Archive for the innovation and the 21st century Category

What’s wrong with education today?

Is it our content?  Is it our method?

Frankly, its both.  But even though both our content and our method need work, the real problem lies far deeper.   All of the usual suspects regarding content and method of our teaching could be eliminated, and we’d still have a set of institutions that deserve to be on life support.

Because our content is flawed because our method is flawed.  And our method is flawed because our epistemology of “learning” is flawed.

In brief, our governing philosophy of education is outdated.  Our entire education system is optimized for preparing people for an industrial world.  We no longer live in an industrial world.

For example, the industrial world demanded mass production and mass consumption, led by a core elite of broadly educated professional class.   (As opposed to the artisanal/agricultural world which preceded it, which required primarily agricultural production and local craftsman for small markets.)

But the world of the 21st century is no more an industrial world than the 20th century was an agricultural world.  Just as the fraction of agriculture during the industrial period fell from 80 percent of the economy at the beginning to less than percent at its end, manufacturing today is at most 10% of the modern economy.

The binding limitations on economic and social improvement in the agricultural world were land.  The binding limitation on improvement in the industrial world were labor and capital.  The binding constraints in today’s world are human ingenuity and its primary product, innovation.

Mass production and mass consumption is about conformity and submission to rules about time and the control of effort.  And, unsurprisingly in such a world, a big part of the story becomes control and power over the means of production (yes, Marx had that part right).  And since the key means of production were labor and capital, it’s not at all surprising that battles between “corporations” and “unions” became a critical component in the path of change over the industrial period.

But where mass production and mass consumption are a declining fraction of economic activity  (how many people know that 99 percent of business in America today is done by enterprises with 20 or fewer employes?), it’s no longer a battle over power by labor and capital.  Its about providing and enabling maximum opportunity for innovation.

But that’s not what most of education does.  In fact we are going the opposite direction, focusing on development of “standard” curricula, “standard” credentials, “standard” practices, and “standard” standards.  Progress in a world limited by labor and capital depends on exploiting economies of scale.  Progress in a world limited by human ingenuity depends on increasing the ways things do not depend on “standards” and “conformity” and “scale.”

Until “educators” figure out better ways of inspiring and enabling the practices of human ingenuity, we will find what we do as of increasingly marginal importance — and deservedly so.

Just like the industrial world that spawned us.

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People talk of craft these days, if they talk about it at all, to bemoan its absence.  We complain about the lack of craftsmanship in what we buy, and we complain about how the modern world of mass production has replaced a world of artisans and craftsmen.

But, as is the case of so many of our complaints, we rarely look in the mirror.

How many of us, really, have spent our lives in the pursuit of a craft?  Be honest.

Most of us haven’t.  We’ve been too busy focusing on our jobs and being producers and consumers.  We haven’t had time to be interested in the pursuit of a “craft.”

Aside:  I’ve used italics here because I’m not just talking about “traditional” crafts  like cabinetmaking or basket-making or blacksmithing.  I’m not talking out of some nostalgic pastoralism.  I’d much rather live in today’s world than some pre-industrial world, because in today’s world I”m much more likely to be able to enjoy the fruits of other’s craftsmanship.

No, I’m speaking of the attitude of the craftsman toward his craft.

The true craftsman cares about craft for its own sake, not because its a job or production requirement.    The true craftsman goes beyond what others ask for.  He explores deeper.  He develops skills and ways of seeing that ordinary producers or consumers employers or employees never even contemplate a need for.  He does so, not because someone has asked these things of him, but because the craft, and his personal character, demand attention to them.

When I think of craft, I always think of my late father.  I did not appreciate it while he was alive, but as I’ve aged I’ve increasingly realized just how unusual he was. (I was, alas, only 18 when he died, firmly in the grip of the sophomoric adolescence that would still control me for a couple more decades.)

Dad was a master plumber, but he never made a lot of money.  He could have — even in those days, master plumbers could make a pretty penny if they desired.  I had more than my older sister and brother did, but even I wore hand-me down clothes until I was nearly in high school.

My dad moved to a different beat.

I never realized just how good Dad was as a plumber until I owned my own house and started hiring plumbers for repairs and re-modelling projects.  Until I realized that even most people who the state certifies as “masters” weren’t in his league.

I’m not complaining of the work these other plumbers did for me — it has generally been just fine at getting the hot water to my shower and the feces safely to the sewer.

But Dad, his understanding of plumbing took him beyond the mundane  into the realm of art.  He could solder a fitting without just a fine uniform line of solder showing:  no globs, no drips, no errors.  (This was back when all plumbers used copper for hot/cold water service.)  And he’d do so whether he was soldering uphill or cramped like a pretzel in a crawl space.

Nothing was wasted.

Take a look at the pipe in your basement sometime.  If it’s like most houses, new or old, done by professionals or DYI, you’ll find a a number of excess fittings used as the plumber dealt with joists, walls, wiring, or the efforts of previous plumbers.   Try tracing the lines to and from each fixture:  it can be like trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti.

Look at how many 90-degree ells are used.  Ask yourself whether any of the lines might have been better suited to the use of 45-degree fittings.  Traveling the hypotenuse of a triangle by definition uses less pipe than traveling through the other two sides.  However, as anyone who has struggled to remember and apply the Pythagorean theorem knows, its also harder to measure the distance.

I’m not a plumber.  I can fix a toilet or replace a faucet.  But running pipe — frankly I think something as important to your health as plumbing (and it’s far more important than most of the stuff the health care “debate” focuses on) should be left to the professionals.  When I think of the complexity of what they do, frankly I’m amazed.  I wouldn’t have a clue.

