It was truly an honor to speak at TEDx Columbia Engineering this past week.
This economy needs your help. Many of us are pinning our hopes on the election, and assuming that someone else will figure it out for us. I’m here to share my belief that it is up to us as individual professionals and entrepreneurs. And if you each do well, then we do well as an economy. So I want to share some ideas toward that goal.
First, I think it’s important to get to the root cause of our economic problem. This isn’t just a classic business cycle that started a few years ago. The median worker, the guy in the middle, is in a 40 year slump. We’re talking about a period that transcends Republicans and Democrats. That’s not a story of handouts interfering with the American work ethic. The average American isn’t lazy.
And our debt is a huge concern for the future, but it isn’t the cause of today’s problems. Rates remain low and the dollar is still the world’s reserve currency. Let’s look deeper.
When Henry Ford made cars that his workers could afford, that created demand. His workers bought the cars. We built highways, moved to the suburbs, and began a 70 year path of prosperity led by mass-production, mass-consumption, and mass-media. This was our industrial era. As output increased, corporations and domestic workers negotiated to share productivity gains, and the fortunes of both improved together.
Then starting in the 1970s, demographics and technology combined to “flatten our world”, to paraphrase Thomas Friedman. Since 1980, the number of non-farm workers in the world rose by 1.1 billion. That’s a demographic tidal wave of competing workers, and they inevitably dented the bargaining position of workers in developed countries.
Meanwhile, connective technologies allowed more and more work to move offshore — not just manufacturing jobs, but also clerical and support functions. Even high end jobs like investment banking analysis. Technology automated much of the rest. And so, in the negotiation that plays out between corporations and domestic workers, workers have inevitably seen their bargaining position erode.
From 1973 to 2011 labor productivity increased 80% but real median hourly wage only increased 4%.
Please don’t misinterpret this data, as so many do. Our standard of living has increased dramatically throughout this time. We can video chat with friends. We have safer cars with better fuel mileage. Life expectancy has increased by seven years. All of this is made possible by global competition and technology which are, in any event, inexorable.
Instead, my key point is this. Banking on big companies to give us steady raises and promotions? That’s now a risky bet.
And so, I believe we need to look less to our employers for our professional identity and start looking at ourselves as the center – as the center of a web of relationships that help us get things done.
Of course, many of those relationships are with colleagues, and of course our primary productive outlet is on behalf of our employer. But the most relevant business enterprise over the long term? It’s you! You and your most important relationships.
Let’s extend the analogy. A corporation takes a set of people, its employees and stakeholders, and sets up ways they can work together to create economic value. And how about us as individuals, running the enterprise that Reid Hoffman calls the Startup of You? What economic value are we creating within our social graph?
Not nearly enough. See, I think we are so dazzled by what social already does for us, that we don’t realize what it should do for us. What it does do already, and brilliantly, is to help us spread ideas.
Originally, the spread of ideas was limited to oral tradition and personal contact along trade routes. Then Johan Guttenberg invented the printing press, and suddenly the elite could reach a broad audience. Then with the rise of mass media, corporations could broadcast their marketing messages. The rest of us remained silent.
Today, as we know, an individual can use social media to broadcast their message. I’m using the word broadcast intentionally. A fully-formed idea is ready for broadcast to a wide audience. But great ideas don’t come to the world fully formed.
In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson talks about how shockingly few innovations arose from a lone genius with a Eureka moment. For the most part, ideas need to mix amongst people with different viewpoints and backgrounds. He tracked ideas through history, and proved that it’s always been that way. We went a step further and found the lost footage.
Have we been able to restore it? Great!
Here is rare film of one of the most important inventions in history. Here two people made a wheel. What do they do next? Do they sit on top of it? Roll it? Ooph. OK, now when someone else has a different perspective, like this woman who has been dragging a heavy cart, well, that’s when breakthroughs happen. A wheel becomes a wheelbarrow.
If you already have a fully formed idea or product (like this wheelbarrow) then blogging and tweeting can help spread the word. But if you’ve got a wheel, a heavy load, and a few people with a hunch that there ought to be a better way — that’s a different sort of problem.
And so I’m especially interested in the brainstorming and aligning resources with skills that creates economic breakthroughs in the first place. I want to look at how that process has evolved to date, and look at the untapped opportunity.
