Collaborating in a Flat World


August 2006

Collaborating in a Flat World

CIDMIconNewsletter Bill Hackos, Comtech Services

“It is this triple convergence—of new players, on a new playing field, developing new processes and habits for horizontal collaboration—that I believe is the most important force shaping global economics and politics in the early twenty-first century. Giving so many people access to all these tools of collaboration, along with the ability through search engines and the Web to access billions of pages of raw information, ensures that the next generation of innovations will come from all over Planet Flat. The scale of the global community that is soon going to be able to participate in all sorts of discovery and innovation is something the world has never seen before.” (Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat

Prior to 1492, people lived in small communities in relative isolation from the rest of the world. With the advent of exploration, a few people could travel at great expense. Around 1800, the world changed (flattened a little). People began to move more easily by steam power and other improved systems. Ordinary people could move at a reasonable cost in time and money. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, improvements in communication have made it possible to communicate without physically transporting people or paper (flatter still). With the telecom boom of the 90s and the bust of 2000, a surplus of communication bandwidth has lead to extremely inexpensive instantaneous global communication. Geography is no longer an impediment to communicating. These phenomena, along with relaxing of political barriers to communication, has flattened the world once again. We are in the midst of a world revolution on a par with the development of the printing press or the discovery of the New World.

The theme book for the 2006 Best Practices Conference is The World Is Flat: A Short History of the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Friedman. Friedman considers what the world flattening means to Americans and the rest of the world. How will life change for all of us? Who will be the winners and losers? How can we ethically manage the inevitable disruption? The theme of the Best Practices 2006 conference is “Collaborating in a Flat World.” I strongly suggest that you read Friedman’s book before the Best Practices Conference in September. If you can’t make it to the conference, read Friedman anyway. He gives us insight into how we in technical communication need to cope (and capitalize) on the revolutionary changes we are living through in the early 21st century. Friedman has come out with a revised, expanded second edition of his book. For the purposes of this review, I am using the original edition.

Why has the world changed so much in the past few decades? Friedman provides some answers. He defines ten forces that have flattened the world since 1989. Briefly, they are (in the terminology of information developers):

End of the Cold War. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union began to unravel. The Cold War was over. Countries around the world no longer had to choose sides, no longer needed to prepare for war, and could pursue their own economic agendas. Suddenly, the potential work force available to North American and European corporations was greatly increased.

Commercialization of the Internet. In 1993, Netscape developed the first browser, Mosaic. At about the same time, the Internet became available to commercial users. The world now had a tool to provide instant communications everywhere. In 1993, there were twelve Mosaic users. Today, hundreds of millions are connected to the Internet. And it’s a major player in the world economy.

Development of interconnectible software. During the late nineties, software was developed that is interconnectible. The Internet became easier and easier to use. E-commerce allowed for the transfer of money over the Internet.

Rise of open-source software. With the development of open-source software, people everywhere, including the Third World, could obtain free software they could modify and extend. At the same time, free software provided a learning opportunity for third-world programmers who could get started in competitive businesses with almost no capital investment. It leveled the playing field across the world.

Opening up of India and China. With the end of the Cold War, both India and China changed their economic policies to allow for the development of some capitalism. For the first time, an ambitious and well-educated workforce was available to the world.

Start of offshoring. After the bust, the recession following created competitive pressure on North American and European companies to cut costs by using the inexpensive but competent emerging labor force available in the Third World.

Development of supply chaining. With cheap communications and improved shipping, North American and European corporations began to look worldwide for products, supplies, and services they needed to maintain their operations. It was no longer cost effective for organizations to handle all of the manufacturing and services they needed internally.

Outsourcing non-core competencies. It is no longer cost effective for organizations to handle all of the manufacturing and services they need internally. Organizations can now outsource all but their core competencies more cheaply and efficiently than they can perform these functions themselves.

Availability of vast amounts of information online. For the first time in history, huge amounts of information are available to anyone in the world who has a connection to the Internet. I can find if it’s raining now in Timbuktu or read the menu of the best restaurant on Main Street in Peoria within seconds. More substantive content is becoming available as the world’s libraries begin to go online. Information is no longer restricted to the world’s wealthy.

Flood of personal communication devices worldwide. Anyone in the world can now have access to the Internet, cell phones, wireless email, GPS, and more. Individuals can now get as much information and have the same access to information as giant corporations.

Except for the end of the Cold War, all of the forces that Friedman considers have been developed within the last 15 years and have been dependent on a glut of inexpensive communications infrastructure developed by the telecommunications industry during the boom. All but the end of the Cold War and the opening up of India and China are technological improvements in communications or management.

“Why is the world changing so fast right now?” Friedman asks, especially considering that many of the technological improvements he describes have been in development for many years. Friedman describes a “triple convergence,” the coming together of forces, each of which alone could have resulted in limited changes. Together, these forces complement and build on each other to result in the revolutionary changes we are seeing today.

Friedman’s first convergence is the convergence of technologies, including the Internet, which has leveled the playing field all over the world. Geography is no longer an impediment to communication. Proximity to sources of information or to markets is no longer an advantage except for those occupations where touch or personal contact are required, such as physicians. Even physicians may lose parts of their jobs that don’t require contact. Your doctor may use a billing service in China and radiologists in India to read his digital X-rays.

The second convergence is collaboration (the theme of the Best Practices 2006 Conference). We have been forced to learn to collaborate with colleagues in distant locations through our companies’ acquisitions. Outsourcing and offshoring are extensions to what we have learned from acquisitions. Sure, there are cultural and language impediments, but these problems will ease over time.

The third convergence, according to Friedman, is the emergence of India, China, and Eastern Europe. In the last few years, the governments of these countries have embraced capitalism and, to some extent, free trade. This move has opened up new markets for our products, as well as vastly increasing the available, educated labor force.

