The Observer: Transformation Is The New Watchword - InformationWeek

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1/24/2005
02:05 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
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The Observer: Transformation Is The New Watchword

This year should be all about transforming the enterprise, says Lou Bertin, and refining big thinking to benefit the enterprise.

The holidays provided a little time for catching up with books old and new, experiences old and new, and--gasp!--even led to a wee bit of insight.

The books in question were The American Century, (Knopf;1998) Sir Harold Evans' utterly fascinating look at innovation and invention across the sweep of the 20th century, and David Brinkley's Washington Goes To War, (Knopf; 1988) a chestnut I first read 15 years ago before moving to the aforementioned city. Living here and knowing now what I didn't know then made the re-read incomparably more rewarding than it was the first time, and that's saying a lot.

Though the books couldn't be more different (Evans' prose is seamless and silky, while Brinkley's comma-riddled style is, in the end, more suited to his nonpareil voice, and my ear, than my eye ... read the parenthetical aloud and you'll see what I mean), but they both ultimately get down to the business of transformation.

And transformation of the enterprise variety is, boys and girls, what 2005 is going to be all about, or at least what it should be all about. To be sure, there was lots of talk about transformation over the latter half of 2004, what with the spectre of Sarbanes-Oxley and its close cousins, not to mention the notion of stakeholders demanding that organizations keep their operations as clean as hounds' teeth.

Moreover, the entire RFID issue is coming into full bloom, bringing with it the absolute necessity for a huge number of organizations to make friends with the technology and its implications, or else.

Taken together, the regulatory and marketplace forces cited above, not to mention dozens of other legislative initiatives, lead me to believe that that the carrots of competitive efficiencies and advantages didn't work and now the big sticks are in place (I don't know whether the Feds or WalMart are the scarier of enforcers) and enterprises--at least those employing the folks I've been meeting with of late--are paying serious attention and dollars to making sure that fundamental organizational disciplines are in place. Compliance is, for now, king.

That those disciplines might actually lead to enterprise benefit is a side issue, it seems, and that's either shortsighted, or a shame, or both. If there was a unifying lesson in Evans' book, it's that whether the individuals in question were named Ford or Oppenheimer or Watson, they shared a passion for big thinking rooted in seeing how discrete--in some cases seemingly insignificant--observations of people, issues, and operations could be assembled in utterly unprecedented forms.

Yes, they all were big thinkers, but their focus was relentlessly on refinement and through those constant refinements of thought and a constant observation of what works, what could work better, and what needs to work differently, their own legends were built.

This isn't to say that, say, a warehousing company is in any way to be confused with atomic science, but if you're responsible for overseeing how technology is going to make your warehouse work, at a minimum, to the levels of customer expectation, you do well to look at warehouse technology about as seriously as Oppenheimer looked at his tasks at hand. Or something close to it.

Similarly, Brinkley's terrific book focused entirely on how Washington, both the city and the government institutions it houses, had to be utterly transformed in the run-up to World War II. How bureaucracies that "took weeks to see to it that paper moved from one office to the next" had to be totally scuttled--no easy task even then when entrenched civil servants are involved--if this nation were to survive.

Most interesting to me was Brinkley's recounting of how FDR got it completely wrong on his first few go-rounds at coordinating industrial production. Most impressive to me was the reminder that FDR, one who never suffered from lack of self-esteem, used that self-confidence to unhesitatingly scrap his own plans and sack his hand-picked overseers when it became plain that his strategies and tactics simply weren't up to his standards. Any of his first passes would have been good enough, but when it became apparent that there were better people, systems, and methods that could be deployed, ego--and arthritic bureaucracies--never got in the way.

As Brinkley characterized it, FDR literally transformed official Washington and achieved the bulk of that transformation in little more than two years. If every single government agency can be turned on its head and dragged out of a 20-year World War I hangover mentality into what was then the present day, there's no reason whatever why organizations can't make themselves conform with the realities of today.

That, though, brings me to a conversation I had just after Christmas with one of my own clients, a technology outfit that was egregiously late in getting a few pieces of paper with dollar signs, numerals, and decimal points on them into my greedy little hands. The people I spoke with there were unfailingly cooperative, sympathetic, and empathetic. But one quote caused me to literally laugh out loud. "Well, Lou," said a chipper young voice, "you've got to remember that we're a big company and that your invoices had to pass through a lot of hands." Sad and laughable at the same time.

Here's to making sure that attention to detail and a transformative spirit conspire to getting us all on an even better track this year. You may not get another chance.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Lou Bertin's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Lou Bertin, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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