January 2, 2006
Lean Or Meme?According to a plethora of industry studies and IT marketing blurb, the 21st century business needs to be agile. Being responsive to customer demands, and adapting quickly to changes in the market, is highest on the average CEO's agenda. You can be as efficient as you like, and your products can be of the highest quality possible, but if the punters suddenly stop buying them, how will that help you?
Take Eastman Kodak, for example. For decades, while photography was about films and chemicals, Kodak dominated their market. Continuous, incremental improvement in their products and processes made them almost unbeatable at their particular speciality. Then along came digital photography, and Kodak were caught with their pants down. While they'd been slowly but surely getting better at chemical photography, they'd all but ignored developments in the world of silicon, and lacked the knowledge and skills to make the leap.
These days, retailers like Dixons and Jessops stock mainly digital cameras and digital camera accessories, and photo labs like Boots have to offer digital printing alongside their dwindling business in chemical photo processing. Compared to the long history of photography, the switch to digital in the mainstream happened almost overnight. In 1997 most of us used 35mm. In 2004 most of us used memory cards.
Kodak had very little time to lose a century's worth of chemical know-how and gain a decade's worth of digital savvy. All of a sudden, photography was about microprocessors, printed circuit boards and imaging software. It's no surprise that the likes of HP, Sony and Casio quickly became major players in that market.
As the global digital economy speeds up to an ever more heart-stopping pace, this sort of discontinuous change is becoming more commonplace. 50 years ago our grandparents had to deal with a relatively slow-changing economy, with innovation happening at a more comfortable pace. They learned one trade and expected jobs for life. In recent decades, some of these same people have found themselves unemployable at 50, and are forced to take early retirement when what they believed was solid ground suddenly crumbles beneath their feet. The problem is one of specialisation, just as it was for Kodak. The new economy isn't a friendly place for one-trick ponies.
More worrying, though, is our instinctive and plainly wrong reaction to all of this. From economic policy, to research and development, to basic education and professional development, the focus is on leaner-and-meaner and even greater specialisation. Academies that specialise in technology, or music, or sports, do our children and our future a disservice. University degrees that offer narrow vocational skills like Hotel & Catering Management or Web Design are producing a new generation of one-trick ponies who could end up on the scrap heap even sooner than their grandparents.
We are failing to foster the real roots of innovation and creativity, and stripping our economy of the ability to adapt to discontinuous change. The drive for "better, faster, cheaper" in many industries is misguided. We're simply not in that business any more. All that work goes to India, China and other emerging economies, because they can be just that much better, faster and cheaper than we could ever hope to be.
Consider the bear. Black bears eat just about anything, and are surviving and thriving as humanity encroaches on their habitat. Giant pandas only eat bamboo shoots, and aren't doing quite so well as a result. As their habitat, and their food supply, is stripped away, they are forced into retreat - until few can survive.
Black bears have what is called a surplus capability. When salmon are plentiful, they can happily catch and eat salmon day in and day out. But when the salmon are gone, and all that's left is the contents of someone's garbage, they can eat that too.
Human beings have many surplus capabilities. I can, at a push, derive an approximation of the Helium atom wave function. I can also, after a fashion and with a good wind behind me, play Steve Vai's guitar solo from Shy Boy. Neither of these things has anything to do with my job as a computer programmer, trainer and consultant. But I can think of times when an understanding of quantum mechanics has helped me to understand a problem in software engineering or business management. It seems that risk is risk, no matter where it comes from. And I'm convinced my latent musical talents - such that they are - have influenced the way I think about many things.
Aside from my job, I have many and varied interests, and when the situation calls for a bit of "blue sky thinking", I've tapped into this deeper reservoir of ideas to keep the creative stream flowing.
Forward-thinking biologists and psychologists might argue that I am rich in memes. Memes are the ideas equivalent of genes, and if we want to avoid intellectual inbreeding, the size and diversity of the meme pool will be a major factor. New memes come about through the cross-breeding and mutation of existing memes. In other words, the more you know, and the more diverse that knowledge, the more innovative your ideas are likely to be.
Decades of brain-rotting mass media and the constant drive for specialisation in work and at school has been eating away at the meme pool of Western society, and if we want a strong economy for our children's children this trend must be reversed. Education must once again broaden the mind. Work must be a place where we can learn and experiment more freely, and we need many and varied interests beyond what we do to pay the bills.
To survive and thrive in the new economy, we need to be much more than just our job.
Posted 15 years, 8 months ago on January 2, 2006