JSB and I just published a new article in the McKinsey Quarterly – “Push to Pull – The Next Frontier of Innovation.” I've also posted on my web site a longer working paper that I wrote with JSB on “From Push to Pull – Emerging Models for Mobilizing Resources” for those who want a more detailed perspective.
This material is the opening salvo in our research for a new book. Yes, I know, we’ve just barely published our previous one, but we're already starting to work on a new book. As we were writing The Only Sustainable Edge we became convinced that there is a much bigger story yet to be told. Since we are still at the earliest stages of this research and writing, I would welcome any input or suggestions to make the story sharper and more compelling.
“Push to Pull” is only one slice of this bigger story - it is not the whole story, but it is an important slice. It describes a fundamental shift in the way we mobilize resources. Organizational success depends upon effective mobilization of resources. Getting the right resources to the right place at the right time makes the difference between desired impact and catastrophe – something we learned in graphic detail from Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.
The distinction between push and pull
Over the past century, institutions have been perfecting highly efficient approaches to mobilizing resources. These approaches may vary in their details, but they share a common foundation. They are all designed to “push” resources in advance to areas of highest anticipated need.
In the past decade, we have seen early signs of a new model for mobilizing resources. Rather than “push”, this new approach focuses on “pull” – creating platforms that help people to reach out, find and access appropriate resources when the need arises.
Now, when JSB and I talk about pull platforms, many executives immediately think of the lean manufacturing techniques pioneered by companies like Toyota back in the 1950’s. In fact, lean manufacturing represents a hybrid between push and pull models – it still contains significant elements of push. We are talking about something even more profoundly rooted in the principles of pull.
Pull and push approaches differ significantly in terms of how they organize and manage resources. Push approaches typically use “programs” – tightly scripted specifications of activities designed to be invoked by known parties in pre-determined contexts. Of course, all push approaches are not software programs – this is a broader metaphor to describe one way of organizing activities and resources. Think of thick process manuals in most enterprises or standardized curricula in most primary and secondary educational institutions, not to mention the programming of network television, and you will see that institutions heavily rely on programs of many types to deliver resources in pre-determined contexts.
Pull approaches, in contrast, tend to be implemented on “platforms” designed to flexibly accommodate diverse providers and consumers of resources. These platforms are much more open-ended and designed to evolve based on the learning and changing needs of the participants. Rather than seeking to dictate the actions that people must take, pull models seek to provide people on the periphery with the tools and resources (including connections to other people) required to take initiative and creatively address opportunities as they arise. Pull platforms are designed from the outset to handle exceptions, while push programs treat exceptions as indications of failure.
Push models treat people as passive consumers (even when they are producers like workers on an assembly line) whose needs can be anticipated and shaped by centralized decision-makers. Pull models treat people as networked creators (even when they are customers purchasing goods and services) who are uniquely positioned to transform uncertainty from a problem into an opportunity.
Once again, we’re not using platforms in the literal sense of a tangible foundation, but in a broader, metaphorical sense to describe frameworks for orchestrating a set of resources that can be configured quickly and easily to serve a broad range of needs. Think of Expedia’s travel service or the emergency ward of a hospital and you will see the contrast with hard-wired push programs.
The value of pull models
Why are pull platforms emerging and spreading? Many organizations adopt pull platforms as a way to create more flexibility and cope with greater uncertainty. But early adopters are realizing that there is another more compelling value. Pull platforms are particularly powerful in fostering innovation, learning and capability building. In fact, pull platforms are creation platforms. You can’t anticipate if you are going to innovate, so push programs are not useful in innovation environments.
Here’s the irony. Push models were originally designed to promote efficiency, yet even here they are failing to deliver. Advocates of these models acknowledged that these approaches might limit flexibility and constrain creativity, but they argued that was a small price to pay for the opportunity to cut costs. Yet, as uncertainty increases and competition intensifies, it turns out that push models are less and less able to deliver efficiency.
Push models assume that demand can be predicted reliably enough to define the procedures required to deliver resources to pre-specified locations before the demand actually materializes. Push models therefore require accurate forecasts to function effectively. Uncertainty undermines the ability to forecast. This in turn undermines the ability to push resources to the right place at the right time. So, even if efficiency is the primary goal, push approaches are becoming less useful. Pull platforms become extraordinarily efficient in uncertain markets.
Pull platforms are highly scalable as well as flexible because they embed specialized capabilities into distinct layers that can evolve independently. The lower layers of pull platforms, including such activities as communication and logistics networks tend to focus on high tech capabilities. Upper layers, concentrating on mobilizing individuals and communities to innovate and create new value, tend to focus on high touch capabilities.
Early arenas for pull platforms
These new pull platforms are emerging in very diverse arenas:
- Pull platforms are helping to transform the production and distribution of digital media in areas like blogging and music remixing. But it would be a mistake to view pull platforms as limited to digital “fringes”.
- Global process networks built upon pull platforms are reshaping the global operations of such different and demanding industries as apparel, motorcycles and consumer electronics.
- Learning institutions as diverse as the University of Phoenix and Brown University are deploying pull platforms.
These are not just isolated examples - powerful forces are shaping the need for an alternative approach to mobilizing resources. These forces ensure that this new model will spread to all arenas of human activity.
Forces shaping pull platforms
Five broad forces are shaping the emergence and evolution of pull platforms:
- Increasing uncertainty
- Growing abundance
- Intensifying competition
- Growing power of customers
- Greater emphasis on learning and improvisation
In environments shaped by these forces, push models are breaking under the strain and pull models are beginning to fill in the gaps.
The push to pull spectrum
Of course, pull platforms and push programs are not mutually exclusive. In fact, pull platforms often contain push programs that can be accessed through their platforms. For example, Amazon or eBay provide robust pull capability for consumers to access on demand an extraordinary abundance of products like books and CD’s. These products were originally made using traditional push manufacturing programs. On the other hand, reflect on the opportunities to further build upon these pull distribution systems by reconfiguring production processes to deliver publishing on demand.
More broadly, however, the forces outlined earlier make it more and more attractive to deploy pull models rather than push models. At the same time, broader deployment of more flexible technologies, tools and infrastructures makes it more viable to design and manage pull models. As a result, pull models will increasingly displace or marginalize push models in broader arenas of human activity.
Look to the edge for pull platforms
Like many of the most profound business changes, this architectural shift is beginning at the edge:
- It is starting at the edge of enterprises, rather than deep inside of the enterprise, because it is here that the greatest uncertainty exists. It is also here that push models, with their assumption of centralized control, are less viable (unless a company has enormous market power like Wal-Mart).
- Pull platforms are also beginning to take hold in emerging economies like China and India because these platforms are particularly powerful in supporting bootstrapping activity.
- Finally, pull platforms are emerging at the demographic edge – younger generations more comfortable with the technologies and tools emerging on electronic networks are pioneering both the creation and use of pull platforms to create businesses that grow extremely fast with relatively modest investment.
Pull platforms require very different mindsets and management techniques. At this point, they represent an opportunity for all institutions to embrace. Over time, however, they will represent a significant competitive challenge for those who remain wedded to push programs. While pull platforms are emerging first on the edge, we all know that the edge eventually becomes the core.