Driving Forces:

Global Reach of Broadcasting and Other Media


Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps
The Seybold Series, #5 - October, 1989

We will relate one recent experience of ours that shows the global reach of media. It is a piece of a larger story that we are sure you already know about, if only from the news. It demonstrates how many new technologies are simultaneously acting together with revolutionary impact.

After the story, we will examine the lesson it holds for American businesses riding the crest of the Third Wave.

Networking for Democracy in China

It is Springóthe season of birthóin Beijing, in 1989. A Chinese reform leader, much admired by China's long-standing democracy movement, dies.

Gorbachev, the symbol of communist reform, lands in Beijing.

The students, at least a million strong, have occupied Tiananmen Square. No one ordered them to come there. They stay. Spontaneously, they self-organize.

The students form three major groups: one negotiates with the government. Another carries out the hunger strike. A third manages logistics in the Square itself.

Communication explodes. Wall-posters. Newsletters. Radios. Bullhorns. Cassettes. Photocopiers. Video. Fax. Cellular telephone. Computers.

Universities, businesses and even government offices in China allow their fax machines to send and receive. Foreign corporations, with operations in China, permit the use of their computers to send electronic mail messages. International telephone calls in and out of China increase dramatically.

The whole world is watching events unfold in Tiananmen Squareólive. Reporters have traveled to China from all over the world to cover the Gorbachev visit. Instead, they stand in front of satellite television dishes and interview studentsólive.

It is perhaps the largest political demonstration in human history. It is certainly the most high tech one. And the world is watchingólive.

A Beijing University biology student, who heads the student delegation that is negotiating with the government, delivers a speech by bullhorn in the Square. A Canadian television crew broadcasts a live interview with him. In Montreal, a television producer digitizes the video signal, and prints out a still photograph of the student. Chinese students studying there at McGill then fax the photo back to their former classmates at Beijing University. The students in Beijing write a short story beneath the picture and photocopy it. Then they hang it up as a wallposter, which, in turn, is broadcast on television again in an eyewitness report about how students are communicating in Tiananmen Square.

Amplified bullhorn. Broadcast TV. Digitized photograph. Phone and fax. Photocopier to wallposter. TV again. Full circle. Just one of many feedback loops of interacting electronic technologies.

But this is a story of people networks as well as technology networks. There were not only networks forming in Tiananmen Square, but all around the world. Global communications networks are leading to global people networks. Chinese students in overseas universities spontaneously organize support groups.

Back in Boston, about a mile from our office in Newton, an ecumenical center offers the use of its telephone and fax machine to Chinese students studying at places like Harvard, Brandeis and MIT. The New York Times mentions the center's action in an article and soon the media is there from around the world. Among them is a reporter from Voice of America who includes the center's telephone number in a broadcast into China.

Students in Tiananmen Square are listening. They write down the telephone number, pass it around, and start to call the center with first-hand accounts of the remarkable events in China.

Meanwhile, we get drawn into the story when a reporter from the San Jose Mercury News in California calls the editor of the World Future Society's magazine, The Futurist, to ask for the names of "futurists" who can comment on the relationship between the use of technology and the democracy movement in China. She then interviews us, which provokes more interviews, and soon we are getting calls from Kyoto, Toronto, Los Angeles, London.

Suddenly, June 3-4. The Army opens fire on unarmed demonstrators. Many are killed. As the shooting continues, survivors run back and forth to telephones. Eyewitness accounts are phoned out around the world. Reporters switch on their cellular telephones in Beijing and broadcast live. The world is watching and people are horrified.

For a few short moments, an extraordinary window for networking opens all around the world.

In Boston, we go to the ecumenical center to ask if we can help. Now collect calls from the students in Tiananmen Square who have the center's telephone number are constant. We expect to find banks of telephones and roomsful of fax machines. We are astonished to discover that this key international hub for communication consists of three telephone lines that ring on two physical telephones, one of which rests on a small coffee table, and the other of which is located a few rooms away! The fax machine is in an entirely separate building.

