Are You ‘Pushing’ in a ‘Pull’ World?

A new book argues that companies need to adapt to a fundamental change in business.

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Courtesy of New York: Basic Books.

Marketers have increasingly recognized that their world has been changing from “push” to “pull.” Traditionally, they could push advertising and other marketing content toward potential customers to tout new products or services. Now, consumers have grown accustomed to pulling that information in for themselves by, for instance, surfing the Web. And that fundamental shift from push to pull is not limited to marketing; it’s occurring in all aspects of business, from human resources to research and development. At least that’s the contention of a provocative new book, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

The authors, who are all affiliated with the Deloitte Center for the Edge, define pull as “the ability to draw out people and resources as needed to address opportunities and challenges.” Some of the characteristics of pull are collaboration, flexibility and bottom-up initiatives. Push, on the other hand, relies on centralized control, conformity and top-down directives. The difference between the two mind-sets affects nearly every aspect of a business. Take how information is handled. Push managers focus on acquiring stocks of knowledge — a sales organization, for instance, might hoard customer data, even keeping that information from other departments within the same company. In contrast, managers in pull organizations are much more concerned about flows of knowledge — having and providing access to important information across departments and even from one company to another.

By now, most managers have heard of at least some aspects of the pull phenomenon. Companies are aware of the ways in which the Web and other information technologies have enhanced the grassroots power of customers and employees. And business gurus have been advocating for years that organizations need to become more agile and less top-down. Moreover, the importance of information flow is a central idea of “open innovation,” the concept that companies should leverage both internal and external resources in bringing new technologies to market. But the beauty of The Power of Pull is that the authors bring such seemingly disparate ideas into one simple, overarching imperative: Stop pushing; start pulling.

Now here’s the rub: Traditional push corporations will need nothing short of a complete overhaul to become pull organizations. At times, the authors’ description of the world of pull evokes more utopian idealism than corporate pragmatism: “Rather than individuals serving the needs of institutions,” the authors contend, “our institutions will be recrafted to serve the needs of individuals.” Given the dismal track record of change initiatives at large companies, such drastic overhauls of businesses from top to bottom might be nothing more than a pipe dream. Nevertheless, the authors do offer some solid practical advice for making the first small steps.

One such step is the practice of “reverse mentoring.” Instead of seasoned executives taking promising young employees under their wings, the process could work the other way, as well. Employees who are versed in various pull technologies (such as Facebook and Twitter) could be mentoring experienced managers to explore the various ways in which a company could transform itself beyond its traditional ways of doing business.

Another pull opportunity, the authors suggest, is to focus on IT exceptions. IT applications are typically designed to standardize and automate processes. As such, they are often ill-prepared to handle exceptions — customers who want unusual payment terms when they order, for instance. But it’s that kind of information that could lead to a process innovation to satisfy an unmet need in the market. If companies were to concentrate on collecting that type of exceptions data, they might be able to identify market trends before their competitors do.

These and other similar practices would help companies become more pull and less push. But even the book’s authors have no illusions about the magnitude of what they’re proposing. Still, they warn (perhaps a bit too direly) that companies simply don’t have any choice. “We won’t lie to you: It won’t be easy,” they write. “But the choice has become that we adopt these techniques and thrive, or we choose to ignore them and face a great risk of failure as passion, talent, and material resources head elsewhere.”

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Comments (2)
openworld
Insightful review. I look forward to reading the book.

At this stage, though, I'm wondering about another "pull" that was not described above. 

Umair Haque has suggested that "ideals are the new business models" (Harvard Business Review, http://j.mp/aCkZ6r ).

Consumers who now have vast abilities to pull from their environment may in turn be attracted - pulled - by what they see as visions of better futures.

If so, companies that align with these ideals - and that "push" into the market new tools enabling individuals to turn their ideals to action - may do well indeed in exchanges with their increasingly empowered consumers/partners.

Best,

Mark Frazier
Openworld
openworld
Insightful review. I look forward to reading the book.

I'm left wondering at this point about an increasingly powerful kind of "pull" omitted above. 

Umair Haque has suggested that "ideals are the new business models" (Harvard Business Review, http://j.mp/aCkZ6r ).

Consumers who have vast new abilities to pull from their environment may in turn be attracted and pulled by what they see better futures.

If so, companies that align with these ideals -- and then cocreate and "push"  tools to turn vision to action - may do well indeed for their increasingly empowered consumers/partners.

Best,

Mark
@openworld