A couple of days


A couple of days ago, I was talking to a guy who works for Oracle. He told me Oracle changes fundamentally every 8 months or so. He has survived all of these transformations. And his job has changed each time, sometimes quite dramatically.

I started thinking about how different this is from the world of work as my father understood it. Certainly, my father, a printing executive, watched technology, managerial philosophy, and consumer preference change his industry several times. But between these changes, there were “breathing spaces” sometimes as long as a decade.

I started casting around for a rough and ready typology that would help capture some of the ways the manager’s world has changed. How about these three “stages?”

1. Task completion

2. Problem solving

3. Pattern recognition

In the case of task completion, the manager’s role is clear. Someone had established a “job description.” The tasks are well defined. The manager’s job is to look for efficiencies, to increase productivity, to keep the machine running. In a manner of speaking, this manager is “hardware.” What he or she does for the corporation changes only as and when the corporation installs new “software.” This is someone else’s creation and someone else’s choice.

In the case of problem solving, the manager’s attention shifts from supplying solutions to figuring out what his or her job is. This takes the ability to see what the matter is, and deeper intellectual resources with which to put it right. This regime was defined by the “manage by objectives” revolution in managerial philosophy. Now the corporate was installing the final objectives and saying, in effect, “you figure out what things you need to do to make these happen.”

In this case, the manager will be required to retrofit assumptions as required. The manager is now operating on the world and the manager, and the intelligence of the corporation has devolved a little to the individual. He or she is the locus not just of practice but idea. The manager is now responsible for changing the “operating system” as required.

In the case of pattern recognition, the manager lives in a world streaming with dynamism. There can be no task completion, until problems are solved, and there can be no problem solving, until the manager has grasped what the world is becoming. This demands that assumptions (the software) are being reworked almost continually. We saw this sort of thing in the late 1990s when people in the Silicon Valley spend a lot of time trying to figure out what value was being created and how to monetize it.

Pattern recognition requires that we ask Theodore Leavitt’s famous question, “what business are we in,” not occasionally but continually. And this means it is no longer, as Leavitt made it seem, a moment of Brahmin reflection, performed, once or twice a decade, preferably in the company of an HBS professor. It was now an everyday task, something to be done by an Oracle employee all the time.

Indeed, and this is pattern recognition level 2, the Oracle employee must now must engage in pattern recognition not just to do his job, but to keep his job. He needs to have an inkling what Oracle is going to be the next time around if he wants to keep his job.

I was describing this issue to Wodek Szemberg (TVO and CBC Ideas) and it suddenly seemed to us that this sort of managerial challenge might mandate the Liberal Arts as the best educational preparation for the contemporary manager. Naturally, the Liberal Arts have been hijacked by every kind of lunatic and it is now not always a preparation for clear and creative headedness. But we may find that b-schools and the humanities need to spend more time in one another’s company. Yeah, that’s it. Send Oracle back to the oracle.


Leavitt, Theodore, [reference forthcoming]


Wodek Szemberg

p.s., today, the lobby of the hotel is jammed with media all waiting for an outcome on the hockey negotiations taking place in the hotel.

3 thoughts on “A couple of days

  1. steve

    There are definitely different levels of “what you can take for granted” in different management situations, as the post describes. Depending on conditions, the key to success may lie in superiority in any one of those levels. I’m just not sure that a) we are in a more dynamic situation than say 1870-1900 or 1918-1929, b) that Oracle is fundamentally a different company than it was 8 years ago, much less 8 months, or c) that liberal arts is what our business people are missing–I would argue that MBAs are woefully undertrained in operations, for example.

    The Ted Leavitt thing has always bugged me because it is such a clear, almost parodic, example of marketing thought soaring completely away from strategic moorings. Its focus is entirely on shifts in demand at the expense of understanding firm capabilities (actual and potential). Leavitt’s suggestion that railroad executives postwar were myopic for not getting into trucking because they are in “the transportation business” is just silly. Why in the world would they think that their railroad assets and organization skill sets would be adequate in the trucking industry?

    The trick, of course, is to guess correctly when you need to be in “pattern recognition” mode and when you should be focused on problem-solving or task completion. Erring in either direction can have very bad effects on competitiveness.

  2. Grant

    Steve, well said, and as always most illuminating. I am suggesting a more dynamic world when a) it is not clear that ours is, and b) it is not clear how we could tell. The thing that strikes me though is how often people have to “hop” assumptions and how much space there is between the assumptions. Our adjustments to the internet opportunity was all about finding ideas that might make sense of this world, even when these ideas were pretty divergent. Certainly ever historical moment demands this kind of thinking (and pattern recognition) but I think it probably is safe to say that this action was once the moment of transition or adaption from one moment to another, whereas now it is a continual activity. As to Leavitt, I take your point and I am always grateful to be released from the glibness of my assumptions, but what I like about Leavitt is that he really is talking about those moments of reconceptualizing that make business, for me, maximally interesting (not least because most anthropological). Thanks, Grant

  3. Patrick

    It does seem like you could come up with some metric to get a quantitative handle on the “how dynamic is our world” question. It would be interesting to then compare it across time and space and see its effects. Any idea? Maybe some measure of 1)job turnover 2)company start-ups/closings 3)rate of change in industrial structure 4) something else.

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