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A bi-weekly column with timely, relevant and possibly irreverent insight into the BC technology industry.

Something Ventured:
April 27th, 2007


By Brent Holliday
Greenstone Venture Partners

The Next Shift

“Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes
(Turn and face the strain)
Ch-ch-Changes
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.

http://www.glumbert.com/media/shift

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 myself, thanks).

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