The World is Flat: The globalized world in the twenty-first century

Reviewed by: 
Thomas L Friedman
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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I was drawn to this book because it was a winner of the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award and because its author, Thomas Friedman, had won three Pulitzer Prizes for his work on The New York Times.  What better credentials could a book ever have?

How wrong could I be!  It’s not that it is a bad book, just that rather than offering anything new, it seems to be a rather lengthy and long-winded account of the state of the world today.

The whole basis of the book is that the barriers to trade that used to exist between countries and continents as a result of politics, distance, language and education no longer do.  The Internet and advances in global communications have seen to that by effectively making the world a much smaller place; or in Friedman’s terms, making it ‘flat’.

Throughout the book Friedman repeatedly asks people he meets “When did you realise the world was flat?”  This solicits a variety of responses that all follow a familiar theme.  Here are a few examples:

  • The then Secretary of State Colin Powell told Friedman that he no longer uses his researchers to do research because he does it himself on Google, instead he expects them to concentrate all their energies on providing answers.
  • A taxi driver Friedman met on one of his trips described how he got a significant amount of his business via his web site, which was in three languages.  People travelling on business would find him on the Internet and book him.  In this way he had an advantage over the other taxi drivers who had to wait in queues for the next available customer.
  • Other examples demonstrate how western companies are moving work overseas to take advantage of lower cost labour and are now finding that, in addition to the cost savings, the quality of the labour is better and the work ethic stronger.

The real test for any book is to answer the ‘so what?’ question.  In this regard I think the book is very good.  It is very honest and pulls no punches in its harsh assessment of western political leaders who have sat by and allowed our engineering, computing and science skills to decline while the Chinese and Indians have invested heavily.  It is also very open in its assessment of the risks that protectionism poses to western economies if, as may well be the case in the current recession, governments are tempted to pursue these policies.  

I believe the most profound point the book makes is that the world is moving from “a primarily vertical – command and control – system for creating value to a more horizontal – connect and collaborate – value-creation model”.  Moreover, these changes won’t just affect businesses, they will affect the way individuals, communities and companies organise themselves, where companies and communities stop and start, how individuals balance their different identities as consumers, shareholders, citizens and employees.  As Friedman suggests, “over time many roles, habits, political identities, and management practices that we had grown used to in the round world are going to have to be profoundly adjusted for the age of flatness.”

In conclusion, my annoyance with the book was not that I disagreed with anything that it was saying, it was just that I felt that it didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t already know.  The worrying thing therefore is that such esteemed organisations as the Financial Times and Goldman Sachs should have such a high opinion of it – it raises the question as to whether all this stuff about the world being flat was news to them – I sincerely hope not!

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