To help, we spread the word about the center's needs to the edges of our network. We tell everyone we see. We mention it to business associates. We follow up on every suggestion. We call strangers who have been suggested to us and ask them to help. Nearly everyone says yes. Some make even more calls.

A business meeting in our office with a former VP at Lotus leads to talk of the massacre and the needs of the center. He turns around and makes a number of calls, one to a senior executive at Ashton-Tate. This exec sends software but also calls around Boston for dbase consultants. One shows up two hours later, and is still involved, four months later.

Within a little more than a week, the Boston area students, who choose the name China Information Center, receive donations totalling $100,000 in equipment and services from Boston area businesses.

At the end of June, just as the initial networking peaks, the biology student, who had been in charge of the student delegation to the Chinese government while at Beijing University, calls the now famous center. He is Shen Tong, and he had memorized its telephone number while still in the Square. He has escaped from China, and has come to Boston where he plans to attend college. He is the first leader from Tiananmen Square to reach the U.S., and he wants to give a press conference at the center.

Less than forty-eight hours later, 50 journalists, including eight television crews, and reporters from as far away as Taiwan, convene for the press conference in the dining room of the ecumenical center. Dressed in a bright red t-shirt emblazoned with the "Goddess of Democracy" statue on the front and the Chinese characters for "freedom" and "democracy" on the back, the student describes the events in China. "We are the future," Shen Tong says. When asked why he has landed here, he simply recites the center's telephone number.

Now, what is China's lesson for us as we go about the business of the Information Age?

Driving Forces Leading to New Organizations

The Information Age has developed far enough for us to actually see driving forces at work. Let's look again at the China story.

Context for the story is set on the global stage.

Vastly increased global networks are leading to an increasingly interdependent global economy. This global economy is largely based on business-to-business and person-to-person relationships, rather than on state-to-state linkages. Playing in the world economy has brought a tendency towards open communications.

So, China's leadership, desiring to be part of the global economy, opened up communications. They did this technologically, such as by installing a new national telephone system. And they did it socially, such as by sending large numbers of students abroad.

But open communications also appears to generate a desire for democracy, for a more open political system. In China, communications and politics created a positive feedback loop. Events escalated to the dizzying hope expressed by the "Goddess of Democracy" and then culminated in the crushing horror of the massacre.

China's bottom line, its economy, is now in much worse shape. Its leadership seems locked in a contradiction between a closed society and open economy.

Clearly, international business has a major role in China's drama.

But, Tiananmen Square has a more direct message.

Organizations and societies must change to effectively use new information technologies and be part of the global economy. Closed societies need to become more open to be economically more competitive. And more open societies eventually lead to more democratic organization.

Does this apply to American business?

Will accelerating use of electronic and digitial technologies within a company lead to more decentralized and networked organizations?

Will increasingly peer-to-peer communications and increasingly more globally distributed work drive corporate organization to somehow less hierarchical and more "democractic" forms?

Yes, there is a lesson. New forms of communication lead to new forms of organization.

Imagine, if you will, Deng Xiaoping as the CEO of a multinational. Up from the ranks, this diminuative CEO has been a reform-minded leader, credited with saving the company years ago.

Then, he installs an enterprise-wide globally-distributed computer network that puts everyone in direct touch with everyone else. He pushes down decision-making, encourages creativity, stimulates joint ventures, and cuts red tape.

But when push comes to shove, this CEO also insists on traditional hierarchical control. He centralizes power in the hands of a small group of loyal executives.

The contradictions fed by the new technologies lead the company into turmoil. Mass firings result. The "old boys" win, but the company's finances and morale are in shambles. Its ability to compete internationally has been severely compromised.

It doesn't have to be this way. Rather than fighting the driving forces, put them at your back. Make them work for you. Let them provide new energy for getting where you want to go.