But when I think of Dad’s plumbing, I’m not just amazed.  I’m awed.

I guarantee that if you asked him and just about any other plumber of his time to plumb identical new houses in a subdivision, he’d do it with less materials than the other plumber.  And if you looked carefully at the result, his arrangement of pipes would make more sense to you and the system would perform better.

(Not only can you save some pipe by using 45′s instead of 90′s, it can greatly improve the water flow and mean less clogging, freezing, etc.)

But the real craftsmanship of what he did would come down the line, when the owner of the house wants to remodel or build on or replace the bathtub with a jacuzzi.  When you realize that he didn’t just build “to last”, he built “to modify easily” at the same time.

But really, that’s just his output as a craftsman.  What really matters is how he got there.

He got there because he was driven by plumbing, how and why it works.  He was like Scotty on the original Star Trek — he read tech manuals in his spare time.  He didn’t just go to hardware/plumbing supply shows (he also ran a hardware business) to find new products to sell, he went to listen to what the other tech types were saying about new materials, techniques, and tools.  He listened not just to what a new tool would do, but the reasoning behind the development of the tool.  He had a curiosity about everything that might remotely affect plumbing.   Less than a year before his death at the age of 57, he completed a design course that required him to travel 35 miles each way to attend class.  And, were he still alive, I expect he would still be extending his craft.

Not because he needed to keep up with his discipline.  He was far enough beyond the usual plumber that the only “continuing education” he would have needed was to keep track of the idiocies non-plumbing bureaucrats keep thinking up.

No, that’s not why he did it.  He did it because, for him, plumbing was important in its own right.

Why did he value plumbing so much?   I don’t know.  That’s one of the things I never thought to ask him until long after he was gone.  And, to be honest, when I was a kid, I would much rather he would have spent less time on it.  But whatever the reason, whether it was what he should have valued or not, that was what he was.

And that attitude is what made him not just a plumber, but a craftsman.

Personally, I think the world would be better off if more people took my dad’s approach to life.  But if they don’t, the problem isn’t in “the system” or “the economy.”

The problem is in the mirror.

 

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I just realized it has been over a year since my last post.  Unacceptable.

I shan’t go into all the details.  It’ll just get me in whine mode, and I’d rather save that mode for things that are important, namely rants about politicians, the current education system, and other iterative topics of this blog.

I will make one observation for those of you wondering where the economy is going.  (I don’t know why people ask me the “what do you think about the economy?” question all the time.  After all, I teach economics.  That’s not the same as knowing where the economy is going.  If anything, I expect the two are negatively correlated variables.)  But for those of you who insist on asking, here’s a bit of an economic observation:  if I had spare money to invest  right now, I’m pretty sure I’d put a serious chunk of it into “health care for senior citizens”.  Having dealt with the ups and downs of being a caregiver for an elderly parent, I’ve got to see a bit of what the youngsters out there are going to deal as the Baby Boom generation (i.e. mine) ages.  Forget about worrying about your 401(k), Gen Yers.  Think about how you’re going to deal with all us old farts when we pass 75.

There is going to be one crapload of a lot of old people out there.  And our generation, unlike my mother’s generation, has defined “low savings rate”.  Add in the fact that ours is the first generation of entitlement, and you’re going to have a nightmare.

Weep, Gen Y.  You’re going to have to deal with our incontinence, our congestive heart disease, our Type II diabetes, and all the rest.  For years, because we’re going to be living at least as long as our parents, and our parents were a fecund lot.

And no, the government can’t solve this one for you.  Sorry.  I hate to tell you this, but they’ve been clueless for decades.

Your generation cares a lot about sustainabilty.  Well, guess what, you are going to have to figure out how to sustain, not what this economy is doing right now….you’re going to have to figure out how to sustain unprecedented economic growth.  You’re going to have to reinvent the economic world the way the Europeans re-invented it a couple hundred years ago.

You’ve made a good start.

But the solution to dealing with us old farts is going to be tough.  I don’t care what the worriers and entitlement-people and the politicos who think all solutions are found in someone else’s pocket say.  You’ve got one “social task” ahead of you:  you need  to figure out not just “sustainable” growth.  You need to figure out how to grow growth itself.

We’ll help, of course.  But pretty soon we’re going to be old enough to demand you service our retirement “needs.”

Good luck.

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140 words or less?

I woke up this morning and before I even logged on, I realized I had screwed up yesterday.  I was tempted to lie and say that my reference to the “150 character limit” of Twitter was a typo.   But no one would believe me anyway, and, besides, a mea culpa offered a better blog opportunity.  (Thanks again to Mark for  pointing out the error and demonstrating, again, just how quick error correction happens in the Internet age.)

The error wasn’t a typo.  It simply reflected the fact that I’m not as far along Internet-wise as I need to be.

I got the length limit wrong.  Because while I believe that Twittering demonstrates an essential skill for the flat world, I don’t Twitter much.

Yet.

Because, to be honest, I’m just not very good at it.

Yet.

When you spend most of your adult life acquiring the skills of the verbose, it takes more than a little effort to shorten things up.

For me, learning to speak in bullet points was the first step; learning to reduce things to a page or less in the manner of executive summary was the second.  And now I’m more or less on the third step, learning to write a short email.

And of course, there’s the regular falling off the wagon.  “A few bullets” can quickly explode into several pages in the corned powder of an academic-in-recovery.  The executive summary remains the hardest part of any report for me to write, and write well.  And anyone who reads here knows I have real trouble keeping blog articles under 1000 words.

