There’s been a lot of talk recently about remote working, whether it will stick once we learn to live with Covid19, or if we’ll all just get back to the office eventually. Are we really in the process of re-inventing business?
In the past week or so (and that’s a long time in the digital environment) I’ve detected a shift toward the view that remote will be the new normal. If that’s true, one thing is for certain — the implications are sure to impact more aspects of life and business than most of us could imagine right now.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about what I call “Domino Disruption”. If you apply this concept to the knock-on effects of home working we are going to see this impact the property market, transport and inner city real estate and we’ve already seen how it has ravaged retail catering. There are a lot of businesses in a great many sectors having to re-think their business model because of this new lifestyle choice.
There was a great Webinar by @Ronald van Loon this week where Jurgen Lindner from Oracle and Michaela Vaitl from Accenture explored some of the ways organisations are already re-inventing business in response to the shift to home working. One of the things they spoke of was the need for organisations to invest in technology to manage remote workers.
If you think your new subscription to Zoom has sorted this for you, you need to think again. Platforms like Zoom, MS Teams or Google are OK as a quick, temporary fix, but for your business to sustain this new way of working requires quite a lot more. Adopting a communications platform such as these is not re-inventing business.
In fact, there are all the signs that the future of commerce will rest with businesses that are, right now, investing in the potential for orchestrating diverse and disparate resources. We have all come to understand the business model typified by Amazon, AirBnB and Uber where the businesses hold no tangible assets. Well consider this … A business with no employees!
It’s not such a new concept. John Chambers (ex Cisco CEO) at his final Cisco conference, alerted us to the reality of the global business with just two employees. Well, it’s happening.
The power of partnerships
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting re-inventing business means everyone will be replaced by robots, immediately at least. No, what I’m talking about is the power of partnerships.
Recent research by Gartner revealed that 32% of firms are already replacing full-time employees with partners and this is why.
We all know by now that for a business to survive in the digital economy requires, among other things, what we’ve started calling “agility”. That’s the ability to change direction at a moment’s notice. We’ve seen limited examples of this recently when organisations like Dyson and Rolls-Royce Motors have switched to producing breathing apparatus and fashion houses have turned to running up PPE in a matter of two or three days. Something that would have taken months, or even years to organise in the past. What you may not have realised though, is that this is the very essence of future business.
Business is no longer about product. Products are transient, fleeting even. Just the means by which an organisation delivers it’s promise. Today business is about resources and how you leverage them to produce different products and services in response to demands that may change on a daily basis.
The most important of those resources is people, or more specifically their expertise. However the business of the future will not employ many full-time staff. To do so would severely limit their agility because they wouldn’t be able to switch the myriad of skills they would require on and off, to meet the needs of today’s product. Skills resource these organisations need will come in the shape of partners, either individual contractors or specialist organisations, that share the values and beliefs of the hiring organisation and can be called up and brought in to perform when their skills are required.
Managing a disparate community
If this is to be the case, of course, we need to think very differently about how we manage this community to maintain both productivity and brand authenticity, and that’s where traditional business leaders are struggling. Take for example higher education.
We are currently in the midst of an argument about university students returning to their respective seats of learning and we are hearing warnings from student bodies that in so doing they will be creating the “care homes of the second wave”. Incubators if you like. But, there isn’t a viable alternative and that’s both a serious flaw in the establishment and a great opportunity for a forward-looking business.
Education establishments, particularly high schools, colleges and universities have, in my opinion, been far too slow to adapt to the current societal change. This has much to do with the mind-set of those involved in education and the tendency of the sector to confuse prized tradition with intransigence. A few of the more adventurous have switched to some kind of on-line learning, but even their best efforts are nothing more than sticking plaster and generally dreadfully executed at that. They definitely “could do better!”.
Way back in April or May schools, colleges and universities should have sought to extend their skills to the production of TV quality on-line lessons. It’s no surprise that lecturers couldn’t muster the skills, they are rarely the type. This was up to the establishments and if they couldn’t develop the resource in-house they should have gone out to production companies who could help them develop formats, establish production standards and establish design parameters that engaged an audience.
The best I’ve seen so far has been a lecturer standing in a classroom in front of a web-cam and it’s simply not cutting it! But the production companies are equally to blame for this inertia because they should have been in the colleges demonstrating what had to be done and hustling for business.
A new education standard
So, we are already a long way behind where we should be and even this is just the beginning. While Uber may be the taxi firm with no taxis and AirBnB the hotel with no accommodation the vision of the future of education that’s staring at us right now is the college, school or university with no premises, no lecturers and no courses. Tomorrow’s places of learning with be independent on-line platforms sharing courses produced by a variety of organisations, including, but not exclusively schools and colleges that will leverage their brand (where they’ve already been smart enough to develop one) and feature lecturers with celebrity status.
