As the New Year dawns, all of our thoughts turn to the changes ahead. At the same time, it might be an occasion to reflect on what will not change. What will be the sources of stability that will help to sustain us through the accelerating changes unfolding around us? In virtually all of the writing about our era today among the digerati, there is very little focus on where that stability will come from and what will be required to nurture it.
The need for stability
I am particularly sensitive about this topic because of my childhood. As many of you know, I grew up outside the United States, living in a different country virtually every year. I gained enormously from the massive changes that I experienced on a continuing basis throughout my childhood. But I also missed something, something really important. I had very little stability. My extended family was distant (at a time when distance really mattered) and my childhood friends came and went with each move to a different country (with no Facebook to stay in touch). My only source of “stability” was a dysfunctional nuclear family with tremendous volatility. I felt the absence of stability with every passing day, I missed it and I suffered as a result of it. So, perhaps it is understandable why I focus on it more than others. But I am not alone.
As we move into a world of ever increasing flux and instability, one of the most striking trends is the demographic growth of fundamentalist religions across the world. This is one of the most rapidly growing segments in the global population. It is a trend that the digerati would prefer to ignore, dismissing these people as narrow-minded bigots and luddites. To the extent that they cannot ignore this trend, the digerati instinct is to go on the attack, denouncing fundamentalists as obstacles to progress at best and as oppressors at worst.
Certainly, terrible things have been done in the name of fundamentalist religions of all stripes. But perhaps, rather than instinctively dismissing and opposing these movements, we might actually want to engage with them. (I hasten to add here that I am personally not a religious fundamentalist.) By engagement, I mean making a legitimate effort to understand why such movements are gaining ground around the world at this particular time and exploring the legitimate unmet needs that might be fueling the growth of these movements.
I suspect the growth of these movements has something to do with a growing sense of an unmet need for stability. Change inevitably generates fear and, if there is nothing to hold onto as many of the things we knew and trusted fall by wayside, we are much more likely to try to stop change.
Sources of stability
Where could such stability come from in a world where 5 exabytes of new data spew forth every two days and where long-standing relationships give way to transactions that appear and disappear in the blink of an eye? What are the alternatives to theocratic regimes that ruthlessly impose the unchanging word of God on everyone?
I may be optimistic but I believe that, if we truly understand what is required to succeed in an ever more rapidly changing world, we will at the same time discover sources of stability that will provide us with the firm grounding that we all, even the most jaded adrenaline junkies, need to thrive.
Tacit knowledge. Let’s start with the observation that the growing avalanche of data increasingly distracts us from something far more valuable. Here’s the paradox, as data proliferates, something else becomes more and more valuable and yet more difficult to access. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge deeply embedded in each of us, our relationships and our unique contexts. It is the knowledge that we find most challenging to articulate and communicate. But it is also often the knowledge formed by new experiences – providing early insights into the changing world around us. If we truly want to get an early understanding of what is emerging over the horizon, we need to find ways to tap into this tacit knowledge. Accessing this knowledge requires real effort – effort that we increasingly find more and more challenging because of the overwhelming distractions of the flood of data and transactions that consume our attention. Who has time?
Trust-based relationships. As a result, something else acquires more and more value. At the time when we are consumed by short-term transactions, long-term, trust-based relationships acquire more and more importance. Tacit knowledge does not “flow”. In the words of JSB, it is “sticky”. We find such knowledge very difficult to articulate, even to ourselves, even though it comes naturally to us in our daily activities. The best way to access tacit knowledge is in the context of trust-based relationships, relationships that take time to develop and evolve. In the absence of trust, we are unlikely to make the effort to communicate the tacit knowledge we have, especially because we are likely to stumble and make mistakes – we are likely to become vulnerable and we need safety to feel comfortable doing this. Once again, these trust-based relationships are more difficult to nurture at a time when we are deluged with data and transactions that demand more and more of our attention.
Talent development. Why does all this matter? Maybe we should just accept the inevitable and bid tacit knowledge and trust-based relationships a sad farewell. Well, here’s the rub. In a more rapidly changing world, our success and, in a very real sense, our survival, depends on our ability to learn faster and accelerate the development of our talent. The half-life of any skill is rapidly diminishing. If we are not continually investing in talent development, we become marginalized. What are the most relevant and valuable skills to acquire? They are the ones deeply embedded in the tacit knowledge of those on the edges of our economy and society, those who are encountering first-hand and ahead of the rest of us the challenges and opportunities that we all soon will face. There’s very limited data on the edge and the data that does exist may help us to understand the “what” and the “why,” but rarely the “how.”
To get to the how, we need to find ways to access the tacit knowledge embedded in the people experiencing these changes. And, as we have seen, accessing tacit knowledge requires deep, trust-based relationships. This is exactly why tacit knowledge and trust-based relationships acquire increasing value as the pace of change accelerates – without them, we will never be able to develop the most valuable skills required to succeed and survive in a more rapidly changing world.
The bottom line
So, the optimist in me says that accelerating change breeds exactly the kinds of needs that will give rise to new sources of stability. While the digerati remain entranced with ever larger data flows and millisecond transactions, something much more valuable calls for our attention. As we enter a new decade, the greatest wealth will be created by a new set of entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs will understand and address the unmet needs of those who want to participate in environments that foster deep, trust-based relationships across both virtual and physical space. These environments will focus participants on the opportunity to learn faster by working together in addressing challenges that draw on the tacit knowledge of each participant. This is an opportunity that none of the current leaders of the commercial Internet understand, much less address. There is a white space here.
In addressing this white space, we may begin to find common ground with the millions around the world who have reacted to accelerating change by opting out and embracing the never changing word of God. These people might begin to see change as an opportunity to develop their potential more fully and, in the process, develop a deep set of relationships that offer a foundation for coping with the challenges of change. At the same time, the digerati may begin to embrace more fully the need to build long-term, trust-based relationships in order to effectively harness the opportunities created by change. They might in fact begin to articulate a new variant of the sacred, one that is not static and defensive, but one that celebrates the infinite creativity of the universe.
If we listen carefully to the fundamentalist critique, we may come to recognize that our lives have indeed become less satisfying and more superficial because of our growing focus on data and transactions in ways that make it more and more difficult to achieve our potential as individuals, institutions and society. The three T’s – tacit knowledge, trust-based relationships and talent development – may become the common ground to help us all advance to new levels.
Both camps across the global chasm may finally begin to see that sustainable change requires a foundation of stability and that stability has even more value if it enables all of us to more effectively realize our potential. Beyond stability lies thrivability and thrivability can only be achieved by more effectively integrating change and stability. Perhaps it is too much to hope for, but I believe that many of those displaying the passion of the true believer could discover the delights of the passion of the explorer.
On a personal level, I cherish the growing set of deep relationships that have evolved as part of my quest to be a catalyst for change. It provides a stability that I sorely missed as a child and young adult. But, here's the paradox, it also helps me to grow in ways that I never could on my own.