Photo by Chris Lawton

Christopher Columbus would be shocked. And appalled. Over 500 years ago, he proposed to reach India by sailing west from Spain, a fact that would only be possible if the world was round. Queen Isabella of Spain approved Columbus’ proposal, and the rest is, well, history.

Now five centuries later, Thomas L. Friedman is claiming the opposite. After travelling the globe and studying social, economic and political trends in countries on every continent, Friedman, a noted journalist and author, summarizes his analysis in the simple title of his newest book: The World is Flat (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

Of course, the world is not literally flat. But Friedman argues that functionally, the world is acting more and more flat. We are becoming more and more interconnected, which in essence “flattens” (or removes) barriers that had existed between us. Individuals, companies, and indeed entire countries are entering into creative partnerships and networks that are opening new technological and communal frontiers. Leaders who used to work in isolation are now entering into synergistic collaboration that creates better process and end results than could ever be accomplished individually. We even see this currently in youth ministry as leaders from Africa, Asia, North America, and Central America are entering into joint initiatives to respond to pressing issues like the H.I.V./A.I.D.S. pandemic and world poverty.

Friedman’s examples of the flattening of the world range from the widespread outsourcing of customer service of U.S. companies to the rising power and prevalence of bloggers and blogsites in the media. While at times a bit overstated, Friedman nonetheless argues convincingly that companies, businesses, and nations that fail to build bridges are more likely to be left behind in the growing global community.

According to David Rothkopf, a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Commerce, “There are certain pivot points or watersheds in history that are greater than others because the changes they produced were so sweeping, multifaceted, and hard to predict at the time” (Friedman, 46). Friedman claims that this is one of those eras. Unlike previous similar pivotal transformations, new technology is accelerating the current flattening so that it has now reached unprecedented speed and strength.

If these theories are accurate (and they likely are at least to some degree), we as youth and family leaders face two doors. Door #1 represents leadership as we’ve always done it, which according to Friedman, carries the risk of becoming less effective and marginalized. Door #2 represents a prayerful and proactive response to the flattening of the world that allows us to remain in the center of the action. If we want to walk through Door #2, we need to understand more about the nature of these shifts, their implications for leaders in general, and potential responses for we who serve youth and families.

Three Great Eras of Globalization

In Friedman’s analysis, our world has gone through three great eras of globalization. From 1492-1800, Globalization 1.0 shrank the world from a size large to a size medium. Cultures and regions that were completely cut off from one another started to interact. During this first era of globalization, the dynamic force driving change was brawn – how much muscle, horsepower, wind power, or steam power that countries could creatively deploy.

The second great era, Globalization 2.0, lasted from 1800 to roughly 2000. The dynamic force behind change was multinational companies. As transportation and telecommunication became more convenient and less expensive, we saw the breakthrough of a global economy as the world shrank from a size medium to a size small.

The third and current era, Globalization 3.0, is shrinking the world from a size small to a size tiny. Unlike previous changes brought largely by companies and countries, the unique element in Globalization 3.0 is the power of individuals to compete and collaborate globally. According to Friedman, unlike previous eras, Globalization 3.0 is going to be more and more driven by non-western individuals.

The Forces that Have Flattened the World

According to Friedman, a number of recent significant forces have interacted to flatten the world:

  1. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, allowing Communist and non-Communist countries to learn from each other.
  2. Netscape went public in 1995, allowing the general public to browse the web.
  3. Work Flow Software was introduced in the late 1990s that allowed companies to use similar and interoperable software packages in their internal operations.
  4. Self-organizing collaborative communities began to serve as catalysts for the development and dissemination of free software.
  5. American preparations for Y2K were outsourced to India in 1999, which served as a catalyst in the explosion of outsourcing that has occurred since.
  6. Business factories moved offshore, allowing U.S. companies to reduce manufacturing costs and gain economic footholds in other countries.
  7. New supply chain technology and practices helped companies to track and maximize their inventory.
  8. Information became widely available to all internet users through Google, Yahoo!, and MSN Web Search.
  9. “Digital, mobile, personal, and virtual” technology was developed that acted as a “steroid” to catalyze all other forces.

Any one of these forces acting independently would have been insufficient to dramatically change our society. According to Friedman, their combined force creates a critical mass that is affecting nations worldwide.

Implications for Leaders

To better understand what these flattening forces mean for leaders today, we interviewed Mary Andringa, a member of the Board of Trustees at Fuller Seminary and the Co-C.E.O. and President of Vermeer Manufacturing Company. Vermeer Manufacturing Company is a 57 year-old company that designs, manufactures, and distributes industrial and agricultural equipment to solve construction, environmental, and forage needs. While the headquarters of Vermeer Manufacturing is in Iowa, their mowers, chippers, trenchers, and plows are used extensively across the United States and the world. In fact, the next time you drive past a hay field or construction site, odds are good that you’ll see the word “Vermeer” plastered on the side of the working equipment.

Mary, why do you think it’s so important that leaders understand the flattening of the world?

The reality is that leaders who are not aware of the changes in the world will be left behind. They’ll miss opportunities for improvement and connection with others.

There’s also so much you can learn as barriers between people are removed. I’ve developed e.mail relationships with people around the world who are teaching me how to lead and improve our company.

Beyond how the flattening of the world is impacting you personally as a leader, how is it changing your company?

We’re developing technological systems that allow us to communicate with and learn from our manufacturing plants and our customers. Instead of just sending out a letter or a memo announcing changes, we’re now able to set up web conferences when we launch new products. Not only do web conferences help us know exactly who’s learning about the new changes, they also allow for two way communication so that our team members can ask questions live. As more plants get high speed capabilities, we hope to do video streaming so that people can pull down training modules and company procedures whenever they want to.

A major theme of The World is Flat is not just making your own company inter-operable, but also collaborating with other companies worldwide. How much is that happening at Vermeer?

We have several alliances with companies around the world. Right now we’re working on a joint U.S./China project that I think has great potential. We’ll have engineers working both in the U.S. and China on the same projects. Every day when the U.S. team is finishing their work day, the Chinese team will pick up from where they left off. Then the U.S. team will pick up the baton when the Chinese engineers are ending their shift. That’s going to allow for 24-hour design development which I think could be very significant for the future.

I’m sure there are lots of advantages to that kind of collaboration, but what are some of the downsides?

Well, it definitely takes more work and energy at first than if we did something ourselves. And to be honest, sometimes the alliances don’t produce exactly what we had hoped. But we try to look at every experience as a chance to learn. So we try to do post-mortems on failed projects – not to throw darts at any person or team but to try to figure out what we can learn so we do better next time.

In the midst of the technology that your company is using, how do you keep relational energy thriving?

I think technology actually helps us at Vermeer have better relationships. We use e.mail to keep each other informed so that when we gather together, we don’t have to deal with mundane issues. We can focus on the things that matter.

How do you try to learn about changing culture?

I read a lot. I also have a 40-minute commute each way to work so I listen to tapes and CDs constantly. I also make a real effort to meet with key customers and other leaders in our field.

While you’re not a youth worker, you’re an active leader in your own church. What would you say to someone who claims that Christian leadership is more of an art than a science, and that therefore technology doesn’t have much of a place in churches or ministries?

I’m convinced that God desires excellence. Pastors and leaders can use technology to figure out what is happening in their communities, and how they can make it better. Technology can also help us better communicate with members of our communities as well as leaders in other communities. The Bible has plenty to say about using our talents, and I think technology can help us be better stewards of the time and money we devote to ministry.

Turning the Lens to Youth Ministry

Outsourcing…new computer software…chipper manufacturing… By now you might be wondering: What does all that have to do with youth ministry? Actually, more than you might think. Based on Friedman’s analysis as well as the example of leaders like Mary Andringa, we’ve distilled a lengthy list of possible implications to the following shortlist of ideas that can benefit your ministry.

  • Networking beyond your current borders. The flattening of the world makes ongoing relationships with leaders 60, 600, and 6000 miles away not just possible but necessary. Who do you know – an old college roommate, a missionary from your church, or a youth worker you met at a conference – that you could contact this month? As you listen to what’s happening in their own culture and ministry, you never know what new ideas or answers you might gain.
  • Collaborating on projects with other youth leaders. Who do you know who shares your ministry values and philosophy that would be open to collaborating? Maybe you could work together to design your curriculum for the next year, or plan your winter retreats together. Two heads are better than one in saving both time and money.
  • Better training meetings with your volunteers. How much of your current training meetings with volunteers do you spend making announcements or simply informing your team of upcoming events? How much of that could be done ahead of time through e.mail or a website, allowing your team to focus on the more important questions about what God is doing in your ministry, and how can you make space for even more of his work?
  • Making waves by surfing the web. Wondering about new trends in youth, family, and culture? Curious about what Jesus meant in the parable about the seeds and the soil? You can gain insight into almost every question you have about your kids and your ministry through sophisticated search engines like that help you navigate the almost infinite amount of articles and papers relevant to you and your ministry. While we don’t want to get so attached to our computers that our relationships with kids and friends suffer, avoiding the internet in our search for answers to tough questions is a bit like looking for a quarter in the dark – you’ll eventually find it but it sure takes longer.
  • Helping your kids and their parents think about their future contributions. What are the implications of the flattening of the world on the future job market? What skills do 15 year-olds and 18 year-olds need to develop now to say relevant in the next decade? These are important questions that more youth workers need to discuss with the families in their ministries. If we had these dialogues with kids now, maybe they’d change the climate of the church in the next few decades so that instead of lagging behind our culture, we’d be leading the way.

Reflection Questions:

  • What examples do you see in your own context of the flattening of the world?
  • How are you currently using technology in your ministry in different ways than you did five years ago? What, if anything, is good about that? What, if anything, is troublesome?
  • What are two ways that you think the flattening of the world can help you love and serve kids and their families more effectively? If you made those two changes, what would you lose? What would you gain?

If you’re interested in more resources on this topic, try:

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Fuller Youth Institute

The Fuller Youth Institute equips diverse leaders and parents so faithful young people can change our world. We turn academic research into practical resources to help make the church the best place for young people to grow. We believe in young people, and we believe in the church.

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