Copyright 2001 John Zipperer.
Business Is Not War
Don't substitute facile, fashionable slogans and narrow ideologies for dynamic, flexible business thinking
By John Zipperer
(07/15/01) Where did you learn your strategies and outlook for business? At a business school? On the job? Well, how about from a 19th-century Prussian general’s theories of war? If that last one sounds silly to you, then your head is on straight.
“Clausewitz on Strategy,” is a commentary on General Carl von Clausewitz’s posthumous work, “On War.” It’s a product of something similar to the specialty-Bible publishing trend, in which a translation of the Bible is broken up with commentary intended to point out practical applications to a given person’s lifestyle. There are Bibles for baby boomers, teens, women, and whatnot. Here, passages on “Courage and Determination” or “Economy of Design” in a military context are interrupted by sidebars that draw out the lesson that is supposedly applicable to business.
That’s the main problem with “Clausewitz on Strategy”: The authors seem to think that the general’s principles are applicable to business simply because they have to do with conflict. In warfare, of course, you kill the other person if you can’t agree, or you threaten to kill them or their loved ones.
This is a problem recognized by Clausewitz himself, when he writes, “War is an act of force, and there are no limitations to the application of that force. Each party goads the other on, triggering an interaction that must, theoretically, lead to extremes.” The only application of such a paragraph to business is to note that it is not applicable to business. But that undercuts the entire point of using war imagery and a war strategist to give business insights, doesn’t it?
The authors, Tiha von Ghyczy, Bolko von Oetinger, and Christopher Bassford, use Clausewitz to focus on the theme of strategy. The military source of the strategic theory is not seen as integral to the strategies themselves.
Admittedly, the authors do recognize the risk they ran in taking the approach I’m criticizing them for. “We caution the reader against the temptation of seeking to rigidly map war onto business and vice versa,” they write in their extended introduction. “Distortions arise because there are elements of business (such as the customer) and elements of war (such as annihilation of the enemy) that simply do not have their equivalents in the other realm.” Thank goodness.
Certainly, one can take teachings out of context from one field and apply them to another. But that suggests that succeeding in the modern business world is a matter of getting the correct ideology or strategy and then just following it, looking neither right nor left. But this book does make one good point—and by making it, undercuts its own reason for existing—namely, the importance of uncertainty in decision making. This not only means allowing for the role of chance in eventual outcomes, but also being able to switch between alternative points of view throughout the entire process, so that you engage the question from many angles and are less likely to fall prey to a narrow set of principles.
Clausewitz writes, “Consider the price one must pay later in exchange for comfort now. The theory that offers apparent truths will center the mind on those truths and force it into a small, constrained orbit around them. It will dull the mind’s perception of subtle (and not so subtle) changes in the environment. In removing the pain of struggling with ambiguities, it blinds us to emerging opportunities that no conventional theory can ever fully anticipate.”
That’s a wonderful statement, and it certainly has applications to business, politics, war—even parenting. That’s because it’s really about using your intellectual faculties to their full extent. If you’re not really thinking, grasping all sides of an issue and pondering their implications for your business—then you’re probably in the wrong position in your company. No book of military theories is going to change that.
Fork’s offices are standard-cool loftspace. One wall of the conference room is a garage door. Some offices are separated by simple glass walls; other workstations share large sunny rooms. It looks like the kind of place where you’d find talented young people playing loud music and pushing technology to the limits—sometimes for pay and sometimes just to see if they can crash the technology. And that’s exactly the kind of place it is.
It also is the kind of place that not too long ago, when U.S. agencies set out to conquer the Old World, was a natural target for purchase or partnership. Fork’s experience with American suitors provides two lessons to American firms doing business overseas: Be aware of the uniqueness of local markets as you expand globally, and focus on your core abilities, partnering to obtain expertise that falls outside that core area.
Failure on these two scores is why many U.S. agencies have closed their European offices and gone home. The collapse of the e-business market in the U.S. was another reason, but still, says Manuel Funk, a partner at Fork, “It’s really hard to adapt an American business model to Germany.” And the same applies to German companies in the States. Last year, when every U.S. agency wanted to rush into Europe, Fork had a lot of purchase offers. “We talked to practically all the network agencies,” says Funk. But no deal was made.
“Most of them thought it was just as easy as buying a German company and renaming it,” says Funk. “Their first mistake was to put Europe in one pot—‘Okay, we entered Europe with an office in London,’ and after a couple years discover that London is not Europe. Then they came to Scandinavia or Germany, and it’s very different. There are so many differences just between northern and southern Germany.” Another mistake, Funk says, was “very centralized companies with management in New York” trying to tell their European offices how to do things.
