Sunday, October 16, 2011

I drank what?

This  post's title is the punchline to one of my favorite bad jokes: "What were Socrates' last words?"  It came to mind when I read this article in Forbes on the state of US manufacturing titled "US manufacturing is not dead."

The story is accompanied by a pretty amazing graphic (I'm into chart porn).  The upshot of the chart and story is that the US is still the leading manufacturing nation in the world, and by a considerable margin, the most productive.

Manufacturing jobs, are another story.  They are in long-term, irreversible decline.

The Forbes story notes:  "Yes, rising productivity kills jobs—certain kinds of jobs.  David Ricardo (and 200 years of evidence) would say those jobs eventually get replaced by other kinds of jobs (in America, namely in the services industries). Said another way, in America in 1900, 50% of Americans worked in agriculture—now about 2% do, but we produce exponentially more food. Same thing."  And as the conclusion at the bottom of the chart notes, there are long-term benefits from producing more with less.

So what does this have to do with long-dead Greek philosophers?  That the benefit often gets lost in the pain of the execution.  Or maybe that suicide isn't painless, and as Socrates actually noted as he neared his death, a debt needed to be repaid after he passed.

Technology and productivity is a dual-edged sword (or cup of hemlock, if you will) for our communities in general and business owners and employees specifically.  The ability to  grow and improve  efficiency has been made possible by the technologies developed over the past decade.  Yet, this progress accelerates the creative destruction of capitalism and the human toll is evident;  we are living through a mass dislocation similar to our evolution from an agrarian to industrial society a century ago.  Our skills have not yet caught up to our capabilities.

As we look to leveraging technology to better measure and manage our enterprises, we need to be mindful that technology's successful implementation and integration requires the managing, motivation and development of flesh and blood and not just investment in silicon and plastic.  A debt remains to be paid and that's no joke.

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