A Culture of Alternatives


Some times transitions can be smooth, sometimes difficult. As a global economic community, we are in a difficult transition from the modern industrial age to what will follow. 

Modern organizations share a common assumption. This is true if you are General Motors or the old Soviet Union. Efficiency is the route to an economy of scale and scope.

The problem with efficiency is not what it gives us, the ability to do more with fewer resources. The problem is what it takes from us.

Robust, sustainable cultures are those that have many competing alternatives.

I'm not here writing to advocate for the free market as many conservatives and business people do.  The free market is an ideal, while inviting, it cannot exist while there are powerful institutional structures that can dictate the terms of the market. This is where we are now with the relationship that exists between Washington and Wall Street.

I'm also not here to simply denigrate governments as the overseer of efficiency on a global scale. Governments are important institutions for providing a basis for alternatives to grow and develop.

We are at a transition point because with the elevation of efficiency to its preeminent role, control over the economic and organizational systems of society must also grow.

Over the course of my lifetime, close to 60 years, I've seen the control of society grow to the point where virtually everyone of us is breaking some rule of efficiency every day.

I have been persuaded by Joseph Tainter's thesis that societies collapse when the diversity of alternatives diminish and a one-size fits all culture develops. This is the course our society has been moving along for the past 50 years.

I'm not making a political statement to say the course that the Soviet Union took should be instructive for us today. In many respects, their economy failed because they lacked alternatives. Central planning did not create a robust, sustainable society. It created one of fear, not just fear of impoverishment, but fear of those who control the institutions of society.

The United States is not the Soviet Union. Our histories and founding values are different.

What we do share is a belief in large, supra-national, global institutions guiding the course of society by persons selected by some criteria of elite status.

Whether that control is by law, or political coercion or moral condemnation, the effect is to create a culture of efficiency by removing alternatives that may fail, inconvenience some person or be financially costly.

Our society is no longer robust and sustainable because we are quickly squeezing alternative ways of doing things out of our economic system. As it has done so, it has also squeezed out the benefits of efficiency.

Is there an alternative course?

If Tainter is correct, then we are headed towards an economic collapse. If so, then alternative ways of sustaining society must be developed in parallel with our current system.

I see this, for example, in the rise of local buying initiatives. When farmers are connected personally to those who buy their produce, the relational conditions for an alternative economic culture grow. I hear more and more about bartering between people who have services to provide. And possibly, most importantly, I see it in local efforts to develop cultures of entrepreneurism that create both for-profit and non-profit organizations that provide alternative ways for local economies to function.

The Conditions for a Culture of Alternatives

For an alternative culture to develop three things are needed.

First, individual initiative.

This is what I saw a decade ago as the starting point for all leadership. Individual initiative focused upon creating impact. This initiative is about how people take personal responsibility for their lives and of their families and communities.

Second, community collaboration. 

Consulting with a wide spectrum of organizations over the years I see how institutions force collaboration upon people. It is often seen as a way the old institutional barriers are being brought down. Collaboration can certainly do that, but it must come from the collaborators themselves.

Third, open culture of ideas.

All alternative approaches begin as an idea that needs to be tried. Openness to new ideas, and a willingness to test and fail with those ideas is essential in creating a culture of alternatives.

The End of an Era and The Beginning of a New One

For the past 18 months, I've been writing about the end of an era of industrial capitalism and utopian progressivism. Each was born out of the Enlightenment hope for a better world. Each was a product of, or, reaction to the industrial culture that elevated efficiency as a core societal value.

That efficiency demanded institution control by those who were designated the leaders of the system. It worked as long as the means of production was limited to the industrial plant; as long as advanced education was limited to the few who could afford it; and, as long as the means of communication consisted of the distribution of the information that leaders wanted people to know.

Today, all that has changed. In many ways, the opportunities that we have today are like a return to a pre-industrial era, or as some would call it a pre-modern time. In the past, cultures of alternatives always existed. Today, they are found where people recognized that they must develop new ways of living and working to provide for their families and community. Then, it was understood as the culture of the frontier, today, as sustainable, local cultures. 

