In the early days of my last start-up, CANDDi, I remember my co-founder, Tim, telling me about a technology he wanted to use. Graph databases. We were building a platform to help people to understand the relationship between lots of different sales and marketing data points: interactions with sales prospects on the web, email, social media, phone. The value was in the relationships between these data points. By understanding the relationships, we could map someone’s journey through the sales cycle. We could understand which of those touchpoints were effective. And maybe predict when they were ready to buy.
Graph databases, Tim explained, were focused on the relationships rather than the data points. Because that’s where the value was.
This nugget stuck with me for a few years until I was asked by the chief executive of a London borough council to help him design a council for the future. The model I came up with was in some ways like a graph database. A network of nodes rather than a monolithic whole.
The reasons for creating this network model were many. Local authorities, like most large organisations, have many disparate functions. Like most organisations that have grown organically, they can be quite chaotic in form. Skills and capabilities are unevenly distributed. As is control: too much at the centre, not enough at the edges. Faced with falling funds and rising responsibilities, the organisation needed to be more efficient but also more agile. Able to adapt quickly to rapidly changing circumstances.
I don’t believe you can ever try to squeeze such an organisation into a totally rigid model. Nor do I believe there is much value in trying to do so. But I thought there was a better organic form that might offer the required agility. Restructure the organisation around nodes of capability. Distribute more power to each of those nodes to give it a level of autonomy. Arrange those nodes around the citizen (a term I prefer to ‘customer’ in public service) in concentric rings, from those that face them on the inside, to those that face the rest of the world on the outside. In the middle, the nodes that do the data and processing that drives it all.
I called this model ‘Stratification’ because of those layers. But more important than the layers, or the nodes themselves, were the relationships.
Low friction communications
You can only build networks if you have connections. The better the connections, the more effective the network.
The availability of high speed digital communication has reshaped our networks, at home and at work – though those two are increasingly superimposed on one another. When information flows so freely, there is less need to be close to the other nodes in the network, either physically, or legally. Face time with your colleagues remains hugely important. But 90% of your tasks can be conducted by the exchange of digital data.
Once that is true, does it matter whether your colleague is in the same office, or even the same country? Does it matter that they are part of the same company?
Increasingly, it does not. With the right interconnections, we reshape the nature of organisations, commerce and economies.
The interconnected enterprise
My fascination with the connections that enable this structural shift, from monoliths to networks, was renewed when I was contacted about working with a new client, Console Connect. The company’s raison d’etre is to easy the creation and management of these connections, in their most tangible form. The telecommunications links that connect us to our organisations’ disparate nodes around the world and across the cloud. They knew how important the relationships were in any network, and they were working to take some of the friction out of those relationships.
The result of our collaboration is a report on what we termed ‘the interconnected enterprise’. It is an evolution of the model initially created for that local authority, that then evolved through my work helping large corporates to structure for agility. A model that was most recently refined in my book, Future-proof your business. You can download the report here.
Of course, the importance of relationships doesn’t end with organisations. Nothing has been more important through lockdown than our connections, between families, friends, and communities. Their strength has been one of the reassuring things in an otherwise tumultuous period.
These relationships too have been changed by technology. The friction stripped from our interactions at distance, allowing us to reach further, share more, and receive more too.
When thinking about the future, the change in these relationships is just as instructive as the change in those in the corporate world.
The restructuring of our social and commercial worlds is bringing new meaning to the old adage that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” The most capable companies or people in the world might have very little value without the right interconnections. This presents both opportunities and threats. It might reinforce the advantage of those born and raised with powerful social networks and lock out those excluded from them. Yet our networks are more open and more fluid now than ever before. There is at least the potential to create more competition for connections.
The array of connections available to us opens up new possibilities, for work, innovation, leisure and romance. Yet counter-intuitively, networks that allow us to build remote relationships seem to be bringing us closer to those with whom we share space, connecting communities and neighbours. Interesting alliances are emerging from Facebook, WhatsApp groups and NextDoor.
Watching the changing nature of our relationships, at home and at work, is a fascinating route to imagining the future.