No borders mean flatter world will get us anywhere

Viewpoint by Aaron Levie
Co-founder and chief executive, Box

  • Published
Connected world art
Image caption,
Entire industries are being remade thanks to ever-better connectivity, writes Aaron Levie

In 2006, Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat portrayed a global population that was more borderless and interconnected than ever before.

Starting in the 1980s and 1990s - with the rise of Netscape, global supply chains, outsourcing and off-shoring - came a dramatic flattening of how we connect and communicate across the world.

Since Friedman's book, we've moved even further into the future, with nearly six billion connected mobile devices and two billion people on the internet.

Together, these shifts have created a much tighter world economy - an interconnectedness that's been painful at times given the financial crisis, but with benefits that are also striking.

Just pull out an iPhone to appreciate the sophistication of today's supply chains.

Or look at the near-ubiquitous adoption of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype, and other global internet phenomena - transformative technologies that haven't just bolstered our social lives, but have also catalysed civil wars, toppled political regimes, and helped elect new leaders.

And we're only now starting to see these forces of disruption and levelling at work in the software that powers our businesses.

New wave

Today organisations can tap into scalable, on-demand cloud-computing resources from Amazon Web Services and Google.

They can adopt social technologies like Yammer, Jive and Salesforce Chatter to connect globally dispersed employees, and they can implement content storage and sharing services like Box to make it easy for employees to work from anywhere, on any device.

This new wave of cloud services is challenging long-standing assumptions about how information should and can be shared, and how organisations should be structured.

Most traditional enterprise technologies were designed to lock information down, confining it to a team, a network, or a physical environment. This silo-ing of information - whether intentional or unavoidable, thanks to rigid infrastructure - has had cultural implications as well, creating and perpetuating silos and hierarchies within and between organisations.

But the convergence of cloud, social and mobile in emerging enterprise technologies is revolutionising how businesses share and collaborate, and radically flattening them in the process.

We're now in the early stages of the biggest transformation that businesses will undergo in the next decade. Almost every dimension of collaboration is being democratised: how we collaborate with colleagues, share with partners and transact with customers virtually.

We can do it from any device, in any geography, and within any-sized business. The cloud - and the technologies it enables - are empowering individuals and organisations to leverage the resources, knowledge and services from anywhere.

As Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, put it : "They want to collaborate with the best people across their organisation and to have real-time access to information, just like they have in their personal lives."

New industries

The barriers that once existed between and within corporations are now disappearing, at an ever-increasing speed.

And in the process, entire industries are being remade.

The flattening of sharing and collaboration is changing how we explore space , how digitally animated movies are rendered, how the analogue publishing industry conducts business digitally and how the world's biggest companies leverage distributed talents to bring new products to market.

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The opportunity for small companies to work with big corporations has never been greater, Mr Levie says

Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist and web-browser pioneer, argued that as software eats the world , we're experiencing something akin to creative destruction, where many of the processes and technologies that once required physical connections and products can now be delivered virtually.

Amazon replaced the book store; Skype replaced the phone line. The result of this transformation is to dramatically level the playing field on which all individuals and businesses interact and transact. Big companies can work with small ones, and small ones can act big.

It means that a start-up can better compete with larger competitors, a rural company can act on an unbounded scale and the largest organisations in the world can leverage the talents of small groups, anywhere in the world.

It's the rise of the mini-multinational . That's the goal of a flatter world: where we can capitalise on the talents, expertise and knowledge of many; where we can work locally but act globally.

A manufacturing start-up in Boston can connect with a previously impossible-to-reach supplier in China; a marketing agency in New York can instantaneously collaborate with a client in London; a services firm in France can augment its team by having software developed in India.

It produces a powerful global workforce that can be deployed, trained, and aligned on-demand to any challenge or opportunity.

This has always been seen as the future, but it's quickly becoming the present.

We finally have the technology to connect one another, to leverage the knowledge and expertise of those next to us and far away, and to work with little friction.

Welcome to a flatter world.

Aaron Levie is the chief executive and co-founder of Box, a cloud-based online storage company based in San Francisco.