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The concept of using history to predict the future is not a new one but as a Community Manager I now realise how history is repeating itself but in a different format now having read some recent research by Historian Elin Whitney-Smith. Elins work indicates how the 'digital revolution' is showing itself to be the sixth great change in civilisation as we know it and there is a lot leaders can learn from the last five 'information revolutions' to know how to effectively navigate this one. And its all good news for online communities!


My insight comes from an article from Strategy+Business titled A Long-Wave Theory on Today’s Digital Revolution.


According to Historian Elin Whitney-Smith "there have been six information revolutions in human history. Each represents a major change in the organizational paradigm — a change in how people form themselves into groups. The first was among hunter–gatherers just before the invention of agriculture; second, the rise of counting and written language; third, the fall of Rome; fourth, the invention of the printing press; fifth, the electric information revolution that accompanied trains, telegraph, and telephone; and sixth, the digital information revolution that we are now living through".


The lessons for leaders in all types of organisations appears profound - "they either ignore the new information technology and miss out on opportunities, or they fear the world it creates and try to co-opt it, shut it down, or control it. This generally fails, their fortunes decline, and a new group of dominant competitors emerges".


Can't help but think of the world of retail, newspapers, books, music and postal services, to see examples of how some industries have changed profoundly in the last decade and that's just the start. Any industry that thinks they are immune to the changes that the digital revolution brings is likely to find themselves looking a bit like the Roman Empire. Constant reinvention is therefore likely to be as critical as it always has been. The quote by J.Paul Getty "In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy" also provides good insight into what organisations need to be doing to be fit for the future and its not about relying on what they know or are good at today - probably because that will be redundant tomorrow.


The article suggests that history is clearly telling us that leaders/organisations who embrace this latest information (technology) revolution are the ones who prosper (I loved the fascinating insight into why the USSR really failed). Elin concludes by saying the companies that will thrive are the ones with "massive line worker input" - the type of “open management” seen in the new business model of collaboration many of todays successful organisations are adopting (vs the old one of command and control).


Elin sums it up by saying "In today’s world, the new wave of surviving organizations will also have a different structure. It’s not entirely clear yet what they’ll look like, but we know they’ll involve many more people at lower levels in decision making. In fact, in each new information revolution, decision rights have been pushed lower in the organization".


Companies that will survive the massive change underway will therefore be those that reorganise themselves and leverage the knowledge and talent held at all levels of an organisation* rather than rely on the flawed thinking that says senior managers know all the answers. Sometimes senior managers are so far removed from their customers and the day to day workings of the business, that in fact they actually know less about 'what is really going on'. And frequently they are sheltered from reality by staff who'd rather keep them in the dark or are afraid of sharing the truth.


Reorganising around the knowledge held at all levels of an organisation, sounds like a big challenge but the alternatives don't look that flash - just ask Theodosius the Great


I recommend you read the article - it's a great slice of history and management insight all rolled into one. To read the full article you may need to do a quick signup to the S+B site but the good news is it's free.


*The ON2net community lead by us at ON-Brand Partners is a social business platform designed for just that purpose - to include all levels of an organisation in creating robust solutions to the issues faced. The ON2net is an online community for people who want to create better organisations – organisations with renewed purpose where everyone is engaged, empowered and excited to deliver improved performance.

Here you can access a wealth of thinking and resources focused on culture change, organisation and team development and be able to work with other community members to share knowledge and create exciting companies.

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