For those involved with the art, science, and mechanics of organizational management, the 1990s was an exciting if humbling decade. The decade was ushered in with new thinking from Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline, which introduced The Learning Organization to many. The concept sounded absolutely refreshing to those in the trenches—who could disagree with such logic?
I was deeply engaged at the time in a series of turn-arounds in mid-market companies. The particular business case offered for consideration was a union shop that was bankrupt from the day it opened nearly a decade earlier, and had never made a payment on many millions of dollars of debt.
The new owner had acquired the operating company out of bankruptcy with assumptions that were based on experiences that did not apply to the subject or market. Due to a low discounted acquisition value, the buyers had little to lose if the company continued to underperform, but a great deal to gain if the company could be brought up to a competitive market position.
Long-story short, it was a very challenging yearlong engagement during which time we surpassed everyone’s short-term expectations by a significant degree, including my own. Before I share what went wrong, let’s review a few things we did right:
The subject called for and we received an unusual level of authority from owners, which required exceptional levels of mutual trust, and a great deal of credibility.
We put together a strong team with a mix of experience relevant to the specific case. Each could recognize the opportunity, and even though under-resourced, we were able to create one of the industry’s top performances that year.
We were able to gain the trust and support of the union—which enjoyed a double-digit increase in membership, with most members experiencing significant increases in compensation.
Though never union members, senior management to include the owners had personal experience with labor, which was demonstrated alongside workers at critical times and helped gain their support (we walked the talk).
The few remaining core customers were so desperate for improved product and service that a modest upgrade and competency improved sales as well as the reputation, from which new and larger customers were gained.
The communities involved were relieved to see a well-managed company emerge from years of bankruptcy, churn of management, and under-investment, so we gained support of regional governments (important in this case), which also enjoyed increased tax receipts.
The pricing of products and services were well below market, so after modest investment with competent management, I was able to raise prices significantly while increasing sales volume, resulting in a substantial, growing profit.
We were able to double the value of the company in one year based on cash flow and future orders, which dramatically improved the position of the parent company, allowing refinancing at more attractive rates.
Now allow me to share why I consider this engagement (with others in this era) to be among my greatest mistakes.
Failure to learn, adapt, and seize the more important opportunity
Many of us wrongly assumed that the parent company would learn from the experience and use the success as a platform to seize other opportunities, which would have required a change in the structure, type, and talent of the company.
Despite considerable coaching combined with all that accompanies short-term financial success, the parent company did not learn the most valuable lessons from this intense experience, so they were not able to adapt to rapidly changing markets. Motivation and desire also clearly contributed, so after a final attempt to convince the parent company owners to transform into a competitive model, we moved on after contract.
My final report to owners and lenders concluded that the company had probably hit a ceiling, recommending that they either embrace the transformation strategy or sell the company. We could take them no further in current form. Just one example of why—a colleague who was a key team member had received a far superior offer from a great company in a location he and his family preferred.
The client’s response was way below market at a tiny fraction of what the operations specialist had created for the client. The decision on my colleague was surprising, as he was one of the pillars, so it confirmed the ceiling for me. The owners were left with a rising star in a subsidiary that kept shining for a short period, during which time likely created profits far exceeding investment, but then began to fade. Unlike the other holdings of the parent company, this subsidiary required intensive, sophisticated, and experienced management.
A decade later I read where the subject had fallen back to a similar performance level to when the parent company acquired it. It gives me no pleasure to share that hindsight has demonstrated the period of our engagement to be the peak of the parent company’s 50-year history. We worked very hard to provide the opportunity for an enduring success.
While we enjoyed deep mutual respect with the parent company, which appeared adaptive in this acquisition and others we brought to them, they weren’t willing to transform their organization. They were opportunistic on a one-off basis, which is best suited for the flipping model, not for an enduring business. Even then technology played a big role through IBM mainframes, inventory management, and transactions over networks. Today of course most companies are facing more dramatic change in an environment that is far more talent and technology dependent.
The learning organization struggles in the 1990s
A few years and dozens of assignments later we had established a tech lab and incubator to explore and test opportunities due to Internet commercialization, which catapulted the economy with significant g-force into the network era. By the mid-1990s a few operational consultants had become critical of the apparent naiveté with the learning organization theory, which like knowledge management had a philosophy that many could embrace, but in practice found difficult to achieve given real-world constraints, including legal and physical, not just cultural or soft issues.
A few researchers pointed out that it was difficult to find actual cases of learning organizations (Kerka 1995). In papers, textbooks, and Ph.D. theses I was invited to review, the same few cases and papers were cited relentlessly, often comparing apples to oranges. One example was a study published by Finger and Brand in 1999, which found that systems needed to be non-threatening. That may have been the case for their subject at the Swiss Postal Service, but would be unrealistic where threats are among few constants, increasingly to include government and academia. Peter Senge apparently took notice of the criticism, reflected in the subtitle of his book The Dance of Change (1999); “The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations”.
By the end of the 1990s I had become vocal on the primitive state of systems and tools that could achieve the goals of the learning organization, and more importantly adapt in a sufficient time frame. My perspective was one from operating a live knowledge systems lab that was building, operating, and testing learning networks, which included daily forums that discussed hundreds of real-world cases in real-time over several years. Many were complaining about poor technology and lack of much needed innovation, yet few were focused on improvement from within organizations that would allow innovation to make it to market.
