Three Blind Men and the Elephant - Can we see the big “picture” of Business Geographics

By Hal Reid

If you missed the Location Technology and Business Intelligence conference at The Wharton School in Philadelphia, you may have missed a defining moment in the evolution of Business Geographics and perhaps American business, itself.

The objective of the conference was to move Business Geographics to the next level.It was a good start, but is it always difficult to change from a path that has been traveled for so long.

Jack Pellicci of Oracle pointed out a key bit of insight to the nature of this change, as he spoke about the real time enterprise.Real time, in his view, is the ability to monitor and manage the enterprise with information that was immediate and available, as the daily activities of the corporation occurred.

A big part of change is being able to see it coming.We almost always find ourselves as one of the proverbial three blind men and the elephant when it comes to change.Never quite being able to see the entire picture.Almost a total stroke of luck and timing was Kevin Coleman's article this week in directionsmag.com about Network Centric Warfare.While having nothing to do with the conference itself, Coleman outlined what Mr.Pellicci had been referring to.He points out that the battlefield of the future will be networked so that events can be monitored and managed in real time.The outline is the hierarchy from the operational "theater" to the individual in the field, all of the components and attributes dutifully reporting.Real time status such as how much fuel a tank has, how many rounds does a squad have left and what is their situation regarding rations and other infrastructure necessities.

What Coleman has done is outline the direction that we were all talking about at the conference that will be the path of Business Geographers, only in our case it is the monitoring and management of business as a network, and bringing the elements of scenario modeling, and relocating people and resources where they are needed, as they are needed.

As business geographers, we have tried with varying degree of success to manage the distribution of retail units as a network, so we could optimize market penetration.Coleman is looking at the same thing only from a more comprehensive viewpoint.He is starting with the operation theater and moving down, we need to move up from the market to the country, and then the region (e.g.Asia-Pacific) and the world, as the new scope of BG.
The dilemma at the conference was that most of the components were there, (BI, CI, LI and BG) they just weren't seen in terms of the big picture, the evolving 21st century.Coleman understands this, only expressed in military terms.

The business intelligence (BI) companies create the data warehouses and then provide the dashboards and metrics of what is happening in the business.Some of this can be seen, understood and acted upon as it is displayed.But, generally they do not have the scenario management tools that are used, for example, in competitive intelligence (CI) to structure responses.

Location Intelligence (LI) deals with the concepts of everything happening someplace, tends to get bogged down in site selection and does not have the tools for managing virtual geography.Many times they shoot themselves in the foot by hanging on for dear life to the map.Dean Stoecker, president of SRC, always says it is not about the map.He is right; it is much more and we are only at the tip of understanding of just how much more.
All three fields, BI, CI, and LI also seem to be immersed in analysis. While probably well done, the analysis may provide information that no longer reflects the world as it is today, only what was true when the information analyzed was current.

I continue to believe there are several things that will identify American business in the 21st century.These are the key points that I have identified in previous articles , and they are still valid.

  1. Outsourcing is a fact of life - there is almost a mantra of returning to core competencies.The current "all the rage" book Moving from Good to Great* reinforced my thinking on this subject and identifies that in order to be great (as a company or any other organization) you need to invoke the Hedgehog concept - figure out what you do best and do it.This means getting out from under the business dead weight that is not involved in what your organization does best.[*See USA Today 5/18/04 Section B, Money - money.usatoday.com - Good to Great is by Jim Collins, HarperCollins; (October 16, 2001), ISBN: 0066620996]

  2. Actually Rightsizing a Business, not a using the term as a euphemism for reducing people and costs prior to a sale.This means focusing on core competencies, getting the business into the entrepreneur mode and getting those parts of the business that are not players outsourced.IBM is already pushing lots of dollars into advertising their HR business.This is a preview of coming attractions.HR today, Finance tomorrow, and departing along with Finance will also be the IT department.This is the IT department of the general ledger, not the IT department of a dynamic business organization, where technology is sought out, and innovation is embraced.
  3. The IT department that is outsourced is the IT where technology is merely maintained.This doesn't mean that those parts of the organization that are farmed out cannot be dynamic, they are just dynamic in the frames of reference that they do best.They (as outsourced organizations) have to seek and maintain customers and so they must have a dynamic side as well. But this company may be located at some distance from the organization for which they provide the outsourced service.And yet, there still is key value and accountability here.
  4. The "Asianization" of American business - Outsourcing of high tech jobs to India, China, etc., are part of a trend of the affinity of dynamic entities. That is, Asia is where the economic action is today, not Europe, not South America.If we get on board with this part of the world, we all win.As we move those jobs out, in order to keep our competitive edge we must have the systems that allow us to monitor and manage business in real time. Of course, it is likely that those people who can bring those things together are those who can grasp both real and virtual geography.They, as business geographers or whatever is the next iteration of this discipline.They should know where the action is and how to help those affinities, as well as foster what is needed to maintain the technology edge.
  5. A new intensity to competition.If businesses are focused on their core competencies and free from many of the things that have restrained or de-focused them, business can move faster, adjust to markets quicker and be more on target with their products.If there are more and more businesses in this mode, competition will be very intense.Remember that a very large number of businesses that existed in 1900 didn't in 1920.The same thing will happen in the first part of the 21st century, except it will happen faster.
  6. Virtual Companies become the Norm.As American business continues to erode the concepts of company loyalty through layoffs, mergers and acquisitions, people are more inclined to want to hedge their bets and work for more than one company as contract workers.Location of the workforce becomes less relevant as high-speed internet access and voice over IP becomes pervasive. The workforce becomes more mobile and global.Key skill sets are reusable and portable from one company to another.It has always been this way, except now the skill sets merely connect with the new company, rather than move into it.The model of 21st century companies may be more like the Magnificent Seven, rather than 50 years and a gold watch.
Another key product of the conference was that The Wharton School was beginning to look at creating a curriculum beyond traditional business, Finance and Real Estate to address the new realities of BI, CI, and LI.It is very important that this actually becomes an adopted part of business education, not only for those who pursue it academically, but for those companies that need a key competitive advantage in a 21st century business climate.

In order to structure this curriculum effectively and tie it all together, there must be a new understanding of international business practices, outsourcing, and the contract worker.Traditional business school graduates are steeped in Finance.If we have defined Finance as static and something that becomes an outsourced part of the business, we need to create people who are deep into the entrepreneurial mode, not into saving their way to success like that of traditional finance departments.We need people who have vision and understand the pragmatics of the 21st century.

This is a new wave that perhaps even requires re-thinking the way we educate people.The format of lecture, homework and test may no longer be adequate.Perhaps everything should be a project so that "learning" becomes more an exercise in proving how things work.It is hard to grasp the essence of the ice cream Sunday, watching someone else eat it.

I used to think that we were not yet in the 21st century and that there needed to be an event that brought about the kind of awareness that makes us rethink what we were doing in response to the new order.I now believe we are here, up to our necks in the 21st century, but we just don't quite know it.

This conference started people thinking, and it was evident that we all need to think further and smarter.


Published Thursday, June 3rd, 2004

Written by Hal Reid



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