We lived in Beaumont, TX for one year. It was the early 1970s, I was fresh out of college, getting my feet wet in the work world. I was a youth minister, but really preparing for my preaching years. Every week, (sometimes more than once a week), I would drive to a small bookstore. These days, we would call it an “independent bookstore.” It was a Christian bookstore – i.e., books that dealt with faith, and church, and preaching… The woman who owned the bookstore knew her books, and kept up with the new releases. I mean, she knew what was in these books, what they dealt with… I got to know this woman. She was “middle-aged,” and smart. I was young, hungry to learn. She was not a “clerk,” she was a teacher. When I resigned, and readied to leave Beaumont, she was one of the first I told.
I loved that bookstore – and her wise counsel.
I could tell other such stories. I am a serious Nero Wolfe fan. I have every volume of the Rex-Stout-written volumes, and re-read the entire corpus every few years. In Snyder Plaza in University Park, there used to be a Mystery Bookstore. The woman who owned it (at least, I assume she owned it), tried to tell me that the newer Nero Wolfe mysteries, written by Robert Goldlborough with the approval of the Rex Stout estate, were worthy of my time. I did not warm up to them, though I appreciated her recommendations.
But now… as much as I love the customer reviews on Amazon (our blogging colleague Bob Morris has written many, many of them), they do not quite mean as much as those conversations with that Beaumont bookstore owner meant to me.
And now, a few “fulfillment center” workers, and lines of code getting me my Kindle App versions of books, have replaced how many countless book-loving bookstore owners across the country?
Call this a snapshot of the modern economy, and one of the reasons why many jobs are disappearing, and others are “less” than they used to be. In recent weeks, we have learned that “temp workers” are rising rapidly in the overall percentage of jobs. Here’s the current national look, from this article:
Workers at temporary-help service agencies accounted for about one-third of U.S. job gains in June.
And, read this from Andrew Sullivan: Temps Are Here to Stay. It has links to more. Here’s a key paragraph.:
In the early 1980s, employment in the “temporary help services” industry—which covers both temp workers and employees of the firms that supply them—stood in the several hundreds of thousands. Now it’s 2.5 million, a seven-fold increase in less than four decades. By 2020, the BLS foresees more than 440,000 new jobs in the sector. In the meantime, the temp craze has expanded from air-conditioned offices to warehouses and construction sites.
And, I recently posted about Farhad Manjoo’s rather alarming look at the ascendancy of Amazon and its threat on all retail. And I am part of the reason – blame me. It so happens that I like this development. Over the weekend, I ordered: numerous household items, ink for my printer, a book or two for my Kindle App, and did so while never leaving my iPad or my easy chair. In other words, I am helping put people out of a job. I called my take on Manjoo’s article: Amazon’s Secret – Make it Easy; Make it Fast; Make it Insanely Convenient. And that is what Amazon has become for me – easy, fast, convenient. (Oh, and money-saving).
But, here is the thing. In our quest for convenience and speed, and in the successful efforts of so many companies’ innovative techniques in giving us “what we want” (Amazon is clearly #1 in this regard), the outcome is this: it takes fewer and fewer people to provide us what we want. (And, if you have not read, Amazon has invested in some robot company that will replace even more fulfillment center workers).
And, so… temp workers are on the rise; automation is on the rise; retail is threatened. And so I ask again, as I have numerous times on this blog, where will the jobs be?
I just read this article on Slate.com about Melissa Mayer, the new CEO at Yahoo, Marissa Mayer Is in Over Her Head: That’s just how Yahoo’s new CEO likes it by the always insightful Farhad Manjoo. She described how she decided to work at the then very new company, Google, which had very-few-employees. Here’s the key paragraph:
“I had to think really hard about how to choose between job offers,” she said. Mayer approached the choice analytically. Over spring break, she studied the most successful choices in her life to figure out what they had in common. “I looked across very diverse decisions—everything from deciding where to go to school, what to major in, how to spend your summers—and I realized that there were two things that were true about all of them,” she said. “One was, in each case, I’d chosen the scenario where I got to work with the smartest people I could find. … And the other thing was I always did something that I was a little not ready to do. In each of those cases, I felt a little overwhelmed by the option. I’d gotten myself in a little over my head.”
After weighing her options, Mayer chose Google.
