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Madam, The Ribbon is Free
A rich American lady visits the most famous hatter in Paris. She sees an exquisite, long ribbon and immediately falls in love with it. The hatter takes the ribbon in his hands, makes a few twists with it and creates a fantastic hat. Brilliant! The lady grabs it immediately. “How much is it?” she asks.Five thousand francs,” the hatter replies.Five thousand francs!” exclaims the lady, “but it’s just a bond!”Lady” says the hatter, “the tape is free.”
Welcome to the ‘tape-is-free’ economy, or in other words the knowledge economy. What matters is the intellect, the skills, the abilities, the know-how, the human capital. Yes, you need the financial capital as a vehicle, but you compete on your ability to create value, and that ability lies more in intangible thought processes than in the tangible of your bank account. Yes, you need tapes too, but everyone has them. Hatters are unique, ribbons are a commodity. Industries used to compete on quality. Today, quality is the baseline, a pass, the minimum entry. Other things such as design, fashion or extra services have taken over. Knowledge is now the currency. Companies should define themselves by what they know, not what they do.
It’s a ‘how-to’ world
There is nothing terribly new in the story of the Parisian hatter. Value has long been seen as being beyond the obvious product: either in (a) unique know-how, (b) the ability to make tape-on-demand, or (c) how the tape becomes an excuse for something else – to sell others more profitably stuff in the hatter’s shop, maybe? In 1999, American companies began offering free computers to anyone who signed a long-term contract for Internet service (Fortune, October 2000). Madam, the computer is free. In the UK – and I suspect elsewhere – some mobile phone companies give away the handset as long as you sign up for their airtime. Madam, the mobile phone is free.
Amazon.com is, on a superficial level, a bookstore. On a more serious level, it’s a system that knows who you are and what you’ve bought in the past, so it can send you tailored recommendations and emails when a new book is written about something you care about. On another level, it’s a public book review forum where readers can post their own reviews and see what other people think. And on another parallel level, it’s an incredible search engine for topics, ideas and cross-references. Madam, all this is free – you just pay for the book.
Long before people started talking about the knowledge economy, the software economy had taken over. A good example of this is the parent company of American Airlines, which made more money from licensing SABER, a software package used by travel agencies and airlines to make reservations, than from the airline’s own traffic. It’s a ‘how-to’ world. The software economy is a ‘how-to’ economy.
It is also an access economy. Access to information, to the customer, to people in general, but above all to a service. The ‘material’ world is in trouble in the access economy. Microsoft plans to stop selling CD software in colorful boxes and instead provide – for a fee – continuous access to software downloadable from its website, which has the added benefit of being constantly upgraded. In fact, anything that is programmable can follow the same pattern. As someone once said (perhaps in Silicon Valley), “Don’t own anything if you can help it; if you can, rent your shoes.” That is rental time, knowledge time, access time and intangible assets time. Madam, the CD is free, you pay for the use of the ‘how-to’.
Means to an end
It is also a ‘medium-to-be’ business world – a variant of the access world. BAA, the owner of London’s Heathrow Airport, makes more money from the retail activity than all the air traffic. Yes, in case you didn’t know, Heathrow Airport is a huge shopping mall that has landing pads for things called planes that move people from A to B. The real business is shopping. It is becoming more and more common for passengers to spend more money in shops than on their plane ticket. Air traffic is access to the passenger’s pocket.
Ma’am, is the traffic free? Not quite considering the ridiculously high airfares, especially in the
Europe. Here the customer pays for everything: the air transport, the use of the facility (airport tax) and the goods purchased during the waiting period. In other words, pay to be there, pay to wait, pay to buy while you wait, and pay to go.
If anyone needs more convincing, they need look no further than the newspapers. A quality
daily newspaper in Great Britain costs pennies. The news is the excuse or vehicle for advertising. Newspapers do not make money from the news. Yes ma’am, the newspaper is (almost) free. In fact, the world of free newspapers and magazines is growing. I predict that a quality free newspaper will soon be a reality. All it needs is one more Stelios Haji-Ioannou, chairman of easyJet, the European low-cost airline, to wake up one day and decide to show the world that it can be done and that money can be made.
