I got a question from a charming man this week, which prompted a choo-choo train of thought. Which, of course, I will share with you.
This intelligent, thoughtful man asked, “How can corporations navigate the new political waters?”
I believe we are in the midst of a significant shift in the way everything is organized – from political life to corporate life to consumer behavior to personal action. As Steve Jobs said in his 2005 commencement address to Stanford students, it’s very hard to connect the dots looking forward, but much easier when you look back.
Looking back over the past several years, I see a clear trend toward what I call “Wikification”. You know Wikipedia? It’s the online encyclopedia which anyone in the world can add to, edit or revise. Over the last few years, it’s become the largest encyclopedia ever developed, and it’s increasingly the encyclopedia of record. In fact, the New York Times says over 100 U.S. judicial decisions have relied on Wikipedia since 2004.
Wikipedia broadens the scope of people who are involved in a process. Rather than a long, laborious, closed process by select scholars, the Wikipedia is a relatively swift, open collaboration by a wide spectrum of experts.
And who are those experts? Why, you and me.
Similarly, you have become the expert on what you listen to. Remember 20 years ago when you could only listen to Top 40, oldies, classical or acid rock on the radio? Today, thanks to IPods, satellite radio and the Internet, you can make your own playlist and listen to whatever you want. Many people don’t even listen to AM or FM radio any more. And as a result, some radio broadcasters have seen their revenue decline up to 50%.
Likewise, the recording industry has changed. It used to be that an artist could not get heard unless he had a contract with a major label. Now, however, an artist can get his or her start on the Internet and parlay that into sales and performing gigs. Record labels have folded, or suffered huge layoffs – and their profits have declined significantly.
You have to have three data points to see a trend, so let me give you another. Publishing. Remember how we used to say how hard it was to get a book published? Not so today. Why? Because you can publish a book with a service like Lulu.com and not split a cent of your profits with an agent or publishing house. The authors I have talked to recently suggest this is the way to get their work to the public – to bypass the publishing gatekeepers and keep the profits for themselves.
Just one more to make the point. Remember when we had three TV networks? If a story led the evening news, it led the national discussion. If the story were biased or incomplete or otherwise flawed, we had few ways to discover the truth. Now, however, viewership of the evening news has radically declined, and a plethora of news outlets exist. Indeed, the challenge for news consumers today is sifting through the many voices for what resonates as true. But the diversity of opinion, I believe, leads to a deeper understanding.
And that, my friends, is the trend. We are bypassing the gatekeepers. More and more, you are becoming your own gatekeeper. You are deciding what you listen to, what you read, what you watch, what you do.
What does this mean for the former gatekeepers? Beside sheer panic, there are a couple of things. First, no more wholesale, one-size-fits-all mindset. People want one-to-one relationships. They want respect for their own niche, their own interests.
Second, former gatekeepers need to shift from the “telling” posture (“We will tell you what you can like”) to the “listening” posture (“Tell me what you’d like.”) If gatekeepers fail to listen to their customers and clients, they will continue to develop products and services too macro – and find that demand is just not there.
Third, collaboration is key. A dialogue with customers, clients and users is vital. I can see a time when most companies host their own discussion boards so customers can provide instant input on products and services, allowing businesses to tweak or alter product lines – leading to greater success.
The problem many gatekeepers have with this new trend is a loss of power. Rather than a powerful individual or organization making a market, the market is made organically. It’s a diffusion of power, placing a chunk of it in many hands. And the former gatekeeper ignores this at his or her own peril. Those who continue with top-down approaches will find themselves either left behind or chasing dwindling markets.
So far, I’ve talked about business and not politics, but the trend is clear there, too. When Barack Obama raised a crowd of 20,000 by a single post on Facebook.com, I stood up and took notice. Once again, he spoke to a niche which might have been overlooked by the old gatekeepers.
Just like businesses, politicians need to adopt the listening posture, and stop telling. They, too, need to seek and use the expert advice of their constituents. They need to collaborate – with their colleagues as well as with their constituents. No more secret earmarks, no more smoke and mirrors. No more top-down approaches. No more power-grabbing. No more wholesale politics. No more business as usual.
Because the way of business has changed.