When a business book appears with a catchy title like “Blown to Bits” it is entirely understandable, and perhaps pardonable, to harbor the uncharitable question of whether this theory was itself blown to bits by the dot-com explosion. After all, it was the old economics that took most new economy startups to the woodshed last year and a lot of radical new ideas have been very rightly dismissed.
Still, the internet has changed the way we all act in the world and the web has connected us in ways we never imagined. Radical changes are commonplace everywhere.
Blown to Bits: How the New Economics of Information Transforms Strategy is an expansion of the theories of two business consultants that first appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 1997 and so the thesis is now at least five years old. The skeptic’s question—‘Does it have legs?’—can only be answered with a resounding ‘Yes!’ and if your thinking hasn’t started moving in their direction you need to get a wiggle on.
It would be easy to dismiss a book like this as only suitable for business wonks, but don’t let the scope or focus put you off. There’s valuable meat inside the shell even when it appears to be just a bowl of nuts.
Consider the vocabulary. These guys speak about unbundling, fluidity, indeterminacy, instability and the melting of informational glue. They describe businesses in terms of richness and reach and affiliation. They explore deconstruction and disintermediation and disaggregating costs. What, in God’s name, one might ask, has this to do with me or thee or everyday life?
The answer is simple: Evans and Wurster have revealed an exegesis of management in a time of radical change that is as valuable to leaders of theological schools as it is to leaders of established consumer brands. If you could do a global search-and-replace of the entire book and swap “church” for “corporation” you would have a fascinating guide for rethinking the whole “business” of theological education, candidate recruitment, pastoral formation, and the future of organized religion.
Beginning their argument, they point out that when information is locked to its physical carrier there is a universal trade-off between richness and reach. For instance, they define richness as “accuracy, bandwidth, currency, customization, interactivity, relevance, security and so forth.” Reach is simply the number of people involved in the exchange of the information. For corporation executives the example might be widgets; for church leaders it might be the preached word.
When one side of a transaction knows more than the other there are “asymmetries of information.” As pop culture has it: your ignorance is their power. They offer the example of buyer and seller bargaining over the price of a car; compare it with two seminaries negotiating a merger.
Deconstruction occurs when the economics of information are separated from the economics of things. Their example is the collapse and disintegration of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—a revered information source that retailed in bound volumes at more than $2,000 per set until competitors appeared on CDs that came bundled free with $1,000 computers. Consider the impact on traditional classroom attendance of distance learning that brings interactive audio and video lectures and unlimited access to the information of world’s greatest libraries.
Disintermediation was another vocabulary darling of the ‘Nineties. Since its debut a lot of intermediaries have been “dissed,” not least among which have been churches whose members felt they could belong without attending, or feel comfortable without participating. Are Sunday soccer matches or golf outings cause or effect of the change?
Navigation is critical in an information economy—an intermediary is essential as complexity grows. Infinite information becomes infinite clutter when you can’t find what you’re looking for. Here lies the value of brands and name recognition: consumers would rather follow the path they used to. Substitute religion, denomination, and parishioners.
When the web has made reach universal, then richness of content is the only real realm of competition. And when educated consumers can shop online instead of at the mall then they become competitors themselves. “What,” ask the authors, “are you doing for him that he cannot do for himself?” A question that every church should be asking every day.
“Management,” they declare in their summary of guiding principles, “is not about being a custodian of assets, it is about creating value.” Whether intended or not, the ears of those raised with the biblical reference will likely the hear the sermon forming around the Parable of the Talents and they know the horrors of outer darkness that await the wicked and slothful servant.
Information is the glue that holds value chains and supply chains together. But that glue is now melting. The fundamental cause is the explosion in connectivity and in the information standards that are enabling the open and almost cost-free exchange of a widening universe of rich information. When everyone can communicate richly with everyone else, the narrow hard-wired communications channels that used to tie people together simply become obsolete. And so do all the business structures that created those channels or exploit them for competitive advantage.
— Blown to Bits