April 25th & 26th
287 Kent Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211
Abstract Submission Deadline: January 19th
What does it mean that digital technologies are increasingly a part of...
I first met Nilofer at a conference where she knocked me over with her observations about the changing world of business. And since then I have returned to her writings at the Harvard Business Review and other publications as a source of new ideas.
Nilofer Merchant is the best selling author of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the #SocialEra, and The New Now: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy. She’s worked for major companies like Apple (with Steve Jobs) and Autodesk (personally hired and fired by Carol Bartz) and startups in the early days of the Web (Golive/ later bought by Adobe). And Logitech, Symantec, HP, Yahoo, VMWare, and many others have turned to her guidance to develop new product strategies, enter new markets, defend against competitors, and optimize revenues.
Stowe Boyd: I read a piece you wrote recently in which you said ‘Networks are the new companies’. The image is that we are building a chain of connections outward, and making that the center of our work, rather than climbing a corporate ladder, right?
Nilofer Merchant: Yes, I’ve done a bunch of research in writing Social Era Rules, and what I learned is how much of the economy is either freelance or solopreneurs. (In the US, those numbers are reaching nearly 50% of the workforce). As “work” is increasingly freed from “a job”, you need to build connections and community based on interests, capabilities, and of course your passions and NOT on a view to get to “the top”. The top of some big behemoth organization is not the only way to power; increasingly, power is a function of how you know to get things done.
SB: There a great deal of research regarding people who are positioned next to the gaps in social networks, and have as a result great potential social capital since they act as gateways and brokers between different groups. Is it that sort of power you are talk about?
NM: Yes, but we know of that role. Also, conveners—those who enable a conversation to take place hold a very important role now. I look to Patricia sellers of fortune who hosts the fortune’s most powerful women’s event, creates a safe venue for peers to meet and make stuff happen. Or, CEO Hank Williams just did for the issue of black entrepreneurs, at Platform (Fast Company did a profile on his work today) where he is hoping to drive new solutions. I imagine guilds where like-minded or like-profession people can find one another is going to grow. Like Behance does for creative professionals, guilds will become more prevalent. A key asset: to show our portfolio, find people to collaborate with, and ultimate do work together.
SB: I think you are responsible for the expression ‘Sitting is the new smoking’, and you’ve adopted ‘walkntalk’ meetings where you walk with others instead of sitting around a conference table. I can imagine an office of the future with a lap track running around the perimeter of the building’s interior, instead of conference rooms. Is that where we are headed?
NM: I made the analogy back in January when I wrote about it first at Harvard as I got ready to give a talk at TED Long Beach. I’m not suggesting there’s second-hand sitting. I am suggesting that we’re about as unconscious of the health effects of this behavior as people in the 50s were of smoking. Even people who run an hour a day are not immune to the significant issues of sitting. For example, those who sit most of the time have a 147% increase of a cardiovascular event. Or that persistent sitters have a soaring diabetes risk and are 49% more likely to die earlier of many causes. When I learned that regular exercise isn’t enough to undo the damage, I switched to walking meetings and I get about 20-30 miles a week.
After giving the TED talk, articles have run in Runners World, Vogue, NYT and so on on this topic. The AMA (American Medical association) is now considering a “sitting is the new smoking” resolution at their annual convention next year to set a policy. Our work settings, if we’re going to be creative people bringing our best ideas to bear has to adjust to allow for health. So yeah, tracks, paths, standing desks are all in our future. So is the norm of going for a walk instead of going for a coffee. I’m a big believer in this in general but specifically on this: In small ways, we can create big change.
SB: I am a real proponent of ‘think small, change big’, so that lines up with my thinking. What other workplace adaptations will we be seeing, when so many people are becoming solopreneurs?
NM: Work has often been the place of the head, but I think work is going to become a place where heart, head and hands can be connected to work. To do the work we love, and want to do in the right context.
SB: Nilofer, the role of the leader is changing very quickly in today’s accelerated business climate. I wonder what you think about the job of the leader as a student of new scientific insights about people’s social nature, about our innate and inescapable connectedness to others, and how they might thread that into leading in the near future?
NM: You know what I believe? I believe we’re returning to basics. I’m an economics person. Back when, the unit of value creation was the single human. Then we went through the industrial revolution where the unit of value creation was the machine. Whoever owned the machine was the one who created value and people were simply plug-ins. It really didn’t matter who fed the cotton into the cotton gin or who put the punchcards into the mainframes. But we’ve come full circle, and today our economy is fueled by knowledge, by creativity, by humans. Some people call that the connected economy, or the experience economy, and other people call it the age of entrepreneurship. Independent of the term, we all agree value comes from the creative source of a connected human. And to the earlier point, networks are the new companies. Connected individuals can now do what once only large organizations could. That tosses Ronald Coase’s work out the window. And those strategic constructs from the Porter frame of mind that suggest you can have an advantage over time are largely moot because sustainable advantages aren’t so sustainable anymore.
