A great post by my brother, Steve Hargadon, describes the challenges facing anyone trying to create, or re-create, a new business: Long-handled Spoons. The story, excerpted here, goes as follows:
A Rabbi asks to see Heaven and Hell. His wish is granted and he’s taken to a room where everyone is seated at a long dinner table with delicious food in front of them. However, everyone there is starving and emaciated. This is because, the Rabbi discovers, while each has a long spoon strapped to his or her wrist, the spoon is so long they cannot pick up the food and actually put it in their mouths. They are utterly frustrated and bitterly unhappy. The Rabbi is told that this is Hell.
He is then taken to another room with everyone seated at an identical long table with delicious food, and each individual also has a long spoon strapped to his or her wrist. These people, however, are well-fed, for they have learned that their spoons are perfectly designed to allow them to feed each other, which they are doing quite naturally. They are joyous, happy, and contented. The Rabbi is told that this is Heaven.
Steve uses it to discuss web 2.0 and the difficulties that the traditional business mindset has in wrapping itself around true collaboration. In a more obtuse way, I posted earlier about my fear that Apple saw the need to connect our digital networks, but is falling short of enabling a truly open experience because of their insistence on being the hub of a network that will, ultimately, have no hub. Our posts seem to be two views of the same problem (what would you expect from two brothers?).
The lack of collaboration is not new but the internet has made the problem all the more obvious and acute. While some people hold on to their proprietary offerings, collaborators are growing like weeds around them. This is all obvious, but what I find fascinating, and what the lesson of the long spoon is getting at, brings us down from the level of technological trends, web2.0 evangelism, and social networks and into the challenge of changing the way people think and act.
How do people conceive of new ventures that are networked at their core? Meaning new businesses that are originally designed for, and evolve around, collaboration as the primary way in which value is created and delivered. Forget the long-tail–this is the challenge of the long spoon.
As importantly, how do people living in organizations designed to profit from proprietary products and services allow aspects of their business to experiment with and evolve into more open and collaborative business models? Can large organizations change the way they treat suppliers, competitors, and potential partners fast enough to evolve with emerging markets? I’ve know companies that can’t get an NDA through legal in under 6 weeks–how are they going to explore and experiment with partnering in these conditions?