Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times he probably wished it never happened. “The Shanghai Secret“, as the op-ed is titled, received a blistering response from Ann Qiu. It’s not like Thomas Friedman said anything outrageous. By contrary, the article is as inoffensive as it can be, similar to many other written on the subject of China’s extraordinary focus on achieving international reputation in education. Anyone following the PISA rankings knows that the Shanghai region is included in this list as a country. Everyone was surprised when it topped the PISA score ranking in 2009.
After visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School, Thomas Friedman declares he found the secret of Shanghai’s schooling performance: ” a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers”. One could think he may have stirred the ire of some American or European teachers who work very hard doing exactly that, but surprisingly it was a Chines educator who took offense of the comments made in this article. Ann Qiu decided to write a replay when she read “what Mr Friedman said to the American people through this very influential newspaper, I couldn’t help feeling upset”. She goes on to say “an American who has interests in China at least should have some basic understanding of Chinese contemporary history. To me, Mr Friedman is not such a person”. That’s harsh. The game is on!
The anger stems from a personal experience shared by many parents in China. There are two frustrations that are brewing in this reply: the students are homework force-fed, they rote learn and they have to pass standardised test as an absolute measure of success in education, and fact that the parents are responsible for the homework working long hours as if they have a second job, unpaid mind you.
While Thomas Friedman quotes a Chinese teacher who said with pride that his job also includes “parent training”, Ann Qiu almost explodes at that thought: “Mr Friedman was applauding a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, Chines parents, in fact feel kidnapped by it. […]. Every afternoon, after school time, before dinner time, on a mother or father’s mobile phone, a homework list is sent by the teachers who often are in charge of three major subjects: Chinese, math and English. […]. Through these tools, teachers pass their duties to parents because it then becomes the parents’ job to make sure that their children complete the homework.”
This reminded me of a video I watched in the early nineties about education system in Japan where students and parents were under relentless pressure to perform and produce good results during tests. Young students from primary to secondary school levels would go to coaching colleges after school and then continue to study until late night with just a few hours to sleep before going to school next day. Japan invested in education with a clear goal of creating a skilled and disciplined workforce to establish itself as a global economic leader. It seems China is following the same steps Japan took a few decades ago.
Could there be a state of Silicon Valley, a dream political unit in which innovation can be represented unhindered by the problems typical of the old industrial era? This is what Tim Draper is proposing in his plan to split California into six states. The proposal cites the reasons of oversized California compared with other states in terms of population, geography and economic power, the lack of proper political representation and poor administrative services. The movement behind this proposal already has a website for marketing and support gathering.
I assume a lot of effort went into the design of the territorial make up of the new states. The logic behind this blueprint must consider the history of California, the demographical distribution and its group interests. It is clear though that beneath this general dry presentation that the high-tech are the key influencers. What they really want is to have one state for themselves, the state of Silicon Valley.
This is fascinating. What an idea! On one hand one could think that this is madness, an exaggeration, one of those crazy ideas that are doomed to failure from the beginning. It could be interpreted as a sign of out-of-touch grandeur of companies that have achieved colossal success at a global scale: the Twitters, the Facebooks, the Apples and the Googles. It almost sounds like a prank. On the other hand maybe the people behind this proposal are onto something. Tech companies are moving much faster than Washington, they have caused a revolution that is changing the economic landscape not only in terms of novel technological products, but in terms of structure of workforce, education, social relationships.
Regulations are slow to adapt. Maybe this is a good thing and a bad thing in the same time. You don’t want to make mistakes that affect future generations because you made a quick bad decision or because you procrastinated for too long. This plan goes for speed. The California six-way split is wanting to accelerate the pace of regulatory change and create a power base for the tech class that can rival those held by the finance, energy, manufacturing and agricultural groups. The Twitters, the Facebooks, the Apples and the Googles are the new dynasties as the Morgans used to be (they still are to some degree). Or perhaps the likes of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers (Tom Draper is representing one of them) are the real dynasties pushing for this change. If somehow through a miracle this happens, other states will follow. The consequences are incalculable.
Update 3 Jan 2014: I found this map created by professor Andrew Shears who created a fantasy version of US based on past partition proposals.
Mike Nobis saw how the financial crisis led his customers to postpone orders until the last minute, forcing his 100-year-old family printing business to work faster to deliver on time.
Business invests more in software to increase efficiency and reduce the headcount
See on www.bloomberg.com
In a rapid succession in the space of two weeks, two major Australian banks raised a red warning flag signalling their deep concern of what could be their biggest existential threat. The threat comes from not from the Bank of America, or Citibank, HSBC or Bank of China, but from unexpected sources, in form of nimble technology companies from Silicon Valley.
Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev expressed this view at the G100 Congress in Sydney in May this year.
The new competitors are “the Apples, the Googles, the Samsungs, the PayPals, the credit card companies, who can pick particular slivers as a result of the application of technology into financial services and compete. We need to be prepared for that.” he said.
