To guru, or not to guru? That is the question
While some historians date globalization from 1492 when Christopher Columbus stumbled on the Americas in search of spices, in business the term has been in vogue since the 1990s.
As academics began to parse rules for what constituted national, international, multinational or global firms, a handful sprang to international fame. It was the rise of the gurus. Michael Porter helped us devise strategies for this world, new to business, of exchanging knowledge, trade and capital around the globe. Rosabeth Moss Kanter advised large-scale firms how to change with agility. And Sumantra Ghoshal – literally acknowledged as a guru in his obituary in The Economist – taught us how to identify ‘the smell of the place’; that is, organizational culture.
Managers lined up to attend business school courses led by these gurus, and firms hired them as consultants. Their ideas were big, new and exciting, and they helped managers make broad sense of the emerging, interconnected world.
Of course, the messy, complex reality of business and the beauty of the perfect theory were never a complete match, so outcomes were somewhat lumpy. For example, having worked with thousands of managers compiling lists of strategic strengths and weaknesses, it was often a struggle to write authentic lists that weren’t just a mirror image of the other. (Strength = our specialist knowledge; weakness = falling behind and losing our specialist knowledge? Er, no.)
What has happened to gurus since those heady days? There have certainly been many extensions and refinements of the ideas of truly great thinkers: like a computer program, new strings of code have been added, but they are extrapolations rather than innovations.
For thinking systemically about our world, the ground seems largely to have been ceded to political economists, who don’t often translate their fascinating analysis into cogent lessons for business. Increasingly, innovative ideas come from technophiles (digitization, AI, bitcoin) which, while impressive and world-altering, are not general management theories. They will change all our lives, but there is no neat theory on the exact impact on business, just lots of speculation. It’s up to managers to work out how to apply these innovations to business, helped along by consultants.
The second big change has been the advent of the internet. Rather than living inside the heads of a handful of gifted individuals, ideas are searchable and readily available. Similar to modern supply chains, ideas are hard to track: it’s tricky to understand who started a trend of thought, or who it belongs to. Ideas belong to us all. The world of TED Talks is full of great ideas from thousands of people.
The third big change has been the advent of entirely new business models, which academics and regulatory authorities are chasing rather than predicting. The biggest taxi service with no cars – Uber – and the largest hotel chain with no buildings – Airbnb – follow Google, Facebook and Amazon as tax efficient (or tax avoiding, depending upon your outlook) monopolies which require international cooperation among governments to control.
We advise business leaders today to act radically differently from their predecessors at the back end of the last century. Being the boss used to mean knowing everything and issuing orders down the line. In contrast, the advice today is to be curious, open to learning and to ask great questions. For me, it’s exactly the same with gurus. My advice to any board would be to assemble a bunch of interesting and diverse people, including many from inside your organization so that they own and deliver on the decisions, and hire a great facilitator to talk through some ideas. Don’t guru, crowd-source.