Creating a digital data-driven paper company

Eduardo Sant'Anna

Published at
28 de April de 2021

How would the folks at Dunder Mifflin (the fictitious paper company in the series) adapt to the new business world order?

Like many of you, I’m a big fan of the TV series The Office*. Considering the digital, societal and “pandemical” (is that a word?) disruptions of the modern world, I was wondering:

How would the folks at Dunder Mifflin — the fictitious paper company in the series — adapt to the new business world order?

If you were Michael Scott (the Regional Manager character portrayed by Steve Carell- main protagonist and "World's Best Boss") what would you do with this iconic paper company in the 2020’s decade?

(this is written as a fun article but, all joking aside, the following are real dilemmas faced by leaders of “traditional” companies facing disruption. There might be an idea or two for you to take from it and apply in your organisation.)

The Product

Dunder Mifflin had a very straightforward business model: sell office paper to corporate clients. It was never clear to me if they manufactured their own paper, but they clearly had warehouses and the logistics infrastructure to deliver several realms of paper to end customers.

In fact, their slogan was “Limitless Paper in a Paperless World”.

Business Model

Their slogan raises the question: does selling paper make a sustainable business? With everything going online, your gut feeling might be that it doesn’t. But when you start looking at the market, the likes of Staples and Office Depot (who were regularly mentioned in the TV show are competitors) are still large and profitable businesses.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that these companies sell office supplies, not just paper. They have also been adapting their business models: Staples in particular has famously pivoted to B2B!

And of course, with the rising interest in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) globally, relying on a commodity that requires trees to be cut is not a great strategy in the 2020s. So here are some options that Michael Scott could explore:

  • Sell recycled paper only
  • Sell other office supplies items
  • Sell value-added products that are built on paper. E.g.: personalised birthday cards.

But to me, these would be marginal and incremental changes, not transformational. A more bullish move could be the following:

Use the LOGISTICS capability of Dunder Mifflin to store and deliver parcels FROM OTHER SUPPLIERS and capitalise on the e-commerce and home delivery boom.

What if Dunder Mifflin could partner with traditional bricks and mortar companies to boost their home delivery capabilities, given their struggles against the likes of Amazon?

Paper: the Data Analytics Opportunity

Throughout its history, Dunder Mifflin has collected a large amount of data about its customers. A lot can be inferred from things like:

  • When do companies buy paper?
  • In what volumes?
  • Does it vary with their industry sector?
  • Does it correlate with specific times of the year?
  • Or maybe with the state of the economy?

Provided that Dunder Mifflin's notably unreliable accounting department has not damaged these records, these apparently mundane figures can prove to be extremely valuable.

In the hands of the right Data Science team — who can apply analytics and Machine Learning techniques to derive valuable insights —and empowered with the right tools, predictions can be made that will empower the company to do more than sell paper. For instance, these insights can be anonymised, monetised and sold to other businesses as a packaged SaaS product.

Sales Channels

The plot of most episodes of this iconic TV show was focused on their sales teams. In this day and age, we do need to ask ourselves: is having a physical regional sales office still a requirement?

The Dunder Mifflin salespeople spent most of their time** sitting on their desks doing sales over the phone. Based on the new business model and opportunities discussed here, we can certainly move a large proportion of sales to another channel: online.

Wherever human interaction is needed, salespeople are still required. However, the obvious thing that comes to mind is that they could be working mostly from home instead. In which case, the expensive overhead of having so many offices around the country is arguably no longer necessary.

In the end, we realise that a fundamental aspect of this great TV show would be in jeopardy if it was created in the 2020s: its name. “The Office”!

A few generations down the line, I wonder if people will ever understand that something called “the office” (a building where people go to work every single day) once existed.

Would you like to explore ways to get your company to thrive in the digital economy? Feel free to contact Ed Sant'Anna and book a "virtual Coffee" chat:

*Yes, I’m very much aware of the original The Office. David Brent is a brilliant character and jokes about Slough are still funny. But I’m still a bigger fan of the Scranton folks. Ricky Gervais… sorry mate! :-)

**actually, most of their time was spent goofing around while being filmed for a mockumentary… but we’ll leave that out of the equation for now!

Credits: The Office, Deedle-Dee Productions, 2005–13

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