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.