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(originally published by Booz & Company)


HP Engineers a Megacommunity

The megacommunity approach has several notable qualities. First, it takes advantage of self-interest. It doesn’t require leaders of organizations to give up their drive for personal wealth, power, or status. Nor does it require organizations to forfeit their own objectives. Individuals and organizations come to megacommunities when they recognize that the problems facing them are more complex than they can solve alone.

Second, as stakeholders scale up and out from their immediate situation, they naturally take on larger social goals. At one meeting, a senior finance manager of one corporation — a person whom I might never have expected to become an advocate for peace — said, “War is now obsolete. War in any country harms our company because we do business in every country.” A high-level government leader at another meeting acknowledged that the interests of insurance companies had given him the backing he needed to support efforts to slow down global climate change.

Third, megacommunity processes provide a natural platform for helping a region deal effectively with the goals of global competitiveness (on one hand) and the need for local quality of life and equity (on the other). As the megacommunity work engenders foresight and awareness among the leaders of a region’s organizations, they become better equipped to reconcile these seemingly incompatible objectives.

Finally, megacommunity processes may innately contribute to creating a global middle class, a goal that former U.S. President Bill Clinton, among others, has identified as the most critical goal of our time. Ultimately, a well-designed megacommunity process may fulfill the role that participatory democracy (town meetings and so forth) once played in a simpler world, enabling the whole to perceive and take care of all parts of itself.

Though no two initiatives could ever be the same, I hope that in telling the story of our African endeavor I can help inspire and enable others, especially colleagues in the private sector, to join this effort or begin their own in various parts of the world. Following the model we discerned as implicit in Latin America, our burgeoning initiative in Africa consists of these elements and actions so far:

1. Commitment and Conversation. Start with your own passion and find others who share it. My commitment of five decades to civil rights and the women’s movement — played out in the last 25 years at Hewlett-Packard and including adventures raising two African-American children adopted at birth — is the subject of my book The Soul in the Computer. Two years ago, that commitment deepened profoundly. My daughter’s boyfriend, the father of their unborn son, was murdered. Soon after, I learned that while he had been making plans for his new family, he had also been planning his own funeral. This shook me to the core. I have since learned that funeral plans are a fact of life for many African-American youth in American inner cities. (In some of these cities, HIV infection rates surpass those of some sub-Saharan countries.) I vowed to tackle apartheid by race, class, and gender with renewed focus, with compassionate and inspired support from my manager and friend, Wayne Johnson. I consciously made this commitment for several reasons at once: to save my own soul; to help diminish the tragedies that afflict many individuals, families, and communities in emerging economies, including that of African-Americans in the U.S.; and to help make participation in the global knowledge economy more widespread and robust. I also knew that only those countries that overcome apartheid can compete in the global economy. In the U.S., I focused on African-American engineering education. And I hoped to contribute in Africa by working to improve engineering education there.

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  1. Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” s+b, Summer 2006: Public, private, and civil leaders should confront together the problems that none can solve alone. Click here.
  2. Nancy Hafkin and Sophia Huyer, eds., Cinderella or Cyberella: Empowering Women in the Knowledge Society (Kumarian Press, 2006): Makes a case for creating multi-stakeholder initiatives, including government, industry, and the civil sector, for establishing more capable women professionals. Click here.
  3. Douglas Himberger, David Sulek, and Stephen Krill Jr., “When There Is No Cavalry,” s+b, Autumn 2007: No single authority can prepare for or respond to major disasters as effectively as a megacommunity can. Click here.
  4. Chris Kelly, Mark Gerencser, Fernando Napolitano, and Reginald Van Lee, “The Defining Features of a Megacommunity,” s+b Leading Idea, 6/12/07: A primer for creating successful multipartite initiatives to solve critical problems that embraces the talents of government, business, and civil society. Click here.
  5. Romain Murenzi and Mike Hughes, “Building a Prosperous Global Knowledge Economy in Africa: Rwanda as a Case Study,” International Journal of Technology and Globalisation, 2006, vol. 2, nos. 3–4: Demonstrates how knowledge capital can make all the difference in an emerging economy. Click here. (Subscription required.)
  6. Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future (National Academies Press, 2007): Source on technological change as an economic growth driver. Click here.
  7. Barbara Waugh, The Soul in the Computer: The Story of a Corporate Revolutionary (with Margot Silk Forrest; Inner Ocean, 2001): How the personal and professional methods of organizational change can come together in one individual’s story. Click here.
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