It has been nearly 10 years since we at Fast Company slapped an in-your-face manifesto on the cover of our premier issue. It proclaimed, “The new rules of business: Work is personal. Computing is social. Knowledge is power.” And one more: “Break the rules.”
“Something is happening, and it affects us all,” founding editors Alan M. Webber and William C. Taylor wrote in their inaugural letter to readers. “A global revolution is changing business, and business is changing the world.” A new generation of leaders, they proposed, was rewriting the rules — and a new breed of “fast” companies was challenging the corporate status quo.
It was a radical vision, at once humanistic and democratic and hopeful. It heralded the dawn of a new economy — a time of “unparalleled opportunity and unprecedented challenge.”
The question: Was it right?
The rules of a decade ago, it turns out, hold up — but not without qualification. How could anyone dispute, for one, that the Internet has turned computing into a massively social endeavor? Millions of relationships have begun (and ended) through sites such as Match.com. Blogs have allowed people to share their lives and thoughts with anyone willing to read. For all that, though, “I see almost no corporations that have any idea of what is underlying today’s networked or popular cultures,” says scientist John Seely Brown. “Most are desperately holding on to the old paradigm.”
In our issue Number One, it was Brown, then director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, who wrote, “Learning is work, work is about learning, and both are social.” That’s no less true today, says Brown, now a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center. The difference now is that, for the first time, “we have the technology that starts to honor the power and role of the emergent parts of an organization.”
“This much we know: Success in the Knowledge Era is as much about the spirit of the enterprise as the economics of the business; as much about the positive energy it unleashes as the positive cash flow it creates. . . . Companies that embrace the emergent can tap the logic of knowledge work and the spirit of community. Those that don’t will be left behind.”
— John Seely Brown and Estee Solomon Gray, November 1995
Work surely is still personal: The pace of change in business requires flexible, decentralized decision making that allows people ever more control over their jobs. But that, we’ve learned, is a double-edged sword. A decade ago, ironically, we tended to associate liberation with 15-hour days at the office. We profiled hard-driving folks like Kathy Ryan, then AOL’s “vice president of cool,” responsible for developing new sites.
Today, Ryan is director of the nonprofit Chernobyl Children’s Project International. Aside from chuckling at the hubris of her old AOL title, she realizes that after 11 years of long hours and constant travel, “you lose perspective on what a real life is like.” She left AOL to devote more time to her two adopted children. “But by the same token,” she says, “I couldn’t do what I’m doing now without a lot of the things that America Online brought into the mainstream.”
And is knowledge really power? If nothing else, the last four years of political and business scandal have taught us that power is power. Yet knowledge remains a key to sustainable advantage. Companies thrive by recognizing the next wave and harnessing the talent and ideas to ride it. Knowledge, Brown observes, lies on the periphery, available to all but seized only by the risk takers who reside there.
Which is to say, it’s a challenging, exhilarating time to be in business. Risk taking, out of fashion for the past four years, is making a comeback. Innovation and creativity are returning to the fore. As we wrote in 1995: “The possibilities are unlimited — and unlimited possibilities carry equal measures of hope and fear.” Time once more to break the rules.