In an economy that is ruled by ideas, the only sustainable form of leadership is thought leadership. That puts a real premium on strategy. But how do you define a long-term strategy in an economy that moves at the speed of the Net? Is there a difference between a "business strategy" and an "Internet strategy"? And who makes strategy these days — senior executives in corner offices, or the people who are closest to customers?
John D. Noble, 32, vice president of corporate Internet strategy at Putnam Investments, a Boston-based mutual-fund giant (the company has more than 11 million shareholder accounts and nearly $400 billion in assets under management), is wrestling with those and other questions. In an interview with Fast Company, Noble explained his rules for making strategy.
How has the Net changed Putnam's strategic outlook?
The Web has forced us to think bigger about how we can meet our customers' needs. It is the connective tissue that binds together a bunch of financial issues that once might have seemed unrelated but that now are joined. At Putnam, we see 401(K) needs — and retirement-savings issues in general — as the center of an individual's universe. But there are a lot of ancillary things that affect financial planning: buying a house, financing a car, saving for a child's education. The Internet allows us to serve all of those needs through one portal.
What's the one thing that you can count on as an Internet strategist?
Being surprised. I was at another mutual-fund company at the start of the online-trading revolution, and everyone there was convinced that each online transaction would reduce the number of calls to our phone reps. But what we soon realized was that even if customers made online transactions, they usually wanted to follow up with human beings. That's just one strategic surprise that I've encountered.
What's one key strategic idea that you're wrestling with right now?
Aggregation. There are sites that allow people to combine all of their personal accounts in a single location. Aggregation is both a capability and a strategy. The capability lets clients see a more comprehensive picture of their net worth. From a strategic standpoint, advisers can now better understand their clients' entire financial perspective.
How do you make a long-term strategy when technology changes so fast?
First, you figure out which strategic moves you want to make, and then you figure out how to use technology to make those moves. Technology changes so quickly that if you're basing a decision solely on what's possible today, you're not going to be in a very good position 6 to 12 months later. That said, you can't write your strategy on a whiteboard and leave it there forever. The trick is to be surveying the marketplace constantly — not just your direct competitors but also the best-of-breed in other industries.
What kinds of people are in the best position to be Internet strategists?
Strategy has become a two-pronged field: You need to have ideas, and you need to have the capacity to execute. There are people like me who provide an overarching vision, and then there are marketing, communications, and it teams that turn that vision into reality. These days, ideas mean very little without relentless execution. Strategy has become a team effort.
Contact John Noble by email (email@example.com).
A version of this article appeared in the January 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.