Our Future is Not Uncertain – It’s Ambiguous

In January 2012 Robert Safian posted an eye-opening article for FAST COMPANY titled “This Is Generation Flux: Meet The Pioneers of The New (And Chaotic) Frontier of Business“. When I recently read it, it resonated with me because it so closely defined my ideas of what the 21st Century Librarian must be like in order to – not only survive – but thrive in the library’s ambiguous future.

As I have stated too many times to count – “21st Century Librarians create 21st Century Libraries” – and that begins with a 21st Century librarian mind-set. (21st Century Library Paradigm – More Evidence and The 21st Century Library is More:)

Safian has done an expert job of describing and explaining the future and what it requires from individuals to not only survive – but thrive. Through interviews with several Gen Flux members, he has painted a compelling picture of the future of those who will thrive in business, but his observations and conclusions can be applied to librarianship equally as meaningfully.

Look at the global cell-phone business. Just five years ago, three companies controlled 64% of the smartphone market: Nokia, Research in Motion, and Motorola. Today, two different companies are at the top of the industry: Samsung and Apple. This sudden complete swap in the pecking order of a global multibillion-dollar industry is unprecedented. Consider the meteoric rise of Groupon and Zynga, the disruption in advertising and publishing, the advent of mobile ultrasound and other “mHealth” breakthroughs … Online-education efforts are eroding our assumptions about what schooling looks like. Cars are becoming rolling, talking, cloud-connected media hubs. In an age where Twitter and other social-media tools play key roles in recasting the political map in the Mideast; where impoverished residents of refugee camps would rather go without food than without their cell phones; where all types of media, from music to TV to movies, are being remade, redefined, defended, and attacked every day in novel ways – there is no question that we are in a new world.

Any business that ignores these transformations does so at its own peril. Despite recession, currency crises, and tremors of financial instability, the pace of disruption is roaring ahead. The frictionless spread of information and the expansion of personal, corporate, and global networks have plenty of room to run. And here’s the conundrum: When businesspeople search for the right forecast – the road map and model that will define the next era – no credible long-term picture emerges. There is one certainty, however. The next decade or two will be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm; if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern. The most valuable insight is that we are, in a critical sense, in a time of chaos.

To thrive in this climate requires a whole new approach … [b]ecause some people will thrive. They are the members of Generation Flux. This is less a demographic designation than a psychographic one: What defines GenFlux is a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates – and even enjoys – recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions. Not everyone will join Generation Flux, but to be successful, businesses and individuals will have to work at it. This is no simple task. The vast bulk of our institutions – educational, corporate, political – are not built for flux. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills. [Emphasis added.]

In addition to shining a spotlight on the inadequacies of our current SLIS curricula to develop librarian leaders for the future, the 21st Century skills that I have been advocating through numerous Blog posts include:
• Business Acumen
• Cloud Computing
• Crowdsourcing
• Customer Targeting
• Digital Discovery
• Discontinuous Thinking
• Gaming
• Likenomics
• Open Innovation
• Planned Abandonment
• Subject Matter Expert in ‘Community’
• Social Networking
• Value Added

I have also been advocating that the external environment – technology advancement, education reform, and societal changes – has changed so drastically that business as usual will not keep libraries relevant or even alive.

That still doesn’t discount the way mobile, social, and other breakthroughs are changing our way of life, not just in America but around the globe. And in the process, these changes are remaking geopolitical and business assumptions that have been in place for decades. This was not true in 2000. But it is now. Chaotic disruption is rampant, not simply from the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google. No one predicted that General Motors would go bankrupt – and come back from the abyss with greater momentum than Toyota. … Digital competition destroyed bookseller Borders, and yet the big, stodgy music labels – seemingly the ground zero for digital disruption – defy predictions of their demise. Walmart has given up trying to turn itself into a bank, but before retail bankers breathe a sigh of relief, they ought to look over their shoulders at Square and other mobile-wallet initiatives. Amid a reeling real-estate market, new players like Trulia and Zillow are gobbling up customers. … “All these industries are being revolutionized,” observes Pete Cashmore, the 26-year-old founder of social-news site Mashable, which has exploded overnight to reach more than 20 million users a month. “It’s come to technology first, but it will reach every industry. You’re going to have businesses rise and fall faster than ever.”

Within the librarian profession we tend to rely on the past for perspective. We try to play it safe when making decisions about what to collect, what to program, how to deliver services, etc. That time has passed and especially in this rapidly changing future, we can not resort to some outdated playbook of “We’ve always done it this way.” and expect to survive.

Susan Peters, who oversees GE’s executive-development effort, “The pace of change is pretty amazing,” Peters says. “There’s a need to be less hierarchical and to rely more on teams. This has all increased dramatically in the last couple of years.”

Executives at GE are bracing for a new future. The challenge they face is the same one staring down wide swaths of corporate America, not to mention government, schools, and other institutions that have defined how we’ve lived: These organizations have structures and processes built for an industrial age, where efficiency is paramount but adaptability is terribly difficult. We are finely tuned at taking a successful idea or product and replicating it on a large scale. But inside these legacy institutions, changing direction is rough. From classrooms arranged in rows of seats to tenured professors, from the assembly line to the way we promote executives, we have been trained to expect an orderly life. Yet the expectation that these systems provide safety and stability is a trap.

“The business community focuses on managing uncertainty,” says Dev Patnaik, cofounder and CEO of strategy firm Jump Associates, which has advised GE, Target, and PepsiCo, among others. “That’s actually a bit of a canard.” The true challenge lies elsewhere, he explains: “In an increasingly turbulent and interconnected world, ambiguity is rising to unprecedented levels. That’s something our current systems can’t handle.

“There’s a difference between the kind of problems that companies, institutions, and governments are able to solve and the ones that they need to solve,” Patnaik continues. “Most big organizations are good at solving clear but complicated problems. They’re absolutely horrible at solving ambiguous problems – when you don’t know what you don’t know. Faced with ambiguity, their gears grind to a halt.

“Uncertainty is when you’ve defined the variable but don’t know its value. Like when you roll a die and you don’t know if it will be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. But ambiguity is when you’re not even sure what the variables are. You don’t know how many dice are even being rolled or how many sides they have or which dice actually count for anything.” Businesses that focus on uncertainty, says Patnaik, “actually delude themselves into thinking that they have a handle on things.” [Emphasis added.]

If you think you have a handle on the uncertainty within librarianship, you’re fooling yourself so you can feel safe. The ambiguous future takes the “science” out of librarianship that can only be replaced by BOLD LEADERSHIP.

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