A Brave New World That’s Not So New After All

First published May 20, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

What the hell is happening? Everything is changing, and it’s changing much too quickly. We keep hearing that the game has changed, that nothing we knew before is still applicable. Ironically, I’m seeing a different trend. I’m seeing a need to return to our roots. But it’s hard to see the truth of that through the technological maze we’re currently stumbling through.

There is a reason companies exist. Somewhere at their core, there is something that sets them apart. There was a reason, back in the misty recesses of their corporate history, why the founders thought they could actually make a buck at this. The older the company, the further it is from the original spark that gave birth to a new entity, but it still lies somewhere.

To Look Forward, Look Back

As companies struggle to adapt to the digital marketplace, they tend to look forward, which is a really scary view of things. Everything is uncharted, unknowable and uncertain. There is a sense that we don’t know what lurks around the next corner. This also makes it seem that it’s imperative to figure out what’s changed. “What,” I hear repeatedly, “is the thing I need to know about how the world is changing?” The answer, I suspect, is not so much what you need to know, but what you may have forgotten because you were distracted by the onslaught of change.

Let me get less cryptic. There is a company that sells technical innovation. It has been doing this for over a century. That original spark, way back when, was to take its understanding of its core technologies and apply them in new ways to solve customer problems. The entire company was built around that core.

Bigger was Better…

Today, the company is struggling with change. The marketplace is shifting. It seems that it must be time to grasp onto something new. At the very least, the company must be open to trying many new things, and trying them quickly. Like many manufacturers, over time those direct ties to the ultimate consumer of their products have had more and more links forcefully jammed into the supply chain, leaving the manufacturer several steps removed. Size and success used to dictate the creation of a distribution network, because physical proximity to the customer was required. Technology is sending that requirement into oblivion, industry by industry. At a minimum, it’s severely altering the importance of the middle links in the chain. Technology is allowing customers to get closer to manufacturers, and vice versa.

This is certainly a change in the way the company has done business over the past few decades, but if we look further back, the company gets back on familiar ground. Technology is bringing it closer to that original founding spark, and I have to believe that’s a good thing. This company became successful by having discussions on the shop floor with the people that were doing the job and struggling with a problem. They identified the need because they could see it. It was right in front of their nose. Innovation came from observation. The spark of success was alive and well and could be found in that small gap between the company and the customer. The 20th century need for infrastructural support stretched the gap, forcing the spark of innovation to become systemic and scalable. And in that, something important was lost.

…But it’s a More Intimate World Now.

But technology is closing the gap once again. And, in the process, as it brings the potential to relight all those sparks, it’s also bringing the opportunity to have those shop-room-floor discussions in millions of locations simultaneously. If the company looks back to the core reason it exists, and understands why that’s important to customers, it will know what to do with technology.  The answer isn’t in the sea of change that’s descending on it – but from remembering why the company’s founders decided this was something worthwhile, something that would make it worth coming to work each day, and turbo-charging that purpose with technology.

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