Musing gently about choice in the enterprise

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[Photo credits: guitars: fotobicchio and shoes: Orin Zebest]

For some time now, phrases like “the customer’s in control” have been floating around the marketplace, yet “enterprise people” haven’t taken a blind bit of notice. You can’t expect them to. Many of them can’t understand what choice means in the context of the services they receive. And what they don’t experience they can’t express to others.

But it’s all changing, and changing fast. As consumerisation drives innovation from the consumer to the enterprise, and as the millenial generation enter the workforce, these changes are speeding up. Which is a good thing. Why? I shall come to it.

We start with the device, the “desktop”. Since the dawn of time the device has been under the control of the IT department: hatches battened, everything that doesn’t move painted, everything that does move shot down and then saluted in full funeral gear. [You will only write in company ledgers using company pens.] IT guys should have learnt from telco guys, who lost control of the device years ago. But they didn’t, so they have it all to do. For the millenials, their devices are more than just mechanisms of input to corporate systems; they double up as phones, as photo albums, as music systems, even as fashion statements.

But it’s not too bad; many firms are beginning to understand this, and the concept of the lockdown desktop is weakening.

Beyond the desktop we have applications and services. The historical model within the enterprise has been to create a “standard build” and then impose that one-size-fits-all on everyone. If you were lucky you had three or four builds to choose from, but even that was rare. So what happened? Nature abhors a vacuum. Water finds its own level. In most enterprises, it was only a matter of time before people found ways of subverting the system, playing chicken with those that would stop them. [You can’t park here! Let’s be having you now]. First there were policy-based attempts at control [thou shalt not …]; then there were attempts to disable input drives and removable media; but with the proliferation of laptops and mobile working all this became unsustainable. [But they still tried, valiantly, to stop the variations].

What do the millenials know? They know Facebook. They know the iPhone. They choose the apps.

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They choose the apps they need to do their jobs. Not the apps they get given by someone who hasn’t done their jobs.

It doesn’t stop with the apps. They also choose who or what they want to hear from, as in Twitter or Friendfeed or Facebook News Feed, and not as in e-mail. Who or what they want to hear on the “radio”, as in spotify or last.fm. Who or what they want to read, to watch, to see.

What does this have to do with the enterprise? Everything. As the millenials continue to enter the workforce, these are their expectations and values. We’ve spoken about it for a while now, but it’s actually happening. If you care to look.

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The more intriguing questions of choice come up when you look at how tasks and resources get allocated to each other within an enterprise. Firms exist at least partly because they serve to reduce transaction costs. They could borrow capital cheaply, obtain global reach and scale, attract and retain staff by the provision of pay and benefits. At least that was the theory; over the years those advantages have dwindled: enterprise credit ratings aren’t what they used to be, the internet lowers the barrier for global reach and scale, security of tenure is no longer to be assumed and benefits sometimes  become millstones around legacy operations. So yes, firms are changing.

Despite all that change, some things haven’t changed. Management structures exist to define and agree objectives, to prioritise activities in the context of those objectives, to allocate scarce resources to the completion of those objectives, to monitor feedback on performance and to intervene when and where appropriate, to fix problems, overcome obstacles, resolve conflicts.

Maybe some of that is now changing as well. My father had one job. By the time I die I will expect to have had seven. And maybe my son will have seven jobs …. at the same time. The contract of employment is under stress and will change. But not immediately.

What may change sooner is the way tasks and resources meet each other:

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The “exchange” concept is spreading everywhere, a place where “buyers” and “sellers” are able to discover each other efficiently, particularly with the Web. Betfair is an exchange.  Match.com is an exchange, as is SeatWave or even SchoolOfEverything (disclosure: I’m chairman there). The model’s not new, what’s different is the ease with which the model can be applied universally.

So it’s not difficult to visualise a time when people at work pick jobs to be done, scanning their smart phones to see what needs doing, reading services they subscribe to in order to make those decisions.

People choosing what they do, when and how they do it, where they do it, what services and tools they need to do it, what devices they use. All possible. All being done now. But not holistically across the enterprise anywhere.

For that we need to architect our services differently. Which is where outside-in design comes in, designing for the customer, designing to provide that customer with choice. At a level of abstraction, everyone’s a customer. Your actual customers. Your trading partners. Your supply chain. And your staff.

The customer’s in control, as Esther Dyson used to say.

A coda: One of the choices we have to provide is the no-choice choice, where we make decisions on behalf of people who don’t want to make them. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice is a good read if you want to go down that particular road. I remember how disquieting it was for me to visit a supermarket for the first time 30 years ago. I was used to walking up to a corner shop which was little more than an overstocked hole in the wall with a man sitting in it surrounded by stuff for sale. And suddenly I had an aisle full of ….toothpaste….

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[Photo courtesy the New York Times].

So one of the choices we have to provide people is the “complete default”. We’ll choose for you if you want us to.

Choices. As Yogi Berra said, If you see a fork in the road, take it.

