The growing network divide: What it means for your company and your career

Today's digital divide is about whether your network is designed to be a growth engine for your business or whether it’s holding you back

The growing network divide: What it means for your company and your career

We’re leaving the Information Age and entering the Network Age, at least that’s what Joshua Cooper Ramo argues in his compelling and thought-provoking business book, The Seventh Sense.

As we move to digitize everything from retail and services to cities and healthcare, networks are the secret sauce at the center of new business models. They separate the winners from the losers. They transform industries, social movements, governments and our everyday lives.

Networks are more than just the hidden magic that keeps us connected to each other and to all of our stuff. They are also at the heart of competitive advantage and the source of disruptions that are sweeping through every industry. They’re changing the way we live and do business.

Wouldn’t you like to be in the business of “yes”?

As companies move to digitize, we need to rethink the way we build networks and deliver value. We need to do for networks what the Agile movement did for software. That means moving from hierarchical, slow and closed systems to agile, programmable and open ones. In IT, in particular, we need to go from being in the business of saying “No” to being in the business of saying “Yes” to our line of business colleagues. We need to make the network a platform for innovation that accelerates business value and growth, rather than hinders it.

The stakes have never been higher for you and your business. The rate of change has never been faster. The stress, perhaps, has never been greater.

Network haves and network have-nots

If you believe as I do that we’re in the Network Age, then you won’t be surprised that we’re seeing the emergence of the network haves and the network have-nots.

This isn’t like the “Digital Divide” of the early days of the internet where you either had internet access or you did not. Today, the divide is about whether your network is designed to help be a growth engine for your business or whether it’s holding your business back. Before that gap gets so large it can’t be bridged, you need to decide which side your company will be on—and which side you’ll pick for yourself and your career. Modern networks, and the network effects they deliver, will ultimately decide which companies thrive and which go by the wayside.

Is your network the silent killer of your business?

There are career implications that are at least as important as the business ones. We can learn from recent history about what happens to companies and people that miss paradigm shifts in technology: they disappear into irrelevance.

Approximately 60 percent of the companies on Fortune’s list of the 500 largest companies in the mid-1990s are no longer on that list today, just 20 years later. These were some of the largest companies in the world, yet many couldn’t retain their status because they missed the transition to the internet. For many, their systems proved to be the silent killer of their business, while several of the companies that filled the open slots—think Google, Amazon, Facebook—were born from the internet movement.

In 1995, Sears was #9 and Kmart #15 on the Fortune 500, with combined revenue of almost $89 billion. Today, they’re a single company, #111 on the list, with revenue of $25 billion. In 1995, Amazon had just launched. Today, they’re #18 with revenues of $107 billion.

There’s a new wave of technology change, perhaps even more disruptive, as we embrace cloud services, mobility, data analytics and the underlying new IP networks that unleash new and rapid business innovation. Like the last wave, it will sweep through every industry, disrupting, creating, destroying and remaking the landscape. You can embrace it or be overwhelmed by it, but it will be impossible to ignore or outrun.

As one person put it to me best, as we discussed the changes facing our industry:

“You may not get fired for picking the status quo, but you might get laid off.”

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