Profit From Information Networks … Just Like the Rothschilds

The use of information networks has conferred competitive advantage long before the advent of LinkedIn AnswersAsk, orQuora. In fact, to truly see the power of information networks, one need look no further than how the wealthiest family of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Rothschilds, used them to wield international power.

Cobbling together some Internet sources, let’s define an information network as an exchange, platform, or process for communication. Communication in such a network may be broadcast or two-way, and the network could be formal (well-defined with rules and procedures) or informal. Such networks also have a transmission infrastructure (network, computer, person, mail delivery, or even Pony Express). Information networks are often designed to disseminate valuable information, yet also might include conversations that are commonplace or even trivial.

Today’s information networks transmit knowledge with blinding speed via computers, Internet, and telecommunications. Of course, such mechanisms didn’t exist in the 1800s. Even so, the ability to capture information and transmit it faster than competitors conferred significant advantage two hundred years ago, much as it does today. And there was no better information network in the 19th century than the system designed by the House of Rothschild.

According to economic historian Niall Ferguson, the Rothschild banking dynasty originally consisted of Mayer Amschel (father) and his five sons: Nathan, Amschel, James, Carl, and Solomon. Located in cities throughout the European continent, the Rothschilds started businesses in textiles and antiques, but quickly moved into supplying financial resources for kings (via personal loans) and countries. While more than a few characteristics made this family successful, one of their strongest advantages was use of a well-designed information network.

With brothers located in Frankfurt, London, France, Naples, and Vienna, the Rothschilds effectively acted with “unbreakable unity”—always coordinating and communicating as a single entity. While mail service existed at the time, the Rothschilds discovered it was more reliable to set up their own information network. This network consisted of carrier pigeons and couriers on ship or horse. Couriers were full-time associates employed by the Rothschilds and were solely dedicated to the transmission of information.

And the brothers used this information network to make obscene profits. Niall Ferguson explains: “Success of arbitrage and forward-exchange operations hinged on rapid communication. As far as possible, the brothers sought to keep one another abreast of news which might affect the exchange markets, the impending payment of a subsidy, further military action, imminent of the peace treaty being signed.”

In fact, the Rothschild information network was so well-constructed and rapid that statesmen used the Rothschild network instead of their own for exchanging diplomatic letters. With the Rothschild information network, letters that once took a week to travel the continent now traveled in a single day! And imagine the information flow exposed to the Rothschild family, when even kings trusted their correspondence to Rothschild couriers.

What was the profit advantage of the Rothschild information network? Niall Ferguson says that, “Major political events as well as confidential information could be relayed from one city to another well ahead of official channels.” Trading on information, before it became public knowledge, helped propel the Rothschild family to become the richest in Europe.

Alas, the speed of today’s technology has essentially removed information latency advantages. Five billion people now have mobile phones. And with sensors, RFID, GPS, and high-speed Internet accelerating data flows across the globe, the playing field is much more level than in the 1800s. That’s not to say, however, that there’s no longer profit advantage via information networks. Indeed, one needs to look no further than the formal and informal information networks used in the financial services community, particularly by investment banks which trade in information, sometimes a little too aggressively.

Change is accelerating rapidly. Information networks are a powerful tool to manage that change and make profitable decisions. But they’re not without costs of time, energy, and money to maintain them.

The Rothschilds made their fortune via an information network. How will you take advantage of today’s information networks to not only survive but thrive in the global marketplace?

  • Is there still competitive advantage to be had in utilization of information networks?
  • Niall Ferguson says that the Rothschilds spent a lot of time, energy, and money maintaining the best possible relations with the leading political figures of the day. What are you doing to cultivate your personal information network?

Algorithms For Competitive Advantage

Analyst firm IDC predicts that by 2020, the amount of data generated each year will reach 35 zetabytes. Companies are fighting this deluge in numerous ways. Some archive data for analysis at a later point in time, some purge data as quick as they obtain them, while others capture, ingest, analyze, and use data for competitive advantage—sometimes in microseconds! And in a sea of plenty, it’s often the best algorithm that wins.

