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Authentic Frontier Gibberish

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Dialog from Blazing Saddles:

Gabby Johnson: I wash born here, an I wash raished here, and dad gum it, I am gonna die here, an no sidewindin’ bushwackin’, hornswagglin’ cracker croaker is gonna rouin me bishen cutter.

Olson Johnson: I’m particularly glad that these lovely children were here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.

And so it is that some of my colleagues and I have added the acronym “AFG” to our vocabulary, for “authentic frontier gibberish.” There are skeptics who might want to apply the AFG seal of disapproval to some of the more vague and less useful discussions about Digital and why it matters to modern businesses.AFG

The AFG is unfortunate, because the Digital business model fits nicely into a list of about twenty we developed some years back at my old consulting company, IT Catalysts (credit where it’s due — our starting point was Michel Roberts’s excellent Strategy Pure and Simple (1993)).

At the time we called the business model in question the Technology/Competency model. The idea: Take something your business is already good at and find new, marketable uses for it. In The Cognitive Enterprise Scott Lee and I made it the third part of our Customers/Communities/Capabilities formulation, “capability” being our now-preferred term for “competency.”

And companies that adopt this business model don’t stop with taking advantage of the capabilities they’ve already mastered. They take the next step, making strategic decisions about what new capabilities to build, and for that matter which existing ones are declining in importance and should therefore be sunsetted.

Enter Digital strategy. Shorn of the AFG, adopting a Digital business strategy means using newly emerging or under-exploited technologies to build new business capabilities, which, once mastered, can be used to bring new products and services to market quickly, because so much of what’s needed to bring them to market is already in place.

Simple example: As a consultant, I’ve developed a decent bag o’ tricks for meeting facilitation. I’ve also developed a reasonably good set of techniques for taking strategic intent and turning it into a program of action.

These are, I think, two of my Capabilities, and if you disagree please don’t disabuse me of my conceit.

The point is that with these two Capabilities in hand (and some others, but the point here isn’t to extol my numerous virtues) … where was I? With these existing capabilities I’m in a position to develop consulting services for a variety of specific topics as the need arises and their potential catches my attention.

Digital, for example.

So … if Digital business strategy is a subset of the broader-based technology/capability-driven business model, which is the big deal, Digital, or capability-driven business models in general?

I’d vote for capability-driven business models, with this proviso: There aren’t many new business capabilities to develop that don’t require the use of new and interesting technologies.

But still, what matters (I think) are the capabilities more than the Digital technologies that enable them. The reason goes back to the ongoing, even accelerating trend of business temporal compression (AFG?). While it depends on what your business sells and who it sells it to, in many cases marketplaces are changing fast enough that traditional approaches to strategic planning just can’t keep pace.

As a general rule, the value of a capability will last longer than specific products, product lines, or even product categories. And so, building strategic plans around capabilities makes the most sense for many and perhaps most businesses today.

Take smart products and the Internet of Things (IoT if you want to be cool). Imagine IoT isn’t one of your capabilities, but a competitor has mastered it.

We in IT have become accustomed to products capable of detecting and reporting defects before they cause overt outages.

Imagine consumers start to expect all their major purchases to do this. This isn’t unlikely — customers might not be sophisticated about technology in all its gory detail, but they’ve become pretty savvy about what technology can do.

If you’ve mastered the IoT, you can add this feature to all your products fairly easily. If not, good luck — you’ll have missed a major marketplace shift.

Building a business that’s adept at detecting marketplace shifts early and adapting to them quickly will prove to be the path to sustainable success.

My guess is that Digital will part of the mix, because Digital technologies are what will give businesses the new capabilities they’ll need to adapt at the speed of customer expectations.

* * *

On an entirely different subject: I gave a speech last November at PhreakNIC in Nashville, about the Embedded Technology Generation and its implications. It isn’t exactly TED talk material, but if you’re interested, you’ll find it here.