All of these convergences acting together have resulted in the flat world revolution. All government and commercial organizations around the world have been affected. They now perceive their market to be the world and the labor pool to be the world, as well.

What does all of this mean to Europeans and North Americans? Friedman is optimistic that there are great benefits to the Western world, but, at the same time, there are great challenges and the potential for great disruption. Friedman sees a “quiet crisis” in the United States that will determine how we fare in the future. To maintain and improve our standard of living in this flat world, we must meet these challenges, but he reports that things are not going very well for us. He defines three “Dirty Little Secrets.” These are not secrets to any American who is aware of current events. Unfortunately, too few Americans and too few technical writers are aware of this quiet crisis.

  • Friedman’s first “dirty little secret” is that the United States is falling behind other countries in science and engineering. Half of America’s scientists and engineers are over 40 years old. With little perceived opportunity, young Americans are not entering these occupations as frequently as they have in the past. In some of the Third World countries, a much larger percentage of students study science and engineering. In engineering, Asian universities produce eight times as many bachelors’ degrees as the United States. At the same time, as a scientist who changed to a non-science career after failing to find opportunities and as an employer who has hired engineering graduates who fail to find jobs in their chosen areas, I can understand why American students tend to shun science and engineering. If opportunities for science and engineering open up in the future, will Americans be able to fill the need?
  • The second dirty little secret is ambition. When we begin to offshore writing to Third World countries we see a loss of productivity compared to using North American or European writers because of cultural issues and lack of experience. But soon, productivity soars over what is achieved with domestic writers. Third-world writers see their jobs as an incredible opportunity to raise their standard of living and their family’s standard of living. They get a salary much greater than others in their country, even though it is low by Western standards. By contrast, North American and European writers see their jobs as a way to get enough money to pay their bills while giving them enough time for their “personal life.” Western writers don’t have the same incentive to raise their station in life. In a discussion of the awe of Western technology in the Third World, Friedman says “In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears—and that is the problem.”
  • The third secret is the education gap. American education, particularly in science and technology, is dismal and declining. Teachers are pressured to stress reading, writing, and arithmetic to maximize scores on required state standardized tests. Good students are not challenged and don’t develop intense interests in science and technology. In the event that some students develop such interests, they face the hurdle of expensive tuitions in the best universities. In the United States, excellence in education is mostly for the wealthy. Both India and China however, realize the value of technical educations. Their governments put much more of their resources into education. The result is that even the Third World countries are pulling ahead of North America and Europe in producing scientists and engineers and in scientific and engineering research.

Friedman ends by pointing out that, although the world is flattening, it is still far from flat. Less than 1 percent of India’s population benefits from the celebrated high-tech movement there. Today, 380 million people in India subsist on less than one dollar a day. In Africa, one million people die each year from malaria. AIDS is orphaning millions of children in Africa. In the Middle East, war and repression are destroying whole societies. Global warming is proceeding unchecked. Unless these and other problems are addressed, we have no hope of making the world truly flat by bringing everyone into the flat world economy. And, if we were to succeed, can the earth support a world population as wasteful of resources as the North Americans and Europeans?

Despite Friedman’s discussion of the “unflat” world, I find him to be overly optimistic about the future. Most of his case derives from interviews with corporate leaders who have an incentive to justify their offshoring to obtain cheap labor and laying off of their most expensive, high-seniority employees. Friedman clearly believes that what is good for American corporations is good for Americans. American corporations want to promote that attitude. It is not a coincidence that many corporations are using Friedman’s book as required reading for their management staffs. I would have liked to learn more about the views of employees who have been disrupted by the corporations. It could have lead to a more balanced analysis but may have sold fewer copies.

I was dismayed by Friedman’s attack on the Moslem world’s acceptance of Islam throughout a section titled “Too Frustrated,” page 391. For example, in a glaring lack of judgment, he criticizes the Islamic treatment of the Qu’ran as impeding scientific and technical development in the Moslem world. Friedman forgets that many people, worldwide, including in North America and Europe, consider other values more important than economic development. Each society must establish its own values. These values may or may not be friendly to the development of science and technology. In all societies, including the United States, only a small minority of people are literate in science and technology. We, as information developers, are part of that small minority.

In spite of Friedman’s awe of corporations and lapses of judgment, I recommend The World is Flat for CIDM Best Practices 2006 Conference participants, as well as for all information developers to read. As information developers, we are living on the cusp of the flat world changes. Our lives have been affected first and more strongly than the average North American or European. We will have to adapt first if we want to remain information developers.

What is Friedman telling us as information developers?

  • Every increase in globalism (flattening) throughout history has been ultimately beneficial for the world economy. Friedman expects the same now. New markets are being created for products we document. Our companies will benefit.
  • Many information developers will be disrupted by offshoring as we experience more competition for our jobs. Those of use who are not able or willing to compete will be forced to leave the discipline.
  • Survival in the new economy will depend on how well each of us can compete in the expanding labor market. We must be more ambitious, harder working, and better educated than our third-world competition
  • Protectionist laws will only be able to delay the inevitable.
  • Those of us who survive the disruption will reap the benefits through more satisfying jobs and greater income.

Is the prognosis positive or negative? It depends on each of us! CIDMIconNewsletter

About the Author


Bill Hackos
Vice President
Comtech Services, Inc.

Dr. Hackos has worked with companies in the United States and Europe, helping them solve their publications management problems. He has been heavily involved in many benchmarking projects related to publications management. Dr. Hackos has also helped in the design of graphic user interfaces that are easy to learn and to use. With 30 years’ experience in the computer industry, Dr. Hackos understands how to increase the usability of products.