A recent piece by Ken Blanchard and Terry Waghorn in Forbes.com states that we live in a time when three powerful forces – demography, sociology and technology – are creating a perfect storm for accelerated change. It’s a good read and provocative also.
Billy Linehan mentor and business adviser
The Net Generation is coming of age and making its presence felt. As consumers, they want to be prosumers – co-innovating products and services with producers. As citizens, they are transforming how politicians are elected and govern. As employees, they are approaching work collaboratively, which is collapsing the hierarchy and forcing organisations to rethink how they manage and innovate.
That collaborative mindset has become all-pervasive. Individualistic we may be, yet awareness is growing that united we stand and divided we fall. The crude oil fueling this ‘agequake’ is a new generation of technology creating a giant leap in how we communicate and connect. On the new, level playing field, we all have access to the same information at the same time.
Consider how these forces influence our relationship with our governments. We are rapidly coming to the end of the phase we think of as representative democracy. For centuries, we elected people to represent us in far-off forums and then judged how well they did whenever an election came around. That was before the Internet, e-mail, IMing, Facebook and Obama. He, more than any other politician, has leveraged these disruptive forces to his advantage.
Evolving from obscure state Senator to the president-elect of the United States in just a few years, Obama launched a campaign that reinvented democracy. We are finally seeing the flowering of Lincoln‘s government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” And how has Obama done this? By appealing to the youth vote; by the pronoun we – as in “change we can believe in” rather than “believe in me” – and by leveraging the tools of social networking: e-mail, blogs, text messages and more. The result was a top-to-bottom organisational cohesion that powerfully connected Obama with his supporters.
Now, consider how these forces affect how businesses are run. Again, a revolution is underway. You can see it in how companies interact with customers: the old, “we make, you buy” mentality is rapidly giving way to one of co-creation and collaboration. You can see it in how executives interact with employees – systems are becoming more open and transparent; power is being distributed more widely, hierarchies are inverting and there is a growing sense of shared ownership and responsibility.
Let’s take the strategy development process as a simple example. In the past, strategy formulation in most companies was a closed process, one that was typically performed by a group of top executives who sequestered themselves somewhere for a few days, did some brainstorming and then—presto – the next year’s strategy was born.
Today, more enlightened leaders try to involve as many people in the process as they possibly can. This inclusive process might take the form of people at all levels generating new ideas and opportunities. Or, it could be as simple as a front-line worker participating as one of the many random voices in a company’s online chat room. Either way, the effect is the same–everyone gets an opportunity to help shape the future.
One company putting this democratic notion into practice is IBM, which has made a concerted effort in recent years to leverage technology to engage its entire organisation in its strategy discussions. All 319,000 IBMers around the world were recently invited to participate in an open 72-hour online “strategy jam” about the future direction of the company.
Another example of this democratic leadership can be seen in how companies innovate. Rather than relying on the creative few living out in a disconnected silo (i.e. research and development, new product development, incubators), progressive company leaders are making innovation everyone’s responsibility.
To insure that people are willing and able to participate in innovation, these leaders are making the necessary changes to processes and systems. This includes seeing that people have been properly trained, that they all have access to the same information, are given the time to experiment, have access to resources and are recognized and rewarded for their efforts, even if things don’t turn out as planned.
Procter and Gamble’s A.J. Lafley exemplified this new innovation leadership when he launched “Connect & Develop,” an online portal that fosters a community linking P&G employees with anyone else in the world seeking to pitch, promote and discuss potential products and services. Through this portal, P&G has created an engine of innovation by finding a way to solicit new ideas from outside the company’s walls.
A similar strategy was described by Aideen Waters of Allianz at the recent Innovation Forum in Croke Park where she explained her responsibility as the delivery of an Allianz global strategy to use innovative thinking gathered from all countries and all levels of the business as a means of putting the customer at the heart of the organisation.
In short, the world’s best companies, like democracy in the US, are evolving. Tomorrow’s leaders like IBM and P&G have already begun using technology to turn their organizations upside down – sharing decision making power with its members on the front lines. These organisations represent the future. Companies that fail to adapt in this way, like the traditional form of government we have grown accustomed to, will simply fade away into the history books.