By John Thompson
Part of the secret sauce of thought leadership platforms is choosing the right frame for presenting an idea, initiative, product, company or what have you. To put it simply, by “frame” I mean the Big Idea that shapes how you present everything else.
A good frame operates at several levels. It provides a backdrop for your content, giving it a stage on which it can operate. It also calls other associations and emotions to the foreground for your audience members. This allows them to see your idea rubbing shoulders with other related concepts. It also informs what you are doing by answering the question: So what?
Some frames are evergreen, such as human achievement or aspiration. Why are we sending motorized cameras and science labs to Mars? Humans have an innate desire to know what is on the other side of the mountain.
Some frames emerge from specific sets of conditions and that’s what we are talking about here. What follows is an annotated list of five frames that seem to be emerging for 2013. This should not be considered an absolute list, but these are interesting for different reasons. They could animate a wide number of keynotes, strategy sessions, contributed articles and the like.
1. Business solving problems
It was not a good year for governments around the world. In Europe, the euro crisis lingers with no clear avenue toward solution. In the US, the metaphor of a cliff, as in the fiscal cliff, has entered the lexicon as the government seems incapable of solving problems everyone acknowledges. The Washington Post published a chart dating back 60 years showing that Congress passed fewer pieces of legislation – even including naming post offices – than ever before. Polls from CNN and Gallup put Congressional approval ratings anywhere between 11 percent and 33 percent over the course of 2012. The Edelman Trust Barometer reported that, in 17 out of 25 nations surveyed, less than half the population actually trusted their governments to do the right thing.
Whether real or perceived, a gap is opening between the identification of big problems and the wherewithal to execute a solution. Yet, this is precisely what businesses large and small do and in 2013 businesses can make a claim on filling this gap. This frame is scalable because solving a small piece of a big problem is still valuable in the larger environment. For instance, apps such as MyFitnessPal address a huge health need in a simple, easy-to-use way. Likewise, Food on the Table in Austin, Texas, addresses family health in the 21st century. Educational technology companies such as Compass Learning, also in Austin, can make a claim on solving problems that are intractable at the governmental level.
2. Reshoring of manufacturing and support functions
Not long ago, Apple made headlines with a seemingly casual comment from CEO Tim Cook that the device maker would bring some iMac manufacturing back to the US by financing the construction of a plant. You can also purchase a 3D printer for under $400 that changes the way things are manufactured. Something potentially revolutionary is happening in manufacturing.
I will leave it to others to debate the economics of this (e.g. today’s automated plants need fewer, more highly-skilled workers than the massive numbers of laborers in the 20th century). But, this shift is technology-driven and business-model-enabled. Consumers and their networks of likes and dislikes can effectively tell businesses what to build. The whole supply chain and fulfillment process needs to be rebuilt, so this frame operates in both the business-to-business and business-to-consumer sectors.
3. Resiliency versus security
I submit that the concept of security is falling out of fashion. We all want it, mind you. But, in a black swan era, we increasingly understand it is an elusive concept. Businesses might claim to be in the “security business” but they are the first to disclaim any ultimate guarantee of security. What’s more, the word has been devalued. If we close our eyes and think of security, most of us picture hassles in the airport.
So, we desperately need a new concept and resiliency offers confidence with flexibility and a dose of reality. You can’t plug every hole, but resiliency provides a flexible framework for action. Things might dent, but they do not break. Systems can recover quickly. The public safety sector is already using the concept.
4. Convergence 3.0, no 4.0, I mean X.0
Unfortunately, we tend to ruin perfectly good concepts by overusing them. About a decade ago we ruined convergence as we talked ad nauseam about computing and consumer electronics coming together. Ho hum. Been there, done that. The wife already threw out the tee shirt.
It is time to resuscitate this term. Convergence is the new normal in a digital world. In recent months, I worked a lot on the convergence of the physical world and the virtual world. Showrooming became a big topic in retail as e-commerce giants like Amazon used brick and mortar retailers as showrooms for goods they could offer at lower prices. Brick and mortar retailers are beginning to fight back by getting more virtual. To make things even more interesting, rumors are flying that Amazon is considering its own brick and mortar presence. In 2013, convergence is about melding online and offline worlds. Next year, it will be a new form of convergence. And the year after that…
5. Cloudy weather
To appreciate this final frame, you must separate the distributed computing resources and data centers that make up the cloud as a computing structure, from the cloud as an idea that comes in handy to explain things. If you track the evolution of the cloud as an idea, it is far more interesting than racks and racks of servers. Cloud as a term of technology started life as a handy Powerpoint graphic. People hawking things that connected to the web used a cloud to represent the Internet infrastructure. They really wanted to talk about their device, app or service but they needed to acknowledge that it didn’t work without a vast amount of Internet resources. So the cloud was a handy way of recognizing all this important stuff – pay no attention to that man behind the curtain – that made their products possible.
The idea leapt off the computer screen and evolved quickly into cloud computing as a fairly tangible force in the world. I wonder if 2013 will see the cloud return to work as a representational idea. Any effort on the ground (e.g. disaster recovery, economic development, regional planning) draws on massive resources from elsewhere (e.g. money, equipment, expertise, resources of all kinds). The idea of a localized client drawing on an amorphous body of resources from above applies in many situations.
Framing is a key aspect of thought leadership. It scales the importance of your product or initiative, making it bigger and more relevant to the world around us. These are not the only frames we will use this year, but they arise from the conditions in which we find ourselves. Welcome to 2013.