by others. This is where having a digital platform becomes essential, one that is designed with an effective architecture of participation that opens up your data, processes, distribution channels, supply chain, or anything of value that is digitally connected in some way to your organization.

The good news is that what a successful architecture of participation looks like, at least applied in generic terms, is increasingly well understood for many important digital business activities, even if it surprisingly is missing even today from many views of the digital enterprise, such as this one from McKinsey.

Common Architectures of Participation

Architecture of Participation Target of Open Participation Extended To Typical Value Change/Magnitude
Crowdsourcing Any type of digital content Interested parties 10x-1000x
Working Out Loud Work narrative, process, product Any stakeholders of work output 2x-10x
Affiliate E-Commerce The digital sales funnel Any interested entity with traffic 1.5x-5x
Open APIs Corporate data External partners desiring to innovate with the data 1.5x-100x
App Stores App ecosystem Developers seeking customers/revenue 100x-1000x
Online Customer Service Community Customer issues/problems Those willing to help 1.3x-3x
Digital Change Agents Platform Unmet digital needs in the org Those interesting in solving them 1.3x-3x

What’s worth noting is the powerful amplification/scaling effect that digital architectures of participation have. That’s because the cost of being connected to everyone who is already connected drops, like everything digital, quickly towards zero, as does the cost of creating and operating a platform that provides your carefully exposed points of participation to those stakeholders.

In effect, nearly no older way of working, managing, or doing business can fight the power laws of digital systems, which continually apply exponential forces to make value creating activities much faster, cheaper, higher volume, better quality, and so on.

This then is one of the key drivers to digital transformation and why it has such urgency. To get to the other side, however, requires a major shift in understanding where the majority of business value comes from, how best to capture it in digital markets, and what kind of thinking it require to design products and services that operate in an increasingly peer produced world. In other words, genuine hard work of creating the cultural, process, and organizational shifts that will lead to digital adaptation.

Perhaps most importantly is understanding is that shifts in mindset are the key to entry to digital business in general. When thousands of startups do little but obsess around the clock about how best to use the mass global connectedness we’ve attained with the Internet to achieve the previously unachievable — and most traditional businesses are not — we will almost certainly miss the very opportunity we were trying to accomplish with our old command and control methods. For sure, the jury is still out for many on the digital economy and who will ultimately be the beneficiaries, but to not even understand the game means that organizations are flying blind. And that’s the worst environment to achieve control one can imagine.

Note: I’d be rather remiss in not giving original credit for the Design for Loss of Control meme to the great JP Rangaswami. The concept goes right to the core of how to remove the many significant barriers that hold back digital in most organizations. Startups famously don’t have those blinders build it, the rest of us have to do a lot of relearning, and JP was instrumental in helping us see that.

Additional Reading

Shifting the Meaning of Business Hierarchy to Community

Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

3 Responses to The Hardest Lesson of Digital Transformation: Designing for Loss of Control

  1. Pingback: The Hardest Lesson of Digital Transformation: Designing for Loss of Control – Designing: service, customer service, customer management

  2. Pingback: Transformation Means Giving Up Control - Can You Handle That?

  3. Paul Boris says:

    Impressive articulation of what is at the heart of digital transformation. Command and Control is merely overhead, ie, waste in the digital age.

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