Keep Up with Your Constantly Changing Users

B2B. B2C. B2P. Agile tech firms have organizations that can handle all of them.

Jeff Hocking is regional market leader, North America, in Korn Ferry’s Technology practice. Kelli Vukelic is director, global accounts and knowledge management in Korn Ferry’s Global Technology practice.

It is one of the most basic and clichéd axioms in business: Put the user at the center of everything your business does. Only now, the challenge of living up to that couldn’t be harder.

A new wave of technologies—the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics—is now spreading rapidly before many tech companies have fully absorbed the last wave of technologies. In the process, users are again poised to advance in their expectations faster than tech organizations can keep up with them.

Amazon is the classic case of a firm with a host of different “users”: book fanatics, fashionistas, consumer products behemoths, media conglomerates, and dozens more. The challenge for the online retailer—and for nearly all tech companies—is not only to keep up with its users, but also to structure the firm around them.

This isn’t just a matter of making products and services that are user-friendly. Tech companies of all stripes must become agile learning organizations, embracing a culture of flat decision-making, frictionless collaboration, constant iteration, focused experimentation, and shared direction. Companies that don’t adapt run the risk of becoming this generation’s inflexible ghosts of the past—think Digital Equipment and Compaq Computers.

Designing around the user isn’t natural for a lot of legacy tech firms. It wasn’t that long ago that they could dictate what their users were going to get. Think about what semiconductor manufacturers did in the 1990s: They planned out generations of incremental design improvements in microchips years in advance. (That users needed those improvements was a bonus.) Even a decade ago, it was enough for a tech organization to build the same types of barriers as its competitors to keep its users in its own backyard.

Users are moving and evolving so rapidly, however, that the simple copy-and-paste approach is no longer adequate for remaining competitive. Some firms get it now—companies such as Netflix, Spotify, and Zappos are agile enough to constantly update their products and services based on input from their users, but these firms are still in the minority.

To drive transformation and build an agile enterprise, a tech organization must resist the temptation to look outward at what competitors are doing and instead look inward to figure out what type of model best suits what the business is trying to achieve. Is it best, for instance, to be designed as an incubator, or is it more efficient to be organized as a digital catalyst or pursue all-encompassing change via the inclusion model? Further, do you have the right talent, governance, culture, and infrastructure to pursue the desired model?

Your firm’s users play a large role in determining which transformation path to follow. For example, Korn Ferry is working with one global telecommunications company that is pursuing a digital catalyst model, because that best suits the needs and requirements of its business as well as those of its various user segments.

Once an organizational design is decided upon, implementing it extends both to the current workforce and to future recruits. Simply poaching from competitors to fill a specific role is a wholly inadequate and antiquated way to cope with ongoing change, which has rendered institutionalized positions obsolete. Indeed, learning agile organizations recruit for skills, not roles, and those skills should help the recruits and the organization keep up with users.

Serving the needs and requirements of all these different constituencies requires an agility few organizations possess. But with the immense competitive pressure that comes from emerging technologies continually reshaping users and their experiences, tech organizations must design for enterprise agility if they wish to remain on the cutting edge of transformation.