The frontier that confronts us now is a world of failing institutions. If we take the perspective of alternatives as a guide, then we'll see that all approaches have a life span. They begin, grow to maturity, and then devolve to extinction of irrelevance. We are in that third stage with the institutions of the modern age.

What will the next stage look like at maturity? It is anyone's guess. I am fairly certain, however, that we will see greater individual initiative, more collaboration and a renaissance of ideas. This is what a Culture of Alternatives will look like.

The Picture of the Future in a Box - Update

Update: Ross Dawson writes about the importance of 3D printing in his post - How 3D printing will transform the retail industry: the opportunities.

This post is a continuation of the ideas presented in The End and The Beginning. In this one, I want to focus on three culture shifts that impact what leadership means in the 21st century.

A picture of the future in a box

Let me begin with this picture. 3dsystems-RapMan-Students-6

Here is a student using a three-dimensional printer. The blue object in the middle of the picture is being printed. This is a kit that individuals can buy for around $1,300.

All you need is a basic CAD program to begin to create prototypes of your ideas. 

I recently saw this model, RapMan 3.1, and the BFB-300 3D printer demonstrated at Hatchfest in Asheville. Rajeev Kulkarni, Vice President of Global Engineering for 3D Systems spoke on the uses of 3D printing.  His presentation described a extremely wide spectrum of application for this technology. The most impressive use of 3D printing is to create human organs from the cells of the recipient. See Antony Atala's TED2011 presentation to grasp the magnitude of this innovation in medicine.

This picture of innovative technology points to the social change that is occurring because of the advance of technology. Besides lowering the cost of prototyping and manufacturing new products, people can now take their ideas from conception to market in a shorter period of time.  Kulkarni spoke about what used to take months to produce that now can be done in a matter hours or days.

Three Shifts

As I listened to Rajeev Kulkarni's Hatch presentation, I realized that in these printers I saw three significant social shifts. When the cost of manufacturing and production time are reduced, and the technology becomes affordable for individual use, then we are moving through a transition period from one era to the next.   The shifts that I see taking place are:

1. From consumers to creators / producers

2. From mass market to mass customization

3. From a mass culture to a local culture

 Let me describe each.

1. From consumers to creators / producers

With the use of basic design software and the RapMan 3d printer, any individual can become a producer of products for sale. The materials that can be used in the printing process are extensive. So, no longer will people have to depend on the marketplace to provide the products that he or she needs. With some ingenuity and business sense, they can make a shift from being a consumer of products to being the creator and producer of them.

Of course, six billion people will not automatically shift from being consumers to creators / producers. And every producer needs consumers to buy her product. Yet, it does not take many people embracing this shift in culture to dramatically impact it. The picture above is of an school girl in England using the RapMan printer.

Imagine every school in your school district having a 3d printer to complete a learning process of idea creation to product completion. Imagine the change of mind that comes to the students in that school when they can create, and not just consume.  Imagine a generation of men and women who think of themselves as creators and producers, as leaders, rather than just consumers of other peoples' creative output. 

One of the first realizations I had about 21st century leadership was that it was about personal initiative, not about roles. Leadership begins with personal initiative. Tools like these 3D printers place into the hands of people the opportunity to initiate, to create, and to produce products and solutions that can make a difference. 

2. From mass market to mass customization

The nature of product development cycles used to be months, even years, necessary to bring a product to market. As a result, it required that product to have as wide an appeal and as long a shelf life as possible. With the advent of technologies, like 3D printers, this is changing. Now in a matter of a few hours, a specialize part can be designed and produced for a customer.

There are a couple implications for this shift.

First, it changes how a company relates to the marketplace. In a one-size fits all world, the marketplace is the lowest common denominator. In a mass customized world, the individual is the market. Marketing to individuals is different than to a mass culture. This is the insight that Chris Anderson wrote about in his book The Long Tail.

