I’ve posted before about my deep appreciation for Neil Postman. I find myself going back to his writings time and again. This morning, I gave a presentation titled: Amusing Ourselves To Death: or, Where Have You Gone, Walter Cronkite? It reflected greatly the thoughts from Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Here are a few excerpts from a chapter in his book Conscientious Objections, in which he summarized the entire book in a short essay:
…we will become a trivial people, incapable of coping with complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, perhaps even reality. We will become, in a phrase, a people amused into stupidity.
Television has become the command center of our culture. The light entertainment is not the problem. The least dangerous things on television are its junk.
On television all subject matter is presented as entertaining. And that is how television brings ruin to any intelligent understanding of public affairs.
How serious can a bombing in Lebanon be if it is shown to us prefaced by a happy United Airlines commercial and summarized by a Calvin Klein jeans commercial? When newscasters say, “Now…this,” they mean to indicate that what you have just heard or seen has no relevance to what you are about to hear.
When a people become, in short, an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then…a nation finds itself at risk and culture-death is a clear possibility.
I think there is way too much trivial in our culture, and the need for substance is deep and serious. Maybe if we all carved a out little more time for some substantive reading… time with a good book, a substantive book, a book with something to say…
I think this is why I like Postman so much. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence is on the “hefty” side. He has so very much to say.
Neil Postman wrote about education (Teaching as a Subversive Activity), and about technology (Technopoly). He stated:
all technological change is a trade-off. I like to call it a Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. This means that for every advantage a new technology offers, there is always a corresponding disadvantage.
He suggested that we should ask 6 questions whenever a new technology arrives on the scene:
• What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
• Whose problem is it?
• What new problems might be created by solving the original problem?
• Which people and what institutions will be most seriously harmed by this new technology?
• What changes in language are being forced by these new technologies?
• What sort of people and institutions gain special economic and political power from this new technology?
Five Keys to Creating an Information Advantage
The value of having superior information has been true throughout human history. I believe that in addition to the analytics movement, which my friend Tom Davenport has so beautifully documented, an information advantage actually derives from a more comprehensive set of principles — great analytics being one of them. Let’s take a look at the case of a scion of the legendary Rothschild family.
Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) developed a small fortune lending money and handling the shipment of bullion during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). As his wealth grew, he dispatched his five sons to different cities throughout Europe (London, Paris, Frankfurt, Naples and Vienna) and set up a pan-European network of messengers and carrier pigeons so they could quickly gather information that might affect their investments. Rothschild ran a decentralized empire, but with tight controls. Each son was allowed to make the optimal decisions regarding investments in his country, but information was kept tightly within the company by the family bonds and arranged marriages with close relatives.
Just as investors watch Warren Buffet to see what they can learn, the Rothschilds developed a reputation for being in the know and were carefully tracked by speculators looking for where to place their bets. During the Battle of Waterloo, the stakes were particularly high. Speculators knew that if the Seventh Coalition (consisting of Britian, Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Austria, The Netherlands and a number of German states) won, the era of uncertainty caused by Napoleon’s expansion would be over. Britain would become the dominant force in European politics, and the ensuing political stability would drive up financial markets and the value of investments throughout Europe. The Rothschilds knew this, too.
Shortly after the battle ended, and long before anyone else knew the outcome, Rothschild began selling stocks. Speculators and traders assumed this meant Napoleon had won the battle at Waterloo, which started a mass sell-off. When prices crashed, Rothschild used his agents to buy up everything they could and he turned his small fortune into a colossal one. Although the SEC might not have approved of his innovative tactics, Rothschild demonstrated the power of asymmetric information — having knowledge that no one else has yet.
Rothschild used five tactics to get his information advantage:
1. He created a network of data gathering that allowed him to possess data others lacked;
2. He used the best technology (pigeons) in a new way to help in the data gathering;
3. He analyzed the implications of the data with insight and precision;
4. Once analyzed, he considered how to best use these insights to his advantage — in this case, he knew the market would be watching for his movement — and therefore used his information first to drive down prices, first, before buying. If he had simply bought in, his advantage would not have been maximized.
5. He had great timing and execution.
Today, Wal-Mart has a superior data network that allows them to sense and respond to the marketplace in a way that is impossible for others to replicate. The investment banks who perform high frequency trading use their access and analysis to create massive profits. UPS moves about 6% of the US GDP and if they were willing to use their data for investing purposes — which they are not — they could make a fortune.
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John Sviokla is vice chairman of Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, Inc. He is a former professor at Harvard Business School in Marketing, MIS, and Decision Sciences.
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I met Captain Sam as I was flying home last week – we sat beside one another on the flight. Sam (I have changed the name because his business environment is really not healthy) has flown for American Airlines long enough that he has seen lots of change and 3 or 4 CEO’s. We talked about a lot of things but what struck me was how the culture at airlines was chipping away at Sam. At one point I asked him about his relationship to his employer. He said he feels like a 40 watt light bulb – cheap and easy to change. Whoa! Note to Gerald Arpey – you have a lot more to worry about than just falling revenues! Mihaly Csikzenthmihaly says it very well in his book Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning, “…if management views workers not as valuable, unique individuals but as tools to be discarded when no longer needed, then employees will also regard the firm as nothing more than a machine for issuing paychecks, with no other value or meaning. Under such conditions it is difficult to do a good job…” Mr Arpey, I assure you that Sam is the best pilot he can be every time he enters the cockpit, but what is the burden on your workforce when the best of the best feel like a 40 watt light bulb? Those who lead – whatever size the company – need to balance the needs of the business with the needs of their workforce. Jim Collins reminds us in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness…is a matter of conscious choice.”
“Here’s the win (actually, there are two):
“If you want customers to flock to you, it’s tempting to race to the bottom of the price chart. There’s not a lot of room for profit there, though…In a world that relentlessly races to the bottom, you lose if you also race to the bottom. The only way to win is to race to the top. When your organization becomes more human, more remarkable, faster on its feet, and more likely to connect directly with customers, it becomes indispensable….
“Second, the people that work for you, the ones you freed to be artists [i.e. creators of unique, compelling, and substantial value], will rise to a level you can’t even imagine. When people realize that they are not a cog in a machine, an easily replaceable commodity, they take the challenge and grow. They produce more than you pay them to, because you are paying them with something worth more than money….
“As a result of these priceless gifts, expect that the linchpins on your staff won’t abuse their power. In fact, they’ll work harder, stay longer, and produce more than you pay them to. Because everyone is a person, and people crave connection and respect.”