The Relationship Economy: Interview with Jerry Michalski

Each Wednesday, we post an interview with someone who is living, exploring, or championing aspects of thrivability – people at the forefront of cultural, organizational, or individual change.

Jerry Michalski (ma -call-ski) is the founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, a private, collaborative inquiry into the next economy. More broadly, he is a pattern finder, lateral thinker, Gladwellian connector, facilitator and explorer of the interactions between technology, society and business.

Jerry is a former technology analyst, and currently an advisor to a number of technology companies. He was fortunate to be on duty when the Internet showed up.  Jerry is also an advisor to Thrivable.


Todd:  What is the Relationship Economy?

Jerry:  The Relationship Economy is a theory about how business, government, and society are being restructured worldwide.  It starts with the belief that authentic trust is reemerging as a driving force, as opposed to the “trust me” of advertising or empty promises, and that we’ve tumbled into a world of abundance, not scarcity.

So, trust plus abundance.  Building from there, you can use the Relationship Economy lens to look at every sector of life and better understand how they are changing and where they might go.

Todd: So, you’re saying we’re moving into an era of greater trust?  Who is beginning to trust whom?

Jerry:  I’m not sure if it will measure out as greater trust overall.  Rather, the organizations that will succeed will succeed based on real trust, not on building businesses that are really traps.  Transparency is a big driver, as is the fact that customers and citizens can now organize on their own.

Todd:  You have written and spoken on the Commons extensively.  How are the Commons connected to the Relationship Economy?

Jerry:  One of the major relationships that matter in the Relationship Economy is the one between people, businesses, and the Commons.  Until recently, companies could stake out a piece of the Commons for themselves, plunder it (quoting Ray Anderson of Interface Flooring here) and not worry too much.

That’s changing.  Now companies are beginning to hit resource constraints, or realize what effects their actions have had on local communities, which are increasingly able to communicate their plights.  So, we’re seeing companies learn to live with the Commons, nurturing it and feeding from it, rather than merely depleting the Commons.

Todd:  What is earned by organizations that nurture the Commons?

Jerry:  They earn many things, which vary depending on which Commons we mean.  For example, IBM adopted Open Source software, which is part of the  information Commons.  It earned lower costs, a much bigger market, easier recruitment of many more talented people.  It also saved its many different hardware platforms, several of which were destined for the dustheap of history.

Other companies can earn long-term stability of their supplies (say water or cocoa pods), goodwill of the communities they touch, and free marketing, as word gets out of their Earth-friendly actions.

Todd:  You have also included “thrivability” as an aspect of the Relationship Economy, which according to you, includes profit, sustainability, and joy?  Why is joy important, and should it be discussed in the boardroom?

Jerry:  Thriving points up.  Up doesn’t mean only improvement in metrics like how much money you have or how few greenhouse gases you’re emitting.  It also means improvement in how you feel about your life, and greater happiness is central.  Also, joy is an important and often overlooked aspect of the best work you can do when you’re connected to your purpose and creating something fruitful, you’re building joy — and time melts away.  It’s that flow state that we want to be in while creating a thrivable world.

Todd:  Is collective joy the sum of the joy of individuals in a group?  Can it be measured?

Jerry:  I have a feeling joy isn’t merely additive, it’s somehow multiplicative or otherwise nonlinear, but I’m not sure how to measure it.  Researchers have measured the “mood” of groups by analyzing the content of their texts, tweets or blog posts that gives a thermometer-like map of some proxy for joy.  You could also run surveys, but I don’t know how you discover how many people are in flow states, or enraptured.  I do suspect that measuring it concretely, then aiming for it as the key outcome would probably break joy.

Todd:  What is it going to take for organizations and individuals to start thinking and acting in terms of thriving?

Jerry:  Many organizations are shifting slowly toward adding sustainability to their measures of performance.  It’s the perfect moment to help them move a step beyond, into positive space, where thriving is the opportunity, not just surviving.  The thrivability movement will need materials that dovetail with those efforts, that fit the corporate quest for rethinking measures.

Todd:  Your research and work has resulted in the recent launch of The REXpedition, a guided exploration through the Relationshp Economy.  What kind of business is “an exploration”?

Jerry:  In this context, it’s a collaborative inquiry into an idea.  Peers from diverse industries are joining this eXpedition in order to understand these shifts, then to take action and reinvent their products, businesses and maybe even industries for the new structures and dynamics.

Todd:  What types of participants are joining the inquiry?

Jerry:  They have many different titles — CMO, President, Collector of Cultural Insights, Director of the Innovation Exchange — and from many industries, from beverages and clothing to high tech and sustainability.

Mostly they have a passion for figuring out the big shift we’re in, an optimism that it’s about rebuilding relationships, and a desire to get their hands dirty by experimenting with these ideas in ways that might turn into new offers or practices.

Todd:  Thanks, Jerry.

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