We live in a connected world. This may sound like a trite statement at first glance, but like many coinages of this kind, it has entered our collective vocabulary by moving straight from provocative insight to cliché to mainstream reality. And as I am headed to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the largest gathering of the wireless industry (50,000 attendees and 1,300 exhibitors), I’m probably not the only one noticing the unique historical backdrop that underlies the event this year and gives even more credence to the seismic economic, cultural, social, and political shifts triggered by the universal power of connectivity. The Mobile World Congress, perhaps, would be more aptly dubbed World Congress in order to describe the far-flung implications of communication technology, much of which is now mobile.
Just 48 hours ago, the Egyptian people succeeded in peacefully forcing Mubarak out of office, a triumph that was made possible, in large part, because a critical mass of the population was able to augment their protest through communication technologies, defying even a temporary nationwide network shutdown ordered by the government, and proving wrong skeptics such as Malcom Gladwell (who contends that “the revolution will not be tweeted”) or Evgeny Morozov (who exposes the ‘dark side’ of the social media revolution). As Alexia Tsotsis points out in her Techcrunch piece “Mubarak Shut Down The Internet, And The Internet Paid Him In Kind”: “Pulling a country of 82 million people, around 17 million Internet users, 60 million cellphone subscribers, 7 million home phones, and 5 million Facebook users offline essentially created the largest flashmob ever, with around 8 million protesters in the streets across Egypt today according to reports.” From the creative use of location-based mobile services to third-party ‘virtualized’Twitter services that convert voice messages into live-tweets, there has been a whole array of innovations born out of necessity. A more thorough analysis is pending, but at this point it is fair to say that social media and wireless technologies have played a pivotal role in the Egyptian revolution, mobilizing, organizing, and accelerating (18 days!) the collective uprising, and bringing it to the world’s media attention.
At a more generic level, the Egyptian events are the latest exclamation mark behind a burgeoning trend. The young people of Egypt are exemplary of a new generation of empowered citizens and consumers for whom buy-in is beholden to having access to the network, both, literally, the communications network and the more abstract network of social, economic, and political connections that warrant their future. Not to stretch the analogy too much, but they want a better user experience that gives them more control, with their government providing a robust platform upon which they can access or develop compelling apps. It will be hard to put the lid back on this tremendous desire of the ‘digital natives’ to be entrepreneurial and innovative and to co-create their societies rather than just being their passive, disenfranchised consumers and citizens. While many doubt that Egypt, despite the first rumblings in Jordan and Algeria, will be the role model for an immediate chain reaction of revolutions throughout the Middle East, it has certainly changed the fault lines of an already fragile power landscape. Sooner rather than later, these regimes will have to open their “walled gardens” – or they “will sink in the sand,” as Hillary Clinton so undiplomatically stated.
Indeed, mobile technologies are enabling massive power shifts and behavioral changes in the fields of governance and civil society, and they are rapidly becoming the hope of entire populations in the Middle East and other emerging regions. But they are also disrupting the developed economies: As mobile technology has penetrated our lives, it’s only logical that the tradeshow cum conference in Barcelona has become a hub far beyond the confines of the mobile industry. Through ubiquitous computing, the rise of the “Internet of Things,” and personal data proliferation, wireless communications, and business models have reshaped many of the world’s largest industries and continue to drive disruptive innovation at a global scale (just see Mary Meeker’s update on Mobile Internet Trends, published a couple of weeks ago). No longer only telecom equipment manufacturers, ISV’s, device manufacturers, and carriers convene for a week of networking, trendspotting, deal-making, and boasting in Barcelona, the Mobile World Congress is now the place to be for every organization with customers who demand ‘connected experiences:’ from governments to NGOs to corporations in retail, healthcare, energy, automotive, media, and entertainment.
At the heart of this connectivity lies a broader concept of network, and it has a number of implications. First of all, every company betting on connectivity needs a network strategy – or more, precisely, a network strategy that stitches together a subset of networks allowing it to leverage talent, attention, social capital, and IP for each of its interactions and transactions. This may include but is not limited to networks of supply, product development, and delivery partners (infrastructure); networks of buyers and potential buyers; and knowledge and innovation networks frequented by start-ups, academia, social entrepreneurs, developers, and passionate users. With these networks closely inter-connected and partly overlapping, not only do companies benefit from intra-network effects (by which the value of the network increases exponentially with the number of users), but also from inter-network effects (by which the value of the network increases exponentially with the number of interdependent networks) as these networks co-evolve.
“Smart” mobile companies-and who doesn’t need to be one, no matter what industry-have three options: build their own networks, acquire them, or join those of others. Cases in point: Nokia, which decided to do the latter with its Microsoft partnership. Or AOL, whose acquisition of the Huffington Post as well as previous investments into web properties indicate its aim to become a network of media networks. Apple, of course, has built (and tightly controlled) its own supplier, customer, and developer networks foregoing the need to activate or participate in third-party (knowledge or innovation) networks because it is in the privileged position of having a salience of talent behind its own walls. Its brand pull is so strong that it doesn’t need to cultivate many network connections to attract knowledge.
The keys to the mobile kingdom, however, remain in the hands of the “master of the network of networks”-the player that can own and nurture all the various networks listed above and combine them into one cohesive super-network, a self-organized smart system with seamless interfaces and considerable economies of scale. A critical building block of this network is what KPCB’s John Doerr calls the SoLoMo combination: Social, local, mobile. That’s the race Google, Twitter, and Facebook are in.
Secondly, every organization that pursues a network strategy in the connectivity game needs to become a ‘software organization.’ For starters, it needs to foster its software capabilities and create software offerings. In the telco space, communications service providers are doing exactly that, propelled by the rise of cloud computing and M2M business models, as well as infrastructure and services demand from the adjacent “connected” verticals such as energy or healthcare. Similarly, airlines have begun to reorient their businesses around software solutions, and are already providing logistical, CRM, and yield management software solutions to competitors and customers outside of aviation.
But there is another dimension to this: software as an organizing principle. Organizations have to become software organizations in the way they structure themselves and operate, shifting from a linear, static, and robust model of planning and executing on strategy, to a more fluid, non-linear, agile, and distributed approach that allows knowledge, the capital of the 21st century, to quickly flow through their organizations. Stuart Evans, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Homa Bahrami, a professor at Berkeley Haas School of Business, have coined the term “super-flexibility” to pinpoint this new set of capabilities and define it as “the capacity to transform by adapting to new realities, underpinned by the ability to withstand turbulence by creating stable anchors.” They propose that instead of thinking about strategy as a single best approach, “developing super-flexible strategies involves switching between a portfolio of initiatives. Business leaders have to ‘maneuver’ their strategic trajectory, like changing gears in a car.” Further: “A super-flexible organization is multi-polar, with several centers of gravity. It is much like a living organism with multiple brains, but these move in the same direction, like a flock of birds or a school of fish. Just like an individual, a super-flexible organization has three core building blocks-the ‘anatomy’ (the accountability and reporting structure), the ‘personality’ or its culture and identity, and most important of all, its ‘circulation’ or how people interact and how information moves throughout the organization. The biggest challenge in a dynamic world is to monitor and synchronize the three building blocks, and make appropriate adjustments as priorities evolve.”
Networks of networks, SoLoMo, super-flexibility-these are just some of the new paradigms that emanate from permanent connectivity and will impact mobile innovation as much as they are driven by it.
Off to Barcelona. Let the games begin.