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.