Partnering is a way of life for Fork. Its creative and branding staff works with in-house designers and programmers. For tasks lying outside these core activities, it partners with a number of outside specialists. Fork’s strong points are Web design, Java-driven interfaces, and brand development—strengths that have led to a five-year relationship with Nivea. Other clients include Mannesmann (now Vodafone), German cigarette maker Davidoff, Lufthansa, Hotwired.com, and DaimlerChrysler.
Germany’s government is encouraging the emergence of Berlin as Central Europe’s media capital. Fork is part of a steady flow of media companies from nearby Hamburg into Berlin; the government provided moving assistance. Co-founder David Lindermann even appears on the cover of a city brochure [left] devoted to business partnerships.
And yes, the mix of programmers, marketers, and artists resembles Silicon Alley’s, but the business culture is different, says Funk. “There are parties and other networking events in Berlin and other German cities, but it’s a different style than in New York, because Americans are more open.”
Fork bridges some of these cultural gaps with a staff from many countries; it even maintains an office in New York’s Williamsburg district. But Funk dismisses any idea that it is attempting to run an “American office”; instead, the U.S. office is for meeting clients and feeding into the staff in Germany. In the end, it’s a German company he and his partners are running, but they tap into global talent. That’s a nice mix.
tell the truth, I’ve been a bit impatient about the pace of mobile
development. I know I’m not alone in that; in fact, it’s basically
conventional wisdom that the really cool stuff has moved further over
the horizon. Business people still juggle multiple devices, each of
which may do one or two cool things, but none of them do everything that
we’ve been expecting them to be able to do. It kind of helps to focus
on other topics, and to occasionally let your gaze drift back to the
mobile field to see if anything new has popped up.
If your glances
are infrequent enough and you squint a little so that the rough edges of
your vision aren’t apparent, then what you see can be quite pleasant.
When you see Microsoft’s solution you might actually get a bit
excited. That’s not intended as a backhanded compliment to Microsoft,
because its mobile solutions for corporate users that it announced this
week promise some impressive gains; it’s just to keep in mind that
with any new product, there are still lots of caveats -- “we’ll
address that issue in the future.”
Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates got the main
attention with his keynote address Tuesday before a crowd of adoring
TechEd developers, he really had little to say beyond announcing things
people pretty much knew already. But if you went onto the exhibit floor
and into the educational sessions, where you found the Microsoft
employees you would not recognize by face, you got a better sense of how
Microsoft’s future plans for business technology were coming along.
it’s providing for a corporate market in which, for example, a sales
person on the road could wirelessly contact her customer sales data
right before a customer meeting. She can see that another customer might
need to be contacted, and she can have the system alert a customer
service rep to contact that company. But it’s not only good for those
“browse” actions, in which the mobile person can access and interact
with info; just as important is the “push” aspect, where her company
can send her an alert that her second appointment for that day needs to
address an inventory deficiency at the central warehouse. That two-way
interaction -- browse and push -- is a selling point of the Microsoft's
Mobile Information Server (MIS) environment. Steve Conn, a Microsoft
software test engineer in its mobile Internet business unit, says “the
ability to browse in real time and interact with data in your
enterprise” is what’s important.
this TechEd conference Microsoft officially announced Microsoft Mobile
Information 2001 Server and the Mobile Internet Toolkit Beta 2. The
point is to help companies mobile-enable their intranet applications,
and to do it in a way that will make the information accessible (and
usable) on any kind of device.
To beef up the
announcement, the company showcased some companies such as Vodafone UK,
which is offering a service in which corporate mobile users can extend
their Outlook functions to their mobile devices. Companies such as Cap
Gemini Ernst & Young, EDS, Accenture/Avanade, IBM Global Services,
and KPMG International will be offering MIS-based services later this
There are two
editions of MIS -- the Carrier Edition and the Enterprise Edition. The
former sits at the carrier, such as Vodafone or AT&T, the only two
carriers Microsoft was ready to announce. The corporation, of course,
uses the Enterprise Edition, with its services running through the
carrier’s MIS server. (However, your carrier doesn’t have to have
MIS-CE in order for your service to work.)
