More than 20 years since the World Wide Web started to connect us, the pace of change continues to be astonishing. Cisco estimates that, after increasing eightfold in the past five years, global web traffic will increase by a further fourfold during the next five years.
Three forces are driving this continued growth - mobility, connected devices and video. By 2015, the number of devices connected to IP networks will be twice the world's population, traffic from wireless devices will exceed that from wired devices and nearly two-thirds of consumer traffic will be in the form of video.
These changes create a huge range of new opportunities, but to grasp them we need to recognise the difference that connectivity makes. We used to live in a world where it was hard to move information around, so we got things done using simple, centralised structures. We focused on getting as much information as possible to a central point, having someone at the centre make a decision and then trying to get everyone else to act in accordance with that decision. That was a sensible way of working in an information-poor environment, but it is a crude and wasteful approach in a connected world.
Today, we need to think in terms of maximising the connections between people and enabling everyone to contribute. We must tap into the full richness of the people within our organisations and move as many decisions as possible to the front line. A connected world is potentially a world of much greater innovation because change is not limited by the imaginations of those at the centre.
The other fundamental advantage of a network approach is resilience. In a centralised system, those on the edge are powerless without directions from the centre, while the centre is blind if the edge (or part of the edge) ceases to input information. By contrast, if everyone is connected, information can flow around any point of failure and even in a crisis situation, the system retains some ability to function. Thirty minutes after US Airways flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River in January 2009, official sources were still showing the plane as late. By contrast, Wikipedia was almost instantly updated with information and Twitter was abuzz with news and pictures.
So what does adapting to the new mindset mean in concrete terms? It means thinking about the way people in your organisation are connected to each other. If the connections are siloed and hierarchical, you are probably missing out on most of what your people have to offer. Furthermore, your organisation is likely to find it hard to adjust to everyday change, let alone deal with big challenges.
But it is much more than that. We need to stop thinking in terms of our own organisation. Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble used to proudly source most of its ideas internally, but now well over 50 per cent of its innovations arise from external collaborations. So where does your organisation get its new ideas from?
More shared information means more ability to contribute and this applies to organisations as well as people. Think about the organisations your firm works with - how far can your organisation see into them and how far can they see into you?
If the answer is not very far, then the relationship is likely to be a limited and inflexible one.
In short, everyone knows that we live in an increasingly connected world, but we are only slowly adopting a truly connected mindset.
We need to recognise the power of connectivity and acknowledge that the future of our organisations depend on the number and the richness of their connections.Paul Johnston is director of the Internet Business Solutions Group at Cisco Systems.
Thought Leadership credentials
- Cisco, best known as the business that makes the internet 'work', will be responsible for keeping the London Games online as the Olympics' official network infrastructure provider.
- The global IT giant has been praised by David Cameron for supporting 'Silicon Roundabout', the Tech City in east London the Government hopes will incubate the next generation of web entrepreneurs.
- Cisco supports education projects all over the world, including a 'virtual university' to help give skills to women from the East African Masai tribe that will help them escape poverty.