"Welcome to the Connected World."
This simple yet portentous greeting marked a day of thought-provoking—and at times provocative—discourse on exactly that concept. But, haven’t we always been here? Even before the advent of the Internet, before telecommunications, before the rise of modern society itself, we have been a species with an intrinsic and prevailing need to connect. So what new things can we say about this reality? What does it mean, here and now, to live in the Connected World—and what is the present and future role of the professional society in this ever-evolving reality?
On November 5th I attended, with my Professional Innovations colleague Dennis Velasco, the second annual The Next Billion conference and forum presented by Quartz—a two-year-old digital media outlet “for business people in the new global economy”— at Bohemian National Hall in Manhattan. “The Next Billion” refers to the next wave of technological and social revolutions: it is the next one billion people who will become connected to the Internet for the first time over the next ten years. Many of them have thus far had their access restricted by social or infrastructural limitations; many are only recently or not yet born; but whatever the circumstances, these new entrants to the online community provide the opportunity—and necessity—to rigorously assess how we will interact with them, and how we can start this evolution with those who are already here.
Facilitate, don’t control
The subject may be incredibly broad, but luckily there was no shortage of actionable takeaways for businesses, nonprofits, and individuals alike. What felt particularly relevant to the society and association world were several variations on one recurring theme: the individuals in your community are more empowered than ever before, and the only way to thrive as an organization is to embrace and facilitate this new distribution of influence, not try to control it.
CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria asserted in his opening remarks that in a connected world, positive social trends on a global scale are driven by a convergence of economic interests; more specifically, we are now seeing technological connectivity and the innovators behind it as major drivers of social change. This sentiment was echoed and amplified by keynote speaker Lawrence Lessig of Harvard Law School, who delivered an extremely compelling, by-the-numbers presentation of the state of democracy around the world and the undeniable role of digital connectivity in empowering citizens in the Arab Spring and more recently in Hong Kong. The lesson: even the most stubborn barriers can no longer hold back the power of connected individuals on a mission. Your organization’s best leadership will occur on the front lines of connection advocacy.
Empower your constituents
If ‘connectedness’ was the main theme of the conference, ‘empowerment’ was a close (and closely related) second. Whether in our social or professional lives, the connected world empowers us to contextualize and act upon trends that improve our own circumstances as well as better serve the needs of others. As an example of empowerment in a business context, Mike Abbott of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers discussed his firm’s use of “big data” (a term he admitted is as overused as it is misunderstood) to assess the online landscape to advise their customers on how to achieve success with their digital business models. His remark that companies and other organizations are constantly snapping up data without an actionable plan for how to use it rang very true. Any organization that depends on member or customer insights can benefit from Abbot’s advice to remember that even the most comprehensive data set is merely an artifact of humanity, and to carefully consider what information you choose to collect based on its potential to deliver real human intelligence and empathy.
Make room for innovation
A discussion that felt particularly close to home was on the topic of connecting people to ideas, led by John Donovan of AT&T. Like Wiley, and like many of our society and association partners, AT&T has been around for a long time—long enough to be accustomed to adapting to new technologies and societal trends. But never has the pace of change been so disruptive as today; and while Donovan admitted to some significant challenges in updating the public perception of their brand, he was optimistic of the company’s future as a global leader of innovation. AT&T’s new Foundry centers are dedicated to investing in startups and individuals with big ideas, thereby creating within the larger organization a dedicated space for agile innovation and minimal bureaucracy. Donovan asserted that organizations with a “traditional” reputation should focus on fostering innovation from the inside out, and that re-branding exercises may be necessary but the focus should stay primarily on convincing your core community that your brand’s message resonates with their values.
The Next Billion conference had no shortage of excellent speakers from highly respected organizations, delivering what were essentially short-form, TED-style talks on a range of topics from digital youth culture to the future of urban planning. To attend and absorb the presence of so much creative energy was a truly illuminating experience, and if it’s possible to briefly sum up the relevant takeaways for societies and associations I would do so as follows:
- We are quickly and irrevocably moving from the Communication Age to the Participation Age. What’s the difference, you may ask? Perceptions on who gets to “lead” a conversation and who can engage in it, and how, have been fundamentally disrupted. This trend applies to your members, your professional community, the general public; the groups you aspire to reach with your message are no longer passive receivers, but active participants in the discussion.
- In a world where constant connectivity is increasingly taken for granted, the need for meaningful alliances is increasingly crucial. Don’t let your stakeholder relationships get lost in the online proliferation of weak connections and anonymous noise. Think beyond the mission statement and formulate a call to action—then act on it.
- Effective immediately, your digital engagement strategy must anticipate the online behavior of young people and the Next Billion. Extending far beyond “millennial” trends like social media and technology adoption, the next wave of internet users will experience the online universe in a way that scarcely resembles the internet most of us first encountered in the 1990s. For these users there are no presumed limitations on how connectivity and engagement can work in the digital world; this can be treated as a blank slate for your community of the future.
- “Think Global” should be the status quo by now. There’s no longer any excuse for “globally focused” to be just a buzzword in your mission statement. Your future international member communities are easier to reach than ever, and they are eager for opportunities to connect and make their voices heard.
We have always been living in a connected world; this is simply a part of being human. But what allows us to move forward as a global society is our limitless curiosity to explore this world, and our relentless pursuit of new ways to interpret our place in it. What do you want your place to be?