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.