Managing in the 21st Century

“The old order changeth, yielding place to the new.”
                                                           – Lord Alfred Tennyson

While writing this in the middle of the nineteenth century, Lord Tennyson would probably not have realised how much more relevant his words would be towards the turn of the millennium.  No one can doubt that the world has seen more changes in the last few years than ever before in its entire history.  We might argue that this is a knee-jerk reaction emanating from the myopic view we present to ourselves as a consequence of us living in these times.  However, even the most die-hard critic would appreciate some truth in this perception – and if we do, then we should also appreciate the need to understand the ‘order’ or the ‘times’ we live in, and of course, what we will be expected to manage and leave behind for our progeny.

The New World Order

What has changed in the last few years for us to actually contemplate a paradigm shift in the way we manage things?  What are the forces that define and contribute to any era and how have they changed in the recent past?  Let us look at the new face of politics, of religion, of society, lifestyle, war, business, technology, information, and other such forces that continuously effect our daily lives and are key determinants of the world we live in.

Without trying to stir up any controversy, I would like to touch upon Politics, Religion, and War together.  The reason for this might be apparent to some of us and even Mahatma Gandhi had said as much more than 60 years ago when he wrote that “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.”  If this was relevant at that time, it is a ‘given’ now.  All around us, we see the inter-twining of politics and religion and resultantly – of war and conflict.  Politics and religion are the self-issued licenses that the human race has given itself to make hate and war credible.  We fear no evil if it is done in the name of religion and all across the world, graveyards are littered with the bodies of friends, and foes, who have been killed in the name of God and Religion.  The new face of war is not limited to borders with soldiers in uniform fighting each other.  Nay, it has entered our cities and homes and more civilian lives are lost now as a result of warring factions bombing towns and cities indiscriminately and sometimes, actually targeting civilian lives to send out gory messages.

While on the subject of politics, I would also like to comment on its contribution to the evolution of the society and trace this path through the chart presented here:

Time Period Concentration of Power Type of Governance Nature of Society & Human Relationships
Historical Single Person Power Autocracy Dependent
Recent Past & Present Majority Power Democracy Independent
Present & Future Collective Power Co-opracy Inter-dependent

As is evident, people are becoming increasingly inter-dependent – both at the micro level when we talk of work within teams, organisations, families, etc., and at the macro level with nations collaborating more and more for a mutual symbiosis of strengths and competencies.

Businesses and economies all over the globe have been quick to realise this and the new world order sees Adam Smith’s theories expounded in 1776 in his “Wealth of Nations” being taken to a whole new level.  Countries, economies, and businesses are collaborating together, albeit for individual gain, but ensuring the greater good of society.

In civilized society he [man] stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons. In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them.” [Adam Smith, “Wealth of Nations”]

Adam Smith’s writings from over 225 years ago hold relevance even today with out-sourcing, off-shoring, and other modern business practices being the norm even in the face of opposition from myopic politicians raising hue and cry about it.  The recent economic surge of countries like China and India owes much to the greater inter-dependence on the global economic front.  Yes, sections of population in some countries like USA would have been hurt by loss of jobs and opportunities; however, we will address this issue later when we talk about facing the new world order.

One of the biggest reasons for enabling this global inter-dependence has been the new technologies at our disposal.  Who would have thought of a seamless world without the advances in computing, fibre-optics, and the mind-boggling advent of the Internet!  Information flow is immediate and communication is possible at a pittance of the costs that were incurred only a few years ago.  The convergence of information, communication, and technology is defining the new world order and is making the 21st century such an exciting time to live in.

The developing economies like India have directly benefited from the tech boom, and an offshoot of this growth has been the increase in personal income and resultant lifestyle changes.  More than 70% of the Indian population is below the age of 35 and is earning more, wanting more, and spending more.  The circle of income, spending, growth, collaboration, interdependence is complete as will be evident from the latter part of this article.

Managing the Times

In the preceding section, I have tried to provide an extremely basic outlook of some forces and changing parameters at work in the 21st century.  Let us now explore some ways in which we can learn to manage these changed times – the skills and knowledge required, how we can face up to the challenges this global seamless environment presents, and how we can effectively utilise the resources at our collective disposal.  Instead of now touching upon each of these forces individually, I will try to present some thoughts on what individuals and organisations may do overall to manage and flourish in this world.

Thomas Friedman, in his international best-seller ‘The World is Flat’ talks about four kinds of workers in the world – Special, Specialised, Anchored,and Really Adaptable.  The special workers are the extremely few people like Sachin Tendulkar, Tiger Woods, etc., who are one in millions and command huge pay as a result.  Of course, very few people can be special, but there are many more specialised workers.  These are individuals who have specialised skills that cannot be out-sourced to lesser workers or automated, prime example being knowledge workers like specialised doctors, and lawyers.  You will always need them and cannot outsource their function.  Friedman calls the third category of individuals Anchored if they are doing jobs that need to be performed at specific locations and involve face-to-face contact, such as drivers, barbers, security, etc.  However, if individuals are none of the above, they had better become really adaptable so that they can constantly upgrade their skills and knowledge sets to shift into new jobs or functions as their jobs become replaceable or movable.

