Growing the Porous Business

Jim Karrh On Marketing

Growing the Porous Business

Business leaders across our state — and the U.S. — are now looking ahead to 2021. Has there ever been a time when strategies and forecasts have felt more tenuous?

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic and various policy reactions have caused a generational disruption. But they also served to accelerate some changes in work patterns that had been building for years. In this column, you will get a view of those new patterns as well as the ways top marketers across the U.S. are evaluating necessary changes.

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What does the word “porous” evoke for you? When it comes to a material or surface, we tend to think of something leaky or insecure. Likewise, a more porous organization has boundaries that are less rigid — across functional areas on the inside, as well as between the organization and its external environment. Our work has become more virtual, remote, separated and unpredictable; that presents a new set of leadership challenges, including customer relationships, hiring, retention, training and learning.

The idea of a porous organization is not exactly new. In 2009, in a paper for the Center for Technology & National Security Policy, Paul Bartone and Linton Wells II reviewed the weaknesses and strengths of a porous organizational structure. While there are certainly critical issues to address, these experts also pointed out advantages, including being “better able to sense trends and shifts in the external world, and quickly respond and adapt to such changes.”

What are marketing leaders seeing that might help them (and you) take advantage of growth opportunities in a more porous business world?

One of the best indicators is the CMO Survey, conducted twice each year by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. The most recent edition was dedicated to the things top chief marketing officers have learned during COVID-19.

When those marketers were asked what their customers’ highest priority is over the next 12 months, the leading response was “trusted relationships.” Trusted relationships are a higher priority than “low price,” even during a severe downturn. This means more opportunities to try new products, services or go-to-market strategies with customers who trust the brand and are less price-sensitive than before.

Building trust is tough enough in more predictable times. Trustworthiness is primarily a function of your team’s expertise and empathy, which are difficult to maintain in the porous business. Marketing leaders appear to recognize this need. According to the survey, companies have shifted their priorities as they hire and rehire during the recovery. The top skill they seek today is the “ability to pivot,” followed by creativity, innovation skills and the ability to deal with ambiguity.

How do you keep your team learning? Among the recommendations from the CMO Survey: “Marketers know that pivoting, agility, and navigating ambiguity are challenging soft skills to learn in ‘normal’ business contexts.” Marketing training budgets took a hit during the past year (from 5.8% of the overall marketing budget to 4.4%), and the survey leaders recommend that companies redevelop their employees in these areas.

Where are the leaders themselves turning for new ideas? During the past few months, they report mostly turning inward, relying upon team members, top management and sales teams to guide their response to the pandemic. Further down the list were doing research with customers, studying competitive and noncompetitive industries and getting guidance from outside experts.

This is understandable — leaders have had to react quickly, using what is easily available — but also incomplete and narrow for dealing with the porous business long term. Even a more hybrid approach to workspaces, training, meetings and customer engagement represents a big shift from the last time leaders were setting business plans.

I strongly suspect that the most successful leaders going forward will be those who communicate well, inspire others and equip their teams to make adjustments quickly.

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a consultant and professional speaker, host of “The Manage Your Message Podcast” and author of “The Science of Customer Connections.”