The two most historically important developments of the last two decades are the growth of global markets and the speed of information technology development. Markets and IT are transforming the world at a faster rate than any other developments in human history. And they are also challenging Governance Models in ways that are equally profound. Kings and Crowds fought it out politically at the dawn of the 20th Century when the ancient Russian, Chinese, Austrian, and Ottoman empires fell, and they are battling commercially today in many markets in which Crowds are winning again.
1. Product Development
I'm an audiophile. I buy expensive audio equipment in the hope of reproducing an emotional connection with music in my home that people feel when they attend a live concert. Being on a limited budget, I'm also a cheap audiophile. I like the best product for the lowest cost, which is one reason I applaud globalization. Over the last decade, high quality, low cost audiophile equipment has been coming out of China that rivals the best high cost gear manufactured in North America and Europe. Some companies have setup local design and Chinese manufacturing with online distribution that brings incredible bargains to mainstream US and European consumers. Two such companies are Oppo Digital and Emotiva.
Oppo makes DVD and Bluray players that are designed in San Francisco and manufactured in China. I've owned their products for several years and am always impressed with their price/performance ratio. But now I'm even more impressed with their product development process. In 2008, they announced the development of a new Bluray player, the BPD-83. These days, consumer electronics are more like computers than audio equipment, with complex Digital Signal Processors, graphics chips and CPU's interacting in intricate designs. Oppo knew product development would be difficult and testing even more so. With the complexity of hardware and software in one appliance it is really difficult for a small team of product designers and marketing professionals in San Francisco to test against every potential usage scenario. And when manufacturing is outsourced to China it is even harder. Distance, language, and culture create barriers that make communication a new challenge.
In this environment, Oppo decided to outsource product testing to its customers by using a Crowdsourcing solution. Several hundred customers received pre-production units of the BluRay player and tested it in their homes. Their product feedback went to the design team who translated feedback into design changes for the manufacturer. The Crowd were given the option to vote on final product readiness. The first vote sent the product back for more changes and fixes in late 2008 and the second vote in Spring 2009 released it for GA in June.
I bought the product in July 2009 and it is superb. I contrast this to Emotiva, which is also a small design team based in Tennessee that manufactures in China. They make outstanding AV amplifiers, speakers, processors, and other equipment. In 2007, Emotiva announced a new AV processor, the UMC-1, for delivery in 2008. That slipped to early 2009, when it was announced that the product would ship in June. In July, the company announced it discovered bugs in the production units from China and would need a couple of months to fix them. By October, more than a couple of months went by and customers were fuming on the company's forums about the delays and the poor communication. In November, the company announced it would begin shipping to the pre-order list and many customers anticipated units before Thanksgiving. By early December, no units had shipped and the company had to start censoring its Forum because customer rants were getting abusive. The Emotiva CEO promised some customers would receive their units by Christmas, and when that didn't materialize many Forum members started talking about buying alternatives.
Last week, Emotiva finally began shipping a handful of units to pre-order customers without manuals. The first reviews appeared over the weekend and talked about stunning video quality but also a few audio and connectivity glitches. The CEO posted a very nice note on the Forum describing the company's pride in the product but also that a firmware release would soon be forthcoming.
So what this company did was use its customers for an unannounced Beta Testing program. They shipped their product very late to market, after a year of inconsistent market communication, with bugs they were probably aware of but couldn't fix without suffering more brand damage.
Contrast the two companies. Oppo used a market based Crowdsourcing mechanism to recruit customers to beta test the new product. The customers who participated in the testing provided open feedback which was visible to all members of the company forum. They fixed bugs quickly and used customers to determine when the product was ready for shipment. That process created customer loyalty and ensured a bug-free product that shipped only six months late. Emotiva used a hierarchical mechanism of in-house testing and opaque customer communication to ship a product more than 18 months late and filled with bugs that alienated customers and reduced brand loyalty.
Some people might say these companies have different approaches to product development or customer service. I abstract these situations as examples of governance models in complex social systems. Oppo used a market-based governance (coordination and cooperation) model and succeeded in satisfying the needs and interests of its market participants. Needs and wants are at a primary market level. Feedback Information about the product are at a secondary market level. Emotiva used a hierarchical governance model (command and control) and failed to satisfy secondary market interests in information and primary market needs for products.
This doesn't mean that market mechanisms always trump hierarchical control. But when a small number of people are trying to govern complex systems for consistent outcomes, a market-based model can be more efficient and produce better results.
2. Cost Containment.
My boss sent me a note over the weekend reminding me to use our ATT Calling Card from land lines when I am travelling abroad. It seems my cell phone bill in November was higher than the accounting police think necessary. All calls above $100 qualify for an immediate audit. Its not clear from my bill if any of my calls were or could be audited, but my boss, who is altogether a terrific guy, wants me to avoid that root canal and work smart abroad. Being a Governance Guy I do have to question the intelligence of a governance system that controls costs through managerial oversight of cell phone bills and automatic audits for $100 calls.
If there is already a trigger for automatic audit at the $100 per call threshold then someone has already noticed a pattern of calls that exceed $100. That kind of pattern calls for a policy change, but automatic audits require a fair degree of manual labor - both from my boss and the auditors. Wouldn't it be far Smarter to develop policies that cause the cell phone users themselves to police their own usage by giving them alternative means to reduce costs?
Some might argue that the warning note from my boss is a policy tool being used to change my behavior. But because the billing system is deliberately opaque in IBM, it isn't possible for me to evaluate the impact of each of my calls on the overall phone bill I incur each month. I can't see the incremental impact of my decisions as Risks to The System as a whole.
A more intelligent approach to cost containment in this case would be to toss the issue out to the Crowd of cell phone users in IBM and get them to come up with ideas to mitigate costs for each user. That process would include users in the decision-making process, getting them to brainstorm ways to reduce costs instead of treating them like cost creators in a hierarchical model to impose control.
Like, shouldn't IBM have Skype strategy for global travelers who make calls in cars and trains so that productivity isn't imperiled while costs are contained?
Crowds and Kings. What do you think? Post a comment and let me know.