Comments (5)

  • Likely I am still unclear on the concept of “Digital”, but I’m not sure that your example of how you as a consultant would incorporate Digital into your business is applicable to other organizations (the ones you might consult for). If I understand you correctly, you propose adding “Digital” to the ever-growing list of topics on which you can consult. Like a retailer adding another product to their shelves, or even another class of products. This doesn’t strike me as modifying a business method – it’s the basics of avoiding obsolescence, offering the latest and greatest stuff/ideas. Traders and academics have been doing that for thousands of years.

    But what going “Digital” might really mean to a consultant is making use of the wide variety of technology available for long-distance communication, for capturing meeting discussions and notes, for tracking progress on programs of action, and so on. (There are those robots people can use to visit/work in a remote office in a real-time. A consultant in Minnesota could work and meet in offices in New York and San Fransisco on the same day without leaving his home.)

    Perhaps you already use all the technology that’s practical (there’s still nothing to beat face-to-face), and this aspect of Digital applied to consultancy seemed like a no-brainer, not worth mentioning. Or maybe Digital is still AFG to me, and I’m not getting your point.

    “There aren’t many new business capabilities to develop that don’t require the use of new and interesting technologies.”

    Oh, I gotta say, this is classic “everything looks like a nail”. You write specifically for an IT crowd, so it’s hardly surprising. We’re all about applying new and interesting tech.

    But in my daydreams of being an entrepreneur, and in my daily life as a consumer, everything I’ve thought of doing or need I’ve wanted to see filled has been completely unrelated to new technologies. They’ve all been physical products or services that could be made and delivered easily within the current tech and infrastructure, but just aren’t.

    But then, maybe all those ideas aren’t new business capabilities either, but are just more “products on the shelf”. (OK, I’ve had one non-tech idea that’s definitely a new approach to an old problem – a global problem, lots of demand – but it’s not a business venture, no profit to made. So maybe it doesn’t count either.)

    • Two points of clarification. The first: My personal example was supposed to be about capability-driven strategy rather than, say, product/service-driven strategy. I just used Digital consulting as an outcome because it seemed like a nice irony – I could just as easily have chosen CRM consulting, or anything else that took advantage of the two capabilities I started with (facilitation and strategy-to-action).

      The second: As a consumer or entrepreneur, everything you’ve considered very well might have been buildable with current tech. I’m not sure that extends to what you’d need to run the business and stay ahead of the competition as it developed. You can, for example, build cars with nothing but current technology, but that doesn’t extend to how you’d want to build and run your factory.

  • Thank you for your article. Like Sara, I was also unclear by what you meant by “digital” in this article.

    For example, suppose your company competency is being great at developing new, inexpensive, easy to cook gourmet recipes; selling cookbooks; and putting on TV (PBS) great shows, like America’s Test Kitchen.

    Is your article saying that inside or outside consultancy can help a company discern the appropriate computer related technologies for –

    “Building a business that’s adept at detecting marketplace shifts early and adapting to them quickly will prove to be the path to sustainable success.”

    Note that this is a real world problem that may turn into a lose-lose outcome. But while I think I may have gotten the article’s point, but I’m not really sure I did.

    • A point of clarification: Neither the technologies nor the capabilities they enable aren’t what will make a business adept at detecting marketplace shifts. That’s a matter of knowledge and judgment – the domain of human leadership. Capabilities become important once business leaders have spotted or anticipate a shift, because taking advantage of capabilities the business already has to develop the next round of products and services is a lot easier than developing products and services that don’t.

      Take your example company. Now, imagine it’s a few years ago and the company’s leaders detected an emerging shift toward gluten-free foods. With its existing competencies it wouldn’t have had all that much trouble developing gluten-free gourmet recipes, turning the recipes into a cookbook, and turning the cookbook into a new PBS series.

      Compare that to a marketplace shift toward eating microwavable prepared foods, where the company would need to learn now to review prepared foods, analyze them for the presence of plutonium or some other nastiness, and etc. Much harder to do. See the point?

  • Enjoyed the PhreakNIC video. Agree with your viewpoints and thank you for sharing it.

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