Back to Johnson.
During the Enlightenment, as Johnson points out, so many of the important innovations were originally hatched in a coffee house. There is something about what he calls “the architecture of the space” that makes a coffee house work.
To me, it comes down to three factors: informal networks, conversation, and selective sharing.
Informal networks include people who represent different backgrounds, skills, and business interests. And so they help us think about a problem differently.
The second aspect of the architecture is conversation. A blog or book publishes a fully formed idea. But it is conversations that help build those ideas and create those breakthroughs in the first place.
The third aspect of the architecture is selective sharing. In the business world, we don’t just cooperate; we compete. And a lot of information is sensitive. Even basic information like what you’re working, what you’re thinking about, who you’re trying to meet with– things you’d share with friends at lunch or over coffee — aren’t appropriate for a status update broadcast to your entire network. And yet, that’s the type of information that, once shared, can lead to a business breakthrough — a new job, a new product, or a new client.
So coffee house is mostly about private conversations with relevant people from your informal networks.
Email doesn’t really do the trick. Compare email to Facebook.
Thank heaven I don’t get an email every time my cousin posts a new picture or eats a delicious breakfast. Before Facebook, we didn’t share as much. When information sharing moves out of the inbox into a Facebook-style format, then we can share more freely and keep others in the loop in a much better, more polite way than email-all/reply-to-all. Imagine if more valuable nuggets of business information were shared among business friends each day (in an unobtrusive way), the way pictures and breakfast updates are shared among Facebook friends.
Too few of us are taking advantage of the fact that coffee house architecture is now available – and scalable – through social technologies.
McKinsey did a study showing about $700 billion of economic value in four industries alone from private social collaboration within and among enterprises. Only 3% of businesses are fully leveraging social.
But private business conversations shouldn’t just be defined by the walls of the enterprise. Remember, the enterprise is you! It is you and your social graph. Your greatest asset is your networks and relationships. And I wonder if even 3% of us are individually getting the most out of social to find ways to help each other succeed.
Out of the hundreds, or even thousands, of people you know, spread across LinkedIn, Facebook, and email, think about the most relevant sets of people. How can you share information about what you’re working on and what you’re thinking about? Which people in your network should all know each other?
On the micro level, if you can facilitate conversations and introductions like this within what Seth Godin calls your “tribe”, if you help each other connect the dots, then you and your friends will succeed. On a macro level, this is part of a larger narrative. So I want to frame today’s social era in the context of economic history.
Ever wonder how humans came to dominate the Earth? Matt Ridley, in his book The Rational Optimist, determines that it wasn’t brain size or use of tools. We beat out 17 forms of hominid because humans are the only species on Earth, now or ever, where unrelated individuals will exchange one thing of value for another. Moving beyond mutual back-scratching to barter (the most basic form of economics) is what kicked off human progress. Matching up needs with resources is how progress happens.
The next major economic innovation was money, which opened up new forms of trade. A fisherman could buy bread even if the baker doesn’t like fish, because money would allow further trade.
But even with money involved, once the fish are consumed, they are not available for further trade. The Information Age removed this constraint with digital goods. I don’t run out of copies of software to sell. I can simply run off more copies at zero marginal cost. This is the economics of unlimited supply.
The Social Economy opens up another major evolution of economics through its own currency, reputation. Actually, I’ll go a step further and call it professional karma. I’m talking about something people who actively seek to help the good people in their networks. The payback is not immediate, and rarely even requested, but it is inevitable. After all, if you help people who I know and respect, I’m going to want to help you. This has always been true, of course. But innovations in social networks and our hyper-connectedness make it more tangible than ever. And any time economics moves beyond contemporaneous exchange, it opens up new forms of value creation.
We really do need your leadership. No politician is going to create this value for you and your friends. So think of yourself as the enterprise. Find ways to facilitate the private business conversations that help each other connect the dots, creating value for each other.
In the industrial era, the boss did this. He hired the right people and assembled them in conference rooms and factories. In the Information Age, the CIO put in place systems for this. Well, today you are the enterprise. And collectively we are the economy. We share a responsibility to lift this economy, and the best way to do it is also the most rewarding. Let’s help each other succeed. Thank you.
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