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2020 VISIONARY Peter Schwartz

Casting a Global Net

Schwartz now had the clout he needed to start his own company. In 1988, he and four colleagues founded Global Business Network (GBN) in Emeryville, Calif., just across the bay from San Francisco. Schwartz called GBN an “information hunting and gathering company” designed to connect clients to a network of remarkable people and highly focused, filtered information.   

The nature of the company was shaped by the character of the people who founded it: Schwartz; Jay Ogilvy, former Yale philosophy teacher and director of research in the Values and Lifestyles Program at SRI International; Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and the Well computer network; Napier Collyns, a longtime veteran of the Shell planning group; and Lawrence Wilkinson, an alumnus of Oxford and the Harvard Business School and president of Colossal Pictures.   

From the outset, GBN was a unique proposition. Unlike most consulting firms that build walls around their people and jealously guard their ideas, the founders saw their new Global Business Network as a company based on openness. “People would share their insights and knowledge, and take away our insights and knowledge in return,” Schwartz recalls. “The simple truth was that, as individuals, we each wanted the network for ourselves. By selling it to client companies, we could make it more formal, and expand it beyond what any of us could individually afford.”   

They enrolled men and women whose strengths in highly diverse areas would enrich the network. Individual members, who may join by invitation only, number more than 100 today. They range from academics like Michael Porter of Harvard Business School to British rock musician Peter Gabriel; from anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson to software architect and technology futurist William Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems

They include science fiction writer William Gibson and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweikart. They are poets and economists, linguists and biologists, corporate strategists, architects, editors, computer scientists, demographers, and writers from around the world.   

Today GBN has about 75 corporate members, most of them large multinational organizations representing a wide spectrum of industries. For annual dues of $35,000, corporate members get access to GBN principals and consultants, to all the individual members and affiliates worldwide, and to each other. They receive GBN literature, access to a private Web site and consulting, and international meetings on wide-ranging subjects, such as the customer of the future, capitalism and values, and the future of Russia.   

One of GBN’s most valued “perks” is its book club. “Every month we select and send to our members two books we think the thoughtful executive should be reading,” Schwartz says. Keeping abreast of the proliferation of information, and sifting though mountains of data to glean kernels of wisdom is one of the most difficult tasks of the information age. “We’re filters for busy people who need to have knowledge. We sift out what is interesting and important and what the signals for the future are.” The book club picks, along with information about how to use scenarios, are posted on the company’s public Web site at www.gbn.org

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