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February 24, 2012

Once upon a Jim and Bob...

Posted by Anand Prasad Arkalgud (View Profile | View All Posts) at 9:30 AM


This is a tale about Jim and Bob. Jim has spent over 5 years working his way up in a large organization setup.  When faced with constraints, he knows how to get it all sorted by talking to somebody, escalating the issue, or even concocting a solution himself. Jim is highly networked within the organization, has a clear mental model of the enterprise, and has all that he needs to get his job done either using what's available with him or somewhere easily accessible in his people network.  If a system fails, he knows how to remedy the situation, whom to contact, or even propose an assumptive stop-gap solution fully aware that that particular fix-it will not break anything downstream.  That's Jim for you.  Empowered. Willing and able to take liberties with management and processes to ensure operations don't suffer.  Everybody else is Bob.  Bob has not spent enough time in the organization to have built a network within the setup. Every day, his mental model of the enterprise gets clearer - slowly but surely. He has seen some early success, but is as yet unable to intuitively map organizational processes. Existing operational hurdles, sometimes, plague him and, on occasion, frustrate his attempts to drive business goals.

It's the Jim and Bob challenge that looms large before every large enterprise moving to a new market or setting up new operations. Their business models, processes, and in many cases, their systems and applications are developed, in their home markets, where for every 7 Jims there are typically 3 Bobs.  This equation ensures that problems don't linger when they appear, and often triggers a continuous improvement process.  Shift the same scene to an unexplored market - perhaps in the developing world. Here companies have been growing consistently at over 15-20%, making it highly unlikely that their workforce would comprise  70% Jims.  In fact, I've informally asking several business leaders to give me an idea of how many Jims they had per 100, and, in places like China, the Jim ratio turns out to be as less as 6%. 

Now, just consider the implications of taking systems and processes that work very well in a 70% Jim scenario and applying it to a 6% Jim environ.  A number of things start to fail. Mentoring doesn't work as effectively because there isn't even one Jim to support 10 Bobs! Continuous improvement practically vanishes with Bob struggling to solve problems and not feeling empowered to provide solutions.  Then, the systems that Jim designed often work best with components that are not always as accessible as the systems themselves. These components typically reside in the form of stored information (like that tell-all excel file on Jim's laptop!)  either in Jim's accumulated work repository  or with someone in his network.  Bob has no tacit knowledge to fill these gaps, and the same system that worked smoothly enough for Jim does not support Bob adequately. The end.

Moral of the story: While we try to replicate our businesses in new markets, what we really want to do is replicate our success in these markets.  This means we need to see what components of the factors driving success in our home markets is available as-is in the changed scenario. We must begin, either by ensuring the replication of these success factors or by innovating to adapt to its unavailability. Not recognizing the void can lead to a struggle with an issue that can possibly be addressed faster and in a relatively hassle-free manner.

Epilogue: Think of what this might imply when challenged to address situations created by an aging workforce, when expanding to emerging markets from the developed world, when building global templates for technology-led transformation, and all the other interesting puzzles that make business leaders reach out for that extra shot of caffeine.

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