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The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas L. Friedman
review by Riccardo Paterni

Interesting, informative, timely book; wrong title. In fact, the word “flat” belongs to the “old” material way of thinking and acting while the book is about the impact that the “young” digital way of working has, and will have, on our lives and the lives of our newfound worldwide digital neighbors.

Probably a better title would have been “The marvels and threats of technological global interconnectedness: ready or not we are on a roll!” or something along this line of thinking. It would not have been a title as memorable and marketable as “The world is flat” yet it would have been much closer to the central meaning of Friedman’s findings and reflections spanning several countries. Besides the word “flat” can be associated to something static, not animated while Friedman describes to us a world full of dynamic energy and ambition linking up, in real time, the ideas and work of many people located in several corners of world. Yet, I want to point out right away, this is not a book about technology, it is a book about day to day working and living in the 21st century on a truly global scale.

The book is quite readable, filled with facts and real life stories, and it touches several perspectives: social, cultural, political and business. I am going to focus this short review on the key messages and meanings related to the business perspective; the way the world of work has changed during the last few years and the way it will continue to change.



Friedman effectively identifies and categorizes three key dynamics that have set this new interconnected world in motion. 1) The technological convergence of work flow software and hardware: this is the infrastructure that has materially connected the world allowing for the faster creation, flow and sharing of knowledge regardless of geography; 2) The human factor (managers, workers, innovators, business consultants, IT specialists etc.) during the last couple of years has finally been able to start utilizing at best the technological potential available: now there are new ideas, new business models that are benefiting from the marked shift within the value creation chain that has changed from vertical (with a set structure of hierarchical players and hierarchical roles) to horizontal, or better yet networked (it is not longer the hierarchy that is relevant in value creation but the information and knowledge of the peple involved and more and more people now can have the tools to access information and develop knowledge); 3) Within the combination of the two previous factors, the third one has surfaced and it is making a key difference in spreading and accelerating the dynamics and consequences of an interconnected world: new players entering the stage with the opportunity “to plug and play” and the ability to develop and sell their knowledge (more and more people now, from many different countries, can potentially participate to the value creation “chain” – it would be more proper to say “network” -  and many of them already do: see for example the fast developing IT sector in India). A key factor characterizing many of this new players is a driving ambition to effectively make a difference in what they do. It is an ambition that leads them to integrate smart and hard work.



Friedman makes an interesting observation relevant to the afterward of the failure of 2001; back then many felt that what happened came to show that the digital technology was not going to change the traditional key dynamics of business. There is a lot of truth to that: technology did not change the fundamental market rules nor what made a company truly profitable. At the same time the end of the contributed to accelerate the changes that we now perceive; there are two main reasons for this 1) many of the American companies went bust yet they contributed in a relevant way to lasting changes: “the bandwith to connect brainy India with high-tech America” was set to stay! 2) many of the Indian IT engineers that used to work in America during the went back home and started to benefit and utilize at full that very same bandwith...

This is an example of  what makes the world increasingly “shrinking” and really interconnected generating all sorts of new ways of creating value. The new technology enables a wider variety of outsourcing applications (one of the many examples: American companies with their customer service call centers located in India or the Philippines). Because of this, and because of other changes relevant to the ways to perceive and structure business models, during the last few years we have gone even beyond outsourcing into:

   homesourcing  (for example: Jet Blue Airways Corp. utilizes agents working on the booking system from their own home – it is to note the marked increase in productivity: 30%)

   open-sourcing (for example: self-organizing collaborative communities that are developing software through the interaction of both IT specialists and IT amateurs “plugging in” from all over the world; one of the most important outputs of this new work model is the operating system Linux)

   insourcing (for example: UPS receives and repairs Toshiba’s printers and computers utilizing its own specialized technicians certified by Toshiba. This business model was set in order to reduce lead times in repairs and improve the service image of the IT manufacturer. UPS totally reinvented its business model with this client in order to add actual value to their logistics services).

All of these new ways to create value have in common two key factors that represent at the same time a cause and and effect of the “shrinking” interconnected world:

1.      a shift in organizational power and leverage from hierarchy to networks: technology enables a wider distribution of information in real time allowing front line people to make decisions and further develop value. This way they create knowledge by interacting within networks focused on finding integrated solutions for customers;

2.      a shift in the traditional relationship with customers and suppliers from a vertical integration with set roles to a more horizontal and even networked integration made of  partnerships in which the actual role of the entities involved changes in a flexible way depending on what is needed to create value (see the UPS-Toshiba insourcing example above mentioned).

