Remodelling the corporation

Detail_of_vasco_da_gamas_tomb_in_the_cha Here’s a thought.  What if we gave up consistency as an organizational objective?  What if  we stopped trying to integrate ventures and strategies?  What if we just let the corporation rip as something essentially inconsistent and unintegrated?

This thought struck me while reading Stefan Stern on the new article by Philip Kotler and Neil Rackham in the Harvard Business Review. (I know, I know.  I should be working from the HBR original, but, hey, I’m on train and the noble, winged Acela doesn’t have internet access.)

The Kotler/Rackham argument addresses the troubled relationship between marketing and sales departments.  Readers of this blog know that I regard Philip Kotler as a kind of God.  I don’t know Rackham’s work particularly, but if Kotler is prepared to work with him, he must be a demi-God at the very least.

But I paused when Stern offered this summary of the Kotler and Rackham argument:

[C]ompanies need to do more than simply align sales and marketing better.  They actually need to integrate them fully and concentrate on deploying the skills that generate revenue. 

It’s that word "integrate" that got me.  Isn’t corporate integration almost always a recipe for unhappiness.  Doesn’t it almost always leave those who have been "integrated" with the sense that one culture had been given the upper hand or that both cultures have been diminished. 

My second thought was that the very idea of "integration" might be a relic of another age.  The old idea of the corporation imagined it a model of modernist clarity.  In the minds of senior managers (and some analysts), it was a beautifully clear, well defined idea, consistent, coherent, elegant, not a single assumption out of place, a perfect rendering of all but only the roles, responsibilities and personnel needed to make and sell all but only and exactly the kitchen appliances America needs at any given moment.

By this reckoning, the corporation was supposed to present itself to the world with a single face.  And it was the job of marketing, among others, to make this so. Clean up all the false starts, the bad ideas, the notions now antique, and replace them with a single concept, that elegant idea, of what the corporation was. 

This was especially what designers would do when they consulting to the corporation.  They would do an image inventory, a review of all the brands, logos, and executions by which the corporations was known.  The dramatic script was always the same. Fill a board room with clients, shakes your head gravely, and say, "Children, children, children, your image is all over the place.  The corporation has more faces than Eve!  You are immensely fortunate to have hired me.  Consistency, this is what you pay me for."  And then the designer would begin a process of discipline that all the corporate faces might now be one.

That was then. This is now.  Now the corporation is entitled, if not obliged, to be many things to many people.  Consumers have multiplied externally and internally.  They appreciate that the world is complicated and, in better moments, complex.  I don’t think anyone demands consistency from the corporation.  I’m not sure that they expect integration.  I mean, everyone understands what has happened to the world, the tsunami of dynamism that washed over us all.  No one lives an "integrated" or "consistent" life.  I do not believe they hold the corporation to a higher standard.  (Actually, this is an interesting question.  Who and what is the corporation now in the mind of the consumer?  What do we expect and demand of it?  I do not presume to know the answer here or to treat the question with scant regard.  Which of course I just did.)

So what if we dumbed consistency and integration as marketing objectives and just let her rip.  We speak with many tonques, we are known by many faces.  It’s an ugly idea, by modernist standards, but an incredibly useful one.  It is for instance, the answer to a newly complicated market place, one in which there are lots of segments, and lots of cultural difference between the segments.  In an age of plenitude, is the strategic thing to do.

Partly, I am playing the guru game here.  The rules of the game: 1) come up with a bold idea!  2) Say it loud, say it proud!  3) Bang your own drum, until the world says, "enough all ready, we’ll buy the book!"  4) roll out the franchise of books, articles and speaking engagements.  5) unleash the guru!  (Christensen, Cook and Hall played this game recently with their launch of the "purpose brand" argument.)  The guru game depends on the introduction of a single conceptual stroke that claims to cut away the obfuscation, confusion, and shilly shallying that stands between the corporation and new clarity.  Behold, says the guru, here is an idea before which the world must defer (and wallets open). 

In the case of Christensen, Cook and Hall, the results are disasterous.  The world of marketing is actually encouraged to forget much of what it knows, to dumb itself down in a most unHBS way. (Shame on you, Mr. Christensen.  HBS is nothing if not tactical, and the "function" idea dispenses with all tactics but one.)  This failing might be apply here too.  Oh, let’s be honest, it probably is true here too.

