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Malcolm Gladwell celebrates those informal networks spurred by digital

Informal networks have been known for a long time and so has the role of digital in their development. Malcolm Gladwell goes one step further and predicts that they will become the  “new-normal”  after this crisis we have experienced, and that a new society is born out of this development. Beyond that, companies will also have to adapt and get up to speed.

Transparence - réseaux informelsDisclosure: even though Adobe is our client, we have written this post with our usual aim of professionalism, independence and authenticity 

Malcolm Gladwell celebrates those informal networks spurred by digital

informal networks
Malcolm Gladwell thinks informal networks, including the ubquitous social networks, are the ultimate model for the society of the future. A cheering message which I welcomed readily.

I attended Malcolm Gladwell’s “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” keynote at the Adobe Summit on April 28, 2021 and I must say that I had been looking forward to this keynote for a long time. I had seen Malcolm Gladwell in the US in 2001, when the crisis was already on the agenda (at the time, as it was before 9/11, it was more like the DotCom crisis).

I had already been struck by his extraordinary ability to express complex things in a few simple and profound words. He often starts off with a few comparisons that seem insignificant and he outlines trends in an astounding way.

Ad the Covid crisis unfolds, Gladwell’s keynote loops quite nicely with the one I attended at the Rockfeller Center in 2001. The world, simply put, has become one of informal networks, not hierarchies.

This is not new, we said this as far back as the founding paper of Visionary marketing written in the 2000s and there we quoted De Rosnay’s 1976 macroscope.

The macroscope and its diagram about informal networks. Timeless since 1976
The macroscope and its diagram about informal networks. Timeless since 1976

But this has become not only obvious, but natural. Natural to a younger generation, which will soon replace us, but not only in my opinion. It is not only a matter of generations, but also of overall change in society. From a fundamentally hierarchical society to a new world based on open networks.

As Michael Gladwell explains in his keynote, there is no one system that is better than the other. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. And as he also says, the children of Occupy Wall Street have not revolutionised the planet. But we can hope, beyond ready-made ideologies, of which there are unfortunately many, that we can reinvent the system from within. And it’s high time we did, we all know that.

Gladwell’s demonstration can be viewed directly on the Internet on the Adobe Summit 2021 website but if I wanted to summarise it, here is what he meant  in a nutshell.

He begins by describing the tremendous civil rights movement in the United States with Martin Luther King. And he deduces the three most important points to change things at that time.

  1. having a clear strategy;
  2. An obvious and clear ideology;
  3. Finally, putting a plan together which, in the case of King in Birmingham took over a year. Gladwell’s demonstration is very thorough.

The equivalent of the civil rights movement today is the Black lives matter movement in 2020. In this case, there was no clear strategy, nor ideology nor plan set out over a long period of time, he tells us.

For Gladwell, it is the victory of informal networks both in activism, and in business, right down to the vaccination plan which he rightly hails as a success in the United States (Gladwell was born in England, is a Canadian citizen but lives in the United States).

And for him COVID-19 has definitively killed the hierarchical model.

There will be no going back according to him and this may even have ramifications even in education where he imagines systems where students will group by affinity.

This isn’t all.

Companies too need to reform and take advantage of this crisis-driven momentum. He cites Starbucks as the archetypal “military” hierarchical company. Against it, small independent companies centred on informal networks are changing the world.

It is incredibly utopian, but at the same time excessively exciting. Of course, in  Continental Europe, we’ll mostly talk about the gig economy and its shortcomings.

But I think behind this speech by Malcolm Gladwell, there is hope and this is actually his conclusion, for an incredibly better world. And behind this better world, we find these informal networks that have developed, this is also his theory, inexorably and thanks to digital.

Below all this theory and all these rather philosophical developments, but philosophy is very important isn’t it, we find this need to personalise the customer experience in companies.

And this will involve systems, technology and digital of course but also organisations, from the point of view of their own customer-driven approach, changing fundamentally to be customer-focused for the benefit of consumers rather than a mass market point of view.

