More on flows and streams: thinking about connections and combinations

[Note: This is a follow-up to my post yesterday on silos and streams and flows.]

Walmart changed how people thought about “bricks and mortar” retailing by connecting all their operating units together; their ability to track inventory and sales was remarkable as a result; in some ways, they had begun the journey of converting their stocks into flows, long before anyone else in their sector thought about it.

Amazon changed how people thought about “clicks” retailing by extending the edge of their distribution network to the home, with consequent effects on warehousing and inventory management. One book to one address rather than books in volume to a distribution outlet when stocks dropped below preset reorder levels.

Facebook came along and changed how people thought about all this by making the individual the centre of the distribution network, with recommendations streaming from individuals and streaming to individuals.

I’ve just chosen a few well-known examples; in truth, as part of the welter of innovation let loose by digital infrastructure, thousands of people have been transforming the way things are conceived, made, bought, sold, disposed of, and they continue to do so every day.

When you can connect things up, you can also find new ways of combining the things that are connected.

  • Every time you use a map on a phone you’re combining your location with information about that location, usually drawn from some remote service via the public internet, the cloud. [An aside. None of this would be possible except for the internet, GPS and mobile telephony. Three technologies with deep military origins that were later made available to non-military people worldwide].
  • The whole idea behind mash-ups is that you create value by connecting two things that were historically disparate in the analog world, and are now combinable in a digital world. Maps were just one of the earliest examples.
  • One way of looking at augmented reality is that you’re taking something physical and overlaying it with something digital, drawn from the cloud.
  • Many of the big data examples I see are really about rows and not columns; rows of data taken from different datasets and combined using a data element common to the different datasets.
  • Even 3D printing is about combining materials in a standardised way to create standard components.

Talking about 3D printing: I had the opportunity to muse about how it will change the world of manufacturing, and wrote a brief essay for Scientific American on it. Read it and let me know what you think.

Which reminds me. I continue to be amazed at daily events in the world of 3D printing. It was only a matter of time before printing pizza was going to be possible; food printing is serious business now. I love the idea of using waste materials to make 3D printers. And then augmenting that idea by using recycled plastic to create the raw material for printing is pure genius. Building a “body on a chip” in order to test vaccines gets very interesting; maybe someday soon we will print simple physical avatars of ourselves just to test for allergies.

When things are connected, and especially when the connected things are expressible in mathematical form, combining is an essential component of the creative process.

Exciting times. I continue to be glad to be alive today. Despite so many things.






3 thoughts on “More on flows and streams: thinking about connections and combinations”

  1. Enjoyed these two posts and like the distinction/change you are drawing between stock and flows. Unfortunately, much of Enterprise software development is still hierarchical and procedural, leading to the silos you reference. It’s time to bridge serendipity of flows with legitimate business ‘concerns’ (security, compliance, governance, auditability, etc) for Enterprise-Class, Web-scale operations where events flow through a rich state space and organize resources around activities based on policies rather than static procedures, which are non-responsive and brittle.

  2. @dave it’s back to clay shirky and the natural instinct of institutions to preserve the problems they were created to solve. that’s part of what makes institutional change difficult, and why startups do better than incumbents in so many markets

  3. Hi JP – Agreed, the Illusion of Control. I think the underlying problem is that people conflate control with static structures, which inevitably break. The key is to support control over agile structures so you can respond and adapt.

Let me know what you think

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