Target plans to shutter 3,500 offices in downtown Minneapolis.

This isn’t part of a corporate downsizing (or “right sizing,” or “layoff to send a message to Wall Street”). It’s the near-inevitable consequence of two merging trends plus one cataclysmic event.

The event, of course, was COVID-19, although calling something so stretched out in time an “event” might push the definition just a bit.

Trend #1 is the steady improvement in the corporate remote-collaboration toolkit that started in 1992 when Nathaniel Borenstein and Ned Freed sent the world’s first email attachment and now includes everything Slackware (if you’re a member of the Cool Kids Club), or Microsoft’s TEAMS (if you aren’t) has to offer.

That leaves the rise of the “embedded technology generation” – the ETG, also known as Millennials, Generation something-or-other, and, to those of us whose age is catching up, whippersnappers. They’re trend #2.

The ETG matters because where in days past, automation was something for which IT supplicants had to beg for funding, hat-in-hand, from the CFO, it’s now the default assumption for all work that has to get done.

Which wouldn’t be half as interesting if it weren’t for an ETG-driven change in business culture. For those of you who have yet to reach your third decade, take it from one who lived through it: Information technology used to be a panic-inducing sea change in the skills employees were asked to bring to the party; typing was too lowly a task to ask of business managers; and “telecommuting” was excessively radical given how hard it is to supervise employees who are out of range of management by walking around.

And yes, Management by Walking Around used to be a thing.

Over the past year we’ve drifted into opposite-land. It’s a strange realm in which those who used to be called “white collar workers” … except that in the world of Zoom most of us figure we’re dressing up when we put on a polo shirt … anyway, in many organizations, “knowledge workers” need to justify and get executive approval for any and all travel whose purpose is to collaborate face to face.

The point: With Target’s announcement it’s time to ask a question that not very long ago would have sounded quite bizarre: What is a city for?

In 1920, for the first time, more Americans lived in metropolitan areas than in rural and small-town communities and the trend has continued ever since. For the most part, those responsible for maintaining the competitiveness of America’s small towns did not find a formula that worked.

Perhaps until now. What made metropolitan existence attractive – a network effect in which convenient access to products and services attracted providers of more desired products and services, thereby increasing overall convenience – might be declining as the rise of virtuality makes many of the urban conveniences no more convenient than the same conveniences delivered from non-urban sources.

So the planning-for-a-difficult-future shoe now belongs on the other foot. Those responsible for urban planning need to re-think (“re-imagine” if you want to be trite about it) how to make the cities they lead attractive enough to corporate and residential inhabitants to quell … maybe that isn’t a high-enough bar; make it to reverse the urban core’s competitive decline.

Meanwhile, in the IT trenches, network engineering and troubleshooting sure are fun when employees choose and pay for a lot of the corporation’s technical infrastructure.

Bob’s last word: I have no magical formula to offer. All I know is that urban planners had better learn from the history of small town decline. Counting on things to just work themselves out is mistaking hoping for planning.

That also goes for the IT help desk when an employee can’t get their work done and the root cause is a screwup on the part of the employee’s ISP.

The word after Bob’s last word: Mad Magazine’s legendary Al Jaffee, inventor of its famous back-page “fold-ins” and Mad’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, just turned 100. Happy birthday!

Bob’s sales pitch: Nope. Nothing to sell on this week’s main theme. But if you’re interested in the ETG and its impact on organizational dynamics, that’s one of the topics Scott Lee and I took on in The Cognitive Enterprise.

“We don’t,” my client explained, “want to be in the data center business.

It’s a common negative want shared by IT and business management alike in many companies, especially in the context of pursuing a Cloud strategy instead.

It leads, or should lead to a diplomatically phrased version of the contrapositive question: What business does the decision-maker in question want to be in?

Enter the dreaded mission statement, which in principle should be the go-to source for the definitive answer, which in theory should yield a very short list (it should contain no more than three items and I’m being generous) of the business functions the company won’t outsource.

If, for example, you run General Motors, and thanks to KJR you figured out you want to be in the sell-cars-people-want-to-buy business and not the bribe-people-to-finance-cars-they-otherwise-would-never-buy business, you’d easily figure out the importance of outsourcing everything except Marketing (to understand what people might want to buy) and Advertising (persuading people they want to buy GM cars).

And maybe Distribution given that, except for Tesla, car-buyers mostly buy cars from dealerships.

Design, engineering, manufacturing, accounting, human resources, and information technology? These are all businesses you don’t want to be in.

They aren’t, in ConsultantSpeak lingo, “core.”

This brings up an important dimension to getting the right answer to a question. The obvious dimension is the research, comprehension, and analysis smart people undertake to arrive at the best response.

The second, less obvious dimension, which even smarter people explore, is making sure they’re asking the right question.

In this case I’m not entirely sure deciding what business you want to be in, or, if you prefer, what business functions are and aren’t core, is the right question.

The right, or at least the better question is whether your business can run a given function better internally or by contracting it to an external provider.

If you run a small or medium-size business, you should probably outsource any business function that doesn’t differentiate you from your competitors. Outsources will have economies of scale you can’t possibly match, so whether it’s IT or advertising they can probably do it better, faster, and for less than you can.

Does that mean large enterprises should always insource? They can, after all, match or even exceed the economies of scale achievable by many potential outsourcers.

Not necessarily. In particular, an executive culture rooted in control and distrust can cripple whoever is managing an insourced function but will happily delegate most decisions to an outsourcer so long as the outsourcer meets its contractual obligations.

Which clears up what “We don’t want to be in the data center business” frequently means – that what we really don’t want to do is delegate the authority and responsibility for managing a data center to in-house IT management.

Bob’s last word: Often, behind not wanting to delegate authority and responsibility is the thought that “we” – we being whoever doesn’t want to delegate whatever it is – don’t think we can do a good job of hiring someone to run the function in question.

Which implies that “we” do think we can do a good job of selecting a vendor, negotiating a contract, and managing the vendor once it’s signed.

I’m not clear why “we’d” think that. But, it appears “we” do.

Bob’s sales pitch: In the end, this week’s column is all about when and how to delegate. If you’re looking for the KJR perspective on delegation, check out a copy of Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World. It has my personal endorsement … and I wouldn’t steer you wrong, would I?