Too, David’s comments on my last post crystallized something for me.  I’m used to seeing words as making arguments, as existing for persuade.  And persuasion of an educated person should only take place after the presentation of evidence.  And presenting evidence within 140 words is hard enough.  In 140 words?

But “persuasion” is more than argument.  Persuasion is also becoming interested, being provoked into thinking differently.  And those parts of the process ought not to be focused on evidence.  In fact, are less productive if they are.

Entrepreneurship, innovation, creativity….these things come about because people refuse to worry constantly about the “can’ts” and the “what if’s” and the “what about’s”?  Because they only insist on evidence at particular parts of the process.

So  back to Twitter…well, can I just say it scares me and leave it at that?

No?  Crap.

You’re right.  I can’t.  And neither can you.  Because, and I can guarantee that 90+% (probably 99+%) of academics are going to disagree, being able to Tweet well is at least as important a thinking skill as being able to write a term paper.

No, I’ll go farther.  It’s a more important thinking skill.

Writing term papers, writing reports — those are skills of an entry-level tiny-cubicle employee.  One with no more career upside than Milton Waddams in Office Space.

Tweeting?  Tweeting is a skill of project managers.

No, of CEOs.  CEOs have to be good at weighing evidence, of course.  But they also have to be good at seeing opportunities and judging well in the absence of evidence.

And in a world of constant technological and cultural change, where three strategic moves have to be made before evidence on one is in, it’s a skill more valuable than ever.

Much as I enjoyed Stephen Root in his role as Milton, I’ll give you one guess whether I think we should be emulating his approach to skill development.

So, excuse me.  I’ve got to cut things short.

I’ve got to go follow some CEO tweets and see if I can figure out how they do it.

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Historical moment #1: The Navy?

Now that the NFL season is over, I find myself watching less television again.

About the only thing I watch with anything approaching regularity right now are re-runs of NCIS.  As has often been the case, I find myself discovering TV shows only long after their debut, after they’ve went into syndication.   I have no idea whether new episodes of the show are being released, or even what network the show originally was/is on.  Nor do I much care.  I expect I’ll watch NCIS for a couple more months and start getting bored with it and stop.

But for now, I like the show.  I’m not sure why, but I think it’s probably because has fairly interesting characters and I’m a sucker for “smart ass remarks and by play” done well.  My favorite character, by far, is the goth-ish Abby Sciuto, played perfectly by Pauley Perrette, a young forensic scientist that combines various sensibilities of Gen Y (brilliant nerd, Goth) with the inner-joy sense of humor of Mr. Miyagi, all while working in, of all places, an arm of the Department of the Navy.

Not the place a Boomer like me expects seeing a professional working in a dog collar, multiple tattoos, and black lipstick.  But it works.

And watch the Abby character for a couple episodes and you start to realize that, contrary to the myths about “looking professional” that we Boomers were taught when her age, conforming appearance no longer matters the way it once did (Abby’s age, that is, not Perrette’s.  The actress is actually Gen X, 39, not Gen Y.)  I have no doubt that a real world Abby would be as successful as a fictional one.    This is a woman with both top-of-the-line skills in her field and a personality both her ex-Marine-gunnery-sergeant superior and her politician bosses love.

Moment two:  Wade getting an earring?

I’ve been thinking again about getting my ear pierced.  For some bizarre reason, I like the idea of dangling a jewel from one ear.

It’s probably just part of that never-ending mid-life crisis thing.  But I’ve been playing with a variety of ideas for presenting a different appearance when I return to the classroom.  Partly because I think it would be a valuable way to reinforce that the returning Wade is a far different Wade from the one who left, but doubtless mostly vanity and a desire to reward myself for all the weight I’m going to lose between now and then (down 15.5 pounds since the first of the year, aiming for -55+ by August ).  But whatever the reason, I’ve been considering more flash in the personal appearance.  Longer hair again — so far, its just grown long and shaggy, but been toying with returning to the braided ponytail, or maybe a wave and coloring in silver and/or auburn.

And an earring.

Okay, so maybe my personal plan is a bit whacked. :)

But put that aside, and lets get back to that earring.  Because as I was thinking about that earring the other day, I learned something very interesting.

My thinking about the earring got me to Google.  You see, I hate to admit it, because I’m sure some are going to misinterpret this, but the biggest reason I’ve never had my ear pierced before this is my fear that I’d do the wrong ear and everyone would think me gay.

No, I don’t have a problem with people being homosexual.  Frankly, I don’t care what people do sexually as long as all participants are doing so voluntarily and beyond the age of consent.  And, contrary to many of my fellow evangelicals, I simply can’t see God being as obsessive as we are about what who and what we do with our dangly bits.  However, given that I’m a flaming hetero (and no I’m not into Goths, ahem; Abby’s coolest parts are her cheerful attitude and her mind, not her bizarre fashion sense), I’d prefer not to have to deal with any more of a certain kind of discomfiting moment.  (Such as the time in college when I was approached on a dark Malta beach, or, worse, the surreal Christmas when my mother was asked by a relative whether I was gay and I was asked, by a different relative, over lutefisk and Norwegian meatballs, what it was like to be gay).

