The following is a brief talk I gave at the MRS Annual Conference 2013 – Shock of the New (20.03.13).

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What I’d like to explore briefly today is an idea put forward by IBM’s Chairman and CEO, Ginny Rometti. In a recent address she gave at the Council on Foreign Relations, Ginny talked about three principles:

  • The first one: data will change how you make decisions
  • The second, data will change how you create value
  • And the third, data will change how you deliver value

And she gave three seemingly unconnected examples to illustrate these principles.

  • The first one — a police department reduces the incident of rape by moving payphones inside of a convenience store
  • Second one — a Mexican cement maker, CEMEX, launches its first global product in record time not by building a factory but by building a social network
  • And the third — a U.S. presidential campaign doesn’t rely on opinion polling and yet predicts the final vote in a key swing state within 0.2 percent

What tied these three examples together was the idea that organizations are learning to compete in a new competitive landscape. And that data will be the basis of that competitive advantage. She goes on to ask the audience to think of data as the next natural resource.

I want to, for the next few minutes, pick up on the second point: the idea of creating value. Ginny talks about new ways of creating value, and cites the example of CEMEX, which gained competitive advantage by building a social network. Within this context she talks about the social network becoming the new production line within the company.

Let’s think about that for a minute: The social network becomes the new production line. By extension, the network becomes the very backbone of the organisation itself. This idea disrupts and challenges our very notion of how companies are structured, how people communicate, the idea of what a business process is and where it resides. Imagine if what we did took place along, in, on the networks that we each create, that we participate in, as well as on the social network that we collectively, as the organisation, create. What is the implication of this? How would this change the way decisions are made for example? Who could make those decisions, and how would we validate them?

If we look at this idea of the social network as production line, from another perspective, from the point of view of data and insight, what is the impact? Where does data reside, how is it accessed, captured or distributed, who owns it, how do we use it, leverage it…

In this paradigm, where data as knowledge, becomes more open, accessible, ubiquitous and universal, where knowledge, or the creation of it, is accessible in real-time and at source, what becomes important, and where competitive advantage lies, is not in what you know necessarily, but what you share, and by extension your willingness to share. The fact that the social network has become the production line, indeed the backbone of the company, giving us open access to each other at any time, simply heightens this, and sharing becomes the default setting. To work is to share, and what you do (or indeed don’t do), the decisions you make (or don’t make), are played out in public. Analysed, rated, commented on by your colleagues. And in the same way that Klout, Kred or PeerIndex indicate your reach or influence, so might we begin to see ‘share’ scores, indexes and leaderboards. Indeed, your ‘share’ score directly correlates to your performance measures.

Perhaps for some, this kind of dystopian view is untenable, unthinkable, unimaginable, unfathomable, but so was the internet not that many years ago.

Imagine if we layer on top of this the idea of the internet of things, the idea that objects, the world around us, is now connected as well…objects not only talking to each other, but also analysing the way we interact with them, the way they interact with each other… Imagine in this paradigm if data was frictionless – frictionless data – what would the impact be? Imagine if delivering insights was a function of everyone, not just a team of analysts. Imagine if insights resided in the objects around us that we engage with.

But imagine if we also take this concept of the social network as production line, and extend it beyond the boundaries of the organisation, into the marketplace, so that customers are now part of that social network. Notions of inside and outside, internal and external, company and market, employee and customer, public and private, buyer and supplier, will need to be re-defined, or even defined. Relationships re-examined. All of this on both an individual and corporate level.

We are at a time now when we often talk about shifting paradigms being disrupted by social, where social often acts as a proxy for change. What we often do is change the technology, but fail to fundamentally change the paradigm or context in which it operates. So whilst I’ve allowed myself to go on a bit of a flight of fancy, the gap between me talking about it, and it being reality may be only a handful of years or months away rather than decades.

Ginny ends her address by saying that the challenge is not technology. The challenge is one of culture, and that perhaps is where competitive advantage might lie. The competitive advantage that lies in, ultimately, becoming an authentic organisation.

So my question to you is: Are you ready for that shift towards becoming an authentic organisation? Are you ready for the social network as production line and the impact of what that may bring.

Thank you.

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