Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The World is Becoming "Flatter"

“The World is Flat” is a year 2005 book by columnist and scholar Thomas L. Friedman. I thought I was one of the first to read this book of what I would call serious content that should shake America’s leadership types to their very roots. Then I attended a county government meeting with an audience of about 60 people where the speaker asked how many in the room had read this book. I was the only one. Later, a friend of mine (Kenny Carrigan) sent me a review of the book published in the June 19 issue of the Financial Times and another review of the book in the April 25 Business week.

It sometimes takes a while for good subjugative literature to reach the hinterlands. It is said of Friedman “he never shrinks from the biggest problems and the thorniest of issues”. I learned Mr. Friedman is a three time Pulitzer Prize winner for his work in the New York Times where he serves as the foreign affairs columnist. He knows his subjects and can express his thoughts in a manner that makes you think and may make you worry.

The book is a must read but unless you are very technologically versed, you may do like I did and skim some of the “heavy” parts of the 500 page tome. As Friedman describes the “flattening” of competition worldwide he says “Every law of economics tells us that if we connect all the knowledge pools in the world, and promote greater and greater trade and integration, a global pie will grow wider and more complex. And if America or any other country, nurtures a labor force of men and women who are specialized, special, and constantly adapting to higher value added jobs, it will grab its slice of that ever growing pie. But we will all have to work at it. Because if current trends prevail, countries like Indian and China and whole regions like Eastern Europe are certain to narrow the gap with America, just as Korea, Japan and Taiwan did during the cold war. They will keep upping their standards”.

The newly coined word “versatilist” describes people with the ability to apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles. People who are “specialists” generally have deep skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by their peers but seldom valued outside their immediate domain. When their jobs are eliminated they have no place to go. People who are “generalists” have broad scope and shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly but often without gaining or demonstrating the confidence of their partners or customers. When needed to perform at a higher level, they are usually found wanting. He says “people should be more like a Swiss Army knife”; versatile or “versatilists”.

If the flat world is about connecting all our knowledge pools together, we want our knowledge pools to be the biggest. The more lifetime learning opportunities that are provided, the skill base of any workforce is widened fulfilling a moral obligation to those whose jobs are being outsourced and to see to it that they are more employable that when they first came in.

David Baltimore, the Nobel-winning president of Caltech, knows what it takes to get your child ready to compete against the cream of the global crop. Almost all the students who make it to Caltech, one of the best scientific universities in the world, come from public schools, not from private schools that sometimes nurture a sense that just because you are there, you are special and entitled. He says “I look at kids who come to Caltech, and they grew up in families that encouraged them to work hard and to put off a bit of gratification for the future and to understand that they need to hone their skills to play and important role in the world. I give parents enormous credit for this because these kids are coming from public schools that people area calling failures. Public education is producing these remarkable students—so it can be done. We need a revolution in this country when it comes to parenting around children”. Merle’s comments; “We are on a battleground where the public schools system must not lose”.(I’ll blog more on how this battle can be a win-win situation for both the public school system, the business community, the parents, and the general public).

Friedman says that “One of the greatest virtues a country or community can have is a culture of tolerance. When tolerance is the norm, everyone flourishes-because tolerance breeds trust and trust is the foundation of innovation and entrepreneurship. Increase the level of trust is any group, company or society, and only good things can happen”.

He predicts the rioting going on now in France. He says Islamic youth particularly these living in Europe, can and do look around and see that the Arab-Muslim world has fallen behind the rest of the planet. It is not living as prosperously or democratically as other civilizations. How can that be? these young Arabs and Muslims must ask themselves. If we have superior faith (Islam) and if our faith is all encompassing of religion, politics, and economics, why are others living so much better? This is a source of real cognitive-dissonance for many Arab-Muslim youth—the sort of dissonance and loss of self esteem, that sparks rage, and leads some of them to join violent groups and lash out at the world. (Watch how this rage unfolds in France) It is also the sort of dissonance that leads many other average folks, to give radical groups like al-Qaeda passive support. Again, the flattening of the world only sharpens this inharmonious feeling by making the backwardness of the Arab-Muslim region compared to others, impossible to ignore”.

Friedman talks about the extreme poverty of India and that thousands line up to attend schools where only hundreds of the best and brightest are admitted. He explains why there are so few skyscrapers in parts of the third world; the power might go off three or four times a day, stranding people in elevators. He says that China and India with populations three and four times ours has more poverty but a greater pool of eager youth willing to work and learn for small amounts of money. He talks about the “untouchables” in India who one day will break out of the caste system of inequality and enter the work force as hard working intelligent people giving more competition to America and add to our outsourcing to hard working people who have a much lower standard of living than ours.

For non -Bush lovers, he has a couple of paragraphs stating how he believes that many mistakes have been made and new approaches demanded the this and future administrations as the world get more flat, more competitive and more equal.

Anyway, please read this book. I can’t do it justice on this site, but I can tell you is harder to put down than a good mystery unless you are not really interested in your kids future or even your own. After reading or skimming this book, I believe you may see both a future you like and a possible one you won’t like.

The most successful people I have ever known are well-rounded people. Isn’t that the way we should view the learning process in the home, the schools, in our careers and shouldn’t this learning continue until death?


Mahkno said...

I believe this book has become required reading at Cat for many managers. It is a very good book.

Merle Widmer said...

Thanks, Mahkno,

I believe this book should be mandatory reading for all involved in administrating our K12 schools.

In fact, everybody concerned about our future.

Stormin' Norman said...

Everyone knew the world was flat long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492...

If you want some good reading, try H.L. Mencken's love letters to his wife...

jen said...

What does Thomas Friedman mean by hi nice blog im kinda confused and you seem pretty knowlegable i cave some questions The World is Flat? What is causing this according to Friedman? What has all of this got to do with the digital revolution? What are the important economic, geo-political or other implications of a “flat world” for the United States and the world? What are the positive and negative effects of this transformation of the global economy?