erik Brynjolfsson

  • March 31, 2013
  • Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the MIT Center for Digital Business and the Sloan School of Management have written an interesting book for our times — our economic times — with an appealing metaphor that any technologist will appreciate. Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, is short and to the point and it ought to be required reading.

    The subject matter is employment growth or its lack in this rather austere recovery and the effect on future employment and growth.  More specifically, it is about the changing relationship between humans and their creation, the computer — the almost-thinking-machine — and how it can out-compete its masters not only in routine manufacturing tasks but, increasingly, in jobs that were once thought to be the exclusive province of human thinking.

    The metaphor, from futurist Ray Kurzweil, holds the narrative together and is worth pondering before we continue.  It is told in the form of a story about the invention of chess.  The emperor, the story goes, was so delighted with the game that he gave its inventor a wish.  The sly inventor asked for a grain of rice to be placed on one square of the chessboard two on the second and double the prior square’s total on each succeeding square.

    It is the story of exponential growth.  Accumulating the sums of rice on the first half of the chessboard was manageable but the second half totals were truly significant, from small beginnings arose a mountain of rice that would dwarf Mr. Everest.  McAfee and Brynjolfsson apply Kurzweil’s story to another runaway exponential progression, Moore’s Law.  You may not need to be reminded that Moore suggested that computing power would double and its cost halve every 12 months or so.  With some fine-tuning the period was raised to 18 months and has continued for virtually the lives of all people in the technology industry today.

    But that’s not the crucial part of the story or the book.  The authors calculate that we have only recently (in the last few years) crossed over from the first 32 squares of the chessboard into the second half where a metaphorical Everest awaits us.  The gains in the second half of the chessboard will likely come from advanced software and algorithms and not hardware per se.  They point out that while computing power has increased one thousand fold on the first half of the chessboard, the power and quality of our algorithms has increased 43,000 fold.

    The chessboard’s second half is already giving us systems that can diagnose better than doctors, out lawyer lawyers and, of course, kick booty in Jeopardy!.  So what will happen next?  McAfee and Brynjolfsson are quick to point out that the thinking that machines do is not the thinking of humans.  It is often the lightening brute force effort of crunching a great deal of data to ferret out an answer.  Also, training a machine to pick up a pencil from a random table top, let alone use it, is still elusive.

    The major point of The Race Against the Machine, is that there really is no race, or if you think there is be prepared to lose.  But this book is fundamentally hopeful because it suggests that machines are tools that ought to off load people from their rote tasks to concentrate on the creative, entrepreneurial and innovative endeavors that only humans can engage in.

    What’s powerful about this argument is that it offers a prescription for a solution:  Leverage the machine rather than fight it.  Crunch big data in every way you can imagine, ask “What if” questions ad nauseam and above all, innovate.

    As I look at CRM and the broader technology world, it seems to me that the subdivided chessboard is visible everywhere.  What we once called innovation was surely innovative but it was really no more than automation of what existed before.  True innovation starts on square 33 when we realize that all the automation is mostly behind us and innovation means making totally new concepts.

    McAfee and Brynjolfsson speculate that we reached square 33 in the middle of the last decade.  If true, one of the first true innovations we all witnessed was the social media revolution.  Combined with the mobile revolution and today’s quest to master Big Data, we have a potent nucleus on which to invent new businesses, models, and processes.

    And if we combine what we know about the chessboard and where we are on it with what we know about our industry we can clearly see that some vendors are simply automating on the first half of the board while others are innovating on the second half.

    Let’s not fool ourselves though, simply innovating on the second half of the chessboard is no guarantee of success, just as always, bad ideas will still yield bad results.  But it is also true that failing to try, to enter the second half is a sure route to oblivion.  This is not simply a matter for the tech sector or even the nation.  It’s a large scale economic issue that will affect our species.

    Historians and others often debate when specific eras start, because they don’t often follow calendars and precise dates.  Some people say that the twentieth century started in 1890 with the closing of the American frontier, for instance.  With this as a guide and McAfee and Brynjolfsson’s fine and short book as context, I’d say the twenty-first century started in about 2006.

