Business Community Insights Society

From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: The Transformation of Business


(This is the first of a series of articles written by members of the Techonomy community who will be at our Techonomy 2016 conference on November 9-11.)

We live in a time of profound disruption and accelerating change. Every aspect of society is in flux — from business and government, to health and transportation, to education and the arts. How do we make sense of these changes? What does it mean for our leaders, organizations and communities?

For the last 25 years, I’ve been working at the intersection of business and technology – what one might call the Techonomic frontier. My interest has been the fundamental forces operating beneath the surface of digital disruption to find the patterns that can be used to navigate an ever-changing landscape.

I believe the changes happening around us are the result of a shift in how we communicate. Almost six hundred years ago, Johannes Gutenberg’s press ushered in an era of mass communication. Technologies like radio, television, and film all broadcast a single message to a large, uniform and anonymous audience. This “one-to-many” model makes a clear distinction between broadcaster and audience.

Today, digital platforms have created a new world of mass collaboration. Social media and mobile devices have created more distributed, diverse and personalized interactions. In this “many-to-many” world, we are equally broadcaster and audience. The gates that once protected the gatekeepers have fallen. We are all co-creators.

As Marshall McLuhan famously observed, when the medium of communication changes, everything changes: our sense of identity; how value is created; the nature of our relationships.

Gutenberg’s shift to “one-to-many” and the age of ubiquitous knowledge had significant consequences. The printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation, transforming our relationship with God. Printed currency enabled the modern banking system, transforming our relationship to money. The ubiquity of knowledge enabled the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, transforming our relationship to the universe. This in turn gave rise to the nation state, transforming our relationship to power, and the Industrial Revolution, transforming our relationship to the physical world.

If history is a guide, The shift, represented by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to “many-to-many” and the age of ubiquitous connection will prove equally transformative. We can already see the signs. Social media has transformed our relationships with each other. Bitcoin and blockchains suggest a transformation in our relationship to money. It is perhaps no coincidence that the World Wide Web was created to help physicists collaborate around the CERN particle accelerator. Twenty-five years later this research would prove the existence of the God particle, transforming our relationship to the universe once again.

In business, these changes mean new relationships with both customers and employees. We need to rethink marketing and management.

The influence of the “one-to-many” model is apparent in how we think about customers and organize our marketing. The language is linear, transactional, and asymmetrical. We segment audiences, run campaigns, target messages, manage pipelines and move people through funnels. It’s about push rather than pull.

Marketing must do more than push messages to “persuade and promote.” Consumers are now co-creators and audiences are communities. Brands are recognizing the need to create two-way relationships and “listen and learn.” But this isn’t enough. In a social age, true influence is measured by what happens when you aren’t in the room. This means creating a relationship based around a shared purpose that “enables and empowers.” Airbnb is one example. Instead of “renting houses,” Airbnb creates “I can belong anywhere.” This is not just a purpose TO or FOR, but a purpose WITH, achieved by empowering its hosts and guests as a community. They have created what I call a Brand ORBIT – an Ongoing Relationship Beyond Individual Transactions.

A company’s relationship with its employees also requires a new way of thinking. Mass communication was a natural fit to hierarchical forms of organization. Just as we pushed messages out to customers, we pushed directives down to employees. But like customers, employees are also more connected and empowered. We need more networked forms of management and governance that achieve both alignment and autonomy and transcend the tradeoff between scale and speed. We have to be aligned and empowered, bigger and faster.

The solution is a shift from hierarchy to networks and process to principles. You may not know that Wikipedia began as Nupedia. It was also a free online encyclopedia with content created by volunteers, but with a crucial difference. The articles were evaluated in a multi-step review process. Nupedia only produced 12 articles in the first year. When the review process was replaced with a core set of principles that empowered distributed decision-making, Wikipedia became the success it is today. Its founders were able to let go without losing control. This same approach can be successful for larger, more established businesses. I’m currently working with Current, an energy business powered by GE, to develop decision principles that reflect and evolve their corporate culture.

The full consequences of Gutenberg’s revolution took about 300 years to play themselves out. Today we are in an age of exponential change. If we assume things are moving ten times faster than a few centuries ago, the transformation of our institutions will happen in the next thirty years, well within our lifetimes. These changes are cause for anxiety, as reflected in the recent political upheavals, but also cause for excitement and optimism.

Techonomy is more than a name for the changes happening around us. It’s a mindset for value creation in a digital age and a community of catalysts increasing the capacity of their organizations to adapt and achieve. Every year, this mindset gets clearer and this community stronger. I look forward to the next gathering of our community at Techonomy 2016 in November.

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