‘Don’t sweat the small stuff” is not exactly a management theory but it has become one of those modern proverbs that guides how business leaders think they should behave. Chief executives boast about their ability to “see the big picture” or take “the 35,000ft view”, while delegating lower priority tasks to their minions.
But if the past few years of technological advance have taught businesses anything, it is that the small stuff, added together, can attain huge importance. The long tail of rarely bought but cumulatively valuable goods is recognised as a critical element of the ecommerce business model, from Amazon to Alibaba.
Increased computing power and more open access to dynamic databases have highlighted the importance of billions of small points of information — such as consumers’ apparently random tweets or cities’ traffic patterns — when analysed as a whole. Crucially, it has become obvious that individuals, collaborating effectively at scale, can achieve extraordinary things.
Of course, blockbuster products, world-shaping deals and radical innovations continue to count for much. But sometimes, it is equally brave to see beyond those high-profile targets and dare to become the enabler of others’ bold ideas.
Take Amazon Web Services, whose leader Andy Jassy is the latest Boldness in Business person of the year. AWS has grown to rival companies such as Microsoft and IBM in the provision of cloud services. But Jassy told Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store, that when he first wrote the vision statement for the new operation, “we tried to imagine a student in a dorm room who would have at his or her disposal the same infrastructure as the largest companies in the world.” The service was intended to be, in Jassy’s words, “a great playing-field leveller” for start-ups and smaller companies.
It is, of course, easy to overstate the altruism of aggressive, fast-expanding companies. But, to put it in balder terms, there is a vast market opportunity in harnessing and facilitating the collaborative instincts of ordinary workers and the entrepreneurial spirit of those who decide to break free from organisations. Easy online experimentation, 3D printing and global supply chains and communications make it cheaper, if not safer, to go it alone than it has ever been. This year’s Boldness in Business laureates are, in different ways, companies that recognised this was an opportunity.
WeWork has successfully repurposed the concept of shared workspaces for smaller businesses. A little like AWS, but on the ground rather than in the cloud, it aims to level the virtual terrain for smaller ventures. “As a company, it makes us feel bigger than we are,” one WeWork user told the FT last year.
FarFetch, winner in the Smaller Company category, provides an online sales platform for independent fashion boutiques. Tencent’s online-only WeBank is squarely aimed at China’s many small- and medium-sized business borrowers, neglected by the mainstream financial system, while WeChat is carving out a space in messaging, increasingly the communication medium of choice for entrepreneurs.
While technology is one theme linking and fuelling such winners’ success, these companies are also betting on latent human potential. It is no coincidence that M-Kopa is this year’s winner in the Developing Markets category. Its bold mission, to bring electricity to remote areas of Africa using an innovative pay-as-you-go solar power system, makes possible a basic advance in the quality of life in poor countries. But it does more than that. Among the vital household items that are powered by M-Kopa equipment is the family mobile phone, which has itself become the foundation for growth in small-scale trade, enterprise, innovation and collaboration in those developing economies.
Plenty of obstacles lie in the way of smaller businesses, even when they have access to the technological tools now available. As they grow, they will also encounter the perils of bureaucracy.
Collaboration can have a negative side. Within large organisations, as a recent article in Harvard Business Review pointed out, “the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 per cent or more,” with consequent negative impact on the productivity of employees.
At the same time, one solution to inefficiency — increased automation and use of artificial intelligence — has provoked fears about the unintended consequences for jobs and skills.
In this respect, Fanuc, winner of the Drivers of Change category, and Toyota, which takes this year’s Corporate Responsibility and Environment award for its fledgling fuel-cell vehicle, may look the odd ones out in a list of winners. Both are large industrial companies, one best known for its bright yellow robots, the other for the lean production methods that Eiji Toyoda championed in the 1970s and 1980s and which have since been adopted by manufacturers around the world.
Techno-pessimists may see Fanuc’s automata as the vanguard in a machine-army marching towards a dystopian future. Yet the group is also introducing new “collaborative robots” to work more closely with humans and, as chief executive Yoshiharu Inaba pointed out to the FT last year, “robots make products for human beings. It’s up to human beings to decide whether what the robots made are good or not.”
As for the Toyota production system, it is not only about supply chain and production line efficiency. If anything, the assumption that leanness equals cost-cutting, often realised through job reductions, is a perversion of the original concept, which instead emphasises the importance of the human element in any manufacturing enterprise. Taiichi Ohno, the group’s stern chief production engineer, used to call this “autonomation” — or “automation with a human touch”. He and Toyoda were adamant that problems on the line should be sorted out by the people building the cars. Their insights cleared the way for further innovations at Toyota and beyond.
The combination of human collaboration and enabling technology should have a vast positive impact on future business and economic growth. It is also worth bearing in mind that if someone, somewhere, is assembling the next bold business concept and preparing to shake the world, it is because someone else, somewhere else, sweated the small stuff to make the breakthrough possible.