The Caveman in the Executive Suite

I've been thinking a lot about executive identity, and that's what came to mind when I read David Weinberger's online bio page. The always amusing and very smart author of Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room has more than one take on who he is. Two are from his left brain (one is full of hype, and the other is "relatively hype-free," he says), and a third take comes from his right brain (this one isn't completely nonlinguistic, he notes, because we have yet to develop "tactile and aromatic plugins").

What really resonated for me, though, was his "no brain" self-characterization: "Him write good. Him help companies do stuff. Him smell OK."

That's because my thinking on executive identity has meandered as far back as our hunter-gatherer forebears. (I'm a futurist, but deeply steeped in the past.) In Thoughtful Foragers: A Study of Prehistoric Decision Making, Steven J. Mithen shows us not only how clever paleoarchaeologists are when "interviewing" long-dead decision-makers. He also demonstrates how position in the prehistoric workplace hierarchy was a function of prowess in the primary value-producing activities of the era (food-gathering). Stone Age executives were chosen entirely on merit.

For much of human history, that wasn't the case. Nearly zero flexibility and extremely limited progress were the hallmarks of century after century. In the Middle Ages, and during other epochs, identity (position in society) was a function of blood -- you were born either a noble or a peasant -- and what you did was a function of tradition. In feudal societies, there was (outside the occasional fairy tale) very limited social mobility.

In fact, because one's identity was so closely tied to one's immutable social role, the Middle Ages gave rise to many of the family names used today in the Western world. Villagers would refer to others by their occupation, which is how we got all those Hoopers, Coopers and Smiths.

Of course, all of that changed in the modern era, as merit came to be the most important element in sorting out who would lead and who would follow. Right? Well, yes, to a point. But in Mad Men's 1960s, important parts of executive identity appear to have been based on elements outside of one's control: gender, age, race, health and physical stature. (We'd all like to say we're entirely beyond this, but we do consistently give the job of U.S. president to the taller candidate.)

In any event, we've made progress, thanks to legislation, enlightened self-interest and a hyper-competitive global marketplace. Merit counts for much more than it did at any time since we hunted together in clans -- and executive identity has returned to its prehistoric roots.

Position in the workplace hierarchy of optimally managed enterprises has returned to being a function of prowess in the primary value-producing activity of the era. Today, that isn't food-gathering; it's the conversion of ideas into cash. The way to do that in the 21st century is to master information use -- to know all the ins and outs of the tools, processes and purposes associated with data, information, content and knowledge.

In the "no brain" vernacular of David Weinberger, executive identity can be described as: "Him got good data. Him do smart analytics. Him take action and make money."

Thornton A. May is author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics and executive director of the IT Leadership Academy at Florida State College in Jacksonville. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com or follow him on Twitter (@deanitla).

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