The enterprise is the story

Every enterprise has a story, of course – many of them, in fact. Yet there’s also a deeper story that defines the enterprise itself, what the enterprise is. It’s not just that the enterprise has a story: the enterprise is a story.

What’s special about the enterprise-story is that every participant in the enterprise chooses to engage with that story. In a sometimes very literal sense, they each see themselves within the story. So how could and should that story be told, by whom, in what forms, via what means or media? And since it’s a story that’s also shared by every participant in the enterprise, there are some real questions about ownership here: if the enterprise is a story, who really owns the enterprise?

Just what that means in practice for the enterprise, and the risks and opportunities that it implies, seems a theme that’s worth exploring – not just for enterprise-architects, but for almost everyone else as well. So whatever your interest, although this is going to be another long post, you may find it more relevant than some of my other recent articles. Click on the ‘Read more…’ link to keep going, anyway.

The organisation and the enterprise

One of the key frustrations at present in whole-of-enterprise architecture (EA) has been the mistaken belief that it’s only about IT – when in fact the IT is only a quite trivial part of the overall concerns for the enterprise and its archutecture. Yet at the next level up, there’s an equally mistaken belief that the enterprise is the organisation – that ‘the business’ and ‘the enterprise’ are one and the same. But whilst it’s true that an organisation is a specific type of enterprise, the enterprise is rarely an organisation as such, because the two terms are fundamentally different:

  • an organisation is bounded by rules – the company rule-book, legal responsibilities for company directors, and so on
  • an enterprise is bounded by shared commitment – to quote the FEAF definition, participants in the enterprise “coordinate their functions and share information in support of a common mission or set of related missions”

At the scope that we deal with in enterprise-architecture, the enterprise is always much larger than the organisation, because it provides a unifying theme for everyone within the organisation, all of the organisation’s partners and suppliers, and all of the organisation’s clients and prospects – and hence helps to define the ‘space’ in which marketing and the like may take place. (See the presentation ‘What is an enterprise?‘ on Slideshare.) Crucially, this theme is also the key reference-point for all those who interact with the organisation in other ways – such as government, or non-clients in the broader community, who are still ‘stakeholders’ in what the organisation is and does, even if they play little or no active part in it. The organisation’s ‘anti-clients‘ – those who, for any reason, actively dislike or distrust the organisation – will often question or challenge the organisation’s purported role and relationship to the enterprise.

The organisation itself chooses a specific role within that broader enterprise, a choice that opens a space for others to take up other roles in the same story. (See the presentation ‘Vision, Role, Mission, Goal‘ on Slideshare for more on this.) This difference in roles is what enables interactions between the players, within the terms of the various intersecting economies of the enterprise, such as transactions, attention and trust. If the organisation presents itself as ‘the enterprise’, it leaves no space for others to engage in the organisation’s enterprise – and no reason to do so, either. So this distinction between ‘organisation’ and ‘enterprise’ is no academic quibble, but utterly fundamental to any understanding of the relationship between the organisation and its surrounding ecosystem.

A ‘mission’ is literally a ‘sending’: so it becomes useful – essential, even – to ask who or what it is that sends us on that mission. At the enterprise level, the key to this is the enterprise vision, the single unifying theme that provides a common aim for all participants in the enterprise. The vision and accompanying values form the basis for any number of stories that express that vision. Almost by definition, there will be at least as many stories as there are people engaged in the enterprise, all of them different, because each person has a slightly viewpoint onto the vision – but they will all also be identifiably about the same vision, or some aspect of the same vision.

Possessing the story

The enterprise-story is where people connect with the enterprise. It’s also how they connect with the enterprise: each person in the enterprise commits to and participates in the enterprise-story, in their own unique way, if only as a side-effect of engagement in the enterprise and its story. This is what makes marketing possible: marketers create a story that in some way relates to the story of the overall enterprise, to open the way for a connection with the organisation.

Yet if the enterprise-story defines the enterprise, who owns the story?

