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The decade of the entrepreneur is coming

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.

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