The World is Flat

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Technology has changed the shape of the world. Cheap and abundant communications and broadband connectivity have made it easy for knowledge work to be done from anywhere in the world. This has created a "flat" global political, economic, and cultural playing field.

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Check out, October 2005

After being busy with his intrepid reporting on post-9/11 and Mid-East developments, the award-winning N.Y. Times columnist Tom Friedman says that he suddenly woke up to the realization that the world is "flat". In April 2005, he published a new book, “The world is flat” which is now on track to sell more than a million copies. Beyond just the sales figures, it’s important to note that this book is being read by people in government, universities are assigning it college courses, and it has become required reading in a lot of businesses.

The book’s material and metaphors are still being discussed on TV, in magazine articles and in many webzines and weblogs. After joining in some of these discussions, I keep re-reading sections of the book, a lot of which rings true. I've always followed Friedman's articles and liked his last book: "Longitudes & Attitudes". This latest book is significant in that it synthesizes a lot of seemingly disjointed events and trends.

Friedman trumpeted his new book with an incisive N.Y. Times article (3 Apr.2005) which has now been archived, available only to subscribers. But you can read some of it, plus an interview with Friedman, through the web links below.

Discovering the Flatness

Tom Friedman had some impressive editorial assistance with his book. Bill Gates spent a day with him to critique the theory. He presented sections of the book to the strategic planning unit at IBM and to Michael Dell. But those things came after the book was already in preparation. His initial “discovery” came while he was on another, totally different journalistic assignment.

Friedman says he encountered the flattening of the world quite by chance when he was visiting India. His most important collaborators were two Indians: Nandan Nilekani of Infosys, and Vivek Paul of Wipro, executives of two billion-$ software companies based in the Indian high-tech capital, Bangalore. He describes his experiences with these people with the awestruck hyperbole that he previously reserved for encounters with the heroes of Silicon Valley.

By the way, this becomes somewhat personal here. I was born and educated in Bangalore; I moved to England when I was 20, and then to the US at 30 – I’ve lived more than half my life in San Diego, California. My background gives me a good perspective of the new world-flattening processes that Friedman discusses, and I have first-hand experiences with some of the companies he writes about. Indeed, I’ll be visiting both Infosys and Wipro in January 2006.

Flattening of the landscape

In the past few years, massive investments in technology – satellite broadband connectivity, undersea cables – have changed the shape of the world, making global communications cheap and abundant. At the same time, computers became cheaper and available all over the world. And there was an explosion of e-mail, search engines like Google and software that could chop up any piece of work and send the individual pieces to Boston, Birmingham, Bangalore and Beijing, making it easy for anyone to do remote development.

When all of these things suddenly came together (around the turn of the century) intellectual capital could be delivered from anywhere. It could be disaggregated, delivered, distributed, produced and put back together again. And this brought whole new degrees of freedom to the way work is done – especially work that needs brains, not physical interaction.

Tom Friedman insists that the confluence of these developments is as revolutionary as Gutenberg and the printing press in the 15th century, and how it plays out will be the central global drama of the early 21st century. The cheap availability everywhere of software and broadband Internet has leveled the landscape. It has created a newly "flat" global political, economic, and cultural playing field that allows countries previously disconnected from the centers of power to participate in the pursuit of wealth, provided they have the skills, the infrastructure (broadband connections) and the drive to do it.

Friedman explains what the "flat world" means to countries, companies, communities, and individuals, and how governments and societies can, and must, adapt. The future will not resemble the past. Outsourcing is inevitable and complaints or complacency won't resolve anything. To succeed in the future, individuals and companies must develop strategies that fit global realities.

The 10 forces of Flatness

"Flatness" is not simply about Outsourcing and Offshoring – those are just symptoms of the much broader global shift. Here's my own summary of Friedman's 10 forces of flatness:
  1. The walls came down, windows went up: The old cold-war barriers blew open, and everyone was talking to everyone else through a common platform, computers and software.
  2. Internet browsers: Suddenly everyone could browse the web with significant and prolific content, allowing instant publishing to a world audience.
  3. Workflow software: Common web-based standards; software applications "taking" to each other.
  4. Open-source: Self-organizing, collaborative communities; the decline of closed, proprietary developments.
  5. Outsourcing: Business suddenly realizing that everything did NOT have to be done in-house. The rise of outside specialists, part-timers and home-workers.
  6. Off-shoring: Sending manufacturing to wherever it could be done – good, fast and cheap. With the availability of worldwide high-speed communications, knowledge work can be delivered fast from anywhere.
  7. Supply-chaining: The development of fast, efficient and effective supply-chains to deliver products from anywhere. A good example is the rise of Wal-Mart to become the largest company in the world.
  8. Logistics: UPS and Fedex don't just deliver packages – they do logistics.
  9. Informing – web search: Google & Yahoo deliver information quickly and effectively, anywhere, to anyone. The rise of Groups and Weblogs.
  10. Digital, mobile, personal, virtual: Everything shaped, manipulated and transmitted by computers and instant communications.

The triple convergence

Tom Friedman explains that the forces of flatness have resulted in a "triple convergence":
  1. The creation of a global, web-enabled playing field that allows multiple forms of collaboration, the sharing of knowledge and work, without regard to distance or geography, and soon even language.
  2. Global companies lose walls, floors and buildings. Employees are now a vast, global pool of specialists, assembled (and disassembled) according to needs.
  3. New opportunities are created for individuals to compete against anyone, anywhere in the world using the new, "flat" rules.
Don't look for "flatness" on the other side of the world – look for it around you, in your company: no "secretaries" any more; minimal levels of hierarchy; old org-charts becoming quickly outdated; emails spreading good news and bad within minutes, inside and outside the company; jobs being outsourced around town and around the world.

Success in the new, flat world

Tom Friedman’s book describes the changes as rapid (because of modern communications and technology acceleration), inevitable and unstoppable. Its essential message is that "flattening" is progress. While this certainly poses a threat to historical U.S. and European prosperity and power, the proper response is not to fight it, but to embrace it and adapt, not only to survive, but thrive in the new environment. What America, and new century economies need are better education, pervasive high-speed broadband connections, and more globally aware government policies.

It's a new game out there. Don't complain about it – join it and enjoy it. If you are not good enough to play in this different kind of game, you'll simply be sitting on the sidelines, watching others play.

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Copyright 2006 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA