Breaking Free From the Iron Cage: Business in the Connected Age

Given the nature of my work, the lens through which I tend to look at things is about how can organizations deliver great experiences. Most people, when thinking about experience design, focus on execution — design and development. And while quality execution is crucial, it’s also the most straightforward element. It requires skill, talent, and experience, but the basics of good design are commonly understood by practitioners.

If the execution of delivering experiences is straightforward, why are so many experiences so bad? When addressing this question, the next step that many take, moving beyond execution, is to consider strategy and planning. The logic being, good experiences aren’t delivered because their execution is muddied by bad planning, or a lack of a coherent strategy to provide a focus, a vision, for those trying to deliver these experiences.

Strategy and planning, by nature being abstract and often ambiguous, is less straightforward than execution. However, we do have tools for tackling these challenges, giving shape to this amorphousness. And as you dig into strategic challenges that organizations face, you realize that the problem isn’t simply one of strategy or planning — given the right tools, any organization can come up with a strategy or plan.

So, if strategy and planning are manageable, it again begs the question, why are so many experiences so bad? And as you dig further, you realize the problem is with the organization itself. Strategies, plans, and execution are all outputs of organizational behavior. And if your organization is broken, if its values are ill-defined, its vision unclear, and its goals too restrictive, this will inevitably lead to mindless strategies, ill-considered plans, and sub-par execution.

So you need to address the extremely challenging aspects of organizational dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and all manner of, well, people stuff. And when you do that, you realize most corporations still operate under the mechanistic and bureaucratic practices of the 19th and 20th centuries, born of railroad functions and mass manufacturing. These bureaucratic approaches are inherently dehumanizing, and so these organizations struggle with the key characteristic of delivering great experiences–human engagement.

And so, as we move from the Industrial Age to what I (and a few others) call the Connected Age, we’re seeing that companies emerging as successful are often those that are the most human. (Where is the Information Age, you might ask? For the purposes of my thesis, I see the Information Age as an extension of the Industrial Age. More on that in later posts.)

This was the thesis for a talk I gave at MX 2011, which has just been posted. Watch it here:

MX 2011 | Peter Merholz | Why Business Must Be Human from Adaptive Path on Vimeo.

This talk was both a culmination of some writing I’d been doing (Innovate Like A Kindergartner, What Trust Brings To Amazon, Zappos, and USAA), and the beginning of an exploration I’m starting on what it means to conduct business in the Connected Age. I plan on posting a lot about my research and thinking about the Connected Age. I will leave you with a simple set of distinctions between values and characteristics of business in the Industrial/Information Age and Connected Age… It’ll give you a sense of where my head is. (And the links refer to where some of these ideas are coming from)

Industrial/Information Age Connected Age
Products Services
Manufacturing Customer experiences
Ownership Access
Stocks Flows
Efficiency Effectiveness
Analytical Generative
Silos Cross-functional
Hierarchical Hyperlinked
Individual Social
Isolation Relationships
Algorithmic Heuristic
Same Path Explore
Work Play
External Rewards Intrinsic Motivation
Control Autonomy
Marketing/Advertising Word of Mouth, sharing

If any of this spurs your thoughts, I’d love to read them in the comments!

2 thoughts on “Breaking Free From the Iron Cage: Business in the Connected Age

  1. 1)

    “we’re seeing that companies emerging as successful are often those that are the most human”

    Like which ones?

    2)

    I think many of Apple’s customers would call it a “human” company, though anyone who’s been an employee or contractor there would say the opposite. For your purposes, does the distinction matter? Do appearances suffice?

    3)

    We heard a lot in the 90s about how internet companies were ushering in a “New Economy” that didn’t obey the rules of the Old (Tired, Bad) Economy. We know how that worked out. How is the “Connected Age” different?

  2. If you haven’t read it, I recommend “Shop Class As Soulcraft”, which actually touches on some of this. He does a good job of pointing out how automation and industrialization changed organizational structures for blue collar jobs (brains at the top, drones below), and how that thinking has been carried over to information workers. This is effectively robbing people of intellectual ownership in their work, delegating all of the “thinking” to the top of the organizational pyramid and leaving only algorithmic execution to everyone else. Customer relationships and interactions are seen as a series of incomplete states tied together by guidelines and instructions. It’s kind of like the instructions that come with Ikea furniture.

    This is a very interesting post. I am excited to see where the thinking goes.