17 thoughts on “Musing gently about choice in the enterprise”

  1. I recently made a switch from using my work issued webtop, to my own macbook pro. I can do most activity I need to via this machine, thanks to things like OWA and parallels. It does seem to unsettle some people, although I far more productive. I don’t lose 20 minutes every few hours have to reboot for a start.

  2. @James – Interesting comment about having something ‘non-standard’ being unsettling to some people. I think it’s a culture problem that can’t be managed-out, it has to be timed-out.

    The cultural effects of the tools one uses, have been even more evident when I recently moved from the ‘research’ to the ‘innovation’ department. The tools I use tend to get mentioned pretty much every time I see managers or peers when I visit the mothership. It’s strange that they can’t see beyond the tools and look at the results I produce, I’m sure we could draw some interesting parallels behind this and other kinds of negative institutionalised behaviours I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    The thing that troubles me with your comment is you say you are using your own machine. I am quite surprised that your employer isn’t providing you with the tools that you want to use. I can’t imagine anyone paying for their own stationary — why would a computer be any different?

    I am quite lucky that in both jobs I currently have, the employers have given me with the hardware/software tools I need – it is and always has been the cost of employing someone like me. At the risk of sounding even more arrogant, I would say a productive employee pays off the cost of these tools within months, otherwise the organisation has bigger problems that worrying about what logo is on a laptop.

    I look forward to the day when big enterprise IT departments are smart enough to give smart employees their own budget to spend as they wish, and only provide open, standards-based infrastructure, delivered with a keen desire to stay out of their way.

  3. Great article. Good to know that people are starting to get IT. Just need to wait for the orgs to catch up.
    IT is all about people as you quite rightly say. IT is having simple tools that work. IT is about having access to these apps wherever you are. The first country that gets IT will lead the world. Looks like Korea?

  4. Glad to see you’ve been listening and learning JP… lol. Re tools… I used to think like you Dipak, ie that companies should give their employees budgets to ‘spend as they like’ (hardware, services, etc.) and still think this has merit but have changed my thinking re 2 things – laptop and phone. These are personal. I don’t want my company to own them. They are an extension of me. Neuromancer is getting closer everyday: my deck is my deck.

    And JP, the more I think about it, it’s not just the ‘Millenials’ but increasingly cutting across generations. Anyone can have the ephiphany if they have the opportunity. And this recession/crisis we are going through will be the catalyst to push this reality past the tipping point as more and more people turn their backs (voluntarily or involuntarily) on Sloane’s 20th century megacorp. Give it 3 years.

  5. Lots of skilled trades require employees to own their own tools, from painters to auto mechanics. This is not a new idea. I’m glad to see that people are talking about this in the context of knowledge workers because the price point for ICT tools are now well within the means for most knowledge workers. Companies can still help employees by providing access to group discounts, and on-site tech support, and a small budget to pay for it all. But if you want or need more than the budget allows, go to it as long as you are spending your money and still producing results at work. Another bit of company support would be to provide downloadable VM images for the essential tools/services that are hard to provide via Internet access or that are required for dealing with the small percentage of information which really is highly confidential.

    Another thing that we can all do to enable this to happen, is to stop distributing things in proprietary formats. Want to share a document, send it in PDF or as a link to the wiki page where the document lives. Some wikis support exporting pages as PDF to make this easy. Don’t distribute spreadsheets. Once you have the data collected, upload it to a database server, or save it as a table on a wiki page. Companies could do more to make it easy for casual use of a database server so that data doesn’t get squirreled away in spreadsheets.

  6. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, over in Harvard has some interesting things to say about Millennials, Baby Boomers and Generation X. It turns out what works well for one, works for all :-D Life should be made better by technology other wise, what is the point.

    I wish had was given a budget from my company to buy my tools, as it is I buy my own phone to enable me to be more productive, and an internet tablet rather than a laptop when travelling. I’m definitely a Gen Xer.

    BTW, Sean, I love Gary Hamel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVX8XhiR1UY.

  7. A company is a shared body of reputation and practice, enabling easier access to capital – the extreme example of this is the reviled “Bankers’ bonus”, where the bonus is actually commission, set at a level that means that experts in raising capital work for the shareholder/partners and not themselves. The customer’s reason to use a corporate rather than a federation is largely in terms of your ability to recover the downside (ie sue a single entity) if it goes wrong.

    The flipside is that the future of larger (service) companies can only be to establish a group culture where there is common benefits from peers working together, and reinforcing capability, while taking benefit from corporate capital structures – and by persuading the members that the common and long-term good is best established by such joint endeavour.

  8. Wishful thinking JP? Apparently not, saw this on Apple’s site regarding Kraft Foods distributing iPhones to the Enterprise. What really surprised me though was the comment from their IT guy…“Our people decided they wanted iPhone,” says Mark Dajani, Senior Vice President of Global Information Systems. “It wasn’t one of those things IT decided for them.” This is a massive shift from current IT mindset of…’here’s your locked down, bricked up standard build PC…get on with it!’

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