At the beginning of the 20th century, most people lived as if it were the middle ages. Almost half of the US population was employed in agriculture. Life expectancy was less than 50 years. Indoor plumbing was rare, as was telephone use. There were very few cars and no airplanes.
The rise of big organizations changed all that. They enabled large concentrations of capital, which led to large scale transformations like the Interstate Highway System and the Hoover Dam. This was the environment in which modern corporations thrived.
The 21st century economy, however, will be dominated by bits and not atoms. The change will be much larger in scope, but almost imperceptible in physical scale. The result is that we can no longer manage our enterprises as we did in the industrial age and there is a widening gap between companies that perform in a data economy and those that don’t.
In The Wise Men, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas portray a world in which business and politics flow together. Prominent men, like John J. McCloy and Averell Harriman, floated between public service and commerce, performing both roles with honor and duty.
However, technology entrepreneurs have historically eschewed political life. It was, at least in their minds, symbolic of the jaded and debauched establishment that they were seeking to upend, rather than the meritocratic ideal they aspired to.
Lately, that’s begun to change. From intense lobbying on issues like SOPA and PRISM, to the Government 2.0 initiative and Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us Super PAC that focuses on immigration issues, Silicon Valley has begun to mobilize and the impact on politics is sure be substantial. But the impact on tech itself could be even bigger and more important.
Clearly this is a tough time for many media companies, particularly newspapers. For decades, they not only played a primary role in informing the public, they were astoundingly profitable businesses.
Those days have certainly passed. Rather than having a near monopoly on local news and a strong position in national and international reporting, newspapers are struggling. Even the iconic New York Times is having problems and the Washington Post was recently sold.
Today, rather than paying for a daily newspaper, most people get their news for free online and many incumbent media businesses have begun erecting paywalls for their content. Yet, as I’ve said before, paywalls aren’t generally a smart way to go. Successfully implementing a paid platform requires a smart business model, not a moral crusade.
I recently wrote a post about how marketers will need to learn to rely less on judgment and intuition in the era of big data. It’s a controversial subject, especially since many marketers pride themselves, in fact have built their careers, on having a reputation for instinct.
So I expected a certain amount of pushback, but instead many people seemed to think that I was arguing that technology was diminishing the need for creativity in marketing. This is clearly not the case. So let me set the record straight.
Technology does not quell creativity, in fact, there’s a great deal of evidence that suggests that technology enhances creativity. Certainly, we are expected to be more creative in our working lives than a generation ago. The truth is that by expanding possibilities and automating part of the creative process, we can all be more creative and productive.
The modern world can be a dehumanizing place. Long gone is the sweet little old lady at the drugstore counter, replaced by big box retailers, brand logos and barcodes. We’re more often“handled” than serviced, calculated, rather than cared for.
That’s about to change in a big way. When I recently spoke to Bernie Meyerson, IBM’s Vice President of Innovation, about trends for the next five years, he repeatedly stressed personalization as one of the most important things the company is working on.
Yet, instead of the sweet little old lady behind the counter who has known you for years, the new personalization will come in the guise of a stranger armed with learning algorithms. That’s quite a bit different and not without its problems. As big data opens up a new world of possibilities, we’re going to have to come to terms with what we really want.
When the Arab Spring erupted in 2010, one of the first things people noticed was the very visible role social media seemed to play. Many began to call the series of political uprisings “Twitter Revolutions” and a lively debate broke out about the importance of the new technology.
Malcolm Gladwell quickly moved to downplay the effect of social media and pointed out that organized action requires hierarchy. Twitter’s Biz Stone fired back and argued that Gladwell simply didn’t understand the principles of self-organizing systems.
Having had some personal experience, I found neither compelling and said so at the time. Yet, now we can do more than speculate. The current Euromaidan protests in Ukraine are, in many ways, a continuation of the Orange Revolution in 2004—before social media existed—and offer unique insight into how the world has really changed.
“There’s a time for work and a time for play.” “Work hard, play hard.” “Once you finish your homework, you can go out and play games.” Most of us were brought up to believe that there is a stark divide between play and productivity.
Yet it’s becoming evident that the distinction isn’t as clear-cut as we were made to think. Games, after all, are simulations that stimulate us and help us to build skills. The fact that they are fun increases, rather than diminishes, their effectiveness.
Marketers have learned to use game mechanics to engage customers, particularly with loyalty programs. But if games can be useful in getting us to buy more stuff, why can’t they also help us to build new skills and lead happier, more productive lives. A slew of new startups are attempting to do just that and it may prove to be a powerful model.
Ask anybody who manages a business and they will tell you how important it is to hire the right people. Top companies recruit at the most selective schools, offer excellent pay packages, generous benefits and a comfortable work environment.
Unfortunately, it seems that even the best firms are facing a widening skills gap and it will only get worse. McKinsey recently released data outlining a fundamental mismatch between the demand for skills and the supply of workers who have them.
Clearly, if businesses are to remain competitive, they need talented people, the right skills and there is growing evidence of a new productivity paradox, in which automation is rendering old skills useless. So even if your workforce is highly qualified by today’s standards, they might not be tomorrow. We need to rethink how we manage talent.
My first media job was in New York, where I learned the radio business. My company, Katz Media, had an outstanding training program, where for three months we were drilled in the basics of radio formats, research techniques, sales skills and marketing strategy.
So when I first arrived in Poland in 1997, I felt well prepared. Surely, in a newly capitalist economy, where the entire concept of a media business was novel, my experience and expertise would give me a leg up. Alas, I found that often the opposite was true.
You see, I had not only changed geographies, but business environments, with important structural, cultural and economic differences. I found that what I had learned as eternal truths in New York were often, in fact, principles derived from circumstance, not necessity. Today, every media business is facing a similar dilemma and everyone needs to adapt.
In his 1997 management classic The Innovator’s Dilemma, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen coined the term disruptive innovation. The central premise was that a change in technology can completely transform the basic economics of an business.
A key example was steel minimills such as Nucor. Originally, they could only produce the lowest quality steel and weren’t seen as a serious threat to the big integrated mills. Nevertheless, as the technology improved, they ended up disrupting the entire industry.
In the decade and a half since Christensen published his book, we’ve learned a lot about disruption and know the warning signs to look out for, such as a change in the basis of competition, new market entrants and new types of consumers. But what if disruption isn’t specific to an industry anymore? What if everyone gets disrupted all at once?