Clay Shirky was the opening keynote at the NFAIS Annual Conference this weekend. According to Shirky, the fact that our customers are connected matters, but the fact that they’re networked matters even more.
As an illustration of his point he told us a story about HSBC, a UK bank that instituted a no-penalty account targeted at UK college students and recent graduates. After attracting customers to these accounts, the bank decided to institute a £140 fee for overdrafts. As we all would have imagined, in the age of Facebook and social networking, account holders didn’t take this lightly. In fact, they organized online and were in the process of organizing an in-person demonstration when HSBC gave in.
As Shirky pointed out, unhappy customers may get some attention, but unhappy networked customers can quickly impact your business. The proliferation of technology that helps us connect to each other, publish, and share information may be wreaking havoc on our traditional publishing ecosystem, but these aren’t new problems.
The printing press enabled books to be reproduced 300 times faster than they could with a scribe. Aside from the obvious impact this had on the availability of information, it also had a less obvious effect on the Catholic church. Contrary to popular belief, the first items printed on the press in great number were not just Bibles, they were indulgences and, as a result of the speed at which they could be reproduced, indulgences proliferated. This lead to the excess that prompted Martin Luther to write the Ninety–Five Thesis, ultimately sparking the Protestant Reformation. What initially looked like it was going to strengthen the existing environment (by increasing access to the Bible and indulgences) ultimately up-ended it.
Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does. Society knows how to react to scarcity.
Think about that statement for a minute. “Society knows how to react to scarcity.” We know how to ration, save, and preserve when we need to do so. It’s much harder to set priorities and find our path when information abounds. We may drown. We may get side-tracked. We may shut down. But, in any case, abundance confuses and distracts us more than scarcity does.
While there were many more insights offered throughout this keynote, the other statement that caused me to pause was this:
It’s easy to say “preserve the best of the old and combine it with the best of the new,” but in revolution, the best of the new is incompatible with the best of the old. It’s about doing things a whole new way.
Perhaps there are ways in some cases to incrementally adjust what we’re doing. But when true revolution is required, can the old be preserved as anything more than a memory? Can it do anything more than inform?
Does this statement apply more to process and models and less to mission and vision? Or, in some cases, are our missions defined too narrowly, specifying how they must be accomplished, rather than broadly framing the impact we want to have on the world?