I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Looking for disruption? Don't look to technology

The chattering classes would have us believe that technology disrupts. It does not. Socio-economic conditions change to create an incongruity that is ripe for exploitation. By way of example, the technology to enable the sharing economy existed for years, but monetizing everything from spare time to the spare bedroom only became appealing when mortgages went underwater, wages stagnated, and the labor participation rate dropped. That computer technology was at the center of this disruption should be no surprise given the rise of the Information Age several decades ago. It certainly wasn't going to be steam engines.

Rather than understanding the disruption phenomenon through the lens of change that has already happened, it is worth looking at the change that has not happened but should have given the availability of technology to bring it about.

For at least 40 years now, we‘ve been told that technology will revolutionize education. Kids can learn from home in immersive media-rich environments, receive continuous feedback on their work intertwined with their lessons, learn at their own pace with tutors and resources delivered to reinforce or accelerate their learning, and so forth. And it could: plenty of technologies exist that make it practical for students to learn advanced subjects in virtual environments, tapping into tutors for private study and multi-media libraries on-demand to experience subjects as never before.

But the revolution hasn’t happened. Kids today are still transported en masse to large brick buildings to get talked at for hours on end, just as they have for decades. If better ways of educating the masses are in their second, third, even fourth generation, why are we still closer to the one room schoolhouse than "I know kung-fu"?

We are because entrenched interests create stationary socio-economic inertia that is difficult to overcome. Consider:

  1. K-12 education is free daycare: with real wages stagnant, high levels of single-parent households, and record levels of household debt-to-income, most families do not have the luxury of having a stay-at-home parent.
  2. Education is publicly regulated, publicly provided, and publicly financed: power dynamics of education are political, not commercial, because politicians define education standards, schools are funded by tax revenues, union dues finance political action committees, and teachers (and bus drivers, and school administrators) vote.
  3. Education is big business. Tax reform that targets university endowments has elicited quite a cry from what are arguably hedge funds that happen to be associated with universities (the top 4 US universities have combined endowments over $103,000,000,000). There is also $1,200,000,000,000 in student loans, a debt market that, like all fixed income markets, has an insatiable appetite for growth.
  4. School sports is big business at the high school and collegiate levels. To wit: it is a little bit shocking that the highest paid public employee is a professional entertainer, rather than a professional administrator or legislator. Of course, sports is big money to the institutions with limited compensation - scholarships pale in comparison to the television revenues - to the athletes.

The status quo is not without its defenses. This is important to understand because these defenses are a bulwark against disruption. One defense is that community schooling develops social interaction skills. Another is that team activities like sports and music extend the educational experience beyond fact mastery. These justifications are increasingly without merit. There are no social benefits to bullying, peer pressure, and substance abuse among teenagers; clearly, we can create healthier environments for children to come to terms with diversity, open dialogue and complex social interactions than the toxic environment that is the modern education system. And with so many schools cutting back on arts programs and non-revenue sports (every sport but football and basketball), families increasingly have to go private (meaning, pay out of pocket) for their children to be able to participate in them.

The way the status quo in education has been defended is akin to how the status quo has been defended in wealth management. As passive investing emerged as a threat to active management, defenders of active management argued that passive investment can at best yield "average" returns (that is, returns that match the market) - and who wants to be "average?" That sentiment, twined with selective data flattering to returns on active investing (such as Peter Lynch's aggregate performance and selective years from selected funds), kept money in active for decades despite a preponderance of evidence showing superior performance of passive over time. Stationary inertia is not only quite powerful, it is vigorously defended.

It isn't difficult to imagine just about all primary, secondary, and 100 and 200 level university courses delivered digitally: there just isn't a lot of room for variation in teaching Principals of Financial Accounting I, and how many ways can we dissect James Joyce that machine learning can’t match? And, although there would still be a need need for physics, chemistry and medical labs, it would not be necessary at the basic levels: while there is quite nothing like playing with chemicals, a lot of STEM experiments can be modeled in virtual reality, allowing a student to live like Wile E. Coyote without having to depend on cartoon physics to survive the experience.

Technology may have influenced education, but it hasn’t transformed it. At best, technology has been co-opted to reinforce the classroom model. The technology exists today to make primary through associate degree education a utility. If unleashed, technology would allow for much more advanced and exploratory work at the boundaries of research. But something has to threaten the easy money in education before that happens. Technology cannot do that by itself.