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Embracing Uncertainty

Janka Krings-Klebe

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European industry is under threat from massively growing uncertainty. Trade tariffs, technological disruptions and fast-moving competitors on digital steroids cut deeply into predictions about business development. German managers report that their decisions can’t keep up with the pace of change in their business environment; they feel as if they have lost control. Uncertainty is so pervasive that it turns their former strengths, namely meticulously planning, organizing and controlling resources for highly efficient value creation, into a fundamental weakness.

Mainstream management practices aimed at intensifying the levels of planning and control don’t work in conditions of high uncertainty. In fact, they often lead to analysis paralysis, making the situation worse while the business environment accelerates away. In today’s dynamic markets, they appear as outdated as Soviet-type economic planning.

If managers cannot overcome their predisposition for detailed planning and control, this habit will kill European businesses more reliably than anything competitors or customers might do. In the face of the kind of uncertainty businesses experience today, established best-practice management has no answers. Budgeting, accounting, resource allocation and reporting practices still work in yearly cycles, rendering rapid reallocation of resources to emerging business opportunities next to impossible. Current governance norms rule out engaging with risks that appear to be unpredictable. Together, these practices make it impossible to adapt to new customer needs fast enough, spelling death for innovation. We need to reinvent them for the more dynamic and uncertain world opened up by business ecosystems.

Companies like Haier and Amazon have already demonstrated that it can be done, developing new management and governance practices aimed at creating highly dynamic structures inside their companies. This approach has transformed their companies step by step into open ecosystems where market-based structures fluidly balance available resources and capabilities with customer needs. Now their internal dynamism is so great that structures and business operations can rapidly adapt to emergent customer and market needs.

Business ecosystems such as theirs are built on principles of local autonomy, redundancy, diversity and constant experimentation. They use management and governance practices very different from those of mainstream management. Comparing their decision-making processes illustrates the differences.

In business ecosystems, the majority of decisions are made at the edges, at the point with the biggest impact, usually very close to customers – especially in uncertain or new situations. Governance models ensure that decisions in these ecosystems can and are always made as close to the edges as possible.

This is very different from today’s management mainstream, in which all but the most trivial decisions are concentrated at the top of hierarchies, far removed from customers. Only top management is permitted to take decisions involving risk. Unfortunately, in dynamic situations such as those we increasingly experience today, this course simply leads to paralysis.

Business leaders cannot hope to compete in and with dynamic ecosystems unless they take steps to make their own companies much more adaptive. The secret is to give up control at the edges, and to learn from constant experimentation how to make the most of each new challenge and opportunity.

This article is one in the Drucker Forum “shape the debate” series relating to the 11th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Power of Ecosystems”, taking place on November 21-22, 2019 in Vienna, Austria #GPDF19 #ecosystems
It was first published on the GPDF Blog

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GPDF17 – A Lifetime Opportunity for Entrepreneurs

Joachim Heinz

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This is our contribution to the Global Peter Drucker Form (GPDF). This years conference discussion focuses on inclusive prosperity. In our blog post, we outline nothing less than a possible approach to globally foster entrepreneurship and help to decrease income disparities.


What did Jeff Bezos do in 2002 to turn Amazon into the business ecosystem that it is today? He discovered how to scale his operations very fast, across multiple markets, and how to follow up on business opportunities and customer needs across industries with blinding speed. Today, companies worldwide scramble to copy Amazons explosive growth and diversified business.

In the following, we will outline how to do it, and do it in such a way that it leads to broader prosperity and innovation for society: A lifetime opportunity for entrepreneurs

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Infinitely Scale Your Business

Joerg Schreiner

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Have you ever wondered how some companies succeed in growing new lines of business like magic? One of the latest examples is Amazon’s hot new natural language interaction business, known as Alexa. Alexa let’s users not only shop online, but also lets them automate many other things. Alexa skills, the catalogue of automated interactions, grew from 7000 skills in January 2017 to over 15.000 in June 2017. Going from a successful local test with one skill to full-blown nation-, soon worldwide operations in just a few months is an impressive feat. Doing it with thousands more at the same time is outstanding. Of course, global companies like Amazon already have lots of resources available from existing lines of business. So in theory, they only need to organize support for the new line of business in these existing structures, right? Isn’t this easy?

As a matter of fact, it’s not. Structures in most businesses are there for a single purpose: to support and protect exactly the existing line of business. Over time, this structure is optimized more and more, resulting in being hardwired to the dedicated business case. Re-organizing even a small part of such structures to support a new line of business is difficult and time-consuming. It can not be done without bringing in additional resources dedicated to the new business. The amount of required resources greatly depends on the intended operational scale of the new business. While a local business can be operated with a small staff, worldwide operations require hundreds and thousands of employees. Right-sizing new operations is best done while slowly expanding the business. This way, it is possible to achieve a profitable balance between the amount of resources required to satisfy growing market demand. Jumping into global operations very fast requires an explosive build-up of resources, significantly increasing the risk of wrong-sizing operations.

Some years ago, this logic applied also to Amazon. But then, Amazons CEO Jeff Bezos decided to turn his whole company into a fully digitally enabled business; one that could scale business operations and easily connect them with each other without adding much resources. What he did in 2002 was unprecedented, as disclosed by a former employee (1). He ordered his whole company, every single unit within it, to operate as a business service. Plus, every business service had to develop standards for digital communication to offer and deliver value-add in the Amazon service ecosystem. Plus, all other ways of communication and transaction management between business units had to be shut down. It sounded crazy at the time.

15 years later, businesses around the world feel the impact of this decision. Amazon now is an ecosystem of businesses held together by a super-fast, super-efficient digitally connected framework of standardized, yet autonomous services. This framework can run billions of transactions in a completely automated fashion. It can easily integrate and connect value streams inside its ecosystem. Businesses inside the ecosystem can quickly and without much additional resources share their capabilities to test any promising new business opportunity. It doesn’t matter if their digital service interfaces process one request per hour or millions. They don’t need to care much about managing the scale of new operations. Many activities that were formerly required to manage the growth of operations are completely unnecessary in their world. With limited resources, they can scale business operations infinitely.

This characteristic is one of the many benefits of business platforms. Jeff Bezos was very early to understand the power of digital platforms for business. As a pioneer in this field, it took Amazon many years to figure this out. In today’s world of business, platforms are emerging everywhere. But few businesses are going all in like Amazon – transforming the whole company into an ecosystem of business services. The ones who do it will be richly rewarded.

We expect them to become future legends in their field, as described in our book FUTURE LEGENDS – Business in Hyper-Dynamic Markets.

 

 

Notes:

(1)  https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/02/amazon-web-services-the-secret-to-the-online-retailers-future-success

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