Of all the descriptors that might be applied to the initial decades of the 21st century, fierce competition surely will at the top of the list. Moreover, today’s hypercompetive economy is unprecedented. Survival has replaced growth as the first order of business. But why now — what is so special and urgent about now?
Companies are beset. Everything is a challenge. Nothing is assured. Unexpectedly, the sources of competition not only are worldwide but also accompanied by often unbridgeable wage and price differentials. Nor is the traditional consolation of superior domestic quality available. Toyota is passing General Motors and from U.S. plants — the enemy is no longer outside but inside the gates. Superior American technology and process not only have been copied abroad but also exported there by our own U.S. multinationals. Indeed, outsourcing has reached the point where it has spawned a new consulting American enterprise, that of human resource outsourcing.
The impacts are dramatic: The long range has been replaced by contingency plans. We are backing into the future. We are involved in piecemeal tradeoffs to survive. We downsize incessantly. Employees are asked to take salary cuts to offset global wage differentials. Pension support is being abandoned and replaced by federal bailouts.
In essence, what is taking place is an economic version and replay of all the ecological tradeoffs in the past. Workers are now in the same category as air or water — they are grist for the mill of survival. The only difference is that this time, the tragedy of the commons is not abstract and limited to nature but applies directly to nurture itself. The immediate impacts of this new situation are loss of employee loyalty, talent shortages and an obsession with innovation. Although all are symptomatic of a radical divide, the last one drives home and perhaps best defines our dilemma, as well as points to some ways out.
Not surprisingly the literature about innovation is growing at an almost exponential rate — in volume and dominance, it is matched only by its training versions. But all the analyses of innovation are surprisingly familiar: Innovation essentially is defined as the production of the new. The most recent advocates apply it to the behaviors of organizational cultures. But what defines the new? Is there only one kind? And is the new enough to be a magic bullet?
Because training interventions on behalf of innovation have to be targeted, the new needs definition. But innovation is not singular — it exhibits differences not only of degree but also of kind, and its basic and most familiar version is the incremental. Technology itself obsessively links novelty to obsolescence. All the enhancements of cell phones are in the final analysis only add-ons. But when cell phones first appeared, they exhibited a different version of innovation: They were disruptively new. They signaled such a totally new version of communication that they changed the market itself. Many abandoned their landlines altogether, and communications became totally mobile. Ties to local connections were no longer necessary. In short, innovation was not only newly disruptive but also now defined by its being worldwide, sometimes in origins but always in application. In other words, one test of the innovatively new is that it is not only a product of but also defines the range of a global market.
Disruption has a twin: discontinuity. Different in both degree and kind, it is ahead of its time. It has future power. It is a time leap or a time warp, and when it is discovered, it has the power to grant businesses new leases on life. When it is neglected, it can be a death blow. All exhortations to cutting-edge advantage or thinking outside the box are really calls for finding next-generation products and services. They are time creations and more resemble science fiction scenarios than strategic planning projections.
Thus, three versions of the new operate: The incremental alters the market, the disruptive creates new markets and the discontinuous leaps ahead to future markets. Past-oriented companies constantly benchmark and define the new as the incremental. Present-directed companies focus on what is emerging and sufficiently different to disrupt the market, and they position themselves accordingly. Future-driven companies seek to be ahead of markets and identify what will either put them out of business or eliminate their competitors and thereby grant the temporary illusion of a monopoly.
Which one to pursue? The augment here is to embrace not only all three but also the two frameworks that preside over their emergence.
To survive and to flourish, company cultures and training agendas have to exist at the intersection of globality and futures — these are the new contexts for innovation. But embedding innovation in globality requires going beyond conventional the factoring in of international markets, stationing reprehensive abroad or even establishing plants or offices there. Rather, it involves a total policy shift and repositioning.
Company policy follows national policy. Both pursue national advantage, both brand their operations with the signage of “Made in the U.S.A.” Basically, they are self-directed and self-benefiting, and gain is unidirectional — the company and the country remain at the center. Globality is peripheral and serves only as its operational market arena. But the new nature of worldwide competition requires placing globality at the center. Such repositioning immediately defines exchange as multiply reciprocal. It is the proverbial win-win, plus one more win. Three players benefit: initiators, receivers and the interdependent global context. The sign of a true global policy is that it redefines the bottom line as interoperable gain-sharing.
Such a global perspective largely has been advanced by the green movement. It places nature at the center and argues for respecting its laws of design and conservation. It calls for enlightened self-interest and stewardship, the need to husband limited ecological resources, or they will not be around very long to husband us. To enlist corporate support, the notion of sustainable or green products and processes has been introduced. Many companies have routinely added ecological considerations to the development of the new and innovative, but in many instances, it remains an add-on to satisfy or pacify Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements. Ecology remains an object, not a subject and a factor, not a partner.
What is missing is the fusing of competitions: Darwin with Adam Smith, evolution with capitalism, survival of the fittest with survival of the most innovative. Nature as a design model has value only when it is paired with economic evolution. Happily, such interoperability is to be found in the dynamics of globality. The historical convergence of ecology and economics has created such a level and scale of competition that only an equally comprehensive global framework has the ability to accommodate and, with any luck, integrate all into a new whole.
But putting globality in the driver’s seat is not easy — it is not a familiar or comfortable operating assumption. The customary notion is that reality is here, not abroad, and it is self-possessed, not shared. The world is a stage, not a player. To build a global case, its impacts have to be tallied and a case made. The slogan, “Think globally, act locally,” needs the alignment of details. Specifically, global frameworks of all existing operations have to be developed and applied as overlays. Spelling out in detail the impacts on company operations and its workforce would establish the credibility of globality as the dominant driver of convergence in the 21st century.
The training version requires a total review of all programs to determine the extent to which they support a global perspective. Not everything need be scrapped — cross-cultural communications and leadership styles can be retained, with adjustment. But all must display the new content of globality by spelling out how it affects and colors every aspect of company operations. The net result is the gradual emergence of a new collective company identity now guided by new mission statements with a global mission.
Just as all globalists have also to be ecologists, they also must be futurists. It has to be that way because extrapolation and projection are the allies of both nature and history. Together, they function as early warning and/or opportunity systems. They alert us to abysses, helping prevent demise or collapse. But the future does not just buy time for turnaround — it also is a problem solver in its own right, often an innovative one.
Futurity focuses on the disruptive and discontinuous. It involves time travel (thinking out of the box is really thinking beyond the limits of time and space). It requires imagining new companies and countries with little or no previous baggage approaching challenges with new assumptions and beginning with the state of the art. It requires simulating new starts with no predetermined preconceptions of limits or constraints.
Not only is the entire world available for such reflection but all outer space and depths of the oceans. World-class design would carry new meaning, that of global testing and application.
The net result is that globality and futurity define and extend each other. Together, they generate the math of one plus one equals three. The only way to save the world is to embrace and respect its totality. The only way to preserve the future is to operate as its ally. And the only way to stir innovation is to require it to be worldwide and ahead of its time. That way, competition serves a double-edged sword, expanding the arena and timelines of operations and challenging innovation to perform in a new way in its new frameworks.
Such aspirational training goals might be the only way fierce competition can be met and managed and innovation stirred to new levels of mastery. The training goal is thus to persuade every employee to be a globalist and a futurist, to be not only a national but a global citizen, no longer bound by time and space and to supplement the declaration of independence with a declaration of interdependence.
Irving H. Buchen, Ph.D., is director of international programs for IMPAC University and senior research associate of Canis Learning Systems. Albert John Cacace is the founder of MultiMedia Republic, a business process and technology solutions company. They can be reached at email@example.com.