The modern business enterprise is easily defined. It has two particular characteristics: it contains many separate operating units and a hierarchy of executives. As a social innovation the modern enterprise was born when the volume of economic activities reached a level that made administrative coordination more efficient and more lucrative than market coordination.
Before the rise of the modern firm, the activities of small, often personally owned enterprises were enabled and constrained by market and price mechanisms.
The important innovation of the modern firm was to “internalize” activities by bringing many discrete components under one roof and under a system of coordination. The modern multi-unit business corporation replaced the small, single-unit, enterprise because administrative coordination permitted greater productivity and lower (transaction)costs per task than was possible before.
The big idea behind industrial management was to purchase or set up units that were fit enough to operate as independent entities, but instead integrate them into one system. Bringing these activities together gave the corporation many advantages: by standardizing interaction between units, the cost of transactions were lowered and the cost of information on markets and sources of supply were dramatically reduced.
The principle of internalization permitted the flows of goods, services and information to be planned from one unit to another. Budgeting of flows allowed more efficient use of facilities and personnel than was the norm earlier. The advantages of internalizing many business units within a single enterprise could not be realized without management.
Managers essentially carried out the functions formerly handled by price and market mechanisms. Managers were now the enablers.
The practices and procedures that were invented at the dawn of industrialism have become standard operating methods and are still taught in business schools today. The existence of a managerial hierarchy as means for coordination is not questioned. It is the defining characteristic of the modern business enterprise.
Two aspects of work have changed dramatically. First, all financially successful offerings involve customization, or aggregation by the end-user. This means that companies must thrive in situations where very little information or communication can be made routine. Second, all successful firms are actively involved in emergent, responsive interaction with people “outside”: customers and network partners. These firms understand that value is not created inside the organization but in the larger ecosystem they are one part of.
We all have mindsets of the world that serve as maps that guide what we see and how we understand the world around us. The maps can be helpful but also outdated and incorrect. Management practices of the industrial, passive-mass-consumer era were based on standardization, management coordination and repetition. These approaches and principles are not just less useful, but critically wrong today.
Both of the change drivers: customization and interactive value creation, demand that firms value people more than they value budgets, processes, organizational units and hierarchies. Firms must attract and link contributions from skilled individuals – no matter where those people are and where those contributions come from. The products the firm sells to its clients are not offerings of the firm per se, but offerings created by specific individuals in specific situations of “local” interaction. This is why business-to-business (B2B) value systems are not different from business-to-customer (B2C) value systems. It is about people in interaction in both cases. Work is always interaction between interdependent individuals.
Interaction can only partially be planned in advance. People need to participate based on transparent information and high quality communication systems enabling responsiveness. Some work is also in the future located “inside” the firm, but the really important part of interaction takes place “outside“. A larger and larger number of the contributing individuals are necessarily customers and network partners who are outside the company Intranet as we know it know. The explanation for this is that it is now more expensive to internalize than to network. The fundamental principles of organizing are changing because of the Internet and the low cost and high quality of communication. This is why there are no, and never will be, successful social media implementations inside firewalls.
Work today is network-enabled, situational collaboration based on interdependency that typically links operational units and spans over traditional value systems. The approach that managers do the coordination for the workers is just too slow and too costly in the low transaction cost environments we live in today.
The enablers have turned into a constraint.
The task today is to create a valid context in which people think about and experience social media / social business. The difficulty is that this context has to make sense in the world we are going to, and not the world we are coming from.
More on the subject: what bosses do in the Economist. A post on group intelligence by Tom Malone. Work of Steve Denning. Article in the Ivey Business Journal. More on the new context: digital literacy. Greg Satell on networks. Stowe Boyd´s blog post.