Tips For Prospering in a Flat World

by Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2005

I’ve been reading, “The World is Flat,” by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and have some thoughts about what it takes to prosper, not just survive, in a flat world. Friedman’s main points were that in a world of globalization and the internet, there is nowhere to hide and that national or corporate arrogance and complacency are not ingredients for success.

Did you know that you can drive up to a McDonalds in Massachusetts, speak into the little box at the drive up menu board and have your order and photo taken by someone in Colorado and then have your hamburger and fries matched to your photo delivered to you 30 seconds faster than comparable drive thrus that don’t outsource their order taking. Yes…even McDonalds has begun to outsource. A Colorado Springs MacDonald’s Franchisee came up with the idea to use well-trained order takers in call centers who specialize and excel in order taking to do nothing but order taking. They can take your order and photo and transmit them back to Massachusetts almost instantaneously to ensure the proper matching of customer with burgers. You and that burger and fries then go on your happy way. Other MacDonald’s franchisees are beginning to adopt his innovation outside of the MacDonald’s corporate structure. They’re not waiting for corporate to sanction the innovation.

Someone somewhere is thinking of better ways to get things done and that someone may not be an American. How can we in our arrogance continue to think that all those very bright people in other countries are not going to be able to compete with us? India is spitting out 70,000 accountants per year who go to work starting at $100.00 per month. Over 100,000 IRS returns were outsourced to India in 2004 and the number will only continue to grow according to Accounting Today. “With the help of high-speed communications, stringent training, and standardized forms, these young Indians can fairly rapidly be converted into basic Western accountants at a fraction of the cost.”

China is trying to figure out how the 10 top graduate research programs in the world do what they do and then they plan on using that knowledge to build their own world-class universities. Don’t think they can do it? Europe didn’t think we could do it 100 years ago. It just took one wealthy man (J.D. Rockefeller Sr.) and a bunch of his millions to start the University of Chicago and the Rockefeller Foundation (which funded the first real medical research in our country). The internet is making knowledge readily available to any country that invests well. China and the rest of Asia is investing.

Now, what does this mean for the man/woman on the street? Simply put – relationship building skills will matter. A concrete example - Accountants. If all the accounting grunt work can be easily outsourced to lower paid but equally competent accountants in India, then the accountant in the U.S. who can manage relationships (meaning sell) will prosper. The U.S. accountant will secure the business, build and maintain the long-term relationships and be there when the client needs answers. More importantly, they can be proactive and think about ways to help their clients vs. just doing their taxes. The one-person accounting firm, characterized by the January – April crunch where you can’t talk to him/her because they are working 16 hour days, will lose to the other one-person firms that outsources all the grunt work. Yes, one-person firms can outsource just like the big fellas.

When I need admin work done, I hire a virtual assistant. Frees me up to do what I do best…interact with my clients. My webmaster moved to France and it makes no difference to me. He updates my website while sipping French wine…at the source. That’s what a flat world enables.

According to L. Gary Boomer, a CPA and CEO of Boomer Consulting, “The accounting profession is currently in transformation. Those who get caught in the past and resist change will be forced deeper into commoditization. Those who can create value through leadership, relationships and creativity will transform the industry, as well as strengthen relationships with their existing clients.” I can't imagine any profession where his statement isn't applicable.

Tips for success:

Examine your work situation and ask:

  1. What’s my true value add? Focus on the results you achieve, not what you do.
  2. What do I do that can’t be easily commoditized?
  3. What do I do that can’t be easily outsourced?
  4. What can I delegate?

Then capitalize (do more of) on numbers 1 - 3 and market that value proposition whether internally (if you work for someone) or externally. You must establish your "value differentiation" from your competitors. For example, for number 1, I don't tell people I do executive coaching - it pigeon holes me and puts me into a category filled with thousands of other folks. I do much more than executive coaching. I tell people that "I maximize the effectiveness of executives, executive teams and organizations by helping them improve their ability to lead, work together, select and develop their people." That's my value differentiation.

Number 4 is the most difficult for most executives because it means reevaluating and reapportioning the time you spend using all that expertise you developed during your formative years. You have to embrace that the higher up the ladder you climb the less technical abilities (e.g., computer programming, bookkeeping/accounting, etc.) matter (see graph above). Yes, you have to understand your business and be excellent at it (domain expertise) but, you should be spending most of your time creating, leading, managing, developing relationships and advising others. That's where you can showcase your true value and allow you to differentiate and stand head and shoulders above your competition.