bi-weekly column with timely,
relevant and possibly irreverent
insight into the BC technology
April 27th, 2007
Greenstone Venture Partners
(Turn and face the strain)
Just gonna have to be a different man”
– David Bowie, Changes
Today you have an assignment. You have to spend the
next six minutes of your time watching a presentation.
Then you can come back here and read my reaction to it.
Disclaimer: I don’t know who made the presentation (I
have seen variations of it before) and I am not trying
to drive traffic to any particular site on purpose. It
is just a very thought provoking piece.
OK, you are back. Initial reactions? If you are like
me, a bit skeptical of everything you see on the
Internet, your reaction is to start to tear apart the
numbers and the calculations involved. Surely some of
the numbers don’t add up. The predictions are likely
exaggerated. Some of the extrapolations are a bit
flimsy. But some really valuable points are being made
about the near future. The presentation only makes the
points and does not delve into what we all need to do in
order to prepare for the next 20 years. Indeed, all it
says in conclusion is “Now You Know”. So what do we
know? Well, first of all, go read The World Is Flat if
you haven’t already because Thomas Friedman has some of
the answers to those questions along the same line as
this presentation. I’ll take a stab at it here.
It appears that we need to invest in education, or more
specifically, the way that we teach, in order to prepare
skills for an exponentially changing future. Education
is about critical thinking, knowledge and skills.
Teaching children how to think and how to amass
knowledge is not going to change dramatically. You
can’t accelerate the process of developing a brain as a
child grows. However, you can change how you teach
skills and the presentation is screaming that we must.
This is not new information for anyone taking computer
science in university, for instance. The glacial pace
at which new skills are adapted into the university
curriculum leaves many four year graduates without
practical skills in new programming languages. This has
been happening for a decade…
If the presentation is even close to being right about
the rapid outdating of information and the skills built
on that information, we need better ways of delivering
relevant knowledge and teaching new skills to children
and adults throughout our lives. The Internet, and
better ways to contextually sift through the exabytes of
information, is supplementing knowledge. But skills are
needed to turn knowledge into effective labour. It’s
not what we are learning as much as it is how we can
apply it to a job.
The familiar scaremongering of India and China taking
over the world is in the presentation as well. Those
are great stats about more honour students than the US
has students. It should be and will be a further wake
up call for better systems of learning and further
investment in innovation in North America and Europe.
But take this down to the personal level. Look at your
kids (or imagine having them if you are young). How in
the world will they compete in a flat world? What hits
me in the presentation is that my two children, both
still in elementary school, are living in a bubble.
They are taught very little about technology, business
or basic economics. In fact, as they enter high school,
those are all optional things to learn. Math, Science
and command of communication (speaking and writing) are
valuable skills, but I think all kids should learn more.
What about languages? Should I teach them Mandarin
before I teach them French? How do I give them an
advantage, when, as the presentation says, I don’t even
know what jobs will be there in 10 years for them? This
is the most troubling thing about the wake up call
embedded in this presentation. It’s not me I’m worried
about… it’s my kids.
So, let’s assume the exponential growth of information
is accurate. Let’s also hope that the $100 laptop
project works, because one thing I could not help but
think about during the presentation was the separation
of the people who get it and prepare for this new world
and those that don’t get it and fall way behind. Also
known as the Digital Divide, this concern about a class
of society pulling way ahead with the wealth and
knowledge is real. When you mix in the comments about
China’s incredibly huge and, for now, cheap labour
force, the expanding bandwidth of next generation
networks and the reality of exporting highly skilled
jobs around the globe, who has a high paying job for the
masses without the “new” skills. History teaches us that
classes of society tend to clash when one pulls sharply
ahead of the other.
Here’s the one thing bugging me about these big picture
scenarios presented: the push-me-pull-you of population
dynamics. China and India have massive populations and
they are becoming increasingly more educated. They also
represent a huge market for goods and services. It
appears then that the presentation is telling us, as it
always has in civilized history to date, that the larger
your population, the more powerful you can be,
economically and militarily. But what about the whole
Earth and not just a county within it? The exponential
growth of information, babies in India and China and the
pace of expansion clashes mightily with the available
resources and pollution output of these new citizens.
And we may be doing billions of searches and trillions
of text messages today, but where is the electricity to
fuel all of this exponential growth of servers, access
points and $100 laptops? At what cost do we happily
enter the Shifting New World? Where does natural law
fit into all of this?
Ok, that was deep, maybe a little too deep for your
Monday morning coffee. But the reality for you, as a
technology worker or entrepreneur in BC, is that the
presentation might be right on most things. What can
you do to make sure you are not left behind? It appears
to me that the process of Schumpterian creative
destruction will accelerate (many companies will die
only to be re-born in a new format to match the demands
of the changing landscape). In Canada, if we ever
needed to cheer failure more readily, it is probably
now. If the product or service is not matching new
demands in a rapidly changing market, you either have to
be very nimble inside your company, or you need to be
very nimble at shutting it down and starting a new one.
Do companies today have the ability to “shift” as
quickly as the presentation indicates they will have
to? Can you shed skills and find new ones? Can you
re-train your existing staff fast enough? Can you
innovate and produce new goods or services continuously
and still maintain some sort of focus for your workers?
I mean, all of this rapid change sounds like it would
cripple our existing organizational structures and
reward systems. But, if the presentation is accurate,
perhaps the new work force emerging now will adapt.
They will be used to two or three new jobs a year. They
will have learned the skills needed through continuous
training. They won’t take it personally when their role
is evaporated within a company.
I look out the window here on a rainy Vancouver day and
I see people walking, cars moving (or not depending on
the time of day) and I just can’t see them going
exponentially faster. They have accelerated the amount
of information that they receive (case in point: there’s
the guy almost walking into a lamp post looking down at
his Blackberry) and do more things in a given hour than
their parents ever dreamed (increasing productivity).
But they still walk on two legs, commute through
worsening traffic and require eye contact and a firm
handshake to conduct a lot of business. Perhaps that’s
why the “Shift Happens” presentation resonated with me.
It is a disconnect with what I see out my window. And a
lot of you are like me. That means we all may not see
this Shift coming. We all need a reminder that change
is coming… fast.
What Do You Think? Talk Back To Brent Holliday
Something Ventured is a bi-weekly column designed
to supplement the T-Net British Columbia web site with
some timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight
into the industry. I hope to share some of the
perspective and trends that I see in my role as a VC.
The column is always followed by feedback (if its
positive or constructive. I'll keep the flames to
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