If we're all specialists who's responsible for the big picture?
Image via: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jackcheng/
Back at the start of the century, I worked on HP’s e-services campaign. For me, this was an early exposure to the thinking around web services that eventually became a foundational component of what we now think of as Web 2.0. The idea that digital services (like mapping, package tracking, etc.) offered by different people or companies could be combined on the fly in order to accomplish complex tasks. Inherent in this model was the idea that companies would begin to specialize and create services in their specific areas of expertise. People could then pick and choose the best of breed services in any given area and combine them with the best of breed services in any other area.
While somewhat Utopian, this is largely what we see happening. Best of breed shipping companies like Fedex have created package tracking services that seamlessly plug into best of breed retailers like Amazon.com which itself served as the retail “engine” for sites as large as Target.com until very recently. This is an elegant model in technology. Common standards and API’s take care of messy integration issues and interoperability is a background function performed by silent and invisible “plumbing” that hooks everything together and keeps everyone on the same page.
Take this model off the web and into the business world and things become a lot messier. It’s pretty clear that the same forces are shaping businesses themselves. Companies are continuing to specialise to a greater and greater extent and either outsource or partner to round out their skill sets. Customers are increasingly looking for customized solutions built from combining best of breed partners. However, while integration on the Web is a low-level task, integration in business, of a herd of various “specialists,” is a Herculean task.
As a small company, we deal with this on a daily basis. Creating complex solutions for our clients almost always requires bringing in specialists in certain areas and getting them to all work together towards a common strategy or goal. Additionally, we’re also seeing more desire amongst our clients to create teams comprised of best of breed partners rather than working with one full-service partner. This means we often sit at a table with multiple other partners, all of whom bring their own areas of expertise as well as their own biases, prejudices and assumptions. Reconciling these can often be extremely difficult.
I think it’s safe to say that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. In any industry that you can name, there are a bunch of brand new companies who are making a name for themselves by carving off parts of tasks that used to be done by a single company and positioning themselves as specialists in one specific area. For that reason it seems to me that integration is rapidly rising from being one of the lowest value tasks in the business world to becoming one of the highest value tasks.
There are a number of different issues that arise from this that I’ll be exploring in future posts:
- Who’s responsible for integration in business – is this something that can be outsourced?
- How can integration best be accomplished? What are the business equivalents of common standards and APIs that need to be created?
- Forming partnerships is often made more complex by legal and billing issues. How can these barriers be minimized so that companies can form ad hoc partnerships on the fly?
- Is integration, and/or the creative combination and management of specialists a specialised task itself? Do we need a new class of companies focused on integration?
I’m curious what your thoughts are on this? Is this something you’re seeing in your lives and how is that integration role being handled?