An algorithm is simply a step-by-step approach for solving a problem. Think of an algorithm like a formula; it can be complex, or relatively simple in design. Now add compute power from today’s super fast computers coupled with the know-how to design, build, and maintain these formulae and you have a winning combination! Companies across the globe use algorithms to make recommendations (think: If you like this product, you’ll probably also like this), choose optimum delivery routes for packages, and even route calls to agents that can best diagnose a particular problem.

How can an algorithm confer competitive advantage? Depending on the type of business you’re in, it’s easy to see how algorithms can reduce all available choices into the very best options. Take for instance, Google. In the February 22, 2010 issue of Wired Magazine writer Stephen Levy points out, “For years, (Google) has used its mysterious, seemingly omniscient algorithm to, as its mission statement puts it, “organize the world’s information.” Google’s algorithm is constantly tweaked, honed, tested, and improved to better interpret searchers’ requests, no matter how awkward or misspelled, says Levy. And this competitive advantage in its search algorithm has (so far) confirmed a 65% share of the search market for Google.

In a sea of data, algorithms can also help reduce choice overload. Online dating sites often use proprietary algorithms to divine appropriate partner matches based on user inputs such as preferences for race, religion, eye or hair color, and more.eHarmony’s algorithm for example, helps select potential partners based on a 258 question personality test. eHarmony’s algorithm takes too much choice (sea of available singles) and distills/simplifies millions of choices into much more manageable options.

And while companies like eHarmony rely on data input by a user, a new recommendation engine called Wings mines your social media “bread crumbs” left on various websites (including Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, Foursquare and others) to feed into its algorithm to pick a suitable dating partner. A MIT Technology review article on Wings says, “The idea is that the computer’s analysis of your behavior provides a richer analysis than you’d say about yourself.”

More data has been created in past three years than in past 40,000 years, says Teradata CTO Stephen Brobst. Indeed, today and into the near future, companies that can sort through, analyze and utilize this rich trove of data treasure faster (in some cases with blinding speed) than competitors will dominate over those enterprises slow to comprehend this critical transition.

Related: “Social Network Analysis: Hype or Help?” and “The Zero Latency Future is Now


  • Are recommendation engines becoming more or less reliable? Think of a website you often use that uses recommendation algorithms. How “close to home” are its choices for you?
  • Do you think a computer can discern your tastes in romance better than you can?


Win the World Over with Comparative Advantage

Marketers are often focused with gaining competitive advantage—combining resources to beat the competition. However, the concept of comparative advantage—or “producing something at the lowest cost of anyone else”—shouldn’t be overlooked as a way to win in the marketplace. And one needs to look no further than comparative advantage’s poster child, China, for a view as to how this strategy can be successful.

An article in New Yorker Magazine titled “Boom Doctor” documents the rise of Justin Yifu Lin to chief economist of the World Bank. Keeping a rather unassuming profile in World Bank headquarters in Washington D.C., Lin is given the rock-star treatment in China, where he is the first Chinese citizen to serve in this prestigious position.

Thirty years ago, China was implementing many of the economic ideas that have transformed it into a growth juggernaut, including designation of special economic zones and a major investment in infrastructure. But it was one idea in particular, championed by Lin and others, that helped transform China from net debtor to creditor. It’s the idea of comparative advantage.

Some equate comparative advantage with the strategy of being the low-cost producer. That’s a big part of it. But comparative advantage is fully defined as being the low-cost producer in relation to your opportunity costs.

A terrific example of comparative advantage is found in an online article from the Library of Economics and Liberty. Let’s say that both you and Lance Armstrong both cycle and type really fast. Maybe Lance is even a bit faster typist. Should Lance Armstrong take on a career in typing since he’s the fastest typist around? Of course not! Though Lance may be the fastest and lowest-cost typist, he could make much more money cycling and winning tours. Thus, even though you may not be as fast a typist at Lance, comparative advantage is yours.

In the New Yorker article, Lin agrees with this sentiment. He says, “If you follow your comparative advantage, you will export whatever you’re good at, and import whatever you’re not good at.”