What kind of capital moves around in this new economy where intangible assets and access to an asset are more relevant than the solid bricks or possession of the asset itself? The types of capital seem endless. You can find lots of conceptual information, references, essays and entire business models based not only on human, social or intellectual capital, but lesser known forms including structural, consumer, digital, process and innovation capital. The biggest challenge for companies is how to measure them.
New economy organizations emphasize them to varying degrees. Skandia, a Swedish insurance company, has long publicly reported all these forms of capital and its flow in its annual report, (Skandia Navigator). Another Swedish company, consultancy Celemi, better known for its business simulation game, Tango, incorporates an ‘Intangible Assets Monitor’, in the same way as Skandia. It won’t be long before it becomes the norm for companies to try to provide detailed measurement of intangible assets.
The investor’s metaphor
But let’s go back to the no-strings-attached economy, where one single thing defines current times: the triumph of brains over hands. Henry Ford used to complain, “Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, a brain gets stuck?” He obviously didn’t like the association. Today he would have come to his senses, occasionally attached to a pair of hands.
In this new world of business, for me one thing stands out in the multitude of ideas, new concepts, old concepts disguised as new, jargon and new business talk. This is the so-called ‘investor metaphor’.
In the beginning, the employee was a cost: indeed, it is still a cost in many current business models. In the 1980s, employees became assets. In fact, CEOs and HR managers around the world told us that employees are a company’s most important asset.
The restructuring/austerity movement of the western world and to a lesser extent other economies did little to add credibility to the statement. As one of my friends used to say, they forgot one word: disposable. Employees are our more important (disposable) assets. Nevertheless, “asset” is an improvement on “cost”; after all, you prefer to feel like an asset than a number of dollars in the operating expense report.
A third shift in the understanding of employees, after costs and assets, is that promoted by Terilyn Davenport and others: employees as investors. In other words, investors of (their own) human capital. And what do you do when you have capital to invest? You make it grow by allocating it to a growing environment; you look after it, you manage it, you withdraw it if it doesn’t grow and at the end of each year you look at the return on investment.
If individuals treat their own human capital (talent, abilities, skills, knowledge, wisdom) as one
real capital things start to look very different in the HR field. The workplace should enable personal capital growth – no one would invest in a no growth or negative growth environment.
HR departments then become more like venture capital providers or incubators that take care of all these investments. The main role of management is to create the conditions for capital to grow. The investor’s metaphor applied to employee relations puts ‘brain retainer value’ first; shareholder value is the consequence. And the person responsible is the one who has the capital to invest, not the one who receives it.
There is a profound difference in this new model, beyond the metaphor. It is revolutionary, not merely semantic. For better or for worse, Silicon Valley has followed the investor metaphor more than anywhere else.
People equal brains in the valley. In fact, the valley = nuts + (resources x power x glory), according to Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and recently, The New Thing. Given the way the Silicon boys jump from one company to another, and how bids for brains dominate the market, perhaps we should talk about a ‘mercenary metaphor’. But this is a topic for another day.
In this Brains-R-Us economy, the individual is in charge. The only problem is that the message has yet to reach a few million people. When that happens, things will look different. For example, compensation and benefits (C&B) is still largely a one-size-fits-all model. OK, two sizes, part time and full time, plus/minus fringe benefits. The time is fast approaching for an ‘individualized agreement’ and ‘individualized brain’.
At some point companies will need to offer a portfolio of C&B: number/allocation of hours (complying with local labor laws but personalized and tailored), training packages, sponsored higher education, personal bonus, family benefits and so on. It will be a ‘choose-yourself’ package, with people weighing up the benefits on offer: ten-hour, four-day week, sponsored education instead of bonus, no car but a nursery, extended holiday, access to unpaid leave and sabbatical.
By 2003, as much as 60% of C&B packages in the Western world may be highly customized, according to consultants Towers Perrin. In other words, people will create their own agreements. The Fordian ‘You can have any C&B package you want as long as it’s the one we offer here for everyone’ will be gone. The transformation of work practices in the Western world has not seen anything yet.
Madam, what I do is free; you pay me for what i know. Monthly salary comes last on my list
C&B rewards for my intellectual capital investment. I expect the following annual ROI…
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