Experimenting

Posted by Peter Cochrane on February 20, 2009

Milestone Group Quarterly Q12009, 20 February 2009

For most people it seems that the word experimenting (or experiment) conjures a laboratory scene with people in white coats surrounded by scientific equipment and apparatus. For sure, it doesn't imply an image of your average company manager or executive! The big question is; why not?

Here we are in an ever-complex world, driven by technology and accelerating change, with those at the head of the game hanging on by their fingernails. Our electronically interconnected world is not only faster than 20 years ago; it is manifestly chaotic and non-linear. So the sudden collapses of entire sectors can now be triggered by seemingly insignificant events. Yes; we are now governed by butterfly wings just like the weather system of our planet!

So how can we be expected to survive in business under such conditions? Experiment - we have to experiment to see what works and what doesn't. Hanging on to our old ways and methodologies is tantamount to passively waiting for the grim reaper, it is essential that we subsume the latest ideas and technologies, try and test them, adapt them to our environment, and adopt them ahead of the competition.

My business is one continual experiment! It is about pushing the limits of technology and people to see where the opportunities lie and what their real impact is or might be. It is not sufficient to read reports and monitor the press and media we have to be hands on and up with the curve. How do we approach this? How do we do it? By eating our own dog food! When we advise people or engineer solutions and systems for them, it is on the basis of tried and tested experiences - our own experiences and those of our customers.

Individual members of staff and associates are allocated a specific and challenging technology or operational mode to champion. If they can live with it, or adapt it, and see some business value add or advantage, we then adopt it universally. So what has our experimenting returned in recent years, and what realizations have we come to? Here is a short list:

  1. Web 2.0 working with thin clients and web based applications and data works and works well, but we have found that a half-way house is currently optimum due to the woefully poor on-line bandwidth provided by the carriers and ISPs. To be specific: A 'thinnish client' is a safer bet than a thin client - having some local storage and applications are essential for continuity of operation whilst traveling.
  2. Social networking is a valuable new tool if used wisely but can pose risks if people are silly. Today more than ever we live or die by our network of friends and colleagues who we can call upon for instant advice, support and help. In short this technology:
    • Increases the visibility of individuals and companies
    • Improves connectivity beyond measure
    • Reduces information and experience latency
    • Automatically qualifies contacts and keeps them up to date
    • Enhances the ability of people and companies overall
    • Provides new preference, reference and quality check modes
    • Attracts prospective Gen Y employees
    • Overtly flags a progressive state of mind and culture
  3. SMS TXT is the preferred mode of the young and affords some considerable advantages over email that are really worth exploiting both internally and externally. Skype, Instant Messaging and Social Networking sites also have a place and provide key facilities.
  4. IT Departments are almost a universal waste of time as over 50% of the working population now have better computers and applications at home. They are also more or less self-sufficient as individuals, and certainly as a group, and don't need heavy-handed support. Social networking (2) helps no end here! It is time to move on to create effective knowledge management and decision support systems, but even more importantly it is time to get into business modeling and war gaming.
  5. Security has been and continues to be a moving feast with vast amounts of resource wasted on protecting the irrelevant whilst yawning gaps of exposure go unaddressed. This subject is definitely worth a book on its own, but here is a condensed list of realizations:
    • Resources are always deployed in inverse proportion to actual risk
    • Perceived risk never equals actual risk
    • Security people are never their own customer
    • Cracking systems is 100x more fun than defending them
    • Security standards are an oxymoron
    • There is always a threat
    • People are always the weakest link
    • The biggest threats always come from the direction you're least expecting
    • You need two security departments - one to defend and one to attack
    • People, irrationally, expect 100 per cent electronic security
    • Nothing is ever 100 per cent secure

And so to a word of warning! Driving hard to become ever more efficient inevitably leads to brittleness and failure. More than ever companies need to be resilient, they need to be able to weather the (continual) storm and bounce back, which implies some slack, some inefficiency and a reduction in earnings. In short the long term has to be number one over short termism, which implies more investment in experimentation and the R&D budget.

Finally some closing thoughts: The reason family cars are more resilient than F1 racing cars is the same reason that democracy always outlives dictatorships. Inefficiency! And the biggest realization and business/political change now coming over the horizon? Continual business and GDP growth is a fundamental impossibility across this planet of limited physical resources, but it may well be possible in the world of bits. I think we are going to have to spend more time thinking, modeling, war gaming and experimenting than ever before!