Sunday, October 28, 2012

Success in the Future

Today's business environment is more competitive than ever before. Goods and services can be produced anywhere and sold worldwide via the internet. Enabling technology is pervasive and inexpensive, allowing low-capital startups to spring up everywhere. Education, hard work, and creativity are being adopted by cultures across the globe. On average these trends are lifting the world's standard of living, and there are winners and losers. Developing economies are extending prosperity and opportunity to more, and developed countries are under pressure to become more competitive or risk falling back. This is especially important for populous nations such as the United States that must employ many citizens in this highly competitive world marketplace.

Competition will continue to increase as the world becomes more educated, industrialized, free and prosperous. There is on-going debate and anxiety in the U.S. about how to respond to this rapid change in the world economy. If we are to continue to thrive, we need to embrace our changing and more competitive world. If we want to continue to enjoy relatively high standards of living, we need to confront and succeed within this more competitive world economy.

Productivity is one measure of global competitiveness. U.S. workers are some of the most productive in the world, producing more goods and services per person than most other countries. In 2011, only Luxembourg and Norway had higher productivity. In order to maintain its competitiveness within the rapidly changing world economy, the U.S. must ensure that its workforce retains valuable talents, skills and attitudes. With the prevalence of automation and worldwide competition, differentiating traits are increasingly necessary for all workers, high technology and low technology alike. Here is my short list of those traits:

  • Industriousness: On a recent trip to Taiwan, I was greatly impressed by the industriousness that I saw throughout the society. Everyone seemed occupied in productive activity. Not only were people busy working in shops and businesses. There were volunteers directing traffic at busy intersections. I saw a middle-aged couple patching holes in the pavement at a train station. No one was loitering or unoccupied. Everyone was busy doing something or going somewhere. It was remarkable to see such a hardworking and efficient society.
  • Initiative: Automation and globalization have made repetitive algorithmic work commonplace and consequently less valuable  High value is differentiated by those who can make decisions and solve problems. How many times has someone brought you a problem without any recommended solutions? The most successful workers learn to take responsibility for finding solutions and making things happen. The most successful companies encourage their workforces to take on new challenges. These individuals and companies celebrate their successes and learn from their failures.  
  • Innovation: A culture of innovation is the foundation of company competitiveness in the future. Workers need the skills and perspective that allow them to invent, conceive and create new ideas, products and services. With access to vast amounts of data via the internet, things that have been done before can be easily copied. True innovation requires one to extrapolate and devise solutions for those things that have not been done before. Innovation requires workers to demonstrate initiative, risk-taking, and lifelong learning to broaden their perspectives and knowledge. 
  • Agility: Flexibility and rapid decision-making are essential in our fast-changing marketplace. Bureaucracies stifle quick decision-making. Agile organizations avoid bureaucratic thinking and disseminate decision-making to allow rapid decisions at the lowest levels in the organization where much of the first-hand experience exists. Big does not necessarily mean bureaucratic. There are some excellent large companies that encourage and institutionalize agility.
  • Collaboration: Solo achievers can be successful, but teams will outperform individuals. Today's world is so complex and specialized that most significant projects are completed by teams. The future will become more and more complex, requiring more specialization and teamwork. The most successful companies build great teams and value teamwork and collaboration.

I see these traits daily, in the people that we employ and in the customers that we serve, but they are rare. This scarcity creates value. Today's workers increasingly need skills that differentiate them from their peers, from their competitors, and from their counterparts overseas. Industriousness, Initiative, Innovation, Agility and Collaboration will distinguish the best workers and companies of the future.

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