The rise of the Self-Tuning Enterprise

Alibaba

As you may know, I am a fan of Machine Learning, a subfield of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that englobes computer programs that exhibit some kind of intelligent behavior. The first researchers on AI began analyzing how we (humans) did intelligent tasks in order to create programs that reproduced our behavior. So look at the irony of this HBR article”The self-Tuning Enterprise” where the authors Martin Reeves, Ming Zeng and Amin Venjara use the analogy of how machine learning programs do to transpose the behavior to enterprise strategy tuning:

[…] These enterprises [he’s talking about internet companies like Google, Netflix, Amazon, and Alibaba] have become extraordinarily good at automatically retooling their offerings for millions of individual customers, leveraging real-time data on their behavior. Those constant updates are, in fact, driven by algorithms, but the processes and technologies underlying the algorithms aren’t magic: It’s possible to pull them apart, see how they operate, and use that know-how in other settings. And that’s just what some of those same companies have started to do.

In this article we’ll look first at how self-tuning algorithms are able to learn and adjust so effectively in complex, dynamic environments. Then we’ll examine how some organizations are applying self-tuning across their enterprises, using the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba as a case example.”

You may have notice those new programs at work to recommend you books or other products each time you buy something on Internet (and in fact, even if you are just looking and didn’t buy anything ;-). Those programs are based on Machine Learning algorithms, and they improve over time with the new information of success (if you bought the proposed article) or failure (if you didn’t).

How do they work?

There is a ‘learning’ part that finds similarities between customers in order to propose you products that another customer similar to you bought. But it’s not so simple, these programs are coupled with other learning modules like the one that does some ‘experimentation’ not to get stuck with always the same kind of products. This module will propose you something different from time to time. Even if you like polar books, after the tenth one, you would like to read something else, isn’t it? So the trick is to find equilibrium between showing you books you have great chances to like and novelties to make you discover new horizons. You have to have the feeling that they know what they are doing when they propose you a book (so they fine-tune to be good at similarities) but you may like to change from time to time not to get bored, and also they are very interested in making you discover another bounty/category of literature, let’s say poems. If you don’t like it, you won’t accept so easily next recommendation, so here comes the next ‘tuning’ on how often to do it.

And that’s where self-tuning comes in. Self-tuning is related to the concepts of agility (rapid adjustment), adaptation (learning through trial and error), and ambidexterity (balancing exploration and exploitation). Self-tuning algorithms incorporate elements of all three—but in a self-directed fashion.

The ‘self-tuning’ process they are talking about adjusts the tool to the new information available to him without the need of reprogramming. The analogy the authors are doing is to do in organizations this same kind of automatics tunings that Machine Learning systems are doing: to ‘self-tune’ the companies without any top-down directive, to have agility, adaptation through trial and error and ambidexterity balancing exploration and exploitation.

To understand how this works, think of the enterprise as a nested set of strategic processes. At the highest level, the vision articulates the direction and ambition of the firm as a whole. As a means to achieving the vision, a company deploys business models and strategies that bring together capabilities and assets to create advantageous positions. And it uses organizational structure, information systems, and culture to facilitate the effective operation of those business models and strategies.

In the vast majority of organizations, the vision and the business model are fixed axes around which the entire enterprise revolves. They are often worked out by company founders and, once proven successful, rarely altered. Consequently, the structure, systems, processes, and culture that support them also remain static for long periods. Experimentation and innovation focus mostly on product or service offerings within the existing model, as the company leans on its established recipe for success in other areas.

The self-tuning enterprise, in contrast, takes an evolutionary approach at all levels. The vision, business model, and supporting components are regularly calibrated to the changing environment by applying the three learning loops. The organization is no longer viewed as a fixed means of transmitting intentions from above but, rather, as a network that shifts and develops in response to external feedback. To see what this means in practice, let’s look at Alibaba.[…]

Keep resetting the vision.

When Alibaba began operations, internet penetration in China was less than 1%. While most expected that figure to grow, it was difficult to predict the nature and shape of that growth. So Alibaba took an experimental approach: At any given time, its vision would be the best working assumption about the future. As the market evolved, the company’s leaders reevaluated the vision, checking their hypotheses against reality and revising them as appropriate.

In the early years, Alibaba’s goal was to be “an e-commerce company serving China’s small exporting companies.” This led to an initial focus on Alibaba.com, which created a platform for international sales. However, when the market changed, so did the vision. As Chinese domestic consumption exploded, Alibaba saw an opportunity to expand its offering to consumers. Accordingly, it launched the online marketplace Taobao in 2003. Soon Alibaba realized that Chinese consumers needed more than just a site for buying and selling goods. They needed greater confidence in internet business—for example, to be sure that online payments were safe. So in 2004, Alibaba created Alipay, an online payment service. […] Ultimately, this led Alibaba to change its vision again, in 2008, to fostering “the development of an e-commerce ecosystem in China.” It started to offer more infrastructure services, such as a cloud computing platform, microfinancing, and a smart logistics platform. More recently, Alibaba recalibrated that vision in response to the rapid convergence between digital and physical channels. Deliberately dropping the “e” from e-commerce, its current vision statement reads simply, “We aim to build the future infrastructure of commerce.”

Experiment with business models.

Alibaba could not have built a portfolio of companies that spanned virtually the entire digital spectrum without making a commitment to business model experimentation from very early on.

[…]At each juncture in its evolution, Alibaba continued to generate new business model options, letting them run as separate units. After testing them, it would scale up the most promising ones and close down or reabsorb those that were less promising.[…]

Again there was heated debate within the company about which direction to take and which model to build. Instead of relying on a top-down decision, Alibaba chose to place multiple bets and let the market pick the winners.[…]

Increasing experimentation at the height of success runs contrary to established managerial wisdom, but for Alibaba it was necessary to avoid rigidity and create options. Recalibrating how and how much to experiment was fundamental to its ability to capitalize on nascent market trends.

Focus on seizing and shaping strategic opportunities, not on executing plans.

In volatile environments, plans can quickly become out-of-date. In Alibaba’s case, rapid advances in technology, shifting consumer expectations in China and beyond, and regulatory uncertainty made it difficult to predict the future. […]

Alibaba does have a regular planning cycle, in which business unit leaders and the executive management team iterate on plans in the fourth quarter of each year. However, it’s understood that this is only a starting point. Whenever a unit leader sees a significant market change or a new opportunity, he or she can initiate a “co-creation” process, in which employees, including senior business leaders and lead implementers, develop new directions for the business directly with customers.

At Alibaba co-creation involves four steps. The first is establishing common ground: identifying signals of change (based on data from the market and insights from customers or staff) and ensuring that the right people are present and set up to work together. This typically happens at a full-day working session. The second step is getting to know the customer. Now participants explore directly with customers their evolving needs or pain points and brainstorm potential solutions. The third step entails developing an action plan based on the outcome of customer discussions. An action plan must identify a leader who can champion the opportunity, the supporting team (or teams) that will put the ideas into motion, and the mechanisms that will enable the work to get done. The final step is gathering regular customer feedback as the plan is implemented, which can, in turn, trigger further iterations.

So now you know how Alibaba does it, how is it in your company?  What ideas from them would you adopt?

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