MBA, RIP?

Paul Raven @ 02-07-2010

This week’s Zeitgeist was brought to you by… growing mistrust of the American higher education system, and of higher education in general! First of all, the business world wakes up from the hangover of the economic collapse and starts wondering whether the ubiquitous business degree was a root cause of the indulgences of the night before [via Bruce Sterling].

The truth is that the relevance of the technical training allegedly offered by the MBA was always overblown. The idea that there is some body of knowledge pertaining to business management that can be packaged up and distributed to the business universe in two-year course-lets—well, it sounded good about a century ago, when it was first conceived. Maybe it still had merit when the schools were turning out only a few thousand graduates per year. But it certainly stopped making sense well before the schools achieved their current level of production of a whopping 140,000 or so graduates per year. The empirical evidence on the contribution of the MBA to individual career performance seems to bear this out—mainly because it doesn’t exist. In fact, if the relevance of an M.D. to the performance of doctors were even half as unsubstantiated, we’d probably be fantasizing about tossing a few physicians in jail, too.

The other truth helpfully revealed in the throes of the crisis is that ethics and integrity and social responsibility aren’t just optional extras for good business management—unless by “management,” you mean “looting.” Managers don’t need to be trained; they need to be educated—in the sense of “civilized.” Unfortunately, a business degree isn’t just irrelevant to that purpose; it’s positively detrimental.

Next, The Economist wonders why vocational education is still so frowned upon, even though it would be demonstrably more useful than college degrees [via TechnOccult]:

America has a unique disdain for vocational education. It has supported such training since 1917; money now comes from the Perkins Act, which is reauthorised every six years. However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity. As wages have risen for those with college degrees, scepticism of CTE has grown too. By 2005 only one-fifth of high-school students specialised in an industry, compared with one-third in 1982. The share of 17-year-olds aspiring to four-year college, meanwhile, reached 69% in 2003, double the level of 1981. But the fact remains that not every student will graduate from university. This may make politicians uncomfortable, but it is not catastrophic. The Council of Economic Advisers projects faster-growing demand for those with a two-year technical-college degree, or specific training, than for those with a full university degree.

Meanwhile, down in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), the (degree-carrying) head honcho of Zoho (a software-as-service outfit) explains why he makes a point of not hiring programmers with degrees [via SlashDot]:

We started to ask “What if the college degree itself is not really that useful? What if we took kids after high school, train them ourselves?” I talked to a lot of people internally, and one of our product managers introduced me to his uncle, a college professor, who he thought might be interested in hearing me out. As I shared our observations on recruiting, he shared his own experience in over twenty years teaching Mathematics and later Computer Science. It turned out we shared a common passion. He joined us within a month to start our “AdventNet University” as we very imaginatively called it. This was in 2005. He went to schools around Chennai to recruit students. So as not to distract anyone from their existing plans, we waited till the school year ended, went to several schools to ask for bright students who were definitely not going to college for whatever reason (usually economic). We then called on those students and their parents, and explained our plan. We started with an initial batch of six students in 2005, who were in the age range 17 or 18.

That proved to be an outstanding success. Within 2 years, those students would become full time employees, their work performance indistinguishable from their college-educated peers. We have since expanded the program, with the latest batch of students consisting of about 20, recruited not just from Chennai but smaller towns and villages in the region.

And finally, the quasi-legal funding schemes of derugulated Russian universities could be taken to represent an expression of “spontaneous capitalist neoconservatism” – one that other European institutions are keen to copy, even though the evidence shows that an increase in private funding actually leads to a decline in educational quality:

Public universities of the continental Europe (France, Germany) have 8-10 per cent of their budgets coming from non-public sources.[1] Certain UK universities, which are often used as a didactic model by advocates of reform, receive up to 28 per cent of their budget from endowments, tuition fees and other publicly independent sources. Russian universities do not provide the public with statistics of this kind, with excuses such as calculation difficulties or appealing to the principle “it depends on what is taken into account”. Nevertheless, in private discussions administrators of several large public universities and departments indicate a proportion of “around 50 per cent” from private sources, which corresponds quite well with expert estimations of 45-55 per cent given in the early 2000s. Even if university managers always love to get more from the public budget, last year’s State programs and State institutional grants, unknown in the Nineties and even in the first half of the current decade, may result in some indigestion syndrome among university structures.

I’m not sure that mistrusting the value of a diploma is a new thing – my father used to joke about how one should “hire a fresh graduate, while they still think they know everything” – but these questions sure fit in neatly with the current trend for wondering where we went wrong, and whether we might be able to avoid doing it again. Whether we’ll actually make the changes we need to (or even recognise them) remains to be seen, natch.


The cost of Apple’s success

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2010

So, Apple’s market capitalization has passed that of old guard Microsoft. At the same time, they’re investigating a spate of suicides at one of the Asian megafactories that supplies their hardware, and they’re about to get hit with the same sort of anti-trust lawsuits that dogged Bill Gates and company over the last decade [via SlashDot].

Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, I guess…


Neurocapitalism

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2010

Move over, neurocinematicsneurocapitalism reaches far beyond the theatre and focus group in its all-pervasive influence! Well, not quite, but Martin Börjesson responds to an article that uses the term as its title in order to make a point about the increasing ubiquity of neuroscience and the effects that it will have on every aspect of our lives, be they public or private:

The real reason why neurophysiological knowledge will have huge impact is rather that we are heading into a world where 1st person experiences, emotions and perspective will dominate. This shift is very well matched to what neurophysiology is promising: e g to solve people’s (perceived) disorders and fix (perceived) shortcomings, but also to boost experiences and create (artificial) peace of mind. Institutions will, part from selling all the neuro-based drugs, devices and services to people, use the new knowledge to both manipulate people but also get new insight in what people wants in order to be able and develop and market products and services more efficiently and effectively.

