What does ‘New Power’ mean for business?

I've attended a couple of events recently where some particularly strong themes were evident. Everything came back to fundamental shifts in power and the trend towards participation and collaboration - all intrinsically linked and it's since led me to reflect on what this all means for business.

What does ‘New Power’ mean for business?

Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans recently discussed their concept of ‘New Power’ (from the excellent book of the same name) which proposes that the nature of power has changed, with new power models increasingly shaping the future. There are various themes that underlie this shift but perhaps the most notable is that of participation and our (by which I mean people in general) growing ability and desire to be consulted, actively involved in how we consume ideas, products and services, and be part of the solution to the issues we face in society. One thing seems abundantly clear: this is having the most profound effect on business and all companies will need to understand these shifts and trends very quickly in order to survive and thrive in the future.

For example, what does it mean for the values of an organisation? All models of participation require a business to be open and transparent and to believe in being part of the solution, rather than the solution. What fate awaits businesses which are perceived to be too proprietary and stifling progress, desperately trying to hold onto power by jealously guarding their intellectual property or keeping secrets? Facebook is perhaps the most famous (and successful) example of a participative business model – each and every Facebook user contributes to its success by sharing details of their lives but will it thrive into the long-term if the way it uses this data continues to be shrouded in secrecy?

Open innovation – companies opening up their innovation processes to others – is now everywhere and is leading to a completely different way of doing business. From Tesla opening up all of its patents to speed up innovation for the advancement of electric vehicle technology and to increase the overall market for electric vehicles (Tesla alone will not be able to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis we face); or to more traditional companies such as GSK, which has developed its open innovation strategy to share its expertise and intellectual property with external researchers and the scientific community in order to more effectively tackle disease in the developing world.

What all these companies have in common is a purpose that is bigger than the company itself. They acknowledge that they operate in an industry and a world facing massive challenges and huge disruption. Back to Timms and Heimans, it’s a New Power participative approach, not an Old Power struggle to rule over everyone else. It’s as Unilever’s Paul Polman said after he took part in the launch of the Natural Capital Declaration at the Rio+20 convention centre in 2012, “We have to bring this world back to sanity and put the greater good ahead of self-interest.”

Yet as I frequently see first-hand, transitioning from Old Power to New Power strategies can be a monumental shift for traditional, hierarchical companies and leaders. And these trends are disrupting every facet of a business, not just the commercial side. Employees are a prime example. They now want to be active influencers, involved in top-level processes, and satisfying these expectations goes far beyond run-of-the-mill surveying or an ideas box. The risks of not giving them these opportunities are increasingly significant: employee satisfaction rates will plummet, it will be hard to attract and retain talent, and crucially, companies will miss out on new and fresh perspectives from across the business.

As Sam Conniff Allende urged in his stirring keynote address at the recent ICRS Exchange, we – organisations and individuals – need to ‘be more pirate’ to face up to the huge challenges we face (the book of the same name is another must-read). This requires wholesale changes in the way we organise ourselves and do things. Embrace it.

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