Second, it makes the relationship between manufacturer and consumer more important. I've learned this as a consultant. I cannot approach any project as if there is a formula that applies to every other organization in their industry. I have to build a relationship of interest, inquiry and adaptive response to meet not only their expectations, but their needs. I enter into their organizational setting with a set of tools, not unlike a 3D printer, though I don't have one, and use my tools to address the needs that they have.

In a mass customized world, relationships matter, and that is a key to managing the shifts that I'm identifying here.

3. From mass culture to local culture

Prior to the 20th century, life for most people from the beginning of time was experienced in small towns. I remember my grandfather telling me near the end of his long life that the most significant invention in his life time was the radio. When asked why, he said, "Because it showed us what life was like in other places."

The 20th century was a century lived on a global scale, with World Wars and multi-national corporations, and, with institutions that were designed for a mass culture. It was a perspective where one size fits all, and that all people are to be treated a like. Individuality was rebellious and conventionality was the norm.

Those days are slipping away as innovations, like 3D Systems printers, make it possible to create a business that serves customers globally from an office in a small town with an internet connection.  It is the twin developments of innovation for individual productivity and the failure of large organizations to function in a one-size fits all world.

As a result, the meaning of global and local is changing. It is less about a mass market culture of sameness, and more about a culture of relationship where I can serve you, regardless of where you or I live. We can be connected. We can communicate, collaborate and coordinate our projects from wherever we sit today.

It isn't just that we live in a time of the long tail, or that technological innovation provides a basis for mass customization or a better foundation for individual initiative. Each is true. At a deeper level, it means that any individual with a minimum investment can pursue their own sense of calling as a person, and do it in a social context of others who share their vision and commitment. This is an emerging reality that will seriously impact the nature of leadership and organizational design in the future.

One way of understanding this development is to see this as the ascendency of the local. I've written about it here, here and here.

The key to making a local orientation work is openness. For many people, local is just another word for provincial, or closed. However, if local is less physical place, and more a relational space, then we can begin to see that my local can include colleagues in Japan, Pakistan, England, Canada, and my neighbors nearby in Asheville.

In a local community, you share a concern for people, for families, for education systems, the business community and for those less fortunate. It is a concern for the whole person, not just for the transaction.

For example, I can share a concern that my friends in California have for the economic and social conditions of their small coastal town, and feel that as their community grows, that I contribute to their growth.

A local community orientation can function in any social or organizational structure. It is the heart of team work. It brings personal initiative, shared responsibility, and common goals and values together.

Leading Through These Shifts

The implications of these shifts for organizational leaders is fairly simple. It means that instead of being organizational process managers, we must become culture creators. The culture that forms from our leadership provides an open environment for individual initiative, relationship building, and shared responsibility.

The local in this sense is like the ancient Greek polis as described by Victor Davis Hanson in his fascinating book, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. He writes in the introduction,

The early Greek polis has often been called a nexus for exchange, consumption, or acquisition, but it is better to define it as an "agro-service center." Surplus food was brought in from the countryside to be consumed or traded in a forum that concurrently advanced the material, political, social, and cultural agenda of its agrarian members. The buildings and circult walls of a city-state were a testament to the accumulated bounty of generations, its democratic membership a formal acknowledgment of the unique triad of small landowner, infantry soldier, and voting citizen. The "other" Greeks, therefore, were not the dispossessed but the possessors of power and influence. Nor is their story a popular account of slaves, the poor, foreigners, and the numerous other "outsiders" of the ancient Greek city-state. The real Greeks are the farmers and infantrymen, the men and women outside the city, who were the insiders of Greek life and culture.

The rise of independent farmers who owned and worked without encumbrance their small plots at the end of the Greek Dark Ages was an entirely new phenomenon in history. This rougly homogeneous agrarian class was previously unseen in Greece, or anywhere else in Europe and the surrounding Mediterranean area. Their efforts to create a great community of agrarian equals resulted, I believe, in the system of independent but interconnected Greek city-states (poleis) which characterized Western cutlure.

The shifts indentified in this post, to me, point to a similar opportunity that the early Greek farmers had. Through their collaborative relationship of shared responsibility, together they created the Greek polis that remains as the model for what cities and communities are in the West.