So, anyway, I’m farther along this “getting an earring” thing than I’ve been before, and so I went online and googled “which ear signals ‘gay’?”  And I discovered that the question is now at most a matter of historical trivia.  Virtually every response was a variation on “a pierced ear means a pierced ear, nothing more.”  Something on the order of  98% of all comments on three different web sites followed this theme — even though the first site answered my question, I found myself  curious about the cultural dynamic and checked a couple more.  My favorite was the person who typed “OMG that is so 1982.  I haven’t heard such a thing in 20 years.”  Over a year ago.

I was sitting at my desk, alone, but I imagine I still had a really sheepish look on my face. Duh.  And me the guy whose always going on about the Gen Y mindset, and it not just being held by Gen Yers, too.  Oops.

And the point?

Why have I recited these two little historical moments?  (After all, I’m sure most Iterations readers by now have figured out that Wade can be a total whack job Wade from time to time.)

The point:  those of us from generations where “how you dressed” was of critical importance to professional success need to realize something has happened in the last couple of decades.  Something more than our reaching the travails of middle age and a bunch of immature kids abusing their bodies with tattoos and piercings and screwing up their future job prospects.

It isn’t that Gen Yers and those who have adopted their mindset aren’t concerned with fashion.  Of course they are, or so many of them wouldn’t be tattooing and piercing.  (It ain’t all “being me,” any more than black t-shirts for the starving artists of the 90s were all “following the muse.”)  It’s that the world Gen Y has been busy transforming no longer demands excessorizing on conformity.

Success in today’s world?  It’s all about creativity, not about conformity.  And Gen Y, and their imitators, have learned that creative is a lot more fun than climbing ladders.  That work that demands conformity as well as performance isn’t work worth doing.

Look, I’m not that naive about the suits of the world.

Really.

I have no doubt that someone making Abby’s clothing and body art choices will have trouble were she to seek a management trainee position with, say, a bank, or a Detroit automaker, or many of the Fortune 100.  Or if she sought a visible position in the campaign of a candidate for the U.S. Senate.  Or if she lived in one of the parts of the USA that time seems to have forgotten, such as the rural Winneshiek County, Iowa, where I make my home.  For people interested in professional careers in those sorts of places — well, I’d advise the men to keep the hair short, the women to keep the earrings simple and small, and everyone to limit piercings and tats to those that can be kept hidden beneath a boring and conservative “business attire.”

Yes, many of the suits who make hiring decisions are still Boomers or Gen Xers who still retain residue of their upbringing by Boomers.  Though the Gen Y mindset is held by a lot more people than just those born between 1978 and 1994, and more of them every day, lots of Boomers and Xers have yet to make the move.

But on the other hand, which companies and geographic areas are the ones that were having problems with the 21st century economy well before the recent troubles became a national obsession?

Banks.

Ford, Chevy, and the people who drive their trucks through corn fields.

I doubt it’s a coincidence that the places most out of touch with 21st century economic realities are also the places least receptive to the nonconforming appearance choices of Gen Y.   The companies and regions that — surprise, surprise — most Gen Y and Gen Y-mindset types — have little interest in being a part of.

And yes, I also know that letting my hair grow, pulling it back into a tail or a braid, adding a dangling jewel to my ear — these things aren’t going to make me young.  And they certainly aren’t going to make me “cool.”

Short of finding some way to replace my DNA with, say, Nicholas Cage’s, cool isn’t a possibility.   I learned in high school that even the coolest leisure suit and platform heels weren’t going to be enough to make me cool, that I’m one of those people for whom fashion ain’t going to make me look like what I’m not.   And Gen Y has far better bullshit detectors than my high school classmates did.

No, I’m not contemplating a remake of my appearance because I think it’ll impress my future students.  The best I can hope for in that regard is a sort of amused tolerance, chuckling in their dorms about the “fat old guy in econ who’s probably going to be submitting Viagra claims to Medicare soon, too.”

No, if I have a reason other than silly vanity for the contemplated changes, it’s that I think these changes will make it easier for me to adjust my mindset to meet the needs of Gen Y and the 21st century.   Provide physical reminders to me that the world has changed and I need to change.

That if I ever unpack the box, somewhere in my garage, that holds my one-time often-thumbed copy of Dress for Success, I remember that its only value it might have now is as some future historian’s primary source.

Or as an answer in the next edition of Trivial Pursuit.

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I began this essay at 3:45 a.m. because someone turned the thermostat up too high and the air in my house has begun to resemble the inside of one of those food dehydrators Ron Popeil used to sell on TV about that time of day.

But as I was tossing the blankets aside to get water for my parched throat and turn the thermostat down again, I realized that I have been dealing with thermostats a lot of late.  About three weeks ago I had to put several hundred dollars into my aging Saturn  because of, in part, a faulty thermostat.  And  week ago last Thursday night, I was finding places in the snow on my deck to put a refrigerator full of food because *its* thermostat had gone wacko.   And the next night I was disposing of some spoiled produce because my improvised iceboxes in the snow lacked thermostatic control.  And now tonight and my house’s ancient hot water heating system.

The thermostat is an amazing little device.  One of those hundreds of silent little technologies without which advanced economies would be impossible.  The kind those who think economies can be planned have no clue about.

Because anywhere where there’s a need to regulate temperature, there’s a possible demand for a reliable thermostat.  And if you dig into the machines in those environments, it’s a good bet you’ll find one.

And when you start thinking about all the places in your vehicles, machines, homes, offices, and factories, where thermostats and associated devices are quietly doing their thing day after day after day, it’s pretty amazing.

