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.

Monday, November 30, 2020


For two decades now, we’ve heard about the threat of tech disruption to established industries and incumbent firms. Yet it isn’t the tech that disrupts, it’s socio-economic change that creates conditions that a technology can exploit. Tech isn’t the catalyst, but it can be the beneficiary.

COVID may turn out to be the greatest global catalyst of socio-economic change since the middle of the 20th century. As the pandemic has continued and the numbers have risen, the chattering classes are now asking what the lasting changes will be. These can be useful exercises, certainly to the business leaders who’ve got to find their customers or compete against rivals with slimmed down cost structures. Not to mention, the acceleration of innovation - a WSJ article recently cited a McKinsey study that had suggested 10 years of innovation was compressed into a 3 month window - has created opportunities that were not practical just a year ago.

No surprise that the analyses range from the very narrow to the very broad. The narrow ones are easy to comprehend and useful for specific industries. For example, I’ve read projections that anywhere from 15% to 50% of all business travel isn’t going to return. Although a wide range, it suggests that airlines and hotels will have to appeal to leisure travelers to fill seats and beds. Leisure travelers are more price sensitive and less brand loyal than business travelers, so even if volume recovers, revenue will lag, which portends more cost cutting or in-travel sales or on-demand activations (you have to swipe a credit card to get the TV to work in coach on the airline, why not require a customer to swipe a credit card to get the TV to work in the discounted-rate hotel room?) It also suggests that a startup airline with a clean balance sheet, a fleet of fresh planes requiring little maintenance (there’s a desert parking lot loaded with low mileage 737MAX jets), able to draw on a large experienced labor force of laid off travel workers could create significant heartache for incumbents.

At the other end of the extreme are the macro analyses asking The Big Questions. Are cities dead? Is cash dead? Is brick-and-mortar retail dead? These are less useful. The Big Questions are too big. They require far more variables and data than can be acquired let alone thoughtfully considered in a coherent analysis. The authors traffic in interesting data, but either lack the courage to draw any conclusion beyond Things Might Change But Nobody Knows (thanks for that, so helpful), or use the data selectively to present defenses for their preference of what the future will be.

In the middle are Big Question headlines with narrow questions posed, even if not answered. Analyses on “the future of work” cite specific employer examples to posit what is now possible (e.g., specific roles that gain nothing from being in an office and lose nothing by being distributed) and broad employee survey data to suggest their potential scale (e.g., 25% of employees in such-and-such industry want working from home to be a permanent option on a part- or full-time basis). These are useful analyses when they highlight future challenges on management and supervision, collaboration and communication. Economically, employer and employee alike win when a person chooses to relocate to a lower cost-of-living area for quality of life purposes. But that only works if the physical separation causes minimal, if any, impact to career growth, skill acquisition, productivity and participation, and corporate culture. A company believing it can espouse even moderately aggressive distributed workforce policies must be aware that these are specific problems to be solved.

What I’ve yet to see is an analysis of how the institutions that are benefitting and the institutions that are suffering will influence the micro-level trends and, by extension, influence the answers to The Big Questions.

Consider a large universal bank that employs hundreds of thousands of people in cities round the world. One way its retail bank makes money by converting deposits into loans. One way its commercial bank makes money is by making mortgage loans to businesses. One way its investment bank makes money is by underwriting debt issued by municipalities. It may look as if the bank can reduce its operating costs by institutionalizing a work-from-home policy for a large portion of its workforce. But doing so is self-destructive to its business model. Fewer employees in office towers means fewer people to patronize the businesses to which the bank lends, fewer public transport and sales tax receipts to the municipalities whose debt they underwrite, and less demand for construction and renovation of mixed use commercial properties. The bank stands to lose a lot more in revenue than it would gain in reduced costs, so as a matter of policy, a universal bank will want its employees back in their offices in full numbers. The bank will set the same expectation to vendors, particularly those supplying labor.

But other companies are benefiting from this change and will want permanency of these new patterns. Oracle provides the cloud infrastructure that Zoom operates on. More Zoom meetings not only means more revenue for Oracle’s cloud business (investors will pay a premium for a growth story in cloud services), it gives their cloud infrastructure business a powerful reference case as they pursue new clients. It comes as no surprise that Oracle’s executive chairman Larry Ellison is a vocal proponent of lasting change.

And, of course, nobody knows what public policy will look like, which will play a huge role in what changes are permanent and what reverts to the previous definition of normal. State and municipal governments are facing significant tax receipt shortfalls as a result of COVID policies. Many have also suffered a depletion of residents and small businesses. They may offer aggressive tax incentives to encourage new business formation or expansion as well as commercial property development. At the same time, there are states that have received an influx of population and cities that have seen residential property price increases. They will be reluctant to see their newly arrived neighbors leave, so they, too, will offer incentives for them to stay.

It isn’t difficult to imagine there will be aggressive new forms of competition. Suppose firm A is adamant about employees returning to the office. If the employee survey data is to be believed, it’s possible that as much as 25% of firm A’s labor force prefers to work from home a majority of the time. Firm B can aggressively use that as a recruiting wedge to not only lure away firm A’s talent, but offer them relocation packages to lower cost-of-living areas, expanding and potentially upgrading their talent pool at a lower price.

Or, suppose that city C imposes putative taxes on companies employing a distributed workforce. It’s not unprecedented. Several cities already charge a “commuter tax” (also known as a “head tax”) on employers with workers who travel into the city. This would instead be a “can’t-be-bothered-to-commute tax” levied on employers in a city whose workers do not travel into the city. Meanwhile, near-west suburb D of city C entices a WeWork-like firm to develop a property that can house several businesses with partially distributed workforces, offering a smaller physical office space with fully secure physical and digital premises. This would lure midsized employers whose labor force lives largely in the western suburbs, reducing not only their rents but avoiding the “headless tax” imposed by city C.

The analyses of what will or will not change and why it will or will not change is only going to increase in the coming months. And, because some stand to lose significantly from change while others stand to benefit handsomely, the debate will only intensify. For those without the balance sheet and political clout to write the future, a firmly held opinion about the future isn’t worth very much. But the ability to study, process, absorb, investigate and prove ways of exploiting heretofore unrealizable opportunities is priceless.