The ascendency of the local will come as a result of these shifts. And with it a new conception of leadership as more personal, more collaborative, more focused on impact, will emerge to provide it descriptive power that inspires innovation.

Trend Lines Going Forward

Lemhi Dawn 4 9-16-04

It is hard to believe that the first decade of the 21st century is now history. It has not been the decade that most of us expected. It has been filled with terror, war, economic disruption, political disappointment, natural disasters that showcased governmental inadequacies, and the emergence of social media as a force. In many respects, it was a decade where society did not move forward, and little prospects for broad scale improvement in the near future. 

Andy Crouch, an insightful cultural interpreter, has posted his assessment of the 10 tends that marked the first decade of the 2000's.

  1. Connection
  2. Place
  3. Cities
  4. The End of the Marjority
  5. Polarity
  6. The Self Shot
  7. Pornography
  8. Informality
  9. Liquidity
  10. Complexity

I'm in basic agreement with most of what Crouch offers here. However, it raises questions for me.

If these are trends, then where are they leading us? 

What is the line that extends from the past through the present to the future?

What should we do in response to these trends?

These trends are markers or sign-posts of changes that have been long in development.  I see these trends leading forward in the following ways.

Connection / Place / Cities / Pornography / The Self Shot

This trend line is complex because it is a mixture of several converging ones.

The need ...

for relationship,

for rootedness in a place,

for a place of openness, discovery and genuine diversity,

for intimacy, and,

for a real understanding of one's own identity.

All these are converging. Each of these trends have their problematic dimension though:

Of the shallowness of online connection

Of the disconnection of people from the physical places where they live and work

Of the economic viability of both rural and urban environments that fail to create an environment for human creativity

Of the failure of the institution of marriage to be a viable form of human intimacy for large numbers of people

Of a religious and political culture that offers narcissism rather than human community as a basis for human purpose.

The End of the Majority / Polarity / Informality / Liquidity / Complexity

This trend line is moving fast away from the social conventions and institutions of previous generations. The status of elite groups and institutions once secured by a culture of common perceptions and simple approaches is under going dramatic change. One-size-fits-all, works-for-all, and is available-to-all is no longer reflective of the way the world works, if it ever truly did.  Instead, complexity is the structure of society. As a result, no single or generic approach works. Instead many different approaches can be effective. The key here then is to understand how complexity impacts us on a daily basis.

Donald Norman writes in Living with Complexity,

"The keys to coping with complexity are to be found in two aspects of understanding. First is the design of the thing itself that determines its understanding. Does it have an underlying logic, a foundation that, once mastered, makes everything fall into place? Second is our own set of abilities and skills. Have we taken the time and effort to understanding and master the structure? Understandability and understanding: two critical keys to mastery."

Questions that I have.

What is the underlying logic that explains the meaning of these trends?

What is the "design (of the thing itself)" of the time we live?  

What is the historical movement that helps us to gain understanding of the past decade, the past generation, and what we may expect of the next decade and generation.

My conclusion is that we are in the midst of dramatic period of unprecedented change. In order to understand these trends, we need to understand the assumptions that have guided human history for the past several centuries.

For example, beginning in the 18th century a shift began that impacted virtually every country. It was the shift from aristocracy to democracy. What may not be readily evident in this shift is the continuity that was maintained throughout these great historic changes.

I wrote about this shift in my review of Lucino Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard. It is a picture of the change from the old aristocratic order to new world order of democratic progressivism. In that post, I include a long dialogue that the Prince of Sicily and the representative of the new modern, progressive government of Italy have. Here's a portion.

The Prince: I am a member of the old ruling class hopelessly linked to the past regime and tied to it by chains of decency, if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions.

What would the Senate do with an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who guide others? No, I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would get bitten off.

Chevalley: Would you seriously refuse to do all you can to alleviate the state of physical squalor and blind moral misery in which your own people lie?