So the funniest part is whenever I use the word social I’m using it in sort of a capital S, bigger way. Social as in human relationships. And almost always people link that word “social”, with an extra word: media. And that’s because that’s what we’ve largely talked about for the last 15 years, how do we use these tools to communicate better? And while I think that’s important, it’s missing the strategic point. You are social in the big-S way not by some tools. Look at United or AT&T; they use the tools but they are not social. Social is as social does. It is human, it is empathetic, it is about trust.
SB: Yeah, Coase’s argument fails when the law of diminishing returns takes over, and companies have to change faster that large-scale organizations can. Regarding communication, maybe Jeff Bezos is right and one of the principal ways to make communication in business better is to have less of it.
Thanks, Nilofer. It’s been fun.
NM: Thank you.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.
Nilofer skewers Ted Schein of Kleiner Perkins, who insists that VCs are ‘color-blind’ despite all the evidence.
Ted Schlein, general partner at Kleiner Perkins, was recently invited to discuss race and investment in technology. The conversation took place at an inaugural conference called Platform, created by Hank Williams after a provocative series that Soledad O’Brien did on CNN on black entrepreneurship. At Platform, luminaries like Quincy Jones and Governor Deval Patrick, as well as entrepreneurs like urban revitalizer Majora Carter, and Juliana Rotich of Ushahidi came together to discuss what specific changes could be made to have all aboard the innovation economy.
And so all ears were tuned in when well-known VC Ted Schlein of Kleiner Perkins started talking… but Ted denied there was a problem. Despite the story the numbers tell — women receive less than three percent of all venture capital funding, and blacks even less than that — Ted said that the venture capital community was “color-blind” and “operates fully on a meritocracy.” This continued argument disregards the astounding facts that essentially 100 percent of funded founders are white or Asian, and 89 percent of founding teams are all-male.
Since then, we’ve had the case of Paul Graham, whorecently got into a brouhaha because he claimed a correlation “between founders having very strong foreign accents and their companies doing badly.” He continued to dig into his argument, believing people were simply misunderstanding him, but he doesn’t acknowledge the facts: immigrants with accents do found successful startups, but often without VC support. Kauffman Foundation research shows that more than half of Silicon Valley start-ups are founded by foreign-born entrepreneurs. Imagine if those with accents could get your support — what tougher problems could they solve?
And who can forget that only two years ago, Vinod Khosla saidthat only the young can innovate. “People under 35 are the people who make change happen,” said Khosla, who explained his belief that old entrepreneurs can’t innovate because they keep “falling back on old habits,” because “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.”
So, basically, if you followed this limited logic… you’d hear that if you’re a woman, black, foreign, or old, you need not apply; you will not be seen. No matter how good your idea could be. No matter how many lives it could save, or new solutions you create, or how much revenue it could generate.
At the core, VCs share a culture which like all culture has foundational beliefs that are generally unspoken and which are taken as givens. VCs — and the larger tech community — wants to believe their culture is meritorius, and that the ones that become successful succeed on their talent, not on luck or privilege. As a result, they will disregard evidence to the contrary and exclude those that say the unspeakable.
Nilofer wants to change that culture, and hopes that a group of influential figures might step forward to make that happen. My bet is that we need a shift in the larger culture, the one in which VC culture is embedded and from which it draws it power, before we will see very many more black, brown, or female faces at venture-backed start-ups or VC firms.
Perhaps it’s the end of the year that’s causing so much self reflection, so much concern about work/life balance, about information overload, about obsessive checking of our twitter feeds, about the value of disconnecting. Yesterday it was Daniele Fiandaca and Brad Feld, today, Nilofer Merchant.
In a fragmented world, go deep - Nilofer Merchant
It’s a fragmented world. And it’s only becoming more so. It used to be that when people wrote, they wrote more deeply. In the early days of the web (pre-twitter), I remember hand picking the few voices I would listen to and then putting them into my RSS feeder and checking for their essays. Essays, not tweets, were the way we shared what we were thinking. But as “content” has become more important to maintain a standing online, more and more people are entering into the fray. More and more people who may not even have a point of view to advocate but just want to participate in the conversation.
As content becomes more fragmented, you could try and compete with that by doing more and more, by curating other people’s content, by then running your content through Twylah, by having that “twitter magazine” come out which puts all your tweets and links in one place so that people can catch it if they missed each particular one.
Or you could do the opposite. You could go deep. You could be that voice that everyone listens to because when it speaks, it is so deep and rich that it’s worth slowing down to listen to.
Or, perhaps more importantly, you could chose to follow others who you think have gone deep.
As I said yesterday: Choosing who to follow is the single most important act in a connected world.
In a post from December 2010, I wrote
I have said for years that I’ve given up on finding a balance in life, I’m going for depth instead. But it’s not really the case. It’s just that I am looking for something larger.
Instead, consider the contour of a well-ordered humanism laid out by Claude Levi-Strauss:
A well-ordered humanism does not begin with itself, but puts things back in their place. It puts the world before life, life before man, and the respect of others before love of self.
So, for me, balance can’t be self-centered, it must be world-centered.
So I seek out people that consider that as a balanced mindset, and who go deep with that as their polestar, as a guide.