Chris Meyer's new book has been very well received in the US, but how well does it stand up to detailed scrutiny?
Perhaps you haven't heard of him yet, but Christopher Meyer is becoming a big name in American business circles. US chief executives and chairmen are full of praise. Walter Wriston, former chairman and CEO of Citibank, describes Meyer's latest book, Blur, The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy (co-authored with his Ernst & Young colleague Stan Davis), as 'required reading for the millennium'. Management experts are also keen.
The Dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School, Glenn Urban, calls it a fascinating book which will 'cause you to rethink the next round of changes that will drive management into the twenty-first century'. The magazine Wired has no doubt already e-mailed its commission for a guest article. Its executive editor believes the Meyer and Davis book offers 'an insightful and early probe into the new economy'.
Davis is well accustomed to the media spotlight, as a result of his book Future Perfect (critically acclaimed by Tom Peters, no less), so it is only fair that Meyer should now take centre stage. He has more than 20 years' experience in general management and economic consulting behind him, and was an Ernst & Young consultant and director of the E&Y Center for Business Innovation in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In spite of a rather self-consciously laid-back manner, Meyer's arguments and anecdotes spill out thick and fast. In only one hour he held forth on Blur by talking about (amongst many other things) non-linear progressions and commercial oxymorons. At one stage he even got up to draw a completely incomprehensible graph to illustrate a rather complex point about the securitisation of individuals. Meyer even found time to talk about his daughter (who likes ballet), his sister (a professor of Russian literature) and his brother (who has a show opening in the West End).
The converts in America are impressed with Blur because of the book's three main articles of faith. These are that the business world is moving faster than ever ('speed'); that in the information age everything is connected up to everything else electronically ('connectivity'); and that companies which wish to stay in business must provide something extra, be this a service, information, or some feeling of emotion in the customer, such as brand loyalty or indulgence ('intangibles'). Since everything brought to market today and in the future must reflect and exploit these three factors, traditional categories of product and service will soon become obsolete, runs the argument. Products will be 'servicized', services will be 'productized' and we will all use the generic term 'offer' for the things we wish to sell to customers. This is all neatly summarised by the authors into a pseudo-scientific equation: 'Speed x Connectivity x Intangibles = Blur'.
Publicising the book in the UK is proving more taxing than in the US.
Over here the reaction to Blur has been rather more, well, blurred. Maybe it's the evangelical tone of its authors when describing the Brave New World (supposedly already upon us) that puts the critics off. Maybe it's the fact that while so many of the examples Meyer cites are based in the American high technology or automotive sectors, the lessons learned are stretched to cover companies of all types. Or perhaps we Old World sceptics have grown understandably wary of management gurus who proclaim the end of corporate life as we know it.
Meyer's favourite example of the way things will be in future is a service called OnStar, an option on some General Motors' models which automatically sends an ambulance out to the scene of a crash. OnStar people are alerted if the car airbag inflates; they call the car cell phone and if there is no reply, they call the ambulance service. Links between the car and a global satellite positioning system mean that they even know where to send the paramedics. Thus technology enables a faster ambulance response time and allows GM to charge a premium for the (intangible) peace of mind created by their offer.
Impressive, but it's all still in the realm of IT and automotives. Is Blur relevant to the rest of the world? Well, says Meyer, there's the major multinational company developing a nappy with an in-built sensor.
This will alert parents on the other end of a radio system that a slumbering child's nappy is wet so they can redress the problem and the child before the infant awakes. Whether the act of nappy changing will in itself wake the child is not explained.
For those who buy into these examples as proof that the Blur revolution is unstoppable, the implications are weighty. Aided by ever cheaper technology, new-offer launches will be more frequent since companies will soon recognise that taking a product or service to the marketplace is a cheap way to test a new idea. 'The fact that someone can do something doesn't mean that it's going to be a success,' says Meyer. 'But it's getting so cheap that the easiest way to find out is to try it.' And speed to market will be so crucial that companies may even be able to risk launching an offer prematurely. Look for example to Netscape, which rather than have its programmers test every line of code simply offers users a reward for reporting any bugs in the software. 'Instead of calling it a recall programme, you call it a "Bugs for Bounty" programme and issue the product sooner,' explains Meyer.
A latter-day Adam Smith, he calls this letting the market manage your offer. Companies can even be forced to let the market price their offer.
'Pricing is a task you really have to let go of,' says Meyer. 'It just isn't your job any more.' Prices, it seems, will be spot prices dependent on time, availability, and the amount of information about the market that the customer is able to garner. Unlike Davis, however, Meyer does admit that the latter argument has its limitations. 'Stan likes to talk about the price of a head of lettuce fluctuating as you walk up and down the aisles of a supermarket. I don't anticipate that.'
Even with the lettuce reprieve, it doesn't take much to see that the world of Blur is bad news for those in marketing, given that the market research, testing and pricing functions will be vastly diminished. Small comfort for them, perhaps, that Blur also does away with corporate strategists (the world is changing so fast that long-term strategy is out of date before the virtual ink is dry); conventional economists (IT has killed off the law of diminishing returns); traditional middle managers (those who are left, that is); the need to own capital assets and much more besides.
What's left? Well, the consumer remains, although the buyer/seller relationship is increasingly ambiguous, with information from the consumer often as valuable a currency as the greenback. Then there's the pared-down, nimble, adaptive company with high staff turnover and the individual whose responsibility it is to manage their own career.
So dramatic are the implications, argue Meyer and Davis, that their book concludes with a 50-point corporate action plan and a 10-point agenda for the Blur individual (brand yourself, securitise yourself, etc). Whether these will prove necessary outside a few sectors is questionable. While history certainly throws up the names of sceptics who downplayed technological advances to their cost (Bill Gates and his initial dismissal of the likely impact of the Internet, to name one), Meyer and Davis are not the first to proclaim a technological coup d'etat.
Blur, The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy, is published by Capstone Publishing, price £16.99.