The Prince: We are old, Chevalley. Very old. For more that 25 centuries, we have borne the weight of superb civilizations that have come from outside, never of our own creation, none we could call our own. For 2,500 years, we've been nothing but a colony. I'm not complaining. It's our fault. But we are worn out and exhausted.

Chevalley: But all that's over now. Sicily is no longer a conquered land, but a free member of a free state.

The Prince: Your intention is good, but it comes too late.

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, a long sleep - that is what Sicilians want. They will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even to bring them the most wonderful gifts. And between ourselves, I doubt whether the new kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage. Here, all expression, even the most violent, is a desire for oblivion. Our sensuality is a longing for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings are a longing for death. Our laziness, the penetrating sweetness of our sherbets, a longing for voluptuous immobility, that is ... death once again.

Chevalley: Prince, are you exaggerating? I myself have met Sicilians in Turin who seemed anything but asleep.

The Prince: I haven't explained myself well. I'm sorry. I said Sicilians. I should have said Sicily. This atmosphere, the violence of the landscape, the cruelty of the climate, the constant tension in everything -

Chevalley: Climate can be overcome, landscape improved, the memory of evil governments canceled. Surely the Sicilians want to improved.

The Prince: I don't deny that a few, once off the island, may wake up, but they must leave very young. By 20, it's too late. The crust has already formed. What you need, Chevalley, is a man who is good at blending his personal interests with vague public ideals.

The picture here is of the clash between the ideals of progressivism and the exhaustion of the old order. With the former there was a belief that the world's problems could be solved, and with the latter, a realization that even in the midst of change, there is not much that changes.

What we can see here is not the replacement of the aristocracy with a populist government, but rather the transfer of power from one kind of elitism to another. It is the elitism of modern democratic progressivism that is reaching the same point that the old order aristocrats reached two centuries ago. That exhaustion is the inadequacy of the ideas and values that inspired revolution to create a sustainable society in a highly complex context. Ultimately, what happens is the loss of the ideals themselves and the adoption of a formula that is designed to resist change and perpetuate the system.

This trend suggests other trends.

The end of institutions as a unifiying force in society.

Whether those institutions are political, religious, social or educational, they no longer command the loyalty or respect by people as they once did.  Instead, communities of causes have replaced them and is seen in Crouch's Polarity trend.

This emerging trend is really the mixture of several changes.

A shift from a global to a local perspective as locus of solution making.

The impracticality of one-size-fits-all approaches to solving social and econonic problems is reflected in the persistance of the recession in its many forms.  This a product of the growing complexity of society that responds better to small, local initiatives than those applied from a single source.

A shift from a national orientation to a relational one.

As I've written previously, online technology enables us to work with colleagues globally as if we are locally connected. National origin means less, and personal values mean more in this context of local collaboration on a global scale.

The emergence of belief as the common bond that unites people organizationally.

One doesn't have to look farther than the passionate advocacy of the environmental movement or the Tea Party movement to see how traditional institutions are being replaced my groups of people who form temporary communities to advocate for a cause. This puts institutional elites at a disadvantage as institutional integrity has been less about causes or beliefs and more about process and operational integrity.

These are some trends that I see, and see them as positive developments. However, there are aspects of these changes that I don't think are quite yet apparent, yet will bring a new level of disruptive change as they emerge.

Many of the governing assumptions of our time are based on social, political and economic philosophies that were born in the era of The Leopard. I'm convinced that the ideologies of capitalism, liberal progressivism and its socialist varient, and individualism will come to be replaced by new ideas that provide a way forward.  It is my impression that we think these are given, guiding assumptions of contemporary society. I'm not convinced that these philosophies represent the future, but the past. It is why I see the two political parties as regressive, rather than visionary.  As these ideologies lose their vitality and relevance, their advocates have become more divisive and defensive. In my opinion, this divisiveness is a sign of the fading viability of these social philosophies.

If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I'd wager that the future trends that we'll see emerging over the next few years are:

New organizational structures that are designed for shared responsibility and collaboration.

Values as the unifying force, not only in organizations, but in society.

