Just finished reading The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman and thoroughly enjoyed it. So much to discuss and share, which I intend to, in a future post. Right now, I’ve just landed in Chicago about 4 1/2 hours later than planned and it’s late so I’m going to head to bed.
The one thought I wanted to throw out there was that this book – which beautifully dissects the strengths and weaknesses of Wal-Mart (hint, they are one and the same) is a fantastic microcosm of the two critical challenge facing America at the start of the 21st century.
The first, centres around if and how America will renew its social contract in the face of globalization and the existence of companies like Wal-Mart that are simply so much larger in scale than anything it has previously experienced. This challenge is made all the more complex by the fact that despite being a retailer, Wal-Mart is, at its core, an information company. The story of Wal-Mart is the story of America’s transition from the industrial to the post-industrial era (I think this is fascinating because of course no one sees Wal-Mart as an information age company but it is a much more accurate reflection of what this change looks like than say, the story of MicroSoft).
The second has to do with how isolated Wal-Mart is from American mainstream culture (and by extension the world’s) and America’s isolation from the world’s culture. Check out these lines from the last few paragraphs of the book:
“No one likes to hear or read an accounting of his or her faults. Most of us would wave off such blunt recital, or avert our eyes. But Wal-Mart needs to continue to try to listen to what Americans are saying about it, and we have a responsibility to continue to insist on accountability.
What Wal-Mart is trying to do, really, is engage the world, understand the world, meet its customers and suppliers in a different setting than shelf price. To do that, Wal-Marters need to travel, to routinely get out and hear what people say about them-in city council meetings, in industry conferences, at public forums. The transformation of Wal-Mart itself must come from the buildings in Bentonville [it’s HQ], yes: but the motivation for change can’t be found in the supplier meeting rooms or the streams of sales data, no matter how cleverly analyzed. The motivation for change will be found in the passion of customers and vendors-the ones who like Wal-Mart, the ones who don’t like Wal-Mart but can’t resist, the ones who define themselves by their refusal to deal with Wal-Mart, the ones who fear Wal-Mart.
For Wal-Mart to really change, it needs to be able to see itself as we see it, it needs to see the world clearly, it needs to look out.”
Substitute Wal-Mart for America and think about this as not the marketplace, but the global stage and you pretty much sum up the challenge of America. The country no longer can see itself the way the rest of the world does – and it needs to, if it is going to play the role we need it to play. America, like Wal-Mart, is neither inherently good or evil, it is simply an increadibly powerful force that needs to figure out how it is going to choose to make its actions felt. And we all have a responsiblity in shaping those choices. Americans’ or not.