Fast Company, one of the hottest new business magazines in recent years, positions itself as "the handbook of the business revolution," one that focuses on the "growing community of people committed to new ways of working, competing, living, and growing," according to co-founder and co-editor William C. Taylor. "We write about the new economy and workplace for people who believe in fusing tough-minded performance with sane human values."
Judging by the four-year-old magazine's success,Taylor and co-editor Alan Webber are onto something big. Fast Company has won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence and a dozen design awards since its launch. Ad revenue has skyrocketed and more than 100 "Company of Friends" clubs have sprung up around the world. These 25,000 individuals get together in clubs to network and find new ways to "revolutionize the culture of work." This year the magazine will launch a Company of Friends Summit meeting, and its award-winning Web site (www.fastcompany.com) is slotted for explosive growth and development.
Taylor's busy schedule involves dozens of speaking engagements, including keynote addresses at the recent International Association for Exposition Management and Meeting Professionals International meetings. We spoke with him in January at FC's Boston office to discuss how the changing culture of work affects meetings and associations.
AM: Fast Company talks about a revolution in how people view work. But is this a movement involving an elite segment of workers?
Taylor: That's something we've been struggling with. But let me say that first of all, our job is not to describe the world as it is, but as it is becoming. So by definition we focus on the vanguard. Those are the people that we need to learn from. Our job is to create an agenda for the future, to identify the people and the companies helping everybody move along faster. So right now maybe ten percent of the workers in the U.S. work this way, but three years from now it may be 30 percent.
AM: Describe how the Fast Company ideology applies to, say, production workers, not just computer programmers who can pick and choose their employment.
Taylor: The logic of the Fast Company world is that you compete on how smart you are, on what you know. That you do your best work if you do work that you enjoy and really care about. That no abstract organization is going to take care of you--it's up to you to find your own way in the world. The impact of technology and global competition is that the rules of every industry are up for grabs today. And if you are a smart, innovative person, you can find a better way to compete and add value. Who wouldn't say that those principles describe the world they are living in, or are scared of, or are beginning to experience? These ideas are reshaping every industry in the world, and more and more people are having to reckon with them, including people we would normally consider production workers.
Go to a cutting-edge factory of Motorola or Ford today and it bears no resemblance to factories 20 years ago. Sure, today programmers at Sun or Netscape are living at the edge of change, but five or six years from now production workers at Ford are going to be, too.
AM: It seems that people often stay with jobs because of the health insurance or pension program.
Taylor: One of the things I've come to realize in the last couple of years is how obsolete so many of the artifacts of work in society are today. Pensions and insurance are a great example, but even this notion of a work week. We all know that we all do our work in project teams today, and projects do not have anything remotely resembling a linear cycle. You may be working 80 hours a week to deliver a project, and then once it's delivered you may be working no hours a week for several weeks even if you show up and have to pretend that you are.
We have to come up with a whole new language--like a sports season, where there's a pre-season, a season, and an off-season to recover and work on conditioning. But it's very rare that organizations embrace this. We have instead artifacts of a world that has disappeared. But we're very early into this [revolution] and you're not going to have all the answers at once.
AM: I think these kinds of issues have to become political ones for there to be any large-scale change.
Taylor: That makes me the most nervous. Because I think our ability as a country to discuss this stuff in the political realm is zero right now. By the way, we came out of the world of politics--my first job was with Ralph Nader and my wife has been in politics her whole career. I'm a very political person, and I find the level of discourse on these issues is much more intelligent in business circles than in political ones. What are the new arrangements we need for more people to work in this new way, and what are we going to do about the people who can't get with the program as fast as the other people--it's called the Digital Divide or the New Economy Divide? Right now, I feel hopeless that we can have an intelligent conversation about this stuff in the political realm.
Who's Afraid of the Internet? AM: In the world of, as everywhere else, there is tremendous focus on how to respond to the emergence of the Internet and all the possibilities created by it.
Taylor: I was just at association of very smart people and all they wanted to talk about was how do we get with the Internet. The first thing I had to say was that the question for the people in this association, and maybe for others, is not 'How do I get with the Internet?' but, 'What do I want to be when I grow up?' The real impact of this technology is to require the organization and the individual to ask the most fundamental questions.What do we know that nobody else knows? How do we serve most effectively? What value do I really add to this enterprise?
The power and the opportunity and danger of the Internet for everybody is that it lays bare all the inefficiencies, the lack of clarity, and the confusion that we know is in so many of our companies and organizations. The first thing you have to do when reckoning the impact of the Internet is to get total clarity on these most basic questions. And those are much harder questions to answer than 'How do I get a Web site going?'
AM: The rise of business-to-business Web portals concerns many association managers, who fear them as a new kind of competitive media.
Taylor: I would rather be where associations are today: trying to figure out how the Internet can supplement what associations do, rather than trying to invent something on the Net. As long as you bring to it a sense of courage and experimentation, you should look at the Internet as the greatest way to supplement what you do. No new media ever supplants the previous media. It simply adds to it. Radio is having its best years ever in the last five or ten years. Daily newspapers are valued more highly on Wall Street today than they have ever been. Business-to-business portals are not going to put anybody out of business--unless people let them.
AM: Can you elaborate on that theme a bit more?
Taylor: What do business-to-business portals have? They understand a certain amount of technology and they can move fast. What does the existing world of associations have? Total wisdom and knowledge of what people in a particular industry or profession know and care about, based on years of working with those people. Anybody with a capacity to think fresh and experiment can quickly come up to speed with the technology. But there is no way to accelerate the learning curve that comes from decades of wisdom about what people care about.
AM: But how do established associations begin to reinvent themselves on the Web?
Taylor: There is no way for people who have been in a field for 15 or 20 years to have an overnight personality transplant and really become people of the Internet. It is also impossible for people who are born on the Internet side of the line to have the same kind of knowledge and expertise that these other folks have.
The real power is in the synthesis. And it's not even so much about partnership or. It's about getting a DNA transplant, bringing into your world a certain number of people who think very differently than you do, but who understand the expertise you've built over decades. If those two sides can work together, you can do very powerful stuff.
Speaking Out On the Road AM: What have you learned from your 40 or so speaking engagements in the last 12 months?
Taylor: Organizers seem more interested in polished performances rather than free-spirited explorations. But for most questions in the world, there are no simple answers, and people would rather have slightly more chaotic, freewheeling discussions than a polished two days from the podium. My guess is that people came to the event hoping to have as much original thinking and new connections as possible.
Overall, the faster you get to questions from the audience, the better. But people seem to think that you buy your speeches the same way you by baloney--by weight. I think less time talking at people, more time talking with people, and more relaxed formats is the better way to go.
AM: What are the themes of your talks?
Taylor: Most people are thinking about a set of related questions: Given the great many changes going on in the world, what are the small number of changes that I really need to pay attention to as things that will really affect me? I can't imagine not talking about that.
The second thing: What are the attributes of organizations that tend to win these days? And what kind of organization do I want to be part of? We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We all hate to be part of an organization that makes us feel less than ourselves. How do I know what makes a great organization?
Finally, how do I have a personal survival strategy that lets me move and change with the times, that lets me feel like I am in control of my destiny, that I am having fun, that I am riding a wave rather than living in a state of fear, loathing, and anxiety? These are the concerns that I think most people have today, and the areas I hope to shed some light on.