Oh, my checkbook isn’t particularly happy right now, since it’s had to deal with two of the rare failures in the space of a couple weeks.  And this morning I wish I had had a fancier thermostat in my heating system so I could have stayed sleeping sleeping.  But I’d rather have to replace a thermostat or three than have to replace a car or a refrigerator.

However essential, however amazing, the component, there remains a difference between having to replace it and having to replace the system of which it is part.

And therein lies the ominous part of the story.   The amazing innovations of the information age are increasingly system innovations rather than component innovations.  Cars and refrigerators rather than thermostats.  Indeed, the frequency of system innovations is what makes 21st century technological change qualitatively different from the technological change of earlier periods.

It’s ominous because, no matter how amazing the technology, components do break down.  Components that, like thermostats, are not cost-effective to repair.  Components that the repair person just removes and replaces.  But when it is systems that are innovating, replacement becomes as unlikely as repair.

It’s often going to be too expensive.

Think of the components inside your computer.  Components like storage technologies or memory chips or even power cords.   If one of those components fails two years on … do you expect to be able to just replace them like I’ve been replacing my thermostats?

Or are you going to end up replacing the whole computer?  And it’s software because, well, guess what, the old versions are not just not supported.  You can’t even find them on eBay or Amazon.

The thermostat in my house is probably nearly as old as I am.  But the 3.5″ floppies piled on my bookshelf have a decade before they’re going to be old enough to drink, and the SuperDrive on my MacBookPro is still a couple years away from nursery school.  And how long before both of them go the way of the 5.25″ floppies from grad school buried in my attic archive — unusable unless one of the equally ancient PCs I’ve got stashed (somewhere) still works and I can remember how to use the DOS version of Wordperfect or Stata.

Yes, the cost per bit of computing power has fallen to a really small amount.   But you don’t get to buy computing power by the bit.   You don’t get to buy a thermostat that fits your house.  The only thermostats available are the ones that are used in the heating systems of domed football stadiums and nuclear power plants.  A thermostat that probably costs more to install in your house than buying a new house.

I’m a big fan of the 21st century, its entrepreneurs and its technologies.

But it’s Achilles heel may prove to be a lack of sufficient replacceable components like thermostats.  And too often expecting consumers to replace computers, cars, houses, and other entire “systems.”

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As we start to deal with “The Recession,” Americans (and for that matter, the rest of the world) must be really careful that their chosen remedies don’t prove to be worse than the disease being treated.

Okay, the economy sucks right now.  I get that.  I got my annual report on my retirement “nest egg” from TIAA-CREF.  It lost 20 % of its value in 2008, over half of that in the fourth quarter.  Okay, the downturn is real.  Changes need to be made.  Steps must be taken. Blah blah blah.

But what we need right now is the economic equivalent of chicken soup and, perhaps, a course of antibiotics.  We don’t need amputation of limbs, or the poison of either radical chemotherapy or FDR-era patent medicines.  The economy probably has more than just a bad cold, but it isn’t suffering from gangrene or third-stage cancer either.

When you’re sick, even with just a cold, you don’t always think clearly.   Be honest here.  How many of us, when that winter cold hits “at the worst of possible times,” make choices that end up making the cold worse or ensuring that it last three times as long as it should.  Instead of taking the old advice of drinking plenty of (non-alcoholic) fluids and getting plenty of rest, we dose ourselves with multiple patent medicines and struggle nobly through going to work and social obligations.  And so, instead of a week or so of miserableness, we spend half the winter coughing and increasing Kleenex sales.  And, with some frequency, we find ourselves susceptible to chronic bronchitis or pneumonia.  All the while spreading our germs around to everyone we know and reducing overall productivity in our offices and communities.

I know, I know, a recession like today’s is more than just a cold.  But contrary to the pontifications of economists and assorted policy-makers and power-mongers, we know less about how to treat a recession than we do about curing the common cold.   Far less:  when it comes to the cold, we’ve at least discovered zinc and chicken soup.

Even though the recession is more than a cold, we might be better of acting as if it wasn’t.  Because the last thing this economy needs is an attempt to retry the ideas that didn’t even work in pre-information economies.

Oh, all ideas in the past aren’t bad ones.  We’d do good with a dose of remembering the Victorian virtues of temperance and saving and finding new ways to develop human capital.  The economic chicken soup remedies.

But the notion that things are going to be better if we adopt the traditional values of agricultural societies,  FDR-style safety nets, and the like?  It’s worse than unsound.  Not only will those prescriptions not “end the downturn”, not only are they likely to make the downturn even worse, but they can threaten long-run productivity.

Because the solution to our ills isn’t bailing out banks and auto companies and airlines and the rest of the detritus of industrialization that have lost touch with what the world (and their customers) really need.  It isn’t in re-empowering labor unions and lobbyists.  It isn’t even, much as my fellow Iowans might want it to be, returning to the values of rural America.  If only on the order of 2% of your economy is agriculture, if only on the order of 20 % of your economy is industrial, you aren’t going to find the needed productivity in pesticides and an oil change.

If you’re going to have a sound economy in the 21st century, you have to keep focused on the fact that productivity comes from innovation and human capital and human ingenuity and information mechanisms. From being able to change and adapt to change with great rapidity.

Joseph Schumpeter (in, e.g., Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942)), spoke of how processes of creative destruction are the distinguishing characteristic of capitalism.  How, unlike feudalism, unlike socialism, unlike every other economic system, has a capacity for real and sustained economic growth because of the way in which it enables innovation even though innovation brings with it obsolescence and destruction.