Raw transcript of Malcolm Gladwell’s keynote (unedited)

Hello everyone, it’s a pleasure to meet you all. I’ve always thought we can’t do this in person, maybe next year. Until then, this is all we have. So I am happy to meet you all. What I thought I’d do today is make an argument for how the post pandemic world will be different. So what are we getting ready for when we get ready for anything right now? And obviously it’s going to be different in lots of different ways. But I want to focus on one particular idea and also keep in mind, as I’m making this argument that I’m famous saying only only a fool makes predictions, especially about the future. So I am that fool. And I may it may well turn out to be to be wrong. But I thought it would be interesting at least to give this one a shot. So here goes. Like some of you, I am a baby boomer. I was actually born in the last year of the baby boom. And when I asked myself the question, what is the most iconic social movement of my generation, the answer is obvious. It is a civil rights revolution. Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement of the 1960s in particular, the most famous of all of those campaigns, the Birmingham campaign of nineteen sixty three. Martin Luther King was the head of something called the Southern Christian Council, which was a group based out of Atlanta, which had been around for some time doing kind of civil rights work. And he was a an enormous devotee of the ideas of Gandhi. And so he infused this group with this strategy of non-violent protest. And it takes it first and most to Montgomery in the 1950s for the Montgomery bus boycott and then around the south, Albany, Georgia, and finally to Birmingham in 1963. Now, he chose Birmingham for a reason. Birmingham was the was called the Johannesburg of North America. It was the most racially divided city in the American South. And the police chief, there was a kind of Bull Connor who was a horrible racist. And King devised this plan to bring down Bull Connor. It’s called Project C. C stood for confrontation. And King gets there with all of the ministers and black leaders in Birmingham and plots out this incredibly precise, detailed strategy for bringing the civil rights revolution to Birmingham. The idea is they want to provoke Bull Connor into a confrontation where he will overplay his hand and prove to the world what a horrible person he is and what a horrible system Birmingham is. So for a year, King plans out this campaign. And he you know, he he trains marchers in non-violent protest and he maps out routes and he sends them out and wave after wave. And Connor starts just by arresting everyone who protest. But pretty soon the jails are all full. And then King stands a second wave. He has one of his deputies got got James Bevel, go to local schools and recruit schoolchildren. And the schoolchildren come and Connor starts to arrest the schoolchildren. And and now the world is getting kind of outraged. And King sends wave after wave of people. It’s perfectly choreographed marches. And Bull Connor finally overreacts and he brings out the dogs and he attacks the children with the dogs. And King has newsmen and cameras and journalists from all around the world lined up along the streets of Birmingham to capture that moment. And the minute Connor overplays his hand, King knows that he’s what in fact, is, is that famous moment where King’s people are in there looking out the window at the dogs and the kids marching and they start jumping up and down and they say, we’ve got to move. They’ve got a movement because the thing they had been planning for had finally come true. We had seen what it would what a horrible racist regime was in place in Birmingham. Now, for those of us who are my age or older, this is what a revolution looks like. It looks like a military campaign, right? It’s got a leader, a general Martin Luther King. It has an ideology. King had a very clear goal to accomplish in Birmingham. He was trying to set the stage for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bring about an end to segregation in the South. And it has a very clear strategy. King had a clear way that he wanted to bring about this end, which was through these very carefully choreographed marches to the streets of Birmingham. And if you look at all of the revolutionary movements of that era, they were all like that. That’s what Mahatma Gandhi get in India. That’s what Ho Chi Minh did in in North Vietnam. That’s what Fidel Castro did in Cuba. That’s what Nelson Mandela. In South Africa, they all follow this model of a clear leader, a clear strategy and a clear ideology. Now, if you are a member of GenZE, if you’re a member of the millennial generation, what is your equivalent of Birmingham in 1963? Well, it’s probably the Black Lives Matter movement of IA, right? This extraordinary series of protests that go across this country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, probably the most sustained period of civic unrest we’ve had in this country since the riots of 1968. Now, let’s compare Black Lives Matter of last summer to Birmingham in 1963. Did the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer have a clear leader, someone who was in charge? No Black Lives Matter was founded by collective, by a group of activists. But nobody really knows who they are. Their names, they weren’t front and centre. They weren’t on the on everyone’s lips the way that Martin Luther King’s name was on everyone’s lips in 1963, they were in the background. Did Black Lives Matter last summer have a clear ideology? Well, they had some ideas amongst them to fund the police and other kind of slogans, but there were a multitude of ideas that were encapsulated in those protests. People had very different notions about how the police ought to be reformed, very different notions about what would be the best response to the death