Doing and Designing Business for a Networked World

Aerials was a forum about doing and designing business for a networked world. Organized by Totem, a Toronto-based consultancy, and curated by The Alpine Review, the first Aerials event was held in Toronto 10/2015.

Introduction to AERIALS 2015

The Zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”) of the early twenty-first century is being shaped by a profound change of paradigms, characterized by a shift of metaphors from the world as a machine to the world as a network. The new paradigm may be called a holistic worldview, seeing the world as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts. It may also be called an ecological view, if the term “ecological” is used in a much broader and deeper sense than usual. Deep ecological awareness recognizes the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are all embedded in (and ultimately dependent on) the cyclical processes of nature. — Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life

Are organizations unfit for the world we live in?

In less than twenty-four months, US retail giant Target both entered and exited Canada. In doing so, it amassed over two billion in losses and a long list of casualties from suppliers and partners, with nearly eighteen thousand jobs lost. An entire retail landscape was forced to adjust and then readjust.

The question we’re all left asking is: how can a company that can afford the best data, the best strategists, the best-laid plans, fall headfirst into such spectacular failure? The answer is both simple and complex.

Target’s Canadian misadventure was modeled around an outdated, mechanistic paradigm—one that is ill-suited to the world we live in. They have learned that it is not possible to “invade” a country even if they had, in theory, all of the capacities to do so—solid branding, design sensitivity, reputation, financial might, operational sophistication, and the rest. Insiders told me that it was only as Target started shipping half-empty containers that they realized they hadn’t even taken account of the fact that Canada uses the metric system. Plagued by organizational silos, dysfunctional communication, competing and conflicting demands, Target had little chance of succeeding; it did not operate as a network.

At its heart, retail is extremely complex and volatile, and anchored in various communities and niches. Retail battles are akin to insurgencies: they are not fought at the city level; they are fought in neighborhoods, on streets, sometimes even in particular sections of streets. How often have we seen one restaurant fail and another one succeed on the same street corner with a mere name and menu change?

Target’s failure in Canada demonstrates something that might appear obvious for someone who works in this space. But the truth is that organizations designed in the twentieth century, under a mechanistic framework, are not prepared to face twenty-first century conditions, where volatility is predominant. This new reality involves a new kind of thinking around relationships, patterns, and context. In science, it is called “systems thinking.”

Instead of marching with great fanfare into a country it did not know, Target should have made smaller steps, creating local connections and forging ties with the communities it aimed to serve. It needed to establish trust to endure.

But while the theoretical case is clear, there is no single roadmap for how transformation will take hold within organizations. There have been a number of unsatisfying catchphrases, predominant in start-up culture, like “fail early, fail fast.” But we don’t have to fall back on easy, empty mantras as we navigate our way through. It’s not too early to understand how we can help change organizations.

Until we find ways to act—rather than to read and share thoughts with each other on Medium—billions if not trillions of dollars will continue to disappear. Organizations must wake up to the urgent need for a new operating model. We’ve all heard the story of how Eastman Kodak was “disrupted” by Instagram (Kodak employed 140,000 people compared to Instagram’s 13). But such stories, unfortunately, are also profoundly changing the fabric of our society. We should not be amused by large organizations being taken down by the latest winner-takes-all San Francisco start-up. The consequences, on the job market specifically, are both very real and very human.

Aerials aims to evolve and elevate the conversation by bringing together a collection of practitioners from different parts of the world to explore and unpack these changes. We must work towards useful frameworks and ways to collaborate for a better future for embattled organizations—organizations that must perform contortionist acrobatics in order to constantly renew their license to operate.

All companies owe their existence to their customers, most are designed to deliver toward efficiency and standardization rather than the dynamic demands of their clientele. Companies, he argues, are ultimately designed to keep their customers out. While this has always been a barrier to success, the urgency of this mismatch is increased by the accelerated pace of technological change and the fracture of user communities, behaviors, and goals.

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