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Blinkered business created this mess: Don't expect tech to dig us out

It's easy to be blinded by technology and markets, but business mustn't lose sight of our real purpose and the responsibilities companies have to society.

Business is facing up to the fundamental realisation that moving data between databases doesn't constitute real wealth creation. Photo: Shutterstock

Written on BA2775 flying from Jersey in the Channel Islands to London Gatwick and dispatched to TechRepublic via 3G from my car.

When I first entered industry there was a stable organisation with defined roles, clear objectives, and an understanding that our purpose was to serve the society in which we operated. At that time I had never heard the words 'reorganisation', 'mission' or 'vision' used as they are now.

After about 15 years, I experienced my first reorganisation. It was no big deal. A few people were shuffled, some job tiles changed and that was it. But then the whole thing happened again within five years, and after that the reorganisations started to come thick and fast, and so did the need for a vision, mission and detailed business plan.

Within the ranks, the reorganisations were something of a joke at first. But in the management chain they became increasingly serious, especially when downsizing and rightsizing came on the scene.

Little by little, everyone was enveloped in a cloak of anticipatory tension. Who was in a job, who was out, what were the changes, and how challenging were they to be?

Accelerating technology and fast-changing markets were responsible. Insourcing, outsourcing, globalisation, and competition from new sectors that seemed to appear overnight all added to the frenzy. It was as if every string that could be pulled was being pulled at the same time. But then we entered a new phase of relative stability. This phase was actually fluid working - change had become a continuum.

There were also deeper changes within the corporate soul. A gradual disconnection from society and a fading loyalty to any one country. The focus became the stock market, shareholders, the bonus and short-termism, all driven by quarterly results.

The benefits were dubious, but the damage to R&D, product and market development was palpable. And as industry became more efficient and focused, it also became increasingly brittle and prone to sudden failure. This fact was clearly demonstrated by the financial and banking industry as a key element of the recent financial collapse.

The disassociation of work, product and value creation, was followed by the fundamental realisation that moving data between databases doesn't constitute real wealth creation.

How did this state of affairs come about? Did our technology afford some form of mesmeric insulation between management, workers, markets and reality? Could people not see what was happening? Had processing, belief, and the drone-like adherence to rule-sets finally overtaken rational thinking?

Yes, to all of the above - and more, I reckon.

So, country by country, Western politicians are now chanting the same mantra: "It's back to basics, back to manufacturing, back to conventional trading and value creation, and back to growth."

I do hope they are thinking about the next industrial revolution and not the one that got us here. And I do hope they understand the need to move on from the simple-minded economics of money. If they do not, we can expect to be back here again within a decade - with or without the help of technology.


Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.


...we all seem to be on the same page here, along wit h many of my colleagues in industry. Sooner or later it has to get fixed! Thanks for all you interesting inputs. Peter


A long term CEO at a company I used to work for - a small bank - once told us that the business was a triangle We had to give good value and services to customers and they would continue to support us. We had to give good value to shareholders so they got a reasonable return on their investment. We had to appropriately reward staff and provide them with a good place to work so that they could continue to provide the service that made the profits. Three equal legs of the triangle. These days in most companies it is all about the shareholders, customers are a nuisance and staff are to be abused and exploited. A return to a nice balanced triangle would be a good way to proceed for the future.

mckinnej 2 Like

Nailed it, nailed it, nailed it! Here is another interesting article in the same vein. It discusses how MBA-style management isn't always a good thing. Companies have generally lost their way. They don't seem to have customers anymore, but "income streams". I can't see any way that can be good. Are the 1%ers that run these companies so disconnected from the rest of us that they have to dehumanize us? The entertainment industry sits at the top of this steaming pile. Their refusal to provide customers a product they want and can use is mind boggling. People are either left out or resort to piracy to get the entertainment they want. Either way the industry gets zero revenue and therefore zero profit. On top of that they have lobbied lawmakers to ensure the pirates are punished worse than violent criminals. How is that good for anyone? It's not like they're going broke, but their greed and insistence at squeezing every last dime out of every human alive is beyond comprehension. Their excessive influence on governments and laws is another big issue. Although businesses have always tried to manipulate politicians, the level of this in the U.S. is ridiculous. They have manipulated our laws so they can operate with near impunity. Also, it seems many, if not most new laws passed these days involve giving some business or industry an advantage or protecting their profits. What ever happened to government by the people, for the people? I worry about the world where my grandchildren are growing up. I realize that is nothing new, but I don't see any good outcomes along our current path. We will eventually hit a breaking point. I wonder what that will be and when it will occur.

Bruce Epper
Bruce Epper 1 Like

Haven't you heard? Citizen's United declared the businesses are people. So we still have government by the people, for the people; it's just these new "people" that are being referred to.


Our paycheck says we are "cost". And the department isn't called "Personnel", anymore... and when talk of "the economy" is said, is it ours... or someone else's? On the plus side, predatory tactics used to wipe out competition can now be seen as "murder", "rape", et cetera, except we both know the double standard for companies is only for when companies reap profit off of it. Ethics aren't for them...

janitorman 1 Like

I pretty much agree. When you are focused on "profit" and "growth" (though a market may be saturated and there is no growth potential because your customers can't afford your product) cutting costs and corners to save "money" isn't the way to go. Outsourcing your jobs, in the long run ruining your customer base (an American company who decides to "outsource" to Asia and thereby reduces the number of jobs in America) just isn't following ethical procedure. Part of the overall picture we're missing here, is that the western world is currently "bootstrapping" China and other countries into the "modern" world, and there just aren't enough resources for us to do that. Abandon that and focus on each country taking care of itself. If China's major "export" is however many billion people they have for cheap labor, let them use it on their internal market, be it growing food for themselves or whatever. Let the industrial countries focus on producing goods that keep our society running, such as tractors for farming, clothing manufacturing, etc. We really don't "need" our current level of technology at all, and in fact it is hurting us to rely on "shuffling paper" in the paperless office, which is causing job cuts constantly as computers evolve to do things that office workers typically did just ten short years ago, let alone twenty, thereby reducing the number of jobs overall. It used to be every office had secretaries to type, check the mail and organize schedules. Now, EACH worker is expected to do that for themselves using such unnecessary electronic technology as "smart phones" and laptops.

alfred 1 Like

Peter the current business concentration on quarterly results is sure to harm the future. I have been in both industry and government employment and both had too short a view of the future, In UK the government works on annual funding while the work requires 5 to 25 year plans. The result is forced poor decisions which give inadequate results at vastly greater cost. In industry it was different in tone but no better in results