Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Too Big to Succeed?

Governments continue to ponder the introduction of measures aimed at avoiding a repeat of the “too big to fail” scenario of insolvent financial institutions and It will be challenging to bring any such measure in. Lots of compelling argument will be introduced to oppose it and many vested intersts will lobby to stymie such changes.

The arguments for and against are relatively well rehearsed with the exception of one. What about the idea that in actual fact they are too big to succeed?

Now this might seem rather an odd suggestion given that some of the “too big too fail” banks were on the face of it “big” and big tends to be regarded as successful in a business context. But I have long argued that, in knowledge based industries – and I believe banking and finance is a knowledge based industry - big is not necessarily better. I have also argued on a number of occasions that the financial crisis was a failure of those industries in understanding the nature of knowledge management and knowledge based business generally.

I remember working with a professional services firm that had extremely strong social and trust networks in it. It worked very hard on these bonds with rigorous recruitment practices, unusual reward schemes and extensive reinforcement and encouragement programs to maintain them.

But they had a problem. As they competed in an increasingly global market they had expanded in both headcount and geographical spread and these bonds, this community, was becoming strained and threatened. As a KM engagement we were looking at ways to try to retain that key cultural plank as the company grew. It was a challenge, but it was inspiring to encounter a firm that recognised how important this human relationship model was and is to their success, and believe me this was a successful firm. Scale was a problem.

The advantage that “small” can bring to knowledge based firms by embedding trust and enhancing pooled human cognition is, in my view, enormous. And I am not alone in saying this. Gor-Tex for example apparently try to limit office sizes to 150.

Much of this ties into the so called Dunbar numbers and to try to ignore it would be to fly in the face of many thousands of years of evolution. Of course there are many things that can be done to allow companies to grow, but I do think there is a limit.

Bujt it seems to me that too often as companies in knowledge based industries choose to scale up there is a tendency to try to commoditise what they do and to try to systematise complex decision making away from what is required – i.e. the application of the human brain. They seem to be applying management models of simply analysing and reducing transaction costs that were useful in a previous industrial but are less relevant in a knowledge based value adding environment.

So I say lets chop the banks into bits not only to avoid the “too big to fail” dilemma, but because they will probably perform better.

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