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The man who saw tomorrow

The man who saw tomorrow

Business strategy authority Don Tapscott talks of a brave new world and urges businesses & institutions to reboot themselves

"The past is useless to us. The future is full of anxiety. The present is the only reality that we have. The here-and-now." Thus spoke one of the characters in Saul Bellow's novel, Seize The Day.

But how do we make sense of a present that is turbulent and protean, where change is happening at such a fast clip and at such an enormous level that is simply mind-boggling, a gargantuan change unparalleled in human history? We are not even talking about the future--which to some is at best nebulous and at worst scary. People are asking: what will hold and what will give?

To give us a sense of the present and a prescient glance into the future, business guru Don Tapscott was in town to deliver the SIM Annual Management Lecture 2010. Don, chairman of nGenera Insight, and bestselling author of books such as Growing Up Digital (1998) and Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (2006), spoke on "Macrowikinomics--Rebooting Business and the World". His lecture's theme coincides with the title of his forthcoming book.

The rise of the age of networked intelligence

The world as we know it will not be the same. Ever again. That's Don's message. And if that was not comforting, brace for this: we, individuals, governments and companies, don't have much time left to adapt to this change. We adapt or we will perish.

What happened? One might innocently ask. What did we miss?

One simple thing happened. Information changed into bits and bytes.

When information turns into bits, it behaves differently--and this transmogrification changes the world. Don says we are currently transitioning into a totally new age--the age of networked intelligence. This age is as vastly different as were the two preceding ages from each other: the agrarian age and the industrial age. Just like the printing press morphed the agrarian society into an industrial one, so is the Internet leading the industrial world into a networked world.

How do we know this? Where is the evidence? Don says look at the major events happening around us: the credit crisis, failing institutions, governments going bankrupt, and the so-called crisis of capitalist democracy. What do they tell us? That our system is broken, that we need to fix it.

To Don, these are mere symptoms--this is not a recession but much more than that. At the heart of the matter is a sea change, a turning point in human history. And there comes our response: an opportunity to reboot our institutions.

Rebooting our institutions

According to Don, success (innovation, wealth and sustainability) in the new age will be determined by five principles:

• Collaboration

• Openness

• Sharing

• Interdependence

• Integrity

Don says any venture, business or humanitarian, has to be collaborative to work and succeed. "We have to reindustrialise the planet and we have less than half a century to do that," says Don. Industries or governments--both have to experience change. "Our systems for global cooperation are built on nation states, but we have a global economy."

Does it mean the end of nation states? Maybe. He says: "We have a new communications medium that enables us to move towards open networked models for cooperation based on a fresh set of principles such as integrity, innovation, collaboration, sharing and openness. That's the challenge."

Don gives examples of collaborative communities such as Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia. Then he asks some very valid questions: Why didn't AT&T launch Twitter? Why didn't The New York Times create Huffington Post? Why didn't Yellow Pages come out with Facebook and Craigslist and NBC invent YouTube?

They simply missed the point, and missed the boat.

On the other hand, Barack Obama got the point and became the president of USA. During his election campaign, Obama created a platform called mybarackobama.com. The result was 35,000 online communities that mostly involved young people. That was a big reason why Obama won the election.

Examples of collaboration

GreenXchange: A portal launched by Nike in January this year. It allows companies to share intellectual property that can be used to create sustainable business processes.

PatientsLikeMe: A website, founded in 2004, that allows people to share information that can help patients.

Healthcare: Don proposes that everyone, including a new born child, gets a personal healthcare page online that stores his electronic health records and social networks for a lifetime. Doctors can interact and provide key data on that page, of course with proper security. Other patients can collaborate to form support groups and communities around ailments.

Government: Don suggests hierarchical governments should be "unbundled" and should provide a platform to citizens to interact with the government and form citizen groups. For example, if a government publishes data on cycling accidents, someone can use the data to create a Google map, which will alerts cyclists and help them avoid dangerous paths.

Paradigm shift

This culture of collaboration is clearly a paradigm shift, for individuals, corporations and governments. Just like the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0: the old (html-based Web) one was about creating and distributing content, the new (xml-based) one is about collaboration and services (think Wikipedia and Craigslist).

Equally important to embrace is the culture of openness. Don's recipe is that businesses should be open with employees, partners, customers, shareholders and communities. Similarly, to stay in business, you have to share with others. To gain control, you have to lose some control first. "The best way to have some control over your environment and destiny is to let go."

For technology companies, Don suggests losing some IP to get the community involved. IBM did exactly that and has done well.

Another important factor for success in the new age is interdependence. Don proposes four pillars of society that have to work interdependently: the state, the private sector, civil society and the individual.

Last but not least is the value of integrity: honesty, consideration and accountability. Integrity at the top level is not enough, says Don. It must be baked into the corporate DNA, he insists.

If we follow these five principles, Don hopes that we will be able to reboot our institutions. The results, he says, will be heartening. For example, the teacher focused, one way, one size fits all, and student-isolated education system will give way to student focused, multi-way, customised and collaborative system. Similarly, the industrial age government bureaucracy will give way to co-innovating new services with citizens. The vertically integrated hierarchical corporation will modify into 21st century networks.

Don knows what he talks about. His ear is at the heart of the new generation. He has three mentors who are either in teens or are very young. "We should listen to young people, embrace their culture, adopt their tools and change our organisations."

Have you created that culture of collaboration in your organisation? If not, you should be worried.

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