December 2006 Archives
I was asked to publish my presentation made at Educa Berlin on November 30 on behalf of Schneider Electric and Boostzone. Topic was the role of communities of practice in modern management, that we called "netcentric", a still rather weird concept derived from the military. We are working on this with a couple of people here in France. Netcentric Management basically promotes the idea that managers ought to pay a lot more attention to the dynamics of networks and communities as social organizations, because their role and their impact on business is dramatically increasing by the combination of globalization of markets and web 2.0.
This presentation needs comments, which I could not record on that occasion, but professionals will understand my point ;-)
Last friday, I had a long chat with John Smith of Learning Alliance, the famous guru of communities of practice, and Lauren Klein, who developed CoPs at Novell. We discussed the development of communities of practice at Schneider Electric as a way to boost commercial efficiency, giving examples of real successes of this networked approach to serving customers. John e-mailed this comment back to me:
I was really struck by your comment about how at this stage Schneider managers are more willing to sponsor communities in hopes of doing "the same thing, but better." You may have talked about that before, but it really seemed important to me today.I know I keep on repeating this. I really pride myself in being able to introduce CoPs in my company with the help of others, but so far they are recognized only as a way to do things better, not as a way to do things differently, and it really bugs me.
I've just finished a book about tactics during WW1, and it is somewhat similar to the introduction of tanks in modern warfare. Sorry for the analogy ;-) The concept of an armoured vehicle had been tested well before the war, and it looked promising, but since nobody could really relate to it, and because it did not answer any pain point or urgent need, it dragged on and on. Even in 1915, when it became apparent that tanks could really make a difference on the entrenched battlefield, it was decided to start production, but many a general shunned them. It took the determination of Colonel Estienne, who lead the effort, the very active sponsorship of General Petain (then commander in chief of the French armed forces) and the emergence of a strong party of tank fans for tanks to be introduced and eventually change the rules of warfare. But in spite of their successes, they were subsequently considered as an add-on to infantry -"doing things better"- and not as a disruptive innovation. The Germans on their side had downplayed tanks during WW1. They were completely taken by surprise in 1918 when they eventually realized their true potential. Ironically, in the 1920's and 30's the Germans reflected on this and elaborated a new military doctrine giving tanks a completely new role, whereas the victorious French carved their military doctrine in stone, and really missed the point. It took the disaster of May 1940 for them to realize their mistake, but too late. Though French tanks were superior to their German counterparts, they were completely misused as a support to infantry. It is strange to see that this pattern of innovation in France has been repeating itself over time. We French people innovate a lot, but we leave it to others to fully grasp the consequences of our innovations.
Our CoPs at Schneider are like the tanks of WW1. As vehicles, they are used in support of current sales and marketing functions. They are perceived as a very good environment to "share best practices" and "avoid duplication of efforts", but they are still not perceived as social organizations to serve customers. If the role of a community of practice is limited to increasing the internal efficiency of departments, it has little impact on the overall business. It really makes a big difference when it extends beyond the borders, when customers and partners are invited to join, when selling occurs as an extension of learning. I buy from you because I learn from you. I buy from you because you have proven to me that you care. You are collectively knowledgeable about my business, and your benevolence shows in the quality of community events you organize for your customers and prospects.
We still haven't reached that stage, although we do have some nice stories of some of our communities doing just that. Hopefully very few companies have so far either. So going back to my WW1 analogy, it looks like the companies who will truly reap the benefits from communities and social networks are those who suffer from them today, and hence reflect to take them to the next level, i.e. the media, consulting firms, IT companies, academiae... Global and profitable companies will eventually do the same, but later.
When companies relate their "values" to the way they handle customers, they only state the reason for their existence. "We are focused on the customer" is like saying "We work to eat". Right. It has nothing to do with ethics.
Real values appear start to show when the company gives away something to its customers for free without expecting anything in return, when it is absolutely unnecessary, out of pure benevolence. They also show in the company's attitude towards the weaker part of its constituency i.e. its low-level employees, when it strives to give them personal development opportunities. But the single and most clear sign of the values conveyed by an company can be seen in its attitude towards its suppliers. If it squeezes the profit margins away from them and dumps them whenever they get a better deal elsewhere, it really shows that its "values" boil down to survival of the fittest. Pure social darwinism and nothing else.