Until recently, if you wanted to make an impact, the only option was to sign on with an organization. It simply wasn’t possible to raise capital, manufacture a product, or organize a mass action without institutional backing. But in the last half-decade, all that’s changed, says Nilofer Merchant, author of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era, which was just named one of the Best Business Books of 2012 by Fast Company. “Today, individuals can create value and we have the platforms that allow that to happen,” she says.
Whether it’s Kickstarter and its crowdfunding model or the “independently organized and curated” events of TEDx, Merchant believes a new ethos is reshaping business. The old bromides – “the 800 lb. gorilla way, that size matters, you rule over others, and people are subservient to organizations” – no longer work. Instead, she says, “I think the 21st century is about working with others. There’s a notion that individuals can come together and create value, create scale. Each of us as an individual recognizes the value we bring: I’m not a cog in a machine; I bring creativity and vision. It’s a different way of thinking about ‘what is thriving?’ or ‘what is value’?”
The decline of large, bureaucratic organizations (and the rise of better options) means that inventors don’t have to work for 3M or IBM; they can create their own product via Quirky. Same goes for crafters, who can reach millions on Etsy, or filmmakers, who can bypass the studios in favor of Kickstarter, retaining creative control in the process. But whether or not you’re a creative professional, says Merchant, the same dynamics are beginning to penetrate the entire workforce. “Close to 50% of the U.S. workforce isn’t working at a traditional job. They’re figuring out how to have a ‘portfolio life,’ with more flexibility to be with their family and do the work they want to do.”
“At an individual level, it’s an exciting time to be alive,” she says. “If you and I no longer need to work for an organization in order to create value, we can look within ourselves and say, ‘what can I contribute?’” Suddenly we get a chance to look at our own calling without seeking permission from someone else. I think human beings have an amazing wealth of creativity within us, but we largely haven’t given ourselves permission because the economics didn’t work. For individuals, that creates boundless opportunity.”
Some innovative new organizations (including those mentioned above) have sprung up to harness this opportunity. Merchant also cites Singularity University, which eschews the traditional higher ed trappings (including tenured faculty) and instead leverages a small staff to create an entire curriculum using “curators” and outside instructors, allowing for maximum flexibility. Says Merchant, “At the end of every semester, they aren’t committed to using those professors. They ask, ‘what do we need now?’ And they find the next group of curators. It’s acting more like an organism might, where change is built into the system.” This evolution, she says, only makes sense. In the past, “once you had a sustainable advantage, the goal was to protect it and you’d hold it for 30 years. But today, that arc is more like five years, so you have to build change into your organizational construct.”
The challenge is different for established players, who now have to ask, “How do you take advantage of all this creativity and talent? How do you start to create value with those people, rather than the way we’ve traditionally thought about it?” She praises IBM as “a behemoth that’s adapting” to the social era, launching creative new initiatives such as the Smarter Planet project. “It’s basically them asking a series of questions: who’d like to come co-create with us? Instead of assuming you have to know everything before you go into a situation, which is a very 20th century architecture, it’s about being curious.”
Some have raised questions about monetization in the Social Era. Sure, someone might self-publish the next 50 Shades of Grey. But what about the widespread economic displacement that comes with such a tremendous shift in how we do business? Merchant remains bullish, but says it will take creativity (indeed, she herself spends significant time writing, but earns most of her money through a separate channel, public speaking). “There might be re-leveling and displacement,” she says, “but there are also new models being created. Kickstarter has allowed people to get financing; Quirky is allowing inventors to make money at a much better scale than in the past. It’ll take more time to become clear, because we’re in the very early innings of a big game.”
How is your business adapting to – and capitalizing on – the rise of the Social Era?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on November 30, 2012.
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.