Would you walk ten hours to charge your phone?

Alan BelniakMTIE2 Comments

In my “Managing the Technology-Intensive Enterprise” class tonight, we spoke about the third of three forces that relate to technology-intensive enterprises. The two forces we discussed in the past weeks were social pull and technology push. Tonight, we discussed the enabling enterprises that linked (or could serve as a de-coupling effect) these first two forces.

As we started to dig into the topic, one of the professors asked, “What are the enabling enterprises here? What are the groups that indeed link the pull to the push?” We grouped these into foundations, such as networking, lobbying, technology itself, funding mechanisms, philosophy, and strategy/outlook (there were more, but you get the idea). Next, we spoke about government, and listed items such as law-making, what is considered ‘public’ and ‘private’, and the entire notion of ownership.

And this is where the conversation took an interesting turn.

Other developed (and developing) nations do not hold the notion of ‘ownership’ in the same light that the US does. Sure, the US has a system of laws that protect ownership rights here in the US. But the same are not held up overseas. Overarching über-government organizations (like the UN or WTO) can exert some authority. But on the macro scale: when the idea of ownership vanishes, what does that mean? Merriam-Webster has a poor definition of own and ownership, so those entries didn’t serve the purpose of this exercise. Instead, try putting “define: ownership” in a Google search window. The results are interesting. Many of the results revolve around ‘total’ and ‘complete’ and ‘legal’. I get the sense that these definitions were not at all considering that there are 192, +/- 3 countries in the world. So to use phrases like ‘total’ and ‘legal’ are misleading, to say the least.

As an economy and a nation, the US has moved on from (either graduated or tried and failed, depending on your outlook) manufacturing; the US has moved on from services; and now the US is ‘betting the farm’ on intellectual property. You know… IP – the tacit knowledge that creates the value behind big pharma drug patents, software, and the like. At last glance, there were almost 55 million hits for the phrase “intellectual property” from Google. Yes – million. I stopped and asked, “What happens when (or if, depending on your outlook) that evaporates (the US has “moved on” from that), and nothing else has come in its place?” Brief silence. That, indeed, was part of the management exercise with which we were grappling. That is to say, how does a technology manager see these tectonic shifts in technology and management, and address them adroitly?

My sharper questions was not so much “what’s the next big thing?”, but rather “in the past, we moved from something to manufacturing; from manufacturing to services; from services to IP. What if there is no next ‘to’?” Does the economy collapse? Do we implode?

Another thought exercise we did was an hour-long small group conversation and discussing the results in class. There were some guidelines, and for brevity’s sake, I won’t list them here (if you really want to know, post a comment and I’ll list them). One group talked about the idea of bringing electricity to remote portions of Africa, where none (or very little) is present or widely available today. There is indeed a demand for it – reports of villagers walking five hours, simply to charge a cell phone from a generator. We talked about this from the enabling point of view (see the beginning of this post). One professor inquired, “So, how do you get these Africans the electricity you’ve created? There’s no incumbent network, no grid…” Part of any such model would be to build it, or create a distribution mechanism that doesn’t require a grid. But that could be expensive, you say. You are right. One way to drive down that cost, you’d say next, would be to scale and sell in volume, to spread that cost out over the entire network. Again, a great thought.

And this is where the conversation took an interesting turn.

How do you price this electricity? How do you price something that they’ve never really had or been exposed to, until only recently? Suggestions of barter were raised. This would put the electric company in the role of a trade exchange – not necessarily a bad role, but surely not a role that members of the class had readily identified. I suggested that bringing electricity to the village can be priced out by way of a labor savings. That is, what could that villager do with ten hours of round-trip walking time that now might take place almost instantly? Incidentally, this is the same logic I use today (converting my time into an hourly pay rate) to rationalize (or not) doing tasks, like ironing (versus dry cleaning) and mowing my lawn (versus hiring a landscaper), etc.

Our professor concluded this topic with a story about the fall of communism in the former USSR. When the beginnings of a capitalist society (or rather, a non-communistic society) moved in, the entire notion of profit was foreign. How does one price an automobile when the cost of the goods to make it was never considered, and the cost of ‘making’ money, for the sake of making money (that is, profit) was equally unknown? Our professor anecdotally said that there were entire divisions of the government create – one division of costing and one division of pricing (I did a quick search for this, and didn’t readily come across any relevant links). The conversation moved on, but it left me thinking that there’s a lot more to this than I initially thought.

This was, by some accounts, some heavy stuff for a Monday night class. But these are the very issues with which we’ll need to grapple as multi-national/global/borderless/insert-your-term-here technology managers.