Fragile World Order - Managing change in the Information Age and how it relates to any business leader

Hardly a week goes by without a challenge or change to world order. Many hark for a return to ‘how it was’, but this is unlikely. It is important for international leaders to accept the complex and chaotic situations for what they are, and work towards new solutions. The same applies to business leaders.

In a slightly coded opening to the annual RUSI Land Warfare Conference, the UK’s Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, (newly in post) gave his international audience a chilling warning. He talked about “a world in which consensus and partnership seems an increasingly precious commodity”, where “the political and diplomatic unity of governments is under enormous pressure …… and any crack in the unity of democratic nations is ruthlessly exploited”. Moreover, he urged his audience of military allies to recognise “the [collective] responsibility, as committed military professionals, to retain [a] sense of unity and purpose”.

These were wise words from a man who has worked for many years from the tactical to the very strategic end of the military and its interface with government, someone who is used to briefing and advising Ministers, and has a wealth of international experience in leadership, diplomacy, decision making, coalition building and inter agency cooperation; qualities that are in short supply in many of today's political leaders and many business executives the world over.

We forget, at our peril, both the fragility of western democracy (and the economic prosperity it brings) and the relatively short amount of time it has been with us. For instance, Spain has only been a stable democracy since the last failed military coup attempt in 1981. Greece was ruled by a military junta until 1974. Northern Cyprus was invaded by the Turks in the same year and there were conflicts in the former Yugoslavia from 1991-2000. Even the UK endured the violence of the Northern Ireland Troubles from 1969-1998. Furthermore, Eastern European countries were all ruled by communist regimes of one sort of another until 1990. 

The following 25 years brought about not just peace, but massive change, including the democratisation of Eastern Europe, a cooperative young Russia, the forming of the EU, the expansion of NATO, the signing of international free trade agreements and a belief that globalisation could only bring benefit and that the system never needed to change, no matter what external changes and pressures there might be elsewhere in the world. If we fast forward to today in 2018, we have deteriorating relations with a resurgent Russia, an unpredictable USA, Brexit squabbles, a fallout amongst EU nations, Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism, countries with regions/nations that want to break away (e.g. Catalonia, Scotland), ‘populist’ (and some would say extreme) governments in Hungary, Poland, Austria and Italy, a more aggressive and less tolerant Turkey, and a migrant crisis from the Middle East and Africa. In other words, this is no longer 1990, nor 2005. The situation has changed. What is most worrying is that our current forms of liberal democracy and traditional party politics are failing to solve these problems, hence the electoral swing to more extreme parties across the democratic world. And history tells us that our current peaceful democratic existence must never be taken for granted. The same can be said of the global business model, where the prosperity gap between the wealthiest in society, and those at the bottom has never been so great. Such gaps create resentment and erode trust in the work environment, which in turn can create unrest and economic turmoil, preventing business from operating effectively.

The biggest problem now facing the leaders international organisations and individual countries is not necessarily the complex and chaotic nature of the current and emerging situations, but a refusal by many of them to recognise that the situation has changed and that doing the same thing again, (but possibly better and with more resources), will not solve the problems. Instead, leaders need to face the uncertainty with their own innovation, drop their long standing principles which fitted a previous age, understand the issues facing their peoples, their allies, partners and stakeholders and come up with fresh plans. As the old saying goes, “what got us here, won’t get us there”. Failure to adapt will only bring about political change and upheaval that may be in no one’s long term interest. The return of military coups and juntas in Europe and elsewhere cannot be ruled out, nor can the idea of a demise in parliamentary democracy be so far fetched. After all, no one, two years ago, thought a rather brash businessman and one-time gameshow host would not just be the next President of the United States, and continue to be popular with many voters in the mid term.

In this Information Age, what can be said for governments at the macro level, can also apply to businesses, large and small, who are being constantly disrupted by innovative competition, ethical issues, security concerns, uncertainty in markets, greater scale in competition and greater tempo in the business cycle. One only has to look at how the High Street model of shopping is being effected by internet shopping, (for example, even John Lewis are finding the current trading conditions hard), or the banking sector, where High Street Banks are having to compete with ‘Challenger Banks' and even companies like Apple and Amazon, or how travel companies are having to cope with the security risks associated with international terrorism. The most important thing for business leaders to do is identify the type of situation they and their company find themselves in, and then ask themselves what it is they are trying to achieve (or have been told to do), what constraints they may be under and last but not least, what, if anything, has changed. In the military, they call this ‘The Question 4 Moment' (i.e. since receiving my orders, has the situation changed?). Thus a plan and its delivery can remain flexible to change and adaptable to the emerging situation. In the Information Age, change and uncertainty is a constant.

To return to the title of ‘Fragile World Order’. All is not lost if leaders recognise the types of situation they are in and orientate themselves appropriately, so they can make the right decisions, in dynamic and confusing situations. These leaders must view their global, national and organisational situations as they really are, and not how they would like them to be. Failure to do so will only add credence to the warnings given by the UK's new Chief of the General Staff and encourage those who wish to see the demise of Western Democracy and the economic machine that has brought about so much peace and prosperity over the past 70 years.

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