So… work with the smartest people you can find. And tackle a challenge that is just a little bit too much. I think the idea is that if it pushes you just the right amount — tough enough to be very, very difficult, but!, still doable — then you learn more, you might succeed spectacularly, and you are then more ready for the next, bigger challenge.
Mr. Manjoo is not sure that this decision, heading Yahoo, will be successful (there may not be that circle of “the smartest people she can find”), but he is convinced that it will be fun to watch: “And even while I have severe doubts that Mayer will be able to turn Yahoo around, I’m excited to see what she can do with the place. Yahoo has long been headed for failure. Now, at least, it will be an interesting failure, not a depressing one.”
This much is clear: a person with the ability to follow a very serious process of decision making, a process that can lead to a brilliant decision, will probably lead the pack. Because, most of us are just not very good at making decisions.
(an aside: I have said, in one way or another on this blog, Farhad Manjoo is the writer that most consistently gives me the insight that I need).
I am a convert. As I have written before, I now buy most of my books (all that are available digitally) on Amazon’s Kindle App for my iPad. I get my protein bars though Amazon. I get my ink for my printer from Amazon. And a whole lot more. And my experience on Amazon has made me a more energetic, frequent on-line shopper from other outlets (stores). And, with my Amazon Prime purchase, I get practically everything in two days.
And it is about to get faster.
I have written before about our growing desire/demand for no hassles! (quoting Frank Luntz): We Really Don’t Like Hassles — So, our Agenda: Create “Hassle Free”. And after I presented Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, a participant at our First Friday Book Synopsis said to me: “Here’s what that book said. You’ve got to make the change convenient – you’ve got to make everything convenient.”
Well, Amazon is about to really up the bar on the convenience competition for customers.
We first learned this from Netflix. Their business became more convenient (more convenient than the many, many minutes it took to drive to the local Blockbuster, and browse the shelves). Netflix took off when it became highly likely that you could get your DVD in the mail the day after you ordered it. Convenience! – the day after! (Blockbuster is now bankrupt, by the way). And now, of course, on Netflix you can watch your movie or TV show immediately, streamed onto your computer or your iPad or your iPhone or your Apple TV.
Well, today, Slate.com reminds us that Amazon has matched the Netflix convenience model on practically everything. They are on the verge of providing same-day delivery for most of the country. SAME-DAY DELIVERY FOR THE WIN! This truly is the win in the Super Bowl of the convenience league. As usual, it is the Slate writer Farhad Manjoo who makes this so understandable in his article I Want It Today: How Amazon’s ambitious new push for same-day delivery will destroy local retail.
Mr. Manjoo describes how Amazon has quietly been making many of its deliveries, promised to Amazon Prime customers in two days, in just one day. A convenience surprise! Now, it is about to raise the bar even higher. Partly prompted by the loss of their “no sales tax” advantage (we started paying Amazon our sales taxes in Texas this month), Amazon is getting ready to do provide “fulfillment” even faster.
From the article:
If Amazon can send me stuff overnight for free without a distribution center nearby, it’s not hard to guess what it can do once it has lots of warehouses within driving distance of my house. Instead of surprising me by getting something to me the next day, I suspect that, over the next few years, next-day service will become its default shipping method on most of its items. Meanwhile it will offer same-day service as a cheap upgrade. For $5 extra, you can have that laptop waiting for you when you get home from work. Wouldn’t you take that deal?
I bet you would. Physical retailers have long argued that once Amazon plays fairly on taxes, the company wouldn’t look like such a great deal to most consumers. If prices were equal, you’d always go with the “instant gratification” of shopping in the real world. The trouble with that argument is that shopping offline isn’t really “instant”—it takes time to get in the car, go to the store, find what you want, stand in line, and drive back home. Getting something shipped to your house offers gratification that’s even more instant: Order something in the morning and get it later in the day, without doing anything else. Why would you ever shop anywhere else?
So, here is the lesson for your business. Make it easy. Make it fast. Make it insanely convenient. This is the level of customer service that we will all come to expect.
Amazon will force us all to make it easier, make it faster, make it even more insanely convenient. And if we fall too far behind, well… we will be left behind.
I think it is time for a new executive officer on every leadership team. The name of this position should be CEO – Chief Ethics Officer. (Though I doubt that these initials are available).
“First, do no harm…”
We’ve got a serious problem, and it is going to take some serious solutions.
Now, there is quite a range. There are some folks who are just downright evil; lying, defrauding… (Last night, on one of the local TV stations, a web discount site was exposed as that kind of company).
