Strategic Progamming

Over the last 40-odd years, a branch of Artificial Intelligence called AI Planning has developed.  One way to view Planning is as automated computer programming: 

  • Write a program that takes as input an initial state, a final state (“a goal”), and a collection of possible atomic actions, and  produces as output another computer programme comprising a combination of the actions (“a plan”) guaranteed to take us from the initial state to the final state. 

A prototypical example is robot motion:  Given an initial position (e.g., here), a means of locomotion (e.g., the robot can walk), and a desired end-position (e.g., over there), AI Planning seeks to empower the robot to develop a plan to walk from here to over there.   If some or all the actions are non-deterministic, or if there are other possibly intervening effects in the world, then the “guaranteed” modality may be replaced by a “likely” modality. 

Another way to view Planning is in contrast to Scheduling:

  • Scheduling is the orderly arrangement of a collection of tasks guranteed to achieve some goal from some initial state, when we know in advance the initial state, the goal state, and the tasks.
  • Planning is the identification and orderly arrangement of tasks guranteed to achieve some goal from some initial state, when we know in advance the initial state, the goal state, but we don’t yet know the tasks;  we only know in advance the atomic actions from which tasks may be constructed.

Relating these ideas to my business experience, I realized that a large swathe of complex planning activities in large companies involves something at a higher level of abstraction.  Henry Mintzberg called these activities “Strategic Programming”

  • Strategic Programming is the identification and priorization of a finite collection of programs or plans, given an initial state, a set of desirable end-states or objectives (possibly conflicting).  A program comprises an ordered collection of tasks, and these tasks and their ordering we may or may not know in advance.

Examples abound in complex business domains.   You wake up one morning to find yourself the owner of a national mobile telecommunications licence, and with funds to launch a network.  You have to buy the necessary equipment and deploy and connect it, in order to provide your new mobile network.   Your first decision is where to provide coverage:  you could aim to provide nationwide coverage, and not open your service to the public until the network has been installed and connected nationwide.  This is the strategy Orange adopted when launching PCS services in mainland Britain in 1994.   One downside of waiting till you’ve covered the nation before selling any service to customers is that revenues are delayed. 

Another downside is that a competitor may launch service before you, and that happened to Orange:  Mercury One2One (as it then was) offered service to the public in 1993, when they had only covered the area around London.   The upside of that strategy for One2One was early revenues.  The downside was that customers could not use their phones outside the island of coverage, essentially inside the M25 ring-road.   For some customer segments, wide-area or nationwide coverage may not be very important, so an early launch may be appropriate if those customer segments are being targeted.  But an early launch won’t help customers who need wider-area coverage, and – unless marketing communications are handled carefully – the early launch may position the network operator in the minds of such customers as permanently providing inadequate service.   The expectations of both current target customers and customers who are currently targets need to be explicitly managed to avoid such mis-perceptions.

In this example, the different coverage rollout strategies ended up at the same place eventually, with both networks providing nationwide coverage.  But the two operators took different paths to that same end-state.   How to identify, compare, prioritize, and select-between these different paths is the very stuff of marketing and business strategy, ie, of strategic programming.  It is why business decision-making is often very complex and often intellectually very demanding.   Let no one say (as academics are wont to do) that decision-making in business is a doddle.   Everything is always more complicated than it looks from outside, and identifying and choosing-between alternative programs is among the most complex of decision-making activities.

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