Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review of Don Tapscott, 'The Digital Economy, Anniversary Edition'

Don Tapscott, The Digital Economy, Anniversary Edition: Rethinking Promise andPeril in the Age of Networked Intelligence, New Foreword by Eric Schmidt, New York: McGraw Hill, 2015 [Pub Date: October 27, 2014]

I first read The Digital Economy in 1997, two years following its initial publication and after I had completed Don Tapscott’s next book, Growing Up Digital.  At the time, I was teaching in and directing a postgraduate Media Studies programme that ambitiously sought to combine the study and practice of more traditional media, particularly narrative film, documentary, and television, with new media theory, digital production and even design principles.  It was a heady pre-Millennial moment of experimenting with increasingly widespread digital technologies and of musing on the potentially world-changing possibilities they seemed to represent.  

Fittingly, The Digital Economy ranged widely from practical issues of managing and implementing technologies to more far-reaching questions about where they might enable individuals, businesses and society to go.  In an early chapter, Tapscott distinguishes between business process reengineering and business transformation – and how taking that latter, more ambitious step required an openness to change.  While an important distinction in terms of business, of course, the clear implication concerned a more general willingness to accept and participate in larger-scale transformation, of individual, economy, and society.  The book then went on to offer probing yet accessible discussions of the import of analog versus digital, the arrival of smart products, the need for overhauling talent management and learning, the ascendant roles of IT and CIOs in organizations, and many more topics in order to portray an emerging future. 

One of Tapscott’s gifts has been the consistent ability to examine such topics in detail while also conveying but not overstating their greater significance.  As a prolific and consistently insightful analyst and commentator on the digital transformation, his work falls, for me, into four overlapping areas of interest: (1) the “net generation” to which he’s devoted several books starting with Growing Up Digital; (2) mass collaboration, openness and sharing, probably most familiar from his 2006 bestseller, Wikinomics (co-written with Anthony D. Williams), and its recent sequel; (3) the more explicitly business-focused books, beginning his earliest publications on office automation and clearly elaborated in the 2003 The Naked Corporation; and his integrative writings on the digital society and economy, of which The Digital Economy is still the most penetrating.  Whatever the specific object of discussion or analysis, though, the wider contexts and deeper humanity of technological, business and social change remain an unmistakable priority for him.   

Re-read today, that balance and breadth still set apart The Digital Economy.  Contemporary analyses of all things digital, particularly in business and management writing, tend to lack his sensitivity to broader human or social contexts – at least contexts expressed with balance and without hyperbole.  In the original chapter on leadership, Tapscott opens with a quote from Internet pioneer Vint Cerf about the Internet being “like the wilderness of the Wild West,” both inevitably awaiting the imposition of systems and civilization but always retaining “some interesting wilderness areas to visit.”  That metaphor was ubiquitous in the late 1990s.  Yet the opening section of the chapter, in which he discusses how difficult are paradigm shifts and journeys into the ”wilderness” of the unknown for “leaders of the old,” remains as valid as ever a commentary on human nature and the challenges of profound change.

To Tapscott’s credit, little of the new material is self-congratulatory.  The Preface to the Anniversary Edition offers a valuable summation of the book’s major ideas and the extent to which they have come to pass – or not.  Throughout, the new commentaries preceding each chapter provide valuable extensions and illustrations from the last twenty years of the nascent ideas proposed in the original text.  The updates on the “The Internetworked Business” chapter, for example, draw on insights (specifically, the seven business models) from Wikipedia in order to frame the importance of developing and implementing a coherent strategy for advancing the social economy, workplace, and marketing.

Tapscott also rebuts critics who claim he has been a digital Polyanna by downplaying or ignoring the “dark side” of the transformed economy.  Especially compared with some of his mid-1990s contemporaries, the tone and treatment of possible digital futures in these pages is balanced.  Recalling many of the visions of the time, both utopian and dystopian and often charged with Millennial hope or uncertainty, The Digital Economy was less a futurist tract than an exploration of social and economic possibilities grounded in actual (or emerging) technologies and human practices.  That the author foresaw accurately so much of what has developed in the years since the book first appeared is testament to his sensitivity to the ways businesses, societies and especially people engage new technologies and change more broadly.

The original text does contain some obviously glaring misses.  A few are small and forgettable, as with the insistent use of the “Internetwork” and, especially, “I-Way” (for “Information Highway”) as the digital basis and engine of future progress.  Others, notably the significant treatment accorded to privacy issues late in the book, require fuller annotation in the new edition.  Citing “Big Brother” and (corporate) “little brothers” as threats, the conclusion in 1995 was to take greater care with the information we give away.  Two decades later, as Tapscott acknowledges in his new comments, individuals are thoroughly connected by social media, Big Data, surveillance and geospatial systems, and many other institutional networks and technologies, shifting the onus much more to institutions and owners of data to manage data and their privacy appropriately. 

The next and final chapter of The Digital Economy addresses the “new responsibilities” of business.  Here, the author writes most directly about “societal transformation” and how the many technologies and transformations he has catalogued can help re-cast the role of corporations in society and even the future of democracy.  Then, closing his retrospective comments, Tapscott writes that “this Anniversary edition is not intended to be a history text.”  Strictly speaking, he is right.  Yet when framed by the new material, the original text can still serve a very similar and valuable purpose, namely, to give an illuminating longer view of two decades of changes, small and large, wrought by the digital economy and experienced by each of us – and still to envision a future marked by immense promise and some peril. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Vulgar Creativity

“Companies constantly tell us about their commitment to excellence, implying that this means they will make only top-shelf products. Words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless….To ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.”
                                                --Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace) in Creativity, Inc.

