Well this is gratifying, other than getting no credit: According to a story in Bloomberg News,White House, Equifax Agree: Social Security Numbers Must Go” (Nafeesa Syeed and Elizabeth Dexheimer, 10/4/2017).

While I’d rather my vindication came from a more credible pair of sources, I’ll take it where I can get it.

Speaking of revisiting a subject, as regular readers know, one of my hobbies is collecting sources of market failure. Another one has just popped up, and like the others it’s relevant to you: ATM fees are going up, and have been for 11 straight years, this according to a recent story in Bloomberg, “ATM Fees are Out of Control” (Susan Woolley, 10/2/2017).

I know you, as a regular KJR reader, are as astonished as if you’d read “Sun sets in west for 11 straight days” or “Helium balloons continue to rise.” Let me reassure you. The rise has been at roughly three times the overall rate of inflation. It’s real.

Still, inflation is an average — the price of different products rises at different rates. So it isn’t that ATM fees are increasing that’s interesting. It’s why: ATM fees are rising because demand has been steadily falling.

The interrelationships among supply, demand, and price are supposed to be governed by a universal and inviolable law.

But it’s only inviolable until we violate one of its underlying assumptions.

So just as the second law of thermodynamics (entropy, which states the net disorder in a system must always increase) only applies when the total amount of energy in the system remains constant (snowflakes can form when it doesn’t), so the law of supply and demand only works when the cost of supply is variable.

But as much of the cost of banks’ ATM networks is fixed, supply is, in the short and medium term, fixed as well. Demand, on the other hand, changes one consumer purchase at a time. Over the 11-year span in question, consumer purchases have steadily switched from cash to plastic, and, for that matter, from plastic to on-line.

A fixed number of ATM machines divided by fewer cash withdrawals means a higher amortized cost per withdrawal.

Viola! Market failure at its finest.

But it isn’t just that the cost of supply is fixed in this system (or semi-variable for those of you who insist on such matters). There’s another, hidden assumption this system violates: The law of supply and demand assumes whoever is selling a product is competing for customers’ business … not only against those who sell highly similar wares, but also against those who sell equivalent wares.

Which is to say, banks aren’t in the business of selling cash to consumers, so they have no particular reason to make cash a more attractive payment vehicle than credit and debit cards.

So I suppose it’s equally valid to say cash isn’t a product, so there’s no market here to fail.

What do these perspectives have to do with running an IT organization, or, for that matter, any cost center in a large business?

It has to do with how too many executives in large enterprises think about supply and demand: Just as banks, faced with a decreasing demand for cash money, will eventually shrink their ATM networks until the cost of supply is more in line with decreased demand, so large enterprises, when faced with decreasing demand for their products and services, tend to invest far more time and attention to decreasing supply than increasing demand.

That is, they lay people off, diminishing delivery capacity, with far more gusto than figuring out why they aren’t selling enough products and services, and what they can do to fix the problem.

This can and does enter the world of the absurd, where cost-cutting includes shrinking the sales force and reducing the advertising budget.

Not to mention the IT budget, much of which, in this day and age, is devoted to acquiring and retaining customers, and increasing their walletshare.

What can you as an IT leader do to prevent cost-cutting as a way to deal with declining revenues?

If you’re facing this situation, nothing. It’s too late. But if the business isn’t in crisis, here’s what you can and should do.

Businesses can invest in only four areas: Revenue enhancement, cost reduction, risk management, and mission. Your job: Recommend that all strategy discussions start with deciding how to allocate the company’s investment budget among these four bottom-line goods.

It’s a way to make sure the company’s management culture includes a revenue focus. Because it is, after all, always the culture.

Not that I’m going to say I told you so.

But I did.

Tom Friedman discovered the Internet ten years ago (The World is Flat, 2007). I’m sure you were as pleased for him as I was.

But to be fair to Friedman, he’s a smart feller who sometimes does have useful insights, like, for example, about Digital stuff. Without using the term once — and good for him, especially for not using it as a noun — he recently provided as neat a synopsis of how we should all be using the Digital adjective as I’ve seen (“Folks, We’re Home Alone,” New York Times, 9/27/2017).

Here’s the exact text:

We’re moving into a world where computers and algorithms can analyze (reveal previously hidden patterns); optimize (tell a plane which altitude to fly each mile to get the best fuel efficiency); prophesize (tell you when your elevator will break or what your customer is likely to buy); customize (tailor any product or service for you alone); and digitize and automatize more and more products and services. Any company that doesn’t deploy all six elements will struggle, and this is changing every job and industry.

Let’s take a closer look:

Analyze: In Friedman’s view this means finding patterns, presumably through the use of multivariate statistical techniques, leading to the well-known logical fallacy of thinking correlation proves causation.

For businesses, though, the framework of causality that leads to a pattern often doesn’t matter. If the data reveal a pattern — say, that the presence of fire fighters correlates with the presence of fires — it really doesn’t matter if the fire fighters are setting the fires or putting them out. What matters is that this is a good place to put a lemonade stand, because the data also reveal the pattern that fire fighters who are near fires are often thirsty.

Optimize: I know the route to the airport. But I still use Google Maps to get me there. Why? Google will route me around traffic snarls to get me there faster.

More broadly, we’re leaving the age of fixed-flow linear processes in favor of processes that dynamically adapt to changing situations. Take, for example, the OODA loop we’ve discussed in this space from time to time (observe, orient, decide, act).

More and more data (observe) means you need to use Digital technologies to analyze it for meaning (orient), followed by self-learning AI choosing a course of action (decide) and learning from the results (back to observe). Humans might or might not be involved in implementing the decision (act), depending on whether the action takes place in the physical or virtual world.

Prophesize: Look at the figure. It shows white noise. Since business first started eons ago, the best strategic decision-makers have learned to ignore noise, searching for the signal within it.

But as algorithmic traders have figured out, if you can make decisions fast enough the noise can be the signal. You just have to be able to respond to each change of direction fast enough. Do this and it counts as prophesy: “For the next x units of time we should expect our markets to follow this very short-term trend.”

Customize: Here’s something I’ve been writing about for years. Especially with increasing wealth stratification, the ability to tailor and customize, driven by affluent customers’ desire for uniqueness, will be a critical competitive differentiator. Luxury is, after all, relative, not absolute, which is why even the snazziest-looking Timex watch that keeps perfect time is not a luxury, while a Rolex, which, having a mechanical movement, keeps nothing resembling perfect time, is a luxury for those few who can afford one.

Digitize and Automate: I don’t know what the difference is between “digitize” and “automate.” I’m pretty sure one, the other, or both mean “have the computer do it, not human beings.”

Either way, the idea is that businesses can reconfigure themselves more quickly when everything is done in software. And they can, assuming modern application architecture, modern integration architecture, and short-cycle-time techniques like the Agile/DevOps combination.

Collaborate: This is a big one, and Friedman missed it. Individuals can’t do everything all by themselves. That takes teams, and teams of teams. Not groups. Teams. The difference: Members of a team trust each other and collaborate. Members of a group trust nobody, and negotiate. This slows everything to a crawl.

Companies can’t do everything all by themselves either, so the teams and teams of teams in question often consist of employees from more than one company. If they can and do trust each other they can collaborate. If they can collaborate they can deliver terrific results together. If they can’t they probably can’t.

So let me ask you: How much is your company willing to invest in trust?