As with the
launch of practically any new product, Microsoft’s solutions won’t
answer all of your problems and there is room for future versions to do
better. Security would be one big issue – perhaps the main issue –
for any company offering mobile access to its corporate intranet. The
Microsoft reps do tout the security options of their new system, but I
think companies may want more-solid assurances. As for doing some of
those other cool things I’ve been impatiently waiting for the mobile
market to provide, this is an area where non-Microsoft products may lead
the way. (For example, Conita
Technologies offers a neat-looking solution to voice-enable the mobile
access of corporate data; one of its products is essentially a digital
personal assistant that can access and interact with your Outlook data.
So Microsoft’s solutions are not the be-all and end-all to corporate mobile information needs. But they are worthy of a look.
Announces Development Tools for the “XML Era”
(06/20/01) Microsoft continues to fill
in some of the blanks in its .Net vision of the future, with a number of
releases and proposals targeting the corporate application development
community. Speaking at his company’s TechEd 2001 conference in Atlanta
Tuesday, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates said
we were now in a new era defined by XML as the protocol for business
communications: “It’s the basic approach that will be used for
electronic commerce, and it demands an advance in the tools.”
He then proceeded to announce new tools
aimed at the growing market for application development dedicated to
tying together corporate systems, tying together disparate applications
with an increasing number of languages, and tying together corporate
information with far-flung (and fast-moving) workforces. Operating
alongside all of that is an initiative by Microsoft to try to channel
discussion and planning for these various applications and services into
a manageable process.
Microsoft is calling the initiative the
Shared Development Process (SDP). Think of the SDP as the response to
the decentralization of the development field; it attempts to bring
together the process of sharing information about new services and
solving problems. “It combines the ability of Microsoft to create the
products and the ability of the industry to make sure it is fitting the
needs that are there,” said Gates.
Though it would appear to be operating
under Microsoft’s aegis, the company said that future SDP work
focusing on the creation of XML conventions won’t necessarily need the
direct involvement of Microsoft. The first SDP project is the creation
of extended services for Microsoft’s Hailstorm initiative. It provides
a structure for proposals, working groups, testing, certification, and
deployment of new services. The SDP is designed to be flexible and allow
the speedy creation of new groups on new topics as needed.
If Microsoft’s hopes for the SDP come
true, it will be because companies are busy developing a lot of new
products and services to meet the needs of today. Gates said that people
are still underestimating how much technology will change the way they
work and live and how much they will be affected by increases in
communication and sharing of data and documents. Even after the
tremendous developments of the past decade, “in every one of these
areas, we’ve barely scratched the surface,” Gates said, and he
predicted that in the current decade, “every one of those ambitious
scenarios will become reality.”
Microsoft is using its TechEd meetings
to announce the availability of a range of products for the developer
community, and Gates said that these products – ranging from Visual
Studio.NET to Windows.NET Server (formerly known by the codename
Whistler) to Mobile Internet Toolkit Beta 2 and more – focus on the
issue of developer agility. “It fits this whole business theme in what
people refer to as the post dot-com era,” Gates said, “in which
getting projects done quickly and with reduced budgets is of paramount
Therefore, the tools Microsoft is
offering promise developers the ability to use a more menu-driven and
click-and-drop interface to create applications with fewer lines of code
and that work on a wider variety of devices. The prospect made Gates
hyperbolic: “I think the opportunities for developers in this next
decade will be phenomenal.” They will not just do things better, he
promised, but will take “knowledge workers and their efficiency to a
whole new level. It’s distributed computing taken to a whole new
The ritual promises of next-generation
development aside, Microsoft is assembling the bricks of its .Net
edifice, as promised. But it didn’t stop the extended argument
occurring between at least two members of Gates’ audience about
whether Microsoft was losing ground to Java or whether Java was
overrated. That may be the standard type of argument you get in any
collection of developers, but Microsoft clearly is dedicated to
assembling the rest of .Net and leaving the developers with
more-timeless arguments, such as whether Kirk or Picard was the better
(06/15/01) Fortuna fortes iuvat. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the preceding sentence, because it’s in Latin. We could also have written it in French, or Greek, or Swahili. All have, at some time, served as a lingua franca—defined by our dictionary as “any of various languages used as common or commercial tongues among peoples of diverse speech.”
Though some pundits have called XML the universal language of the Net, they are missing the point—namely, that English will be, and arguably already is, the lingua franca of global business powered by the Internet. Though that makes things easy for Americans, it doesn’t reverse the consequences of the Tower of Babel. And, as our European friends are showing us, there are potentially mind-boggling ramifications for our businesses.
