Book Report: The World is Flat

At first, this book scared the crap out of me.

Then, it validated what I write about on my blog.

Finally, it made me think. It made me think a whole lot.

Thomas L. Friedman has three more Pulitzer Prizes than I do and at the suggestion of one of my bosses, I picked up The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. This book is primarily about about globalization, a topic I know well given that I routinely have 7am Pacific meetings with people in Europe to discuss projects that are developed by offshore teams in India, China, and Latin America. A similar set of stories is told in the first chapter, “While I was Sleeping”, which covers outsourcing not only of manufacturing, customer service, and software development jobs, but goes as far to suggest that the day when reservations at the local Olive Garden are taken by an offshore call center aren’t too far behind.

This was the part that scared me. It scared me because of all the people I’ve seen over the years whose jobs have been replaced by someone overseas at a quarter the cost. It scared me because maybe my employability isn’t as safe as I thought it was. But, it even scared me for the people in India and China I work with now because Eastern Europe and Latin America are breathing down their necks in terms of talent nurturing, their command of the English language is better than you’d think, they have a distinct time zone advantage, and rates that undercut traditional outsourcing locations.

What happens when Africa or the Middle East positions itself to participate in this phenomenon at rates cheaper than previous waves of workers? What happens next? How do you stay ahead of the curve and pay your mortgage?

Getting me to ask myself those questions is, of course, Friedman’s intent. Hence, the Pulitzers.

Friedman then suggests 10 phenomena that flattened the world (the fall of the Berlin Wall opening up previously closed markets and Netscape going public to spark the dot-com boom among them are the biggies), the Triple Convergence the followed, and how we’re all still sorting out how these things work. The best story of the sort out involves the state of Indiana, which in 2003 needed to update its computer systems for its unemployment office. An Indian firm came in with the low bid for the job by more than $8M, which meant a cheaper price for the taxpayers of Indiana but fewer jobs for the workers of Indiana. So, what’s the right answer if you are the Governor of Indiana? These are the kinds of things that need soring out in a flattened world.

At this point in the book, I was pretty depressed. Not just for me, but for my daughter too. She’s 6 now, but what kind of jobs will be available for her in 20 years given this big economic jumble that political and technology shifts have created?

Again, point to the Pulitzers. In the section entitled “America and the Flat World”, Friedman examines the US educational system (and I was reminded of many of the themes in Nerds: Who they are and why we need more of them) and what it takes to insulate yourself from being exposed career-wise.

That’s when I felt validated for these writings here, as his answer is that you have to have skills that cannot be outsourced. Lots of people can write the code or even design it, not as many can present the rationale to marketing and upper management. Fewer people can invoke the creativity necessary to synthesize ideas from radically different systems to suggest a better whole. That’s where the safety zone is.

The last sections made me think a whole lot about politics and the state of the world today. He discusses factors that threaten to unflatten the world in a very bad way, the most sobering being the closely related issues around energy and environment. It covers how, in a flat world, a 17 year old boy with cerebral palsy can run a successful eBay business, but terrorists can launch an attack at the United States from a cave in Afghanistan.

There’s some deep, deep stuff here at the end and I find I can’t stop thinking about it a week later. How long that will continue, I’m not sure, but it’s a worthy read for just about anybody.

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7 Responses to “Book Report: The World is Flat”

  1. Liz Handlin Says:

    Great post. THat is a great book. A friend gave it to me when I graduated from B-school and I agree…it really gets you thinking.

  2. The World is Flat: Free audio book | Nerd Guru Says:

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  3. Tapan Says:

    Great book, gives some other pointers. I’ve started writing some reviews/anaylsis on it. Let me know your feedback at inquisitiveaboutfinance.blogspot.com

  4. Mike Martin Says:

    The book sounds interesting and I intend to read it. The main thing that bothers me is that we are talking about outsourcing jobs that most people can do. To use your words “Lots of people can write the code or even design it, not as many can present the rationale to marketing and upper management. Fewer people can invoke the creativity necessary to synthesize ideas from radically different systems to suggest a better whole. That’s where the safety zone is.” That means the safety zone is pretty small and once all the jobs are gone how will thouse people pay their mortgages and eat? seem like the only jobs that are left here are the service jobs to sell fries to guys like you who can do the particular things that keep their jobs from being outsourced. Maybe the green America and alternate fuel America will produce jobs for Americans to do…I certainly hope so.

  5. Dave Snider Says:

    I read TWIF when it first came out and still refer to it often. It is very thought provoking in terms of the complexity of today’s workforce and product/solution delivery system. My son is a 2nd year engineering student in college and Friedman’s book has inspired me to share these themes with him to give him the perspective that having the engineering degree alone is not enough to assure success. Tomorrow’s top performers (and the ones that companies will retain) are those who have unique knowledge, leadership, and problem solving skills that separates them from the crowd. A course on “professional adaptability” ought to be a required course at every university.

  6. James Says:

    You are right about this book. I picked it up last year and after reading it, I no longer see the world in the same way I used to be. This thing about the world being falt is very tru and god knows aht it will entails in the years to come……heck, I’m from Singapore (the other side of the world) and even we are being pressured by competition from our neighbouring countries here……

  7. petecj2 Says:

    Thanks for all the fresh comments, those of you who visited today from the HP internal podcast I was recently a guest on.

    @Mike – I too am hopeful that green fuels are the next technology frontier that perhaps US enterprise can tackle. We certainly have motivation to lead on that front.

    @Dave – A university course on the topics I write about here is my ultimate goal for this material. I’m glad to hear someone else agrees with me, thanks.

    @James – It’s good to hear from someone on “the other side of the world” who sees these same things too.

    —Pete

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