But most “evil” isn’t quite “evil,” but falls under the category of “mistakes.” And even if they are acknowledged as “egregious mistakes,” they are still costly mistakes that hurt actual people, and can destroy a company’s reputation as a to-be-trusted, ethically upright company.
Let’s start with a verse from the Christian Scriptures:
“Do not be deceived. Evil companions corrupt good morals.” (1 Corinthians 15:33. Click here to read a lot of variations, from multiple different translations. I especially thought this one was gripping: “Don’t let anyone deceive you. Associating with bad people will ruin decent people..”).
The principle behind this verse is important. Good and decent people do not intend to do harm. They do not intend to made bad decisions, to make mistakes, and they certainly do not intend to harm anyone. But, bad judgment; ignorance; not “thinking through;” being “seduced” by compelling salesmanship or persuasion… before you know it, a good and decent person can do a not-so-good and decent thing.
Now, how many examples do I need to offer?
Let’s assume that not every NFL player started out intending to do harm, but the allure and the persuasion of a coach and fellow players will lead someone to say, “okay, I will try to take this player out in this game.” A bounty beckons a decent person to do a not-so-decent thing.
Let’ s assume that Jamie Dimon is the smartest, best banker of the bunch. But under his watch, J. P. Morgan Chase made an “egregious mistake,” with $2 Billion lost, and real people hurt, from actual losses, and then stock value loss.
Days after disclosing a $2 billion trading loss at JPMorgan Chase, the bank’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, admitted that “we made a terrible egregious mistake” in an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Or, consider the plight of Mark Zuckerberg. Farhad Manjoo has a terrific piece up this morning about the Facebook IPO — Ads, Ads, and More Ads: How Going Public Will Change Facebook for the Worse. Here’s the opening paragraph of Manjoo’s article:
When Facebook filed for its initial public offering in February, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a frank letter to potential investors in the firm. “Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” he began. “It was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.” The founder went on to say that while making money was important to Facebook, raking in cash was not its primary goal. “Simply put: we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”
He also quotes a line from Google’s early days, adding his own warning:
His letter bears a resemblance to the note that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote to investors in 2004. In that note, Google warned Wall Street that though the search company’s shares were for sale, its mission was not. “Google is not a conventional company,” the pair warned. “We do not intend to become one.”
Don’t buy what any of these guys are selling. Eight years after its IPO, Google is still quirky, still sometimes surprising, and still wildly successful, but it is not at all unconventional. Just like any other company, Google has been swayed by pressure from investors to do things that once seemed unlikely…
In other words, going public and adding stockholders can lead to different decisions over the long haul – decisions that may betray the original mission of the company.
Now, I do not know how to fix this. But I’ve got a few observations/recommendations.
1) Run away from the evil folks… The outright liars, defrauders, bad folks should not be trusted. Don’t hire them; don’t do business with them; don’t ever trust them.
2) Assume that every good and decent person can make an occasional mistake. Sometimes, a whopper of a mistake (an “egregious mistake”). So, even if you trust the person, remember Ronald Reagan’s advice: “Trust, but verify.”
3) Get serious about ethics. Is it ethical to let the mission of the company be undone by some new set of stockholders? Is it ethical to abandon a core mission? Is it ethical to try some fancy new investment instrument when you can’t quite know the ultimate consequences? Somebody, with genuine clout in the room, needs to be asking these questions.
4) Quit bellyaching about too many regulations. Regulations are created because we can’t trust some people, and we can’t guarantee a good outcome from the rest of the good and decent people. The Volcker Rule, and other rules, are simply at times needed to save us from our own stupidity. The regulations really can be for our own good.
5) And, maybe it’s time to put a CEO in the decision making meetings. A Chief Ethics Officer, who has only one job: to ask, until he or she is almost hated for it, “is this the right, the wise, the ‘good’ thing to do?” And, maybe, give that person the authority to overrule us in the midst of our own unwise stupidity.
Best Buy is in a lot of trouble
The robot population is growing…fast.
Put this in the “what have you read recently that makes you stop and think?” category.
Yesterday, I read the article by Farhad Manjoo, Making Best Buy Better: The electronics chain’s only hope is to stock fewer products and sell them a whole lot better. Here’s a key excerpt:
Best Buy is in a lot of trouble. Once the undisputed leader in technology retail—it vanquished Circuit City, CompUSA, and every mom-and-pop electronics store in the country—the company is now being killed by Amazon online and Apple offline. In March, Best Buy reported a $1.7 billion quarterly loss and announced that it would close 50 stores.