Catmull and Wallace’s recent account of Pixar’s decades-long journey is an impassioned call for individuals and organizations not just to speak their core beliefs and values but to act on them consistently and imaginatively.  Many of these beliefs, from quality and excellence to “trust the process” and “story is king” are familiar invocations of business intent and purpose.  Yet running through Creativity, Inc. is the crucial insight that repeating such words and phrases can actually provide false confidence and be counter-productive if they ring hollow and are not put into practice.   

Probably the word with the most potential to mislead is “creativity” itself and Catmull and Wallace’s book can be read as a 368-page illustration of how an ongoing, collective, and enacted focus can make the commitment to that value real and dynamic.  At a time when “creativity” and “innovation” appear everywhere in corporate pronouncements, doing more than parroting the words is a consistent challenge for leaders and organizations.  I have written about this elsewhere, as have others, like Shane Snow, who goes so far as assert, “If you have tocall yourself innovative, you’re probably not.” 

Beyond taking care with one’s own usage of these basic terms, a question arises about the recognition by others of a given individual’s or firm’s creativity or innovation.  These are enormously slippery concepts, varying across cultures and industries and markets.  The novelty, freshness or utility celebrated in one situation or context can be viewed as familiar or even clich├ęd in another.  As a result, we might reasonably ask, How can creativity become an “earned word, attributed by others to us”?

One answer is to consider what I call “vulgar creativity” in assessing and practicing imaginative activities and production.  The qualifying word, “vulgar,” has several meanings and historical resonances that are vital to approaching that process.  While not one-dimensional, the term can nevertheless help to orient our thinking and actions around creativity in businesses and elsewhere. 

“Vulgar” derives from the Latin word for “common people” and originally was used to describe their ordinary, everyday uses of things or ideas.  A “vulgar tongue” in the Middle Ages thus meant the actual or vernacular language of a people as opposed to an official or elite one.  Over the last century, sophisticated social and cultural theorists from Walter Benjamin to Terry Eagleton have criticized “vulgar Marxism” for reductionist readings of Marx and Engels that claim ideology (including art and creative work) is simply determined by economic structures.  There’s irony, for some, in such bemoaning of a common people’s understanding of Marx, who, after all, sought to empower them.  More importantly, though, the example casts in relief two distinct (if often overlapping) meanings conveyed by the term, vulgar – namely, of being of the people and ordinary and of oversimplification, edginess, and even crudeness.   

That everyone is, or has the potential to be, (more) creative has become an article of faith for many in the twenty-first century.  Sir Ken Robinson is a persuasive and much-admired exponent of this view.  He concentrates on how schools “kill creativity” in order to illuminate alternative ways that they, and other organizations including businesses, can cultivate and liberate individual imagination.  By helping unlearn the standardized “command and control” approaches to learning that predominate in education, he calls instead for a diverse, individualized and organic approach to encouraging students to thrive.  Rather than a select, chosen creative few, Robinson’s presumption is that these changes will foster the curiosity and unleash the ability to experiment existing in us all.

It is here, however, that the second meaning of vulgar can re-emerge and complicate our celebration of universal creativity.  Conventionally, creative activity involves plunging into the unknown, engaging unorthodox thinking, experimenting continuously, and incorporating a bit of irreverence (to use advertising legend Sir John Hegarty’s term).  Yet those drives, particularly in business, are often reduced to simplistic taglines or formulaic processes.  Even worse, the admirable goal of nurturing greater creativity too often turns merely on unfettering individual free thinking or expression.  Supporting creativity, in other words, becomes about removing as many filters, structures or other constraints as possible rather than building a diverse, stimulating, and organic environment that cultivates individual and group learning and imagination.     

Simply unfiltering individual expression or behavior may have individual value in terms of personal fulfillment or happiness (or other indirect benefits to organizations or groups), but it does not necessarily provide the makings of a wider and more sustainable creative culture.  The British scholar of creativity, Margaret Boden, once distinguished personal from historical creativity by observing that what is novel to one individual at any given moment is often not to the wider society or across history.  While that personal creative expressiveness should be nurtured, it also needs to be differentiated from what is new, surprising or useful for larger communities, markets or societies. 

To be mindful of vulgar creativity is to recognize both the ordinary, democratic potential of creativity and, in business, particularly, its social or organizational reality and dynamics.  The point is not to judge worthy those efforts at fostering creativity affirmed by crowds or markets and dismiss others.  However, it is to acknowledge that, too often in business, attention to creativity and innovation is reduced to celebrating novelty without value or facilitating individual expression without wider purpose.

In 1982, film and cultural commentator J. Hoberman published “Vulgar Modernism,” an article in which he argued that many popular, even apparently tasteless productions like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies, Tex Avery cartoons and Mad magazine, engaged some of the same mid-twentieth century aesthetic, institutional and social questions as the Modernist art of Picasso, Manet, and bebop.  Hoberman was seeking to make sense of the post-World War II years in which a fraught relationship between popular and “high” cultures was being renegotiated.  Invoking the “vulgar” became a way to approach the rich and productive tensions marking the practices of mainstream media and audiences.

Only a few years later, pioneering adman Bill Bernbach observed, “Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It’s the most practical thing a businessman can employ.”  For Bernbach then, and continuing in business today, the successful approach to creativity should be similarly broad and shaped by productive tensions – between espoused beliefs and substantive actions, customer needs and firm purpose, and organizational processes and individual imagination.  In its embrace of such crucial tensions, “vulgar creativity” can provide another reminder to leaders of the value of empowering more universal creativity while always grounding that effort in the world they see and aspire to change.