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The release of companies topping the Fortune 500 list proved a bright spot in today's still shaky global economy, but John Sviokla, a principal and US business leader for strategy and innovation at PricewaterhouseCoopers, believes there's much good still to anticipate. 

He spoke last week at Guardian's Activate Summit in New York. The summit attracted professionals in the publishing industry and featured such heavy hitters as media giant Arianna Huffington and Jonah Peretti, co-founder of BuzzFeed, perhaps the first true social news organization.

Sviokla followed both in the event’s program, no easy task. Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian US, conducted a funny, smart interview with Huffington, who she likened to Madonna, while Peretti wowed the audience with an energetic presentation replete with BuzzFeed’s signature images of cute animals in ridiculous outfits. Given the high wattage profiles of those who preceded him, Sviokla’s contributions to the event seemed subdued and easy to gloss over.

With the latest list of Fortune 500 companies showing record earnings, it’s worth reviewing the environment that gave rise to their success and considering how businesses today might follow in their footsteps or even race past. Calling it “the most competitive environment we’ve ever had in the history of mankind,” Sviokla shared his thoughts on today’s open economy:

Volatility and agility

Until recently, the lifespan of a company that made it onto the Fortune 500 list was 75 years. Now it’s fewer than 15 years. What’s changed? What challenges are CEOs encountering today that they avoided in the past? Volatility, said Sviokla. Technologies and markets are evolving at a rapid clip, with few leaders able to foresee the changes that their industry might face. Instead, executives need to ask themselves, “If I can’t plan for it, can I at least react in a good way?” said Sviokla.

Producers on the rise

What qualifies as a good reaction for Sviokla is the kind of labor force smart companies develop, with producers taking top spot in his estimation. “You have to employ a new kind of talent,” he said, “A producer in a media sense that brings together new capabilities in a new way inside an organization. The old roles aren’t good enough.”

Pressed further on that point, Sviokla responded that such an employee would be able to combine an organization’s assets with assets in the marketplace in a new way in new markets. Privileged client relations left him unable to name specific companies achieving that goal, but he did identify health care as a vertical with admirable CEOs at the helm.

Innovations in innovation

“In this new Internet economy,” continued Sviokla, “The horizontality of innovation is huge.” In the past, innovations in, say, the steel industry would affect that industry alone. Today innovation travels across business segments.

It’s carried in part by a labor force with a lifespan longer than the companies (and, in some cases, industries) that hired them. “People are going to have two and three and four careers because people are living longer than corporations,” said Sviokla. Quoting business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, he advised jobseekers and would-be jobseekers in the audience, “’You want to be employable, not employed.’”

The world is seeing innovations not just in industries, but in business models, too. “Those economies around the world that are willing to let old business models out and redeploy are actually the most vibrant economies,” Sviokla said.

He ended his participation on an optimistic note: “We’re going into a decade of entrepreneurship we haven’t seen since the steam engine.” For anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which chronicled the success of the generation born during the 1860s and 1870s when the American economy experienced its greatest transformation, Sviokla’s parting comment could only have been good news.

 
Cielo Lutino

Published 9 May, 2012 by Cielo Lutino

Cielo Lutino is a writer and producer for Econsultancy and other organizations. 

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Comments (4)

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Aaron Hoos

We live in exciting times! Since everyone is an entrepreneur (or will be soon), employees need to develop a broader skillset that used to be seen only in entrepreneurs -- skills like media savvy, technical prowess, an ability to sell, and a network.

over 4 years ago

Cielo Lutino

Cielo Lutino, Writer / Producer at EconsultancySmall Business Multi-user

Absolutely agree with you, Aaron, as does higher education. More and more I'm seeing graduate programs offering courses (or degrees!) in entrepreneurship, with the opportunities at Stanford perhaps the most well known.

over 4 years ago

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Roy Condrey

How can a university teach you how to be an entrepreneur? I know so many entrepreneurs that will tell you that the only thing they are using from their undergraduate degree or even an MBA is part of one class they took one semester. Having a higher education in order to be successful is a myth that is being debunked everyday. The only reason it is still desirable is because there are people that still buy into that old mindset that thinks high education means higher intelligence or better skills.

over 4 years ago

Cielo Lutino

Cielo Lutino, Writer / Producer at EconsultancySmall Business Multi-user

The entrepreneurship programs I know of are fairly young, and the study of entrepreneurship or innovation is still emerging as a stand-alone discipline distinct from business administration. Not sure there's been time enough yet to measure their effectiveness.

The movement for self- or continuing education outside mainstream academia, like what you find nationally with The Public School or locally with the Brooklyn Brainery, suggests people may share your view, though, Roy. Certainly, those kinds of ventures show a kind of entrepreneurial spunk all their own, which is pretty cool.

over 4 years ago

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