Malcolm Gladwell uses a B2B firm founder’s story to explain his new theory on decision-making

Malcolm Gladwell Enterprise World 2018 Open Text
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Malcolm Gladwell may not understand the finer points of enterprise information management and other areas in which a company like Open Text specializes, but he’s spent enough time studying economics and history to offer some advice on how business leaders could make smart choices in what he called the “turmoil of the digital age.”

Speaking at Open Text’s Enterprise World conference in Toronto on Tuesday, Gladwell — author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and other best-sellers — admitted he felt over his head when the software company talked about the launch of its OT2 native SaaS platform, services and applications. Instead, he encouraged the audience to spend a little more time thinking about where to invest in areas like talent and education in order to have the resources they need to use technology successfully.

“It helps us to conceptualize the nature of the organizations that we’re a part of, and also the nature of the challenges that we face when we try to make our organizations better,” he said.

Gladwell used the story of two major donations by wealthy philanthropists to explain his theoretical construct. The first told the story of Henry Rowan, the late founder of a firm that manufactures industrial furnaces who donated $100 million in the early 90s to a state college that now bears his name on the condition an engineering school be established. The other donor was John Paulson, who donated $400 million to Harvard University’s engineering program.

While both acts showcased considerable generosity, Gladwell asked the audience to consider a key question: If developing a stronger crop of engineering talent was the goal, who made the smarter choice — donating to a small school in New Jersey that was on the brink of bankruptcy, or an already well-funded school at the top of the Ivy League?

One answer comes from David Sally and Chris Anderson, authors of The Numbers Game, who explored something similar in the realm of professional soccer: if you’re trying to win more games, does it make sense to improve the performance of your strongest player or your weakest player? Based on their research, improving the weakest player has the biggest impact — teams that did so could score twice as many goals — but that may have something to do with the game itself, Gladwell suggested. 

“Soccer is a game of mistakes,” he pointed out. “Soccer is also interactive —  even the greatest player cannot move the ball all by himself.”

Contrast that with basketball, however, and a team can be more than merely as good as its weakest link. Players like LeBron James can dribble all the way to the court without having to interact with other players. In other words, basketball represents a “strong link” sport.

Gladwell believes this same idea can be applied to many other kinds of organizations, including those trying to source coding talent.

“If you’re trying to build a world-class programming group, you need a couple of stars,” he said. “You want one person who can do the work of 25.”

Looking back at Rowan vs. Paulson, however, Gladwell pointed out that the former’s eponymous university now has a 92 per cent placement rate, despite offering engineering courses at a tuition rate of only $9,000. It may have been a “weak link” in the university system making it considerably stronger has yielded powerful results. 

“At this moment in our society, should we be making the strong link even stronger, or the weak link even stronger? Are we playing basketball, or are we laying soccer?” he asked. “I think the answer is, as we move into a more interconnected world, we are going in the direction of soccer.”

Looking at the Internet of Things (IoT), for example, Gladwell suggested organizations will need lots of skilled people to design, manufacture, implement and train others as everyday objects are digitized. He urged the Enterprise World audience to focus on building up more of those “weak links” as they develop more advanced technologies.

“I would like to see you close the gap between all the people who are in this room and all the people who are not in this room,” he said.

Enterprise World runs through Thursday.

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Shane Schick

Shane Schick

Shane Schick is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.