In the past there’s been a simple answer to that question: the organisation owns the story. Possesses the story, more precisely. The story as trademark, as brand, as private property. The story told only as a one-way broadcast from the marketing department, the PR department, through channels that the organisation also exclusively controls and owns. The marketplace itself has changed from a public space – the muddled yet very human chaos of the street-market or the town square – to a controlled, filtered, private property – the medium is the message is the mall. Even the ancient shared stories become private property: Disney owns Snow White, Cinderella, the Beauty and the Beast, Ferrari owns the colour red, Harley-Davidson the sound of an engine, a small Australian telco the word ‘Yes’. And if the organisation seems to own the story, it’s easy to believe that the organisation is the enterprise, the enterprise is the organisation.

Given enough cash, clout and coercion, a company could easily delude itself into thinking that it has the power and right to control the story – or at least to silence every other version of that story. The company’s story drowns out all other voices, other stories, is everything, everywhere, everyone: all-pervading, ubiquitous, inevitable – with no place and no permission for any other story to exist. Which leads, in turn, to the ubiquity of the demand that we stay ‘on message’. HR Department and PR Department alike as ‘thought police’, ever watchful for signs of ‘thoughtcrime’, the literal heresy of ‘thinking otherwise’: every employee’s  weblog must carry some disclaimer such as “The opinions expressed here are my own and not those of my employer”. Command-and-control treats all others as subjects (command) or objects (control): and since to be a member of an organisation means that we need to place ourselves subject to its rules, command-and-control of the message might seem to succeed here.

Yet there’s a catch: organisation and enterprise are not the same. We can control an organisation – in principle, at least – because it’s bounded by its rules; but we cannot control an enterprise, because it’s bounded not by rules but by shared commitment. Commitment is an outcome of emotion – and emotions are not subject to anyone’s control. (How we respond to those emotions can be a choice, but not the emotions themselves.) And commitment to the enterprise only happens when the story is shared – which, by definition, cannot happen if only one version of the story is allowed, because there’s no space in which to share the story. People also don’t respond well to command and coercion: they retreat back to their own story, offering only the absolute minimum of commitment needed to get by. Hence the more an organisation tries to control the story, the more it prevents engagement in its own enterprise. Under those circumstances, clients easily become anti-clients – with serious yet seemingly-unexpected impacts on the organisation. The only way forward is for the organisation to loosen its grip on the enterprise – in other words, to let go of its increasingly-desperate attempts to command and control.

Loosing control of the story

Not that the organisation has much choice now about relinquishing that control. Even a decade ago, mass-media still dominated the public ‘thought-space’, and there were still few enough channels to make it feasible for companies to control the message via one-way broadcast from the company to the ‘consumer’. We might sometimes have to shout louder and shout wider to ensure that the message came across, but that was about all that was needed: litigation and lawyers could easily demolish any remaining dissent. Yet the combination of the internet and new media – especially on mobiles – has changed the game completely: the old mass-media are in danger of dying as an infinity of new micro-channels open up, each with their own authoritative voice. Suddenly it’s no longer one-to-many, but many-to-many: even the most repressive of regimes are finding this new hydra-headed ‘monster’ all but impossible to control.

The new media also enable many-to-one messages, so that the organisation can sometimes even find its own voice swamped and silenced. An organisation’s anti-clients can also now wield every bit as much influence as the organisation itself: a single YouTube video such as Dave Carroll‘s all-too-literal ‘smash-hit’ song  ‘United Breaks Guitars‘ can destroy many years’-worth of carefully-crafted corporate messages in a matter of minutes – and it barely counts at all as to whether or not the anti-client’s complaint is ‘fair’ from the organisation’s perspective.

One of Dave Snowden‘s dictums of knowledge-management is that sharing of knowledge cannot be coerced – it can only be volunteered. The same applies to attention and trust: they cannot be coerced. Instead, if we want to gain others’ attention and trust, we have to create conditions under they can be volunteered. Which means that we need to let go of the story, and allow others’ stories to meld into the broader story of the shared-enterprise.

What makes letting-go hard is the ‘need’ to possess the ‘true version’ of the story. Others’ complaints about our organisation may seem ‘unfair’, for example – yet they are a real part of that story, and each provides its own thread to create a richer fabric of story. Yet a random collection of themes and views is not a story: so how do we ensure that the threads do hold together into a unified, unifying vision for the enterprise?

