back to the future

and January 25, 2016 0 comments

On the surface the ranking is not surprising. It is topped by renowned strategy and competitiveness expert Professor Michael Porter of Harvard Business School. Regarded as the father of modern business strategy, Porter, who has consulted dozens of corporations and a number of national governments, returns to the number one slot after previously topping the list in 2007. His ‘five forces’ framework was the definitive approach for decades and is still taught in business schools around the world. Since the financial crisis of 2008, his theory of ‘shared value’ has led the way in a re-evaluation of the role and expectations of capitalism. Most recently, Porter has applied his ideas to show how smart, connected products are creating a technological revolution that will transform competition and have profound implications for society. What is admirable about Porter is that his thinking has stood the test of time, but perhaps more importantly, that his ideas have evolved with time. His curiosity remains intact and there is a real sense that he is leading the next management agenda. We were recently visiting a major Turkish company who told us about their commitment to Porter’s ideas on social value and how they had informed the development of the company.

like great artists, the best thinkers are open to ideas throughout their careers

The other headline message from the latest ranking is that today’s management thinkers have a broad canvas. When we started the ranking in 2001, thinkers tended to focus on improving organizational performance. They looked at how companies could grow quicker, come up with better strategies, and manage people more effectively. All of these issues are important, but increasingly we are seeing management thinkers wrestling with the biggest issues of our times. They recognize that management and leadership are critical in solving inequalities, developing healthcare for the future, dealing with climate change, etc.

management thinkers are thinking big

441-3The new ranking signals a passing of the baton to a new generation of gurus: 14 newcomers were part of this year’s ranking. The guru industry used to be pale, male, and stale, but that is no longer the case. Today it is eclectic, energetic, and truly diverse. No fewer than ten different nationalities feature in the top 50—including thinkers from the US, Canada, Bangladesh, Denmark, Holland, Korea, China, the UK, India, and Cuba. Among the newcomers is Zhang Ruimin, CEO of the Chinese white goods giant Haier. At number 38, Ruimin is the highest-ever ranked Chinese thinker (and the third Chinese thinker ever to make into the top 50). Ruimin also picked up the Thinkers50 award for Ideas into Practice, for applying a distinctively Chinese and progressive business philosophy. The message is that management thinking is no longer the preserve of the West. The last few rankings saw an Asian invasion with the emergence of Indian thinkers. In 2015, we are seeing the arrival of Chinese management thinkers on the world stage. Expect more.

The new ranking also features the best-ever showing for women thinkers—capturing 14 places out of the top 50 (up from 13 in 2013, 11 in 2011, and just five in 2009). Women thinkers claim no fewer than four of the top ten places in the new ranking. At number three in the ranking (with writing partner Chan Kim), INSEAD’s Renée Mauborgne is the highest-placed woman. In addition, Rachel Botsman picks up the Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award for her championing of the idea of ‘collaborative consumption’ and the ‘sharing economy’, which includes exciting new business models such as AirBnB. The Future Thinker Award also went to a woman for the third consecutive time, with Erin Meyer the winner.

When you consider that women constitute half the world’s population, they are still under-represented in the Thinkers50, but they are making impressive progress. It is great to see them coming up with some of the most exciting new ideas. What is particularly interesting is that many of the up-and-coming women thinkers are championing ideas that involve collaboration rather than old-fashioned competition.

As a final point, it is interesting to note that as boundaries between disciplines blur, it is also getting harder to pigeonhole thinkers into traditional disciplines like strategy, marketing, or innovation.  Thinkers like Wharton’s Adam Grant or Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy do not fit into traditional tidy functional boxes. They defy categorization and for this we should be thankful because that is the reality of the world—and that of the world of business.

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