With a multibillion dollar trade deficit with the United States, China is taking comparative advantage to the bank. Author Peter Hessler illustrates in his book, “Country Driving,” that China has comparative advantage in producing myriad items at the lowest opportunity cost.

For example, there are towns solely dedicated to making playground equipment. Qiaotou is known for making buttons, Wuyi makes one billion decks of playing cards a year, Yiwu makes 25% of the world’s drinking straws, and Dtange makes one-third of the socks on earth! An online trade glossary says that comparative advantage is when a country produces “products at a lower cost, relative to other goods, compared to another country.” That definition perfectly sums up China’s upper hand.

What does all this have to do with marketing? With the next fiscal year approaching for many companies, marketers are once again challenged to put forward more than simply budgets but also growth strategies as well. Competitive advantage for companies is fleeting, especially with rapid changes in technology and quick “me-too” imitation. That leaves the concept of comparative advantage as a viable consideration in strategic marketing plans.

• Is China’s success in comparative advantage a model for other countries?
• Justin Yifu Lin asks, “How can a developing country catch up to developed countries?” It’s a powerful question. What are your thoughts?


New Markets: Too Late for Green Technology?

In a quest to grow revenues, marketers are often charged with discovering and branching into new markets. And while the “green economy” sure looks promising, Western companies are discovering that state and privately owned Chinese enterprises are establishing strong footholds. In a race to develop green technologies and dominate green markets, does China have an insurmountable lead?

Paul Volcker, chairman of U.S President Barack Obama’s Economic Advisory Board recently said, “(The United States) needs to do a better job at the new industries coming along, the so called green economy.” However, an article from the New Yorker titled “Green Giant” suggests that China has invested in green technologies for decades and already has a significant head start.

Why China and green technologies? Call it a matter of survival. As factory to the world, China is now responsible for a larger carbon footprint than even the United States. And while links between carbon emissions and global warming are debatable, Chinese leaders haven’t taken any chances investing in technologies that are more environmentally friendly such as wind and solar. Moreover, its export heavy led economy needs energy to sustain itself, so renewable energy is definitely a national security imperative.

Strategic planning is often about seeing significant trends on the horizon, making big (and wise) bets and laying the foundation for future dominance. To this point, according to the New Yorker article, as far back as 1986 Chinese leaders saw the beginnings of a “new technological revolution” and started building green capabilities and setting targets for heat and wind turbines, solar panels and hydro-electric dams.

Indeed years of heavy investment have paid off in that China now manufactures “more solar cells than any other country” and has doubled its wind capacity for three years running (2006-2008).

It’s tempting to dismiss the prowess—and progress of China with a vision of cheap goods, backwards factories, inefficient processes and thousands of workers in assembly lines producing with ancient technologies. Yet, in many cases Chinese factories are just as productive, clean, and advanced as Western enterprises, and in some instances the only place a product can be made—cost effectively—is in China!

There is a sliver of good news, however for Western companies. While the New Yorker article cites China’s ability to scale and mass produce green technologies, much of the innovation and science behind the scenes still comes from the West.

One can only wonder, however, how long this lead in innovation will hold, especially as R&D expenditures, “have grown faster in China than other big country—climbing about 20% per year for two decades to $70B last year.”

Perhaps there’s a future in collaboration between Western countries and China. “Chinese manufacturing and American innovation is powerful,” says Kevin Czinger, a former Goldman Sachs executive. Mr. Czinger calls it the “Apple model” where innovation and know-how is born in the West and execution resides in Asia.

On the other hand, with a just small portion of the overall “value” of a product staying in China, it seems unlikely that China will be content as simply the muscular strength powering the world economy.


  • Marketers; dominance of green markets isn’t just limited to green energy. Green design, building, packaging, chemistry, and nanotechnologies are also in play. Which areas hold the most promise for Western companies?
  • With unemployment levels nearing 12-17% in some US states and cities, the green industry is often seen as a potential panacea. Are Western countries in danger of losing green jobs to developing countries? If so, what’s the remedy?
  • How does “green technology” fit in the future of your company?

