“There are known knowns.
These are the things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns.
That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns.
There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
Donald Rumsfeld – Former USA Secretary of Defence
We were finishing our last class of our EMBA module this past weekend. We had 2 hours to go after 3.5 days of 8-hour classes and we were beat. During the month between modules we had a comprehensive group marketing paper due, along with a self-reflective and gut wrenching leadership paper. This was in addition to the 12 or so cases we had to analyze. Between work, family and school, I don’t think there was anyone in the class that had any energy left, yet when our professor flashed a slide with this quote I sat up and a gnawing question I couldn’t formulate the past 4 days came clear – what are my unknown unknowns?
As a small business owner I have not been exposed to the corporate “things” that large enterprises do. We have at the most 35 people in our business, and like most veterinarians, we run a very lean organization that is run very similar to other veterinary businesses. If a vet from Nebraska came to work with us tomorrow they wouldn’t feel out of place. Some of my business school classmates work in multi-billion dollar organizations with tens of thousands of employees; our annual sales are a rounding error to these behemoths. Fortunately, I am being exposed to the working lives of my classmates and there are things I have had heard of, but knew nothing about, and there are things I am learning that large corporations do that I had no idea ever existed. Sometimes I feel like someone from the Sahara and the instructors, or my classmates, are trying to describe snow to me. Unless you experience it how can you really know what it is?
Now that I am getting to know the systems and processes that large and medium sized organizations use to run their businesses more effectively I am beginning to appreciate how “scale” can be the enemy of a small business. Emphasis is on can be. We often hear how a company, like Walmart, has the scale to buy products cheaper than a competitor, or that a company can use their scale to develop a broad promotional plan. This could include television, radio, newspapers and social media, while most small businesses are trying to find the time to keep up with their Facebook page.
Some of the areas that frighten me as a small business owner are how companies are using data to monitor client behavior and buying habits, along with the integrated information systems they use to manage their internal processes, and their relationships with suppliers and customers. Not every large corporation is using these systems, but the smart ones are. When a Walmart can send a client shopping in a store a message on their phone about a sale in that actual store based on their previous buying behavior how can a vet convince someone to buy a prescription dog food ? How can we compete when a large manufacturer has an integrated information system with their supplier that can notify the supplier when they are low on stock and the supplier, in turn, can notify the factory when they are shipping new product. How can I compete against this efficiency when we rely on hand counting our pharmacy every couple of days to let us know if we have enough 2” x 2” gauze squares in stock?
I don’t know of one veterinarian that isn’t worried that the future of vet medicine lies with corporations. The business model of a single veterinarian building a practice might become a thing of the past, especially with the huge student debt facing new grads. It seems that these larger entities have the “scale” to compete and it is only a matter of time before they buy up all the independent vet businesses. I am not entirely convinced this will happen, because the one unknown thing that I didn’t know that I didn’t know is how many of these large companies struggle at implementing many of these new technologies. Integrating an enterprise wide information system isn’t as easy as turning on your new iPad with a couple of screens of super easy instructions. Instead, it is expensive, complex and involves clear communication between employees from the front line to the executive suites, the system supplier and other members of an IT department. Add in the need for strong leadership to drive this challenging process and the odds against success begin stacking up. Heck, I can’t get everyone in my organization to read an email I sent, imagine how hard it is when you have thousands of people?
…. we need to learn what we don’t know.
I could go back and forth comparing the strengths and weaknesses of large enterprises versus small businesses but there is a larger and more important point to make and that is small business owners need to make the effort to learn what they don’t know. I get it, another thing to add to the list of things to do, but even if you focus on one area at a time you will be ahead of the game. For example, the next time you are reading the newspaper, or surfing the news online, try to read one article on Big Data. Do this for the next 2 weeks and you should have a basic idea of what this means. After this look for items on Customer Relation Management Systems (CRMs), Cloud Computing or anything on Amazon. Once you become familiar with these new terms and businesses it will open up other possibilities of discovery. Finally, ask yourself how these new things you know relate to your business. Having fewer unknowns in our lives gives us the knowledge to make better choices about our business.
I would love it if you could share what you now know that you didn’t know before in the comment section. Thank you