Ian Narev alluded that regulations have to be adapted to reign in a new type of competition. The trouble with this competition is that there is no precedent. Disruptive innovators create solutions that address needs outside the boundaries of traditional models before invading the established markets threatening to displace the incumbents. What to do?
Take for instance the case of Dwolla. Founded by a 28yo young entrepreneur from Des Moines, Iowa, USA, Ben Milne, Dwolla is a 12-person startup that invented an online payment system that bypasses credit cards completely. This startup is onto something because large financial institutions are very interested in this idea. Venture capitalists are backing the company with money. Just last month Dwolla received $16.5m in funding, its biggest investment yet. It is hard to predict the impact of Dwolla and other similar innovators on the banking system in the near future if the momentum continues.
A couple of weeks ago, the ANZ chief executive Mike Smith described the technological innovation wave that is about to hit the financial industry as “terrifying”. Smith made this statement to the board based on information received following a study undertaken by the bank during a tour in California. “Much of it is being driven by small companies that are very active in payments but very well-funded, and they are moving very quickly.” It is interesting how quickly ANZ followed Commonwealth to look at what is happening in the Silicon Valley. Something must make them nervous.
Reputable banks have some of the deepest moats protecting their business from new competition, something that Warren Buffet always liked about banks. But rapid changes can ruin that assumption. The transformation will go beyond improvement of operations. It’s about service, it’s about having a different presence in the peoples’ lives, with new perceptions. If a “normal” bank is still something that brings to mind images of prestigious physical old buildings (you-come-to-us), the new banks need to become virtual, quick, creative and very social (we-come-to-you).
Will the disruptive innovation brought by super-smart technology companies become a systemic threat to the traditional banking system? Maybe not, not entirely that is. It is more likely that a wave of restructurings, consolidations, and small bankruptcies will re-shape this business. Banks that “read” the market signals will either buy some of the successful fresh innovators, or innovate themselves, or establish alliances to surf this new wave of opportunities and reap the benefits. Others that refuse to see the threat may well as disappear.
Successful innovation is difficult because it is not enough to have a bright idea. Everybody has one, including me. What separates the boys from men is the implementation. The road to heaven is paved with hard work from the initial blueprint until the finalised product, and its successful adoption which requires team work, focus sustained over a long period and ability to execute and deliver.
The core team that innovates successfully is the equivalent of a queen bee starting a new colony: it produces ideas continuously while surrounding itself with a growing team that takes on tasks derived from those ideas, all of them orchestrated into a collective effort to build a long-lasting product enterprise.
At the beginning, there is no light around innovation, but just a faint white star shining in the distance. There is little information, no training classes and no user manuals. Could your normal team or business units do it? Not likely. They are not suitable for this kind of undertaking because there is no documented process or job description. You need a special team: a small community of practice whose members are innovators.
A community of practice is made of people who have frequent face-to-face meetings; they meet around the water cooler and talk and pick-up clues from little things to spark a creative chain of thoughts. The members of such community are highly skilled, they have knowledge far beyond what is required by the standard job description and they thrive on uncertainty.
Creative enterprises know this very well. Valve’s HR (blasphemy!) induction manual is an interesting case of encouraging teams to work as small communities of practice. It is all about having strong relationships that work, are creative, productive and fun.
Adoption however, although it still depends on communities of practice to figure out how to use the innovation, relies on large social networks to fire-up the spread of the idea.
In fact, the adoption works best if the network is a huge collection of groups linked through weak connections. This is because the networks of strong ties are usually small due to impossibility of individuals to maintain strong relationships beyond say 20 people. Great networkers may go up to 150, but for the average person, even maintaining 10 strong relationships is a struggle. This means that if a community of practice adopts your innovation, you shouldn’t rush to pop that bottle of Don Perignon yet. Settle for a Stella Artois and a barbecued shrimp for the time being.
Mark Granovetter coined the term ‘weak ties’ to describe lose connections in a social group. His research led him to the conclusion that these types of connections are actually the ones that make a personal network very effective. Christakis and Fowler demonstrate in Connected that weak-ties are great for finding fresh information, aka code for new habits.
So, if your Facebook is limited to close friends that think like you, you are missing on a great opportunity to learn something new and useful you and your close friends never thought of before. Better ‘like’ someone different soon!
Globalisation is the other side of localisation. They are like yin and yang, embracing each other.
Two consequences derive out of this:
- The local innovators need to have access to great networks to spread their ideas. If the innovators are not great communicators and if they don’t have network bridges, their innovation will be lost in anonymity and dry
- Innovators and adopters need to think alike as they need each other, but both need to influence a lot more people to get the network going. If the growth in adoption doesn’t keep growing to reach about 16%, they are doomed. They fall into the chasm, Moore’s chasm.
In a recently published book, The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti says that despite the popularity of the global social networks, the vast majority of the phone calls and web traffic is local. The most innovative cities and regions are based on small, tightly knight, and local communities. With other words, the secret of global success of Silicon Valley is local, very local.
This is also why the local economies’ prosperity depends so much on innovation and free trade.