Economics of Cognitive Work Part II: Exploring the B2B Paradigm

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In a recent blog post I began to explore some ideas concerning the nature and economics of cognitive work in the modern corporation. I made a distinction between Business to Consumer (B2C) work and Business to Business (B2B) work. In B2B work, leaders have to create a way for their organizations to coordinate and collaborate to create solutions for their customers. Think about how complicated it is to get a large commercial insurance policy underwritten, or a new airplane built to specification, or a new company’s IPO launched successfully. 

These are complex creative activities with groups of people at the supplying company and the buying company who have a stake in the transaction furiously working to make all parts of the cognitive work come together successfully. B2B work is entirely different than B2C, and the management challenges are unique to the needs of the business to business market. This short post will explore cognitive work in the B2B space by reporting on the innovations of Dr. Robert Ballard, best known for finding the Titanic.

Some Attributes of Well Designed B2B Work Environments

Well managed B2B work has at least three attributes: first, the individuals on the task all share a common representation of the problem space and have a largely common base of information; second, they usually self-organize around the nature of the problem solution; third, the collaborating team’s goal is output driven — not process driven. Put another way, the management of this B2B process is the antithesis of the assembly line. On the assembly line the task of management is to say how things are to be done, and how exceptions are to be found and solved. In this B2B work, the group decides how to create the work product, and they may share approaches to the problem and a vast depth of knowledge which gives them a common set of reference points, shared beliefs, and a language system (e.g. a group of FX traders can talk about the currencies, volatility, and common models).

As an example of what I mean by a shared information environment, I’d like to turn to Bob Ballard’s Inner Space Center in Narragansett, RI. Late this June, I spent a very interesting  morning with Bob. His center is the command post for his exploration ship the Nautilus (yes, named after the submarine in Jules Verne‘s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Many years ago, Ballard coined the term telepresence to describe his vision of being able to send ships with robot vehicles down for exploration and having a satellite link to a remote command center with the scientists reviewing the data coming from the sea floor. This idea was particularly compelling to Ballard because when he was at Woods Hole and part of the team using the deep sea submarine the Alvin it took them 4 hours to commute to work — and then they only got to work on the bottom for 1-2 hours before the 4 hour trip home. Bob reasoned, why not send a robot?

The Nautilus, which went to sea on June 25, 2010 is the realization of his life long dream. On the Nautilus he has four vehicles which he can deploy to explore the sea. Below is a shot I took of the bottom half of the two-story high command center, where you can see four panels of live video feed from the Nautilus as she prepared to ship out of her Turkish port. In the upper left of this picture, if you are observant, you can see two of his robot vehicles on the ship’s deck.

Partial View of the Inner Space Command Center Main Display

This command center remotely directs the actions of this ship pictured above, and NOAA’s Okeanos “America’s ship for ocean exploration”. As Ballard said, “Why should I move my body there? I just need to send my spirit. I can take my daughter to school in the morning; explore the Indian Ocean during the day and have dinner with my family at night.” Any node that is hooked up to internet 2, and has one of the mini-command centers which Bob and his team can give you the specification for (and it costs about $5,000 to build one), can get access to the live feeds from the ships. It is also important to remember that internet 2 can send data at up to ten gigabits per second, so it is easy to send enormously large files and high definition camera output.

What the Innerspace Center Means for the Nature of B2B Work More Generally

If we think about what Ballard and his team are creating it is more than a clever use of telepresence. It is a shared information space for collaboration and coordination which also contains certain tools for robot manipulation, methods to analyze the data and varied visualizations. If the ship comes across an archeological find, then they can scramble the archeologists who are connected to internet 2, and they can “take over” the ship for up to three days. The on-board crews work around the clock, and the robots never get tired. If the ship comes across something that is geologically unique, they can gather together the world’s foremost marine geologists to make sense of the new data. In a more generalized sense, they are moving the expertise to the shared information and cooperation space — in real time. The Nautilus and her sister ship the Okeanos are also actively expanding the realm of the known undersea world — thereby creating a broader, shared information space that is beyond just one organization. (See the Figure 1 below.)

Figure 1: B2B Type Work

There are at least three things that are interesting about this design for high-end knowledge work. First, there is a shared asset which reflects the best understanding of the current reality. (In sociological terms, this is a “boundary object” because it sits at the nexus of social worlds, e.g. the world of the oceanographer, the geologist, the archeologist, or in business a securities database sits among the traders, the finance group, the regulators, and so on. It is a mediating and integrating mechanism). Second, there are clear rules for who does what and when. If there is a discovery, there are specific experts that are called to take over the ship and make sense of the new data. In the famous words of Tim (not Bill) O’Reilly of O’Reilly media, there is a clear “architecture of participation” — which enables the group to self organize — even across different types of organizations. Third, they have an unbelievably vibrant and responsive information environment. If you stand at the base of the two story Inner Space Center Command Center, you see a marvelous set of high definition images with fast moving video and excellent sound. Beauty and responsiveness matters when it comes to high end knowledge work.

From an economic standpoint, Ballard and his crew will be able to scan more of the ocean floor, and explore more sites than any traditional expedition which had the crew aboard, and only had the experts they could afford to bring. Furthermore, they have an ongoing record of the event and its data. This kind of real time archiving of knowledge work creates all kinds of reuse and reanalysis opportunities which opens up lots of possibilities for derivative works and teaching.

Speculations on Some Implications for B2B Work More Broadly

I believe we are at a tipping point in the access to very rich, very high quality, information spaces. Folks from the military tell me that they have been doing battle planning and management for a long time using techniques like the ones above. In fact, the Navy has classified capability which probably outshines the above vessels and processes. For commercial organizations, the ability to all “get on the same page” about the nature of a current situation, and to have an organization that can coordinate all the relevant expertise in real time is, I claim, a competitive advantage. It is an advantage for a number of reasons.

  • It enables efficient and rapid use of expertise.
  • It radically lower coordination overhead.
  • It allows every relevant participant to have a clear view of the entire problem, up in their head at the same time.
  • It creates faster response times to client needs.
  • It allows the innovating company to operate within the decision cycle of the competition.

In the famous words of Doug Englebart, a system like this can help “raise the collective IQ of the organization” when dealing with difficult, complex and urgent issues. The question for us becomes, what types of organizations use this type of work arrangement and which ones could benefit from it? More on those questions in a later post.

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