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The Tin Man

Published
  • May 01 2003, 1:00am EDT

One of the perks of traveling a lot is that you accumulate a number of hotel points and airline miles. If you concentrate your efforts on a few airlines – or even better, a single airline – you can earn admission into the upper tiers of the airline rewards programs. I've been flying on United Airlines relatively steadily since the early days of their mileage program, and I've been able to reap the benefits of that loyalty as I've slowly accumulated more than 1 million miles with the carrier. Of all the rewards the airlines offer, probably the nicest perk for the professional traveler with loyalty status on an airline is the enhanced ability to upgrade from coach to business or first class.

The typical things people focus on with these upgrades are that business and first-class seats are wider, sometimes there is power for your laptop, often the service is more attentive and generally the food is better, which can be pretty important when it is your only meal of the day. However, all of these things pale in comparison to the most important aspect of an upgrade: the people you meet and what you learn while talking to them.

I've met CEOs and senior executives, rubbed shoulders with celebrities and shared the wonders of airline food with countless other road warriors. On one cross-country flight, I found myself engaged in conversation with another businessman who called himself "the tin man." We worked through the topics of family, the news of the day and finally to business. He was a senior executive of an American company that had been around for generations. Just about every American had touched, used or owned one of his products, but few would ever know it. His company made tin boxes and containers for product packaging and decorative uses in an incredible array of product offerings in a diverse product line.

He was returning from a trip to the Far East. He'd been visiting one of their manufacturing plants in Indonesia and scouting sites for new plants in Vietnam and China. In the past, they manufactured in Mexico and Latin America, but had moved manufacturing to the Far East in search of lower costs. He explained that their business had such thin profit margins that they were forced to chase low labor costs across the globe. As economies matured, the middle classes grew and wages rose. His company was forced to move to lower-cost locations.

His major worry was that he felt the business model would only be valid for a few more decades. Because a fundamental variable of his business depended on macroeconomics, his company engaged in long-range planning which extended 10 to 50 years. They felt that China would be their final source of low-cost labor in the Far East. The next place they could turn for light manufacturing would normally be Africa. However, that continent is being ravaged by AIDS, and he felt that it may not have a viable base of workers in the time frame in which his company would need to utilize this work force.

I found this long-range view extraordinarily rare. In my long career interacting with senior leadership of the world's leading and largest corporations, I couldn't think of a single one that exhibited this type of deep integration of long-range planning with global economic development patterns. For most U.S. corporations, long-range planning means six to nine months. Even though almost all large organizations have senior executives tasked with "strategic planning," they are mostly concerned with having a viable "long-range" strategy to trot out for shareholders; I had never seen one actually drive day-to-day operations unless it was tied to survival or a quarterly financial goal.

In our world of BI, we've seen dramatic changes as low- cost offshore resources impacted the pricing models of what we do. Your challenge is to ensure that you understand the long-term direction of your organization and its market. You must also understand the long-term trends related to BI, BI services and its effects on your customers.

Many of the jobs that emptied out of Silicon Valley with the dot-com meltdown are never coming back. The programming, analyst and development manager positions have been permanently outsourced to lower-cost markets. How long will it be before your business discovers that it could offshore the development and maintenance of your BI systems? How prepared are you for that eventuality?

As generic BI capabilities become portable via Web services and completely integrated with OLTP systems, it will become increasingly difficult to justify an investment in internal custom development and resulting maintenance of these capabilities. Instead, it will be more likely that businesses will outsource and offshore these capabilities to the lowest-cost provider.

When most people hold a tin box, they don't think of much more than the color or decorative design, and they certainly wouldn't think its manufacturer could represent the state of the art in long-range strategic planning. As you can see, we may have much to learn from such a humble product. It is critical to your career, your team and business that you invest as much in long-term thinking as the tin man does.

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