The industrial influence in business management and theory is profound. In essence, for the past hundred years business has been objectified as a machine, divided into various components, like a clock or an electric generator. Components are composed of subcomponents, and so on, until you get down to nuts, bolts, and flywheels. People are – in the industrial scheme of things – gears in the machine, and their purpose is to perform a defined role in the assemblage.
This is the unexamined premise of how many businesses are ‘designed’ – to the extent that they have been consciously designed, instead of unconsciously shaped by decades of 19th and 20th century management dogma. First, the rise of assembly lines, vertical integration, and the rise of business processes. Then, the emergence of new communication technologies (telephones, email, web), that spawned the reengineering and knowledge management patterns of thinking about business, each with fatal flaws.
Today, the social web is happening, and acting like a solvent on these business constructs: not just superficially, or metaphorically, but at the very core of industrial beliefs.Today, the social web is happening, and acting like a solvent on these business constructs: not just superficially, or metaphorically, but at the very core of industrial beliefs. Note: this isn’t just a bunch of humanist rhetoric: the social society is exploding, and new ways of interaction that were unaffordable or impossible before are not only cheap and possible but being adopted widely because of a long list of reasons, not the least of which is simplicity and effectiveness. People are thronging on social sites like Facebook and Twitter because they are a straightforward way to stay connected with others, and this in turn shapes our worldview.
As these new realities percolate in the open web and in the new web-influenced culture, people carry these experiences into the world of business. Indirectly, based on their experience in the open web, which leads them to consider how the social tools could work in the business context. And more directly, some pioneers are dragging social tools into the business context, and seeing where it all goes.
And some, a few, are trying to think through a new model for business, reconstructed around what we have learned in the open web, balanced with what we know about the conduct of business. A new hybrid, intentionally devised to keep the best of the old (or at least the parts that will still work) and fuse that with the new, social models that dominate the web revolution.
From a social viewpoint, the architecture of business seems all wrong. People aren’t really designed to do one thing, like a cog in a watch. They have various relationships with other people, and through these relationships they have influence on the work going on all around them. They are not alone, like a moth in a bell jar. We are not alone, in our work. Even the most repetitive of work – screwing bolts on an assembly line, or delivering the mail – happens in the context of other people, and is made more valuable by their exertions.
Increasingly, people’s work is being viewed as a shared aspect of social relations. Time is a shared space, where we cooperate toward shared ends.Time is a shared space, where we cooperate toward shared ends.
One casualty of this large-scale shift in business doctrine may be the hallowed business process. The notion of a process – a defined series of steps in the production of goods or the delivery of services – subordinates individuals to the their roles in the process.
For decades, business planners have made a distinction between repetitive, lock-step processes, where very little variability is involved (think pharmacy), and more free-form, unstructured processes where a higher degree of variability is expected (think emergency room). Taking the abstraction of a process out of the world of chemistry, manufacturing, and logistics, and treating the people involved as so many chemicals, gears, or trucks seemed like a good idea in the past, but is not going to be workable, going forward.
We will have to devise a new, richer way to think about people’s interactions – via social networks – and our connection to mechanical processes and devices. In effect, we will need to model work with two layers, one where people are communicating with each other in a very fluid and flexible way, and another where machinery communicates with us and other machinery in less fluid ways. Some of these communication paths will be very limited, like a copier blinking to represent it is out of paper. But increasingly, even machinery is becoming much more communication-rich, and the way that machines respond to the world is surprisingly humanlike: coke machines that signal their internal state, like temperature, and the fact that there are only two Sprites left, or cars that will automatically start to brake if they sense no hands on the steering wheel.
More importantly, the customers in the emerging social world will have new expectations about their role in business ‘processes’ and may be significantly less willing to be treated like pigeons pecking at levers in exchange for pellets.Customers in the emerging social world will have new expectations about their role in business ‘processes’ and may be significantly less willing to be treated like pigeons pecking at levers in exchange for pellets. Consider the Jetblue customer snowstorm service disaster of a few years ago, or the not-so-subtle pressures of a discerning public leading to higher and higher levels of customer support based on the ability to gripe online, and to rally widespread support, like Jarvis’ Dell Hell campaign.
We will still get some value out of thinking through business models structurally, and choreographing steps in production or the delivery of service. But the sophistication of machines and customers means that more and more of the steps will have a wider range of alternatives, which leads designers to have to focus more on putting the right information into people’s hands – both workers and customers – than minimizing choice. For example, provisioning checklists for various well-understood medical procedures – like putting in an IV – supports medical practitioners in tense situations, and increasing the likelihood they will not omit a simple step when hurried. This has lead to significant decrease in infection and other side effects. However, it does not seek to replace the interaction between the doctor or nurse and the patient. Instead, the checklist makes it easier for the practitioner to use the time available to learn more about the patients status, because they are freed from having to recall from memory the appropriate six steps in establishing an IV.
Connectedness should always take precedence over efficiency, especially where the efficiency comes at the cost of customers, but even in the interactions between workers, the process should be secondary to the strategic principles of the firm.But the major shift here is conceptual. Processes, like the IV checklist, will still be with us, but they will have a lowercase ‘p’, and be understood as being secondary to higher business priorities, like the humane treatment of the medical patient, or the rights of travelers, or the need to superachieve customer satisfaction with consumer electronics. These goals will always trump the rote step-by-step rules and roles of a inflexible business process. Connectedness should always take precedence over efficiency, especially where the efficiency comes at the cost of customers, but even in the interactions between workers, the process should be secondary to the strategic principles of the firm. And, in the final analysis, this is the final evolutionary step away from the excesses of industrial management thinking, into a social way of structuring work.