Last week I wrote about Think: A Forum on the Future of Leadership, a conference that IBM held in New York on September 20 and 21 as part of its Centennial celebrations. The THINK Forum included a number of talks and panels which looked at leadership from a number of different angles.
One of the speakers was Tom Friedman, Foreign Affairs columnist for the New York Times and renowned author of a number of books, including The World is Flat. Tom (whom I know personally and will therefore refer to by his first name) moderated a session on The Importance of Systems Thinking. He then gave an excellent talk focused on the themes in his new book - That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. The book was co-authored with John Hopkins Professor Michael Mandelbaum.
Tom said that the biggest challenge we all face is that in the last few years we have gone from a world that was connected to a world that is now hyperconnected. He observed that when he started writing That Used to be Us, he went back and looked at The World is Flat, which he had written in 2004. In the earlier book he never mentioned Facebook, Twitter, Cloud, LinkedIn, 4G or Skype. These companies and technologies had not been born or were in their infancy in 2004, yet they are now a major part of our conversations. In these short number of years, we have moved from a flat to a hyperconnected world.
“People have a sense that America’s best days are behind, and China’s best days are ahead. We are seeing a country with enormous potential falling into the worst kind of decline, a slow decline, just slow enough not to drop everything and pull together for collective action to fix what needs fixing.”
How did we fall into such a slow decline? Tom believes that our problems are not recent, but go back twenty years because we misread our environment. “First, we thought that the end of the Cold War was a victory, and we can put our feet up and relax. In fact, the end of the Cold War unleashed 2 billion people just like us, who wanted to compete, collaborate and connect, and just when we needed to lace up our shoes and redouble our efforts, we put our feet up. . . Then we compounded the problem after 9/11 by chasing the losers from globalization, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, instead of chasing the winners - China, India, Brazil. . .”
Hyperconnectivity is a direct byproduct of the merger of globalization and the IT revolution. It has enormous implications for education and the workplace. Hyperconnectivity is continuing to drive the polarization of jobs and skills, “between those who will do better than ever, and those for whom there is nothing to do.”
“Everyone has to bring something extra, being average is no longer enough. . . Everyone is looking for employees that can do critical thinking and problem solving . . . just to get an interview. What they are really looking for is people who can invent, re-invent and re-engineer their jobs while doing them.”
“In education, we need to bring the bottom to the average, because if you are below average, there is nothing for you to do that will sustain a middle class life. We also need to bring the average to the global heights because we need so many more creative, non-routine people. We need both more education and better education focusing on the 3Cs of creativity, communications and collaboration.”
“We are all new immigrants to the hyperconnected world,” he said toward the end of his talk. “How do new immigrants think? Nothing is owed me. No legacy place waiting for me at IBM or Harvard or the state university. I better understand what world I am in, understand where the opportunities are, and work absolutely harder than the next guy.”
Tom’s message, that we should all think of ourselves as new immigrants to the hyperconnected world, truly resonated with me. Let me explain why.
For a while now, I have been thinking about the period of persistent high unemployment that the US and other economies are going through, the longest such period since the Great Depression. Given the major structural changes our economy is going through, many of the lost jobs will not come back. It is not clear where the new jobs will come from that we need to create in order to replace those that are gone forever. It is easier to describe what will likely not work that what will.
Many companies are experiencing a productivity surge. They have been leveraging the same information technologies propelling us into the hyperconnected world and transforming their organizations in order to become significantly more efficient. They can get the same work done with fewer people. This has led to our current jobless recovery, where business conditions have significantly improved while unemployment remains high. In addition, companies will continue to pursue business opportunities in fast growing economies around the world while reducing jobs or staying flat in the US and other countries where demand is weak.
At the same time, the public sector is under huge pressures to significantly increase productivity and reduce costs by embracing many of the technologies and organizational practices that have been successfully applied in the private sector over the past twenty years.
Over the past two hundred years, the same forces of creative destruction that caused major jobs losses in older industries ultimately led to a period of creative construction, and the creation of all kinds of new jobs and whole new industries. Given the dramatic scientific and technical advances all around us, I remain optimistic that, in the long run, this will once more be the case. However, none of us knows how long it will take for the economy to turn around. Given the major changes we are going through, including a transition to a new kind of information society and knowledge-based economy, we may well be in truly unchartered territory.
So, we cannot assume that large companies and government will create significant numbers of jobs, given that both are in the midst of their own restructuring. And none of us can predict when a new golden age of innovation will finally arrive leading to many new jobs and industries.
In the end, as Tom Friedman observed, if you cannot find a job you may need to invent a job, and possibly start a new business. That's what entrepreneurship is all about. The best ray of hope for new job creation may very well be individual entrepreneurship on a wide, societal scale.
Over the past few decades, the most prominent centers of entrepreneurship have been high-tech innovation hubs such as those in Silicon Valley and the Boston-Cambridge area. High-tech hubs are closely related to the great engineering universities in their midst - Stanford and MIT respectively, - the many VC firms that have sprung up to fund and nurture promising startups, and the entrepreneurial culture that these two regions and the few others like them around the world have worked long and hard to establish. Such high-tech innovation hubs are very difficult to scale and replicate, so they are of limited help in addressing the country’s overall unemployment problem.
In order to create large number of new middle class jobs we need a back to the future view of entrepreneurship. Such an expanded view of entrepreneurship is reminiscent of the immigrant culture that attracted millions to the US in search of prosperity through talent and hard work. These immigrants found themselves in a new country, where they had to learn a new language and a new environment, understand where the opportunities were, pretty much invent their jobs, and work harder and smarter than everyone else around them if they hoped to succeed. This immigrant-style of entrepreneurship is at the core of the The American Dream, the view of the US as a land of opportunity, but also a place where people have to work hard, rely on their wits and be willing to take the necessary risks to achieve a better life and prosperity.
As Tom suggested in his talk, people, especially those looking for new jobs and opportunities, should think of themselves as immigrants to this brave, new, hyperconnected world we are now living in. In many ways, the hyperconnected world has the feeling of a new land, with a language and culture different from what we have been used to in the past. In particular, the immigrant metaphor captures the fact that, whether we like it or not, we have to create our own opportunities, and need to constantly upgrade our skills in order to keep up with the competition, whether that competition comes from a business across the street or one across an ocean.
“We all have to bring something extra in this hyperconnected world,” were Tom’s parting words to the THINK Forum audience. In the end, the fundamental question we all need to wrestle with is whether the US is slowly but surely on the way down, or whether it can arrest its decline, recapture its immigrant heritage and bring whatever something extra is needed to lead in our emerging hyperconnected world.