There are larger intellectual and institutional validations.  The concept of the corporation as a creature of many faces is the concept of the corporation cultivated by complexity theory.  From this point of view, the corporation cannot be, and should not be, consistent, integrated, and monolithic.  For the purposes of evolutionary success, it should be messy and multiple, a thing constantly in the process of becoming, and entirely unapologetic about the multiplicity that results.  By this reckoning, the coporation is a CAS, a complex adaptive system. 

Anyhow, perhaps consistency and integration are best regarded as intellectual, managerial antiques.  Perhaps it’s time to move on. 


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  And stop calling me stupid.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. November 30, 2005. here.

Stern, Stefan.  2006.  Why the people from marketing must be branded a failure.  Financial Times.  October 10, 2006.  p. 8.

10 thoughts on “Remodelling the corporation

  1. Tom Atkins

    I’ve been part of two startups, both of which did very well over a number of years before I moved on. In both cases, we integrated sales and marketing completely from the start. It just seemed to be the most effective way to do things – to have both sides on the same page, part of the same strategy, to have them not as sides at all, but as a team. It’s always worked and with great results. I’d never do it any other way and am about to employ it on my third company any week now. Stay tuned!


  2. aj

    Isn’t this really what blogging and the Cluetrain idea of a ‘human public face’ – in all its messy un-politically correctness at times — is supposed to be doing? Flattening hierarchies in a good way, but also playing up personal and cultural differences within an organization? And to answer one of your questions, to have conversations with customers, not recite boilerplate copy like some half-remembered liturgy?

    If anything, I think we expect corporations to be more human – compared to the apparently omniscient godlike things they were in the 60s and 70s, we want them humble, transparent, willing to admit mistakes, and less willing to do dumb, shortsighted or criminal things because they know a) they’re being watched and b) it’s really bad PR. Once you break down the shell of the Invulnerable Corporation with that single-face Identity, you see it as a collective of people that do things, and you can then hold those people to the same standards we hold ourselves, friends and neighbors to — and they usually go along with it because it’s in their own self-interest.

  3. jens

    now that is an easy guru game to play, grant.

    usualy europeans become gurus by copying american business authors.

    now you have got the once in a life time chance to turn the brain train around and copy the writings of Gerd Gerken if you really believe in the fragmented organisation. i am dead serious. enjoy.

  4. Peter

    Way to go, Grant!

    In the 90s, I consulted to several intending global mobile satellite communications network operators. The main feature of that industry was the long lead times — 10 years between raising the investment and actually providing commercial services (satellites have to be designed, built, deployed and connected).

    While 10-year market forecasts are common in some industries (eg, energy), this is an absurdly long time in mobile telecoms. Nobody, but nobody, has any clear idea what the market and technology landscape will be like in 2 or 3 years, let alone in 10.

    The only solution, I argued, was for an intending operator to choose several forecasts (call them “scenarios”), and build businesses based on each one simultaneously. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but in 3 or 4 baskets. Maybe, to the outside world, you only present 1 forecast at any time (perhaps important to re-assure investors and regulators), but internally work to several. This clearly has psychological, technical and managerial challanges galore, but the losses from a wrong bet are so large, these challanges are worth dealing with.

    Unfortunately, this idea proved to be too post-modern for the typical telco executive running the satcom operators, and none was able to sustain it. Later, McKinsey picked up the idea — I don’t know whether they were more successful at persuading clients to run with it.

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  6. David Altschul


    If you look at the idea of Brand though the metaphor of science then yes, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin, etc., etc. But if you move around to the other side of the problem and look at a brand through the lens of story then complexity and consistency are not incompatible. In fact, story is the principle tool for understanding and communicating complexity. The difficulty is that most marketers continue to confuse the story telling and the story framework. The story framework – the meaning of the story and the principles for expressing it – should be clear and immutible. The story telling can vary wonderfully from audience to audience and from occasion to occasion.

    Story is driven by conflict and the most powerful, iconic brands all manage to hold apparently conflicting energies in dynamic tension. For example, Nike seems to hold “Triumph of the Human Spirit” and “Victory at all Cost” at the same time. In its storytelling the brand presents a thousand faces, but the underlying meaning of the story doesn’t change. (Except during the crisis over Nike’s offshore labor practices, which was a case of celebrating victory at all costs and leaving the human spirit side of the story in the dust.)