Some researchers have since suggested that in order to achieve the learning organization, it was first necessary for knowledge workers to abandon self-interest, while others claimed that ‘collective accountability’ is the key. In updating myself on this research recently, it sometimes seemed as if organizational management consultants and researchers were attempting to project a vision over actual evidence, denying the historical importance of technology for survival of our species, as well as mathematics, physics, and economics. Consider the message to an AI programmer or pharma scientist today coming from a tenured professor or government employee with life-long security on ‘the need to abandon self-interest’. This has been tested continuously in competitive markets and simply isn’t credible. The evidence is overwhelmingly polar to such advice.
Current state of the CALO
We may have been experiencing devolution and evolution concurrently, yet humans kept working to overcome problems, representing all major disciplines. My company Kyield is among them.
Significant progress has been made across and between all disciplines, including with understanding and engineering the dynamical components of modern organizations.
The network economy
No question that the structure of an organization greatly influences the ability to adapt even if having learned lessons well, including legal, tax, reporting, incentives, physical, and virtual. The network economy has altered the very foundational structure many organizations operate on top of.
While each structure needs to be very carefully crafted, the structural changes vary from the rare ‘no change is needed’ to increasingly common ‘bold change required to survive’. Though it need not be so, it is increasingly more efficient to disrupt and displace than to change from within.
While we are experiencing a repatriation and regionalization trend, globalization radically changed the way organizations learn and how they must adapt. Several billion more people are driving the network economy than in 1990, with a significant portion moving from extreme poverty to the middle class.
The global financial crisis (GFC)
Suffice to say for this purpose that the GFC has altered the global operating and regulatory landscape for many businesses and governments—in some cases radically, and is still quite fluid. Currency swings in response to unprecedented monetary policies are the most recent example of this chaotic process, though only one of many organizations must navigate. If the regulatory agencies were CALOs, much of the pain would be mitigated.
Machine learning (ML)
Although quite early in commercialization and most cases still confidential, ML combined with cognitive computing and AI assisted augmentation is rapidly improving. Deep learning is an effective means of achieving a CALO in a pure network environment that interacts with customers such as search and social networking, though is being adopted widely now.
One of the largest continuous learning projects is Orion by UPS, which was kind enough to share some detail in public. Orion provides an excellent case for many to consider as it overlaps the physical world with advanced networks and large numbers of employees worldwide. Unlike Google or Facebook that began as virtual companies running on computer networks, UPS represents a large transformation of the type most organizations need to consider. In the case of UPS of course, they have massive logistical operations with very high volume of semi-automated and automated data management.
Having developed deeply tailored use case scenarios for each sector in Kyield’s customer pipeline, numbering in the dozens, I can offer a few words of advice in public.
While all public cases should be considered, remember that few are shared in public for good reason. Few if any companies have the business model, need, resources, or capacity of Google or UPS, which is why they can share the information.
Rare is the case when enormous custom projects should be copied. The craftwork of planning and design is substantially about taking available lessons, combining with technology, systems, and talent in a carefully tailored manner for the client.
Regardless of whether a large custom project, completely outsourced, or anything in-between, board level supervision is necessary to avoid switching dependencies from one vendor or internal department to another. I see this occurring with new silos popping up in open source models, data science, statistics, and algorithms. The goal for most should be to reduce dependencies, which is nontrivial when dealing with high-level intellectual capital embedded in advanced technology, particularly given talent wars, level of contracting in these functional roles, and churn.
Since few will be able to develop and maintain competitive custom systems, the goal should be to seek an optimal, adaptive balance between the benefits of custom tailored software systems (Orion or Google), with the efficiency of write once and adopt at scale in software development. This is one of several areas where Kyield can really make the difference on the level of ROI realized. Our continuously adaptive data management system (patented) is automatically tailored to each entity with semi-automated functions restricted to regulatory and security parameters at the corporate and unit level, with the option for individual knowledge workers to plan projects and goals.
Plan from inception to expand the system to the entire organization, ecosystem, and Internet of Entities. Otherwise, the organization will be physically restricted from achieving much of the value any such system can offer, particularly in risk management. One of the biggest errors I see being made, including in some of the most sophisticated tech companies, is approaching advanced analytics as ‘only’ a departmental project. Of course it is wise to take the low hanging fruit through use of pre-existing department budgets where authority and ROI are simple, but it is a classic mistake for CIOs and IT to consider such projects strategic, with very rare exception such as for a strategic project.
Optimize relationship management. Just one example is when our adaptive data management is combined with advanced ML algorithms that include predictive capabilities, which among other functions weighs counter party risk. A similar algorithm can be run for identifying business opportunities.
While it is more challenging to achieve buy-in for organization-wide systems, it is physically impossible to achieve critical use cases otherwise, some of which have already proven to be very serious, and can be fatal. Moreover, very few distributed organizations can become a CALO without a holistic system design across the organization’s networks, particularly in the age of distributed network computing.
If this isn’t sufficient motivation to engage, consider that learning algorithms are very likely (or soon will be) improving the intelligence quotient and operational efficiency of your chief competitors at an extremely rapid rate. Lastly, if the subject organization or entire industry is apathetic and slow to change, it is increasingly likely that highly sophisticated, well-financed disrupters are maturing plans to deploy this type of technology to displace the subject, if not the entire industry.
Bottom line: Move towards CALO rapidly or deal with the consequences.
Mark Montgomery is founder and CEO of http://www.kyield.com, which offers an advanced distributed operating system and related services centered around Montgomery’s AI systems invention.