Business Columns & Blogs

Nancy Napier: Do we really want splendid isolation?

Lemurs? Madagascar? Do you know much about either one? Neither do it but maybe I should.

A recent article in “Current Biology,” (2014: volume 24, page 2733) raises a question about the hazards of isolation. The island of Madagascar is home to some lemurs found nowhere else and being on an island, they can’t leave. As the climate changes, the lemurs’ range of movement narrows, their habitat shrinks and they may be unable to adapt.

Their story makes me wonder if Boise’s splendid isolation could become a hazard for us.

If our isolation brings with it a “narrower range of movement” and limits ideas coming to us, can we adapt?

I admit, I’ve been smug about living in America’s most remote city. I like to stun foreigners--people from Germany or New Jersey—about how long it takes to drive to Salt Lake City or Seattle. And many of us say “visit, but don’t move here.” We want the place to ourselves. All of this suggests that we may feel we’re just fine minding our own business and not needing to bring the rest of the world to us.

But that attitude might hurt us in the long haul.

Recently, I talked with a former CEO and founder who built a $1.3 billion global high tech company that employs 17,000 people. Five years ago his company started a university to train tech and business students. He scoured the world for ideas on how to be innovative in higher education in general, and how to make an online software engineering program appealing, affordable and effective, in particular.

And what may be surprising: the CEO’s company is in Vietnam.

His perspective is deliberately outward looking and forward thinking. He knows first hand what it was like to live 30 years ago in Vietnam. He lived on an island, not of geography but of ideas. Vietnam’s borders were controlled and few external influences were allowed in.

Finally, a recent conversation in Boise makes me worry. A highly competent, hard charging leader who moved to Boise a couple of years ago brought with him expertise that several organizations need. One hired him. He’s done quite well but still feels that the organization can’t or won’t move quickly enough on some ideas, partly because they are from “outside.” He raised the question of whether we are becoming too “Boise centric,” unable to absorb and use ideas from newcomers. I've heard this same story more than once when we view newcomers with perhaps too skeptical an eye. Are we, in a sense, becoming an island?

Could we find that our remoteness, independence, or pride of place limits our ideas? Is one of our perceived strengths actually one of our biggest weaknesses?

I hope not. I’d rather not have the fate of those lemurs on Madagascar.