Worth thinking about, from a recent McKinsey report:
An interesting article about Chinese cyber-hacking makes some great points but also point to an American weakness that concerns me.
The following lines, specifically, point to the lack of moral creativity in the thinking of a comfortable elite in a longtime power, namely us:
The Internet, poorly secured and poorly governed, has been a tremendous boon for spying. Every major power has taken advantage of this, but there are unwritten rules that govern espionage, and China’s behavior is out of bounds.
Out of bounds of what? Oh, yes, the rules we wish to enforce, for our own good. I actually have no problem with that, but I think that we would get farther in our thinking/work on such problems if we acknowledged that we are not the bearers of a grand moral standard. In fact, we are protecting ourselves and our interests.
The writer has enough imagination to understand that the world looks different to the Chinese. He writes: As one Chinese official put it in recent talks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “In America, military espionage is heroic and economic espionage is a crime, but in China the line is not so clear.
He may not understand just how different the world looks to the Chinese. Calling their actions ‘out of bounds’ is not likely to impress them. If the purpose is to get the American public agitated, well, then that’s a different matter.
I was recently talking to a friend about 3-D printing and explained the theory that the technology, driven by shared software designs and relatively easily transportable raw materials, could lead to the re-localization of manufacture. He mentioned the irony that advanced industrialization could support a physical relationship between manufacture and residency that more closely reflects pre-industrial societies. He seemed to be charmed, as well, by the move from mass production to mass customization.
The image of locally-manufactured, customized products does seem to have some romance. In that sense, a sort of boomerang effect is apparent. Other aspects of this process may be more linear, however: For instance, one way to view a potential future move to 3-D manufacturing is from production-multiplying machines to design-multiplying machines. That is to say, the 19th and 20th century factory multiplied the number of products that could be produced successfully from one design, and the 3-D, software-driven manufacturing process of the 21st century will, through software-supported guidance, multiply the number of designs that can be produced successfully from one thinker. Another way to conceptualize the process is that 3-D printing allows the designer to distribute the manufacture of her product across a wide network of sites. In that sense, the production could be taking place on an even more massive scale, just not all in one place. So, production occurs at an increasingly great scale, and design is occurring to increasing scale as well. In these senses, there is no romantic reversion to the interaction of the individual craftsman with the individual production elements, and no reversion to the relatively isolated interaction between a workshop and its surrounding community.
The product itself may very well be individualized/customized but the infrastructure of ideation/design/production is pretty clearly supported by interventions of the ‘crowd.’ Of course, once this is said, we are reminded of the fact that even early craftsmen were supported by the ideas, methods, and tools of their fellows. What will be different in the future is that the speed of such interactive support will be so great that it will not be easily forgotten, while the image of the isolated, creative craftsmen may have seemed more believable in earlier times.
The romantic conceptualization of the individual craftsman may only last as long as the age of centralized, mass production lasts. A future age of customized manufacture supported by distributed networks may force us to temper the lofty image of individualized genius that itself may currently serve as a counterpoint to our mass society.
Here is my recent post about cross-functional skill sets at the Supply Chain Management Review blog.
This was our first Thanksgiving in Austin, and my first Thanksgiving, in some time, away from my family of origin in the Washington, D. C. area. In the quieter setting, I could see more clearly the historical arc that had brought this holiday into my life. I considered that my ancestors in Lithuania, some 100 years ago, may not have known of this holiday and certainly did not celebrate it. My family’s transatlantic migration was part of a tumultuous century that dislocated innumerable peoples. Seen in this context, it is no wonder that I strongly feel the pull of different value systems in my daily life, and in my consideration of the direction and meaning of my life entire.
I’ve recently watched the first two seasons of Downton Abbey. I’m not a big TV watcher, and saw my first episode only a few weeks ago. Yes, the series is a soap opera, but the sense of the historical period, which marked the most significant change since the French Revolution, is well-delivered. Certainly, accordant reflections affected my thoughts on Thanksgiving thoughts.