of George Floyd. It was a movement that encapsulated a wide ranging set of attitudes and notions. It wasn’t like King in sixty three, where there was one idea that he was pushing forth. Did this movement last summer have a clear strategy and mapped out strategy like Martin Luther King? No, it was instantaneous. I mean, King spent a year planning what he wanted to do in Birmingham before he finally acted. Those protests last summer started the day after George Floyd died. They were spontaneous. This was something that, you know, that came seemingly out of nowhere, could not be more different from what happened in Birmingham 50 years before. What passes for a social revolution in today’s world and what passes for a social revolution in the US in which I was born could not be more different. They are like night and day now. What’s the nature of that difference? Well, for someone who is a baby boomer, we took it for granted that when you wanted to make any kind of sustained change in the world, whether it was for social justice or if it was for starting a company, you used the hierarchy, right? We were children of hierarchies, our parents and our grandparents and our great grandparents, many of them served in the military. Right. What is the military? It is the purest expression of a hierarchy that we know they were used to the notion that if you wanted to get something done, you use that particular model. Now, what is the nature of the hierarchical model? Well, a hierarchy is, first of all, a system that’s closed. There’s a clear line between who belongs to the organisation and who does not. You’re a soldier or you’re not a soldier. Right. The second thing a hierarchy has is determined, right? It has a clear set of ideas and codes and conducts that you have to learn before you can join. Martin Luther King would send people off to be educated in how they in non-violent protest before they were eligible to join those marches in the city of Birmingham. And thirdly, hierarchy has a centralised right. Power and authority are all possessed by a very small group of people at the centre of the movement. You have a general and everyone does what the general says in Birmingham in nineteen sixty three, no one took a step without the approval of Martin Luther King. He was in charge and there was not a single moment when his authority was challenged during that entire campaign. Now that’s where I think our default assumption about what social organisation looks like differs from the digital generation, GenZE and others. Their reference point is not the hierarchy, it’s the network. Right. So think about the big social movements of the last ten years. Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter last summer. What are they, all their networks? Right. They don’t resemble hierarchies at all. And what is the definition of a network? A network is something that is open, not closed. Anyone could join the protests last summer over Black Lives Matter. You didn’t have to qualify by. Taking a course in non-violent protest networks are by definition flexible, not disciplined. They make up their rules as they go along. Like I said, you know, the Georgia protests happened the day after the death of George Floyd. They did not require a year of planning before people took to the streets. And lastly, the network is decentralised, not centralised. There’s not a small number of people at the centre and top of the who are directing traffic. No authority and power is sent out, is diffused to the people on the streets, to the front lines. People make their own decisions last summer about when they wanted to march or what they wanted the march to be about or what they wanted their side to say or how they wanted to behave to the police officers who they encountered along the way. Right. That is a profoundly different model. And you can see evidence of this new model when you look around the new economy. I mean, I grew up on an encyclopaedia as my way of organising knowledge. What is an encyclopaedia? It’s a hierarchical model for organising information. Right. It’s in one place. It’s super disciplined. You have to own the encyclopaedia, get access to it, and it’s centralised. It’s a small number of experts who write it. Today’s model is Wikipedia, which is a network model. It’s wide open to anyone. It is totally flexible and not disciplined any way they want. And it is decentralised, right. It’s a million people writing as we speak as opposed to a small number of people writing on the command of Encyclopaedia Britannica or whoever else. You know, it’s funny to think about what would have happened if many of the network based innovations at the present day were somehow transported back in time. I mean, imagine if it was nineteen seventy and I said to you, I had this great idea. When you go on vacation you can rent your house out to a stranger who you’ve never met and just trust me, they’ll pay you for it. There’s no one in America who would have said yes to that idea. Right. It sounds nice in a world that is comfortable with the network, with comfortable with the idea of flexible, open, decentralised arrangements that kind of make sense. Or think about Uber. You know, I, I, I was I came to New York in the early 90s when the city was as dangerous in America, when the murder rate was, I think, seven times higher than it is now. At the end of every evening, we would all gather together and we would cool our money and we would figure out a strategy for everyone to get home. Right. If you had told me in nineteen ninety three in New York City, then I could summon a car without making a phone call, without making any human interaction driven by someone who I would did not talk to and had never met, which would show up unannounced. And I would get in the back and it would take me without any conversation to where I wanted to go. I would have said you were out of your