Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Workforce of the 21st Century

Although I've been a technology fan all my life, it has been interesting to watch my kids go through different waves of technology adoption. Of my three children, the oldest (graduated HS in 98) got their first email address as a Freshman in college. The second (graduated in 2000) was routinely using email in high school and was addicted to instant messaging during college. The third (graduated 2002) was IM-ing during high school years (it seemed to take the place of 'hanging out with your buds after school'). All, of course, took to cell phones like fish to water.

But I vividly recall an incident in early 2001 that stood out. My middle child had a close group of friends who had gone through school together but went off to different colleges in different states. They maintained close ties through IM and email, and one evening were chatting online when one complained about a troublesome assignment (compiling & testing a short computer program) that was giving them fits. One of the group suggested another friend; they checked and found them online; that person suggested yet another friend; they IM'd the problem to that person, who suggested something to try. The original person made the suggested changes, uploaded, compiled and ran the program successfully! In fifteen minutes, five people in as many states helped solve one problem - and it took place between 11:00 and 11:15 pm!

That's the definition of the workforce of the 21st Century. Networked problem-solving; virtual teams. Its all there... and the kids are ready for it. Its the existing company structures and management that are not quite ready. (To say nothing of the teachers and education system.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Intellectual Property as Collateral

I'm well aware that the concept of 'intellectual property' is complex and is the subject of entire courses at the college level. But one thing that really bugs me is how differently 'intellectual property' is treated and valued in different places.

Houses... well they of course have different values in different parts of the country, but there seem to be some pretty consistent standards at play when it comes to "placing a value' on a house. Intellectual property is another matter. It is much more difficult, apparently, to assign a value using consistent means.

But - to the heart of the matter - a business in the midwest can raise business capital if it has "real" property as collateral. Even if that "real" property is twenty unused drill presses bolted to a concrete floor in an unused plant. But if the business has access to a concretely-realized idea, lets say in the form of some computer software or patented database - well sorry, Charlie, but that's 'intellectual property' and it can't be treated as collateral.

Doesn't seem like that logic has held back folks in Research Triangle Park or Silicon Valley, but that mindset has prematurely killed off many business start-ups in the midwest over the past decade. Maybe our own "rules" are starting to strangle new business opportunities...

The Information Age vs The Automobile

We have heard for years that we have entered the "Information Age" but too much of the economy seems deeply tied to good old-fashioned manufacturing of hard goods. Perhaps those in the manufacturing sector are so ingrained there that they cannot get their heads high enough to see the changing times.

We hear talk (particularly here in the midwest) of technology and how it is changing things, but the only technology being spoken of is manufacturing technology! The area I live in is supposedly focused on how technology will free our economy from the rust belt mentality that has caused its economy to stagnate for several decades. But I see no real effective moves to educate our workforce or shift our economic focus to jobs that are not inherently just manufacturing jobs. And this while many such jobs are quickly moving offshore.

If the midwest really believed in the information age, it would long ago have shifted its focus to information-oriented jobs. But instead we watch while our children either (a) migrate to the coasts or various other areas where information-based jobs are valued, or (b) watch them slowly stagnate in second or third tier supplier jobs that are still tied to the automotive sector millstone.

For most of the 20th century the US economy was driven by or tied directly to the automobile. The recently celebrated anniversary of the "freeway" helped put our returning WWII soldiers to work. The government underwrote the American Dream with (1) a Veterans Benefit act that allowed the explosive growth of suburbia (and the housing industry) and (2) a first class freeway system to help tie it all together. Both helped fuel the automotive sector to dominate the second half of the century.

Where, oh, where is the equivalent economic idealism that will drive the 21st century?