Potential rock stars, take heed: no one is ever going to sell as many records as Michael Jackson. On the other hand, there’s a lot more room these days for artists like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, who hit #1 on the Billboard charts without a record deal. The era of big is ending, says Harvard Kennedy School professor Nicco Mele, and that means profound changes for business, entertainment, academia, government, and everything else.
“Now two-thirds of Americans carry around smartphones with the power of a supercomputer,” he says. “That’s a tremendous redistribution of power. No longer is the audience passive and waiting to get the news. Now we have all this incredible energy, and it pushes power to individuals in dramatic ways that we’re just beginning to realize. That has implications for any big institution.”
“Empowering the individual” may sound good, but it’s not all positive, says Mele, the author of the newly-released The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath. “In the press, it took decades to develop the norms and ethics of reporting – having more than one source, for instance. Professional standards develop over time, and we’re at the very beginning of this in social media. We’re at a very fragile moment when the standards and institutions of the past are simply not in touch with the reality of the present.” As a result, we may find that cutting-edge new techniques, like crowdsourcing, create fast but dangerously wrong results, such as the Reddit community’s efforts to identify the Boston Marathon bombers – ultimately pointing to the wrong suspects.
Mele says businesses may need to reset their expectations; you’re unlikely to create a lasting, blockbuster success in this fragmented new era. “I’m not sure there’ll be much breaking through in the future. I think there’ll be moments of breakthrough, but it’s pretty hard to achieve any kind of scale in the digital era. The average self-published author sells some pitiful volume of copies, and even the biggest hits are substantially below what was a big hit in the past. I don’t believe in scale anymore.”
The new paradigm, he says, looks far more like a company run by a couple he recently met. “They have a thriving business making vinyl laptop decals, and they sell them through Etsy and eBay. They make a pretty good living, and it’s a business that would have been impossible 10 years ago. But they work 365 days a year, and they don’t have insurance or retirement. It comes down to what you want out of your life, and you have to have some sense of what ‘successful’ means for you and your business.”
Overall, says Mele, “The end of big is awesome for entrepreneurs. It allows very small companies to be competitive with much, much larger companies. It’s a leveling of the playing field; with alibaba.com, any small business can try to take on Wal-Mart. There are more Americans self-employed now than any time since 1820s, when they were subsistence farmers. But for leaders of big businesses, it’s a scary time – you have to figure out ways to structure your business to be more nimble.”
Mele has applied the “end of big” principles in his own life; he’s reconfigured his classroom teaching to “regularly use Twitter and Google Groups and email as ways of engaging my students and not lecturing to them. If they want to watch a lecture, they can watch YouTube. It’s about creating an engaging classroom experience and engaging discussion outside the classroom.”
For business leaders, says Mele, “ you have to start to recognize that everyone you’re dealing with has the same power you do, a tremendous amount of power. And once we do that, have to begin to imagine what new ways of doing it would look like. The Founding Fathers were wealthy white guys who only knew a monarchy and managed to imagine the Constitution. If they can do it, we can do it in small ways.”
How will the End of Big reshape your business or industry?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on April 25, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.