That’s the profound question New York Times three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas L. Friedman asks his readers in his thought-provoking #1 bestseller, The World is Flat, A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.1
Wait a minute, are you still convinced that everything you once learned about Christopher Columbus and the Santa Maria is true? Well, maybe it was—back then. But today, if you plan to stay in the game, Friedman suggests you reconsider and re-learn. In an interview with Tom Nissley of Amazon.com, Friedman explains:
“What I mean when I say that the world is flat is that sometime in the late 1990’s a whole set of technologies and political events converged—including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Internet, the diffusion of the Windows operating system, the creation of a global fiber-optic network, and the creation of interoperable software applications, which made it very easy for people all over the world to work together—that leveled the playing field. It created a global platform that allowed more people to plug and play, collaborate and compete, share knowledge and share work, than anything we have ever seen in the history of the world.”
Friedman asks people in his book where they were when they realized the world was flat. Amazon’s Nissley asked Friedman where he was. His response: “I was in Bangalore, India, the Silicon Valley of India, when I realized that the world was flat. I was doing a documentary for the Discovery Times Channel about “outsourcing.” After 60 hours of interviews with Indian entrepreneurs who wanted to write my software from Bangalore, do my taxes from Bangalore, trace my lost luggage from Bangalore, read my x-rays from Bangalore, and draw my Disney cartoons from Bangalore, I realized that something big had happened– the world had been flattened–and I needed to write about it.”
Friedman suggests that when the tech bubble popped in the late 90’s, followed by the distractions of Y2K mania, the tragedies of 9/11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we westerners blinked and missed the fact that the flattening of the global economy was beginning to accelerate at a hang-on-to-your-seat pace. Friedman interviewed Henry Schacht, who, during part of this period, was watching the whole process from the side of corporate management.
“The business economics, [he told Friedman] became ‘very ugly’ for everyone. . . . ‘Cost pressures were enormous,’ he recalled, ‘and the flat world was available, [so] economics were forcing people to do things they never thought they would do or could do . . . Globalization got supercharged’—for both knowledge work and manufacturing. Companies found that they could go to MIT and find four incredibly smart Chinese engineers who were ready to go back to China and work for them from there for the same amount that it would cost them to hire one engineer in America.”
Let’s think about this. Besides the fact that your accountant is already outsourcing your tax return work to India, your most recent CAT scan or MRI was most likely deciphered in Australia, you’re having a hard time understanding the English spoken at the other end of the help-line, and the MP3 you just bought came with directions in 14 different languages, what does this flattened world really mean for you and your future—both personally and professionally?
Friedman asked this question of Jaithirth Rao, whose Indian firm, MphasiS, is successfully and lucratively able to handle outsourced tax work “from any state in America and the federal government.” Said Rao, “It is a good question. . . . We are in the middle of a big technological change, and when you live in a society that is at the cutting edge of that change [like America], it is hard to predict. It’s easy to predict for someone living in India. In ten years we are going to be doing a lot of the stuff that is being done in America today. . . . Any activity where we can digitize and decompose the value chain and move the work around, it will get moved around. We can predict our future. But we are behind you. You are defining the future. America is always on the edge of the next creative wave.”
Defining the future . . . the edge of the next creative wave. . . . Just what is this future, this creative wave we’re all going to want to catch? Friedman supplies a solid answer through L. Gary Boomer, CEO of Boomer Consulting in Manhattan KS, who explains, “Those who get caught in the past and resist change will be forced deeper into commoditization. Those who can create value through leadership, relationships, and creativity will transform [their] industries, as well as strengthen relationships with their existing clients.”
According to Publishers Weekly, Friedman agrees with the transnational business executives, who are his main sources, that these [world flattening] developments are desirable and unstoppable and that American workers should be preparing to “create value through leadership.”2
At CoveyLink, we couldn’t agree more. The global call for capable, innovative, trust-based leadership is intensifying. World-class leadership and business relies on trust and trust has been the lubricant of commerce since the world’s first merchants began trading seeds, then beads, then goods and services.
“Fortune favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
The growth of knowledge work both leads and informs this important global trend. Knowledge work is dependent upon relationships and relationships, of course, thrive on trust. Trust fuels this new global economy just as trust magnifies or diminishes every other leadership competency you have, including your vision—a vision which must now include the entire globe regardless of your industry or profession.
The world is not becoming flat, it is already flat. And, yes, it will get flatter. If you haven’t yet caught onto this fact, read Friedman’s book. In fact, we recommend you read it now, then read it again every year as a gauge to hold up against your most recent, brilliant strategic assumptions.
One last memorable thought from Friedman:
“In China, Bill Gates is a Britney Spears – they scalp tickets to hear him speak. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears. That’s the problem.”
1 The World is Flat, A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Friedman, Thomas L., Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005
2 Publishers Weekly, April 5, 2005