Recession “solutions” that emphasize protection of jobs, of key industries, of “the old way of life” short-circuit those processes of innovation.  Mitigating the symptoms of destruction (providing the chicken soup that helps the suffering of displaced workers) is one thing.  But too often the desire to alleviate pain is accompanied by attempts to prevent the destruction altogether.  Instead of looking for ways to help people take the next step, we strive to protect jobs and companies and industries and “sectors” from having to adapt.

All of which is by way of preface.

In the February 2009 issue of Technology Review  (Parallel Universe), Robert X. Cringely writes about the implications of today’s personal and business computing hardware being built with “multi-core” processors.   These dual-core, quad-core (and on the high-end Apple MacPro I dream about buying, 8-core) machines solve the heat problem mega-millions of computer calculations cause for microchips by using the economic idea of division of labor.  Put one processor to work running the operating system and another your key application.  And do this again and again, thousands of times.

But, as Cringely points out, there’s a catch.  It’s a lot harder to program for parallel processing.  Computer languages tend to be designed to work with linear sequences of tasks, and it’s really hard to organize thousands of processes operating simultaneously into a linear “Do A, then do B, then do C” sequence of commands.

The problem’s so big that, as he puts it on page 56 of the hardcopy version of the article, “companies have called back to service some graybeards of 1980s supercomputing.”  The industry that typifies the notion of constant change and always being focused on the “next” change finds itself  looking back to professors emeritus and the research done by companies dead for over a decade.

Because without the software, all those potential gains from the exponential growth of processing power are going to go unrealized.  The reality is that unless I’m a hardcore gamer (which I’m not) or doing high-end Monte Carlo simulations for economic forecasting or cosmic decay (which I’m not), I’m not going to use anywhere near the capabilities of that dream 8-core MacPro, much less the 64-core chips being conceptualized for the reasonably near future.  Processing power increases only matter to the extent that society has uses and needs for them.

None of this may prove a big deal economically.  One of the annoying things about watching technological change is the difficulty of trying to figure out when particular technological innovations really are going to mean major economic transformation and when they are not.  It’s a lot of fun thinking about the future implications, but “getting the story right” before the story ends … well, that’s going to have a high failure rate no matter how smart or hardworking the prognosticator might be.

The tea leave character of technological prognostication doesn’t make the subject being prognosticated about irrelevant, however.  Because while the economic impact of any particular technological change will be uncertain, it is a fact that rapid technological and institutional change is at the heart of how today’s economy and how it works. Anyone who is concerned with long-run productivity must always keep in mind the flexibility that coping with rapid change demands.  In a world where paradigms shift with great regularity, people and companies must be able to shift with great regularity.

But shiftability (is that even a word?) is not something that can be legislated.  It’s not something to be protected.  It can’t be, because that kind of legislation and protection only works in a world that is as far away from existing as it has ever been, a world where individual tea leaves can actually be read with great accuracy.  In a world where knowing the details of the future is harder than it has ever been, the most that government and other rule-making wannabes can hope for is to enable greater shiftability.

I have no magic bullet for enabling shiftability.  But I’m pretty darn sure you to don’t enable it by encouraging people to avoid shifting.

Much less by trying to institutionalize the avoidance of shifting.

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Look closely at what I have written over the years, online or off, and you’ll discover I’m rather passionate about questions.  About which questions we are asking.  About which questions we should be asking.  About the questions beneath the questions, the questions we think we are asking and about the questions we are really asking.

Whether it’s what I’ve written here since starting Iterations last May, what I’ve written in my scholarly papers, or my comments on computer boards and blogs elsewhere, I’m always going on about “which question?”  And I’ve lost count of the number of mini-lectures I’ve given to students over the years on the importance of getting the questions right.

When it comes to effective listening, getting the questions right is absolutely critical.  You can’t truly listen to someone else if you are not able to understand the question(s) they are purporting to answer.

And if you want to get someone else to change their mind, to get them to agree with you in a way that has the kind of consequences you desire (their choices about purchasing, voting, or religious belief), you need to make sure they are listening.  And making sure *they* are listening means *you* must be sure they care about the same questions you care about.

Yet for all its centrality, “Which question?” is not something people want to think about very often or very deeply.  Because, for most of us, most of the time, the questions are “obvious.”  We don’t even contemplate asking about them, because, well, we already know what *the* questions are.  They’re so obvious that when someone like Wade comes forward and suggests we take a re-look, his suggestion not only gets rejected, it may not even be noticed.

*     *     *     *     *

The need to get people to think about “which question?” is how the educator’s task is typically harder than that of the traditional marketer.  A marketer must plug into the prospect’s core values; but an educator must strive to change those values.

It isn’t that the marketer’s task is easy in any absolute sense.  Far from that.

A marketer still has to identify the questions that matter to his prospects and then provide an answer to those questions.  And that can be very tough.   Potential prospects for the next good or service, or for the last one, rarely run around announcing what they care most deeply about.
Marketers must identify the our deep-seated desires, and then appeal to those core fears, hopes, and aspirations to influence people’s buying behavior.  If it were easy to identify the deep-seated triggering questions of “what makes me happy” and “what makes me sad,” there would be no need to pay top marketers the big bucks they command.  Anyone, ahem, could do it.

No, marketing is not “easy”.

However, speaking as someone with toes in both fields, the educator faces a still bigger task.  Like the marketer, the educator must be able to identify the triggering questions that matter to his students.  But where, having found those questions, the marketer can next proceed to provide answers, the educator’s first persuasive task is finding a way to get the student to change the questions asked.

