Faster horses in the age of co-creation

Henry Ford is credited with saying something along the lines of “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses’ “. That particular quotation gets trotted out fairly religiously every time the issue of the innovator’s dilemma comes up, helping to point out the apparent perils of listening to the customer.

Henry Ford is also credited with saying something along the lines of “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. Which gives you an idea of where Ford stood in the context of customer voice and choice.

Neither of the two statements attributed to Ford is surprising, given the context in which they were said. Assembly line thinking was rampant in those days, with all its social and cultural implications. While workers were highly paid as a result of assembly line, and could therefore afford the cars that they built, the price they paid was high, the unintended consequences were significant:

  • Doing the same task over and over again was mind-numbing, and in all probability contributed heavily to what we learnt later to be Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).
  • The ambient noise levels were usually quite high, which meant that people were often unable to chat with each other; in those rare cases where talk was possible, it was frowned upon. This created a level of isolation and social alienation.
  • Zoning was a common practice, with workers effectively constrained to operate in specific loci; the shackles of slavery may have slipped off, but virtual shackles remained, accentuating the alienation.

One can therefore understand the reasons why Wikipedia, when describing Taylorism and “Scientific Management”, uses terms like the deskilling of the workforce and the dehumanisation of the workplace.

As the Wikipedia article on assembly line reminds us, the basic idea behind the assembly line was picked up from watching people work in abattoirs and slaughterhouses. Places of death. Now why does that not surprise me?

An aside: Assembly line thinking was good for the people who owned the assembly lines, and was considered a resounding success. So much so that it began to permeate many walks of life. Two in particular interest me greatly: schools and hospitals.

Once you start thinking that the things that matter in a hospital are the expensive items, the equipment, the land and the buildings, it is not difficult to move to the next step. Which is to decide that the smart thing to do is put all the ill people together, so that they get the chance to socialise whatever it is they’ve got. And if what they have is neither infectious nor contagious, then ensure that the premises and equipment make up for that deficiency. Give the man a Nobel Prize. Or something.

So then you come to schools. Now these must be run efficiently and scientifically, of course. So get those Taylorist clipboards and stopwatches out. Divide the day into time periods, have people clock in and out in registers. Mark their attendance and their outputs, examine them at every stage. Collect them into assemblies at least once a day. Use terms like “standard”, “form” and “class” to describe their groupings and habitats. And keep a close close eye on the standard deviation between the people, this should be kept as low as possible. What happens when the administration of educational establishments gets modelled on abattoirs.

Suffice it to say that during Ford’s time, customers didn’t really have either choice or voice. Again, it should come as no surprise that the person associated most often with championing consumer rights, Ralph Nader, chose to fight none other than the automobile industry for those rights.

Let us now shift the scene from the automobile industry to a different one: journalism and publishing. Nearly three decades ago, when I worked in the Documentation Department of Burroughs Corporation, we used to ponder one question regularly: How do we determine the reading ability and vocabulary of the people we wrote for?

One school of thought said “It is important for us to communicate with everyone, so we should write to a Lowest Common Denominator spec”. We used to call this Lowest Common Denominator the Sun reader, not as a derogatory term, but as a means of assessing the allowable vocabulary.

The other school of thought said “We are writers as well as communicators, we have professional values to uphold. We don’t have to be unduly verbose, we don’t have to use esoteric terms unnecessarily, but we must not allow everything to be dumbed down. We have a duty to all our readers, not just the so-called Sun reader”.

We never did solve that argument. In practice, what tended to happen was that we used the words we felt comfortable with, and part of the editor’s role was to ensure that brevity and simplicity prevailed.

I was part of the Do Not Dumb Down group, by the way. But that was nearly thirty years ago, I had just trained to become a callow economist, and my head was full of strange ideas. Ideas like merit goods. Ideas that allowed us to get to a point where, in many nations, Nanny State Knows Best. Where it was apparently considered normal to visualise a class of people who knew better than other classes of people.

