Learning from History

The Economist has a story on why Japan lost the mobile-phone wars to Scandinavia, Korea and others despite having been a pioneer in technology and usage of mobile devices. Japanese players are doing alright within Japan and still provide high-value components like the hard drives and screens from Toshiba – but the mobile world has moved on with other global players in hardware, software and usage.

The analysis on why the Japanese failed has an uncanny correspondence to trends and challenges in Enterprise Business Systems today.

“First, too many Japanese companies make phones. All major electronics firms sell them, mainly as a matter of corporate pride: not to do so would be a sign of weakness. As a result, 11 different domestic makers compete, most of them at a loss.”

Well, too many businesses try to write their own systems from scratch instead of reusing the globs of code written already all over the world. Standards and technology have existed for quite some time now that help put an ‘envelope’ around the code you want to reuse. This allows a black-box approach to ‘composing’ new arrangements of business-models. The value is in how the components are put together – and not always on the individual component.

“Second, Japanese manufacturers concentrated on the domestic market at the expense of global growth. Yet the national business model is unique: mobile operators design the features of the phone, and the manufacturers must comply. So the makers do not have a good understanding of what users want…” 

“Third, the manufacturers designed products around home-grown technical standards and special features that are not used elsewhere. “

This reminds me of IT shops in companies faithfully implementing every single enhancement request from business users without asking the additional questions, “Is this the standard way the industry operates? If not, then does this enhancement give you a unique competitive advantage?” The discussion should focus on reducing total cost of operations of industry-standard ‘utility’ processes and on investing resources in processes that create a competitive edge.

“Fourth, high-end customers who want sophisticated phones drive the Japanese market, but the main growth in the wireless industry overall is in emerging markets, which need cheap phones. The world’s top three makers—Nokia, Samsung and Motorola—focus on this segment.”

This is where the IT groups spend their annual budgets on high-end enterprise systems – ERP’s, CRM’s, SCM’s and similar ‘will fix everything and the kitchen sink’-initiatives. No money left over to analyze and improve the typical users’ workday  -better and more flexible productivity, collaboration and organization tools. No wonder the IT groups within business organizations are facing challenges from ‘mass-market’ technologies like Google Apps, WordPress blogs, Linked-In Contacts and a variety of desktop and mobile gadgets that help with balancing work and home lives. The tech-savvy, gadget-laden, knowledge-worker – with an equivalent of an IT shop at home – is the new ’emerging market’.

IT groups supporting business enterprises can add this chapter to their ‘Learning Book’…yet another set of rationale justifying the need to reinvent.