21 Dec 2010
Harvard Business School Faculty on 2010's Biggest Business Developments
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BOSTON—From the problems posed by the Great Recession to the devastation in Haiti and the Gulf of Mexico, from the continuing economic growth of India and China to a cascade of entrepreneurial ventures, the year 2010 offered a wide assortment of accomplishments and disappointments. We asked three Harvard Business School professors—former Medtronic chairman and CEO Bill George, economist and entrepreneurship expert Bill Sahlman, and innovation and strategy authority Rosabeth Moss Kanter--to offer their thoughts on some of the year's most significant developments in the world of business and economics.

Bill George, Professor of Management Practice

Social networking is the most significant business development of 2010, topping the resurgence of the U.S. automobile industry. During the year social networking morphed from a personal communications tool for young people into a new vehicle that business leaders are using to transform communications with their employees and customers, as it shifts from one-way transmission of information to two-way interaction. That's one reason Time magazine just named Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg Person of the Year.

A year ago many people poked fun at Facebook as a place where kids shared their latest party news. Today more than 600 million users worldwide are active on the site. The most rapidly growing demographic is people over forty. More than 300 million people spend at least one hour a day on Facebook. Approximately two hundred million people are active on Twitter in spite of - or because of - its 140-character limitation. Another 100 million use LinkedIn. None of these social networks even existed at the beginning of the decade.

Leaders like IBM's Sam Palmisano, PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi, Apple's Steve Jobs, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, Carlson's Marilyn Nelson, and Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria are all active social network users. Why? Because these social networks are a unique way of broadly communicating real-time messages to the audiences they want to reach. They can write a message anywhere, anytime, and share it with interested parties" without any public relations meddling, speech writers, airplane travel, canned videos, or voicemail messages. Now their words are much more authentic and can be remarkably empowering.

Social networking is also flattening organizations by distributing access to information. Everyone is equal on the social network. No hierarchies need get involved.

The biggest threat presented by social networks is to middle managers, who may become obsolete when layers of managers are no longer needed to convey messages up and down the organization. The key to success in the social networking era is to empower the people who do the actual work--designing products, manufacturing them, creating marketing innovations, or selling services--to step up and lead without a hierarchy.

Consumer marketing companies are lining up to use these networks to reach their tailored demographics with highly personalized messages. Already they are revolutionizing marketing by shifting dollars from purchased media advertisements to building their own outlets and content. Kraft Foods, for example, is now one of the largest publishers of food-related materials. IBM is launching thought leadership communities. PepsiCo uses social networks to reach millions of social entrepreneurs in lieu of advertising at the Super Bowl. From a leadership perspective, social networking is making authentic leadership a reality and a necessity for 21st century leaders. You can't hide on your social network when you're revealing who you are and what you really believe. Transparency is essential here.

Even more important, this new phenomenon is enabling business leaders to regain the trust and credibility they have lost over the last ten years. That's why social networking is the most important business development of the year.

William A. Sahlman, Dimitri V. D'Arbeloff-MBA Class of 1955 Professor of Business Administration

From where I sit as an economist, it's still all about the economy and the long-term impact of the problems laid bare by the Great Recession. During the financial crisis, the world came to the apparently shocking realization that debt financing entails risks. Financial institutions, households, and governments all suffered because they had too much leverage.

Though the corporate sector has generally decreased leverage, the same is not true of government, particularly in the United States. Every company and household here and abroad will ultimately be affected by the unabated and accelerating gap between government revenues and spending.

There is a great deal of confusion in the popular media about the level of the current budget deficit and outstanding debt. To illustrate, most press reports peg the current U.S. deficit at $1.5 trillion, roughly 10% of gross domestic product (GDP). Gross public debt is $14 trillion, or over 95% of GDP. Most observers believe that the government will run a sustained deficit for the next decade that could add over $10 trillion to outstanding federal debt.

But closer inspection of government data reveals that these figures grossly understate both the current deficit and level of debt. Consider, for example, that the estimated net present value of obligations under the Social Security system is approximately $8 trillion. As the ratio of retired people receiving benefits to working people paying into the system increases, there will be an ever-increasing deficit confronting the government.

Even more problematic is the fact that the Medicare system has a vested unfunded net liability of approximately $38 trillion. Once again, the inexorable shift in demographics, combined with high and increasing healthcare costs, will result in a widening gap between tax intake and payment outflow for Medicare.

On another front, the government is also on the hook for insuring bank deposits (including money market funds at the peak of the crisis), pension liabilities, and a wide range of other loans and liabilities. The total value of explicit loan guarantees is well over $10 trillion.

In total, the estimated liabilities of the federal government are in the range of $70 trillion, over five times annual GDP. By implication, the annual deficit is equal to the reported deficit plus the change in the vested, unfunded liabilities incurred in that year (e.g., the change in the Medicare liability) plus the implicit net cost of the annual guarantee for various liabilities. Therefore, the current deficit is more like $4.5 trillion than $1.5 trillion, while the total net revenue for the government was only $2.2 trillion in fiscal 2009. Washington, we have a problem.

This kind of leverage is unsustainable. Though some will argue that higher taxes are required, the reality is that the total amount collected each year in personal and corporate taxes (excluding social security and Medicare taxes) is only a bit over $1 trillion. Spending must be cut.

The recent report of The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform suggested a number of options for addressing the challenges posed by excessive government leverage. This report, and several others prepared by other objective bodies, must become part of our collective dialogue about the future of the country. Every business leader and every citizen has a responsibility to understand and help address these issues. Otherwise, as some scenarios in Europe have already made clear, the United States will ultimately suffer the same fate as all countries that spend way beyond their means.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration

In many ways the biggest business developments of 2010 were the things that didn't happen. Big companies with cash didn't spend it. Banks with cash didn't lend it. Small businesses didn't attract capital and thus didn't help reduce unemployment. Europeans were paralyzed by debt crises and transportation shutdowns caused by volcanic ash and disgruntled workers. Americans were paralyzed by fear of a Chinese takeover of the world. Google didn't exactly leave China or prevail in the face-off over government-banned content. The BP oil spill debacle in the U.S. Gulf region didn't destroy the company, didn't stop offshore oil drilling for very long, and didn't produce the political will to push for alternative energy sources.

Yet even in the midst of gridlock in Washington, economic anxiety around the world, and government liquidity crises in Europe, technology marched on, seemingly impervious to global events. Technology companies with the capabilities and courage to innovate were bright spots and signals of important trends for the future.

One enormous continuing development is the exponential growth of social networking media and the increasing use of social media by companies to crowdsource ideas, mount contests to award prizes and gather audiences, and attempt to create dialogues with customers. The year 2010 accelerated the trend toward the use of social networking sites for an increasing number of commercial purposes and gave social networking companies the confidence to remain independent rather than be acquired by existing players (witness upstart Groupon's recent rejection of Google's $6 billion offer, for instance).

And for what it symbolizes, let me add the launch of the Apple iPad in April. This device quickly gained a 95% share of the tablet computer market and a big share of the public mind.

But the iPad represented more than just an extremely successful product launch. It also signified important technological directions that are reshaping other industries. The iPad extends and accelerates the webification of life whereby devices can connect to the "cloud" and provide functions on a mobile, as-needed basis. There is no more need to embed them in the guts of a stationary device. This makes an enormous amount of computing power available to individuals and small businesses and continues the importance of apps that can be accessed directly. The existence of the iPad extends and accelerates the trend toward digital content such as e-books and downloadable newspapers and magazines.

While uncertainty continues to cause wary businesses to wait before investing, innovation and entrepreneurship are invoked by leaders as the one sure way out of economic distress.