The Tipping Point: Still Current After All These Years


By Tony Kontzer

I realize that in revealing the fact that I've recently been reading Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown and Co., 2000), I'm publicly outing myself as hopelessly behind the times. But a particular section of the book strikes me as intensely timely for today's IT decision-makers, and I feel compelled to share it.

For those who haven't yet read The Tipping Point, it's a controversial bestseller that tries to get at the causes of epidemics -- social, economic, infectious disease -- with the goal of providing marketers with some serious ammunition in their efforts to make their products stick in the minds of consumers. One of the concepts Gladwell introduces is something called the Law of 150, which basically states that because the human brain has natural limitations on the number of relationships it can track, groups are most effective and functional when they contain no more than 150 people.

In illustrating this concept, Gladwell introduces us to W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., a maker of fabrics, cables and consumer products that's best known for its GORE-TEX weatherproof outerwear. One of the many things that make Gore so fascinating -- and potentially important to CIOs -- is its dogged devotion to the Law of 150. The company limits all of its facilities to 150 employees or fewer, and each of its plants are self-contained, single-product operations that incorporate every department necessary to make and sell that particular product -- from design and manufacturing to marketing and sales.

Here's the kicker: One of the reasons the approach works so well is that everyone in a given plant knows everyone else, knows what everyone's role is, and -- perhaps most importantly -- knows what they can expect of each other and where they can find expertise. In other words, by limiting its facilities to 150 employees, Gore has solved the issues around collaboration and communication that have plagued so many other large companies. (Gore has 9,000 title-free "associates," generates about $2.5 billion in annual sales, and appears consistently on lists of the best companies to work for.)

Gladwell puts it thusly: "What Gore has created is, in short, an organized mechanism that makes it far easier for new ideas and information moving around the organization to tip -- to go from one person or one part of the group to the entire group all at once."

It's powerful stuff. Gladwell is describing the kind of "360-degree view" of the organization that many companies fantasize about. In fact, if I had a dime for every IT executive I've interviewed who told me about all the technology his or her company had deployed in order to improve the organization's knowledge management capabilities -- well, I'd have a lot of dimes. Yet, all along, here's this company that's been taking a decidedly non-technological solution to a problem other companies have been throwing untold sums of money at, and the non-technological solution appears to be more effective, more graceful, more user-friendly, and a whole lot cheaper than the alternatives.

In pointing this out, I'm not trying to question the value of IT, or to suggest that the CIOs I've interviewed are somehow out of touch. Rather, I believe the implication is that sometimes, the best thing an IT executive can do just might be to remove IT from the equation. Too often, companies react in knee-jerk fashion to solve emergent business problems, and just as often, IT is happy to run with an order to throw technology at a problem that very possibly could be solved non-technologically.

Don't get me wrong. I fully understand that very few companies have the ability to restructure themselves around the Law of 150 to achieve the kind of collaboration benefits Gore is enjoying. But if I were a CIO, I'd learn from the Gore example and keep my eyes open to the possibility that there are times when technology simply is not the answer.

And I'd probably be looking for any opportunity to put the Law of 150 to work. After all, it's been working pretty well for Gore.


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