Economics of Learning

Cyber attacks - Compression ThinkingAugust 12, 2011

How can service companies increase effectiveness? Today we jump on techniques, like killer apps, as a hot market, but whether software saves resources or wastes them depends on its role within a total system. Think big. For instance, ask why the 1970s dream of paperless offices failed. Global paper use grew 2 ½ times thereafter.

Software brings its own problems; routine glitches; millions of virus attacks daily. Only disablement of big systems is big news. If defending them with complex procedures bogs systems in their own security, failing attackers win just by persistence. System users’ distrust of each other likewise bogs a system if it forces complex add-ons to compensate for it.

When distrust escalates into cyber war, the potential to disable critical systems is real. Digiteratti deem Iran and Israel to be locked in cyber-combat that spawned a novel worm to disable factory automation, Stuxnet. Elsewhere electronic espionage between China and the United States has not escalated to mutual disablement, but cyber-rattling is now a global phenomenon, so the U.S. Air Force took on cyber-security as a mission.

Most cyber-mucking attempts to stealthily influence, undermine, or expose. For instance, what are Julian Assange and Wiki-Leaks? Rebels using cell phones in the Arab uprisings and British riots were countered with hacking and tracking. British tabloids hacked phones to manipulate stories and maybe influence British politics. How many other commercial and political campaigns degenerate into similar tricks?

But what has all this to do with service business effectiveness? Human uses of technical innovations are impossible to foresee without projecting scenarios of how they might fit into larger systems. Just avoiding dumb consequences, like piles of discarded phones, takes a lot of systemic thinking. Trying to make a system both more user effective and environmentally effective, as by reducing paper consumption by both companies and customers, will take even more checking and deeper learning.

Here are a few reasons to reduce paper usage: Despite a recycle percentage above 60%, about 40% of trees are still cut for paper. At best, papermaking uses environmentally hazardous chemicals and more water per ton than any other process. Decaying paper is a major source of methane in landfills. Printing is not environmentally neutral either. For starters, producing a laser printer cartridge requires a gallon of petroleum.

But don’t computers require energy too? Yes, and scarce materials in addition, so proliferating such devices is undesirable. Recycling the materials in many fewer energy efficient devices should be far less wasteful. Data on energy burnt by computers are a ball of fuzz, but one skimpy indicator is less bad than was expected. From 2005-2010 the population of servers zoomed (every minute 35 hours of video upload to YouTube alone). To handle this growth, server power usage was projected to double between 2005-2010. It only grew an estimated 56% globally and 36% in the U.S. Good news: a few companies are dramatically improving server energy efficiency. Bad news: not all of them are, so energy efficiency has not begun to offset the growth in servers.

But less bad is not good enough. Coping with overall process effectiveness should factor into the service side of any business, and electronic technology is a good example. Even those immersed in it cannot keep abreast. While gasping “cool,” most of us can waste more time learning a tool than using it for something. (What percentage of a gizmo’s features do you use? Apple at least has a business model focused on rapid customer learning, if for no better reason than growing revenue.)

So how can service companies increase effectiveness? Two ways: 1) Imaginatively identify peoples’ real needs and meet them with minimal resource use.  2) Earn their trust by learning and helping customers learn. That is a revolution in values and in systems thinking.

Compression Thinking is a values change, from concentrating on return on investment to evaluating the effectiveness of learning. From thinking of just my welfare to how I fit in a larger process (or for the paranoid, who is tracking me and why). And for environmental reasons, how do we get more effective outcomes from smaller resource footprints?

That’s too big and too diffuse to be easily discerned through a fog of financial thinking. The real bottom line is preservation of trust with customers that we are learning with them how to enhance and preserve quality of life in a tough world. That sounds touchy-feely, but it poses major quandaries for business models and technical development.

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