Denying Reality

The global 'crisis' is really the dawning of a new marketplace.

"Globalization Goes Awry," glared a recent headline in The Washington Post. "Hurt by Economic Turmoil, Multinationals Retreat," declared the subhead. The accompanying article made it seem that what U.S. President George Bush dubbed The New Economic Order had descended into The New Economic Chaos -- and that all it took to bring about the turmoil was the collapse 17 months ago of a relatively obscure currency (the baht) in a tiny southeast Asian country (Thailand). Listed in the article as among the walking but financially wounded were such prominent international names as Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Gillette Co., Coca-Cola Co., Royal Dutch/Shell Group, RJR Nabisco Holdings Corp., and General Electric Co. Is globalization, the grand strategy of so many manufacturers in the 1990s, a strategy whose time has passed? Can multinationals retreat into production, marketing, and distribution patterns of the past and prosper. I think not. The Post's article was a news story -- and the news was not good. But at the very least, it's way too early to write off globalization as a corporate strategic failure. Indeed, my own sense is that companies are now only starting to define globalization in their own terms and that those definitions will change as economic, and technological, and demographic, and political realities change. There is nothing static about business around the globe today. Turmoil that seems only destructive may, in fact, be filled with all sorts of opportunities -- for those executives who recognize their existence and seize them. "Enterprises will prosper if they can chart and are poised to contend with 'grand process' changes as well as surface-level shifts driven by technology, demographics, and politics -- across the global environment," writes Marvin Zonis, professor of international political economy at the University of Chicago's School of Business in the current issue of A.T. Kearney Inc.'s Executive Agenda. Business leaders who grasp the grand changes and the lesser shifts, Zonis contends, "will be able to organize their strategies and direct their companies to seize opportunities for new profits." But for all the certainty in Zonis' sentence there is an important difference between being able to do something and actually doing it, between seeing the opportunities and seizing them. Try a little self-test. Think about yourself, your colleagues, your company, and your level of readiness to deal with what Zonis believes will be the global economic "grand changes" of the next three to five years: Asia's turmoil, European Monetary Union, and the Year 2000 computer phenomenon. How ready are you? What is your personal level of understanding of each of these issues? Are they issues with which you are intimately familiar? Or have you left them pretty much to others to deal with. What are you doing to make these issues work for you -- and not against you? That last question is deliberately in the present tense. Zonis sees these as future issues. I see them as current issues. Asia's economic turmoil is more than a year old, for example. And in a world of intense competition, the debut of Europe's common currency on Jan. 1, 1999, and the calendar change from 1999 to 2000 are not matters that can wait. Indeed, executives who are only now starting to deal either of these "grand changes" are running a very high risk of seeing their companies be losers and not winners during the next three to five years. So, too, are the executives who are not now including in their strategic plans assumptions about what the global economic environment will be after both U.S. President Bill Clinton and new German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder are no longer in office. About what the business world will be like when Britain's Tony Blair and France's Jacques Chirac are gone. About what the world will be like without Russian President Boris Yeltsin and China's President Jiang Zemin. About a world in which the European Union is several more than 15 nations and Japan is nation with a vibrant economy recovered from recession. About a world in which two-thirds of the total output in goods and services comes from economically developing nations. The reality is that in this world of intense and complex competition, profiting from change depends upon executives who truly lead their companies, who create a corporate environment of boldness and excellence, who refuse to be captives of the moment. This reality cannot be denied.

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