The thesis put forth by Tom Friedman in The World Is Flat is perceptive, accurate -- and anxiety-inducing for many business leaders. In his current best seller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author contends that as we entered the new century a confluence of factors -- the Internet, global fiber-optic networks, trade deregulation, and an explosion of software -- created a platform where intellectual capital could for the first time be delivered from anywhere. All these forces have leveled the playing field, giving companies and individuals new power to compete globally.
But how should individual companies respond to globalization? How to contend with the bewildering pace of change brought on by globalization and convert this new reality from a threat to an opportunity?
STAY FOCUSED. Companies outperforming their peers today -- and not teetering on the edge of the flattened globe -- have adopted an approach to building the 21st-century business in which they find their place not by strengthening their command and control posture, but by focusing on core expertise, collaborating with partners in innovative ways that drive value and growth for all participants, and strategically sourcing the rest. I call this philosophy: "Let go to grow."
Here are a few examples:
Leaders in many industries are embarking on projects involving collaborative innovation -- opening up their borders to work with others -- in a profound shift from the past. Procter & Gamble (PG), for example, now has an entire division devoted to collaborating with external partners on new products and technologies.
That was the genesis of the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, a household cleaning tool that has flown off the shelves since it was introduced in 2003. P&G CEO A.G. Lafley has declared that half of all new P&G products should originate outside P&G. Talk about letting go to grow.
TAKE IT OUTSIDE. As P&G understands, no company today can corner the market on innovation. For the first time ever, we have the luxury of a global market for brainpower -- largely because of the Internet -- and this talent does not have to be on the payroll for a company to leverage it. U.S. pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly (LLY) has set up the Web-based InnoCentive to build a virtual talent pool of more than 50,000 scientists in 150 countries. Lilly posts R&D problems any scientist can tackle if he or she has the right expertise. The success rate has been far higher than in-house performance, at around one-sixth of the cost of doing it all in-house.
To let go to grow, the first step a company must take is to zero in on the things it does well and that are differentiating -- and identify functions that can be done more effectively either through process change or partnerships. This analysis is done by componentizing your business -- breaking it down into interchangeable building blocks of functions, processes and services.
The components in which a company excels should be used companywide. If there's no advantage in continuing to perform an activity in-house, that component should be passed to an outside specialist or sold. This allows the company to devote its energies to enhancing its core differentiators, where it can demonstrate true innovation.
THINKING AHEAD. Even BMW, which is built on its reputation for exceptional engineering, has found value in opening up various elements of car design and manufacturing to partners. BMW recently formed a relationship with Magna Steyr, an Austrian company, to handle all aspects of manufacturing for the BMW X3 sports utility vehicle, including a pioneering four-wheel-drive system.
This move freed up BMW engineers to work on designing new vehicle models. The relationship has allowed BMW to add a new model every three months; five years ago, BMW experienced gaps of three years between models.
It's a mistake to think "letting go" is just another way of saying "outsourcing." Collaboration takes many forms. Not only can it lead to new innovation in product design but it can create entirely new business models that drive organic, sustained growth for leaders willing to let go.
THE RIGHT RELATIONSHIPS. Take Li & Fung, a Hong Kong company that supplies apparel to retailers in the U.S. and Europe. It's interesting to note that it doesn't make anything. Instead, it draws on a web of 7,500 suppliers to orchestrate the manufacture and delivery of apparel to meet quickly the specifications of its 350 customers around the world. In a low-margin trading business, Li & Fung has parlayed its role as master collaborator into remarkable business performance, doubling revenue and tripling profits over the past three years in an industry with a 2% growth rate.
The common denominator in all these examples is enlightened leadership. The leaders who understand the implications of a flat world are changing their business models and their company cultures to let go of some control, opening up their organizations to work with external partners in new, deeper ways than traditional supplier relationships.
In our collaborative age, this is the right formula for creating breakthrough innovation, which will ultimately drive growth for all successful companies in the flat world.