Learning from the storytellers

One useful source of guidance here is the storytellers themselves – particularly the creators of ‘imaginary worlds’ in television sci-fi. People engage in these stories, intensely: the term ‘fan’ is shorthand for ‘fanatic’, and with good reason. That intense shared commitment to the enterprise of the story (no pun intended, in the case of Star Trek 🙂 ) is part of what keeps the story going; more to the point, without that commitment, the story fades and is forgotten. (The exact same applies to the story for a business-enterprise: without shared-commitment to the enterprise-story, the business fades and is forgotten. Which is why this is important!) The show’s fans will literally place themselves into those imaginary worlds, imagine themselves and/or their characters into that invented space. (Marketers aim to do the same, by likewise creating a story – a strategy of which Apple, for example, is one of the great masters.)

The challenge is to ensure that the story allows this openness but still  retains its integrity. Storytellers do this by viewing themselves not as ‘possessors’ of the story, but as its custodians: the difference is subtle, but extremely important. One tactic is to keep control of key characters but otherwise make it easy for others to create their own stories using those characters: for example, the long-running British show Dr Who includes a make-your-own-story graphic-novel editor on its website. Writers from the US show Heroes provide more useful advice on this, managing the story across many different media:

It’s also useful to explore the whole domain domain of ‘transmedia’ and its implications in terms of the enterprise-story:

Another reason why you need to understand transmedia in relation to the enterprise-story is that it’s through the many-to-many social-media that your anti-clients are most likely to communicate with each other and with the wider community, and where ‘anti-stories’ about your enterprise will develop and spread. If you don’t keep track of what’s happening in that world, your own equivalent of ‘United Breaks Guitars’ will seem to arrive out of nowhere – catching you off-guard with nowhere to go. So these media give you a place to engage with those stories at the earliest possible opportunity – and help bring them back to align with the overall enterprise-story.

Yet there’s another important catch here too: the more overtly you align with the enterprise-story and its underlying vision and values, the greater engagement you can gain from your stakeholders; but those other stakeholders will also hold you more accountable to that story, too. Playing fast-and-loose with the story, or trying to rig it solely to your advantage over others, will be a very dangerous mistake: in the new internet age of immersive transparency, any perceived betrayal of the enterprise-story by the purported custodians of that story is probably the quickest way of all to create vast numbers of anti-clients – which can kill your company stone-dead in days if you’re not very careful indeed. Responsibility matters here – especially your responsibilities to, with and for the enterprise-story.

The enterprise is a story. But the organisation is not the whole of the enterprise: it never was. And the organisation does not possess the story: it never did. How you deal with those facts in your organisation is up to you.

I hope this helps in that, of course. 🙂

[Thanks to Oscar Berg and Michael Margolis for pointers to the themes for this post.]

8 Comments on “The enterprise is the story

  1. This entry is wonderfully profound.

    Can it be said, then, that an organisation is of an enterprise? Further, since a story demonstrates – perhaps illustrates – an enterprise, then as story (I really want to make story a mass noun, to say enterprise is story. I am pretty sure Webster would have me pilloried…), with the scope of the enterprise as you are presenting, we are actually talking about a line-of-business in the organisation? If this is true, then we are able to offer this encapsulating mechanism for an organisation’s chapter in a particular enterprise story as it operationally manifests. This would logically allow mutually disjoint enterprises in the organisation. I find this exceptionally satisfying, so hopefully it is true.

    But, now this goes to something astounding to me: how do we effectively establish the beginning point and ending point of the story as it regards the organisation’s involvement? It would seem that a vision represents a certain depth of concern into the client. However, wouldn’t the organization’s consideration or measurement of the enterprise story go further than the vision implies? The organisation would thereby ‘listen’ to the story as it is played out in the vision’s environment? Under the same proposition, wouldn’t the quality measures for a vendor’s product, set by policy, then necessarily require intrusion into the vendor’s organization to approve (too harsh?) the vendor’s policies for the product’s creation? An organization’s chapter of an enterprise story, to cogently flow from the previous chapter on into the next chapter, must, as you say, weave itself into the tapestry of the enterprise book. Therefore, the farther an onganisation threads itself into the enterprise story, the greater the expectation of long term success(?). Is there a point of diminishing returns? Since the enterprise book has no one author overseeing its consistency throughout its longevity, to have an organisation pull this off successfully is no small challenge.