In this new global and seamless world, it is essential for every person, and every organisation, to acquire the skills and abilities to survive.  One of the more important transitions that has taken place is the increased ambition and desires of the new generation who leave no stone unturned to achieve their goals.  This insatiable hunger for success is currently driving the growing economies like China and India.  The hunger is fuelled by the opportunities that the inter-dependency has brought in with more work being off-shored and out-sourced to companies in these countries.  Workers and Managers cannot afford to slacken off or stop learning – they will very soon find their skills outdated and their jobs being taken over by moreadapted individuals.  They need a vertical shift in the upgradation of skills and knowledge, i.e., managers should not only look at acquiring diverse skills, but more importantly, strive to move up the value chain and acquire the knowledge that shall make them specialised.

As the world keeps getting more and more complex, the interdependency of people, of cultures, of organisations and countries, keeps getting highlighted.  It is imperative that we work by collaborating and cooperating.  This will be the main mantra for managing the 21st century.  Politics, Religion, War, Competition, and other contentious issues will be pushed into the background as people all over the world work together in close collaboration and cooperation.  The Internet has ensured that there are no boundaries or borders.

The world is now a big community with free movement of ideas, thoughts, and services.  We are not constrained by the availability of natural resources in various parts of the world.  The new economies work through and will continue to flourish through Idea Generation, i.e., we will be constrained only by the self-imposed limits of our imaginations.  The New World is limitless for people with ideas as is evident from so many new-age companies that have grown at mind-boggling speeds on the strength of their ideas and vision.  One look at Google, co-founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and we can see the power of ideas and the explosion caused by the inter-twining of intellectual capital and intellectual work.  Google is a company that is a microcosm of what the New World is and how we have to manage the 21st century.  Its founders have leveraged the Internet and their imagination to form not only a company, but also a cult and a way of life.  Their attempt to manage information for the whole world has created limitless possibilities for millions of people all over the globe by providing them equal opportunities.

In this world, the definition of Equality has changed.  It is no longer having similar lifestyles or similar incomes.  It is in fact an equal access to anything and anywhere.  Today, a person anywhere in the world with access to a dial-up modem and a computer has access to opportunities all across the world.  People can compete for the same things, whether they are from sub-Saharan Africa, or from Scandinavia, or North America.  Once again, it is only the limits of our ideas and imagination that will determine how far we are able to fly.

Companies, small or big, have to understand the leveling of the terrain and the playing field.  Small companies can now think big and access bigger global markets, while big companies will have to think small and work into their operations the flexibility and the speed that their smaller competitors thrive upon.  Everyone has the same access to global markets, and it is their speed, quality, efficiency, and commitment, that will determine who wins and who loses.  A manager in USA can no longer look only at other companies in USA as his competition, he has to look towards China, India, Mexico, Brazil, etc., where small upstarts are aiming at his business and trying to enter his market.  A company like Microsoft was shaken up by an open-source operating system called Linux that thrived upon global cooperation and collaboration as a direct result of its access to software engineers and users all over the world.

Let us touch upon the issue of loss of jobs in some economies that was left un-addressed in the previous section.  By now, we have seen that the growing interdependency and global access is causing free movement of services and work all over the world.  As any economics student already knows, these will try to settle in the areas where the costs are the least; so what will happen to people who live in areas where labour costs are higher.  How do we manage their future and their work?  The answer lies in the circle of interdependence and will be evident from the following example.

There is a tremendous hue and cry about out-sourcing services to India and off-shoring manufacturing to China by American companies.  When American jobs in services are outsourced to India, a section of the Indian population is receiving these jobs and earning better incomes than they would otherwise have.  Their lifestyle changes will be evident in their spending habits and they would like to spend upon consumer goods and other lifestyle products.  The same thing will happen to Chinese workers.  Workers in both China and India have directly benefited while the American company is now able to cut costs and remain competitive.  The growing demand for spending by these workers shall fuel an increase in sales of American lifestyle products (who can be blind to the charms of Coca-Cola, Levis, Pizza Hut, and more recently, the iPod).  American companies, which would have shut down otherwise, remain competitive and flourish.  Some of their workers retain their jobs in the home country while others will be forced to adapt and move up the value chain if they are to retain their livelihood.  Their expertise will now be needed in managing the world-wide operations, growing sales in new markets, the logistics required on a global scale, and other high-end work that have been created as a result of this inter-dependency.  Of course, those who cannot adapt will be forced to lose their jobs.  They may move laterally to other industries or areas where their skills might still be needed but the message that needs reiteration is Adapt or Perish.

The challenge in front of managers will increasingly be to manage the new complexities, inter-dependencies, collaborations, idea generation, speed & flexibility, competition, and other situations hitherto unheard of.  Through all this, only the fittest and the most adaptable will flourish.  A while back, I received an interesting writing (again through the ubiquitous Internet) that I reproduce below.  I feel it appropriately epitomises what the world is, will be, and how we need to manage it this century…

Every morning in Africa, when the Sun rises, a deer awakens, knowing it has to outrun the fastest Lion or be hunted to death…

Every morning in Africa, when the Sun rises, a Lion awakens, knowing it has to outrun the slowest deer or be starved to death…

It does not matter whether you are a deer or a Lion, when the Sun rises, better be running at your best!

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