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Making the Case for Business Agility, Again and Again

Date posted: March 6, 2015

Do you know the way to San Jose?
I’ve been away so long
I may go wrong and lose my way.
Do you know the way to San Jose?
I’m going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose.

I was on the way to the Apple store the other day when Dionne Warwick came on the radio. The song was a real blast from the past. It got me thinking about Silicon Valley, and how many tech companies have found peace of mind there, or at least a good piece of the market. There’s a method to the madness in the Valley, and it’s called agility.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review revisited AnnaLee Saxenian’s seminal work on the culture of Silicon Valley, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, which recently celebrated its 20th year in print. The book looks at what differentiated Silicon Valley from the tech industry outside Boston, and ultimately points to the former’s ability to adapt to change as trumping other constraints in enabling it to grow and flourish in a way that never occurred along Route 128. Saxenian notes in the HBR piece:

The Boston area was organized around these big, vertically integrated minicomputer companies: DEC, Data General. They were classic postwar American companies, with vertical hierarchies and career ladders. Planning and research happened at the top of the organization and then funneled down. Whereas in Silicon Valley you had, really by chance not design, a series of flat companies, with project-based teams that moved around. People moved between companies much more fluidly. At a time that technology and know-how were sort of trapped within the vertically integrated companies of Route 128, they were being continually recombined in Silicon Valley. That gave them a real edge in innovation.

It also provided greater resilience to cycles of boom and bust, as the agile structure enabled regeneration in the face of accelerating change.

In a post on the E2open blog, Andrew Atkinson asserts that the “secret sauce” of Silicon Valley that Saxenian describes applies more broadly to today’s global supply networks, which also demand the ability to be agile in responding to change. He notes:

No matter how you try to quantify it, the message is abundantly clear. In today’s fast-moving pace of business, change is the only certainty, creating an environment that demands a “survival of the fittest” mindset. Adapt and you’ll be rewarded handsomely. With the right combination of agility and innovation, your supply chain (and in turn, your business) can thrive, much like the bustling Silicon Valley we know today.

That’s something very much worth remembering, whether you’re on the way to San Jose, Sao Paolo, or Shanghai.