  7. Grant

    Tom, thanks for the background. Best, Grant

    Tom Atkins, thanks for that ethnographic illumination. It feels like they should work together, but I think that marketing got too big for its bridges and forget that if you have a person to person connection, no brand can beat. And this must be way we are now trying to build brands that restore that person to person connections. Thanks, Grant

    aj, this is a great point, and I should know (and reference) this book better than I do, thanks for supplying the perspective. Sometimes, I think the consumers entertains conflicting expectations. We want a corporation with human qualities. But we also want big company perfection. Hopefully, we’ll get over this. Mind you, with so many people banging the anti-corporation drum, this won’t happen anytime soon. Best, Grant

    Jens, thanks, something for my reading list, I don’t know his name, a measure of my new world centricity, I’m sure. Best, Grant

    Peter, this is a brilliant idea, to have several models in the works at any given moment, so that we don’t have to start from zero. Not one but several skunk works! Sorry it didn’t get embraced. Thanks! Grant

    David, this is exactly right, the story does have room for complexity, indeed, it demands complexity, (and the idea of story helps us sell it to marketers and senior managers who are inclined to “keep it simple, stupid.) Thanks goodness for Characters.

    But I think that the idea of story is itself needlessly confining. Doesn’t it mean that all means well have to be mutually acknowledging, if only in moments of tragic recognition. I think there might be a “layering” approach here to constructing the complexity of the corporation that would test even the story’s capacity for multiple meanings.

    Thanks, Grant

  8. steve

    Grant is pushing my buttons here. Now as far as brand image goes, I don’t have very strong opinions. I think buyers do want some degree of consistency, if only to avoid bad surprises (accidentally posturing as hip, say, when one wants to be square) and also because it’s hard to REMEMBER a brand association in the welter of stimuli we face today unless it’s a pretty clear one. But selling different facets of a product to different segments of the market seems OK. So does using multiple stories to get the same message across (e.g. GEICO with its gekko, caveman, celebrity pitch spoof, etc. campaigns all reinforcing its specifc product claims and its image as a company that doesn’t take the process of marketing too seriously).

    When we go to the broader context of organizational performance, however, I must demur. Integration of some sort is crucial, and in fact is the only justification for having people work in anything but arm’s length fashion. The confusion here is between the possibility of parallel initiatives and the need for complementary behavior.

    If you have enough resources, you may be able to run parallel activities like GEICO’s ad campaigns or Peter’s scenarios. But WITHIN each activity, there is likely to be a need for integration–the GEICO media planners might need to be aware of which ad stream goes with which audience, for example. And think about the marketing/IT interface–all those data warehouses purchased in the ’90s with no idea about how to use them effectively.

    When one thinks about product design or operations, the frequent need for integration is overwhelmingly clear and supported by lots of in-depth research. It’s hard for me to think that good iPods could be designed if the hardware, software, manufacturing, and design groups weren’t integrated in some way. The LA Times just reported that Airbus’s A380 catastrophe was caused largely by a lack of integration between the French and German technical groups (and their different design software). The Mars Climate Orbiter went awry in the ’90s when the probe pilots were insufficiently familar with the systems engineering aspects of the craft.

    When designers come up with forms that are hard to manufacture, or products that are hard to sell, even though the manufacturing and sales folk could explain these flaws if their warnings were understood and heeded, you are seeing costly integration failures. Non-integrated firms are also often anomic to work in, because one’s efforts seem futile as they are cancelled out or hindered by others’ choices. Everything form “hurry up and wait” to “your last three months of work are being tossed out” to “our evaluation system punishes you for doing a good job in certain respects” ultimately flows from a shortage of integration.

    So I guess I have to be a player-hater on Grant’s new guru career. But if he rephrased it as parallelism, or “consistency within multiplicity” I could maybe get on board and applaud his rise to mega-celebrity consultant.

  9. arvind

    I wish people wouldn’t confuse ‘complex, adaptive systems’ with ‘complex adaptive systems’. Complex, adaptive systems are akin to what Steve is talking about: a complicated collection of interconnected (integrated?) components that work together to adapt to changing circumstances: this can be anything from a traditional organization to the fragmented sort you are talking about.

    A complexadaptivesystem is something that is, in addition, self-organizing and emergent: its behaviour is difficult to predict from first principles.

    Why do I care? Because your argument rests on an assumption that something complex and adaptive must necessarily also be self-organizing and emergent. Perhaps this is not so? In which case, it seems much more useful – instead of wondering whether integration is useful or not – to wonder how much of what kinds of integration are useful. Which requires a cultural understanding, not just an economic one…

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