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Nilofer Merchant: “We Need a New Language for the Collaborative Age”

Nilofer Merchant: “We Need a New Language for the Collaborative Age”

Nilofer Merchant, bestselling author of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era, recently provided this column to Wired magazine on the evolution of language in our fast-paced society:

As we live, work and create value in the 21st century, we continue to use the language and paradigms of the 20th century. We honour the old and accepted language of capturing value, but dismiss the one of value creation.

Old language is not limited to antiquated organisations. Jack Dorsey, founder of Square and Twitter, recently reported that his newest board member, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, asked, “Why do you call them… users?” Users, a term common in the web community, implies that those who use the product bear no relation to how a product is monetised. Dorsey went on to direct that Square would be removing the term “users” from its vocabulary, replacing it with “customers”, and even the more specific “buyers”, and “sellers”. This is not unusual. Organisations all over the world think of their customers as “buyers”, and the people who work within their organisations as “human resources”.

This language is a subtle trap. Humans are not a resource to be used up like paper and ink. They are a ­limitless source of ­creativity and ideas, not just ­consumers and passive recipients of a company’s ­product or service. ­People are ­better informed today than the ­richest ­billionaire was 20 years ago. ­Anyone can now ­collaborate globally with ­anyone else to design a product on platforms such as Behance; have another produce it, say, on a 3D printer via Desktop Factory; finance it communally on Kickstarter; and distribute it globally with zero bricks-and-mortar assets using Etsy. Across industries and worldwide markets, buyers are not parked at the end of a value chain, but often in the middle of its flow.

So much of old-school capitalism has been about “value capture”. Capture as in overtake, dominate, control. We aim at our target market; we defend market share; we attack competition; we control price and supply chains; we win customers. Yet modern reality shows us that uninformed customers and top-down organisation have given way to a vocal participant and an interconnected way of creating value. Competitive advantages which were once held for comfy 40-year arcs are now valid for 12 years in most industries and five years in fast-moving ones.

In the social era, individual humans connected together can now accomplish what once only centralised large organisations could. Language encodes our thinking. To write a new future, we need to use a new language. Let’s stop focusing on the overly narrow term “social media”. Let’s simply be social.

Instead of capturing value, let’s find new ways of creating value, together. Think of collaborators as those you work with. Let’s have co-creators design what to build. Let’s ask communities to create scale. And, when we embed this new social language — words such as collaboration and purpose and community — into our discussions, value creation will flow. Relationships are to the social era, what efficiency was to the industrial era. And we all remember what relationships are built on, don’t we? Trust. After decades of building business on capital, oil, land and silicon, trust will be our foundation for what we create next.

Wired magazine/March 2013