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Digital Divide

Companies innovating with "pull" technologies are on the edge of a broad shift in business design, says a co-author of a new book, The Power of Pull.

Can you give a real-life example of such a platform?

What SAP has done with its software developer network started as quite a small move. The company had developed an application called NetWeaver that allowed its enterprise applications to work together more seamlessly. [To help sell the product], SAP created a platform for independent developers who were writing SAP applications. If someone ran into a problem and couldn’t figure it out, they could post the problem [and other users could post solutions].

Developers began using it in a very aggressive way to improve their ability to write code. Now there is [a huge number of] programmers participating. The average time from posting a problem to resolution is only a few minutes. It’s been an enormous driver of productivity for software programmers, but it’s gone far beyond that. Programmers are developing reputations based on their ability to answer difficult coding questions, and they’re building relationships around the world. This platform is a spawning ground for all kinds of development teams to organize around new application-development opportunities.

So, it sounds like you’re not really arguing for something that should happen as much as documenting that it’s already happening.

It’s a bit of both. One of my favorite quotes is from William Gibson, who said, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” That’s exactly the case. At the Center for the Edge we do detailed case studies of companies that are farthest along in terms of exploring these opportunities. They are doing really powerful things with pull techniques, but there are relatively few of them.

How should companies that haven’t embraced the power of pull get started?

First, don’t try to transform the core of your business that’s all hard wired and consists of standardized business processes around the push model. It’s with new business segments, markets, and products where you can start to apply pull. Often those are areas of great uncertainty, where prediction and forecasting are particularly challenging. Find people who are attuned to the techniques of pull, help them to connect with each other, and demonstrate some performance impacts from using these techniques. It’s a process of building credibility so that over time more and more of the organization sees the potential.

One of the book’s core concepts is what you call “shaping serendipity,” or making choices that improve your odds of meeting people who are relevant to your interests and then influencing their endeavors so that they amplify your own. That’s an interesting phrase — if you shape it, it’s not serendipity anymore, is it?

Think of it as a spectrum. At one end there’s pure luck, and at the other you plan to meet somebody and you have that person specifically in mind. In the middle, you can alter the probability and quantity of productive encounters through choices for where and how you spend your time, both in the physical world and the virtual world.

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