The World is Flat
I picked up Thomas Friedman’s new book The World is Flat: A Brief History Of The Twenty-first Century after having read a couple interesting interviews and seeing his appearance on The Daily Show. What caught me was Friedman‘s insistence that we – this generation, Americans, business people, kids today, whoever – are hungry for big idealistic dreams to shoot for. Like walking on the moon. I wasn’t really expecting a discussion about the merits of generalism but, hey, there it was.
The World is Flat is about globalization and the many social, economic and policy issues surrounding the worldwide levelling of the playing field, so to speak. (Reviews here and here.) Overall, it’s a very enjoyable and insightful read (although I must say the introduction to new technologies seems a bit elementary) and offers a fairly realistic and upbeat picture of the flat world (except for the terrorism connection).
What really pleased me was to find many references to the specialist-generalist conundrum. The main example of this can be found in chapter six. In discussing offshoring, Friedman notes that there are three things that can make somebody a valuable and irreplaceble worker:
1. You are special – like Michael Jordan or Bill Gates, or
2. You are specialized – and possess a non-fungible skill (eg. programming, surgery), or
3. You are anchored – meaning face-to-face and local count (eg. chef, plumber)
He adds to this that one of the most important assets that any worker can have is the ability to be adaptable; to learn fast and to learn how to learn.
Another important point mentioned several times in various contexts is the importance of connecting knowledge pools. Your business is becoming “increasingly granular” and will be relevant and applicable to very few people, relatively speaking. As such, collaboration will be even more essential for delivering results that are truly breakthrough. For example, HP, Cisco and Nokia worked together on a phone camera that beamed data to a printer. Each company had a very refined sophisticated specialty but it’s not until those pieces were combined that they yielded results. As HP’s former CEO Carly Fiorina remarked, “this requires a totally different set of skills.” Aha!
Another example: humungous advertising conglomerate WPP Group began looking at its employees as a vast pool of individual specialists that could be assembled into client-based collaborative teams. Gone are the days when a big company was just one big company with one-size-fits-all solutions.
The message is that as work fragments, individualizes and internationalizes, there will be more opportunity to make connections. With more specialists, more specializtion, and more innovation to be reaped from combination, there will necessarily be more need and value in generalist imagination, management and coordination.