MANAGEMENT SPEAK: Our business is going through a paradigm shift.
TRANSLATION: We have no idea what we've been doing, but in the future we'll do something completely different.
One of our best excuses is that we're responding to business requirements. It excuses nearly everything. Why do we need more staff? We're just responding to demand. Why are we building this system? Hey, we don't define requirements, we just respond to them. Why is our project three years late? Users keep changing the specifications; it is hard to hit a moving target.
Now that I have your attention I'll back off a bit. Responding to requirements is important. It's the tail, though, not the dog. You should wag it, not the other way around.
Businesses decide whether and where to invest in technology based on business considerations. But business users don't keep track of technology, so they're in a poor position to understand the opportunities.
That's an opportunity for you, but only if you keep track of both technology and business trends. Recently we talked about the trends of the recent past: product quality and enhanced service. Product quality matters, of course, because if your product stinks people won't buy it. Enhanced service matters because exceptional service means that your customers will come back.
Quality and service are vital. But they just aren't enough anymore; they're yesterday's news. To understand the future you need to understand that people don't buy products - they buy the anticipated results of owning the products. You don't buy a car, you buy transportation. It may be luxury transportation, reliable transportation, fun transportation (supply your own adjective), but that's what you're buying.
The trends of the future grow out of this reality. Three stand out: entertainment, "molecularisation", and affinity. You're going to have to support these through technology, so let's take a look at them.
Entertainment matters to consumers, but business buyers aren't immune. It isn't always obvious how to add an entertainment dimension to your company's business, but opportunities abound. McDonald's has Happy Meals. It is not only a product, but a generator of consumer loyalty and repeat business. McDonald's isn't selling food. It's selling a result: smiling children. Your job: figure out how technology (data warehousing and data mining, for example) can make your company's entertainment program more effective.
Molecularisation (a 20-buck word if ever there was one!) lets you break up your products and services into their component "molecules" so you can mix, match, and recombine them to create customised packages for each customer. You run across molecularisation every time you buy a new personal computer: you choose how much RAM and hard disk you need, whether to install a tape drive, how big a monitor you want, and what kind of printer to attach. The installation glitches we all face testify to the difficulty of supporting molecularisation.
Affinity is my favourite. Affinity drives customer-loyalty programs to their logical conclusion. Frequent-flier programs generate loyalty, but they don't create a bond between airline and traveller - airport "clubs" do that. User groups, independent of but supported and encouraged by providers, also create this kind of bond. And then there's DNRC, or Dogbert's New Ruling Class - a club-like enhancement to the already strong link between Dilbert readers and the characters in the comic strip. Members who visit the Dilbert Zone Web site (www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert/) are a click away from a catalogue of Dilbert calendars and mouse pads: a perfect example of using affinity to sell products (and a great Web-business strategy). The customer result here is a feeling of exclusivity, a sense of being special in a world of more than 5 billion people.
These three capabilities - entertainment, molecularisation, and affinity - will drive the strategies of many businesses in the next decade. Not one of them can succeed without a lot of technology to support it. And that's good, because it means that I'm not going to run out of topics for future columns any time soon.
It also means that you'd better start getting ready. You want to lead this parade, not slow it down.