The Moneyball-itzation of Marketing

moneyball_3Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane started the “Moneyball Revolution,” where analytics replaced intuition as the primary method of evaluating talent and assembling a professional baseball team. And while Beane’s critics entertain some self-satisfaction from the recent mediocrity of the A’s, there’s no doubt that quantitative analysis has changed baseball forever.

Similarly in the marketing discipline, while practitioners often debate whether marketing is more “art than science”—a trend towards analytics is afoot.

Tradition and convention are certainly hallmarks of Major League Baseball. And for many years, the status quo reigned—especially in the processes used to construct a baseball team.

Using knowledge, intuition and experience to evaluate talent, field managers and scouts would scour high schools, practice fields and colleges looking for the missing pieces that could potentially elevate them to a championship. Gut decision making ruled—until Billy Beane and the Moneyball analytics revolution started.

An ESPN Magazine article shows how based on geographical location, Oakland was forced to compete in a smaller market with revenues far lower than teams like Boston or New York. Attempting to level the playing field, Billy Beane took a different approach to baseball resourcing. Instead of trying to sign big name players with the best batting average, Beane used statistical analysis to discover indicators that he believed would have a better correlation with offensive success.

Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball—a book on Billy Beane’s methods writes,

“By analyzing baseball statistics you could see through a lot of baseball nonsense. For instance, when baseball managers talked about scoring runs, they tended to focus on team batting average, but if you ran the analysis you could see that the number of runs a team scored bore little relation to that team’s batting average. It correlated much more exactly with a team’s on-base and slugging percentage.”

And for awhile, Moneyball worked. In the early years of Moneyball, the Oakland A’s were competitive with payrolls in the $50 million range whereas larger market teams were spending $100 million plus. It wasn’t that Oakland was choosing to pocket the $50 million annual difference—they simply didn’t have that kind of money to spend. Oakland needed a way to compete and they chose analytics.

Unfortunately for Billy Beane, his competitive advantage didn’t last very long. Other baseball teams adopted statistical analysis and General Managers like Boston’s Theo Epstein quickly combined analytical prowess with the advantage of a major revenue market to assemble a perennial powerhouse. Like it or not (and some GMs still don’t), the adoption of analytics drastically changed baseball and now the use of analytics to help build a ball club is a standard process.

Similar to the adoption of Moneyball, marketing is in the throes of an analytical revolution.

Specifically, practitioners of marketing know they need fresh and accurate data for advanced marketing functions such as better segmentation, devising more effective campaigns and offers, and creating relevant interactions with the customer across multiple touch points. This data must be clean, modeled and managed—a large undertaking that involves marketers working closely with IT.

Marketers also are realizing that some understanding of analytical applications and business intelligence know-how is necessary to help analyze and translate data into actionable information that can be used to create better customer experiences. Hundreds of case studies in business publications and books have emerged over the past five to seven years as a testimony to these trends.

Analytics helped a small market team like the Oakland A’s compete with clubs that had much larger budgets. Indeed, Oakland enjoyed a period of success before larger teams “caught on” to Beane’s analytical approach.

In the same vein, the window of opportunity for marketers to adopt business analytics—before their competitors—is closing rapidly.

  • With the early success of Moneyball, Billy Beane parlayed himself an ownership stake in the Oakland A’s. For marketers, how valuable will analytical skills be in the near future?
  • Are you competing with companies that have much larger budgets and personnel resources? If so, what strategies are you using to win?
  • Critics of Moneyball say that one cannot run a major league baseball team with a computer. Going forward—in marketing—will knowledge and intuition win out over analytics?

Is the Speed of Decision Making Accelerating?

speedometer2As the forces of globalization continue to connect and intertwine commercial and financial markets, and new technologies come online in the marketplace, the time between “event” and “action” is rapidly closing.

In the past, managers could take weeks or days to make important decisions, however to effectively compete globally, some companies are making critical decisions in hours, minutes or even seconds. With windows for decision making closing faster than ever—are your decision making processes setting you up for success—or failure?

