On walls and winning

Walls fascinate me. They signify territoriality – such as firewalls keeping desirable people or data in and keeping undesirables out, or even the Great Wall of China. They signify power and imbalance of power – such as Hadrian’s Wall of yore or the Israeli West Bank barrier of today. They are about creating political and ideological enclosures – such as the Berlin wall, that fell 20 years ago today.

But walls are not all evil. Walls support roofs that make ordinary houses as well as world-famous monuments. Walls can be the expression of a known graffiti artist (see below) as well as an enigmatic one’s; walls can start debates although debates can be stone”walled”.

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(Tate Modern Graffiti exhibition, August 2008)

In inspiring poetry, songs and popular culture expressions, walls have always been about resistance and anger, whether Pink Floyd’s widely-known The Wall or the 1970s Hindi film Deewar (the wall) that established the ‘angry young man’ persona that made the brand Amitabh Bachchan.

For businesses, firewalls may be used to protect competitive advantage and trade secrets, to an extent. Walls may also be a means of extracting rents – such as paywalls trialled by mainstream media, albeit with limited success.

Businesses however now face the borderless (as far as censorship by some country governments will allow) world of the web. The walls separating companies from customers are coming down as companies and customers engage in conversations on blogs, microblogs and social networking sites. Old walled gardens, such as the AOL’s are going away while new ones are being erected, such as the Apple’s walled garden on which opinion is divided.

Apple’s walled garden is flourishing while the Berlin wall came crashing down hurting communism irreparably in the process. So what gives? I think the answer lies in one word: Change. Apple brought about, drove and is continuing to drive “change” while the GDR was resisting it.

So, as a business leader, walls are worth a ponder. Which walls will you erect and which ones will you raze? Your ability to cope with the fast-paced change around you may well depend on these decisions. What will you choose?

And on the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, here is the Scorpions song that encapsulates the message so well it is worth a nostalgic (not ostalgic) listen.

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