Can Large Organizations Navigate The Shifting Shape of the World?

Can large organizations (including government) that have an abundance of structure and control actually navigate the shifting shape of the world and survive?  Are they even aware of the degree of shifting that is going on in the world and and the need to dramatically reformat structures, processes and ways of thinking?  I’m not even sure they need to be large or have too much control.  Maybe we are just stuck in old ways of doing things and can’t imagine it might not be possible to simply tweak what we do to survive.

I didn’t realize the intensity with which I have been sitting with this question until now as I find it bursting out of me thanks to the conversations I have been in with people from around the world over the last six months and the reading that I’ve been doing lately.  I don’t think this question was even formulated in my mind but I could feel it working in my being, nudging me this way and that, puckering my brow in moments of concentration, confusion and curiosity contrasted with moments of complete openness and open heartedness – taking it all in, beginning to congeal in the most unexpected ways – for me anyway.

The congealing factors seem to be the book I’m reading by Nick Bilton: I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works and a video on the younger generations and how they experience life and work: We All Want to Be Young.

Bilton writes that “a universal brand is not enough for today’s consumers”, “people will pay for well-packaged offerings – even in the face of free alternatives” and “it is evident that the smaller start-up companies are innovating and pushing the boundaries… They are listening to their customers and creating content that customers are willing to pay for and delivering it to the devices where they want to enjoy it.”  This is in his first chapter on bunnies, markets and bottom line, porn leads the way.  He does write about other things in this book – texting, video games, how communication is changing, storytelling.

Quite frankly, I was surprised to find myself reading about the porn industry but his points really hit home for me.  Bricks and mortar will have a hard time being responsive to what their customers are looking for. The new economy is open source and crowd sourcing.  Businesses that have made a living off of protected content and protected product development will find themselves hugely challenged as a result of the new economy.   They will — they are — losing their relevance and many are losing their margins on the bottom line.

We have been saying for a long time that our systems – financial, health care, education – are falling apart and/or not serving us well anymore.  But we are stuck.  We don’t know how to shift the systems and, it is really beginning to dawn on me,  maybe they are not shiftable.  Maybe they really will collapse before any real shift can take place.  I don’t know for sure, but when I think about how technology has shifted the marketplace and made information accessible with a few clicks of the mouse, it is hard for me to imagine how large organizations and systems can actually gain the resiliency necessary to navigate the complexities and the simplicities of the shifting shape of this world.

Organic, emergent networks – like social media, the Art of Hosting, the World Cafe, Berkana – are shifting the shape of how we are in relationship with others and with goods and services.  Smaller, innovative organizations know how to tap into these networks in ways that leave larger organizations in the dust.

There is still a big question about how some of these smaller organizations or networks will make money but there are all kinds of conversations going on about money systems, gift economies and finding other ways to recognize or exchange value.  It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of a debit card seemed far fetched to me and now I have a few of them in my wallet.  Just because I can’t see it or imagine how it would work doesn’t mean it isn’t already on its way.

And, we are underestimating our youth.  They represent new language and new behaviours.  The way they think has been influenced by technology in ways that older generations cannot comprehend. Instead of really paying attention to how they will shift the shape of the world, they are discounted as are their values and their work ethic.  But we are trying to fit them into systems designed for a different time (as this video on educational paradigms so beautifully illustrates) and then faulting them for failing to conform.  They gravitate to networks and social innovation.  They are the most plural youth in history with extended social networks.  Traditional career plans and structures are losing strength as the younger generations seek to unite work and pleasure, not in hedonistic ways but in pragmatic and realistic ways, looking to make small dreams possible.    They are already shifting the shape of the world.  How will large organizations navigate these shifts successfully?  Is it even possible?

In my next blog, I will write about the emergent, networked organizations and initiatives that I am either part of or know a bit about because I’m connected to people who are connected to them – like Art of Hosting, Berkana, World Cafe, the Oasis Game, Swaraj University.  All of these networks are modeling new ways of organizing and working in the world.  I’m believing that there are huge lessons in them for new business models and when I tell stories about these networks it is often in this context.  When I even begin to sniff the possibility of new business models I get excited although I’m not yet sure what they will look like but look forward to co-evolving a few of these over the next few years.