Happy 5th Birthday Digital Tonto!
I started this blog in August 2009, just two weeks before my daughter was born. While five years is only half a decade, it somehow still seems like an even number and a landmark of some sort. Five years seems like a good time to reflect.
Like my daughter, Digital Tonto has transformed over the years not only in terms of size and scale, but in kind. It is now more of a home page for a larger platform which includes Harvard Business Review, Forbes, IX and others, rather than a singular entity.
Over the years I’ve gotten to know many of you, usually only online, but sometimes in person. As someone who has moved around a lot, Digital Tonto has become very much a second home for me and it’s been your support that has made it a cozy one. So thank you for that. Like in past years, I’d like to celebrate the occasion with some of my favorite posts.
We’ve long thought of strategy as a chess game—a series of punctuated moves and countermoves—but now that industries have become become boundless and permeable, business is increasingly dominated by networks of ecosystems rather than distinct industries. Today, the board is not laid out in orderly lines and competitive threats can come from anywhere.
Strategy, therefore, must be focused on deepening and widening networks of information, talent, partners and consumers. Brands, in effect, have become more than mere assets to be leveraged, but platforms for collaboration. That’s quite a shift past approaches, but it’s one we’re all going to have to learn to make.
Digital technology has transformed publishing from well guarded privilege, in which an elite few filtered what we saw, listened to and read, into a more democratic marketplace for ideas in which anybody with an idea could speak to the masses. Marketers, have noticed this trend and sought to use digital media to communicate without media gatekeepers.
That, in short, is what has given rise to the notion of content strategy and it has become an enormous failure. The problem is that content marketing is not an an extension of marketing as much as it is an extension of publishing, which requires profoundly different set of skills and perspectives.
Many people debate what exactly constitutes genius, but almost everyone agrees that Richard Feynman was one. Beyond his Nobel prizewinning work in physics, he also made important discoveries in virology and pioneered innovations such as parallel processing and quantum computing.
Yet what made Feynman unusual was how he let us in, so that we could not only enjoy the fruits of his thought, but also see his mind work. Nowhere is that more true than in his famous talk, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, which launched the field of nanotechnology.
I urge everybody to read the speech for themselves—it’s very readable—but I summarize it here, along with some background on what made Feynman so special.
When Mckinsey declared “the war for talent,” they saw talent as a new front of competitive strategy, where you vied with rivals to acquire and retain the “best and the brightest” employees. Better people made better businesses, so you needed to seek out the “A” players, upgrade the “B” players through development programs and get rid of the rest.
There’s still some element of truth to that, but the difference today is that you depend not only on talent that resides within your organization, but also at partner companies, open development platforms and contract workers. In effect, talent has become an ecosystem and needs to be managed in a wholly different way.
Human experience, in its most actualized form, has always been highly localized. At the turn of the century, Cambridge and Vienna were centers of the intellectual world, Paris seemed to be crawling with artists of exceptional talent and Detroit became a focal point for industrialization.
That was great for people who lived in those places—or for those capable of relocating there—but left millions of people with tremendous talent out in the cold, with no outlet to realize their potential. Some, like the mathematician Ramanujan, managed to slip through somehow, but there’s no telling how many geniuses simply withered on the vine.
Digital technology now has the potential to change that. Bright young students in remote places can now get access to the world’s great universities through platforms like Coursera, people of common interests can meet and collaborate through social media and even find gainful employment on platforms like Elance. This opens up a whole new world.
Every new technology opens up new possibilities, but also diminishes our capacities in particular areas. With so much help from machines, we tend to lose skills that we once had, such as remembering directions or doing arithmetic in our heads.
Many high profile intellectuals have pointed out these newfound deficiencies and mourned their loss. Yet it is not the loss of skills from the past that we should be concerned about, but building the ones we will need in the future.
This is an important issue that has not gotten nearly enough attention. I will be writing more about it in the near future.
We tend to think of disruption as the product of a small set of people with rare skills. Look behind any emergent movement and you will find people like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Yet, while clearly individual accomplishments play an important part, it is the network, not the nodes that makes revolutionary change possible.
Clearly, if we are to function effectively in an increasingly disruptive age, we need to understand how unseen connections play a part in making events happen. Fortunately, the science of networks offers a valuable guide and this post helps explain how it works.
We often consider talent to be a set of innate qualities, but the truth is that most of our skills we acquire somewhere along the way. So in that sense, our talent is unbounded, because we can always learn new things. In my experience, there are very few skills that cannot be learned in six months and mastered in two years.
This is becoming increasingly important because, as I noted above, the value of specific skill sets is constantly in flux. Instead of looking to hire those who meet formal job specifications, we need to start developing people who can transcend them. In an age of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt.
Marketing in the digital age requires not only new tools and skills, but new perspectives and ways of thinking. Where it used to be that it was enough to grab people’s attention, now you have to hold their attention and encourage them to participate. That’s a real paradigm shift.
For several years, I’ve been working to come up with a practical framework for thinking about marketing strategy in the digital age and I’m pretty happy with the end result. Take a look for yourself and tell me what you think.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the need to strengthen our STEM skills and, in particular, expand knowledge of computer coding. Yet, the programming languages of a generation ago are mostly defunct now, so is there any real utility to teaching our kids today’s languages, which are unlikely to serve them well in the future?
In this post I argue that there is. It is not the syntax of computer languages that is important, but the logic of code that is becoming central to the digital world. It’s more than a matter of literacy, it is the ability to think abstractly about varying levels of complexity that is becoming essential.
Many have recognized that hierarchies aren’t as effective as they once were. It is not that hierarchical organizations have lost their legitimacy—people do still respect authority to a great extent—but rather because hierarchies are slow and the world has become fast. Yet we still need leaders, so the question is, what function do leaders serve?
Leadership today is less about planning and directing action and more about inspiring belief. To do that, leaders cannot insulate themselves at the top of the heap, but must position themselves at the center of the circle.
Organizations crave stability. They are generally risk averse, favoring the tried and true to the uncertain and untested. Yet playing it safe can also be dangerous. Fully 87% of firms on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 still exist today.
The truth is that contexts often change and when they do the old rules no longer apply. We need to learn to manage not for stability, but for disruption.
When Søren Kierkegaard said that, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” he meant that our predictions about the things to come will always be inherently flawed, but we need to make them anyway. Anything else is to live not only foolishly, but blindly.
So I think it’s important to write about what we can expect in the years to come, knowing that I will surely get a lot of it profoundly wrong. Take a look and let me know what you think in a couple of years.
So that’s my birthday list for this year. Let me know if I missed a Digital Tonto post that is one of your favorites. And thanks for all of your support over the years. It’s really meant a lot to me. As long as you keep reading, I’ll keep writing!