mind. Right. That’s a crazy idea I’ve ever heard. But that’s because that was a world before the network model had taken hold, when we were still in the thrall of the hierarchy. And what we wanted in that moment was a hierarchy and not a network. Right. You know, I worked for years at The New Yorker magazine, and like many media organisations right now, The New Yorker magazine is going through a big conflict with a union, with some of the staffers have formed a union. And, ah, this has been going on for months and it’s very hostile. And if you look at the conflict between the union and management there, you realise it’s not a typical labour management conflict. It’s just generational. But it’s about the thing I’ve been talking about. The New Yorker was founded seventy five years ago as a classic hierarchy. It is a system with a bunch a small group of editors at the top who control everything. It is closed, not open. It is highly disciplined. There’s a certain way things are done and have always been done. And now a younger cohort has come to the magazine and their model is the network. And they’re saying, well, why does a small group of people control everything? Why is everything closed and not open? Why or do we have this rigid set of rules? Why can’t things be more flexible? Right. That that’s a profoundly different perspective on how the world ought to be organised. Now, a couple of questions come from this. Is the hierarchy better than the network or the network better than the hierarchy? I don’t think that’s a useful question at all. Both of them have their own strengths and weaknesses. You know, hierarchies are really, really good at executing complicated plans. Right. What King pulled off in Birmingham in sixty three was, I mean, saying I mean, it was an extraordinarily difficult thing. But at the same time, hurricanes are really hard to build if you want to do that difficult thing, you’ve got to have a leader as good as King. If you don’t, you’re sunk right on the other side. Networks are much, much easier to form. You can fund them overnight. They’re incredibly resilient. You killed the head of a network. The networks fine kill the head of a hierarchy. The hierarchy is in trouble, but networks have a lot more trouble in executing things, you know. What did Occupy Wall Street actually do at the end of the day? How much would that Arab Spring do that bring about a democratic revolution in the Arab world? Actually, not really right now would struggle sometimes to execute those very, very difficult tasks. I don’t think that’s the important question. I think the important question is which of these two models is winning right now? I think the pre pandemic, what we had were these two models in tension that you had a world that was full, on the one hand with networks, on the other hand with hierarchies. And sometimes they they clashed and sometimes they did and sometimes they worked in harmony. What I think has happened with the pandemic is the network has won that. What we are going to take away from this experience is a clear preference for that way of organising ourselves over the old way. I mean, think about the lessons that we will draw from this pandemic. You know, from the moment the lockdown starts last March, what happened? We deconstructed every hierarchy in the whole economy. I thought a year ago that kind of economic meltdown in the face of this pandemic. I didn’t see how we could possibly deal with all of this disruption. I mean, we had a system that had been in place for hundreds of years where employees went to a specific place at a specific time, every working day to be supervised by a more experienced manager. Right. And overnight we took that system and we just threw it out the window. And we replaced it with what? With a system where you work from wherever you wanted to work. You worked whenever you wanted to work. Your supervisor was off somewhere else. God knows where. And all you did was check in periodically and zoom. Right. And think about the vaccine rollout that’s going on right now. If you had asked Malcolm Gladwell, you know, hierarchy lover to design a vaccine rollout six months ago, I would have said, all right, I’m going to get a retired general from the army who’s going to run the whole thing. And I’m going to set up last time to identify places across the entire country where we’re going to do the actual vaccinations. I’m going to recruit the National Guard to help out. I would give I would have assigned every single person in United States a number and, you know, based on Social Security records. And then you would have gotten an email or a text or a piece of mail or a phone call telling you exactly when and where you would show up to get your vaccine. I would have run it like D-Day. Did we run it like didn’t know we didn’t like a network. We will figure it out. States, cities. Do whatever you want. People take charge. You know, when you can go will change the eligibility rules every couple of weeks and it’ll be on a website somewhere, which you can find. Right. And what was the result of doing it in an open, flexible, decentralised way outside of Israel, the best vaccine rollout in the world. When you had proof of just how networks are solving a lot of problems, I don’t think we can go back. I think this model has one. So what does that mean? If that’s the world you have to get ready for, what do you have to do to get ready for it? Well, there’s a bunch of implications. I think the obvious one is this notion of decentralisation is a really powerful one. So just to give you a random example, you look at something like higher education. We’ve had a hierarchical model in place in higher education for for millennia. You know, you go to in person, you go to an institution, one institution, stay there for four years and do all of your education there. Right. A totally disciplined, centralised, closed system