10/03/2014 11:20 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Individualized Just-in-Time Products and Services Should Be a Leadership Priority

Increasingly our technology based economy is capable of allowing individuals to choose the precise features of a mass produced product. Individualism as a perceived right of personal freedom is at historically high levels. One consequence of these two trends is an increasing expectation of individualized just-in-time product and service delivery. This comment briefly discusses individualism and its influences on society.

The businesses that can either allow the consumer to personalize a mass produced product or service or, better yet, create a unique one-of-a-kind product or service will thrive. The not-so-long-ago office coffee pot is replaced with a single cup individualized brewing machine with 15 or more coffee and tea options. Personalization may be as simple as placing one's name on a postage stamp or product label. It could be as complex as utilizing a 3D printer to custom design an item to an individual's specifications. The assembly line, any color as long as it is black, Henry Ford Model T classic mass production of goods and services is passing away at an ever accelerating pace. "Cookie-cutter" is a derogatory description.

Individualism has both positive and negative features whose discussion is beyond the scope of this brief comment. A significant positive aspect is the psychological benefits of feeling in control of one's destiny. A negative feature of individualization is a focus on a personal agenda that is impatient with anything that involves delay or a need to consider others. An everyday example occurs in freeway rush hour traffic. Some motorists drive on the road shoulder or cut into traffic in order to get ahead of others, even if by mere seconds. If their individual space or rights are seemingly disrespected, road rage occurs. Extreme examples become full-blown narcissists lacking empathy. In acquiring goods and services, individualization wants it at a precise time and place without delay. Individuals will gravitate to those who provide immediate personalized service.

A demand for individual rights, rather than collective rights held by society as whole, seemingly dominates the legal arena. This is commonly expressed as "I know my rights" in contrast to appeals to a greater social good. The difficulty is achieving an appropriate balance between individual legal rights and regulation for the collective good. Breakaway succession movements, desiring local control and not that of a geographically or politically distant central government, proliferate. Individual spiritual experiences, commonly expressed as "I am spiritual but not sectarian religious," fill religious space. Individual educational experiences, such as competency based and lifelong adult learning, will become the norm. My university, Lipscomb, is a pioneer in how to accredit competency based educational programs. Just-in-time educational modular "badges" for specific skills that an individual needs at once or wants will become common.

Society is moving away from a traditional lock-step life path that dictates college instruction between the ages of 18 and 25 and marriage and children in early adulthood. It is no coincidence that the average age of marriage and child bearing has been rising while the percentage of adults who identify themselves as married is falling. Alternative life paths will increasingly become the norm just as the tattoo has become a source of individual expression.

But wait, you say, speaking of tattoos, there are numerous group memberships that tattoos identify. That is correct. Humans need to be part of a group. What can be frightening to those who are comfortable with the traditional social groupings is what new groupings may appear. Do gangs replace broken traditional families? Do social media groupings such as Facebook replace traditional neighborhoods? Will a cohesive and disciplined military see social and political chaos and feel compelled to create order? We have to expect simultaneous expressions of individualism and new social groupings. Being able to predict what form these changes will take and being able to rapidly adapt to them will be key for leadership in all areas of society including education, business, politics, and religion.

No trend suddenly occurs without a historical precedent. The Reformation broke European religious experience into individual fragments and went a long way toward ending central religious and political authority. Industrialization and the rise of cities broke the power of traditional noble elites, although some critics would note that they were replaced with equally non-benevolent politicians and industrialists. Modern communication technology is rapidly removing information asymmetry and the traditional power of those who possessed closely held valuable knowledge. These are but three examples of how the individualization that we see today has deep roots.

Take the lens of individualism and personal choice and look about. Leaders in all fields have the challenge of simultaneously producing a mass product or service and providing an individualized product or service experience. We have the ability to mass produce individual hand-made craftsmanship and unique personal services. Creative expressions of this reality will proliferate.