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The Cognitive Enterprise debuts

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It’s time for businesses to think.

The Cognitive Enterprise (Bob Lewis and Scott Lee, Meghan-Kiffer Press) has been released into the wild. The questions of the hour: (1) What makes an enterprise cognitive? (2) Why does it matter?

There seems to be a strong negative correlation between the size of an organization and its ability to respond in sensible ways to changing circumstances. And this lack of good organizational sense seems to be independent of how smart the organization’s leaders and staff are.

It’s as if there’s an impenetrable barrier that prevents the considerable intelligence available in a business from influencing the behavior of that business.

Superimposed on this is the industrial model of business management — the notion that businesses should be “designed by geniuses to be run by idiots.”

This is the driving philosophy of most business process design: Simplify, simplify, simplify. Which, depending on the process and its goals, often is the best answer. In truly industrial situations — manufacturing and its analogs, where the goal is to create large numbers of identical work products — simplification and standardization make all kinds of sense.

But (you know “but” was just floating in the air, waiting to be uttered …)

With a few exceptions, business is first and foremost a game. It’s about winning and losing. In the short term, it’s pretty close to a zero-sum game, where one company selling more products to more customers means some other business will find itself selling fewer products to fewer customers.

There just aren’t that many games where success comes from streamlining, simplifying, and standardizing. In football, the winning teams aren’t the ones with the skinniest playbooks. In baseball, pitchers don’t throw every pitch exactly the same. If they did, they’d get shelled.

If you don’t like athletic metaphors, consider chess. Think a grandmaster is going to win by always playing the same opening?

* * *

Business designers follow a well-worn formula: People, process, technology.

Except it’s really PROCESS, Technology, people. No, it’s worse. People are an actual impediment. Carefully designed processes, written standard operating procedures, and automation are all established to overcome the limitations of we pesky human beings.

This worked just fine in the past because of a key and rarely explored metric — the stay-the-same to change ratio.

That business cycles are compressing isn’t a new insight. What’s often missed: Establishing well-defined and (more important) well-practiced business processes, supported by optimized automation, takes an investment of time, effort, and money. Having invested, businesses need a long enough period of stability to recoup that investment.

Business cycles are compressing — the stay-the-same piece of the ratio is shorter — but the change side of the ratio hasn’t compressed anywhere near as much.

Same investment, less time to get a return from it.

Which is why Scott and I are proposing a new framework. Instead of people, process, technology, cognitive enterprises will emphasize customers, communities, and capabilities.

Start at the end: A capability is anything an organization can do, independent of whether it’s doing it right now. Capabilities are what let an organization adapt to changing circumstances.

Communities next. More and more, the men and women who contribute their efforts to an organization’s success have less loyalty to their employer. (Employers, of course, jettisoned the quaint idea that they owe their employees any loyalty long ago.)

Supplanting, or perhaps augmenting employees’ relationship with their employer is their relationship with their profession and their peers in that profession. Developers, for example, constitute a thriving community, whose members are better at their trade in proportion to their community participation.

And their employers benefit from this by getting better programmers with a smaller investment in training.

Communities build capabilities.

And then there are customers. It might seem strange that customers need mentioning, but they do. Industrial businesses have a strong internal focus — so much so that most of the business considers other parts of the business to be their customers. This internal-customer focus is the source of untold mischief.

In a cognitive enterprise, everyone has the same customer — the real, paying customer who makes buying decisions about the company’s products and services.

And, understanding what these customers want, cognitive enterprises are able to marshal their capabilities to deliver it, whether or not they have a well-define process in place to do so.

Is this all there is to it? Of course not. If it was, Scott and I wouldn’t have had to write an entire book.

And we wouldn’t be asking you to read it.

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