We think of Google and Facebook as Web gorillas. They’ll be around forever. Yet, with the rate that the tech world is moving these days, there are good reasons to think both might be gone completely in 5 – 8 years. Not bankrupt gone, but MySpace gone. And there’s some academic theory to back up that view, along with casual observations from recent history.
When I was a PhD student 15 years ago, I studied with Don Hambrick who is a scholar known for a career showing the effects of management teams and directors (for good and for ill) on their organizations’ strategies and performance. One of the central tenets of this school of thought on organizations is that senior teams and directors have an outsized influence on organizational outcomes. What’s more, their backgrounds (including education and career paths) have a big effect on how they see the world, various competitive situations and the choices they make.
There’s another school of thought which takes the opposite view called population ecology or organizational ecology which put forward that managers don’t really matter all that much. This view grew out of sociologists who’d taken to study organizations in the 1970s. They assert that organizational outcomes have much more to do with industry effects than who the CEO is and the choices he or she makes. They study birth and death rates of populations of organizations, as well as the effects of age, competition and resources in the surrounding environment on an organization’s birth and death rate. Most of these organizational ecology scholars come out of the University of California at Berkeley.
As a graduate student, I didn’t have much time for this ecology line of thinking. I believed in the power of the individual executive to overcome all challenges in the external environment. We can always point to dynamic CEOs as case studies, even though the sociologists would say those are the equivalent of celebrating the smarts of lottery winners.
As I age and watch what’s happening in the world of Internet and mobile, I can’t stop thinking of these ecologists though.
More and more in the Internet space, it seems that your long-term viability as a company is dependent on when you were born.
Think of the differences between generations and when we talk about how the Baby Boomers behave differently from Gen X’ers and additional differences with the Millennials. Each generation is perceived to see the world in a very unique way that translates into their buying decisions and countless other habits.
tech Internet world, we’ve really had 3 generations:
- Web 1.0 (companies founded from 1994 – 2001, including Netscape, Yahoo! (YHOO), AOL (AOL), Google (GOOG), Amazon (AMZN) and eBay (EBAY)),
- Web 2.0 or Social (companies founded from 2002 – 2009, including Facebook (FB), LinkedIn (LNKD), and Groupon(GRPN)),
- and now Mobile (from 2010 – present, including Instagram).
With each succeeding generation in
tech the Internet, it seems the prior generation can’t quite wrap its head around the subtle changes that the next generation brings. Web 1.0 companies did a great job of aggregating data and presenting it in an easy to digest portal fashion. Google did a good job organizing the chaos of the Web better than AltaVista, Excite, Lycos and all the other search engines that preceded it. Amazon did a great job of centralizing the chaos of e-commerce shopping and putting all you needed in one place.