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Three Little Cores

  • June 01 2007, 1:00am EDT

When Herb Kelleher was asked how long it would take to train his successor, he replied, "About five minutes," which is about the length of time it would take to explain the importance of making decisions at Southwest based on the core concept of being the lowest-cost provider. Is it really that simple? Why not fire the flight attendants and maintenance personnel? This would certainly lower the costs of doing business. However, in the long term this would increase the costs of the business and force Southwest to increase prices. This is an oversimplification of an obviously successful business model, but think about the message this sends to the employees.

Is there an overarching theme by which decisions can be made with your data management systems? I am going to propose three basic themes, which align themselves with the framework seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Framework for Decision-Making

Technology Infrastructure

The technology infrastructure includes the hardware, software, networks, vendor support and internal resources that define a data management system. For most, this box is all you ever need in order to deliver value. When deciding on a particular function or capability, I always ask how it will impact the "x-ability" of the environment. Will this effort impact reliability, capability, extensibility, serviceability or scalability? The business organization wants to be sure that if they utilize this environment, they can count on it being available. This requires full lifecycle management of the environment and portfolio. Getting the technology right ensures that your implementation doesn't fail, but it says little about long-term success.

Social Capabilities

In the social context, you want to know if the change will impact your growth model. Because your long-term strategy is to reach "mass adoption" of the technology, you must ensure that you alter the behavior of the end user toward that goal. In order to change the behavior, you must ensure that people are comfortable with the new environment and see the benefits. You can accomplish this modification or culture change by utilizing training programs, best practices, coaching sessions, online demonstrations, communities of practice, marketing programs and engaging customer touchpoints.

With all of the automation capabilities available, you might wonder why some business engagements still include an Excel spreadsheet followed up with a personal phone call. The reason is, you want to take the opportunity to engage the customer and present yourself in a positive light that is nonintrusive, solution oriented and focused on customer service. In addition, you have the opportunity to read the customer in order to determine the level of service that might be required. Repeat customers might want to move through the process very quickly, while new customers want to be walked through step by step. The biggest benefit of not automating the engagement process is the ability to offer additional services that otherwise might go undiscovered, which leads to greater product adoptions.

Organizational Capabilities

Introducing new technology and creating an open user environment still leave out a critical component - you want to create organizational change. The days of "paving the cow paths" are gone, and the introduction of technology must alter the current business environment in some measurable way. If you deploy technology that doesn't fundamentally alter the organizational capability, the long-term success is questionable. The development of distinctive organizational capabilities relies to a considerable extent on the willingness of particular groups of employees to commit themselves to joint problem solving and the improvement of employer-specific knowledge and skills, sometimes at the expense of enhancing their own individual competencies.1

Should you add one additional feature that the data steward has placed in the requirements document? What impact will this have on the x-ability of the environment? How will the end-user's behavior change, and will this enable you to grow the product line? Finally, how can you reuse the functionality and fundamentally change the way in which the organization delivers value? These questions are at the very core of your competitive advantage.  


  1. Richard Whitley. "The Institutional Structuring of Organizational Capabilities: The Role of Authority Sharing and Organizational Careers." Organization Studies 24, 2003.

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