Monday, December 7, 2009

Beyond "enterprise 2.0": age of the builders

I finished my former post worrying about the corporation as a bot ... Was I ahead of mysef ? As Google Wave keeps me thinking about changes to come, and this time not in society, but within the corporation, I contend that change will outpace most corporations that do not put collaboration platforms at the center of their strategy. Because, in so doing, corporations might be evolving into something different from what we are used to.

Those that do will be entering the age of the builders, and for them profit must become a second priority.

Changing ways of working : entering the "I have to automate it" era

And what is Google Wave if not the first premium-priced corporate collaboration platform available ?

It’s easy to assume that the impact of collaboration platforms like Google Wave will first be felt in our ways of working, that these platforms will replace email. That will be good, because, in corporations, mail is a poor IM tool, but a huge collaboration platform (think about MS Outlook). Bankers and consultants have been using email like IM for years and this has now become a general trend. In our mails, we add files and links, and sometimes invite people to collaborate with us using versioning applications. But, as everyone knows, that is not what it was intended for in the first place.

This first change then, could be welcomed. We would go from fighting misplaced usage of email to adopting a convenient tool for a company gone realtime. I am not saying this will be adopted easily, but it should not be very difficult.

When a platform like Google Wave is adopted, the difficult thing will be to adapt to bots, to make them more friendly, and then to develop new ones, adapted to real needs. At that point, people are going to start discovering that many of the tasks or activities they do could be better delt with through a bot. If the corporation is clever enough to have a pool of wave developpers at hand, anyone could feel like a software product manager ...

As a matter of fact, we already have bots all around us, we just did not know they were bots until someone (Google) called them by their names. But those old bots were cumbersome and difficult to develop and maintain. In the new corporate platform, bots will be created all over. Because, the objective of the platforms is to give everyone the skills (and the programming power) to build bots. We thought platforms were just for developers ... for them to make cool apps for most social networking sites ... wait until corporations widely understand what's at stake if you want to see real change !

This evolution will probably take some more time. We will be changing our current ways of working and also our understanding of what work is. We will be slowly entering a new era, the «I have to automate it era».

In this «I have to automate it era», we’ll go from solving problems to designing systems that solve problems. And, thinking about it, that is just what every successful entrepreuneur does. Designing a system (business model) to solve a problem or meet a demand. Absolutly. Create the right platform, and you’ll have a perfectly automated corporation. A corporation where entrepreuneurship is the dominant culture.

It seems to me that English (or Chinese) are going to be replaced as the must know language. Tomorrow, we need to learn to talk to the machine. Technology skills will be basic skills for the future blue-collar or white-collar worker.

Workers : from users, to contributors, to builders.

Let’s now deepen into what happens to these blue and white collar workers, as it is them that will suffer the changes in their ways of working.

If we go back in time some years (say, 1970) everybody was a user. People had to learn how to use machines, and then typing machines, and then Wang, and then a word-processor, and then Microsoft Office, and then ... Microsoft Office again, and again once more ... and so on.

That, of course, is still going on.

But slowly, in some enterprises, Enterprise 2.0 is gaining speed. In these workplaces, people are still users, but they need to get ready to continuously master new usages. Not learn them once or twice. Continuously change usages. If they succeed, the next challenge is to become contributors. In a world where reputation is a pillar for influence and where influence is a key professional asset, being a contributor to the collective knowledge of the corporation is key to professional development. Blogs, microblogs, internal wikipedias, folksonomies, we have all kind of systems to contribute through.

Mastering the usages, though, and the systems, is not enough. As the number of contributors grow, corporations are going to find ways to identify and select the best contributions - actually, HR systems have always done that (or tried). They will now look for different contributors, and selection will probably be collective, not individual, but it should keep happening anyway.

Now let’s think forward. Project some years ahead. When these corporate collaboration platforms are widely spread, we are going to become builders. We will be users and contributors but we will need to become builders of the future corporation: identify a problem; find a solution; build a bot. That’s it, builders of the intelligent corporation.

Of the deep mind.

This "I have to automate it" era is going to last for some years ...

