How to Out-Behave Your Business Competitors

Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist Thomas L. Friedman, in his seminal book "The World Is Flat," comprehensively details the global effects of this newly unfettered flow of information. He describes some of the unprecedented possibilities suddenly available to us, many of which are being exploited by the business world: new paradigms of collaboration, specialization, supply and distribution, and expansion of core competencies.6 We can partner, "plug and play," and work together in totally new ways because we can share information as never before. Collaboration itself -- our heightened ability to connect -- serves as an engine of growth and innovation. Sharing not only drives the relationships companies maintain with customers, it also drives the companies themselves. Friedman details many forward-thinking companies pursuing new business paradigms to exploit this new reality: UPS uses the efficiency of its shipping system to run the repair center for Toshiba less expensively than Toshiba can itself; call centers in Bangalore seamlessly provide Dell Inc. computer customers vital product support; housewives from the comfort of their own homes in Salt Lake City interface directly with JetBlue Airways' central booking computers to take and process reservations. Clearly, the maglev bullet train of zeros and ones has left the station and no one knows where it will stop.

Friedman's macroeconomic and social analysis of our newly "flat," interconnected world presents a vision of the forces reshaping global business in the twenty-first century. The free flow of information significantly changes the way internal business units perform and are governed, and how individuals work together every day. Fading away are the days of the vertical silo model, when departments and programs within a corporation ran independent fiefdoms organized in top-down, command-and-control hierarchies in the spirit of feudal systems. Increasingly, our typical workday involves relating to people of relatively equal status in an ever-evolving array of teams and partnerships between units throughout the globe. Since knowledge allows people to act, companies that can instantly deliver more high-value information to their workers can enable more of them to act on it.

Companies are flattening, like our world, so that many activities that were once the province of one department are now everyone's job. In 2005, for example, Computer Associates International, Inc., a company struggling to rehabilitate itself after being tainted by scandal, product deficiencies, and management problems, eliminated all 300 of its customer advocate positions worldwide.7 CEO John Swainson explained that the goal was to make the company's sales workers "more accountable," but the underlying message was clear: Advocating for the customer is no longer the special responsibility of customer advocates; it is now a part of everyone's job description.8 In company after company, managers are eliminating so-called "Centers of Excellence" and "Centers of Innovation," making these jobs the province of all workers. Everyone now must increase company excellence and everyone must innovate. How can you make a Wave of innovation if only the 20 or so people in your Skunk Works stand up?

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