The concept of infrastructure

I started a new business a few years ago. I’ve bootstrapped for all these years. Friends tell me it’s time I invested in a swankier place. I’m torn though between investing in my business and building a façade. Please advice.

The concept of infrastructure

All forms of infrastructure require that you build it before you can use it.

There are two kinds of people, those who are path-makers and those who are path-dependent. Entrepreneurs, by the very nature of their vocation, are path-makers. The idea of path-making is driven by a strong sense of legacy. If we take the idea of path-making and the creation of legacy together, what emerges is the concept of creating infrastructure; infrastructure for others to build on and something to leave behind. As entrepreneurs, our job is to build infrastructure that others may use and create value out of; eventually this infrastructure must outlive us. This is the essence of abiding success.

Let us contemplate infrastructure at four different levels. At the base is physical infrastructure. This consists of the spaces we create, the offices, factories, showrooms we build. These must be built with great care so that they embody the brand of the enterprise. If your company’s brand stands for innovation or collaboration or customer service or whatever, the physical space must bring it alive in its design and expanse.

Above this layer is the digital infrastructure. In today’s world, the enterprise is simultaneously real and virtual. The digital infrastructure consisting of the hardware, the software and the secure connectivity, provides this capability. Given a high-quality digital infrastructure, you build a force multiplier and help the operation to be always on.

The purpose of the physical and the digital infrastructure is to enable the creation of an intellectual infrastructure. This is all about the systems, processes, methodologies, the how-to; it is also the collaboration between people and of course everything that is the result of human endeavour. It is all things that are copyrightable, trademark-worthy and patentable.

Just because someone has a swanky office and fancy hardware and software does not mean the enterprise will be able to create intellectual infrastructure on which people may generate ideas, collaborate and build unusual new value. It requires engaged leadership that is supportive and actively helps people understand how abstract ideas can be made tangible.

Physical infrastructure creates immediate presence. If you have a terrace office overlooking the ocean front, people can’t ignore you. The difficulty in building just presence is that it becomes a statement of ego and no sooner than you build something fancy, someone with more money simply outdoes you. Your so-called presence becomes passé. Digital infrastructure gives you the ability to be always on, to be ubiquitous but by itself, it takes you nowhere because it is a fancy railroad sans the train. The train is the content that rides on the railroad; it gets created by your people everyday in the course of their work.

This new dimension requires the leader to pay special attention to the intellectual infrastructure because this one is all about human beings who cannot be mandated, but are inspired to convert ideas into things of value. It is the intellectual infrastructure of an organization that builds differentiation.

The problem in today’s world, however, is that differentiation itself is becoming an increasingly short-lived phenomenon. In it, we cannot just focus on differentiation; we need to build memorability. Memorability is created only when an enterprise has focus on building what I call the emotional infrastructure.

In every phase of building the organization, from its infancy to adulthood, an entrepreneur must see her task as the relentless pursuit of all the four layers and see how each one augments the other, how the four can be blended and delivered as one seamless experience to whoever touches the organization.

Now let me tell you two simple rules that govern the concept of infrastructure.

Rule #1: All forms of infrastructure require that you build it before you can use it. Think of it this way: you must build a bridge before you can cross it. In so doing, one cannot indulge in wishful thinking. For instance, if I want to cross the ocean, I cannot build a bamboo bridge.

If the precept of build now to use later is true of physical infrastructure, it is as true of emotional infrastructure. Leaders often lament that their organization is not aligned or inspired. What they overlook is that they are trying to cross a bridge that wasn’t built.

Rule #2: No form of infrastructure has permanence. It isn’t something that you can create once and use forever. This principle applies in equal measure to the physical, digital, intellectual and the emotional infrastructure of an enterprise, and that is why the job of an entrepreneur is never done.

Leaders must budget time and energy to take on the creation of infrastructure, but remain as invested to keep it current and ideally, always a little ahead of time.


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