Sunday, January 16, 2011

In 1492 Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue: Book Review

Looking out across the sea, staring out at the horizon and wondering the great obstacles that lay ahead, the challenge it would be to bring that horizon even a little closer, one wonders if Columbus had the same misgivings before he embarked on his historic journey.  Nevertheless, in modern times, the shape of the globe and the distance between individuals, companies, and countries is now obsolete.  In this new era, as Thomas L. Friedman coined “Globalization 3.0”, the horizon that proved the world to be round is being flattened again, not by the clergy this time, but by innovations in technology and technological communication.  In Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, he articulates how emerging technologies, specifically in the field of corporate innovation and communication, have leveled the global playing field and will create an emergence of completely new social, political and business paradigms.  

Globalization, as Friedman argues, has evolved since the days of brawn and muscle, steamboats and trade routes, and even the invention of the airplane.  Currently, the convergence of the information technologies and globalization are leveling the competitive playing field between world powers and developing nations, and breaking the economic hierarchies of the colonial era.  From the creation of the personal PC, to the laying of fiber-optic cables, to the innovative and easy-to-use workflow software, emerging market countries have caught up to America and are now on the same playing field due to the new interconnectedness of our ‘flat’ world.  As Friedman mentions in his book, a software developer in Silicon Valley can now call up his buddy in New Delhi and ask him to look over his software, share ideas, or offer his critique; the finish product will be in our Californian’s inbox the next morning.  The flat world has created not only a level playing field for developing nations and emerging markets, but has created a level, equal playing field for the individual as well.  Now, a personal PC and an Internet connection opens up a world of opportunity, innovation, efficiency, all of which being highly lucrative. A concept that previous eras couldn’t imagine in their wildest dreams.

From Friedman’s perspective, the flattening of the world has given birth to a competitive drive for education in developing and competing nations that is threatening America’s dominance over the global economy.  Contrast to American education, education in India is driven towards a goal of creating innovation in emerging technologies.  India and China, and parts of Eastern Europe, have created more software developers, engineers, and IT technicians that, thanks to a flat world, can now do jobs for corporate America with the convenience of not having to leave their homes in Bangalore or Beijing.  

American corporations have seized the skills of foreign competition.  Outsourcing is one of the ten forces that led to the flattening of the world, while also creating a competitive, eager drive for education, especially in India.  India took advantage of the technological revolution and Indian society collectively started to drive her children to study mathematics, computer science, science, and engineering.  Building hundreds of IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) universities along with many other private technical colleges and computer schools gave the world a bottom-less well of highly educated, determined young minds to fix their computer problems, all at their fingertips.  

While all of this was going on, America was over-investing in laying down hundreds of thousand of miles of fiber-optic cable, as the Internet bubble was taking off.  While India did not benefit from the dot-com boom, they did from the dot-com bust.  “The boom laid the cable that connected India to the world, and the bust made the cost of using it virtually free and also vastly increased the number of American companies that would want to use that fiber-optic cable to outsource knowledge work to India (Friedman 133).”  As Friedman discusses how the inevitable Y2K broke the barrier between low-skilled, low-waged outsourced laborers, and opened the floodgates to high-skilled medium-waged outsourcing.  While the PC and Internet were invented and developed in the U.S., the problems involving Y2K software were to be fixed through outsourcing in India, for half the cost.  Friedman quotes Louis Pasteur in describing how India was able to exponentially increase its economy, “Fortune favors the prepared mind (136).”

Friedman concludes that America is in danger of falling behind, or off, of the global playing field in the next fifty years.  The post-WWII mentality towards the advancement of America’s youth in the field of mathematics, engineering, and science is no more.  Now more than ever, America’s youngster’s are obsessed with earning high paying jobs without putting in the hard work and learning the fundamentals.  Ergo, America is becoming the third generation of a wealthy family whose liquidity is slowly depleting under the weight of its overweight, lethargic, non-ambitious, un-innovative grandchildren.  America needs to inspire innovation, creativity, and employment in the field of science, mathematics, and engineering, in order to compete in the future with developing and emerging market economies such as India, China, and Eastern Europe.

From an organizational context, Friedman discusses how the flat-world has created a competitive influx to trim any and all ‘fat’.  This fat, is what corporations consider superfluous expenses that are generally amended through cutbacks in health insurance, pension and retirement plans, as well as massive redundancies, outsourcing labor and the off-shoring of entire factories to other countries, in order to gain an increase in profit margins and in dividends for their shareholders.  

Nevertheless, a flat, equal global playing field is inevitable, and instead of fighting it, organizations within the U.S. should embrace it.  Companies should look within their own organizations for innovation, update and constantly work on their skills, and create an environment that champions the individual innovator and entrepreneur.  Friedman contends that companies need to create a market for scientist and engineers and attract young minds that will lead the U.S. towards a future of exporting creative inventions in technology and not low-level jobs.

Furthermore, companies need to lobby their politicians to create affordable health care for its citizens.  This in turn will do two things: Firstly, access to quality, affordable health-care will no longer be dependent on ones job.  This will cover a drop in income if one so chooses to change employers, while still having healthcare.  Secondly, if governmental healthcare reform changes the corporate cost-cutting structure, it will enable corporations to invest in education, infrastructure, and innovation, which in turn will stimulate America’s economy and her social paradigm.  In order for this to happen, American corporations must have communications departments that are technically omni-competent with newly sought after innovations in the communications field, and have the ability to successfully communicate with their national and international subsidiaries and foreign infrastructures to limit the static, thinking on the same wavelengths, globally.  

Hopefully, in a future were companies are in demand of scientist, mathematicians, and engineers, America’s youth will be inspired collectively as a nation to join in on the disciplines that foster creativity and innovation.  In the near future, one can only hope, that America will return to the collective Cold-War challenges of ‘putting a man on the moon’.    


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