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The Idea Economy - Adapting Your Skills and Culture for Success

What’s really new about the new economy?

Sick of the whole “new economy” thing? It was a bit overdone in the 90’s… But there is some relevance to the “new economy” as we navigate continuing economic shifts. I’m not an economist, so this isn’t going to be a diatribe about macro economic theory or some such thing. For me, as a businessperson, it boils down to “corn, cars and concepts.”

First, we had the agrarian economy – all about corn. People related to their families or village. Their lives were pretty much regulated by Mother Nature. Get up with the sun, milk the cows, work the soil, go to bed with the sun. Life and work weren’t “balanced” --they were integrated -- parts of a whole that were shared through stories and handed-down wisdom. You didn’t need a “take your daughter to work” day -- she worked with you every day.

Then, along came cars. OK, lots of other things came along about that same time -- and the industrial economy overtook the agrarian economy. Relationships broadened to include folks at the factory, and sometimes throughout a whole city. You had contact and connections with way more people across a much larger geography. Mother Nature as regulator was displaced by machinery -- Get up with the alarm clock so you can be at the factory before the whistle. Work and life became separate; labor unions were born to protect our lifestyles from our work. Child labor laws kept you from taking your daughter to work.

Today it comes down to concepts. Some call it the “information economy” or the “imagination economy.” History will have to decide what this era really is. But what is clear for now is that just as corn was displaced by cars, concepts now rule. Not computers or information, but concepts. That’s where all the new juice is. We can have relationships with anyone in the world and at the same time many of us are somewhat isolated -- telecommuting or free agents, working as well as living alone. Mother Nature and machines have been replaced by the mass media as the main regulator of day-to-day reality. Our work and lives are once again more connected as more of us work at home and telecommute. Now, we need a “take your daughter to work” day because they’re gone, while we labor at home on work that is more abstract, more conceptual. Our kids aren’t in touch with our work lives. They ask “what do you do, Mom?” And we have a hard time explaining.

Concepts are hard to explain, but they are the fuel for the current economy. Want a place in the current economy? Be adept at working with concepts -- inventing, adapting, managing, cataloging, implementing concepts. The more sophisticated or novel the concept, the more unique your role will be. As Daniel Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, with concepts we use mostly our right brain , but in the early stage of the information age we used our left brain skills. So, there is a shift we need to make.

The shift to concepts as the “main ingredient” of the economy also necessitates a shift in organizational culture. “Data driven” can be a good thing, but it’s not the only thing. In an economy where concepts rule, we need to return to our “corn” roots and rediscover and communicate the stories, intuition, feelings and wisdom that now hold the “concept” economy together. This shift isn’t just about individual skills, it’s how our organizations work. And our organizational culture will need to adapt just as our individual skills and behavior do.

About the Author: Dr. Linda Ford helps leaders create organizations that achieve superior performance. She has consulted to companies ranging from small start-ups to Fortune 100 companies as well as non-profit organizations. She spent 15 years in line roles in large, global companies and has owned her own business since 1991. Ford has a PhD in Human and Organization Systems from the Fielding Graduate University. To learn more, visit

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