Tag Archives: International Festival of Arts and Ideas

Appropriate Technology

During last month’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT, a participant in a panel discussion on innovation shared an interesting anecdote.  He explained how his company was pondering how to provide a lower cost incubator warming system for premature babies in lesser developed countries.  The high-tech model sold in the US was approximately $23,000 per unit; too expensive and too complex for less developed countries.  After collaborating with an innovations center in its India affiliate, it hit upon an ingenious solution: stripping down the highly automated US unit to a low-tech but just as effective manually controlled unit at a fraction of the price.

That got me to wondering.  If the low tech, low-cost unit works for Indian kids, why isn’t it good enough for US kids?  How much does our obsessive fetish with automated this and high-tech that drive up the cost of service in the US with little or no discernible benefit? To what degree does this mindset account for the fact that we pay a premium for mediocre medical results?

I remember the commencement speaker at my brother-in-law’s graduation from dental school in 1979.  He spoke of how hospitals with state of the art cardiac treatment centers were experiencing higher than anticipated mortality, and longer recoveries to discharge, contrary to their projections.  They ultimately concluded that automating the monitoring of patients to reduce the human contact was having an adverse affect on patients psychologically. Human interaction was as important a component of the healing process as monitoring vital signs.

Then I remembered a video I saw of a Soviet fighter jet that was ranked competitive with ours.  Its maneuvers and performance in flight were impressive.  But equally impressive was the observation by experts that the aircraft could be maintained in the field with a much smaller support complement, and could operate from less developed facilities, making the system easier to deploy to a broader array of combat theaters.

Which brings us to Iraq-istan.  We built ever bigger vehicles to protect our forces from ever more potent, but comparatively primitive, lethal devices, modified on the run by people not prepped at The Point. Why are we trying to build indigenous armies to look and operate and equip like us, when our tactics didn’t win the wars, and they are unlikely to be able to sustain an army in a format we can no longer afford ourselves?

Then there’s the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, which was recently reported to be of questionable combat capability. At $670 million a pop, that’s not reassuring, but for the DOD, that’s not unusual.

Then there’s ‘Big Data’, which I have spoken to previously. There are appropriate places for Big Data. But is it a need, a niche, or a rage? Is it a security blanket to cover lazy analysis and a paucity of insight with an impressive pile of data that reveals little?

No doubt, there are marketing opportunities for big data to identify targets of opportunity with the precision of an electron microscope, but how much is the supporting investment worth in aggregate in sucking blood from the bloodless of the broader economy?

A marketing professor once noted a survey of CEOs revealed that most doubted the value of their advertising in affecting sales, but they nonetheless felt compelled to make the investment in it.  Faith based management.  The constant struggle of the data parasites to gain more ‘insight’ into the market and attract more web advertising seems more like a churning of possibilities for would-be advertisers than achievement of measurable results.

In my own professional pursuits, I have often been dismayed to observe how little we use of the technological capabilities we have.  For example, most professional business people use Excel as little more than an electronic piece of paper.  They are substantially ignorant of most of its functionality to make them more productive, and not highly motivated to learn.  Do we need a better Excel, with more options on the ribbon? A different format? More intuitive? A dab of artificial intelligence to anticipate our needs and fill in the logic as well as the blanks?  No. We need to learn to use what we have to better effect.  More managers are adept at using PowerPoint than at using Excel or various database applications that create the content for the presentation. More focus is placed on the image of presentation than the substance of what is being presented. Is that where the focus should be?

And apparently nobody does Big Data like NSA? Does it make us safer? I doubt it. Sweeping everything into a gargantuan pile gives a delusion of control; being able to drill quickly and reliably to the critical core is what matters.  If our intelligence services are so capable, and so well equipped with the latest data crunching technology, why is it that we are continually blind-sided by international events that they are so meticulously scanning?  Wrong data? Wrong systems? Wrong management perspective? Clearly, we are not getting enough ‘bang for the bytes’.

Eventually, our pursuit of technology becomes an unsustainable defense of technology’s promise more than an attainment of its productivity. The perpetual upgrade cycle is a hook, not a destination. As true improvement becomes tougher to achieve, superficial refinements mask mediocrity as progress. Marketing supplants R&D. PT Barnum (“There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him”) becomes the management guru of choice.

We are now witnessing a victim of this cycle.  Apple has become a mature company.  It is now more a competitor than an innovator.  It has critical mass, momentum.  Like Microsoft. It can cruise for a long, long time, doing its thing. But it may have passed its moment as ‘disruptor’. Now, as it moves through the tech jungle, bloated with its success, and financially insulated from the immediate consequences of lethargy, myopia and bad decisions, it must wonder what small microbe could bring it down.

*  *  *

By now I hope you get my drift. I’m no Luddite (or so I’d like to think). I love data and respect technology, but I question the pay-back in many instances. Big Data does what only Big Data can do in gene sequencing and climate change modeling.  The Mars rovers and Hubble space telescope are truly remarkable machines, evidence of our best capabilities put to appropriate use. I hope that someday, some large-scale particle collider will uncover mysteries of energy that will make desk-top fusion and unlimited cheap, clean energy a reality.

But I question the wisdom and benefit of constant turnover for the sake of turnover. I question disruption for the sake of profit without progress.  I don’t suggest that we return to some imagined ‘golden age of simplicity’. But we do need to put the brakes on neurotic ‘innovation’ for its own sake.

Or, putting it another way, we now have over $4 trillion in infrastructure investment deficit in the US to upgrade sewage, water treatment and distribution, roads, public transportation, bridges, power generation and distribution, reliable and modern communication to areas lacking it, basic healthcare to those with none, basic nutrition to those with little,…..

Do we really need a better iPad?




Dissecting the Skills Gap — The Sequel

Pop quiz.

Q.  What is the job of Management?

A.  To manage!

And yet, in the area of human resource development, managements of big and small companies alike have failed to manage what they profess to consider a strategic threat to their sustainability.  They are not without options in addressing this problem; primarily they are without vision. And to a large degree, they have created their own problem.

Sometime in the ’90s (you remember, that prior century. How quickly they seem to pass these days), I became aware of the growing meme that the labor force of the future would have eight to twelve careers in the course of their working lives. This is the kind of nonsense that routinely flows from hip thought fountains like Fast Company and similar self-styled orifices of cutting edge management wisdom.

One must then ask what constitutes a ‘career’ by that definition.  Take a 40 year work life and divide by 8 (to keep the algorithm conservative and simple) and you’ve got 5 years plus or minus for a ‘career’.  Except for the exceptional, most people are only reaching their competence and optimum productivity in the first five years, and ready to move on to the next level of ‘Career 1’.  So the meme suggests one of two pathways:  1) we’re talking about truncated expertise and productivity among ‘career’ moves; or 2) we’re really talking about job moves for the most part.

I am an accountant.  I’ve morphed into many forms with multiple companies over my career, but I remain fundamentally an accountant by career definition and SKILL SET, which has also morphed over time.

If we’re talking about job changes, we’re talking about tactical changes in our preparation and decisions as CEOs of our personal careers.  But if we’re talking about planning for a future of major ‘career changes’, we’re talking about strategic decisions of much greater import.

Back in the good old days of the Last Century, major corporations would hire a careerist by some definition, and mold him/her through various means of career planning, investment in education, job rotation, etc. to meet their long-term needs.  Corporations invested in advanced degrees and credentials, and acquired individuals who expected advanced compensation and who in too many cases were expert at ‘doing the drill’, but often susceptible of ‘missing the point’. Hence many organizations, bloated with expertise, notoriously missed opportunities/risks presented to them in the tumultuous  events of the ’90s.

But in our current management environment where management regards people as plug-and-play commodities, to be available exactly when needed with exactly the needed skill-sets, we’re running into a problem.  Not surprisingly except to the executive corp, supply is not meeting the demand. Embedded in the corporate mentality is the convenient, if utterly unrealistic, assumption that ‘the workforce’ will self-manage itself to management’s needs. It will intuitively divine the constantly shifting, A-D-D driven expectations of the E Suite and reprogram itself to need.  It’s not working.

This was reinforced this week when I attended the 18th International Festival of Arts and Ideas in Yale, Connecticut (also known as New Haven).  On the particular day of my attendance, the theme of ideas was innovation, at various levels of the entrepreneurial food chain.  I attended a panel discussion in which representatives of four innovative organizations spoke of how their organizations endeavored to promote innovation and economic growth.

During the Q&A, I did what I so often do at these events and threw them a curve ball.  Acknowledging the obvious benefits of their various contributions to innovation, I asked if their organizations ever consider what is often the intended consequences of innovation: the displacement of people from their positions.  The answer was not surprising, and telling.  The collective response was the recognition of the reality of my question, but the belief that many of the people who are displaced in one instance will transfer their skills to other promising opportunities.  In essence, they were speaking to a small segment of highly creative, highly skilled, highly motivated individuals who are on the cutting edge of innovation, but not the vast majority of the workforce, many whom have been or stand to be displaced by future innovations.  The panelists were unknowingly trapped in their own philosophical bubble.

My question was somewhat unfair, because it is not necessarily the role of any given corporation to plan for the collateral labor consequences of its strategies, particularly beyond the boundaries of its corporate mission.  But if not business, who should be concerned? The implied answer is the labor force.  It should pack its own parachute.  It should be ready to bail at a moment’s notice into the unknown and recover instantly without need for unemployment compensation, government sponsored re-training or damage to their credit ratings and impairment of their ability to sustain consumption.  Neat trick if you can do it.  Statistics suggest it’s not working.

Over the years and with the ever-increasing demands for maximum growth,  US business in general has relied on growth by acquisition over internal, organic growth. The results have generally not been good for a variety of reasons, suggesting an overall lack of executive competence in effectively managing this strategy, and resulting in investor cynicism when presented with this proposition.

Similarly, corporations have revealed equal challenge in effectively managing R&D reliably to support organic internal growth with some predictability.  Thus, they have again turned to external acquisition, looking to small start-ups who can furnish what the biggies cannot conceive.  It is an option to be sure, but an opportunistic one; not a strategic one, and filled with risk for all involved.  Imagine if we tried to go to the Moon with such a strategy.

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In 2005, I was researching the issue of technological displacement which I had concluded trumped outsourcing and off-shoring as threats to economic stability in the US.  In the course of that research, I came across an article that reported a decline in the number of US students considering a career in computer science.  Eschewing the rising paradigm?  How foolish! Do they not see the future? Quite possibly at the time, the future was obscured by the fog of the present.  Seeing on the one hand what was happening to their parents in their respective fields, and hearing the propaganda in the background about 8 to 12 careers in a life time, they may well have wondered what was the point in investing intensively in a demanding career that would likely render them obsolete by forces they could not anticipate before that career made them secure.  Good question.

*   *   *

Two weeks ago I attended a conference on transit oriented development. An intern joined our table. When I asked her background, she indicated that she was currently studying at an Ivy League university.  I asked her career interests. She replied that she was pre-med, but also considering career options in community engagement.  It struck me as a somewhat strange combination, and she seemed of equal mind on both.

Last week at the Arts and Ideas Festival, I made a stop at a small business incubator. On one of our stops through the facility in a recently re-purposed commercial building of some vintage, a young lady described her services with the incubator in facilitating programs to inspire and nurture would-be entrepreneurs.  At the encouragement of our program guide, she also offered that through her primary efforts, she was developing her own small business to sell cupcakes, samples of which she offered to us.  I wrestled with concurrent feelings of cynicism and sympathy.

My feelings of cynicism sprung from a sense of the triviality of what I was observing, and the high probability of failure.  It was tempered only by the realization that, for all I know, her cupcakes could be the next Mrs. Fields success and go viral.  But the sympathy came from a sense that these were acts of semi-desperation in an economy that offers her and her  cohorts little more of substance at this moment, and perhaps for many moments to come.  I respected the dignity of her effort, even if I questioned its probable success.

In both cases, these young people seem to have arrived at the atrium of adulthood without clear direction leading to a sustainable future.  They are joining older cohorts who previously had a sense of clear direction, only to be derailed by circumstances they did not anticipate, and in many cases could not have foreseen.

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US society has learned to recycle waste.  It is gradually learning to recycle the electronic refuse of our digital era.  But we are doing a genuinely lousy job of recycling people to beneficial purpose, and that is the ultimate waste.  In that human ‘waste’ is the future sustainability of our obsessive consumer economy, and all the marvelous innovation that presumes to support it.  It also holds the fate of our democracy.