So even if we will not have a Neurocapitalism, we will most likely have a market in where many, many products and services will be based on or transformed by the new knowledge, ideas and innovations that stem from neurophysiological research.

As with basic psychology, knowledge is power; if you want to be able to resist the imminent finely-crafted importunings of anyone who can afford the right neurological research, you’ll need to learn which tricks they’ve found effective so as to protect yourself against them. But start small – why not learn a little about the emotional psychology of retail as a warm-up [via BoingBoing; image via Hljod.Huskona]?


Chris Anderson on the “new industrial revolution” of bespoke manufacturing

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2010

Wired ed-in-chief Chris Anderson emerges from the back rooms once again with a lengthy piece lauding what he calls “the next industrial revolution” – which is, in essence, the imminent explosion of small companies using modern fabrication equipment and outsourcing techniques whose agility and low overheads will enable them to sweep away the old guard of corporate giants. [image by oskay]

That’s the theory, anyway, and it should be fairly familiar to regular Futurismic readers: we’re talking consumer-price-point 3D design software; 3D printing and fabrication; outsourced manufacturing; garage-industry electronics assembly techniques; open-source designs; hardware and software hacking; crowdsourcing for ideas, designs and feedback. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a slice that captures the spirit:

Here’s the history of two decades in one sentence: If the past 10 years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the Web, then the next 10 years will be about applying them to the real world.

This story is about the next 10 years.

Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital — the long tail of bits.

Now the same is happening to manufacturing — the long tail of things.

The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3-D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and once it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production, making hundreds, thousands, or more. They can become a virtual micro-factory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; products can be assembled and drop-shipped by contractors who serve hundreds of such customers simultaneously.

Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets, as ideas go straight into production, no financing or tooling required. “Three guys with laptops” used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company, too.

From a globalist perspective, it’s pretty optimistic – as you might expect from the guy who came up with the concept of the Long Tail. That said, it’s not what the big corporations want to hear… and that’s probably the main stumbling block between the here and now and Anderson’s entreprenurial utopia. It’s become embarassingly obvious how much of a hold corporate America has over the engines of policy, and it probably won’t take much effort to spin Anderson’s vision into a dark and unpatriotic future where American manufacturing jobs are sent overseas (to those sneaky Chinese, no less!), garage makers are enemies of freedom (and probably a glass fiber’s breadth from becoming terrorists), and the people’s right to not be shafted by those who already hold all the aces is swept under the carpet so as to maintain a precarious economic status quo.

OK, so I’m overstating for effect, there… but you can see where I’m going with this, I hope. Given the staggering levels of obfuscation and deceit involved with the US healthcare reforms, I can’t see Anderson’s revolution happening without some serious back-room dealing and political psy-ops from those who stand to lose the most from it. And I doubt it will be a uniquely American problem, either; the government to which I pay my taxes is just as compromised, albeit in slightly different ways, and the richer countries of the Old World are all in the same boat.

What remains to be seen is whether Anderson’s maker revolution is an economic inevitability or an avoidable alternative. It’ll come as no surprise to most of you who read here regularly that I’d like nothing more than to see the bloated corporate behemoths of the world get their shoes wet while doing a King Canute impersonation, but only time will tell. This is one story where we can’t just skip to the last page to find out the ending; let’s just hope we don’t get squashed by the plot mechanics, eh? 🙂


What will reading look like in 2010?

Paul Raven @ 31-12-2009

Well, it’s been a lively year for changes in the publishing industry, hasn’t it? This time last year, I wrote a post titled 2009 – the year the physical bookstore lays down and dies? – and over here in the UK, Borders has just gone into receivership, a few days before Amazon claimed to have sold more Kindle ebooks over the holiday period than dead-tree books. The times, they are a-changin’.

I still don’t have an ebook reader myself, because I’ve not seen one that’s open enough for my tastes – I don’t want to be tied to one retailer (same reason I don’t have an iPod), and I want to be able to read multiple formats without jumping through hoops. But 2010 looks like the year that the tablet computer makes its presence felt (if Apple are going to release one, you can bet your boots that cheaper and more open devices will follow close on its heels), and that means all we need is a decent platform for reading ebooks.

Enter inventor and Singularitarian Ray Kurzweil, who has a track record of disruptive developments in an assortment of industries; his new company knfb Reading Technology (a cooperative venture with the National Federation of the Blind) is set to debut an ebook software platform called Blio at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show next week. It’s already available for free download, with versions for PC, iPhone and iPod Touch, and (according to the linked article) it trumps pretty much all of the competition on features and accessibility. Blio may well turn out to be the grenade in the ebook punchbowl… I’m hoping an Android-native version appears pretty soon.

And what of the humble magazine? Distribution and print costs are killing off all but the most tenacious print publishing niches at a ferocious rate, but there’s plenty of people trying to find a new paradigm for the format – here’s a video demo of Mag+, the result of a collaboration between a Swedish publisher and BERG, the London-based design outfit [via MetaFilter]:

Of course, you may be thinking that all these developments are attempts to saddle a horse that has already fled the stable… after all, no-one reads any more, do they? Well, actually, they do – the consumption patterns and preferred media have changed rapidly, but a recent University of California study shows that the amount of text consumed by the average American has actually tripled since 1980, and social networks like Facebook have ordinary people writing more regularly than ever before (although the quality and nature of the material they write is admittedly pretty variable).

The one thing we can probably say for certain is that people are still going to be reading in 2010, and for a long time afterwards. The challenge for writers and publishers (of fiction or otherwise) are to find the channels that work best for the material they produce, and then to find a way to leverage that channel to make it a viable business model.

Interesting times ahead, don’t you think? 🙂


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