Why the future of IT rests on one person

IT's success will be tied to delivering 'luxury': tailored, feature-rich services supported by a single employee

Lean, Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints -- these are, depending on your point of view, powerful business design tools, snake oil for sick businesses, or business religions complete with high priesthoods, sects, splinter groups, and loud arguments over how many angels will fit in a swim-lane diagram.

Here's something else they are: irrelevant to an increasingly important category of how modern businesses need to organize work.

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Whether you pick one of these methodologies and stick with it or learn them all as a toolkit, their purpose is the same: designing efficient business processes. Where they mostly differ is in what they mean by "efficient" and what they optimize for: cost, cycle time, throughput, and quality, in differing orders of importance.

The increasing irrelevance of these methodologies is driven by converging trends that make "single-actor practices" (we'll define this shortly) the wave of the future and "process" in its classical sense the wrong way of looking at how work should get done.

This is in large part due to the very nature of processes, which are aimed at establishing a repeatable series of well-defined steps that create predictable results, over and over again. Well-designed processes automate as many of the steps as possible, minimize the expertise required to complete what can't be automated, and crank out lots and lots of identical copies of whatever the process has been implemented to achieve.

Most organizational process theory finds its roots in Henry Ford's factories, having been developed, perfected, and codified by manufacturing giants such as Toyota and General Electric. In other words, they're geared for mass production.

But mass production, in case you didn't notice, is increasingly performed offshore, except when it can be achieved in a "perfect factory" -- a factory that employs one man and one dog, with the man there to feed the dog and the dog trained to keep the man from touching anything.

Also, in case you didn't notice: America's economic profile is becoming increasingly skewed. Those in the top two economic deciles are accumulating wealth at an accelerating rate, while everyone else is either barely staying even or losing ground. It doesn't matter whether this is a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing (except when you're arguing about politics or entering a voting booth, neither of which have anything to do with Advice Line).

From the perspective of understanding where business opportunities are and aren't, it isn't good, bad, or neutral. It's definitional: With an increasing share of wealth concentrated in a decreasing fraction of households, those who don't have it will find themselves buying more and more of their declining budgets at discount retailers that source from low-wage nations. Those who do have it can afford luxuries, will want luxuries, and will have the money to pay for luxuries.

There's something about luxuries that matters a lot if you want to sell them: They're comparative, not absolute. To understand this point, visit a gated community in your area and look at what people are driving (either pretend to be buying in or scout it out with binoculars from a safe vantage point). What you'll find is that in a gated community, a Lexus isn't a luxury car. A Lexus is what everyone drives. The affluent in these havens drive Mercedeses and BMWs, and even those aren't luxuries when their owners compare themselves to the truly wealthy who drive Maseratis, Ferraris, Jaguars, or even Bentleys.

Luxury isn't absolute. It's comparative, and in the comparative world, what makes something a luxury? Scarcity and, ideally, uniqueness. Tailoring. Personalization. Expensive raw materials. Lots and lots of nifty and flashy features.

Those who can afford luxury have another characteristic, and it matters to anyone wanting them to share their wealth by buying products and services: zero patience for the word "no" in all of its business forms, especially not for the phrase, "That's against our policy." They expect personal service and flexibility to go with the expensive luxury goods they buy from you.

You say your company doesn't sell to consumers, it's in the B2B space?

Here's how it works in business-to-business interactions: All customers are equal, with some much more equal than the rest. In most B2B situations, 20 percent of the customers provide 80 percent of the profits; in some it's even more skewed. The companies that are in that 10 or 20 percent expect special handling and services, and they really don't want to hear the words "that's against our policy." If they hear it once, they escalate to the speaker's boss, and if they hear it from the boss, they change suppliers.

It's still luxury -- but a different kind of luxury.

Where is this all taking us? To the business of the future, which, if it wants to be successful, will have to excel at delivering luxury: tailored, feature-rich, interesting merchandise supported by personalized hand-holding service.

Now we're ready to talk about single-actor practices, starting with the word "practice."

"Process" is one of those words that used to mean two very different things. Its formal definition is as stated above: a repeatable series of well-defined steps that create predictable results, over and over again. Its informal definition: how anything gets done. Informally, sales is a process, eating dinner is a process, and watching a movie is a process.

If we want clarity, though, we need a different word for all of those ways of getting things done that aren't based on a repeatable series of steps and don't minimize the expertise needed from the people who do the work but instead rely on it.

That's what a "practice" is. Trial law is a practice. It had better be, because any trial lawyer who decides creating repeatable, predictable results is just the ticket is a trial lawyer whose clients will find themselves on the wrong side of every judgment. You don't win at trial by being predictable.

Businesses that rest their strategic futures on winning and retaining affluent customers will rely on practices more than processes to organize their work, because practices are what let you tailor, customize, make exceptions easily, and otherwise provide personalized service.

A lot of those practices will be single-actor practices -- practices organized so that one employee, supported by technology, can do whatever needs to get done (don't bother Googling it -- it's my term and isn't in wide use yet). Why? Because organizing a practice with just a single actor maximizes consistency and minimizes the amount of coordination needed. When the practice involves direct contact with customers, it's also more personal.

Law will continue to be a practice. In health care, the affluent will make increasing use of "concierge care" services, no matter what direction reform goes for the rest of us. Retailers might provide personal shoppers.

In the business-to-business world, the role is already well known -- it's what account managers do. Account management is a single-actor practice because exposing a high-value client to anything else might easily lose the account.

Lean, Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints will still be around to help businesses who sell to everyone else. But the ones who want to grow a lot will go where the money is.

Which leaves quite a few unanswered questions: We know what IT looks like when we're supporting business processes, but support for single-actor practices is terra incognita.

This story, "Why the future of IT rests on one person," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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