of education. Does that survive? I don’t think so. I think that people are going to go towards a network model. What you’ll have is self organising groups of students who will make deals with a series of posters for parts of their education. So I can imagine imagine a group of 20 kids who are really interested in political science and they say, OK, we’re going to spend our first year at Penn State because there’s a couple of professors there we love. We’ll go there. Second year we’re going to go we’re going to make a deal with Brigham Young because they have a great overseas study programme. Because we really are interested in going to Thailand and learning about how the Thais run their government, there’ll be a year or two that year three, we think we by the way, we want to do some coding and figure coding. So we take online courses from Emmett Till. We get back. Right. That’s an awful lot of education. That strikes me as something that is probably a lot closer than we think as a change we have to get ready for. I think there’s also a big implication here for brands. You know, we’ve had a hierarchical notion about what a brand is for a long time that is dictated the way organisations interact with consumers. So think about a classic example would be Starbucks. Starbucks is an old school hierarchical brand. Right. Everything is directed from headquarters in Seattle. Every single it’s super disciplined. You know exactly what your coffee is going to be like. Every store is exactly the same. All the staff are perfectly trained. I mean, that is the embodiment of a hierarchical way of serving coffee. Now, in every city in this country, there are Starbucks, but there are also any coffee shops. Go to any coffee shop, what is it, any coffee shop? It’s a completely different model of what coffee is all about, right? It’s in the coffee shops are not all the same. They’re all different, though different. According to the city that they belong to, they operate differently. They have weird people who look different. Behind the counter is a totally decentralised, open, undisciplined way. And what’s the story they’re telling you or they’re telling you a network story. When you go in there, they’ll tell you where they come from, who grew the beans, how much they paid, the grower of the beans, what the name of the grower of the beans was. Right. And then they’ll give you a choice for different kinds of roasting if you want. What are they saying? They’re saying this cup of coffee belongs to a whole network people and stretch all the way back to the person who could experience it. When you buy that outfit, you are embracing the network. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to educate you and inform you about every node in that network, and that will help you appreciate your cup of coffee or decide whether you want to buy a cup of coffee from us, that it’s a fundamentally different story than the story being told by the soldier in the Starbucks army that you bought your latte from at the airport a generation ago. In the era of hierarchical brands, not a single consumer ever asked the question, what is the power source for the manufacturing plant for low tide? That’s just not what you would you evaluate tied according to its price. And it was a container close. That’s it. But now in a network model, people want to know about the whole network that made brought that tied to your laundry room. And if you’re Proctor and Gamble, you have to change the way you manufacture it in order to be able to answer that question in a way that conforms with this new model of expectations on the part of the consumer. But there’s a parallel idea here that also comes out of the pandemic, you know, and that’s what the pandemic has taught us about our own resiliency. I mean, if you look back on the years leading up to the pandemic, in retrospect, what’s striking is how much gloom and doom there was in the air. We were worried about our future. We were worried about the ability of our institutions to deal with the modern world and the economy. We were many people were profoundly pessimistic about our ability to solve the problems that we saw in the future. You know, what has happened over the past year is something without precedent in the history of medicine. We identified covid virus in December of last year. The genome was sequenced and published online in early January. But during it, look at that sequence and created its candidate vaccine over a weekend. They were in the clinic for safety trials by March and they were successfully inoculating people with ninety five percent certainty in December. That’s never happened before. There’s an unbelievable sequence about science responding to a complex problem in the face of this. Do you honestly believe that people can continue to be pessimistic about our ability to solve problems? Do you think that opposition to genetically modified organisms can survive that kind of case study? And how credible sciences do you think they’ll still be a powerful anti vaccination movement in this country in the face of an experience where we’ve managed to stop a deadly disease in its tracks this year? I don’t think so. I think we’re in a very different world now, and it is a much better place. It is a much more hopeful place and it is a much stronger and resilient place. That’s the world that we have to be ready for. Thank you.


Yann Gourvennec
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Yann Gourvennec

Yann Gourvennec created in 1996. He is a speaker and author of 6 books. In 2014 he went from intrapreneur to entrepreneur, when he created his digital marketing agency. ———————————————————— Yann Gourvennec a créé en 1996. Il est conférencier et auteur de 6 livres. En 2014, il est passé d'intrapreneur à entrepreneur en créant son agence de marketing numérique. More »
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