For most of the last century, the Industrial era dominated the corporate landscape. The most famous and iconic example of the power of Industrialisation was Henry Fordâ€™s production line, and its most famous output, the Model T Ford motor car. It was dubbed â€šthe car for every manâ€›. Henry Ford himself called it â€šthe car for the great multitudeâ€›, and had a dream of every family owning one. It was functional and simple, and you could get any colour you liked as long as you liked black. When Ford first designed the Model T, it took 13 hours to assemble. Within 5 years he was producing a vehicle every 90 seconds in his factories. Of course the real innovation wasnâ€™t the car, it was the assembly line that built it. That was the pinnacle achievement of the industrial era: the production line. Other businesses soon borrowed the same techniques, and organised themselves like giant machines, with people becoming little more than cogs and automatons. These people would soon be replaced by intelligent machines and robots, as the Industrial era gave way to the Information age.
With the advent of computers in the 1950s and the rise of the service economy, the Industrial approach was soon no longer the way to gain competitive advantage. Thatâ€™s not to say that the issues of productivity, efficiency, effectiveness are no longer business issues â€? they are absolutely necessary to the fundamental survival of any business. In fact, it was companies not to follow these business basics that was a major cause of the crash of the dotcomâ€™s in the late 1990â€™s. Certainly you cannot simply ignore these issues. But beingnecessary does not make them sufficient for a competitive advantage.
As we head into the 21st century, we must realise that even the competencies of the Information age, ushered in half a century ago by the rise of intelligent machines, are no longer a sufficient competitive advantage in the emerging connection economy. We are currently at the start of a new reality in commerce, where emotional and relational issues will become more and more important in establishing brands, attracting and retaining talented employees, and creating loyal customers.
This new era in human history holds great prospects for a country like South Africa, where there is a deep understanding of connection. Let me give you an example.
Question: Which country in the world has the best Internet infrastructure, defined as â€˜bandwidth per userâ€™?
Answer: Of the 280 odd territories and countries in the world you could choose from, Iâ€™m guessing youâ€™d probably go through about 200 before you came up with Tanzania. But that is the answer. Thatâ€™s right, at the end of 2003, Tanzania had the best Internet infrastructure.
Obvious follow up question: Why?
Follow up answer: Simply, its because they were last. They are one of the most recent countries to put Internet infrastructure in place, so theirs is pretty much all fibre optics, as opposed to the older copper-cabling legacy that the U.S. has (as do we in many parts of South Africa). Just because they were last, theyâ€™re now first. That is one of the legacies of the Information age â€? that we donâ€™t have to catch up with more â€šadvancedâ€› countries, we can simply jump to the newest technologies. In manufacturing, thatâ€™s tough to do â€? you still have to build a factory. But in services, its easy.
Another example is cell phones. Most people have dual band cell phones, and these work in South Africa and in Europe. But if you go to the United States, they wonâ€™t work. In the States you need a tri-band cellular phone. Why? Not because the â€˜triâ€™ is new technology. The third (tri) band is actually old technology. They had to compensate for the outdated cellular networks in the States, and put the oldest cellular technology back into the latest phones. Because Americans were first, now they are last. The same is true of their creaking electricity infrastructure â€? look out for more nationwide power cuts this coming northern hemisphere winter.
This is a wonderful opportunity for South Africa as we go into this new era in human history and the opportunity is there to leap frog developed countries and start out as a leader in the 21st century. If only we do the right things.
Doing the Right Things Right
What are those right things? Well, the most important thing is to understand that right now in human history, the requirement is more than ever to sell who you are and not your product. Increasingly, people are less concerned about the product that you are selling than who you are as the seller.
The reason for this is that you and your competitors work in a very close market, where you are watching each other like hawks and are offering the same types of products to the same types of people at the same type of price and the same level of quality. And of course you even swap staff with them every few years. Competitive advantage these days is in relationships.
And therefore who better than a South African to create the competitive advantage environment where relationships are the most important part of a product offering?
South Africans are keenly aware of the nature of human interaction, completely aware of the fallibility of that, and are constitutionally as well as personally aware of the need for reconciliation: a word that covers more than just dealing with the wrongs of the past or putting injustice behind oneself, but is about the fundamental understanding of what it means to be human beings.
Similarly, the African context can teach something about human interactions. It is referred to as Ubuntu. It is about only being human as I relate to other humans. It is about only living when I live through and with others. It is about more than kinship, or blood ties, or family. It is about the bond of humanity. It is a part of African culture. It is part of all those who claim Africa as their home, regardless of skin colour or creed. It is often misunderstood and ill defined. But whatever it is, we know that South Africans in particular and Africans in general have an understanding of human relationships and human dynamics that exceeds many other peoples in the world. We also have the moral high ground in this because of the wonderful leaders like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others who so gracefully and wonderfully took us out of an era of apartheid and human rights abuse and into the 21st century as a shining example of what people can do for people and what people can do with people.
South Africans have a potentially wonderful advantage in the world, an advantage that needs to be used wisely and carefully so that we can leap frog to the top of the pile.
In the Industrial era, the first country to industrialise was England. And they got to rule the world for a little while because of it. How else would a wet, soggy, tiny island with mainly grumpy inhabitants get to rule the world and become an empire on which the sun never set? It was simply because they were first to industrialise.
Right now America leads the world. America leads the world on the back of being the first country to identify information, knowledge, data, computers, technology, as the basic building blocks of the information economy. America was the first to recognise the importance of these and became the world leader it is today.
But the next economy will be driven by relationships, emotional intelligence, human understanding and interaction, and countries like South Africa will have the potential to rule the world, even if only for a while.