The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006
Pages: 488 + vii pp
Price: $27.5

Thomas Friedman’s analysis of the twenty-first century is a best-seller for good reason: it is a remarkably clear-headed and accessible overview of the impact of the confusing and complex array of recent events, trends and circumstances and what they mean for individuals, organizations and countries. The book is a handy, but reliable and insightful, guide to what Friedman deftly characterizes as the “flattening” of the globe.

New York Times Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and author, Friedman starts out by identifying “ten forces that flattened the world”, a convenient but sobering overview of the extraordinary confluence of events and innovations within the short span of almost two decades: the fall of the Berlin Wall and Windows going up in November 1989; Netscape going public in August 1995; the introduction of work flow software in the mid-1990s; the rise of selforganizing collaborative communities also in the mid-1990s; Y2K and outsourcing to India; China joining the World Trade Organization in December 2001 which gave a significant boost to “off-shoring”; the rise of the supply-chain at such companies as Wal-Mart; “in-sourcing”, a new form of collaboration and creating value horizontally in which UPS, among others, provides services for other corporations under their name; the emergence of Google and ever increasingly powerful Web-based search capacities; and the arrival of digital wireless mobile devices (or “the steroids” as Friedman calls them). Whew!

It’s hard to remember the sequencing of these forces, let alone how quickly they emerged or to fathom the exponential power of their interrelatedness. But it is not Friedman’s aim to provide a definitive history or theory of global change. Rather, his strength is providing a fast-paced review of our extraordinary recent history through his signature style of interesting anecdotes, zippy language and succinct interpretation.

Friedman goes on to suggest that a “triple convergence” of factors adds up to a perfect storm of revolutionary economic change. The first is the “creation of a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration…in real time, without regard to geography, distance or, in the near future, even language.” The second is the emergence of new forms of business and cooperation that utilize the platform created by the Web that are less about command and control and more about connecting and collaborating horizontally. The third is the entry of 3 billion new people into the new, more horizontal playing field, primarily from China, India and other societies that had been only marginal participants in the earlier world economic system.

As a result of this triple convergence, Friedman argues that “global collaboration and competition — between individuals and individuals, companies and individuals, companies and companies and companies and customers — have been made cheaper, easier, more friction-free and more productive for more people from more corners of the earth than at any time in the history of the world” — a view that is perhaps hyperbolic, but undoubtedly accurate.

Nonprofits must be alert and open to the increasingly inclusive, frictionless and transparent world ever more available to everyone around the globe.

The impact of “the flattening world” on nonprofits has been and will continue to be profound, even though many nonprofits have yet to be aware of the full measure of transformation that is happening under their noses. It’s not sufficient for a nonprofit to merely have a good website — that’s far too passive. It’s not sufficient to have a strong information systems platform — that’s simply the platform. It’s not sufficient to Google — that’s just a convenient way to retrieve and sort increasing masses of available information. Like corporations (and governments), nonprofits need to “glocalize”, maintaining local presence and focus while understanding and incorporating a global perspective. They must be alert and open to the increasingly inclusive, frictionless and transparent world that is ever more available to everyone around the globe. And they must actively, and enthusiastically, play a part in that world even though it will probably mean they must reinvent themselves to do so.

To listen to some of the critics, though, you would think that globalization was only about the spread of crass capitalism, global brands, fast food, and consumer values all crowdingout warm, cozy, thriving local communities, industries, and cultures.… But globalization is not simply about the spread of capitalism of markets or enhanced trade. It is not an exclusively economic phenomenon and its impact is not exclusively economic. It is a much broader, deeper, and more complex phenomenon, involving new forms of communication and innovation. The flattening of the world is about the creation of a global platform for multiple forms of sharing work, knowledge, and entertainment.Worrying about the pulverizing effects of globalization is very legitimate, indeed very important, but ignoring its ability also to empower individuals and enrich our cultural cornucopia misses its potentially positive effects on human freedom and diversity… The iron law of globalization is very simple: If you think it is all good, or you think it is all bad, you don’t get it. Globalization has empowering and disempowering, homogenizing and particularizing, democratizing and authoritarian tendencies all built into it. It is about the global market, but it is also about the Internet and Google.

— Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat

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