John McCann

Don’t disparage the youth!

In Content business, Content workers, Early Predictions, Globalization on May 9, 2006 at 5:12 pm

In his keynote address at Telcom 95 in Geneva, Switzerland, Andy Grove, then the CEO of Intel, talked about one of his favorite topics: the Strategic Inflection Point (SIP). He said that all organizations, sooner or later, will face a Strategic Inflection Point because of technology, deregulation and competition. Here is my depiction of a chart that he used in his address:

SIP.jpg

The blue curve denotes the organization's growth, which is rapid at first, then slows and eventually plateau's at its SIP when it encounters the three forces of digital technologies, deregulation and competition. Depending upon its actions, it will either enter a new growth path or go into decline.

He talked about the "mother of all Strategic Inflection Points" that firms were facing in 1995:

"In the future, with a medium of hundreds of millions pushing onto a billion connected computers available for commerce as well as for other tasks. Transactions, business will be connected not face to face but stream to stream. And I think this will be the mother of all strategic inflection points because it's going to change the way those of us in the information technology industry do our business but even more importantly, it is going to change the way everybody in commerce does their daily business. As with strategic inflection points there are two paths. There's a path of ascent and a path to descent. And which path you are going to be ending up on depends on the decisions and the plans and the implementation of those plans that begin at the time of that inflection point which I submit to you is today."

A couple of years later, Lou Gerstner, then the IBM CEO, appeared on the PBS Nightly Business Report in a segment titled Net Effects. He had this to say about the nature of the coming business world.

“The network world is going to change the world the way man flight changed the world, the way the electric light changed the world. It is going to fundamentally alter every institution in our society and it will change the way we work, the way we communicate, and the way we relate to each other. It will have implications for the nation-state, for the way we organize around the world. It is a powerful force and it evolve over the next two decades into something that we will look back and say that was a quaint world in the 1980s. I’m talking about a revolution that I think will take several decades in terms of its impacts on all of society. But every single quarter some other industry will see its basic competitive landscape change because of this network.”

When I started this blog, I had been using these remarks (along with hundreds of others that I collected in the 1990s) to help me explain the nature of the networked world and why it was so important. Only in the last few weeks have I been able to recognize that one implication of the trends is that a large fraction of the workers in the developed world are content workers.

Each of us (if you are reading this blog post, you are surely a content worker) is in the content business. And as I explained in my piece on globalization, we operate in a world of real time relationships among dispersed individuals and organizations. We use and distribute content to all corners of the globe through our conversations, emails, web pages, blogs, etc.

Both content workers of the digital age and factory workers of the industrial age have faced or will face their Strategic Inflection Point as their livelihood is impacted by digital technologies, competition and deregulation. Those impacts are associated with many words and phrases that have come into vogue in the past two decades: lay-offs, downsizing, right sizing, out sourcing, home sourcing, etc.

These words represent the consequences of organizations responding to their SIPs. They find new ways to participate in their industries via new strategies and/or structures aimed at reducing their costs and/or expanding their revenue streams. More often than not, these changes involved new uses of digital technologies to improve individual, group and organizational productivity.

That is what organizations do. Too often, individuals in those organizations are the last to recognize that they are about to face their own SIPs. They may not be ready to operate in the new world, the one into which their organization is transitioning. They need to learn how to operate in a world of real time relationships among dispersed individuals and organizations.

But where do they turn for guidance? Where can they find a role model when most of their peers are in a similar situation? Just who does know how to operate in a world of real time relationships among dispersed individuals and organizations? Who are those people and where can they be found?

My answer: they are all around us. They may be in our own homes or next door at our neighbor's house. They may mow our grass, or drive around our neighborhood with music blasting from their cars. They may saunter around the mall in groups. They are today's youth.

What are they doing that is so important to us? They are playing multi-player online games, creating Facebook and MySpace profiles, blogging, sending short messages from their mobile phones, sharing digital pictures on Flickr & other photo services, walking around with their mobile phones glued to their ears, conversing in a half-dozen Instant Messaging (IM) windows on their computers at the same time, etc. They use those technologies and services to stay in continual contact with their friends, acquaintances, teachers, etc.

That is, they are managing real time relationships among dispersed individuals. They are global!! Being content workers is second nature to them.

We, the adults of the world, have to be careful when we advise them about their use of technologies. We may be too eager to focus on the articles about the negative consequences of the use of digital technologies. We need to recognize that they are global, and most of us are not. They grew up participating in real time relationships among dispersed individuals in ways that are far more advanced than our ways of relating to others.

We need to recognize that their work endeavors will be in an environment that is different from the ones in which we operate. We may be far more adept at operating in an organization that has not faced its SIP. They may be far more adept at operating in a post-SIP global organization because they were raised in the networked world.

Keep in mind what Gerstner said about that world: "It is going to fundamentally alter every institution in our society and it will change the way we work, the way we communicate, and the way we relate to each other." Perhaps we should each seek out a member of this generation and get him or her to mentor us on relating to other people through digital technologies.

But too many of us are not thinking this way. Too often we disparage their use of technology. We do not recognize that their behaviors are ones that we might want to emulate. We are very good at establishing and nurturing relationships with individuals we work along side. We have a lot to teach the youth about work ethics and social behaviors in our workplaces.

Those same youth are very good at establishing and nurturing relationships among dispersed individuals. I imagine they have a lot to teach us about how to operate in their world, which is much closer to the global business environment than most of our work environments.

Last winter, I taught a class titled "Technology and Life" at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Duke. During several of the class sessions, one person in the class would ask the same question: Aren't you worried about what the young people are doing? My answer was always "No, that does not worry me."

If I were asked that question today, I would say, "Yes, I do worry. But not about what the youth are doing with digital technologies. I worry about what adults are not doing with them."

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  1. Hi John

    This link in many ways supports your post with Microsoft as an example of what has to happen to us all.

    http://web2.wsj2.com/will_microsoft_show_big_companies_the_way_to_the_new_web.htm

    Maybe it is a stretch but looks like it to me.

    Ed

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