Sunday, February 27, 2011

Conversations and Resources

For an organization, conversations are more important than resources.

This is not meant to proclaim that one can go without the resources, physical and financial, that an operation needs. But, resources can't create a sustainable competitive advantage for an organization, because they can always be acquired by a wealthier rival. Conversations, however, are difficult to generate, and often, far more difficult to replicate even if your competitor is rich.

Conversations, remember, are ideas plus connections. Conversations need context. More importantly, conversations need humility, an acknowledgement that one can't go it alone. Today, while we live in a resource rich world, but where humility is in short supply and often, organizations are locked in a resource-based thinking trap.

This is a paradox. Richer one is, possessions are more important. But possessions often come in the way of conversations. Conversations happen when one is out to connect, not to hoard. Besides, conversations, even when organizations start having them, happen between people. But people don't talk to each other when they are merely human resources; they talk when they become men and women again.

One can argue once a company has resources, it can own the world. It can decide the conversations. Like News Corporation, which can buy into conversations. It can make any conversation a portfolio item (like buying MySpace and Wall Street Journal). It can then control them, and through them, all other conversations as people start having them.

But this isn't necessarily true. As the historian of conversations Theodore Zeldin contends, people change the subject as authorities start owning them. Conversations have always been owned by the commoner. The authorities wanted to own the language, and developed manners and syntax to make themselves sound regal: The commoner then, for what appeared to be a lack of education in eyes of the authorities, invented a language of their own. And, since conversations happen not in the richest language, but in the one which is shared by everyone, authorities lost the grip on conversations throughout history.

And, since owning conversations is owning history, we progressed. Authorities of all ages wanted us to freeze on time, stay as we are; but despite their vast power, they failed to control conversations, and therefore, we moved on. If anyone is celebrating today's tweeting democracies, we must remember it was always that way.

Yet, today's companies still focus on owning resources than starting conversations. The idea of today's predominant discipline, economics, is about resources, not conversations. The governments still throw resources at problems, but they don't talk [Talk is a two way process, and government 'consultations' fail to talk back and ask]. More importantly, educational institutions, which shape the thinking of the people of the future, fuss around with resources they have: They almost abhor conversations.

Remember, we live in turbo times, and everything happens faster. People who hoarded resources and missed the conversations, failed. Today, they will fail faster.

On the other hand, those who succeed, succeed by connecting and conversing. They get the new ideas, because new ideas happen not in the middle of super-secret labs but in the messy commons of human conversations. While the companies trapped in resource thinking spend millions in protecting what they have - just like authorities of the past did by using codes and symbols - these companies reside in the open and join ideas and own the future.

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