If The World is Flat, Then What? - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management
Commentary
12/1/2006
04:12 PM
Penny Crosman
Penny Crosman
Commentary
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If The World is Flat, Then What?

What is a flat world and what does it mean for businesses? Will China be the next superpower? Can we understand God by understanding the laws of nature? A panel discussion yesterday afternoon in New York City brought together New York Times columnist (and author of "The World is Flat") Thomas Friedman, Reuters COO Devin Wenig, O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly and others for a broad-ranging discussion of the flat world, Web 2.0 and other themes. Here's what I got out of it.

Revisiting the themes of Thomas L. Friedman's two-year-old book, "The World is Flat," the New York Times columnist joined Reuters COO Devin Wenig, CollabNet CTO Brian Behlendorf, and O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly yesterday in a broad-ranging discussion of flat world, Web 2.0 and other themes with Forbes senior editor David Kirkpatrick. Here's what I got out of it.What does "flat world" mean? It's not flat as in the opposite of round/Columbus was wrong, but flat as in a level playing field; in a telecommunications, technology, and economics sense, the world is more closely connected and living in America is not the supreme advantage it once was. Friedman gave the example of a potter in a small village outside Cuzco, Peru, who sold his dishware on eBay until he discovered he could get it made more cheaply in China. In the last Bahrain elections, people used Google Earth to zero in on the palaces of the ruling family and for the first time see behind those walls. Open source software and collaboration tools are lumped in with this idea because they help provide global connectivity.

What's the latest definition for Web 2.0? Tim O'Reilly said he now defines this term as "building systems that harness network effects so that the systems get better the more people use them." Examples include open source software and Google -- "they get better every time someone on the web makes a link to another site or performs a search. Google data-mines that and it drives their engine. It's not about specific technology like Ajax, it's about new ways of connecting and the new dynamics of business that come out of this."

What should businesses do about these trends? Friedman offered a "flat world" iron rule for businesses: "When this many people have this much connectivity, and this many distributed tools and innovations, whatever can be done will be done, the only question is will it be done by you or to you?" Wenig at Reuters warned that running a company in a flat world is challenging. Reuters held a global technology conference in Thailand, where it has a large technology center. "It was a wonderful place, a productive center, everybody was getting along, then there was a coup in Thailand. It's tough when you're flying 500 people to the site of a military coup." In Bangalore, attrition is high, salary inflation is more than 20 percent, and the infrastructure is weak. In Paris, it's difficult to hire and fire staff. But on the upside, Wenig said that Thailand, Bangkok, and Beijing are going to be global centers of innovation. He offered that to compete in the flat world, companies have to be ruthlessly efficient, which will enable them to grow in the right way.

What about media companies specifically? Friedman profiled Reuters in his book because the company laid off 50 New York reporters and outsourced that work to India. Wenig said the result has been a net job gain in New York for Reuters. "Some things we report on are not high-value, they're corporate earnings or rewriting a press release," he said. "As some of that work went to Bangalore, our New York journalists had to start writing breaking news and they had to start making second and third level logical connections. We found we were making more money because our customers were responding more to that kind of journalism than just rewriting press releases. It's counterintuitive, but opening up is the path of growth, and sometimes people in our country don't see that." He also said we're on the cusp of "Flattener 2.0," a horizontal flattening and a breakdown of the traditional role of producers and consumers of software and content. "In the traditional world, I write a news story and I hope you read it. What's happening now is we're truly getting to on-the-fly, real-time collaboration with our customers." Reuters views the future of news as not only publication, but moderation. Where a year ago, Reuters.com just contained news stories, today, articles prompt comments from all over the world and the role of the publisher is now the role of the moderator.

What about individual workers? Friedman pointed out that the flat world's participatory, collaborative technology infrastructure makes it possible for passionate, enthusiastic people to be discovered and heard more easily. Also, iPods, Bluetooth phones, cell phones and such are forming a generation of young people with "continuous partial attention," constantly plugged in, not necessarily concentrating on any one thing. Workers are changing careers more frequently and require constant education. Companies will need to give their employees pathways to work they can become passionate about, Behlendorf said.

How should education be changed? Schools had better start encouraging collaboration, Behlendorf said. USC did an experiment using computers in the classroom for presentations, chat, and sharing pages like wikipedia entries, and the learning became more active. This should start in elementary schools. Friedman offered four points on education for the flat world: 1. The uber-skill will be the ability to learn as technology gets outdated quickly. 2. Those who have a high curiosity quotient and a high passion quotient learn better than those who test well. 3. Navigational skills will be important. "Every mouse should come with a warning -- judgment not included," he said. "The Internet is an open sewer of good and bad information." Many people can't tell the difference. 4. Right-brain work will prevail. Everything done today by a person's left brain will in the future be done faster by a computer or cheaper by someone in India.

Is China going to be the next world superpower? No. Friedman quoted his grandmother saying, "Never cede a century to a country that censors Google."

Can we start to understand God by understanding the laws of nature, and do we need to leave earth in order to survive, as Stephen Hawking said yesterday in a speech at the Royal Society? An audience member asked roughly this question. Friedman said the second part of the question would be answered in "Flat 5.0." Behlendorf said open source development is "mystical" because many people working on a project together can achieve much greater results than each person working in isolation.

Here's where the panel lost me. Collaboration tools are certainly useful. But to equate open source software to the workings of a higher power, in my opinion, is like a four-year-old thinking his stick-figure drawings are great works of art. In his own eyes and in the eyes of his parents and maybe his friends, they are. But to a true artist looking at them? Not so much. Is there any comparison between web-based software and the perfect beauty of a tree, a mountain, or a sunset?

Any thoughts or opinions? Please share them with me at [email protected].What is a flat world and what does it mean for businesses? Will China be the next superpower? Can we understand God by understanding the laws of nature? A panel discussion yesterday afternoon in New York City brought together New York Times columnist (and author of "The World is Flat") Thomas Friedman, Reuters COO Devin Wenig, O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly and others for a broad-ranging discussion of the flat world, Web 2.0 and other themes. Here's what I got out of it.

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