    Published: 5 years ago


    I flew home from Microsoft Convergence in New Orleans arriving back in Boston around 9:00 PM last Thursday.  I was tired from capturing a week’s worth of information from the Microsoft fire hose for the previous four days.  But on Friday a Tsunami named Salesforce.com blew into town to inaugurate a world tour trumpeting the company’s new messaging centered on enabling enterprises to become “customer companies”.

    The tour and the messaging was field tested in New York last month and refined over the past few weeks to produce the Boston show and if Salesforce and its CEO Marc Benioff run true to form, the message will continue being refined throughout the spring and summer and delivered in final form at Dreamforce to be held this year in December in Salesforce’s home town of San Francisco.

    The big news coming out of Boston, if I understand it right, is that Chatter will become Salesforce’s primary interface.  Prognosticators peeling that onion got immediately weepy eyed citing the risks involved.  Surely, the logic went, when you change sales people’s UI you are asking for trouble.  These people are not happy change agents after all — look what happened when SFA came onto the scene, they opined, look how poor adoption was and how passively aggressively sales people didn’t adopt.

    Yadda, yadda.  Have they forgotten that early SFA sucked?  But look how they took to Salesforce like ducks in your swimming pool.

    That was then and then was different or as Mark Twain liked to say history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes.  So what’s the rhyme?  Actually, it comes from two sources as I see it.

    First, we need to Segway to Peter Coffee, Director of Platform Research at Salesforce, and this is not a non sequitur; it has a purpose, I promise.  If you’ve been to a Salesforce event in the last five years or so you know that Coffee does a pre-show to warm up the audience.  Coffee is not an entertainer happy to give away prizes or perform skits the way others do at conferences.  Coffee’s orientation is news.  It’s focused on the matter at hand so that his effort bridges nicely into Benioff’s main event.

    So, one of Coffee’s interview guests last Friday was MIT professor, Andrew McAfee who, along with fellow prof, Erik Brynjolfsson just published Race Against the Machine a short book about the ways we will work in the future.  The subtitle provides the Cliff’s Notes: “How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy”.  Got it?  No?  I will post a review of this fine work (which I am not sure I agree with in all its particulars) soon.  My point here, and I guess it was Coffee’s point too, is that technology is racing ahead and changing how we work and that people who don’t adapt and adopt will be left in the dust.  That’s point one.

    Point two is the long evolution of CRM, SFA and mobility.  For many years we have been touting mobile SFA applications as tools that sales representatives can use to report to their bosses upon leaving the big sales call.  But now imagine if during the sales call, the rep had the ability to reach out through the mobile umbilicus to get help on any subject.

    Sure, the mobile phone has always been available to do the same but few of us took advantage of it because its use was so disruptive in a meeting setting.  But a collaboration feed is more discrete so that not only could a rep report back after the meeting but he or she can now reach out through a collaboration product like Chatter rather than saying those dreadful words, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

    Put the two ideas together and making Chatter the primary interface for CRM or SFA makes all the sense in the world.  Also, you need to consider that just as we can dream up a realistic use case for selling, the same is true for service and support or even marketing.  Quick aside, CMO, Kendall Collins, who was also at the event told me, “There’s only one sin we won’t forgive inside Salesforce and that’s losing alone.  If you’re going to lose, lose with all the support you need.”  In other words go down swinging and in other, other words, business is now, more than ever, a team sport.

    So I am more sanguine about the move to make Chatter the primary interface for Salesforce.  It’s a natural evolution, something whose time has come.  Cue the music.

    I am also skeptical that the big news coming out of Boston was this Chatter tidbit.  The discussion involved people from not only MIT but Harvard Business School and Yale as well as representatives from the private sector like the electronics giant Phillips and Stratus the fault tolerant computing company and they are all and already moving the collaboration needle.

    Salesforce, as usual, is on to something.  The messaging about becoming a customer company is almost right and will improve over time.  And if Coffee’s intuition about having Andrew McAfee in the pre-show is right (and I think it is) then in a couple of years we’ll see other vendors ponying up with their own similar messaging just as sure as today they are (finally) “all in”, as someone once said, about the cloud.

     

    Published: 5 years ago