Editor’s note: It is my distinct belief that as corporate objectives become more general, functional silos dissipate, and millennial professional habits lead to increased talent rotation, the information and skills required by successful individuals and organizations will be broad in nature. Most of the books I review on an annual basis are procurement or supply chain related. That being said, competitive advantage is not discipline specific. In that spirit, I am actively pursuing opportunities to bring general thought leadership to Buyers Meeting Point. Starting… now!
The Industries of the Future, by former State Department Senior Advisor Alec Ross, is a compelling exploration of the conditions businesses and countries need to optimize in order to be successful in the decades to come. It borrows extensively from his time traveling the world in the federal government’s service, which means that his examples are unexpectedly diverse and shared in such a way that is only possible when the author has experienced something first-hand.
The ‘industries of the future’ in the context of this book are not familiar verticals such as healthcare, manufacturing, or financial services, but the shifting paradigms that will govern future business. As Ross states in the introduction, “This book is about the next economy. It is written for everyone who wants to know how the next wave of innovation and globalization will affect our countries, our societies, and ourselves” (p. 6-7). Competitiveness is a function of all three dimensions, and it assumes that connectivity (and therefore interdependence) will only increase in the future.
Advances in robotics play in important role throughout the book, and my only disappointment is that Ross confines his robotics discussions to traditional (mechanical) robots as opposed to including their newer software-based counterparts. While Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a relatively new service delivery model, and serves a different role for individuals and businesses than physical robots such as Honda’s ASIMO do, some of the human acceptance barriers seen in traditional robotics still apply. The need to lower costs and fulfill tactical service requirements drive robotics innovation and interest, but people continue to have trouble ‘bonding’ with these automated support systems. Despite the fact that most of the robotics discussion in the book relates to mechanical robots, Ross points out that the horizon for their impact far exceeds what we might conceive of today. In fact, it is hard not to feel in the robotic ‘cross hairs’ – even as a knowledge worker – when he writes, “In the greatest peril are the 60 percent of the US workforce whose main job function is to aggregate and apply information” (p. 38).
In the future, the affects of globalization will be felt broadly, particularly in geographies that take an inefficient (authoritarian) approach to infrastructure, skills development, and information. There are two case examples in chapter six, The Geography of Future Markets, that are not to be missed.
The first is the undeniably inspiring story of Maria Umar, a woman living in ‘bleak’ and ‘virtually lawless’ Waziristan, Pakistan. Her Women’s Digital League makes it possible for women with a wide variety of skills in remote parts of the world to connect with freelance virtual work opportunities. Not only is it a commercially effective arrangement for the women and the companies they support, it is an empowering force for good in parts of the world where women are prevented from balancing work and family, in some cases without any freedom outside the home. Later in the same chapter, Ross appeals to humanity (as well as logic) to make the case that societies that disregard the potential represented in the female half of their population will have no meaningful role in the industries of the future.
The second story compares the current situation and improvement trajectories of Estonia and Belarus, two former Soviet occupied countries that found themselves in dire economic and industrial straits in the early 1990s. Estonia embraced openness – social, commercial, and political – and has reaped the benefits. The have become one of the innovation capitals of the world, due in part to their determination to climb out of chaos and also in decisions about technology infrastructure that allowed them to leap forward to the full capabilities of the present day rather than following the same process as other developed nations, even at a faster pace. Belarus on the other hand, has a ‘tightly controlled’ political and economic system. They have no technology and even less modern industry, both of which contribute to a weak and unstable economy.
The real meaning in the difference between these two countries is not, however, their economic status as much as it is the living conditions of their citizens. Estonia’s standard of living has improved dramatically since the fall of the Soviet Union, while Belarus’ residents are living in what amounts to modern feudalism. There is no freedom of expression, of the press, or of assembly, and most businesses are state owned by the neo-Luddite government.
Perhaps the most important take away from The Industries of the Future is that everyone, in every industry, geography, and walk of life, will find something in it that holds meaning for them. Living conditions and the role of the family are stressed from beginning to end and provide a constant reminder of why we work as hard as we do to achieve success, and what is required from a human perspective to realize the benefits of competition.