Education isn’t just “putting things in terms they can understand”.  Education isn’t just appealing to their interests and values.  It’s getting them to ask about new terms and new ways of understanding.  It’s about changing their interests and changing their values.

One task is all about appealing to pre-existing beliefs.  The other is all about subverting and blowing up those beliefs and replacing them with new ones.

*     *     *     *

This difference between “finding the questions” and “changing the questions” is also why the most innovative products often get outsold by less innovative ones.  It’s particularly easy for the innovator to get caught up by the beauty or the excitement or the “revolutionary change” character of her innovation and assume that her customers have the same core emotional triggers.

And it’s made worse by the fact that the innovator cannot simply identify and appeal to core emotions in the usual way of marketers.  The innovator must also convince her customer to ask new questions.

For example, scroll back in time to the iPod moment.  Selling the iPod wasn’t just providing a new answer to the old question of “What’s the best solution to people’s need for portable music listening?”   It was getting people to ask a new question, a “What’s the coolest way to listen to my tunes?”  sort of question.

And jokes about midlife crises aside, “being cool” isn’t always the core emotion for a lot of the 45-year-old suburban men and women who have become a big part of the iPod market.  An appeal to “Cool” might have been sufficient to convince early adopters of Gen Y, but Apple wasn’t going to get all those late Boomers unless they first found a way to convince them that Cool was cool enough.

*     *     *     *

So, if one is an educator or an innovation marketer, how does one get the questions right?  And assuming that one manages to get one’s own questions right, how does one persuade others to do the same?

/begin commercial

Well, for $100 an hour, 5 hour minimum, you can hire the services of Iterative Listening, LLC.  Just drop me an e-mail at wade@thelisteningphd.com, and we can get started.   :)

/end commercial

Seriously, though, what I want to do today and over the next several weeks is explore in some detail how both teachers and innovation marketers can get their “customers” to change the questions they care about.  To explore several particulars of what I call “the listening mindset.”

Today, I want to mention two.

The first key to developing a listening mindset is to truly recognize the problem.  If you want your listener (your student, your customer) to care about your questions, you must first recognize that those questions are not yet the questions they care about.

And I mean really recognize this.   It’s sad to say, but the great majority of college professors, even many otherwise lauded as “great teachers,” fail in this regard.  Because it’s not enough to merely acknowledge the existence of a generation gap or a disciplinary gap or cultural gap.  Like it or not, the teacher must be the one crossing the gap first.

It’s not enough to say, “Here’s my different thing and its what I’m going to be talking about and what you’re going to be tested over.”  Older generations (Boomers and older, even Gen X) may have been willing to defer to experience and give the teacher the benefit of doubt.  Gen Y isn’t.  Gen Y isn’t going to listen and consider the teacher’s new questions unless the teacher first justifies the importance of those new questions.

Personally, it would make my job easier if they didn’t make such a demand.  And so I can dream.   But it isn’t going to happen.  Gen Y can’t be made to listen.  They can only be persuaded to listen.  Stop complaining about it, and deal with it.

Why am I so harsh, even though I greatly admire most teachers as teachers?  I’m so harsh because what teachers have to communicate is so important.   The teacher who says to the student “you need to know this, not because of the exam coming up, but because you need it to be successful and life and be a good citizen” is, much more often than not, absolutely correct.  I’m so harsh on my fellow teachers because their students really do need to listen.

But to get them to listen, to get past the listening gap, requires very different pedagogic choices.  It means the teacher must assume the lion’s share of the costs of listening.

Which brings me to a second key component of the listening mindset:  Assume that the other guy has good reasons for not listening.   Your students, your customers, they are not here on Earth to follow your path through life.  They’re here to follow theirs.  They’re not listening to you because they’re sleeping.  They’re not listening to you because they’re busy listening to someone or something else.  Someone or something that also is valuable.

If you want to get a student or a prospective customer to listen, you need to assume that they almost always have good reasons for not being interested in the questions you’re interested in.

If you’re a teacher, a holder of the “terminal degree” in the discipline you’re teaching, this is often very hard to do.   You’re in the business of correcting the errors of those who haven’t done all the work in the field you have.  You’re the expert, after all, the one with the superior knowledge and experience.

It’s also hard to do when you’re selling innovation.  As the innovator, almost by definition you have unique information and experience with your product’s features.  It’s going to be horribly tempting to go off and talk about the whiz-bang benefits you see Feature A providing.

But in both situations, the temptation must be resisted much longer than you think.  It must be resisted until the student or the customer is well and truly hooked.  Until the student or the customer has been convinced, not only that you are speaking to their questions, but also that your questions are important to them.

And if you don’t start by assuming that their current choices have good reasons, if you don’t start by assuming that those choices aren’t simply ones of ignorance, you’re going to succumb to the temptation far too early.  You need the assumption — even if that ultimately proves unjustified, even if their current decisions actually prove to have been ones of ignorance.  You need to assume they know what they are doing,  because without that assumption you won’t short-circuit your own anti-listening thinking patterns and you won’t have the mental jiu-jitsu techniques to short-circuit theirs.

For everything there is a season, says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes.  And, by inference, there is for everything, a time that is out of season.

When it comes to teaching, there is a time when the teacher must resist the temptation to correct error, and resist it over and over again.

When it comes to the selling of innovative products and ideas, there is a time when the marketer must not be pointing out innovative features.

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I’ve always wanted to go to New Mexico.  Indeed, if family and job constraints could magically be dealt with, it is one of the two places I’d most like to move to (the other being Tahiti).

