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October 21, 2005

On the POPTech stage is Yochai Benkler of Yale talking about knowledge and the collaborative effort of groups, and that through a participatory process, creates an end result that can be the equivalent of a full-time PhD.

What this brings to mind for me if the book, “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki.” (a book given to me by my 7th/8th Grade students who I recently trained in the “difficult conversations” of peer mediation).

I can see this model in a self-organizing system of open source computing, where the collective meta-mind sets its own tone and pace of sharing knowledge which results in an application created for the collective good. (Or when a group of people guess the number of beans in a jar, and collectively estimate the number of those beans more accurately than any single person.)

But I wonder about whether that same end result is possible when the “ecosystem” of the distributed knowledge is – forced to produce a product under the constraint of real world deadlines and “baskets” of pre-determined, yet undefined, components of functionality.

What I’m positing is whether an open-source development paradigm is possible when a group of say, customers or marketing folks (the customer’s proxy) say “We want this amount of stuff, in this short amount of time.”

Clearly, this is a difficult challenge for even a centrally located group of knowledge workers, managed as a single team (often stressed with multiple tasks or multiple projects). It seems like it is incredibly challenging when a time constraint in the form of a deadline, and a demand for a certain amount of capability – simultaneously exist from a specific customer, or a proxy for that customer.

But then again, I could be wrong… I would hope to see real-life examples someday.


China and Technology

Oded Shankar, author of “The Chinese Century – The Rising Chinese Economy and its Impact on the Global Economy”, now has the stage at the POPTech Conference.

Thus far Oded is discussing the massive trade deficit with China and the exports of manufactured goods to the U.S. Oded is also the Chair of Global Busisess Management at Ford Motor, which yesterday posted a quarterly loss of over $280 million. 50% of the content of Ford’s new Rover Maverick truck is from China.

We think of China and manufactured goods, but I’ve been in recent talks with a company that is interested in having my team benchmark the development productivity of its software operations in the U.S., Europe, and – not India, but China.

What comes to mind for me is the blurring of offshoring and outsourcing in both maufacturing with knowledge work (which includes sofware design and development). The unifying economic force with regards to outsourcing of manufacturing and IT is the lower cost of labor. But what most technology companies fail to recognize is the difficulty of outsourcing or offshoring R&D, which poses difficulties that do not exist on work that is basically a ramp-up of low-cost, repetitive activities like production.

In manufacturing, we automate what we know. In design work, most of the efficiency comes from maximizing the flow of thought between people to uncover that which we do not know, to discover a way to solve a problem before a team. Invention is not as easy to speed up, or lower its cost, by sending it overseas. Invention is difficult to streamline by splitting a team across two continents. Friction ensues when what is designed isn’t what the customer wanted because of miscommnication.

That being said, I think the difficulties that companies experience on outsourcing technology projects to India (as opposed to manufacturing) could have similar challenges for projects done in China, which may not have as strong a mastery of the English language to boot.

Shenkar is describing a scenario where India does software design, China does manufacturing, and the U.S. takes out more mortgages to buy more stuff (by borrowing from India or China).

Lots of questions here, few simple answers.

Side note, that’s not exactly trivial: The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects demand rising from the current 84 million barrels a day to 103 million barrels by 2015. If China and India — where cars and factories are proliferating madly — start consuming oil at just one-half of current U.S. per-capita levels, global demand would jump 96%.

Doomsday situation – Many see another, potential ultimate conflict coming: China in a clash with the U.S. over the oil… sitting under Middle East soil.