Dusty, fusty and boring? Not any more. Clubs, whether exclusive meeting places for “remarkable people”, thousands-strong cyberspace groupings or straightforward commercial operations, are the zeitgeist of today’s must-network business culture.
The Reform Club on London’s Pall Mall is not a place normally associated with business models. Founded in 1836, the Reform Club has no need for a plaque or sign outside. Members know where to find it. Inside, the clubhouse is full of pillars, testament to the classical pretensions of its architects. It has the air of having witnessed better days. From here, Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg set off to travel the world in 80 days.
Leif Edvinsson, a highly networked Swede best known for his championing of the concept of intellectual capital, appears from behind one of the pillars. He gestures to his surroundings. “Think of this as the emergent business model: the club,” he says. “What could be simpler? Think of the psychology of belonging, the ability to share knowledge with likeminded people, the prestige.”
To Edvinsson, the club is not some leftover from longgone days but a vibrant entrepreneurial engine of value and ideas. “The club is part of the emerging new theory of the firm, a model in which everybody is in charge,” he says.
Today’s network-obsessed business world has spawned a new generation of clubs and the concept of the club suits the times. Businesses are increasingly seen as communities of people serving clients that are themselves communities. The onus is on relationships rather than processes – and if clubs are about anything, they are about relationships.
You can define a club as an association of people with shared interests meeting in a specified place (even if the place is now just as likely to be cyberspace). In the past, businesspeople congregated in groups with social, charitable, political, artistic or philosophical aims. They met in dining halls, lodges, restaurants, clubhouses. Some of these clubs encouraged business-related networking – how many jobs got filled by the right two people standing next to each other at the bar? – and some went so far the other way that they prohibited members from opening briefcases on the premises.