Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"Where the rubber literally meets the sky" Or "Why we don't have hover cars"

This post explores the connection between Mark Pontin's article "Why We Can't Solve Big Problems" in the Oct 26th 2012 MIT Technology Review (found here) and the Balanced Scorecard as discussed in the Harvard Business Review article "Using the Balanced Scorecard as a Strategic Management System."

Kaplan and Norton propose that using a scorecard allows a company to to fill the gap between short term measures and long-term strategy and implementation. Potin starts by asserting that today's technological sector has no long term vision.

"he ambitions of startups founded in the last 15 years do seem derisory compared with those of companies like Intel, Apple, and Microsoft, founded from the 1960s to the late 1970s. (Bill Gates, Microsoft's founder, promised to "put a computer in every home and on every desktop," and Apple's Steve Jobs said he wanted to make the "best computers in the world.")""

He discusses Kennedy mobilizing the country on an 8 year trajectory to putting men on the moon and contrasts that initiative to the current climate for innovation:

"Kennedy's words, spoken at Rice University in 1962, provide a better clue:  "But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? . . . Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? . . . We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills . . ."" 

"Max Levchin, another cofounder of PayPal, says, "I feel like we should be aiming higher. The founders of a number of startups I encounter have no real intent of getting anywhere huge ... There's an awful lot of effort being expended that is just never going to result in meaningful, disruptive innovation.""

Technology has to potential to irradicate hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age; but why does it not? Pontin's descriptions of the challenges facing the technology sector can easily be paralleled to what a balanced scorecard could address.

Kaplan and Norton explain that a scorecard allows an organization to manage strategy through four processes:
  • Translating Vision - Clarifying the vision and gaining consensus
  • Communicating and Linking - communicating and education, setting goals, and linking rewards to performance measures
  • Business Planning - Setting targets, aligning strategic initiatives  allocating resources, and establishing milestones.
  • Feedback and Learning - Articulating the shared vision, supplying strategic feedback, and facilitating strategy review and learning.

While the challenge of ending hunger or creating hover cars is a multi-sector issue, the parallels in the strategy challenge the technology sector is are as follows: 

  • A lack of shared vision and purpose that hasn't been seen since the 60s and 70s
  • A lack of public/social investment and interest in being updated on smaller goals and why these issues are important
  • Institutional and financial support being absent from funding the large innovations as opposed to pushing funding towards the small "trivial toys"

These challenges are different than the ones proposed in the reading, as social issues differ from market opportunities, but the core principles of shared vision, investment, and targets remain the same.

"It's not true that we can't solve big problems through technology; we can. We must. But all these elements must be present: political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a technological problem, and we must understand it."

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