While most would agree that strategic decisions require thoughtful consideration that should rightly stretch out months or weeks, the financial market turmoil of the past year plainly shows that decision making windows can open and close quite rapidly. In fact, as marketplaces grow more complex, and financial markets interconnect in ways analysts still struggle to understand, strategic decisions (even those involving M&A) sometimes need to be made in 24-48 hours.

The window for operational decisions is also shrinking. Companies now need the ability to detect and respond in real-time or near real time when fraud is occurring, products are out of stock, lines at store checkout are too long, online shopping carts are abandoned, or customers are calling with product/service quality issues.

There can be significant financial benefit to speeding operational decisions. Case in point is the financial services industry.

As early as the 1990s, trades were conducted on a system called SuperDot which still exists today. However, according to Richard Bookstaber, an equity fund manager and author of “Demon of Our Own Design”, there was nothing super about the system. “Orders were sent using primitive 386s communicating via Hayes micromodem,” he writes. “Between short sale restrictions and bottlenecks from excessive volume, there was no guarantee orders would get executed at all.”

Now let’s fast forward to the future. In Technology Review, an article titled, “The Blow Up” mentions that many high frequency financial services traders make 1,500 or more trades a day, whereas the computers at some brokerage firms execute “hundreds of thousands of trades everyday”—most of which are automated by computers following complex business rules and require no human intervention.

The same article details how the “science of event processing” allows computers to “read, interpret and act upon news” such as making a trade in response to an “FDA announcement—in milliseconds!”

The ability to act upon information faster than others—in this instance to execute a trade faster than other market participants—can make a huge difference in profits or loss.

Creating business value via faster and better operational decision making extends to other industries as well.

In retail, analytical systems are enabling workforce and inventory optimization to ensure plenty of staffing and products, notifying managers of stock outs, and even helping speed up the checkout process.

According to an article in the Economist titled, “Watching While You Shop”, one very large British retailer is using a system to sense the number of shoppers that enter and leave the store, and then use that data to predict how many check-stands should be open. Systems predict, “up to an hour in advance and monitor average waiting times and queue lengths.” Since most of the point of sale systems at this retailer are self service, the system can detect when lines get too long and then open check-stands accordingly.

Faster and better decision making can infer a competitive advantage for companies, but those advantages don’t traditionally last very long. Competitors can invest in the same technologies and copy workflows. However, those companies that create a culture based on analytical decision making are hard to imitate as “thinking by the numbers” becomes a way of life.

Getting back to the original premise, I believe that in a complex and global economy, there is less room for error as economies, companies and even individual actions are more tightly coupled. Nothing happens in a vacuum anymore. This means there is less time to react as single events often start chain reactions.

To thrive in a global economy, companies must be able to make the best decisions based on accurate data sources that present as complete a picture as possible. Windows of opportunity are opening and closing faster than ever before. The ability or inability to capitalize on those open windows could be the difference between sustained competitive advantage and obsolescence.

Marketing Lessons Learned from the F-22 Raptor

F-22 RaptorAs the United States Air Force (USAF) seeks to maintain competitive advantage in the skies, it has rolled out a technological marvel—the F-22 Raptor. Indeed, the F-22 takes advantage of the latest in technology to help its pilot’s process battlefield information quickly and make decisions faster. What does this advanced airplane have to do with marketing? Probably a lot more than you think.

As a heavy carpet of snow drapes over the mountains outside of Anchorage, Alaska, a small squad of Raptors flies across the sky. Meanwhile, on the ground at Elmendorf Airforce Base, pilots and ground crews shake their heads in disbelief as they watch the F-22s perform maneuvers in war games against its predecessor, the F-15 eagle.

According to a recent Atlantic Monthly article, the F-15 eagle has been the work horse of the modern USAF for the past twenty five years. Yet airplanes from other countries have caught up technologically and now equally match the F-15 strike eagle in capabilities. Desperate to keep competitive advantage, the USAF turned to the F-22 Raptor which sports improved and advanced avionics. However, competitive advantage in the skies hasn’t always been about technology.

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