Revolution Abroad, Revolution at Home?

As I write this, the spark of revolution in the Middle East that began in Tunisia and toppled the leader of Egypt has spread to Bahrain and Libya. There are rumblings that China may be next. It won’t stop there.

Somewhere down the road, the same forces that are reshaping national leadership will attack two other institutions: corporate management and management education. Be prepared.

It would be an exaggeration to claim the Internet and social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook were the primary facilitators of the recent uprisings. Egypt shut down the Internet inside the country, after all, and the revolt continued unabated. However, to miss the significance to these events of what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a recent speech called “connection technologies” is to ignore overwhelming evidence.

Citizens around the globe are more connected than ever before. Billions have access to the Internet, billions more to mobile phones capable of text messaging and data services, and social tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Skype number their users in the hundreds of millions. Nations may sever these links for a time, but the costs to their economic and political health will be overwhelming, as Egypt discovered. There is exponentially more information being exchanged person-to-person within countries like Egypt and Libya than ever before, as well as coming in from the outside and being disseminated to the world. People can organize and express themselves in ways that were inconceivable even a few years ago.

Whether dictators will co-opt these technologies faster than their people can exploit them is an important question that I will leave to the international relations experts. I’d like to highlight some implications that hit closer to home.

The folk singer and political activist Woody Guthrie had a slogan written on his guitar: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” He meant that music can educate, inspire and motivate people to rise up against oppression. Every mobile phone–and there are 5 billion of them in the world today–should have a similar legend: “This Machine Kills Hierarchy.” The peer-to-peer information that flows through connected personal devices and the Internet will do more to undermine closed centralized regimes than decades of Voice of America or BBC World Service broadcasts. They will do the same to closed centralized regimes in other contexts, namely the corporate world and education.

Those of us who teach business and those of you who practice it are in the same position as Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak. We have talent and resources. We also have a great deal of control. That control promotes efficiency and prevents anarchy. All of that is not enough, though, when our students and employees and partners and competitors can learn from each other.

Smart managers understand this today. They allow or even encourage their employees to blog, with appropriate policies to protect confidentiality and corporate interests. They see social media as a chance to apply the science of marketing and operations to online forms of organic social interaction, rather than digital window-dressing for delivery of the corporate message. They incorporate tools and techniques from the burgeoning world of digital games to address serious business challenges. And they recognize that today’s entry-level workers don’t remember a world without computers (even if they do), while tomorrow’s will not remember one without the Internet, Google, Facebook or smartphones. If this doesn’t describe the companies you’re associated with or follow, now is the time to ask, “Why not?”

Those forward-looking business leaders should take one more step: press institutions that train businesspeople to do the same. At Wharton, we’re exploring numerous forms of innovation. It’s one of Dean Robertson’s pillars for the School, and Vice Dean Karl Ulrich’s entire portfolio. Still, we and our peers should do more.

I’m not advocating technology for technology’s sake, or chasing the buzzwords of the  new economy the way so many did during the dot-com bubble. Rather, I’m proposing that in everything we do, we consider the challenges posed by a digitally connected world, and the opportunities that world presents to us.

The Internet as a commercial phenomenon is nearly two decades old. Many techniques for digital insight and learning within business and education are already well-grounded. Others are more nascent, but promising. All we know for sure is that digital connectivity will continue to grow denser and more pervasive. Blocking it out is not an option. Just ask Hosni Mubarak.

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