Now, as I look back on those times and those discussions, I wonder at myself. Was I that arrogant? What residue of that arrogance do I carry now?

Why am I sharing all this? To make the point that for many years, even for centuries, it was considered normal for customers to have neither voice nor choice. That it was considered normal for one group of people to decide what other groups of people could have, should have, would have.

Let’s now look at both choice as well as voice. First, an anecdote about choice. When I left the shores of India for the first time and settled in the UK, I was petrified by supermarkets. I was used to corner stores in Calcutta where you asked for what you wanted in the simplest possible terms. You asked for toothpaste, or tooth powder (Monkey Brand, with its “healthy helping of breath-purifying charcoal”!), or even a neem stick. And you got toothpaste or tooth powder or the neem stick. When I walked into a supermarket to buy some toothpaste, and was greeted by an entire aisle of dental products, I had no idea what to do. The choice confused me, tyrannised me. So I picked up the first thing I saw, paid for it, went home. And discovered I was the proud possessor of some denture cleaner. Barry Schwartz deals with some of this in The Paradox of Choice. You can see him at TED here.

We’ve had choice for many years now, but it’s been vendor-dominated choice. Modern, more sophisticated, more elaborate versions of Any Colour You Want As Long As It’s Black. Nowadays it’s more akin to Any Colour You Want As Long As It’s Mine. People consider it normal to ask questions like “So what’s your lock-in?”. How do you enslave the customer? Will you come in to my parlour, said the Spider.

When it comes to voice, Nader and his crew did their bit, but it took the Cluetrain gang, Chris Locke et al, to get me going. Making me realise the problems caused by building walls between firms and their customers, the stupidity of Fortress Enterprise. That was then followed up by people like Esther Dyson explaining how the User is in Control, Kathy Sierra entrancing me with Creating Passionate Users, and Hugh Macleod working on the Social Object and discovering the evolution of Blue Monsters, David Weinberger explaining how folksonomies empowered customers, Doc Searls starting up the VRM movement. Now, these people are my friends, and I’m privileged to know them. And we’re friends because we share similar beliefs about control and choice and voice; we may not agree in every respect, but we learn from our differences.

So where is all this heading? In the past, it was culturally not just defensible but acceptable to deny customers both choice as well as voice. Capital and land tended to be the scarce factors of production. But that was a very long time ago. In the past, it was culturally not just defensible but acceptable to deny customers control. Education tended to be scarce, and social status was allowed to be a basis for the bestowal of control. Mummy knows best. In the past, it was culturally not just defensible but acceptable to believe that the customer didn’t know what she wanted, that when she did know she was wrong, that the customer needed to be educated about what she really wanted, which fortuitously happened to be what you had.

All that was in the past.

Today, the abundances and scarcities that characterise our era are different. The scarcest, most precious resource around is the customer. That customer knows what she wants. If she doesn’t know it, she knows how to find out what it is she wants. She knows it when she sees it.

That customer knows that part of what she wants is to be able to figure out what she wants. She is both consumer and producer, a partner in the process of co-creating value. The senior partner in the process of co-creating value.

So today, if she asks for faster horses, we don’t build her a car. We need to find out whether she meant a roan or a piebald or a chestnut or a bay. When she tries the piebald out and decides she wanted the roan, that’s what she gets. Our job is to make it easier for her to buy or rent or lease the horse, to make it safer for her, to make it more convenient for her in terms of where the horse is to be picked up and dropped. To make sure the horse is well, that the riding equipment is securely and sefely fastened.

And that way we get to keep her business. At least until next time.

We need to be in the business of providing the customer what she wants when she wants it, where she wants it, how she wants it. We need to focus on making things that the customer wants to buy, rather than trying to get customers to pay for things they neither want nor need.

There was a time when we could decide for the customer. There was a time when we could constrain the customer’s voice and choice. There was a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth.

Now is not that time. Now is the time for faster horses.