Corning Glassworks, now Corning Inc., provides one such example. Its chairman, James Houghton, recently wrote a New York Times essay entitled "The Age of the Hierarchy is Over." He asserts that over the last six years Corning has consciously restructured from a traditional corporate hierarchy to what the company calls a "global network." This, he says, is necessary to provide the "flexibility and strength" to meet growing international competition.

In the broad cultural context, global networks are being stimulated and shaped as the sociological response to electronic and digital technology. They are the unique response to the driving forces of information, just as hierarchy developed in the Agricultural Era and bureaucracy matured in the Industrial Era.

Network organizations based on global media are not only appearing in grassroots movements, as in China, and large-scale organizations, as in Corning, but in everyday work.

Global media are leading to a global workforce and global work. We will give one example very briefly here, which we will develop further in our workshop.

Remember Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine? It's a Data General story of a high-performance skunkworks development of a new computer. Skunkworks traditionally means bringing the best and brightest together in one place and locking them in, out of contact with the world, particularly headquarters.

Ours is a Digital Equipment story. A project we'll call "Clipper" also involved the design of a new machine.

In late 1986, senior marketing strategists spotted a "window of opportunity" opening in both the U.S. and Europe for a high-volume high-ticket product. Time, however, would be of the essence, because the field was crowded with competitors and the market surrounding the perceived niche opportunity was generally shrinking. Could they plan, design, test, market, manufacture, deliver, and service a new machine within a window that had at most a two-year horizon?

Fifteen months later, the new machine poured out to waiting customers from plants in New England, the Caribbean, and Europe, generating the steepest revenue ramp in the company's history. The window was wide open, the market loved the product, and the company reaped enormous benefits.

Clipper was a worldwide project that delivered a world-class product at a low cost in record time.

In the story of how this project went from concept to completion, everything came down to time. In the Information Economy, time is critical, such as trends requiring shorter "time to market." This team won its race against the clock.

What is noteworthy about this project, however, is the way it overcame what is generally considered a disabilityóthe project was scattered all over the globe. It was distributed work.

Fourteen primary sites were involved, from California to Europe. Marketing, engineering, and manufacturing were all major players. Outside partners, a vendor and a licensee, were also part of the network.

In the reality of today's marketplace, a project of this magnitude has to be carried out very quickly in an excellent communications environment. Communications is the way to cope with less time over more distance.

Communications makes interaction between people possible, and interaction builds relationships. Relationships are the links connecting the people who comprised the Clipper project.

Digitial, the epitomy of a high-tech company using the latest technology, is nevertheless a face-to-face culture. Trust and personal relationships enable things to get done at DEC. Computer communication does not replace the need for meetings, but can minimize the number of them and help maximize meeting preparation and follow-through.

Many technologies were employed to make Clipper work. Global media included phones and commuting jets working alongside electronic mail and conferencing.

One new media seemed particularly important to the project's success. It was the design database. As used, this became a smart communications medium.

Clipper's design was online. From the initial memos discussing objectives, through detailed specs, to completed drawings, the design database became "home base" to the worldwide team.

The database was an integral part of the electronic communications system. People not only received mail from other people, they also received mail from the database, triggered by changes which they deemed relevent.

Clipper's design database is a prototype of communications tools of the future for globally distributed work. Here was an online place that was an equally short distance from hundreds, even thousands, of people. Time was turned from an enemy to collaborator. Here work could be done in parallel, with marketing, manufacturing, engineering, vendor, and licensee all working on their respective parts of the puzzle simultaneously.

Global media are driving the development of global networks, large and small.

In the China story, the networks are grassroots groups, spontaneously developed and sustained by voluntary action. In the Clipper story, the network is institutional, an intentionally created distributed team pursuing a business goal.

Both are global in scope. Both use multiple technologies. Both have people-to-people relations at their core. And both have a distributed "node-link-purpose" structure.

Networks are the organizations of the future at work today.


Article provided by NetAge Inc., Newton, MA, USA.
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