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2 posts from February 2014

February 12, 2014

Does Tech Own the Inequality Problem?

"Opportunity is who we are. 

And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise."

- President Obama, 2014 State of the Union

In a past blog post last summer, I fretted that the latest wave of innovation - as amazing as it is - was not showing up in US worker productivity.  At the time of my writing, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics had provided some pretty depressing data, with very modest productivity gains in 2011, 2012 and Q1 2013.

Fortunately, in the last year, the productivity numbers have shown a major uptick.  It appears that our society and our businesses are getting more adept at absorbing all the new technology of the Internet Revolution.  Unfortunately, the beneficiaries of the greater productivity - presumably driven by the boom in cloud computing, precision manufacturing, wireless broadband and other major infrastructure improvements - are America's elite.

A recent analysis by one of my favorite economic pundits, John Mauldin (who tends to be pretty conservative in his political views), provides some good data that drives this conclusion home.  The chart below shows that full-time, full-year wages for male workers (presumably the female statistics would be clouded by a narrowing of the gender wage gap over this period) have grown strongly for the more educated workers over the last few decades and dropped dramatically for the less educated workers.

Further, if you take a close look at the jobs that are likely to be further impacted by our massive, secular shift towards automation, they are the very jobs that middle and lower educated workers hold.  The chart below characterizes how disruptive technology will be to certain job categories.

Politicians are spending a lot of time talking about the inequality problem in America.  If you consider how much automation and software disruption that is ahead of us, it is clear that the problem is about to get much, much worse.

What role will the technology industry play in dealing with the societal implications?  I hope a large and positive one.  The industry can not allow itself to be represented by the Tom Perkins of the world.  Leaders in the technology industry need to step up and own the inequality problem.  

That's not to say technology leaders should be slowing down our march towards disruption.  As economist Joseph Schumpter pointed out, creative destruction is a powerful, positive force.  But tech leaders need to work hard to improve the underpinnings of our education system (see Khan Academy), broken immigration system (see FWD.us) and other aspects of our society such that creative destruction does not equate to opportunity destruction.  I love it when I read about tech leaders getting more engaged in policy and civic activities.  Let's see more of it.

February 05, 2014

Have Entrepreneurs Become Too Informal?

I love dressing informally, maybe too much.  My wife frequently reprimands me for dressing down.  I recently met with a US Senator in slacks and a collar shirt (which I thought was being respectfully dressy!) and he wryly cracked that I looked awfully comfortable.  I sometime teach my HBS class in jeans (please don't tell the dean).

But lately, I have been wondering if entrepreneurs have taken informality too far.  I don't mean dress code.  I don't care how they dress.  I mean their thinking and approach.

You probably see it all the time - hipster entrepreneurs with the cool affect walking into meetings carrying nothing but their smart phone.  When asked to present their story, they ramble informally without a cogent direction.  When a substantive discussion ensues, and good ideas and follow-up items are generated, they take no notes.  And when the meeting wraps up, there are no action items that are reviewed, no closure regarding next steps.

My observation is that some entrepreneurs are confusing informal dress with informal thinking.  I like dressing informally because I find it reduces barriers and allows for more direct, open dialog.  I have noticed that people are more comfortable getting right to the point and being candid in their conversations when there are no hierarchies or barriers communicated through dress code.  Studies reinforce this view.

But I can't stand sloppy, informal thinking.  Crisp, logical discussions, well-organized meetings, good note-taking and dogged follow-up are all ingredients of successul, well-run companies.  When a startup entrepreneur conveys the opposite in their approach and style - whether in a pitch meeting or in a board meeting - I question whether (to coin a phrase I learned at my first starup) they can operate their way out of a paper bag.

I sat on a panel this morning at an executive retreat for a Fortune 100 company focused on innovation and the impact of next generation technologies on their business.  The company's president wore jeans for the first time in a business meeting and was getting some good-natured teasing from his staff.  I loved it because it showed he was willing to knock down some walls.  But you can bet the meeting started on time, ended on time and had a very clear agenda.