Joe wrote this week about how Iceland is using the web to Open up its democracy and then asks the big question – what about corporate life? Will corporations follow?

Geoffrey West’s research suggests that they had better – because it shows that the ultra controlled approach that is the Command and Control Normal now – kills corporations early. They are dying sooner and sooner.

Are corporations more like animals or more like cities? They want to be like cities, with ever increasing productivity as they grow and potentially unbounded lifespans. Unfortunately, West et al.’s research on 22,000 companies shows that as they increase in size from 100 to 1,000,000 employees, their net income and assets (and 23 other metrics) per person increase only at a 4/5 ratio. Like animals and cities they do grow more efficient with size, but unlike cities, their innovation cannot keep pace as their systems gradually decay, requiring ever more costly repair until a fluctuation sinks them. Like animals, companies are sublinear and doomed to die.

The issue is that using a machine model – is that friction builds as well as cost as the corporation scales. The costs rise with revenue. So in the mature part of the cycle, you cannot innovate – you can only manage the numbers/ratios. For example, 10 years ago, Shell set up Shell Renewables. Shell was going to become a leader in non oil energy. Makes sense right? The top people know about Peak Oil better than most and wanted to find a place in the next energy sector. What ruined this experiment was its success. Being a very large organization, Shell did new projects at scale. With two of the largest new Wind Farms online – the CFO and the CEO saw the trap – saw why they had to retreat back into OIL ONLY. Shell had to make the numbers even if by doing so meant that Shell could not position itself to be a leader in New Energy.

Wind farms that do well have an ROI of about 8% they are a utility – like owning a bond. But the Oil business has embedded costs that are linked to the returns on OIL that are much higher than wind. So if Shell did a lot more of these mega wind projects, the ROI of Shell would be reduced and Shell would have an earnings problem. The more wind farms they installed, the more their earnings would drop but their costs could not. They were trapped!

This dooms Shell and all mature companies. We saw that is Big Steel when smaller local mini mills ate into the lower ROI parts of the business until there was nothing left? We see this now with media.

The costs of a press or a studio – are so great that all the majors can do is to defend their existing platform. The New York Times can only hide behind the paywall for a period of time. The studios can only hold off web distribution of video for so long. But their battle to keep the status quo is not stupid – they are stuck with the costs. It is the model of how we do business that is the problem. For in the mature phase, the CEO has to make the ratios and the costs are embedded. In the final phase all the CEO can do is to milk the system.

For all true innovation HAS to start with a modest revenue line. So if you have a large enterprise with high revenues you have also high costs. So a web based news alternative CANNOT earn the revenue that you need to run the Times. So you cannot go there. But of course a new competitor – Huffington? Can and will and in the end will take enough revenue off your top line to kill you.

So are corporations doomed? Well with a sample of 22,000 West makes a good case that the current model does doom you, if you are traditionally organized. So what then is the way out?

West makes the case that Cities live much much much longer. The core of why is the core idea for corporations to study and apply.

“It’s hard to kill a city,” West began, “but easy to kill a company.” The mean life of companies is 10 years. Cities routinely survive even nuclear bombs. And “cities are the crucible of civilization.” They are the major source of innovation and wealth creation. Currently they are growing exponentially. “Every week from now until 2050, one million new people are being added to our cities.”

Cities are much more open as systems and networks. They are much closer to being alive than corporations that rely too much on command and control.

As I write this I am thinking of how WordPress works. At the core of WordPress is a for profit organization – but also one of the tasks of Automattic is to ensure the health of an ecosystem that is the larger WordPress ecology in which thousands of independent developers who do not work for Automattic make a living. I think of Wikipedia. At the core of Wikipedia is a set of rules about how Wikpedia has to work and how people in Wikipedia have to behave. Surrounding this core is a cadre of “White Blood Cells” AKA editors – that ensure that this DNA is kept healthy. I see no way now that Wikipedia will not be here in 50 years.

Why my confidence?

If you look at WordPress and Wikipedia you will see the key. In a network that really is a network – like WordPress and Wikipedia – the costs go up in a shallow linear curve while the outcomes rise exponentially. The margin grows so that any bump in revenue along the way – which is of course natural for nothing in Nature runs on any form of straight line – does not take down the organization. But in a traditional organization, the costs rise in direct concert with the revenue and outcomes. This means that once the business approaches maturity, the leadership have to force the numbers, meaning that in the mature phase, the only real focus are the numbers themselves. Not the underlying purpose of the business. The focus becomes defence and self referential. The organization is now doomed. Doomed to suffer a bump in the market or to a new competitor. Look at the case of RIM.  Can RIM come back?

This site has been a place where many of us have tried to see the future for business. We could all agree that more Command and Control would not help. We could all agree that more Social Media used to open up the organization would help.  But what we are seeing now is that for an enterprise to thrive over time – it must become alive! Only a true network can enable this to take place. The few true networks that we can see now, give us a working model of the new enterprise.

Stuart Baker and I are working on what this might be and in the fall we will be posting our ideas.

Our proposition is this. In the 1800’s most business was small, local and unique. The great shift in the 20th century was to consolidate into the enterprise as we know it. This was how to create wealth then. All who stayed back in the small, local and unique died. The efficient machine had to be the model you used. Now we enter a new phase. For the limits of the efficient machine have been reached. The new winners will be those that can adopt the model of the real network.

We all know about how to organize the machine. How to organize the network is all new and mainly unknown. That then is the challenge and the opportunity. Good luck to all of us.


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