Saturday, April 4, 2015

Leading the way in a flattened world

By Steven M. Worth, President at Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

Two books that go a long way to explaining our world, how we got to where we are, as well as the factors that will determine where we are going, are Guns, Germs and Steel (1999) by Jared Diamond and The World is Flat (2005) by Thomas Friedman.

Readable and well-researched, the two works complement each other: Diamond shows how the forces of geology, climate and natural resources shaped the way civilizations emerged in history, while Friedman portrays the modern world as it has become through technology, trade and the dominance of free market economic principles. Both sketch a world and future where the traditional work of nonprofit organizations - especially standards setting, education and training, and networking - is and will be key.

Big questions...

Diamond's intention is to focus on really big questions. For example, why did European civilization become so dominant in the world? How did it happen that Europeans conquered and colonized the Americas and enslaved Africans - why didn't the opposite happen?

Diamond demonstrates how the balance of power over the ages has been determined by the available natural resources, such as a moderate climate, cultivable soil, animals that could be domesticated and used for power and transportation, and a geographic position that lends itself to trade or attack from neighbors. His analysis is presented so clearly and his insight so original that each chapter is an "Ah ha!" moment for the reader. Friedman then talks about the dawning of a new age, the one in which we are living now, where the traditional shaping forces described by Diamond have been replaced. According to Friedman, the world has been made "flat" through technology and the lowering of philosophical, legal and economic barriers to travel, trade and the exchange of ideas.

With the globe's resources equally available to anyone, anywhere - witness the recent Chinese purchase of a Canadian oil concern in Latin America, and the success of "virtual" businesses in which global talent as well as goods and services are brought together and exchanged through electronic means - what are the new factors that will determine future balances of power? For Friedman, the new balance of power increasingly resides in the kind and quality of education and training available to any given population group. a flat world

In a "flat" world where there is less and less "friction" in seeking and obtaining the resources to get things done, most of the keys to success can be found in a person's head. Friedman quotes Bill Gates as stating that, in this world, he would prefer to be born a brilliant person in Mumbai than a person of average abilities in New York.

This was not always the case, of course. Until recently a person, through no credit of their own, could thank their lucky stars to be born in a middle-class family in the US, because with reasonable effort and discipline, this person could expect a comfortable, hassle-free lifestyle. Now the rules of the game have changed. All things being equal, Friedman asks, who has the advantage when the French are trying to figure out how to work less than 35 hours a week and India is trying to fit 35 working hours in a day?

In this fluid, flat world, professional standards and professional education and training are king. These factors are what increasingly will distinguish the "haves" from the "havenots," and savvy students, businesses and consumers know it.

These are the areas where nonprofits typically dominate - or do they? Two years ago, the Washington Post Co. noted that more than 50% of its revenues came not from their news operations, but from their for-profit learning centers around the world that focus on helping students and professionals improve their skills. For-profit companies are entering the education and training arena because demand is booming and so are the profits.

Education and training within the framework of professional standards are defining the new balance of power. The assn world needs to determine how best to grasp this opportunity, because in this newly flattened world, everything must be earned, and competition often comes from unexpected sources.

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