Commodity Resources

A great quote from the very excellent verynicewebsite.net.

“I really don’t know how the Chinese view their engineers. I do know that corporate America has spent the last 15 years trying to make the case that another class of skilled worker, developers, are commodity resources. As long as you have good requirements, the theory goes, any developer should be able to code your application for you. That does not work in practice, in my experience, because developers are not interchangeable parts. One is not just as good as the other and I have yet to see requirements that were so perfect that a knowledgeable developer could not improve upon them by asking the right questions.”

It’s a really good way of looking at the way many businesses have developed in the UK over the last 10-15 years… and it’s certainly not just true of developers! If you are an editor, a designer, a writer or another creative working in print or digital, YOU are also in danger of becoming a “commodity resource”.

I see the story going something like this:

If you are a business dealing with vaguely creative products or content, you probably see yourself as relying far too much on some unquantifiable artistic recipe for success. You may find yourself with some fabulous individual writers or designers with good ideas, quirks and personalities that have somehow become the de-facto brand for your business.

So what do you do?

You start to panic… “but what happens when they leave?” or “we can’t just rely on such and such to drive the business forward”.

In the modern corporate way, you will try to pin down all the elements that you think makes up your particular creative mixture.  You think you can quantify and specify and generate a process which sets in stone the personality of your key products. It should be a step by step procedure, and it should always work, forever. Then, like any “right thinking” modern business, you can simply fill in the missing specs for a each particular project, dish out the project to your commodity resources, and get them to carry on the good work: quickly, consistently and on-brand.

The problem is that the detailed procedures and requirements you generate for these commodity resources to work at all without constantly stopping and asking for clarification can never be good enough for your people to work as effectively as they can. It’s not just your present: your future is compromised too. Your procedures can never allow for the constant improvements and innovation needed to keep your business ahead, because they are too standardised.

It leads to a a couple of strange situations:

  1. You outsource the projects to various agencies – and you are surprised at the lowest common denominator results. Every creative group seems to have different approaches to what you thought were exacting requirements.
  2. You recruit many talented and creative individuals to your organisation, and then entirely ignore what they can add to your business. You are focused completely on finding out if they can follow your magic recipe for creative success (or are they “just not a team player” or “not really getting it” or “just not commercially minded”?)

The outcomes of these situations are not necessarily what you wanted…

If you continue to outsource, you will develop a reliance on perhaps one group you can trust (which is odd as you were relying on a small group of creatives to start with, and that’s what made you panic in the first place!)

If you continue to recruit your way out of trouble, you are surprised at the rate of staff turnover…

…and if you still care enough about your actual product, it takes a LOT longer to produce new products. (if you don’t actually care about your product you will simply lose customer trust, goodwill and market share, and miss future opportunities)

I guess this is not really what your business wanted, after all!

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