New confederations of cities and organizations that circumvent the artificial constraints of state and national boundaries.

Lastly, what should leaders do to be prepared to adapt to these changes?

1. Develop the leadership capacity of everyone in your organization.

2. Build organizational community through an emphasis on and the operationalizing of the Connecting Ideas of the Circle of Impact - Purpose, Mission, Values, Vision and Impact.

3. Take time to develop an understanding of the logic of what is happening locally and globally. Test assumptions, and be positively self-critical. In other words, think for yourself by constantly seeking to develop your capacity to observe, think, assess and make judgments.

My wish for each of us in 2011 is that we find new strength of purpose, greater capacity for leadership, and an ability to make a difference that matters that changes our world for the better.  All the best to you in your leadership endeavors.

How to be a Local Leader


My previous post - The Ascendency of the Local - was a big picture look at the difference between local interaction and global approaches. It is a view of the trends impacting our lives and work as we move toward the future.  I want to take this down to a more practical level.

Here's where I want to start.

Every individual has the capacity to lead. We lead when we act from our point of view, values and commitments. We do this within the context of our life and work. We do this when we look at our local community and see needs.

Where I live in Western North Carolina, a group of people at the church our family attends became concerned about homeless people in our downtown community not having a place to get in out of the cold on Saturday afternoons during the winter. For some reason all the shelters and ministries that serve them during the week close that one afternoon a week. These individuals made an appeal to the leadership of our church, and within two weeks, had a program started that is now in its third winter season. 

This is an example of leadership because a few people took initiative to address a local need. Through their interaction a proposal was presented that resulted in action to address the need.

This picture of leadership through local interaction can be understood through these four steps:

Idea, Initiative, Interaction, Impact.

Remember those four words. Everything happens through them. Let's explore them.

Ideas come from our engagement with the world around us.

It may be a situation where people are are in need or an emotional desire we have, or some notion we pick up for a book or the newspaper.  The ideas that connect with us are related to other ideas, like our purpose in life or the mission of our business or values that give our life and work meaning, or a vision for a better world. These are all ideas that are ways we try to make sense of the world we are apart of it. At some point, it all comes together in a singular idea that motivates us for action.

Initiative is the beginning of all leadership.

Without it nothing happens. Lots of people have ideas, but many are never acted on them. When an idea is compelling enough, we take action. The action may be to research it further, or have a conversation or to ask for permission or clarification, or go do it. Intiative is some action that starts the process of leadership. The most significant, sustainable and impactful initiatives are those that are connected to the values that we have in life.

Interaction is where action and progress take place.

There are very, very few instances in human history where human interaction was not involved. I've yet to identify one. This means that our individualism never functions in isolation from our relationships. The life and work we create is always within a context of interaction. It may be verbal. Or it could be a response to some incident or person in the past. When we begin to interact, we open ourselves up to new ideas, and new paths towards seeing our idea take root and find its impact.

Impact is a way we can talk about the results of our ideas, initiative and interactions.

What we seek through those aspects of our life and work is change. Not random, discontinuous, purposeless change, but meaningful change that makes a difference that matters.

Let me return to my earlier example to flesh this out a bit.

Through an idea, individual initiative, and collaborative interaction, a Saturday afternoon program called Saturday Sanctuary began in the winter of 2009. What began as a program for our church's members to serve, now has people from across our community serving our downtown neighbors.  New people are joining every month.

Today, ideas for how to serve our guests still emerge from the interaction that we have with them.  At one point, someone to the initiative to show up with a hot meal for the 50-70 people who regular come.  I know I was glad to be there the day Andy showed up with Buffalo wings he had grilled at home. Christmas day, which falls on a Saturday this year, will be a time of feasting as all sorts of food will be served to the 300 people we expect to come.

In your local community, there are people today who are taking initiative to make a difference. They may be helping the poor and homeless, or working to alleviate poverty, or trying to provide affordable housing, mentor in middle school kids in math or improving the downtown environment for residents, businesses and guests.

Take initiative to interact with them. Work beside them. Learn how to start and lead a project. Make a difference that matters where it is already happening. As you do, a discovery will begin to happen.