By their very nature, all of these dynamics, come to shape a complex puzzle which ultimate image keeps changing enabling even more possible combinations among its various parts.



Nowadays, the global business reality outlined by Friedman’s observations, reflections and interviews is quite unsettling for many companies and businesses of the Western world. No longer there are “safe heavens” with industries and business models delivering consistent results. In a “shrinking” interconnected world everything becomesmore complex to manage and to understand. The only way to try to ensure consistency in the growth of a business is to constantly focus on and implement ways to create value (and cut costs) by means that cannot be digitalized or managed by routine. All of this requires to be able to understand and utilize the new opportunities offered by the dynamics of the triple convergence. Some of the key ones that Friedman identifies and outlines by observing what companies on a global scale are actually doing, are:

   the ability to create stronger synergies among companies and people by wisely sharing knowledge and putting it to work in an integrated way without creating unnecessary walls among people, departments and companies;

   the opportunity for small companies to act big by utilizing the empowering means of the digital technology and the logistics services available to them on a global scale;

   the opportunity for big companies to act small by letting their customers truly select and customize to their needs products and services;

   means to facilitate a more efficient cooperation among companies in order to create value within projects that otherwise no company can develop alone (for example within many of the technology or biomedicine fields).

Most of all these new dynamics require a new mind set, a new way of looking at reality and shape it, a new way in which people’s talent, vision and creativity take an ever increasing role. Friedman effectively summarizes the concept by pointing out a quote relevant to the future of the accounting industry; the quote is by Gary Boomer CEO of Boomer Consulting “those who can create value through leadership, relationship and creativity will transform the industry, as well as strengthen relationships with their existing clients”. A statement like this can seem radical for an industry like accounting traditionally operating according to a mind set quite rigid...  No longer there are “safe havens” of tradition from the new global dynamics of business.



Within all of these changes, often turning upside down business models and totally reshaping value creating flows, the ultimate issue becomes identity both at the individual and organizational level. At the individual level, Friedman offers an interesting way to categorize identity. In order “to make it” within these new dynamics you need to be: either special, specialized or anchored. A few of us are special (meaning able to create value in the perception of a truly global market place - see for example major movies or sports stars). If you are not special you need at least to become specialized in a way that your work cannot be outsourced (all sorts of knowledge workers belong to this category and continuos learning of new skills is the only way to access this category). Finally, if you are neither special or specialized you can still make it if you are anchored (you perform a job that by its nature is “anchored” to the your location: chefs, plumbers, nurses, doctors belong to this category). At the organizational level the issue of identity becomes even more complex to sort out. For example, when you realize that in order to develop your business you need to start looking at your competitor with a new mindset perceiving it as a client, a supplier, or better yet, a partner; the identity that until now has given your organization the strength to distinguish itself starts to be threatened. In order to overcome this feeling you need to have a clear idea about at least two key topics that make your organization unique: 1) what are your strengths and and strategic assets? 2) what does your organization really do well? This way we truly identify the core or the organizational identity, we come to articulate what the organization is really all about. This way we get to realize what exactly are the pieces of the puzzle we can manage within the rapidly shifting puzzle game generated by the interconnected world.



Friedman global reporting on the “flat” or better “shrinking and interconnected” world is an informative and intriguing read, at times unsettling, at times empowering. The unsettling component is relevant to the fact that everything seems to change and to keep changing at an ever increasing pace (the book was published last April and I read that Friedman is working on an updated version already...). As human beings we are naturally set to be more comfortable with the predictable and therefore it is quite natural to feel unsettled by realizing what’s happening around us. At the same time, the message emerging from Friedman’s book (even if himself does not articulate it completely) is that all the new tools and means he talks about are geared towards giving us the opportunity (and often it is not an opportunity but a requirement) to start truly learning about ourselves: what we are all about, what we do best, what are our talents (and all of us have talents of some kind), what are the possible ways to ensure that our talents are put to work in a meaningful and value creating way. Relating to Friedman’s categories of individual identity we cannot all be special; what we can do is to learn how to look deep inside of us developing some critical thinking and smart ways to work (and to imagine and shape our work) in order to make sure that the “flat world” instead of flattening us makes us blossom in all what we can be and become. And this is why I do not like that “flat” adjective in the title of the book... There is nothing really flat in this “new world” everything seems to me quite 3D and in full colors! Technology is changing the way we live and work, OK; but let’s not forget that the real value of technology is near to nothing without our ideas, creativity and talents focusing on developing and utilizing it! Let’s never forget that! This is why, according to me, Friedman’s book is, above all, empowering!

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