The problem with recessions is the availability of money. Product prices go down, but so too does disposable income. In a recession like this, banks, investors, and leaders don't want to take financial risks because no one wants to lose any more money, and your customers want more than ever to save money.
I think that the future of business is in doing more with less, but on a larger, but also smaller scale. The future of business, of workflow, of everything will be in making the "things" that make up businesses smaller. Customers and investors will have less to spend, so the things you sell and the materials that go into them should cost less and be tailored to their needs. No one wants to take risks because so much has already been lost, so the risks you take should be smaller as well.
Efficiency can only help a business so much. Margins can only be narrowed so far. Once all the fat is gone, the only thing left to trim could be bone. At a certain point, doing more with less becomes doing less and less. Businesses cannot grow by doing less, unless something fundamental changes.
Shrinking prices, investments, and risk, will make for small companies, small product lines, small workforces and small profits. In order to pull out of this recession, something has to grow. How can a company grow if it is shrinking everything? The answer is in multiplication. A company, an employee, even a consumer, can grow by doing more things.
Small prices mean that more units must be sold to make up the difference. Small wages mean more work has to be done to maintain income. Small investments mean being open to more investors to maintain cash reserves. In short, when the numbers get too small, you have to add more numbers.
How does a business take on more? How does an employee take on more? How does an investor or a lender take on more? It is happening right now in garages and basements all over the country. There is a growing movement among Americans to do things. People are using the internet to meet, share, discuss, and collaborate in new ways every day, and not always online. People are meeting up and making things in the real world as well. This is an international movement and it could be the future of business as well.
Websites like YouTube and Wikipedia have empowered people to do things online. Publications like Make magazine and Craft magazine are empowering people to do things offline, and share the results online. The result is iteration: people read about the things people are doing, they do things; things get shared inspiring more things to get done and shared. If this is transforming people outside of business in their spare time, it can transform people inside of business as well.
If a business unit in New York does something and succeeds, and shares the results, it can inspire the people in Los Angeles to do more as well. If a competitor hears about success in a given market, it will enter that market as well in hopes of obtaining similar success. By empowering people to share tools, knowledge and resources, companies can empower their workforces to do more and more with less and less.
Employees are fearful of corporate instability and job elimination. Investors are fearful as well. Managers are fearful of downward trends that will lead to further cutbacks. The cycle of fear, withholding, and recession has to be replaced with inspiration, investment, sharing, and growth, not just within the company, but in the market as well.
Workers are also consumers. Consumers will not buy if they fear for their jobs. The people who buy your products need jobs so they can afford your products. Things have to be done to create effective jobs for workers, so they can resume the pattern of consumption. Workers are uncertain about their jobs because companies are uncertain about their financial outlooks. The cycle repeats until investors, executives, managers, workers, vendors, and consumers all fear uncertainty and pull their money out of circulation. This cycle needs to be broken. Everyone has to invest to halt the decline. Workers need to invest time and effort into their work, companies need to invest in employees, research and market/product development. Investors need to invest in companies to fund development. How does a company inspire so much investment in such uncertain times?
Risk is the basic building block of uncertainty. When an individual invests in something, the outcome is unknown. When an individual invests a small amount, there is less risk, but there is also less reward. Small investments and small rewards are fine for small, sustained growth, but won't be enough to halt a downward trend like a global recession. Investment needs to increase without adding risk.
Diversification is a great way to reduce risk. Investing small amounts into several different investments means that poor performance in one area may not affect the performance of other areas, leading to steady sustainable growth rather than radical highs and lows. By distributing risk over a series of projects, individuals, companies, and investors can make collectively larger investments while taking individually smaller risks.
Diversification works great when investing, but how can employees and companies diversify? The key to enabling diversification is miniaturization: making the parts that make up a business unit, a position, or a product as small and reproducible as possible. When a product or service is broken down into reusable parts, those parts can be re-tasked to other products and services that may not correspond directly to the company’s core businesses. When a job title is broken down into specialized and standardized services, employees can provide those services to other business units or other companies. When a product or service is eliminated, the parts can be re-used or sold; then a business unit is eliminated, the labor that it required can be re-used or sold in a similar manner by turning it over to new product lines, or offering the service to other companies.
New products and services can be risky. Bringing a product to market can involve significant investments and can be quite time sensitive. There are many ways to decrease the time it takes to bring a product to market, but a better approach would be to reduce or eliminate the financial risks associated with the development process. Making use of existing parts/services/employees is one way to reduce risks. Another is to release products and services early in the process and solicit feedback from customers as soon as possible. The sooner buyer feedback can be incorporated into back into the product, the sooner the product will improve in quality and attract more buyers. Also, the sooner internal feedback from employees and managers can be incorporated into the production process, the sooner the process will improve, making the process more efficient. This means sharing more of the product development process with the customer and releasing products sooner, rather than later. This also means working with frontline workers and managers to improve processes sooner, rather than later. The netbook is a great example of a product that came out suddenly, and improved drastically in a short amount of time.
Employees fear being eliminated. By providing specialized services to multiple business units or product lines, employees can diversify the work they do so that the elimination of a product or service doesn't mean elimination of the employee, but simply a reduction in the services they are tasked with. Additional work can be taken on if it is available within the company, and highly specialized or demanding work can be provided to other companies if necessary for a fee that benefits both the company and the employee. By changing from static workflow to dynamic, on-demand workforce, employees need not fear elimination and will compete to produce the best results. Amazon is a good example of a company that will leverage every part of its infrastructure for a profit.
By diversifying the portfolio of products, services and by leveraging all parts of the business for returns on investment, small cycles of production, feedback, and improvement can iterate quickly. Also, the smaller faster cycle means that product and service lines can move in multiple directions based on customer and employee feedback.
Small diverse products, services and business units which are supported by on demand infrastructure and labor mean fewer upfront costs for new businesses. Lower costs mean that businesses don't have to sell as many units to turn a profit, making it easier for individual business units to succeed. Smaller initial investments mean that failed or unprofitable businesses will do less to affect the overall profitability of the parent company.
To re-iterate the formula for growth in recession: make things smaller and cheaper, sell more and different things, engage customers and employees for feedback, incorporate that feedback into the product or service and into the production process, and do it many more times than you are doing now. This is doing more with less on both a larger and a smaller scale.
How does a business prosper make miniaturization, multiplication, and diversification work?
Obviously flexibility is key. Workers need to be mobile enough to provide services when and where they need to be provided. Technologies that enable mobility and remote work will be more and more imporatant and job functions change on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. Whether as a vendor or consumer, companies need to invest in flexible technologies. Flexibility on the part of the business is also important and so infrastructure should be flexible enough to accommodate change.
Another key is training. Investing in workers not only benefits the company in the short run, it demonstrates to workers and customers alike a commitment to the product or service. The cycle of fear and withholding needs to be broken, and investing in people is a great first step. Companies of the future, like Amazon and Google invest in their people as well as in their technologies.
The final key is sustainability. The cycle of fear is based on the perception that a company, a job or an investment won't be around. Companies need to focus on sustainability from a finaincial, eccological, and social perspective. People won't invest and will not commit to something that is not sustainable. Demonstrating your focus on sustainability will go a long way to breaking the cycle of fear and withholding.
12 year veteran of the information technology industry, including work for a long ago defunct dotcom era start up company and Y2k. Aspiring hacker, maker, and activist and co-founder and member of hive13.org, a Cincinnati, Ohio based hackerspace.