In 1999 two books were published that deal with the topic of change and uncertainty in the business environment and how to engineer enterprises that are capable of coping with these conditions. The books in question are "The Agile Virtual Enterprise: Cases, Metrics, Tools" by H.T. Goranson (Quorum Books, 1999, ISBN 1-56720-264-0) and "Adaptive Enterprise: Creating and Leading Sense-and-Respond Organizations" by Stephan H. Haeckel (Harvard Business School Press, 1999, ISBN 0-87584-874-5). Both books paint a picture of a different sort of enterprise to that which we experience today event after taking account of the radical transformations wrought by new technology, business process re-engineering, Toyota production concepts, etc.
Both books touch upon important issues that lie at the heart of agility, issues that I wrote about in my book Agile Manufacturing: Forging New Frontiers.
Modern design theory tells us that there are a number of ways one can design (a strategy, a product or even an enterprise). The first is the stage-wise model. It is dominant in our culture and can be found in software engineering, enterprise design as well as strategy design. But there are also other models - incremental, adaptive and spiral. All four models can be applied to strategy development and enterprise design. Which model to use depends on the situation - characterised by the level of uncertainty, design complexity, constraints, and risks. The trick is to know which approach to apply and when to shift models. Design theory also tells us that problem finding and problem solving are intertwined activities. A grave weakness in all design activities is the separation of the two - it can be seen in strategy development, software engineering and IT systems implementation.
I am glad to see that, at last, these matters are being addressed in other books. Five years on from the publication of my book, my conclusions about the strategy development process required in modern business environments have not changed. However, it is now clear that to make different models work several factors must be addressed:
1. The structure and processes of the enterprise need to be realigned to support these strategy and enterprise design models - this in itself may require a strategy (to become adaptive or agile) as well as novel high level business processes.
2. Strategy needs to become everyone's business. Operationalising this is a key concept in achieving a sense and respond enterprise - it's a different form of empowerment to that which we currently see discussed and implemented.
3. Above all else, these are matters of culture and paradigm. Many of the issues surrounding the area are soft and intangible. As a result many will not fully realise the capability. Here therefore, lies a source of sustainable competitive advantage for those few who can.
Anyone interested in these issues should read all three books. They will provide insights into 21st century enterprise concepts and the basis on which to build sustainable competitive advantage.
Paul T. Kidd