Imaging students creating their own course by aggregating lectures from eminent professors produced by Oxford, Cambridge, Yale or Harvard colleges (other brands may exists … someday). These students will study on a single portal, their performance will be monitored in a way similar to that already adopted by teaching platforms like Teachable, you they will be able to book and attend boot camps and retreats with their “fave” lecturer or pin-up thought-leader and be examined on-line using AI-generated exam papers with randomly generated questions and marked by intelligent machines at the end of it all.
There will be no mistaking the good and bad courses or lecturers, their performance metrics will speak for themselves. We could even have student reviews to add to the mix.
Thinking like this isn’t confined to the education sector either. I came across an engineering firm this week that is switching to a model where they will equip a large workshop and invite in self-employed specialist designers and engineers to make the solutions the firm’s clients are looking for.
The agility to succeed
Agility demands the organisation has access to an infinite range of specialist skills that no single organisation could hope to have in-house. That’s why, in the digital economy a business will play host to a community of experts and specialist firms that they call upon as and when needed. Experts who may well be members of a number of such communities.
This raises a new challenge for today’s businesses that we are already witnessing within the current remote working experiment. That challenge concerns the management of disparate teams and remote workers.
Detractors of remote working are already pointing to its weakness in maintaining productivity over an extended period. In Ronald van Loon’s webinar Jurgen and Michaela talk about the need for trust for remote working to be sustainable. And that’s the key to future working.
None of that I have spoken of, not the remote working, the partnerships nor even the home studying, will work unless those engaged trust and are trusted and the only way you can get to this point is to harness the power of brands.
The power of brands in re-inventing business
If you truly understand brands, it will be no news to you that brands are communities of individuals bound together by shared values and beliefs, pursuing a common objective. It’s long been said that the relationships we have with brands are the same as those we have with our friends. This is true in many ways and it’s the reason that I refer to them as “brandships”. These relationships are founded on knowing and trusting — exactly what we are looking for to make a success of new model business. It’s obvious, therefore, that brands are the key to success in the digital economy.
Of course, businesses leaders that have been slow to pick up on this are going to struggle from now on. Those that have, in the past, depended on hierarchical and autocratic structures will suffer the most. The problem is that many traditional business leaders know nothing else. We’ve already seen how they struggle just to get hold of the principles of a digital business. It’s not the practicalities that have seen 70%+ of transformations fail and a third of businesses fail in a matter of months, but mind-set.
I’ve been at pains to stress that the need for a change in our approach to management doesn’t mean the demise of traditional leaders is inevitable. It would be better if they stick around because their experience will add to the resources of any digital business, but only if they are prepared to take a different approach to management, and they are pretty much out of sitting-on-the-fence time.
So, what must you do to ensure there’s a future for your business?
I’ve spoken and written many times of the need for organisations to establish their purpose. Few have any real clue, although many think they have it nailed. They need to get real!
Purpose is just one of twelve coordinates of a brand that also include vision, mission and the promise the brand represents to each of its six stakeholder segments. Every organisation needs to be clear on all of this, so make it your priority to create a brand model.
If you are going to affect any kind of change you need what Greg Satell in his book “Cascades” calls a “movement”. This is in fact a brand — that community of individuals with shared values and beliefs I referred to earlier. Build your community around your brand model, adopting any media route you feel is appropriate. I introduce my clients to the power of Intranet, but don’t neglect the need to actively campaign to recruit partners to your community.
Success in the digital economy is about constant re-invention, so you have to innovate. Use your community to challenge current thinking and drive new ideas in the shape of products, structures or processes. I have a tool I’m particularly pleased with that helps with this.
The unity of a community enables you to move quicker, be more precise and be more economical with resource and investment, but a true community isn’t hierarchical, so you need to get over yourself. I had a client who had built a successful business by employing people who were either incapable or had been “trained” not to question, but do as they were told. His refusal to abandon that approach means that he’s now struggling, but you don’t have to go the same way. Spread the load, invite contributions from everywhere within your organisation. If you have set the scene with a clearly defined brand and everyone knows what the game is you’ll be surprised how resourceful they can be in re-inventing business. I once created a subsidiary for one of my clients from an idea suggested by a junior secretary. And she ended up running it!
You may be the founder of your business, but that doesn’t make you the best person to run it. Take a leaf out of the play-book of the founder of Britain’s current “business to watch”. Just valued at a £1billion, Ben Francis, the now 27-year-old founder of GymShark was savvy enough not only to turn the sector’s distribution model upside-down, but also took himself out of the CEO seat and appointed someone with more appropriate skills. He, meanwhile, turned his hand to a role he was better suited to — Chief Marketing Officer. This is not demotion and a few CEOs I know of could well learn from this.
So, it’s all change, yet, by the time you read this it may well be re-inventing business again. Such is the nature of the digital economy. The question is are you ready to re-invent your business?
September 1, 2020