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“Old Power” vs. “New Power:” What Does This Mean to You?

I am fascinated by an article in the December 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review, “Understanding ‘New Power’” by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Tims, which suggests that the nature of power is shifting and that this reality represents a defining challenge today and in the future for society and business.

The authors state that “Old Power” is based on consumption and rests on traditional structures; It is enabled by “what people or organizations own, know, or control that nobody else does.” Further, it is protected, not open, and difficult to attain.

“New Power” is open, inclusive, participatory, and peer driven. The authors state that New Power “taps into people’s growing capacity, and desire, to participate in ways that go beyond consumption.” Examples include sites such as Facebook and YouTube that share and shape content and opinions; sites that facilitate peer-to-peer giving, lending, and investing―essentially disintermediating traditional banking and financial structures, as well as organizations that drive commerce, such as Uber. This new power can topple governments, regimes, and alter the political futures of individuals.

Technology now enables individuals and “crowds” to coalesce viewpoints and opinions. Physical proximity is irrelevant. A commitment to a collection of shared values, including transparency, open source collaboration, informal opt-in decision making, and self-government, unite individuals into groups that can powerfully impact outcomes.

So, as someone with over 40 years of experience working in traditional, old power structures, I’m left trying to understand what this means to me and the organization I have the responsibility to lead. Is this dynamic a threat or opportunity? Is this just another of myriad new management issues, fads, and suggested practices? How do you sift through all this to separate the wheat from the chaff?

It’s hard to argue with many of the points made by the authors. The examples they cite are not theoretical. We have all experienced the impact of social and mobile media, but did we “old timers” recognize this as a battle between new and old power structures? In its current iteration a trade association would seem to be a prototypical example of an “Old Power” institution based on an exclusive membership structure. Yet our community forum is an example of content sharing that is mostly managed by our members.

As we plan for the future of our newly merged association, we are committed to creating more opportunities for member engagement, more opportunities for member input related to the development and delivery of products and services, and greater member ownership of our mission. Our association will become a “platform” that organizes and facilitates content exchange which enables our members to become more successful.

How to manage this “power transition?” The answer may lie in creating a strategy that recognizes the increased desire for individual expression, the insistence on transparency, and the desire for greater control as we plan our future…together.

Perhaps the bottom line is that this is just another sign that successful organizations and those that lead them must be constantly open to change in order to remain relevant and competitive.

More food for thought.

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