Marshall Van Alstyne Discusses Platform Strategies

At the recent Platform Strategy Summit, Van Alstyne talked about 'extraordinary changes' taking place.

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      Paula KleinCreated by Paula Klein on Feb 26, 2015 in Public Site: MIT IDE

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      I recently got invited to speak at Brooklyn 1.0, a conference of “design, people and technology” to be held this autumn in the borough that is New York City’s hipster hothouse. I accepted because preparing for the talk would force me to think more about an important topic: what’s up with the kids today?


      The common answer at present seems to be something like, “Oh my, so much! The millennial generation is like none before it. The members of its tribe are more idealistic, more altruistic and more entrepreneurial. They’re already changing the world, and the best is surely yet to come.”


      Breathlessness like this quickly activates my skepticism (and, if I’m being honest, my grouchiness). Haven’t we always been saying this about young people, and haven’t they always responded by, well, growing up? The Woodstock generation created and enjoyed the summer of love (lucky them) but then turned into the ageing boomers of today who, now that they are in charge, seem to be engaging in sclerotic politics, running rapacious companies and listening to bad music just like their fathers, and their fathers before them.


      So what forces, if any, might prevent today’s millennials from becoming stodgy and conventional, and joining the System with demographic predictability?

      The biggest [change]I can come up with is technological progress. Modern techs let young people live lives and create careers that were simply not possible a generation ago. This is already causing important changes, and I expect them to continue.


      Let’s look at lifestyle first. This great video from Best Reviews shows how all the contents of a 1981 office fit into a laptop and phone in 2014. But even this underestimates the changes. A connected young person today can communicate endlessly around the world for free (OK, at zero marginal cost, which is close enough to the same thing). She can also maintain robust social and professional networks, and stay abreast of work conversations and workflow with tools such as Slack. If she actually needs to go somewhere it’s trivial to find and pay for a cheap flight, a non-traditional place to stay and a ride across town. There are also plenty of online marketplaces, both general and specialised, to help her find a job, at gig, a co-worker or a little help.


      It’s possible, of course, to make too much of these developments, but I think the bigger mistake is to underestimate them. They combine to enable a life where the longstanding trade-off between fluidity and productivity is greatly eased.


      Walter Frick provides the best evidence I’ve seen that young people are already changing the business world. He looked as carefully as possible at the ages of the founders of the so-called “unicorns” — private companies valued at more than a billion dollars. While there were a few holes in the data, Mr. Frick’s startling conclusion was that at least half the founders were almost certainly younger than 35 when they launched their companies. This is a remarkable amount of success and value creation among people who in earlier times would still have been at the beginning of their careers. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is an extreme example of a more general phenomenon: the rise of young tech moguls.

      We haven’t seen the last of them.

      Large start-up communities around the world — from San Francisco to London, Berlin to Tel Aviv, Shanghai to Singapore — are buzzing with energy. And young technologists are doing much more than writing apps these days.


      They’re biohacking, extending the blockchain that underlies bitcoin and learning to make almost anything. Pharma and biotech, financial services, and manufacturing will be at least somewhat shaken up by their work.


      So the kids are, in fact, all right. I look forward to hanging out with them.




      This blog first appeared on the FT site August 13 here.

      In case you were on a well-deserved -- and hopefully paid -- vacation this month without your news feeds buzzing, it was a busy time for digital economy news. Media, such as Huffington Post, wrote effusively about Netflix’s announcement to “offer something completely unheard of in the corporate world: unlimited parental leave for the first year of a child's life.”

      "We want employees to have the flexibility and confidence to balance the needs of their growing families without worrying about work or finances..." Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer, was quoted as saying. "We’ll just keep paying them normally, eliminating the headache of switching to state or disability pay."

      HuffPo called the program “Pretty Freaking Great” until the full details of the policy, and its exceptions, were also reported by the web site (see below).


      This was all happening as word trickled out that Google Express workers are seeking unionization for better working conditions.Google, which Slate called the “Happiness Machine” two years ago, is a huge proponent of long maternity and paternity leave, gourmet lunch food, employee perks and free-flowing innovation. Apparently, though, the perks are different for contract employees.


      The factory, workers who fill and ship the much-lauded same-day express orders at Google’s Palo Alto, Calif., warehouse, officially work for Adecco, an agency Google outsourced to do its hiring. The workers have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a representation election and The Wall Street Journal reported that they want to rectify poor conditions, low wages, and lack of benefits, pension and vacation time.

      Fortune noted that: “Silicon Valley tech companies have long preferred to use contractors for work outside of core jobs as a way to save money on benefits and salaries. Facing intense criticism, companies like Apple and Google have recently started to reverse course and convert security guards to full-time employees, with benefits.”


      Not to be left out of the debate, The New York Times ran a front-page article on Aug. 15, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace, saying that hundreds of current and former employees report that “Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another's ideas in meetings, toil long hours” and forget about any work/life balance.

      “Even as the company tests delivery by drone ... the company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions,” the extensive article says.


      CEO Jeff Bezos [also owner of rival Washington Post], declined to be interviewed for the article, but began his own campaign denying the reports. The company’s chief told employees that he didn’t recognize the “soulless, dystopian workplace” that he said was depicted in The New York Times article and that people would be “crazy” to stay if the report were true.


      And getting back to Netflix, a few days after its glowing story, the HuffPo news service posted a blog noting that Not All Netflix Workers Will Get 'Unlimited' Parental Leave. Apparently, “Employees in Netflix’s declining, but very profitable, DVD division aren’t covered by the new policy,” a spokeswoman told the web site.


      What's going on and why should anyone outside of these firms care about this summertime war of words?


      I’d say because it’s about much more than some slow, summer news days.

      Hype and counter-hype aside, serious issues with broad implications for the future of the tech industry, automation, the digital economy and labor are at stake.


      The human and societal ramifications of an intense focus on technological speed, productivity, data-driven decision-making and cost-savings are under scrutiny at the MIT IDE. For all those who thrive and benefit from the rapid-fire pace at high-tech businesses, many more may be left unemployed or underemployed in its wake. This isn’t new, but it’s accelerating. In their book, Second Machine Age, Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson examined these critical issues and others relating to the future of work.


      Media exposure—even if it’s a bit bungled or naïve -- reminds us that the digital economy, while hugely rewarding for some, can also be blistering and unequal. When that conundrum is rectified and businesses can also excel and thrive, it will be the biggest news flash of all.


      The Second Machine Age: Challenges for CXOs

      Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of the book The Second Machine Age, discussed with I-CIO the profound impact of automation on every industry and how CXOs must play a key role--now.

      Andrew McAfee on Technology and the American Workforce

      On the PBS NewsHour last April, Andy McAfee spoke about how increased use of technology does play a role in the current disappointing job growth statistics.