  2. Pat – many thanks indeed – much appreciated! 🙂

    Myron – likewise many thanks, and very strongly agree with all of your points. Unfortunately there’s about a book’s-worth of reply needed there, but I’ll do what I can here with what time I have!

    On “The organization is of an enterprise”, I think you’re probably right there: in essence, an organization coalesces around an enterprise-story, to place itself within that story. (Most of the time this process is barely a conscious one at all: a key part of enterprise-architecture and the like is to ‘surface’ the hidden assumptions and hidden stories that underpin an organization’s decisions.) But it’s important to recognise that there are layers and layers of story – or intersecting-sets of story, rather – so that each line-of-business and each department also has its own story. One of the aims of organisation is to line up all of these stories so that they point in the same overall direction, ‘the’ enterprise-story. There are plenty of military analogies here: each unit and division has its own distinct esprit-de-corps, but we work together to align them towards the _overall_ mission and vision of the military and its role within the human community. Another useful parallel much-used in the military context is systems-of-systems: each system is distinct, but we link them together to “cooperate towards a common mission or set of related missions”, to quote the FEAF definition of ‘enterprise’.

    On ‘beginning and end of the story’, we’re actually dealing with two different forms of story. The classic ‘journey’ style of story has a beginning, a middle, and an end – much like a typical military mission. But the enterprise-story is more like a trade-mission – once we set it up, it continues indefinitely. (In TV terms, this is the difference between a serial – which has a distinct story-arc – versus a series – where at least some parts of the story will always remain the same.) Importantly, _the enterprise-story would continue even if the organisation ceases to exist_. The organisation _chooses_ to weave itself into the enterprise-story – not the other way round. And the reason why it does so is two-fold: one is that it helps the organisation ‘make sense’ of everything it does (in facts the enterprise-values define what quality _is_ for the organisation); and the other is that the connection to the shared-story enables conversations with potential partners in the story – in other words, potential customers and the like.

    Hence, as you say, “the farther an organisation threads itself into the enterprise story, the greater the expectation of long term success”. The catch is that an organisation can thread itself so far into the story that it thinks that it _is_ the story, that it _possesses the story: the mistaken belief that the organisation _is_ ‘the enterprise’. It’s easy to see how that happens, but the trap is that if we do that, we shut everyone else out of the story – which means that the enterprise ceases to be _shared_, and hence ceases to exist (in that form, anyway – the story continues on regardless). Yet if we don’t weave ourselves into the story, there’s no reasons for others to connect with us. To make the organisation work well within its chosen enterprise, we need to find the right balance of ‘weaving’ somewhere between those two extremes.

    On “intrusion into the vendor’s organisation”, many organisations _already_ do this – this is nothing new. It can be at a routine-level, such as ensuring that your outsourced cleaning-company complies with all the security rules and health-and-safety regulations that apply in your buildings. It can be at a partner-level, such as Nike checking for child-exploitation in its overseas manufactories. Or it can be at a whole-of-context level, such as US regulations on export of controlled technologies. We frequently _require_ the intersecting partners in our extended-organisation to align with at least some central parts of our view of the enterprise-story – otherwise they can’t be partners.

    Hope this helps, anyway – and thanks again.

  3. Thank you, Tom, for taking the time to address my comments at length. This is directly applicable to some of my efforts and you have brought significant clarity to the them. If you’re ever in Kansas City, I’ll buy you lunch.

  4. Myron – “This is directly applicable to some of my efforts and you have brought considerable clarity to them.”

    Would you be willing to expand on this? – it would help me to have some other concrete examples of practice, especially in the .mil space. Many thanks on that.

    Re. Kansas City – may be a while (I was last there more than 20 years ago!) but yeah, a long yarn over lunch would be good. 🙂

  5. “Unfortunately there’s about a book’s-worth of reply needed there”

    Tom, have you actually considered writing a book-length exploration of these ideas? I think you’re really on to something deeply profound here.

  6. Bill – Uh, yes, good point re “have you actually considered writing a book-length exploration of these ideas?” It is indeed a great topic/theme for a book. The catch is finding the time (and sanity?) to do it: my current book-writing stack is around six books, and still growing… help…? 🙁

    Ron – many thanks, very pleased you found it useful. 🙂

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