In a celebrated 1995 article in Newsweek, astronomer Clifford Stoll blasted Internet visionaries. “Do our computer pundits lack all common sense?” he asked. “The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”
Clearly, he was mistaken, but Stoll was no Luddite. In fact, he was an early adopter of the Internet who had spent years online. His article merely reflected what he saw: a complex technology meant for highly technical people like him, not a easy-to-use service for ordinary consumers.
Stoll’s mistake was to confuse his knowledge of the current state of technology with the power to know where it was going. As an astronomer, he was in a very poor position to predict about how the Internet would be applied to other fields. The truth is that even really smart people get the future wrong, which is why it’s more important to explore than to predict.
The idea of a communal society has always been suspect. From the nihilism of the nineteenth century Fourierists to the wide-eyed optimism of the hippie communes of the 1960s, they are seen as somewhat well meaning, but also destructive and naive in their assessment of human nature.
Still, go on the Internet today and you can’t click or swipe on anything without hitting an open source community. Starting with basic technologies like Linux and Apache all they way up to highly specialized ones like Spark and Cloud Foundry, it’s hard to find any core technology that anybody truly owns anymore.
Yet the technology industry continues to prosper and grow. The trick that it pulled off was to see that incredible value can be unlocked through communal effort and that value can be used for proprietary purposes. In the years to come, that’s something that every industry will have to learn. Here are three key aspects what makes open source communities valuable.
Since 2000, the US has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs. Some say that the loss is due to foreign competition, primarily from China. Others say that it is due to higher productivity from automation and factories simply don’t need as many workers. Historically, those two trends, globalization and automation, have reinforced each other.
Yet a study by Boston Consulting Group suggests that they are starting to diverge. As automation lowers production costs, the logic of offshoring isn’t as compelling as it once was because transportation and other factors cancel out many of the benefits of moving to a low-cost country.
So we’re going to need to rethink automation. We can no longer see it merely as a way to replace workers with machines that can work all day without a coffee break, but as a way to increase productivity and create value by extending the work of humans. That means that if we are going to reap the full benefits of automation, we need to think more about people.
When Subra Suresh was chosen to lead the National Science Foundation (NSF), in 2010, he saw that many of the pathbreaking discoveries developed through the agency’s grants weren’t finding their way to the marketplace, so he sought to foster better links between government and industry.
This, of course, was not an entirely new idea. Over the years, there have been numerous efforts, ranging from the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 to numerous initiatives to revamp technology transfer offices within government agencies, but nothing really seemed able to speed new discoveries out of the labs and into the marketplace.
This time, Suresh and his team decided that instead of reorganizing things inside the NSF, they would help scientists become entrepreneurs themselves, using a model that had already worked wonders in Silicon Valley. The result, a program called I-Corps, has proven to be so effective that Congress recently ordered its expansion. Here’s the story behind it.
Throughout history, social movements — small groups, loosely connected, but united by a shared purpose — have created transformational change. Women’s suffrage, Indian independence and civil rights, just to name a few, were all achieved by the powerless banding together against the powerful.
Today, digital technology has intensified these forces, making it far easier for groups of likeminded people to connect and coordinate action. In recent years, the Color Revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Arab Spring, the LGBT movement and others have driven world events. There is greater opportunity to create change now than ever before.
Yet the lessons of these movements transcend the political arena. As Moisés Naím pointed out in The End of Power, similar forces are transforming business, military affairs and even religion. So for managers who seek to create change, both within their organizations and in the marketplace, it is essential to learn the lessons of successful social movements.
Take a look at any breakthrough technology and invariably it started out in a lab somewhere, usually decades before any commercial product hits the market. The problem is that, with tens of thousands of scientific papers published every year, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
That’s why major corporations spend billions on research and development, invest in academic partnerships at top research universities and send their scientists and engineers to conferences around the world. Everybody’s looking for that one obscure discovery that can lead to a hit product that can win in the marketplace.
Yet what few realize is that small and medium sized businesses can play this game too. Researchers want their discoveries to find useful applications, federally funded science is generally published openly, and there are a number of programs that are designed to help entrepreneurs navigate the scientific world. They key is to show a real interest and engage.
Probably the hardest thing in business is to innovate consistently, year after year and decade after decade. Take a look at any industry at any point in time and you’ll find one company that seems to have hit on a secret formula only to find that ten years later that things have gone awry.
Consider the technology industry. If you looked at the 1990’s, the “Wintel” companies like Microsoft, Intel and Compaq seemed invulnerable. A decade later though, Apple and Google reigned supreme, Microsoft had hit hard times and Compaq ceased to exist as an independent company.
That’s why business gurus often undertake studies to identify the “one true path” to success, evaluating successful firms to see what makes them tick and analyzing the mistakes of others to figure out where they went wrong. The problem is that when applied to the real world, their advice doesn’t apply as cleanly as they promise and they often contradict each other.
The unicorn is perhaps unique among myths in that the creature doesn’t appear in the mythology of any culture. The ancient Greeks, for all of their centaurs, hydras and medusas, never had any stories of unicorns, they simply believed that some existed somewhere.
Of course, nobody had ever seen one, but they believed others had. Travelers would go to far away places, bring back stories of them and speak of the magical properties contained in their horns. Alas, no matter how hard anyone searched for unicorns, none were ever found, but that didn’t stop people from looking.
All too often, modern executives operate on similar principles. They see “secrets of Steve Jobs”and “habits of Elon Musk” written about in blogs and the business press or hear them whispered about in hushed tones at conferences. The truth is, most of these are myths with little to no evidence behind them. Here are four you especially need to avoid.
On July 16th, 1945, when the world’s first nuclear explosion shook the plains of New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the project, quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And indeed he had. The world was never truly the same after nuclear power became a reality.
In the years that followed, it became fashionable for many scientists to become activists. In 1955, Albert Einstein and the philosopher Bertrand Russell issued a manifesto that highlighted the dangers of nuclear weapons, which was signed by 10 Nobel Laureates. Later, a petition signed by 11,000 scientists helped lead to the Partial Test Ban Treaty.
Today, even small businesses are gaining access to advanced technologies like artificial intelligence and gene editing and that’s going to put managers in an unusual position. Much like nuclear energy, these are incredibly powerful, but not under the control of governments or, in fact, any large institution. This time, we all need to hold ourselves responsible.
In the late 1960’s, Gary Starkweather had a serious spat with his boss. As an engineer in Xerox’s long-range xerography unit, he saw that laser printing could be a huge business opportunity. His manager, however, was focused on improving the efficiency of the current product line, not looking to start another one.
The argument got so heated that Starkweather’s job came to be in jeopardy. Fortunately, his rabble rousing caught the attention of another division within the company, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) which wasn’t interested in efficiency, but inventing a new future and they eagerly welcomed Starkweather into their ranks.
Within a decade, Xerox’s copying business declined sharply, but the laser printer took off and soon became the firm’s main source of revenue. In effect, the work that was squelched in one culture, thrived in another and saved the company. We tend to think innovation is about ideas, but it depends on people even more. Here’s how you create an innovative culture.