The long weekend granted me some perspective, too, on the recent intensity of activity that accords with my new job. The drive and focus that characterize my activity as a career-changer, in a new company, suddenly seem a bit tiresome. To what extent are they motivated by the immigrant’s desire to make something of himself in the New Land? At the same time, I still cannot allow myself the appealing and leisurely world view of an established. That sentiment will surprise no one. What I find interesting, however, is the process of emerging from the profound questioning a weekend away can offer. I’ve found, at least this time, that I have little choice but to reengage my previous professional and personal goals, even if they seem a bit less self-determined, and a bit more derivative.
What does this have to do with staying afloat in a sea of data, of the subtitle of this blog would seem to query? Well, it is just another, in a string of reminders, that the questions we ask about a complex world are only very slightly influenced by our incisive thoughts. Rather, we are much more deeply influenced, in our questioning, by an historical context of which we are only vaguely aware. We do not escape from this constraint when we engage with data or with business. Just as when we think about who we are and what we are here to do, so, too, when we ask where to target our next marketing campaign: Our preconceptions are occasionally disrupted, but we constantly return to them, out of habit, out of ignorance. Humility increases our sensitivity to the fainter indications that our thinking is in error. It is both an honest and a useful response to the torrent of information that surrounds us.
I began my career in the nonprofit world and, over the past few years, have been making a transition to the for-profit world. I have experienced the transition as a move from an “idea-orientation” to a “thing-orientation.” By that I mean that the ultimate rationale for my employment appeared to me, as a teacher and as an education researcher, to be the value I could add to people’s lives. In the business world, it is clear that I will be held accountable for the financial value delivered, which ultimately is measured in the profit on products sold.
There are many, many nuances that could be explored here: Education does create economic value; ideas, conversely, do change the way businesses operate. Many educators and academic researchers are measured very rigorously and feel that an “idea-orientation” becomes an unaffordable luxury; when working in a large business that produces products, conversely, many positions have very little to do with actual production and cannot be easily measured against profit/loss expectations. And so on.
These nuances interest me but the contrast between the two different approaches I have experienced interests me more: ”Idea-orientation” is about the pleasure of deep thought, and the excitement of discovery. ”Thing-orientation” is about the humility of checking one’s aspirations against measurable results and the challenge of identifying humanizing opportunities in the midst of the swirl of externally-focused activity.
“Idea-orientation” and “thing-orientation” derive from the historical-philosophical debate between idealism and materialism. There are real-world consequences to this debate, in the world of high-tech business today.
Ideas and Things, in the Digital Age
It’s challenging to disentangle things from ideas at all times, and the last couple of decades have provided no shortage of examples. The development of web giants, such as Google, have helped make popular the argument that ideas are more important than things or, as is related, that electrons have come to predominate in the economy, as opposed to atoms. The connection is that electrons, via the web, chiefly transport ideas, and do not transport traditional products. As we interact less with products before making a purchasing decision, and more with reviews/advertisements/search results, the thought process involved in economic interactions becomes more pronounced in the mental image of the buying process.
Some of the fascination with the electron economy may be waning, as we become more familiar/comfortable with these new buying processes. At the same time, new economic developments may serve to remind us that “things” still matter, even in a world of rapidly expanding data, enabled by the web. For one, a company like Amazon can make moves to not only sell virtually every consumer product, but can begin to influence the way that companies buy products. Deeper economic processes can be, yes, made to yield before the power of the web; but the control of physical product still has power, and the greater interaction with digital images and crowd-sourced reviews, do not entirely erode that power. The future growth of 3-D printing, and crowd-sourced design, could very well make the relative predominance of things or ideas appear even fuzzier.
Supply Chain Management
I am planning to speak at a Supply Chain Management conference next week. Supply chain management concerns itself with the entire process of moving services and products across time and space in order to optimize product manufacture, delivery, and the resultant customer satisfaction. In many ways, it is a very “thing-oriented” field. It provides satisfaction to those who would like to know that their efforts impact the course of tangible objects. Studying this field in business school was, for me, a very grounding endeavor. It helped me to focus on the aspect of business/organizational life that was my weak point, and to accordingly call into question some of my fuzzier, abstract notions.
Not surprisingly, however, I have ended up in marketing and business intelligence, both of which are a few steps removed from physical products. Those two roles depend, to varying degrees, on qualitative and quantitative abstraction. Conjecture is not as easily testable in these roles as it is in say, logistics or product design. It is not as easy to draw a line from a decision to a result.
When I speak at this upcoming conference, I will have to contend with the fact that I do not actually work in the field of supply chain management. I was invited because of my ties to organizations involved in the field (generated during business school) and because I am a pretty good public speaker. My connections to this thing-oriented field are founded in relationships and words, which are both idea-oriented entities. Those who know me would not find that fact surprising.
As I prepare to speak, and as I speak, I will be confronted with the choice of whether to present myself as an ideas-man who appreciates the impact a thing-oriented field has had on my thinking or whether to present myself as a thing-man who happens to have a few ideas on the side. The second stance is more difficult for me to conjure but the first stance risks being too abstract to appeal to the audience. Fortunately and unfortunately, the choice fascinates me.
I’m a very goal-oriented person, to a fault: I work out five times a week, I study Chinese (though not lately) in my free time, I’ll be taking an online series of statistics courses in the Spring. I even am in the midst of reading a 15 volume series on the history of China (I read about 20 pages a week and finish one volume a year.)
I’ve been thinking lately about the meaning of goals and, since this is a technology blog, I will try to tie some of that thinking in (eventually) to how we view technology.
There are at least two ways that I generally justify goal-setting to myself:
- having goals is a way of establishing meaning. In Candide, Voltaire writes that “man was born to live either in a state of distracting inquietude or of lethargic disgust.” I look at setting goals as a way of holding meaningless at bay. This idea resonates with me, perhaps, because there have been times in my life in which I have struggled with lethargic disgust. I firmly choose distracting inquietude.
- I recently read the quotation (from Napoleon Hill) that “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” This formulation allows me to justify my goal-setting in a more romantic perspective that resonates with my wife and, well, with the majority of people who are not quite as manic as I am. I say that with humility (Can you tell?).
Last night, my wife and I finished watching the movie Avatar. I hadn’t expected much from it, especially since we were watching it on the small-screen. In fact, I found that the movie was quite effective in establishing a critique against materially-driven Western culture. As I reflected about the movie, I have been thinking about the connection a material focus and a goal orientation. I am sure that there are many ways to parse this argument, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, but both materialism and goal-seeking depend on an expectation of progress derived through human action.
OK, on to technology.
My passion about the technology industry derives from technology’s role as one of the greatest drivers of change in the world. For my own excitement, and ultimately, for my own survival, I want to be close to the action. Further, I maintain the hope that, by participating in technological change, I can gain some insight about how to ensure that its impact is humane. I realize that that hope may be quixotic, as technological development presents itself as a bucking leviathan.
All of this boils down to the question of whether technological advance is an essential part of being human or not. That is, does technological advance derive from a human choice or from an inherent human drive? I know what the assumed answer is in our culture, and I know that many great writers have tackled this question but frankly, I haven’t read them, just about them. The writers of Avatar would have us believe that technology is a choice the derives from the pursuit of technology. Yes, you could strongly argue that the Na’vi were forced to adapt technologically, in terms of some weapon upgrades and new fighting techniques, in order to survive. But the thrust of the film appears to make a different argument.
Since I can’t really resolve the question at the beginning of the last paragraph, I tend to view the two potential answers as a yin and yang of technological development. Surely, under most circumstances, I don’t feel that there is much I can do to alter the course of technology. In these yin moments, my job is to learn, absorb, and to be patient. There are the rare moments when a number of factors align and, through my work, I can have some small impact on the course of the development of a product, or on the way in which it is used. Those are the yang moments for which a person generally gets recognized in the professional workplace.
I also can’t say whether my participation in the tech industry implies that I am party towards creating a future of increasing “distracting inquietude.” As I mentioned, that direction is existentially preferable to me than Voltaire’s “lethargic disgust,” so perhaps my bed is made, so to speak. On the other hand, I like to think that the yin attitude of learning/patience/alertness that I bring to my engagement with technological products, contributes, in some small way, to the reflective capabilities of humankind as we continue to engage the awesome, terrible, fantastic technological beast.