Background on Dell
Michael Dell is the CEO of Dell Computers. He started Dell in 1984 with $1,000 and an unprecedented idea - to sell computer systems directly to customers (no big box stores, catalogues or building his own distribution network). Dell lets consumers (individuals then businesses and government accounts) tie directly into the chain of choices the company makes in building computers. The consumer feedback is “real time” input into the products the company produces that day. Additionally, Dell runs extra efficiently because it quickly feeds information to parts suppliers via the internal secure communication networks so they are only “feeding” Dell parts in demand.
The result is that Dell builds computer systems to order. Dell also has the ability to introduce the latest technology much more quickly than companies with traditional models for inventory management. Dell is changing inventory every four days on average. Long-term planning at Dell is unbelievable considered to be a forecast over the next 4 to 12 weeks.
How did Dell do it?
Dell has invested in technologies that enable them to monitor the supply position of every part. If any part is in short supply due to greater demand, Dell checks with its supplier to find out if he can increase supply of this part in the next shipment. If the part in short supply is a generic one - example a hard drive, it checks with alternate suppliers. Once the supply options are exhausted Dell approaches its sales and marketing team to check if the demand can be moved to some other products.
Dell’s build-to-order model ensures that a computer is built only after an order is placed. It can survive because it can build computers the same day they are ordered. Dell’s focus on maintaining a continuous balance between supply and demand helps minimizing excess and obsolete inventory. Dell’s system ensures that it never has months of inventory anywhere. If it observes a slacking of demand even over 2 days it pro-activates corrective measures to balance the demand and supply.
Dell’s strategy of winning is based on using technology to more effectively scale outputs with demands and minimizing excess inventory.
The Advocacy Lesson
There are some very thought provoking lessons in the Dell story for advocacy groups. Here is a new business model that focuses on feeding supply to meet demand. This model is only possible in today’s world of dense communication ties between consumers and producers.
In the advocacy context “demand” is the public appetite for policy change. The “supply” provided by the advocacy movement is the staff support (speakers, stories, policy expertise, media coverage, organizing, membership and fundraising) to meet that demand.
Applied Network-Centric Advocacy
Some of the best grassroots organizers and the most powerful advocacy organizations are extremely flexible in the work they do (assess the last 5 issues by MoveOn) These leaders in our movement understand that if an issue gets “hot” the organization can jump into the fight and in the process attract new membership, build organizational profile and make a significant contributions to a cause. Many activists think groups like this are chasing dollars or publicity without putting the hard work into setting the policy groundwork for the big battles. I have even seen resentment grow between groups that are perceived to be “stealing” the show (remember Dell did not invent most the stuff they sell).
There are two ways to adapt to this new dynamic. First, groups can fight the success of the model. The movement can try to “control” who gets involved in which campaigns. Groups can try to restrict what other organizations write about in annual reports, media releases, newsletters, emails and fundraising appeals. The struggle of “who gets credit for what” can become and endless supply of fun (private sector does this via patents, copyrights, trademarks, lawsuits and intellectual property fights) The other option is that advocacy movement can embrace the lessons of “on demand” supply and try to exploit it to your advantage.
Not many groups that can say that in the fall of 2002 they predicted all of the major battles they would be involved in for 2003. From watching staff time slip into anti-war efforts, fighting the roll back of mercury controls, or fighting judgeships, we rarely can forecast with much accuracy where “demand” will be in 4 to 12 weeks like Dell. As a movement, we are locked into building “supply” based on grants and campaigns for 12-18 month ahead of time. We spend lots of “supply” and build up a large inventory of content, research, bills in committee and media attention when there is no “demand”.
There are alternatives to the current model of engagement. Launch an “On Demand Initiative” within your organization and your coalitions. Each On Demand Initiative consists of both internal work and external investments.
First, develop an internal plan to capitalize on the natural ebb of attention around the issues that your organization works on in the regular year. How can you quickly increase staff support to anti-sprawl groups when the utility inflames a community by purposing new major power line projects? How can you have a campaign ready to launch in few hours that requires double the amount of staff you have today? What happens when the dam breaks, fire runs wild, or a celebrity steps into your issue? Are you ready to “scale”? What do you need to do today so you can meet that demand? How can you rearrange work so that total strangers can jump in and help you?
Second, set up the communications tools and matrix you are going to monitor to track “demand”. Who are the most reliable early indicators that a story is going to be “big”? While the old “if it bleeds it leads” rules of thumb may not hold true, many advocacy staff do have a pretty good radar for knowing when a cancer cluster, fire, industrial accident, drought, invasive species, political scandal, etc. is going to create “buzz”. Can the buzz be turned? Do the groups involved in the issue have an “On Demand” plan? Can the energy be channeled?
Finally, come to terms with the fact that helping others and jumping in to crisis hot issues is strategic and smart advocacy. Listen to your instincts of “hot issues”, if you think that your contribution of some chunk of staff time, expertise, manpower or connections to the public may be the investment that “wins the day” jump in for a few days. Your best staff often help their friends from other groups in a pinch. Let them feel good about it and know their work is supported by the organization, funders and membership.
Many of the most successful long term organizers often feel like they run from “fire to fire” jumping on opportunities, responding to attacks and doing the best they can. They get dragged into strategic planning process where strategists continue to push the linear plodding step-by-step campaigns. The alternative is to adopt infrastructure to support another alternative business model that can respond with the demand flux driving the “fire to fire” approach to advocacy.
Launch an “On Demand Initiative” to serve the progressive needs of the broader community who are not your current members or supporters. The goal is to support allied nonprofit groups in moments when their staff resources can not effectively absorb and harvest public attention and demand created around an issue. Make this investment because it will help build progressive momentum, build connections across organizations and payoff tenfold when your group needs help the most.
Build tight communication ties between other “suppliers” that can help meet demand and let your customers drive a bigger portion of your production.