Friday, 28 October 2005

Is the world flat?

The concept of yesterday's post was from Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

We all know that the Earth is a sphere (almost). So what does Friedman mean by a "flat world". In an interview with Wired, Friedman said,

I was in India interviewing Nandan Nilekani at Infosys. And he said to me, "Tom, the playing field is being levelled." Indians and Chinese were going to compete for work like never before, and Americans weren't ready. I kept chewing over that phrase - the playing field is being levelled - and then it hit me: Holy mackerel, the world is becoming flat. Several technological and political forces have converged, and that has produced a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration without regard to geography or distance - or soon, even language.

Friedman identified 10 flatteners: fall of the Berlin wall*, rise of Netscape browser, work flow software, open-source computing, outsourcing, off shoring, supply-chain retooling, in sourcing, in-forming and the steroids. (Friedman uses "in sourcing" to mean the re-branding of a company according to new added value as perceived in the marketplace, and "in-forming" to mean the highly focused self-education, especially via the Internet, of individuals and companies regarding subjects that might shape their immediate or long-term future. [source])

While Friedman clearly articulated one aspect of the globalisation, many authors do not agree.

Richard Florida used four graphs, among two pages of argument, to show how unevenly are the distributions of population, lights at night, patents and influential scientific researchers. I suspect, of course, that the Florida's data are very biased towards English-speaking countries (as the last two distributions: patents issued by USA patent office, and influential scientific researchers as indicated by citation in English media.) Nevertheless, the data strikingly indicated that there are high concentration of talents, resources and activities in some "eco-systems".

John Seely Brown in Supernova 2005 presentation, talked about innovative business practices. One of the striking examples was about motorcycle manufacturing in a small Chinese town. (about 7:54 minutes in the ITConversation recording) By leveraging the innovative energy in this small town, they have reduced the production of Honda from 90% to 30% and this company now produces 50% of the world's motorcycle. This is a striking counter-example of Friedman's thesis of level playing field based on geography.

The data and examples cited so that were based on research done and published in English media. Does language matter? Sure it does. Global innovation depends on communicating ideas, global competition depends on creating a selling concept acceptable to a culture. You may be a very good saleman. Unfortunately, I don't understand a single word in French. If you try to sell something to me with the message encoded in French, the chances are I will not buy from you.

John Hagel pointed out the debate so far are based on static data and narrow definition of innovation (in Florida's case).
Companies in some of the rapidly growing urban areas like Shenzhen and Bangalore are pursuing a powerful form of innovation bootstrapping that starts with relatively modest incremental innovations pursued in rapid iterations and amplified by rich interactions with dense local business ecosystems. This bootstrapping is powerful because it accelerates learning and capability building and ultimately bridges into more fundamental product and technology innovation, as is already happening in areas like wireless technology in both China and India. With aggressive use of bootstrapping, even the most modest hills have the opportunity to become formidable peaks.

Most of all, we need to move beyond the snapshots – instead, we have to make and study the movies. This is where real wealth creation will occur. Tom [Friedman] and Richard [Florida] both understand this, but let's not frame the debate in terms of flat versus spiky. The greatest insight will come from understanding the paradox that the flattening of the world is creating opportunities for even greater spikiness.
[my emphasis]

Connectedness, uneven as it may be, offers potential of rapid distribution of information. The greatest challenge to the e-learning practitioners are to help our learners to identify the pearls among the noises, internalise the information to knowledge and output the fruit of that learning as innovation.

Can digital distribution of information beat the "tea-house" innovation in the Chinese Motorcycle town? Can digital networks create geographically separate, but semantically-near eco-systems that can compete as well as those geographically based eco-systems? Can really creative people choose to live in a one place and make their living (and contribution) from another place?

*I did not agree to fall of Berlin wall as a trigger which led to the other flatteners. See my yesterday's post.

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