The NYTimes recently had an article about the clothing company Zara (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/magazine/how-zara-grew-into-the-worlds-largest-fashion-retailer.html?pagewanted=all). It turns out that what’s distinctive about Zara is it’s operations. By having a distinctive supply chain and innovation model–definitely a post-Fordist flexible specialization type thing–they’ve managed to grow into this huge company.
So what’s interesting from the PartLab pov is how they crowdsource fashion trends. Basically they use the stores and sales people as information gatherers. Shoppers are giving Zara information about fashion trends when they ask sales people for clothing with particular features. Sales people note these requests and tell them to store managers. In weekly phone conversations with higher ups, store managers pass on the kinds of things their customers have been asking for. When those requests seem to be popping up regularly, they are passed on to designers who instantly start designing clothes that reflect them. Zara’s tight operations make and distribute those clothes rapidly and those fashions can appear in stores like 3 weeks after the trend is first spotted.
This is an FSE that uses its store network to produce a non-self-aware OP and harvest ideas from it. Then it sells the ideas back to the OP in the form of clothes. Also, it cultivates the OP in particular ways: Zara’s distinctive operations put new clothes in stores very quickly and relatively few numbers of each item are produced, things are sold quickly and they rarely go on sale. Thus shoppers that care know there will always be new stuff at Zara, that if they see something they like they have to buy it then (b/c it will sell out and never go on sale), and the small production numbers mean they’re buying something relatively unique that they’re unlikely to see someone else wearing at a party.
A professor I know at Anderson is an operations consultant with the company. He might be someone to interview if we start getting interested in how these kinds of innovation happen off the web, or about how the web’s culture of innovation extends elsewhere. It seems that the information gathering process is barely organized, which is interesting. I’ll have to ask him more about it.