How did we get here?

customer-mgWith all this talk about becoming Customer Centric or an Outside In organisation, how did we lose focus of our customers anyway and what is it we have been focusing on instead?

Many point to Adam Smith’s seminal work “The Wealth of Nations” and in particular his observations of the division of labour in English pin factories at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution for the answers. To paraphrase Smith

A pin-maker could perhaps make one pin a day. But if the task of making a pin is divided up into 18 smaller, specialised tasks – i.e. one man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head, and so on – split up among 10 people, then they could make the equivalent of 4800 pins per man per day.

Essentially the division of labour in the pin factory Smith observed was responsible for a 4800% increase in productivity. Now which business is going to ignore that sort of productivity gain? As a result, the industrial revolution saw the productionisation of businesses and other organisations into conveyor belts of specialised labour that resulted in astronomical improvements in productivity and huge reductions in per unit costs. Conveyor belts with the customer at the very end, many steps removed from both the workers in the middle and those at the start who decided what product to build and how to build it. We became ‘product centric’.

Over time many of these products became commodities though and there would be a need to differentiate yourself by the service you offered. Of course some businesses and organisations, generally those that were small in size and local in geography, never lost sight of this.

Unfortunately though, particularly in large organisations, the production line mentality dominated and is as strong as ever even today. Take a look at this Mckinsey & Co article from 2014 “The Enterprise IT Infrastructure Agenda for 2014“, which recommends that IT departments “Make the transition to a plan-build-run organizational model”. Plan-build-run, hmmm, what does that sound like? At least it is heartening to see that some practitioners like Julian Dunn at Chef are not swayed.

Reading on, though, I came across the section entitled “Improve organizational execution”, and I have some concerns about McKinsey’s proposed remedies. It’s certainly true that organizational execution needs improvement, because IT organizations today are widely seen as being too slow, bureaucratic and inefficient to keep up with business demands. Why, then, does McKinsey advocate a “plan/build/run organizational model” when this kind of silo-ization is what negatively affects the speed of IT service delivery today?

The DNA of the industrial revolution has also found its way into the education systems of developed nations. Hence it has become ingrained in modern human history and is constantly perpetuated. This fantastic shortened and animated video of a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson explains how this same DNA has led to education systems that are not customer (student) centric and essentially “educate” our creative capacity out of us.

And here’s another take from American Author and Marketer, Seth Godin, along a similar vein.

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I J Golding

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