Unit of One

A letter from the founding editors

It's a "unit-of-one" world. We've gone from an old economy where business revolves around the organization -- "let's make a list of the 500 biggest companies" -- to a new economy where the organization revolves around the individual -- you.

"Unit of one" is a Fast Company mantra. It's the lens through which we view competition, technology, work -- all the forces moving business into the future. It's also how we think about the articles we publish. Our aim is to deliver a magazine in which every article combines the newest and freshest ideas with the most useful and pragmatic tools. From where we sit, big ideas and down-to-earth practices are two sides of the same coin -- just like learning and doing.

Indeed, "learning and doing" is a unifying theme that runs throughout this issue. Consider the rise of corporate universities, chronicled in our Report from the Future. These institutions, now a vital part of the landscape at hundreds of companies, are a symbol of the unit-of-one world. Business today is all about brains -- the state-of-the-art knowledge each knowledge worker brings to the job. But knowledge, like everything else in business, is constantly changing. Which means the primary job of corporate universities is not to teach people discrete skills but, rather, to teach people how to learn.

That's the approach that Xerox Business Services (XBS) has used to fuel its meteoric growth. XBS is a $1 billion organization growing at 40% per year. But XBS is really a collection of 15,000 individuals -- people dispersed so widely that it is a virtual company.

What's the glue that unifies XBS's workers and differentiates them from the competition? Learning. More specifically, according to Chris Turner -- XBS's "Learning Person" -- learning by doing. You can read about it in XBS Learns to Grow.

Learning, it turns out, also represents the future of marketing. Take a look at The Future of Marketing is Looking at You for a collection of cutting-edge ideas and hands-on techniques for getting closer to your customers. The people at Chicago's E Lab Inc. are leading a movement to revolutionize market research. They're using techniques borrowed from anthropology to help design retail stores, home-entertainment products, even safer coffee cups. E Lab's message: Don't ask customers what they want. Watch -- and learn -- how they live.

This issue's ultimate unit-of-one article is designed to help you learn the most essential survival skill of the new world of business: How to Get a Piece of the Action. We're in a period of startup mania. New companies flush with venture capital are eagerly recruiting the best talent, from hot young programmers to experienced marketing wizards. Big companies are maneuvering desperately to hold onto their talent. It sounds a lot like sports. Question: What's the difference between you and a star athlete? Answer: Less and less. These days, people are working longer and harder, creating more value -- and learning to negotiate for a share of what they create. You might even decide to sign with an agent!

If you want to locate the largest, most expensive, most public learning experience in the world today, just log on to the World Wide Web. That's what makes Starwave and Amazon.com so fascinating. These two young companies, both based in Seattle, are taking the Web seriously: they're spending serious money, building serious technological capabilities, creating serious business models to learn what it takes to build a serious business on the Web. The challenges that they face are enormous learning opportunities for the rest of us.

There is a fundamental learning lesson as well in the remarkable journey of Dee Hock, the subject of this issue's cover story. Hock is the man who created the Visa credit-card empire, now a trillion-dollar organization. He likes to say he designed Visa to operate on the boundary of chaos and order -- hence his description of Visa as the world's first "chaordic" organization.

Today Hock is on a crusade to spread his ideas around the world, to teach businesspeople the inner workings of his chaordic mind. What's the unit-of-one lesson in his radical vision? Actually there are two. Sometimes the most powerful tool is a big new idea that changes how you see the world. And often the most valuable form of learning is "unlearning" long-cherished principles and practices that have been rendered obsolete.

There is a challenge implicit in this issue of Fast Company. For the business revolution to keep moving forward, it's up to each of us to consider unfamiliar ideas, experiment with new techniques, and extend beyond our comfort zones. This unit-of-one revolution thrives on learning and flourishes on doing.

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