And eventually, having entrepreuneurs increasingly quickly solve most issues that arise will push us to the new era. Because, once there are bots all over, we’ll be in the «what do I do next era». Not convinced ? Look at this short video from SalesForce. I love the part when the bot decides whether or not to call a human assistant ... And more seriously, we already are experiencing this: how about this assumption, "people loose their jobs quicker than before because what they have to bring takes less and less time to produce value". Projects are done quicker; corporations are built quicker; success is almost built over night. Have you checked lately how old Google is ? Right.

Training is the answer today to people obsolescence. Not enough. Because not everyone can be trained at the same pace, and training is still an industrial process, based on a mechanical view of the corporation. Adoption of collaboration platforms should also lead towards changing our mindset as organisation and value are concerned.

Organization and value : making profit a second priority.

Let’s consider the user - contributor - builder evolution. Of course, at any given moment in time, there are users, contributors or builders in any corporation. What is interesting is how the majority shifts from one category to the other. And how this impacts how value is created.

Users build value by executing tasks and activities through systems that are conceived in advance. Value produced by users can be easily evaluated, as it is expected by the system. The best example is the assembly line.

Today, most corporations have become automated. Anything that could be conceived in advanced and automated has been automated : and these machines include assembly lines, obviously, but also the ERPs, CRMs, BIs, and most other business softwares. Office work has had its MS Office automation too ...

The issue with this approach is that conceiving in advance is less and less efficient. The economy has gained speed. The systems do not deliver the value they should for very long. Not do the users ...

Contributors build value differently. They are helping the corporation built another key system : if we assume the IT network was built for users, now we needed the knowledge network for contributors. And, of course, not a Knowledge Management network. Who ever said knowledge had to be managed ? Anyway, once they can collaborate and use the existing knowledge network (think of an internal, business focused web 2.0 environment), they can start reacting to fast appearing issues. Something common these days ...

Just an observation. Contributors trust each other. They feel responsible for what they do. And dollar compensation is just one of the rewards they expect. Far from a user perspective, don’t you think ?

Value built by contributors is more difficult to evaluate, as it is not assumed in advance. You can always price a car and from that derive worker compensation. But now, how do you do that when you are selling, say, service, that comes from the collective contribution of a 1000 people firm ? Are you compensating based on position ? Not so easy, when positions are all but dissapearing in the new, knowledge network based corporation.

What about builders ? We have builders all over in our corporations : leaders, researchers, managers, ... But they are still in the minority side of the company. That’s why there is a chasm today (at least in France) between people above and people below a very difficult to define line.

When collaboration platforms are adopted, more and more people will be considered as builders, because building will be expeced of them. By building bots, corporations will be automating knowledge activities and problem solving. Many of the «tasks» that people do in a knowledge-network based corporation might disappear.

Consider what happens when the majority changes. When users become a minority in the corporation, and afterwards, when contributors become a minority ...

Users are left with a difficult choice : become a contributor or go be a user to any other, lesser, corporation; similarly, contributors are left with the choice to become builders or go contribute some-place else. Even builders, once they have put all they had in a bot, will have to learn to build bots for something different or go build solutions to other, lesser corporations.

Productivity gains are here to stay, it seems. It might be that being an entrepreneur will become a real option for more and more people ...

For corporations, value then (at least, financial value), will come from productivity. When everyone is a bot (I mean, when every problem or issue is solved by a bot), more value is produced with less people. How many workers does Facebook have ? Or an investment bank ? There are already companies, I believe, were builders are the majority ...

Or maybe not most value will come from productivity ... maybe, as some companies already do, people development will become the central process of the corporation. Because, in this age of the builders, if every copany concentrates on productivity and does not invest in people development (meaning long term human capital investment), what happens to global demand ? Is it not based on worker compensation, somehow ?

With all the changes we are living through, there is one thing that has not changed : leadership. It is high time it did. In the time of the builders, they will need to become builders themselves. Forget about delivering quarterly earnings to shareholders and begin concentrating on what the corporation is becoming. Think about value, about values, about the social impact of the corporation.

Corporations are not bots. They are machines from hell. Whatever is expected of them, they do. Today, leaders expect quaterly earnings from corporations, at whatever cost. It will be good to challenge this short term vision.

At this point, one thing is clear to me: leaders are needed to define what the corporation needs to become. Otherwise, the disparity in household income that we consider high today, will have just been the beginning of a sad story.

I started this two-post series thinking around Blade Runner. A sure thing: for corporations, waves will not be lost «like tears in rain».

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