You'll see that ...

You have ideas that matter.

Your perspective has value and is worth sharing.

There are many ways for you to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

You don't have to take on a leadership role to be a leader. All it requires is for you to act upon the ideas and desires that you have for people and your community.

You'll also discover that your circle of interaction grows.

If you really let yourself go, you'll find that your local community is global. You'll meet people, and find ways to engage with people so that together you'll make a difference that matters. You'll discover that someone in France or Omaha has dealt with the same issue, and your interaction provides you a way to understand what you need to do.

You'll discover that you are a person of impact.

I've learned that people measure their life experience in three ways. They want it to be Personally Meaningful because it is connected to the ideas and value that matter to them. They want it to be Socially Fulfilling because relationships matter.  And, they want to Make a Difference that Matters. When we take initiative to act upon the ideas that we have through our interactions with others, we discover that our life and work makes a difference in ways we could never imagine.

This picture is what "local interaction" implies. It isn't just talk, but action. This is what genuine leadership looks like.

The Ascendency of the Local

2010-12-09 19.24.40

Last week I sent birthday greetings to a woman in Israel, whom I've not meet face to face, yet with whom I have talked on Skype and emailed over the past year.

A year and a half ago, I initiated and then coordinated an online conversation about morale in the workplace that included 36 different people from 12 different countries on four continents. The result was the ebook - Managing moral in a time of change.  The book was edited by a woman in England.

Weekly, I engage in online conversations with people from around the world whom I have also never seen face-to-face, yet with whom I feel a close friendship as colleagues.

These few illustrations, along with many more, could lead someone to the conclusion that we live in a global community. In one sense that would be correct in the sense that it is possible to have relationships with people across the globe. In another, often missed or ignored sense, these globally connected relationships are not global. Instead, I see these relationship as not unlike those where there is a close physical proximity.

The Rise of the Local?

What we are experiencing is the rise of the local, that can be characterized in both a geographic and a relational sense.

Roberto Verganti, Professor of Management of Innovation at Politecnico di Milano, in his fascinating book, Design Driven Innovation, makes the following observation.

The design discourse is both local and global. On the one hand, the local density of the network is essential, because interactions based on tacit knowledge benefit from geographic proximity. On the other hand, interactions among interpreters worldwide allow them to enlarge the quanity and variety of their insights and provide a global perspective on the evolution of meanings.

Verganti is speaking about how product design processes are conducted.The key word in the paragraph is "interactions."  It is what distinguishes the local from the global.

All "interactions" are potentially local, especially when there is a clear purpose. Local, therefore, is more than "close proximity" and is about about "shared values and outcomes."

If we define local in this way, then what does global mean?

It appears to me that global is often a code word for "centralized" or "one size fits all."

Years ago, one of the American car companies marketed what they called their "world car." It was a phrase euphemistically used to describe a car that they could market everywhere, in any country, on any continent. In reality it was a car that they saw as "one size fits all."

This was a "global" approach that was not based on interaction or the recognition of local distinctives, but rather a singular strategy that was intended to work everywhere.

A "global" approach is a mindset that can even function in what we'd consider a "local" context.

For example, a family has three children. A "global" approach to their development is to see that all of them learning Spanish and attending either their father's or their mother's college or university, and returning home to work in the same career's as their parents. 

A global approach, therefore, is more formulaic, describing a general or generic path that is intended to fit most every circumstance. In this sense, it is a lowest common denominator approach to interaction. One message for everyone regardless of who they are. 

A "local" approach would see each child as a unique human being with specific needs and potential, and making their own choices about their education and their career in consult with their parents. As a result, one child may need to learn Swahili in route to becoming a teacher or aid worker in Kenya. Another may earn a two year degree in  mechanics in order to work in a motorcycle shop. And the third child learns Mandarin on her way to earning a Ph.D. in economics in for a career as business consultant with a international investment banking firm.

