Following some links the other day, I came across a post on Arthur Magazine from Douglas Rushkoff that had a number of interesting things to say. The story was about his venture into self-publishing his latest book, but his experience serves as an analogue for a number of themes relevant to 21st century business.

Rushkoff on the publishing industry:

“Until it utterly reworks its method, gets rid of a majority of its corporate dead weight, releases its publishing houses from the conglomerates that own them, and embraces direct selling models, the publishing industry will remain rather useless to readers and writers alike.”

As I’ve mentioned before, intermediaries can take one of two forms; gatekeeper or synthesiser. Book publishers, like the music industry, want to perpetuate a position between authors and readers that was borne of necessity (given the cost and complexity of production and distribution) but is no longer required, and becoming not just irrelevant but obstructionist. If your business or industry can still demonstrate value in putting yourself between the source and target of information, goods and services then you are probably viable (any stuff-up is your own problem!). If it can’t, then all your bluster is nought but the convulsive spasms of a dying beast.

Sustainable businesses

“The corporate book industry can’t grow at the rate required by publicly held companies, anyway. This is why it is failing. Publishing is a sustainable business, not a growth industry. So it needs to be run by people looking for sustainable projects and careers—not runaway profits.”

He is speaking here of sustainability in the financial sense, pointing out that (particularly) public ownership is often at odds with the long-term view required for an economically-sustainable business. This is a phenomenon I’ve seen in the wine industry here in Australia – a business where planning has to consider five- to fifteen-year horizons are “owned” by investors who think six months is a long time. There is a fundamental mismatch between shareholder expectations of listed organisations and the longer-term view required for wine companies to survive and prosper. There are no doubt other industries in similar positions …

Human scale
Rushkoff on the self-publishing idea:

“The whole process scaled to the human beings actually producing and consuming the content, instead of the corporations extracting value from our interactions.”

In a similar vein, architect Roger Sessions was interviewed recently about (specifically IT-related) project complexity, suggesting that project failure was more likely as the projects got larger. If we can wrap our heads around a problem, we are more likely to solve it successfully. As Rushkoff also indicates – if the interaction is at human scale, than the value derived is likely to be shared by the direct participants, not a bunch of hangers-on.

21st Century economy
Rushkoff on the effect of technology:

“The idea of the book—and much of my career—is that computers and networks give us the ability to rewrite the rules through which everything operates. Some of the systems we’re using may have been efficient back in the 13th Century, but are truly and totally obsolete today. Systems like central monopoly currencies, corporate charters, and, yes, top-down publishing and distribution are all breaking down, for better and for worse.”

This echoes a lot of what economist Umair Haque has to say about the economy we have (“zombieconomy” is Haque’s term for it) and the one we need to regain prosperity – what he calls “constructive capitalism”.

All in all, Rushkoff’s publishing experience is just one example of the disconnect between business-as-we-knew-it and the business models we need to create to build a sustainable economy in the face of the current financial crisis.