We’re in the early stages of a Big Shift that is transforming our global economy and society. The Big Shift produces many paradoxes, but here’s one that I haven’t written about: it is rapidly creating global connectivity while at the same time generating a growing desire for decentralization. How can we reconcile the two?
I’ve written about the Big Shift for a long time, including here. A key driver of the Big Shift is the ability to connect more quickly and cheaply with anyone or anything around the world. Certainly, this includes our ability to send a message to anyone in the world, but it also includes our ability to monitor in real time physical goods with Internet of Things technology. And it’s not just about communicating and monitoring, but also controlling and directing activities from a distance.
So, with all these connecting capabilities, we might anticipate more and more centralization where activities are controlled and monitored by fewer and fewer large, centralized global entities (e.g., governments and corporations).
Certainly, we are already seeing some of that. But, at the same time, I anticipate that we’re going to see more and more efforts to decentralize our activities – distributing or delegating activities, especially planning and decision-making, away from a central location or group. Why is that?
Accelerating pace of change
Growing connectivity accelerates the pace of change and makes the specific changes more and more challenging to anticipate. In a more rapidly changing and unpredictable world, we need to find ways to respond more quickly to unexpected developments. The conventional approach of tightly specifying business processes in advance from a central location is becoming less and less effective. Those who are in the best position to confront the unanticipated changes quickly are those who are on the front lines, not those who are sitting in some command center, even when supported by more and more powerful computers.
Changes don’t occur in isolation. They occur in a specific context that shapes the change and the impact that it will have. Context is complex – it can’t be reduced to numbers or images. Those who are in the best position to “read” context are those who are living in it in the moment. If we want to address change effectively, we need to rely on those who are deeply embedded in the context. Context is becoming more and more important for value creation, as I have written about here.
Learning is an imperative
In a rapidly changing world, learning becomes essential. To be clear, this isn’t about learning in the form of sharing existing knowledge which is the focus of most learning today. Existing knowledge is becoming obsolete at an accelerating rate. The learning we all need to pursue is learning in the form of creating new knowledge and that is best pursued by coming together with others and learning through action, not just conversation.
When I say “coming together with others,” I mean coming together in small groups – I call them “impact groups” – which I have written about extensively, including here and here. These groups range between 3 to15 participants. They stay small because the need is to build deep, trust-based relationships among the participants so that they can support and challenge each other in a continuing quest to pursue increasing impact in a specific domain.
Passion is the best motivation for learning
Learning in the form of creating new knowledge through action can be very challenging and involves taking a lot of risk. What’s the motivation to do that? Based on my research, the most powerful motivation is a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer – which I have written about here and here. People with this kind of passion naturally come together into the impact groups that I mentioned earlier and they seek environments where they can pursue their passion without constraints. They want to be free to take initiatives that have never been done before and to rapidly iterate on those initiatives when they gain insight on how more impact can be achieved.
Customers are gaining more power
Because of all the connectivity globally, customers are becoming more and more powerful and demanding. They have more access to information about more options and the ability to quickly switch from one product or service to another. In this kind of environment, they are less and less willing to settle for mass-market, standardized products and services. Instead, they are seeking products and services tailored to their specific needs and that will evolve rapidly as their needs evolve.
Erosion of trust in large, centralized institutions
Around the world, trust is eroding in all the large, centralized institutions – companies, governments, media, universities, etc. – that are so prominent in our economy and society. There are many reasons for this, but they are driven by a growing realization that these institutions are not addressing our evolving needs and are increasingly unsuited for the rapidly changing world around us.
Tying it all together
Decentralization will be driven by the intersection of many different needs and desires. If I had to summarize, I’d say that the two key forces are our growing need as providers to learn faster and our growing desire as customers to have products and services tailored to our needs. If we’re going to learn faster, we need to come together in small groups, driven by a passion to achieve increasing impact and we need to be able to act more quickly in ways that are tailored to our local context. On the other side, as customers, we are seeking providers we can trust who will address our unique and rapidly evolving needs.
The paradox is that both of these forces are being driven by growing global connectivity. The more connected we become, the faster everything will evolve and the more rapidly we will all need to learn in the form of creating new knowledge. And the more connected we become, the more ability we will have to pick and choose the products and services that meet our specific needs.
What will emerge?
What shape will decentralization take? Of course, that’s hard to predict in detail. But, as someone who enjoys exploring the edge, I am drawn to early indicators of how this decentralization might evolve.
From a corporate (and broader) institutional point of view, I’ve written about the “unbundling of the corporation.” Without going into too much detail, we’re already starting to see fragmentation of businesses in the digital space – everything from software to music and video. That fragmentation is beginning to spill over into physical products like craft beer and chocolate. I believe that’s just the beginning – we’re going to see more and more small, but very profitable, businesses emerging to address small segments of customers.
We’re also starting to see the growth of decentralized, autonomous organizations (DAO’s) that are focusing on decentralizing decision-making within organizations. There’s also a variety of initiatives to organize front-line workers into small pods or workgroups that are given more freedom to take initiative on their own. In China, the Rendanheyi model being championed by Haier with “micro-enterprises” operating within a much large company is beginning to attract more attention from around the world.
Of course, I have to mention blockchain as a major initiative in the technology space that embraces decentralization as a key organizing principle. While there’s been a lot of speculation and “boom/bust” initiatives in the early days of blockchain, blockchain reflects a strong desire for decentralization and is likely to provide a foundation for many initiatives seeking to decentralize Internet activity.
More generally, we’re seeing the spread of initiatives within the “human potential” movement that are organized around small groups of people who share a commitment to achieving more of their potential. Social change movements are increasingly focusing on “bottom up” approaches to change that embrace a cellular structure of small, local groups rather than pursuing a top-down centralized approach to change. In facing the challenges of the pandemic, we’ve seen the growth of mutual aid groups in local neighborhoods and communities.
Admittedly, these are all still early indicators of a trend towards decentralization, but they merit attention because the forces that I described earlier are going to drive significant growth of these kinds of initiatives.
Connectivity and decentralization
To be clear, I’m suggesting that connectivity and decentralization will unfold together. I’m not suggesting that decentralization will lead to increasing isolation of small groups. On the contrary, the proliferation of small groups will become increasingly connected into broader networks that can scale their learning and impact. Decentralization will actually drive a need for greater connectivity in the same way that connectivity is driving a growing need for decentralization. That’s the paradox.
We are in the very early stages of a paradoxical Big Shift. Growing connectivity will foster a growing need for decentralization and decentralization will increase the need for even more connectivity. This will have profound implications for how we organize and create impact in a rapidly changing global economy and society.
Those who are consumed by the connectivity trends are likely to get blindsided as decentralization begins to gain momentum. Decentralization will create enormous opportunities for value creation and will disrupt many of our large, centralized institutions around the world. We need to evolve a profoundly different set of institutions that will embrace the twin gifts of connectivity and decentralization.