And, don’t forget:
Amazon recently bought Kiva Systems,a company that makes robots that bring items to warehouse workers for packing, instead of the workers having to run all over the warehouse finding the items. That’s fine for now, but it’s pretty obvious that before too long, the robotic systems will become sophisticated enough that you won’t need the workers at all (or at least you’ll only need a few of them).
That paragraph comes from an article linked to on Andrew Sullivan’s blog: Our Robot Future. I have posted before about the rise of automation (in fact, quite a few times), asking “Where will the jobs be?’” This latest news does not bring me any comfort. Here is the key excerpt from Rise of the Machines by Paul Waldman, linked to by Sullivan:
We’re all still going to have to find ways to get people to pay us for doing stuff. Otherwise we won’t have the money to purchase the fruits of all those robots’ labors.
…the problem won’t be that the robots will kill us, but that the rise of robots will disintegrate our society, none of us will be able to make a living, and we’ll kill each other. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if a robot cleaned your toilet for you?
Don’t think human looking robots. Think software, automation… Now, I don’t know about you, but my life is increasingly filled with such robots of one kind or another replacing work that used to be done by humans. Just this week, I ordered multiple items from two sources. Amazon and Drugstore.com. I talked to no one. I clicked my mouse, and two days later the products arrived at my front door. Oh, some humans were involved in the transactions. A driver delivered the boxes. Someone supposedly fetched the items from the giant fulfillment center shelves. But I did not go into a store and interact with any humans; software facilitated the orders.
The issue is not “will there be more robots replacing more human jobs?”. There will be. A lot more! (Read the Waldman article. Or, just google it. And the Google automated software will fetch you a mountain of articles describing our automated future).
The question is (and the chorus asking this question is growing), “Where will the jobs be?” Oh, there will be industries adding jobs all along. But will there be enough new jobs, in enough new industries, to provide work for all the unemployed former Best Buy, Circuit City, Amazon.com, workers?
Anyway, that is some of what I read this week.
News item: Jorge Cauz , President, Encyclopaedia Britannica: we will no longer print the 32-volume encyclopedia…
And Farhad Manjoo leads the charge on why this is a good thing: Expensive, Useless, Exploitative: Why we should celebrate the end of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s print edition. “Good riddance,” Mr. Manjoo says. Here is part of what he wrote:
Most importantly, learning to navigate Google and Wikipedia prepares you for the real world, while learning to use Britannica teaches you nothing beyond whatever subject you’re investigating at the moment.
Don’t buy what Britannica’s selling. Its reliance on expert authority may yield mostly accurate information, but it teaches kids to believe everything they read. If you pay for this service, you’re building a cocoon of truth around students who’ll one day enter a world where everyone claims to be an expert—and where a lot of those people are lying. If you want to learn to suss out the liars, there’s no better training than Wikipedia.
So, I told my wife that Farhad Manjoo wrote that this was a good thing (I frequently quote Farhad Manjoo to my wife, and to my audiences), and she quickly stated the reason in a three word phrase that captured the problem. She said, “I assume it’s because he said that, with the printed version, ‘learning is static.’” Well said!
Yes, the world has changed.
I still own my very old (1950s edition) of the World Book Encyclopedia. I remember the salesman (my mother let me sit in), and he showed us how it was almost indestructible. I wrote many a “report’ for school from that encyclopedia.
But I haven’t looked inside a physical encyclopedia for years. Years! But, I read Wikipedia constantly. And there may be some entries that are not quite what I need. But, the consensus is growing that in most instances, Wikipedia is as reliable as any other source. Kind of the constantly, practically instantaneous, self-correcting crowd effect.
But, more importantly, I don’t have to pay $1400.00, walk across to book shelves, and find and open a volume, and find the entry. Now, with a tap of my finger, I go from the book I am reading on my Kindle App, to Safari, then I read what I need, and then I go right back to my book in the Kindle App. It takes seconds. It is right there. And, it makes learning as ongoing, fast, and convenient as I could have ever imagined. It is wonderful.
So, if you are sad about this development, I understand. I’m a little sad too. But, it’s a done deal. It’s over. Time to adjust, and even embrace, this new world. What else is there to do?