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The time scales of business (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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I once spoke at the wedding of some young friends. “Here’s some advice,” I said. “Don’t ask a middle-aged divorced guy for advice on marriage.” I hope a middle-aged remarried guy does better. Uh … excuse me for a moment everyone: Sharon, I don’t know why you said yes but I do know why I asked you — you’re just plain wonderful and I would have been a dope if I hadn’t.

Okay, I’m being self-indulgent. If your new spouse received your column every week by e-mail (you can too: www.iwsubscribe.com) wouldn’t you do the same?

Marriage is a lifelong commitment. Compare that to business, where time scales are so compressed that we now have mere seconds to accomplish what used to take years.

Now forget the comparison, because business hasn’t accelerated anywhere near as much as you’ve been led to believe. Yes, it’s faster. But.

Businesses operate in three distinct timescales — transactional, marketing, and strategic — and a lot of the perceived acceleration is, to a large extent, our confusing one for another.

At the transaction level — the buy-and-deliver process — business acceleration is very real. Buyers might not decide any faster, but once they have they want instant delivery. The term “Real-Time Business” (GartnerSpeak: “Zero-latency enterprise”) is about the transactional time scale. Real time really is a lot faster than its predecessors. Luckily, the need to deliver before the decision to buy is unlikely. We’re reaching the point of diminishing returns.

Then there’s what we in IT have been calling Internet time, supposedly the new pace for business. Marketing managers, though, have always worked at this pace. We were able to ignore Marketing time until recently, when the Web introduced us to it.

Before the Web we worked exclusively within the strategic timescale, building systems that endured, and that still need to endure far longer than the latest marketing campaign. Our working in Marketing Time doesn’t make a marketing campaign a business strategy.

Business strategies connect capabilities to marketplaces. A business’s capabilities don’t change quickly, and a marketplace — a complex, interconnected web of interactions among multiple businesses — changes more slowly than any single company within it.

Strategies must last for years. Still, they do change faster than they used to back when, for example, Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease. Talk about “… ’til death do you part?”!