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leadership advice

Don Tapscott photographed at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, 2007.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

This is Part 6 in a series of interviews with the gurus of leadership and management theory.

Don Tapscott is a Toronto-based consultant who has written 13 books on the role of technology in society, including Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, and Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World.

In this article, he talks about how he was prodded to be on Twitter by a younger mentor – he notes he's no Ashton Kutcher but has 30,000 followers – and how you can also design your life to keep in tune with our more collaborative, less hierarchical world.

You have talked about the importance of applying design principles to our life and our career. What does that mean, and how can I do it?

Back when my dad was in the work force, work and life were pretty straightforward. You graduated, had a chosen field, kept up in that field, and were set for life. Today, you are set for about 15 minutes.

If you take a technical course in university, half of what you learn in the first year is obsolete when you get to the fourth year. So when you graduate, it's not how much you know that counts but your capacity to think and solve problems, put things in context, understand the relationship between things, and learn life-long because you will need to reinvent your knowledge base multiple times throughout life.

Back in my dad's day, life was very different too. He came home from work and didn't have to choose whether to check e-mail or play with me. There were no BlackBerrys at the table, tempting us to not have face-to-face communications. The organization chart of the baby boomer family was clear: Mom reported to dad, and the kids reported to mom. There were three TV stations.

Flash forward today and life is infinitely more complicated. There are millions of TV stations; we are overwhelmed by information. Between the beginning of time and 2003 there were five exabytes of information recorded. There were five exabytes of information recorded in the last 24 hours. Now a lot of that is people playing with cats on YouTube, but a lot as well is important information. So we need to develop filters. We need to figure out how to manage all this media.

Put all that together and there is a case to be made that each of us, when thinking of our careers or our lives, needs to use design principles and techniques to forge a life that we actually want. It doesn't mean working out every aspect of your life. It means establishing a set of principles, guidelines and rules so that when you end up at the end of your life you feel it was a good life – it took some interesting turns, and unpredictable new directions, but was a life that was fulfilling, satisfying, principled and consequential.

We know from recent research on brain plasticity that how you spend your time determines a lot of the wiring of your brain. Arguably, you can design your mind by ensuring you spend adequate time doing deep thinking, having moments for private reflection, reading an article from beginning to end and not just skimming. Those are part of the ways you can design your life.

Many people might find this impossible. Life just happens to them. Their bosses decide their future. They can't design their life because they are too hard-pressed financially to switch jobs or return to school. Do you really believe we can design our lives?

I think we can, and we must. Of course there are limitations. The biggest factor in determining how prosperous your life will be is what family you were born into. That's pretty much luck. But Stephen Leacock said, "I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it."

Luck to me is the intersection of opportunity meeting preparation. You prepare for your life in a way that makes additional and new opportunities available. I don't think life just happens to you. Life is something that you can shape. I absolutely believe that.

You talked about how knowledge can become obsolete even before you graduate from a course. The skill of collaboration doesn't get obsolete; you even stress in your books it is becoming more important in an online world. Can you talk about how our business world is being shaped by collaboration?

When I am talking about collaboration, it's not in the traditional sense – a bunch of nice people getting together in a room and having an interesting discussion, or referring to teamwork. I am talking about a very different kind of collaboration enabled by the Internet that can occur even on an astronomical scale.

The old organization model was a hierarchy. It divided the world into the governed and governors. Your goal was to move up the hierarchy and get more people reporting to you. This model of work was bureaucratic. It stifled innovation. Organizational politics were a huge impediment to getting things done. We hoarded knowledge, as knowledge was a source of power.

Hierarchies aren't going to go away, and overall they are a good mechanism for enabling us to organize and structure work. But they are changing fundamentally because of a number of factors.

One factor is that we have a new generation coming into work that, rather than being a passive recipient of television, has grown up interacting and collaborating. My research shows they much more naturally want to share knowledge because that's what they have done throughout their childhood. For them, work, learning, having fun and collaboration are all the same thing.

When I was a kid watching TV – as the baby boomers did for 24 hours a week – we were only doing one of those things: Having fun, entertaining ourselves. So kids today are bringing a new approach into the work force. And they have it right: Work and learning are the same thing today; it's called knowledge work. Increasingly, we learn through work – through collaborative structures at work. And work should be fun in the sense of meaningful and enjoyable.

Secondly, we have new collaborative technology platforms for work: social networks; wikis; blogs; ideation tools like Digistorm and Jam; new project modules; collaborative deliberation tools; and new knowledge management tools. Together, those are creating nothing less than a new operating system for the 21st-century corporation.

So we have a demographic kick and a generation push. But there is also a demand pull coming from the new business environment. It's a much more real-time environment.

The pace of innovation was glacial when I was a kid. We lived in Orillia, Ont., and the seven of us would get in the family station wagon every year to go to the CNE to see this year's innovation. Wow! An avocado-coloured refrigerator with an ice cube maker!

Now, the pace of innovation has sped up dramatically. We also have a global economy – an economy that is very volatile and unpredictable. Companies need to be agile and changing constantly.

So put all that together and collaboration is an idea whose time has come. This is leading to a profound change in how we orchestrate capability to innovate, to create goods and services. It's a global collaborative platform. It's leading to a change in the architecture of the corporation, where talent can be outside.

One example is something I have called idea agoras. These are open markets, agoras, for uniquely qualified minds. So Procter & Gamble might be looking for a molecule to help with some purpose. There are now thousands of chemists the company can turn to outside of the corporation. A grad student in Taipei might come up with the needed molecule and P&G pays them a few hundred thousand dollars for doing that.

This is a very challenging environment for someone thinking about a career. It's a lot more complicated, and there are many more uncertainties. It means you need to ensure you are reinventing your knowledge base lifelong so you have the capabilities and skills that will constantly be in demand.

What if I am 45 to 50, risen up the hierarchy but still have a few notches to go, and didn't grow up digital? How do I redesign my career and learn this mass collaboration for my organization and for me?

The starting point is an orientation of curiosity. The world is changing. Technology is changing. You can change if you want, but you need to be open and curious.

Secondly, personal use of the technology is a precondition for any kind of comprehension. So be on a social network. Use Twitter. Make sure you are using mobile technologies in a sophisticated way and integrate them into your life.

Thirdly, find yourself a reverse mentor. For the last 20 years I've had reverse mentors. At any one time I have four or five, who are in their teens or twenties. Normally these were friends of my kids or my kids. This is the first time in human history where children are in the lead on something really important. It's humbling, but you can learn so much from kids.

I am on Twitter because one of my mentors, a friend of my daughter, said, "Don, you have to be on Twitter." I said, "I don't want to be on Twitter. Twitter is stupid." She replied, "You're Don Tapscott, you have to be on Twitter." I said, "Come on, I can't say anything in 140 characters." She wouldn't listen, and set me up on my mobile device. I'm no Ashton Kutcher, but I do have 30,000 people that follow me, and I wrote my last book with Twitter, reaching out to them and asking for ideas and insights.

Designing your life doesn't mean designing it just when you are entering university. You need to keep designing, over a lifetime.

This interview has been condensed and edited.