From Silos to Streams – The Changing Structure of Business

Technologists tend to use the “real-time” phrase to represent speed (of computing, response, etc.) which is different from managing in real-time – in other words, “how does one deal with the real world as it unfolds in real-time?”

Managing in real-time is a lot like watching a movie.

Unfortunately that is NOT how we manage business today. Instead, imagine a theater where the seating represents the management hierarchy:

  • First row: These are the workers on the front-lines of business watching the movie unfold in full detail in real-time. And let’s say the movie is in English and 2 hours long.
  • Second row: These are the first-line supervisors. They get to watch (see & hear) every other minute.
  • Third row: These are the departmental managers. Every 5 minutes, they get summary reports (snapshots) from the second row of what’s happened so far.
  • Fourth row: This row is middle management. Every 10 minutes, they get summary reports (snapshots) from the third row of what’s happened so far. They also have to translate the reports from English (operations) to Chinese (finance) for upper management – and vice versa, when they get instructions for the rows in front of them.
  • Fifth row: This row is senior management. Every 30 minutes, they get summary reports (snapshots) but this group is special because they get to influence the plot of the movie. They can’t really choose the outcome due to random events beyond their control. Ideally they are supposed to do their best to make sure there is a happy ending for all – but in reality, the priorities of their row and the row behind them, the shareholders, trumps everything else.
  • Sixth row: The shareholders in the last row get a summary report once a year (but they may also happen to have seats in the other rows or find out what is going on in other ways.)

This is essentially how we manage business today where (a) much of the information technology architecture is built around this hierarchical structure, (b) a lot of management is like driving by the rear-view mirror, (c) there is often a disconnect between operational metrics and financial metrics, and (d) as much as we claim to desire agility, the front row who watches critical events unfold in real-time is often the least empowered to respond immediately to it.

What got me excited about social technologies was their potential to circumvent this structure. Its like giving the different rows the ability to subscribe to the real-time view as being seen by the front row (or any other point of view for that matter.) Its not perfect though – the fifth row might find the second-by-second version of the movie too boring. Or they have difficulty translating the real-time English language feed into Chinese. But the technology is at a nascent stage and will likely reshape much of our current approach to management.

Like many, I did not pay much attention to social media until the events of the Arab Spring. When I researched it and realized its potential, I connected the dots back to my own journey of discovery about structure and shape. The slidecast below is the “narrated” version of my paper [which you can download here: Part 1: From Silos To Streams (Oct 2012)]