The first world war of the information age (WW1IA) has been going on for the best part of the early 21st century. The people and organization that rose to power in the industrial age by mastering the prescriptive and centralized model of organization and communication are being challenged by the masses without formal power nor influence as individuals on the system to which they belong. The challenge is emergent and chaotic in nature. The lessons for business strategy are really interesting.
When individuals are empowered as consumers, as citizens, as creators or in any other capacity, the dynamics of the system to which they belong change radically. Each of those now empowered individuals acts as an autonomous agent that is connected to all other agents in a way that makes it possible for the decisions of each of the agents to affect and be affected by those of all other agents. Each of those agents is both a producer and a consumer of information, thoughts, content, music... It is the rise of the prosumer and the advent of a complex adaptive social system whose structure and modus operandi can no longer be determined by "authorities". There are no "authorities". Each individual is an authority whose influence is not determined by job title or position but rather by the share of attention and the following he or she is able to get. To be clear, I don't believe it is possible to manipulate the dynamics of such a system because of its near chaotic nature and because of the transparence that is characteristic of the web. When one of the participants gathers momentum it is the result of his or her ability to create a "strange attractor", a "zone of intense attention" that creates momentum for ideas, creations, causes or positions.
To me it is clear that the Internet is the single most important enabler of that near-chaotic behaviour of social systems, businesses, political parties, national debates and other phenomena involving masses of individuals who are simply given the means to participate. None of these individuals is given more than the opportunity to take part. No positions, no job titles, no perks, no trappings of power, no symbls of authority, no official authorizations... nothing, but the opportunity to make a contribution in a fair way. This is the world of truly equal opportunity. Of course, for incumbent and today's establishment this means war. Here are a few examples:
- the French referendum about the European Constitution was a case in point of a debate between experts and empowered masses. Experts, whose arguments for voting yes were extremely limited in number at least insofar as said experts expended the minimal effort required to explain them to the people, and empowered citizens who deeply cared about the implications of the constitution for them and for their vision of their communities. I remember visiting the site of a maths teacher in southern France who had done a magnificent job at commenting specific aspects of the proposed constitution; I did not necessarily approve or like his positions, but I really admired his contribution, his motivation to share an opinion and come out in the open to defend it against "experts who knew better than the rest of us". Again, the Internet was then the primary medium for those who were against the constityution to make themselves heard, when traditional media were not impartial as they should be.
- the interventions of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to challenge patents that may hinder innovation is an example of what happens when individuals join forces to create an entity whose power stems exclusively from the support of a large number of empowered individuals who care about digital freedom and reasonable security. Again, it is an emergent structure by its very nature, which acts to balance the actions of powerful and rich corporations willing to put as many sources of value under their exclusive or joint control.
- the creation of Linux and the emergence of the Linux community is another example of emergence of networks of empowered (in this case connected and competent) individuals to counter the effects of excessive concentration of market power in the hands of only a couple of powerful established corporations.
- the recent decision by Skype to strike an exclusive deal with Intel on unverified technical grounds did a lot of damage to the company's reputation and to speak in lovemark terms it somehow "breaks the hearts" of loyal supporters of the early days. That happens right at the moment when Jajah a formidable challenger is about to be market ready; and Jajah seems to have understood the principles of marketing in a webified world. When individual consumers express an opinion about the products and services of a company, the company had better listen to what the customer has to say, especially when the points are valid. There are countless examples of companies whose attitude was challenged by an emergent network of individuals, and also quite a few example of companies whose image and reputation was built by these networks of empowered individuals (it's called buzz).
Here are my points:
- in a connected open world there is no such thing as a poor helpless individual without influence over an issue, so there are basically no excuses for just accepting things the way they are if you are not satisfied with what you are getting. A friend of mine says that there are no people who cannot change: it is that deep inside they don't want to change either because they approve what is going happening to them or because their pain has not reached a threshold yet.
- in the Information Age even though information can be manipulated the artificially created image of a situation cannot hold very long: it would have taken decades in the past to discover the lies that led to war in Iraq or the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
- in a society that is near chaotic in nature the elite does not have as much power as in the past to prescribe what a mass of people should think, feel, say or do about an issue.
- in a market of empowered networked consumers companies cannot use traditional marketing and public relations approaches to create their image and position. No individual company can fully control its image and managers need to develop skills to go with the flow and still achieve their goals.
- in the Information Age, no company can hope to force lock-in on consumers in a violent manner: durable lock-in is achieved by delighting customers; customer have to love the company, its products and its ways.
- as long as access to an open public relatively secure peer-to-peer network is secured and resources exist to help individuals acquire the skills to use the power of the network, the forces of emergence will remain active and keep challenging established players
- this war between emergence and prescription, between a society made of empowered individuals and a permission-based society, between agile ways and rigid procedure-driven organizations, is in fact a turning point of human civilization. Ultimately it is an excellent thing for incumbents to be challenged. The key question is how to transcend and include all these ways to prepare a world in which the opportunity to choose and choose again is given to all without limitations. That may actually be the single most important step towards durable development.