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?
A 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.
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.
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.