I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tech: From Owning to Renting - to Owning Again?

In the 1970s, the predominant business strategy was vertical integration: own the value chain from raw materials to retail outlets. The research of the time supported this. The Profit Impact of Market Strategy database produced by the Strategic Planning institute concluded that diverse & vertically integrated businesses were significantly more profitable than narrow and focused businesses (PIMS 1977, slide 67). Michael Porter argued in Competitive Strategy that vertical integration enabled cost leadership, which was more likely to win market share than a strategy of differentiation. Vertical integration also created a barrier to entry to competitors, and provided defense against powerful buyers & suppliers and the threat of substitutes (Porter 1980, pages 9-15, 35-37). Corporate strategies assumed long-term existence and growth; this made employer-employee relationships more durable, so a firm could be a destination employer for people across a diverse range of roles. Companies like American Telephone & Telegraph and General Electric could pursue diversification and vertical integration in no small part because they could be all things to all people.

Business strategy changed in the 1990s, insisting that companies were better off focusing on "core competencies" while renting anything deemed non-core. A retailer, for example, should concentrate on sourcing merchandise to sell and developing the outlets through which to sell it, but rent the accountants, IT, back-office staff and real estate to operate and administrate the business. The thinking was that a firm could not be expert at doing everything, it would have cost bloat in non-core areas and lack the expertise to contain it, and that firms needed to pay ruthless attention to their core as competition would only intensify. It also became accepted that a firm could not be a destination employer for non-core employees and therefore could not expect to be attractive to top flight people across the board. Outsourcing for business and technology services reduced the number of employees and associated costs, allowed significant operating costs to be negotiated on a gross basis rather than an individual one, and made labor arbitrage accessible to firms for which it would have been too risky and difficult to pursue by themselves.

This change happened quickly. Perceptions of corporate durability imploded in less than a decade through consolidation (increase in M&A) and bankruptcy (over-leveraged with junk-grade debt and unable to make debt service payments). This eroded the employer-employee relationship and made any single firm less broadly appealing. Kodak outsourced IT to IBM in 1989, ushering in large-scale IT outsourcing that fueled the rapid growth of firms like Accenture and TCS over the ensuing two decades. GE created a business process outsourcer - Genpact - in the late 1990s, spinning them off as an independent company within 10 years. Firms separated asset ownership from asset usage, creating holding companies that own the real estate and rent it to subsidiaries that run business that occupy it. In a relatively short span of time, companies went from owning everything and renting nothing, to owning little and renting everything, with lots of financial intermediaries springing up to minimize tax burdens and squeeze rents.

In technology, cloud computing extends this story arc. Prior to the advent of computers, business was labor intensive. When companies first invested in computer technology by buying mainframes and hiring programmers, they did so to create efficiencies in their administrative operations. Companies reduced their labor expense, and the hardware and software they acquired appeared on the balance sheet as capital investments in the business. In the process, they also made business application development a "core competency" of their business. Within 40 years, most of those administrative processes were standardized by commercial-off-the-shelf ERP products. But that ERP solution still appeared as an asset on the balance sheet because software licenses, customization, and server infrastructure were capitalized assets of the firm, even if the people who led the customization and implementation were rented and not employees.

This is beginning to change. Cloud, Saas, and BYOD allow firms to rent technology rather than own it. As businesses have consumed increasing amounts of computer technology over the years - communication tools, productivity tools, business administrative software, servers, routers and end-user devices - company balance sheets have become increasingly "tech asset heavy". Renting makes their balance sheets "tech asset light". Rent payments put a dent in cash flow from operations, and the cost of renting can be higher than the cost of owning. However, renting improves performance ratios such as "return on assets" and "capital intensity". This flatters the CEO and the CFO.

Early computer technology transferred labor intensity of business activity (lots of clerks on the payroll, performing manual chores) to capital intensity (computers & software automating these chores, booked as capital assets), but it was still accounted for as something the business owned rather than rented. Cloud, SaaS and BYOD will drive out the lingering capital intensity by shifting the technology assets from "own" to "rent". A business still has costs associated with these things (it has to generate invoices and collect from customers), but as the underlying functions become more and more commoditized they offer no strategic advantage, and are instead treated as a tax on doing business. There is still room for innovation - new firms will emerge to offer new ways of providing these services to minimize this "tax" - but these are commodity offerings competing in a race to the bottom on price.

Businesses originally owned their tech capability, because that was the prevailing way that businesses operated, computers and computer skills were scarce, and firms derived significant competitive advantage from being early adopters. That changed because strategic thinking changed, technology became commonplace, and a lot of business technology became utilitarian. But what's true for utility tech is not true for disruptive tech, that is, tech that disrupts business models. Businesses are no longer consumers of tech, they are becoming tech. If every firm is a software firm, does technology need to return to the core? Will the business practices that developed and evolved with renting be adaptable, irrelevant, or an outright encumbrance? We'll look at those questions in the next post.