There is a tension between "local interaction" and a "global one-size-fits-all" approach. It is partly an issue of personal responsibility and individual freedom, and partly an issue of how does a global society make decisions that impact billions of people?

Network-Hierarchy ImageA local approach is based upon individuals making decisions that take into consideration their family members and neighbors, even if their neighbors are people on another continent. It is based on relationships, shared values, responsibility and outcomes.

A global approach assumes that this is not feasible, and that a central decision making body should make these decisions. In effect, it distrusts interaction and collaborative solution making. This has been the course of most societies for the past two centuries regardless of whether they are politically democratic, socialist or developing.  

The ascendency of the local challenges an elitist global approach to decision making.

This distinction between local and global leadership is most significantly being played out in local communities. 

Over the past year or so, I've been following developments in a city far from where I live, as its city administration sought to apply a "globalized" solution to the problem of city revenue. The solution would have had an adverse impact upon local business, and led to more "centralized" control by city government over businesses and private property.  Based on my observations as an interested outsider, these "global" solutions were really a way for a small group of citizens and city administrators to gain power and control over the economic assets of the community.

A contingent of local citizens organized and through their "localized interactions" working within the system of local government, exerted influence upon the city to change some of these decisions that were having an adverse impact upon local businesses.

As an outside observer in conversation with some of the citizens involved, I saw the power that "local interactions" have in a "globalized context."  They have a capacity to transcend the artificial barriers that traditional social and organizational structures provide. Those boundries represent the effect of past decisions upon a community. As new pockets of local influence grow and gain importance, the community's ablity to adapt to the changing social and economic realities grow as well. 

Legacy structures like these tend to be hierarchical and ordered for control of the system, rather than for interaction and initiative by members.  We don't tend to think of global approaches as representative of the old industrial model, but that is precisely what they are. It is an organizational design that assumes that a few persons closely linked together, who hold power on behalf of the larger comunity will make decisions that are beneficial to the whole community.

The Local is the Future because the Future is the Interactive.

The future of organizations and communities is in the interaction that takes place in relationships. This is already happening, and has been for some time. And where there are legacy hierarchical structures, localized interactions are happening. In many cases these interactions transcend the boundaries of the organization as they created collaborative groups whose focus is on the shared values and outcomes that have drawn them together. 

One example of how "local interactions" are not limited to "social or organizational  proximity"  is found in the impact of author and entrepreneur Seth Godin


Several years ago, Seth started the online social network Triiibes  as a vehicle for his book Tribes to find an audience that would be engaged not only with the ideas in the book, but also as way for people learn how to develop and lead their own tribes. This successful social network, with close to 15,000 members, is a platform for a wide range of activities that are bringing people from across the globe together to create value in their local arenas. Tribes cover

The Morale ebook, mentioned above, is the product of this interaction in the Triiibes network. There are, now, ebooks being produced on a regular basis through the "localized interaction of the Triiibes global community".  

In addition, a global gathering of local meetings are regularly taking place that bring people together who have been inspired by Seth Godin's book, Linchpin. As of the time of this writing, over the past nine months, there have been 1,575 Linchpin gatherings, involving 8,269 people in 102 countries. Linchpin book cover

As one of the organizers of these local gatherings, this globally dispersed gathering for local interaction has a thematic continuity of shared values and outcomes that is a guide to the future of localize interaction in organizations and communities.

    Local Interaction on a Global Scale Makes The Difference That Matters

    Local interaction makes a difference because it where collaborative work takes place. The Local is based on individual initiative rather than quiescent compliance. It is a more agile, adaptive, responsible approach because it is a way those who are most impacted by circumstances are able to address issues under which they have control.

    The challenge for global structures is to establish the credibility that provides a basis for their interaction with locally interactive collaboratives. Both need one another. One as its reach goes beyond the local into a collaborative environment with other local groups, and the other as it shifts from a compliance / control orientation to a facilitator, sustainer role.

    Wherever you are in relationship with people, you are a local group whose potential is far greater than the sum total of members in your group. The question for local groups is whether they can see beyond their own self interest to embrace a set of values and outcomes on a global scale.