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A Different Way to Look at Communities & Businesses?

April 1, 2011 - Ernest Hohmeyer
The other night just as I was sitting down thinking about all the positive health reasons to have a glass a wine, I was accosted by my 11 year old son. There was quite a perplexed look on his face and I thought he was about to ask me where the game cube was. Instead, as if he was a trial attorney trying to save someone’s life and I was the expert witness that would preserve or condemn him, he asked me about the events in Libya and how dictators can hold power over their people if they were not elected.

My hand stopped short before it reached Nirvana, otherwise known as the wine cooler, and instead reached for a chair knowing this deserved serious attention. Carefully, I went through examples where authoritarian rulers grabbed power through force, hereditary lineage or divine claims. I tried to explain to him that there were many systems of government and in some cases democracy was not a method that was familiar to them as a traditional institution.

My son did not like any of those answers. “But why don’t they just get rid of him?” “Such a simple question, such a complex answer” I thought to myself as a sweat began to trickle down my spine even though it was only 18 degrees. “Sometimes they don’t know if they are the only ones that think that way or how others feel about him, so they are unsure of what to do.” Now that was an answer my 6th grade son would understand and I resumed my quest for that cold elixir that was good for my heart. My son responded quickly “What do you mean they don’t know how others feel? Don’t they tweet nor have Facebook?” I walked away from the cooler, beaten by my 11 year old son.

My son got me thinking (who says you can’t learn from your kids?) about how dictators and empires do hold their rule over disparate countries and populations.

We often talk about the Greek Empire and their sense of organization or the Romans with their road systems. But I was also thinking about information and how that is also a powerful tool, its might most often used by possessing it or withholding it and not necessarily sharing it. For centuries besides military might and economic power, information and knowledge were also a weapon guarded by peopled who typically held positions of influence.

Sometimes that information was not right but it was so intertwined with the governing belief system, they did not want to admit it was wrong. Look what they did to Galileo.

This preservation and holding of information is a centuries old tradition and its culture spilled out in other parts of our life including business and community development.

Locally, when I was involved in negotiations to bring businesses in to the Adirondacks, some were a master at playing off one community against the other to get a better a deal. The game was one about information and its by-product the creation of misinformation. How many times did I come across a local politician or official who would say “I had these conversations that no one else had so I know what they want and this is what we need to do. I think we got them.” The only problem was I heard this from the other competing towns as well.

Sometimes we knew we were getting duped but did not want to jeopardize anything that might create jobs. As our small local communities began to compete against one another, we often shot ourselves in the foot. Independently, we did not have the labor force, incentives, infrastructure or other site selection criteria that matched other locations outside of the Adirondack Park.

Or how about the way many companies do business? When it comes to sharing information, doesn’t the eyebrow begin to twist as your brain computes how divulging this information will hurt your business? It stems from the time of our father’s and grandfather’s who believed that divulging any information to their downtown competitor would come back to bite them. How many times have we heard big corporations or even the government shield information and only grant it when forced to? Recently, even the ADE ran a series on public information. How about scientists or pharmaceutical companies who work in an institutional framework of protecting important discoveries for corporate gain or organizational advancement?

Like the invention of the printing press in the 15th C, the internet is challenging many of these centuries’ old traditions and is affecting everything from political institutions to how we eat. How we approach business as well as the very definition of community is rapidly changing. The powerful tool of information and how have used it for centuries is undergoing radical changes. How you market your business, how we approach community giving, even how you will read this article in the future is rapidly changing.

The Gutenberg printing press when it was invented in 1440 is often cited as one of the most powerful tools that changed the way we live. Suddenly, the masses had access to information. They could also now learn though not in the same way as the aristocrats, they had a better idea of what was going on around them and a new policy had to be created by those that ruled: shaping public opinion.

Though the information was not always correct and the use of propaganda became a new loaded gun, more people than ever began to become educated and the arts and sciences flourished. There became a new sense of the rights of the individual in the emerging years of the “Enlightenment.” Trade and technology made rapid advancements leading to world exploration. It also made it easier to govern larger areas and the modern nation state was born and life began to turn away from feudal kingdoms to the countries we know today.

Think of how the world changed from 1440 to 1640 in terms of the discovery of the world, connections with isolated civilizations and the tearing down of century’s old political institutions like the role of the Church and feudal government. A middle class emerged and the French philosopher Descartes penned a new meaning of the rights of all individuals “I think, therefore I am.”

How the aristocrats, governing institutions and the upper classes of the closed social strata must have been quaking in their boots. While it came later in some areas, think of how we heard of ruling dynasties like the Louis’s, the Hapsburg's and the Czar’s who were incapable, despite being highly educated, to make critical reforms that led in some cases to bloody revolutions.

In perhaps much more of a stealth manner, the internet is changing even more rapidly than the printing press, all aspects of the way we live.

How we use the powerful tool of information is only one critical example. What it does to how we market our businesses or even think about what is our community, is undergoing profound changes. In a follow-up to their 2007 book Wikinomics, Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams talk about how the internet is creating the opportunity for mass collaboration and that this is “changing the way businesses communicate, create value, and compete in the new global marketplace.” Progress to resolve the recession are being “hindered by institutions that have served us well for decades or centuries [but] seem stuck in the past and unable to move forward.” They point to a “historic turning point: cling to the old industrial era paradigms or use collaborative innovation to revolutionize the not only the way we work, but how we live, learn, create, govern, and care for one another.”

It sounds like the printing press to me except what took centuries to unfold is occurring in the matter of a few years. Believe in sustainability? Forget it; you have been replaced by new thinking related to “biodynamism.” Think we should be involved in recycling? That practice is being re-examined toward “up- cycling”. Looking for consumers to buy your products? They are a dying breed as “prosumers” take the stage.

Will I be writing these articles in this format much longer? I may not as the news becomes more interactive and I am replaced by “citizen journalists.” Think we need to petition current leaders for reform? Welcome to the system of the “citizen regulator.” Tired of attending the same ole’ community meeting, forget hiring a facilitator, they have been replaced by the “curators.”

And finally, think your hip on the new marketing by doing all those new initiatives like Facebook, Twitter and interactive web sites on your own? Its old news and you need to contact the new marketing guru: the Avon lady.

Over the next few weeks we look at some of these new business terms.


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