Timothy Garton Ash, writing recently in the New York Review of Books, notes that the European Parliament already devotes one-quarter of its staff to linguistic services. The staff aren’t just translating the two languages involved in a face-to-face conversation; they’re translating every language involved in the proceedings into every other language. “The formula for determining the resulting total of language combinations for interpretation is n2–n, so the present tally is 110,” Garton Ash writes. He calculates that the expected addition of several countries to the EU, will yield a new figure of 462. So when we say there should be more effort devoted to translation for e-business, we don’t say that lightly. And we certainly don’t think everything needs to be translated into every language. The polyglot nature of the EU alone, we believe, suggests that the emergence of a lingua franca for business is logical and inevitable. But that language isn’t shared by everyone with whom companies hope to do business. You can probably expect your business partners and client businesses in other countries to agree on a shared language, because you are entering into a formal, long-term arrangement with them. But if your services are intended to reach consumers in other countries, you can’t count on them knowing English.
More important, even if consumers have a basic comprehension of English, you will need to be careful not to assume perfect mastery of it. There are a lot of nuances of language that aren’t taught in high school foreign language classes; there are also a lot of details about commerce that will differ for users around the globe.
Whatever language becomes the lingua franca of global business, faster and more accurate translation services and products are needed. The smart-est companies we’ve met with that are already in, or are entering global commerce, are either putting their own people on the ground in other countries, or working closely with trusted foreign partners. But for the best translation services, they’ll want to use translators who are native to the tongue and are familiar with current usage. Yes, it will require a lot of effort, but as Pliny said, “Fortune helps the bold.”
(06/15/01) An e-business consultant was recently in our conference room, commiserating about the challenges he faced helping companies get from point A to B in their Internet plans. He remarked that though he is often mistaken for one, he is no magic fountain of secret knowledge. In fact, he said, “Often, I’m telling them to do what they already know needs to be done.” It may sound like an unnecessary waste of money for a company, but it often proves to be a very necessary reassurance.
This is a lesson I learned firsthand while working on a project to Web-enable a former employer’s database. We had legacy software specially designed for our type of organization, but it hadn’t been designed to work with Windows NT—which we didn’t know when we started the project—causing us a great deal of trouble when we went live. Only after months of struggle did we get the software maker to admit their software was the problem. It was your typical e-business nightmare: The database was too slow; it often crashed; it didn’t have enough search functions for our customers.
There were other problems, too. We had a number of broadcast e-mail lists I administered, which pulled their addresses out of the same legacy database. Except that the filters for the broadcast e-mail software often failed; people couldn’t get subscribed easily and often got unsubscribed because the system overwrote new lists of subscribers with older lists. Those were the lucky ones. We also heard from more vocal customers who had not subscribed but nonetheless were receiving the e-mail, which in such circumstances translates into spam.
The technical problems weren’t monumental. We knew what we needed to do—upgrade various software programs, bring in a new technical consultant with expertise in our broadcast e-mail system, establish a position of chief architect for all of our technology efforts, and eventually, switch server platforms.
We ended up doing all these things, but only after a second trial by fire. The first trial had been handling problems and dealing with customer complaints. The second trial was implementing the new system despite losing the confidence our customers and board members once had in us. We had to go through a long political charade before we could get the necessary changes made.
The board’s solution was to bring in an outside consultant who would do a review of our technology use, needs, and future growth. A local firm was hired to conduct interviews. We worked with them, and then waited anxiously for their report. It essentially restated what we had said all along—what needed fixing, what staffing changes were necessary, and what future investments had to be made to get the company where it wanted to be.
Well, it wasn’t all stuff we’d been saying all along. On one page of the report was a particularly annoying chart that purported to show how our company would fall behind the technology curve if we didn’t keep investing and upgrading. It was an amateurish chart: it indicated no quantities of time or money, just some curved lines, our company’s name, and a description with a dire warning about our future if we failed to heed the report’s recommendations.
That graphic was, to me, the final insult of an insulting process. Yet it was swallowed whole by the board, for the sole reason that it had been prepared by highly paid outside experts.
It was galling, but also a lesson in the value of refraining from asserting the need to be recognized for having been correct all along. What the consultants provided (for a few thousands of dollars) was a comforting aura of expertise that our board needed in order to accept our recommendations and accept a new working arrangement with us. In short, it gave them ammunition with which to answer potential critics.
Politics is a messy thing, and it ain’t just in Washington. But if one can manage to set aside one’s distaste for it, the bigger picture will unfold. For us, there was a happy ending; the political games served to get us to where we needed to be all along. Frustrating as it was, it was the right thing to do, because it allowed everyone involved to eventually buy into the plan. But all it required of us in-house folks in the end was a little patience and humility. To reach our goal, that wasn’t too much to ask.