Customer Interface: Go Long

The pace of technological change makes planning for the long term more difficult – and more important.

In business, the rate of change continues to accelerate. Remember the five-year business plan? Remember creating a new one every year? Now businesses are lucky if they can make a five-month plan and update it once a year.

Soon we’ll need multiterahertz chips with continually mutating genetic software just to keep up with the shifts in technology, market places, business models and board member brainstorms.

Nevertheless, there is a real need for companies to have a big, long-term picture clearly identified even if they are swamped by day-to-day changes in technology. While companies are busy putting one foot in front of the other, it pays to have a final destination—or at least a general direction—in mind. But with the Internet, is it even possible to look out 10 years?

For an idea of how some people are trying to take a long-range perspective, check out the Millennium Clock project proffered by The Long Now Foundation (www.longnow.org), a San Francisco-based nonprofit group. A pet project of computer scientist Daniel Hillis, the 10,000-year Millennium Clock project was inspired by an unlikely source. In 1386 the builders of Oxford University’s College Hall at New College planted oak trees to assure the availability of timber hundreds of years later when the building would need new beams. As Hillis sees it, that kind of long-range thinking is absent today. In his opinion, too many people suffer from short attention spans that don’t extend beyond the year 2000. Both the Millennium Clock and The Long Now Foundation aim to “foster long-term responsibility” and to promote thinking about the “deep future.”

Hillis is soliciting design input on the Foundation’s Web site to build a scale model prototype of the clock. As Hillis explains on the site, “it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental  barrier of the millennium. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.” Sound a bit out there? Maybe so, but consider some of the luminaries involved with the Foundation. In addition to Hillis, board members include Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, Douglas Carlston, chairman of Broderbund Software Inc., and Esther Dyson, publisher of the Release 1.0 newsletter.

Of course, thinking about the future does not have to extend out 10,000 years. In May 1997 Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates revealed his thoughts about the future of computing in a speech to the Newspaper Association of America. “We are going to create computers that understand information, computers that can speak, that can listen, that can recognize handwriting, computers that even with inexpensive digital cameras can see and know what is going on,” Gates predicted.

Given that kind of insight into the future, how does a company plan for such a scenario? How will a company manage in a world where global prices and availability turn every product or service into a commodity? Companies can’t even begin to guess until they get a handle on what they really do.

While IS contemplates desktop upgrades and new technology strategies, is the CIO communicating with people at the top? Executives read the paper. They know the Internet is serious business. But do they have that knot in the pit of their stomachs when they read about Dell Computer Corp. (www.dell.com) racing ahead of the competition because of the company’s Web-based commerce applications? Do they understand the long-term implications of Amazon.com Inc. and CDnow Inc., two retail businesses that have no physical stores? Or are they the type of executives so firmly focused on Wall Street that they can see only as far as the next quarter?

If executives can’t see beyond the end of the next fiscal quarter, it’s time for IS to pull them up to the 40,000-foot level. The most expedient way to do that is also the most obvious: Simply ask the executives what business they are in. Only then will executives come to appreciate that the Web isn’t simply a valuable communication and information tool. At its heart, the Web is a transformative tool that’s changing business structures and operating models. The companies that are succeeding on the Web are those that have realized that the network is the company.

As companies place increasing emphasis on the Web, it’s the CIO’s job to clue in management to the fact that the Web necessitates a shift in the role of the IS department. For many of today’s business executives, there was a time when computers were relegated to crunching numbers in some back room for finance. As client/server technology developed, the people in IS eventually had to convince such executives that computers could control inventory, improve manufacturing, streamline workflow and manage purchasing. Remember the arguments over putting a PC on every desk? The same people whom IS had to educate about the power of the PC need to understand that IS is no longer about bookkeeping—IS is the vehicle the company must use to move on to its next iteration.

Only when a company knows what business it’s in can its executives look down the road and form a coherent strategic plan. Strategy allows for planning and planning allows for tactics. Unfortunately, our lives are so fraught with managing the tactics that we don’t have time for making plans, to say nothing of thinking of strategy. Fortunately, however, thinking strategically is a skill that can be honed if not learned.

George L. Morrisey, chairman of The Morrisey Group (www.morrisey.com/index.html), a management consulting firm based in Merritt Island, Fla., and author of A Guide to Long-Range Planning: Creating Your Strategic Journey (Jossey-Bass Business and Management Series, 1995), recommends the use of Decision Trees to formulate strategic plans. The trees graphically chart the following:

* Major corporate events, phases and accomplishments
* Primary and supporting accountability for events, phases and accomplishments
* The time sequence of events
* The corporate resources required to ensure that events and accomplishments take place
* Feedback mechanisms throughout the corporation

Morrisey breaks planning into three broad categories: strategic, which leads to perspective; long-range, which leads to market position; and tactical, which leads to performance.

When it comes to the Internet, companies need only look out about five years into the future before leaping from the world of the foreseeable and predictable into the realm of the possible. In taking some wild guesses as to what the Internet will hold in 10 years’ time, there’s an opportunity to do some thinking along the lines of science fiction.

We can start by supposing that every appliance and device that runs on a battery or electricity will have an IP address. In addition to the e-mail and voice mail available today, mobile phones will access car alarms, household appliances and home heating and air-conditioning systems. As customers walk up to a vending machine, they can request their usual selection by sending an encrypted message to the machine via their mobile phones and get a customized order every time.

If planning 10 years in the future taxes the imagination at your company, it takes little imagination to recognize that strategic alliances are the  most significant business-model change ushered in by the Internet. With the Internet, it has never been so easy for a company to ally itself with others to outsource, cobrand or enter new markets. Reaching out to synergistic partners and breaking into new territories is the Internet culture of the late 1990s. And anything having to do with the Internet culture tends to bleed over into the rest of the business world fairly readily. As a result, thinking in terms of specific strategic alliances may be one way to crystallize longer-range planning efforts.

As the world continues to change at a faster pace, it behooves corporate executives to look to the core competencies of their own firms and start to partner with those that are also making long-term plans. In the end, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.