John Timmer of Ars Technica reports some good news here about how those planning a spaceport have passed the FAA’s environmental impact assessment and received a license for both horizontal and vertical takeoffs.

Oh, the launches of Virgin Galactic’s tourism flights are still a bit away.  But not quite as far as one might think:  Timmer quotes the spaceport director, Steven Landeene, saying that construction will begin in first quarter 2009 with most of the facilities open for business in 2010.

Yeah, it’s the desert.  But all I can say is …

Cool!

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It’s been one of those week-of-Mondays weeks and I need to whine a bit.

The last several days haven’t been good for the Iterations blog.  First, I promised that my next blog entry was going to cover topic X only to find out that doing so would take me parts of several days.  First I discovered that pulling the stuff together to do what was promised involved files that I haven’t used since before I purchased my current MacBookPro two-plus years ago.  Then, worse, I discovered that one of them (the Maddison graphic) was created from a spreadsheet that is even older, from the MacBook that died and that is probably burned on a CD somewhere but I have no idea where.  Then I discovered that I don’t know where the Maddison book itself is, so I can’t even re-create the spreadsheet.

Then, this weekend, I discovered that my Google PageRank had somhow become “not available.”  Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if, notwithstanding a near-800 percent traffic increase (per Alexa) over the last three months, the Page Rank had fallen from 1 to 0.  After all, the traffic here remains very thin. (Even with that 800 percent increase, my Alexa rank is only 1,677,621.)  But my understanding of Page Rank was that “n/a” was limited to very new sites not yet indexed or to sites that Google had banned for one reason or another.

And for the life of me, I can’t figure out what I might have done to get banned.  Oh, I know some of my ideas are a bit wacko, but I doubt that is it.  And I haven’t done anything I know of to generate spam or fake links or whatever other evils lurk in the minds of men.  Frankly, while I know such stuff happens, I haven’t the foggiest clue how I would go about doing such.  I haven’t even done any SEO on the site yet.

But on the other hand, I don’t want to be on Google’s shitlist.  And so I find I now must find some time to figure out exactly what is happening or at least find out enough so I can write a semi-coherent email to someone at Google.

And of course, being the sometime moron that I am, I still went ahead and upgraded my WordPress to version 2.7.  (When logging on to compose my “why I hate business cycle talk, part two” post, my dashboard  showed a recommendation to upgrade, and having the random idea that maybe my old installation had something that was whacking out the Google-bots, I went and upgraded.

Only to discover that this upgrade was rather different than the ones to 2.6 and beyond.  Namely an entirely different looking interface.  And not only hasn’t it solved the pagerank problem (which, if truth be told, I never expected it to), it changed some options for posting.  In particular, I simply cannot figure out how to avoid the annoying wrap of text around images that appeared in my last post.

Checked the wordpress installation notes and all I found was a bit of tech gobblydegook about how to set that kind of wrapping up different ways via CSS style sheet code. (Though nothing about how to avoid it entirely.)  So I have to dig in and figure out more coding that this nontechie really wants to be bothered with.

And worse, I can’t even find my theme editor anywhere on the dashboard, so I don’t know where to find the style sheet I’m supposed to be editing.

Yeah, I know, who cares about these problems of yours, Wade.

Well, I guess because it illustrates a part of the 21st century that is rather annoying.  A part that I find myself unable to avoid.  The part where trying to deal with the rapidity of tech change means systematic distractions from the work flow.

It’s often interesting to compare the changes of the Internet with the changes wrought by other cosmically-important technologies like the automobile.  Think about the daily commute.  How many unexpected interruptions do you have to deal with during that commute?  Oh, sure, there are the occasional accidents.  And the even more occasional breakdowns of your own car.  And of course the regular problem of rush-hour traffic.  But what you don’t have is the combination of “unexpected” and “often”.

Not so with respect to the Internet.  Some souls may be fortunate enough to have a professional life without much using the Internet, but I don’t know many of them.   But the lurches and delays that life on the Internet brings come with the frequency of rush hour and the unpredictability of fan belts seizing up.  Computer crashes.   Software that demands regular upgrade of hardware that requires different media and different software.  Tech support by Ouija board…spoken in ancient Sumerian.

And, worst of all, in my opinion, is the reality that a lot of these interruptions are of the “I don’t even know who to ask or what to ask them” variety.  When my car breaks down, I know who to call. I even have a helpful manual in my glove compartment.

But when something goes wacko on my computer…more often than not, the “help” is online.  And just how helpful is “online documentation” if I can’t get to the Internet?   And if I can get to it, I find I the “KnowledgeBase” requires a Berlitz phrasebook for translation…(i.e., a “Dummies” or “Idiots” guide)…and that’s two days away even by Amazon Prime.  And of course, once I get the dummies guide, I realize that I still don’t know what question to ask and so read fifty pages of the dummies guide that turn out to be beside the point.

Now, being at least a semi-geek who likes to solve puzzles, I don’t mind some of this.  But, again, it’s the combination of “unexpected” and “often” that gets to me.

If it were just frequency, I could just put it on the “seven daily habits” list, right there with walking the dog and flossing.   And if  it were just the occasional negative surprise, I could just do the cuss-and-move-on bit, maybe working an extra hour or two on a bad day.

But it isn’t. “Unexpected plus often” means you somehow have to plan for and deal with the “week of Mondays” effect on a repeated basis.

And I don’t know any “daily habits” guru who offers a way to do that.

I love living in a world with 21st century tech.  But sometimes, well, sometimes it just sucks.

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All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts