Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
June 15th, 2006

An Interview with Futurist David Houle

The post today is an interview I recently did with Nonprofit Online Learning Update, which is being published on-line today. The interviewer was Jeff Cobb, a leader in the field of on-line learning for non-profits. Non-profits provide an incredibly valuable function in today’s world and can be even more influential in the future as they can become networks of like minded people, organized around ideas, issues, professions and agendas.

As the biographical note at the top of the interview points out, my father, Cyril O. Houle was not only the man who most popularized the phrase ‘life long learning’ but also wrote two of the most influential books on boards. I therefore grew up with a keen understanding of the value of adult education and the importance of boards in society. I have also worked at an e-learning company and consulted with major training and adult education companies, so it is a field I know and respect.

It is because education is so important for all of us in the future that I share this interview with regular readers of this blog. I welcome the subscribers of Nonprofit Online Learning Update to www.evolutionshift.com.

An Interview with Futurist David Houle

Nonprofit Online Learning Update recently had the opportunity to talk with David Houle, a noted futurist and the mind behind www.evolutionshift.com, a blog devoted to providing ‘A Future Look at Today.’ The son of Cyril O. Houle, one of the pioneers of adult education and a widely-read authority on governing boards, David has been a pioneer in his own right in the fields of media and online education. He was a member of the executive teams that launched MTV, CNN Headline News, Nickelodeon, and VH1, and he served as senior vice president of University Access, one of the first companies to leverage the brand and intellectual property of major universities through online delivery. David now speaks frequently around the country (for more information, see www.davidhoule.com). We asked him to apply his futurist lens to the world of education and the role that associations and other nonprofits play in it.

NOLU: One of the things you are known for is reclaiming and revitalizing the buzz word ‘disintermediation’ that got so much play during the go-go days of the dot.com era. For those who aren’t familiar with it, tell us quickly what is meant by the term.

An intermediary is basically the proverbial ‘middle man’—someone who stands between the consumer and the desired product or service and charges a fee for access, ideally while adding some value in the process. Classic examples are the travel agent and the stock broker. These people were reduced to relative insignificance in the 1980s and 90s when online services like Expedia and E-Trade came along and provided a more convenient and less costly connection between the consumer and the needed services. Their role as the middle man was effectively eliminated; they were disintermediated.

NOLU: How do you see disintermediation impacting education?

We’ve seen the rise of what I call frictionless education. Educational content can be accessed anytime, anywhere, and the traditional intermediaries—educational institutions, corporate training departments, association workshop programs—may or may not be necessary. How will these organizations remain relevant from an educational standpoint now that they are no longer required to broker access to subject matter experts? By the value of the credentials they can offer, and that ultimately comes down to their brand. Aggressive organizations with clear and desired brands will triumph.

NOLU: I think I hear a clear message in there for associations and other nonprofits…

Yes. If certification and credentialing are not part of your strategy now, you need to seriously consider making them a part of your strategy and building a strong brand around them. Without this, the value of other services you provide will erode over time along with the value of your organization. Being current, being immediate, being able to communicate significant information quickly—these are also valuable services that associations and nonprofits provide to their stakeholders, along with the ability to lobby and advocate with one voice. But these are all services in which the powerful forces of disintermediation are at work—we are already at a point where large, centralized organizations are no longer needed to perform this work. Organizations that want to preserve the authority of their voice will benefit greatly from being perceived as the certifier of knowledge within a particular niche.

NOLU: Obviously one of the most powerful aspects of disintermediation is that it knows no boundaries. Organizations must now think of the world as their audience. How does the global nature of the Internet impact what you have been saying about education and branding?

The world craves American content to the point that education and popular culture are two of our biggest exports. In both cases, this is because of brand strength and a perception of superior quality. Harvard, for instance, is a brand that resonates worldwide and is synonymous with superior educational quality. Personally, I don’t share the pervasive concern that America is falling behind the global community in math and engineering. Those subjects feel increasingly like trades for specialists. We can provide the education for generalists, leaders and communicators. That is who we are becoming. We are viewed as the most innovative country in the world, so let’s emphasize innovation in our education. That is the basis of our brand; that is where we should challenge ourselves. Let China teach math.

NOLU: China has certainly been a force in other areas of our economy. Many manufactured goods, for instance, have been driven to commodity status as a result of China’s ability to produce items fast, cheap, and in large quantities. What’s to stop the same thing from happening with education?

Again, a strong brand is the key. Education has traditionally been a service, but with the ability to deliver it as a ‘canned’ event via the Web or desktop software, it is increasingly becoming a product. It will become a commodity—and the ability to charge a premium for it will thus decrease dramatically—to the extent that it is not associated with a strong brand. Associations have a leg up, in many cases, because they are clearly established as an authoritative knowledge source in their particular niche. Many think, however, that their strength lies in controlling intellectual property particular to that niche. That is an illusion that will eventually be shattered—you can no longer bar the door on access to intellectual property. Any organization offering education to its stakeholders must also be able to offer a compelling argument—a strong value proposition—as to why it should be the preferred source for intellectual property. What is your organization’s value as an intermediary? Brand is everything.

NOLU: As a futurist, what are some of the bigger trends you see unfolding in the world?

I tend to think in terms of two broad ‘ultra-trends’ that are reshaping the world: the ultra-trend of global and the ultra-trend of the individual. The key here is that everything in between these two poles will lessen in power and influence in the years and decades ahead.

NOLU: Talk about disintermediation!

Exactly. Humanity is being reorganized around the smallest and the largest units possible. Each person, micro, and humanity as a whole, macro. We are becoming hyper-individuals and global citizens at the same time. The idea that we are in a global economy is pretty widely accepted at this point. History teaches us that economics comes first, then politics, then culture. Columbus discovered America because he was looking for a trade route. As America was became settled, the colonies evolved into political units and then a nation. Once it was a nation, it developed its own national culture. We have just started this process globally. First economics, then a new global political structure, and finally a true global culture. How all of this will play out is the subject of a book I am currently writing.

NOLU: And something similar is happening at the individual level?

Yes. This is a bit less obvious but equally powerful. The individual is gaining ever more power and control as an economic, political, and cultural force. We all have many more options and choices than we did twenty years ago. More things to buy and ways to buy them—an economic change; more ways to make our voices heard—a political change; more ways to organize our interaction with the world in the way we see fit—a cultural change. Think of the teenager who fills up her iPod with music, videos, and podcasts from a variety of sources; maintains a blog to post opinions on her pet issues; and shares her world through MySpace with a community of like-minded individuals. This is the hyper-individual.

NOLU: And between this person and the global community nothing else?

We haven’t gotten there yet, but when you really stop to contemplate where these two ultra-trends are headed, you realize that everything that is not either global or individual will be of lessening value. For example, the nation state, a creation of the industrial age seems to be an anachronism and is losing its value and power. Nations are increasingly being government by ‘managers’ not ‘leaders.’ What this may mean for nonprofits and the governance of organizations I cannot fully predict except to say: if you are not serving the individual and you are not thinking globally, you are at risk.

What do you think? Visit www.evolutionshift.com to post your comments or questions about this interview.

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