A lot can happen in a decade. In 2001 only 7.6% of the world’s population had access to the internet vs. 30.2% today, consumer inflation was 21.9% lower, Pluto was still a planet, Steve Jobs was CEO of Apple, social media was a gleam in some marketer’s eye and foreign policy was largely the domain of an elite minority. Yet, some things have remained the same – we’re gripped by startup fever once more, the economy is slowly recovering from a recession (or not), and there continue to be vast gaps in the penetration of technology between developed, underdeveloped and emerging economies as demonstrated below.
One of the hotly debated topics at the Harvard Business School’s inaugural Program for Leadership Development (HBS PLD) Summit in New York City was the so called “death of the global manager”, loosely based on a paper by Julia Hanna that posits that the term “global manager” is now a misnomer as most managers operate in an increasingly global environment now vs. a decade or so ago. The debate was especially relevant given the international background of both the participants and the speakers, including Jan Sauer, a former Trade Commissioner of Denmark and Andy Sieg, Managing Director and Head of Retirement Services and Global Investment Solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. I would respectfully disagree with Ms. Hanna and believe that the role of Global Manager has in fact not changed much over the past decade – in description if not title – for three simple reasons:
- Corporate organizational structure: Most large corporations tend to be organized into two broad groups, covering the domestic market and global markets respectively. While close communication is desired and indeed encouraged between these groups, they function as separate entities e.g. the domestic group in a U.S. company is largely focused on addressing the idiosyncrasies of the American customer and the various micro-communities that (s)he represents. And while the title of Global Manager is perhaps not used as often as it was 10 years ago, the reality is that many managers are also not focused on global business.
- Hyper-local focus: Businesses are facing an interesting dichotomy. Labor and other cost pressures have forced businesses to think globally in their approach to sourcing materials, as evidenced by all the goods made in China, India and Taiwan. Increasingly frictionless trans-national trade is promoting the movement of finished goods across national boundaries. Yet, digital channels are also forcing businesses to address customer needs at the hyper-local level – right down to the neighborhood customers live in. As a result, businesses are forced to think global, but act local.
- Intrusion of politics: While online access to information has reduced barriers to learning and information-sharing, the reality is that political and socio-economic boundaries continue to impose very real barriers to business. Recent disputes over budget deficits between EU countries is a good case in point.