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Published: May 30, 2006

 
 

The Megacommunity Manifesto

Public, private, and civil leaders should confront together the problems that none can solve alone.

Illustration by David Plunkert
Leaders everywhere no longer express as much confidence about the future as they once did. When they speak candidly, it often sounds as if they feel trapped in quicksand, unable to move forward easily. The methods and tools that helped them succeed in the past no longer work. The challenges they face — such as global competitiveness, health and environmental risks, or inadequate infrastructure — can no longer be solved by their organizations alone. And when they try to reach beyond the boundaries of their own corporation, government agency, or nongovernmental organization, there often is no clear pathway to success.

In multinational corporations, for example, “everybody is frozen,” says American Express Chairman and CEO Kenneth Chenault. “What has not kept pace in the business world is an understanding of how the uncertainty of the geopolitical environment has impacted business.” The ability to seize opportunities or make a profit often depends on unfamiliar and unpredictable factors, such as the reputation of the company and its grasp of changing trends.

Meanwhile, governments, which were previously relied upon to manage the problems of public society, can no longer spend or regulate their way into requisite solutions. “In the past, corporations could depend on the fact that government defined the answers,” says Stephen Merrill, formerly the governor of New Hampshire and currently president of Bingham Consulting Group LLC. But now, he says, business leaders are afraid that “government doesn’t even understand the questions.”

Moreover, there is a subtle but detectable waning of confidence within the public sector as governments around the world find themselves accountable for issues without easy answers: the changing role of the military; new economic uncertainties as emerging and established industries compete; and rising costs of health care. These problems often occur at an unprecedented and almost incomprehensibly vast scale. For example, as former World Trade Organization Director-General Renato Ruggiero notes, “Our current Western society fails to acknowledge two megatrends: the world population growth in the next decade, and the fact that this growth will be primarily driven from nonindustrialized countries. This will increase the immigration pressures at our borders and cause a change in the demographic structure.”

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), for their part, are finding that although expanding communications and the Internet have given them more voice than ever before, the demand for their work has increased commensurately, competition for funding has escalated, and they no longer understand constituents’ needs as easily as they used to. “We’ve had blinders on,” says Paul Leonard, the former CEO of Habitat for Humanity International. “We need to change course, to become more of a partner and a player; more knowledgeable about the large systems that exist and the role we can play in them.”

The root cause of the challenges confronting these leaders is complexity: the growing density of linkages among people, organizations, and issues all across the world. Because people communicate so easily across national and organizational boundaries, the conventional managerial decision-making style — in which a boss exercises decision rights or delegates them to subordinates — is no longer adequate. Solutions require multi-organizational systems that are larger and more oriented to multilateral action than conventional cross-sector approaches are. In such systems, the most successful leaders are not those with the best technical solutions, the most compelling vision, or the most commanding and charismatic style. The “winners” are those who understand how to intervene and influence others in a larger system that they do not control. We call this type of larger system a “megacommunity.”

Three-Sector Intersection
A megacommunity is a public sphere in which organizations and people deliberately join together around a compelling issue of mutual importance, following a set of practices and principles that will make it easier for them to achieve results. Like a business environment, a megacommunity contains organizations that sometimes compete and sometimes collaborate. But a megacommunity is not strictly a business niche. Nor is it a public–private partnership, which is typically an alliance focused on a relatively narrow purpose. A megacommunity is a larger ongoing sphere of interest, where governments, corporations, NGOs, and others intersect over time. The participants remain interdependent because their common interest compels them to work together, even though they might not see or describe their mutual problem or situation in the same way.

 
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Resources

  1. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, The World Café: Shaping Our Futures through Conversations That Matter (Berrett-Koehler, 2005): Megacommunity-oriented methodology.
  2. Amitai Etzioni, From Empire to Community: A New Approach to Industrial Relations (Palgrave, 2004): The founder of communitarianism posits a global society with megacommunity-like qualities.
  3. William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (Currency Doubleday, 1999): Theory and practice for conversations across boundaries.
  4. Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (Random House, 1992): Why political (guardian) and business (trader) leaders routinely misunderstand each other.
  5. Art Kleiner, “Daniel Yankelovich: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Fall 2005: Illuminates the corporate role in broader engagement and the value of dialogue. Click here.
  6. Art Kleiner, “The Dilemma Doctors,” s+b, Second Quarter 2001: Profile of cultural researchers Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner includes a more complete explanation of “universalism.” Click here.
  7. Beth Kytle and John G. Ruggie, “Corporate Social Responsibility as Risk Management,” Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative Working Paper no. 4, March 2005: Strategies for managing the “social risk” that is possible when corporations and civil society meet. Click here.
  8. John Larkin, Ellen Knebel, and Joshua Trevino, “How MNCs Can Fight the War on HIV/AIDS,” s+b, Winter 2004: Corporate role and rationale for getting involved in a highly complex problem. Click here.
  9. George Lodge and Craig Wilson, A Corporate Solution to Global Poverty: How Multinationals Can Help the Poor and Invigorate Their Own Legitimacy (Princeton University Press, 2006): Harvard professor and International Finance Corporation economist propose a “World Development Corporation” to bring the three sectors together on poverty reduction — in effect, through megacommunities.
  10. “Urban Enterprise Initiative” Web page, William J. Clinton Foundation: Site for the former Harlem Small Business Initiative. Click here.
  11. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds. Click here.
 
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