Monday, June 8, 2009

The Future that Hasn't Happened Yet

As the Future Catches You: How Genomics and Other Forces are Changing Your Life, Work, Health and Wealth by Juan Enriquez Cabot is one of the books we've been reading recently in our thinking about Life Sustaining Work Environments. Published in early 2001, Enriquez (who drops the Cabot off the dust jacket for some reason) argued that the Millennium was only the beginning point of the "digital-genomics convergence" and the even more complex proteomics revolution. Seen from the perspective of eight years ago, the new life sciences were going to present breakthroughs shortly that would enable millions of us (especially those lucky and smart enough to be in the developed world) with the prospect of living well past 100, as we gain "control directly and deliberately [of] the evolution of our species and that of every other species on the planet." Enriquez says that "if you're thinking about Iraq, if you're thinking about politics, if you're thinking about the stock market, you are missing the single most exciting adventure we've ever been on." Pretty big assertion!

And, furthermore, he could be right. Genetics and the life sciences certainly present a prospect for an existential breakthrough in the human condition. What would it mean to you to know that a very, very slight altercation in your genetic code could enable you to live to be 130? Without serious reflection, the implications seems almost unimaginable. First off, who could afford it?! What about all those other people just being born: will they live to be 300?! Methuselah move over!

However, this is not a note about the genetics revolution. In fact, the point is that this revolution hasn't happened. Enriquez says that "Celera is ground zero" in the "New World" of genetics. Celera is a company founded by Craig Venter, and, according to how one reads the data, was either first or tied for first in mapping the human genome. You could have purchased Celera stock for about $50/share as Enriquez' New World was getting underway in February 2001...and it would be worth about $8.50/share today. There seems to be a degree of growth in life sciences hiring, but the graphic at left doesn't give the impression of the explosion in the field that was being predicted in 2001.

Enriquez presents a lot of potent info to back up his claim that "genetics is a hockey stick," but it turns out that there are a lot of hockey players on the field. Remember global warming, for example. While there's been a degree of controversy about the accuracy of the global warming data, most of the graphics depicting the rise in temperatures worldwide have caused a tremendous amount of concern about the rate of change in that metric and what it means. Global warming is a hockey stick too.

So, which of the two should we be paying the most attention to? Which one is the most pressing? Which one involves the biggest changes? The short answer is both, depending on what's important to your thinking at a particular moment in time.

Wait, it turns out that there are a whole bunch of other hockey sticks that are also worth considering. For example, look at a trend graph showing the aggregate differential in military expenditures over the last twenty years between the US and its nearest competitors. It is estimated that the US spends one third to one half of the world's budget on arms every year. It spends more on arms than the next closest eleven also-rans, $375B in 2004 vs. $60B by China, for example. So, the US has an enormous lead in this category. No one can or will catch up to the US in conventional arms expenditures. That isn't pleasing to everyone, which is one of the drivers of asymmetrical warfare and its attendant behaviors, also known as terrorism.

How about the volume of international trade over time or the flow of capital across markets? Hockey sticks with a past and, probably, a future.

So, at this moment, there are a lot of very potent and prospectively game changing phenomena occurring simultaneously in many different domains of human experience. To the extent that one is wrapped up in a particular field where there is a rapid pace of change, it becomes easy to see the impact of an inflection point in one's own focus of attention.

It is much more challenging (and fun!) from a strategic point of view to acknowledge the presence of multiple inflection points all happening in concert or in contradiction to one another. The playing field for every organization thinking about its future is much more dynamic when seen from this perspective. Virtually anything and everything is possible, and very little is certain.

Mystics like John Michell believe that there was an epoch in human history, before the officially recorded past, where a natural order pervaded human activity. Affirming the "dimensions of paradise," Michell found a similar architecture in a multitude of ancient sites--a geometry for the New Jerusalem--that supported his thesis that there once was a time of cohesiveness regarding what human beings were supposed to do with their lives, i.e., bring about an alchemical merger of stimulative solar and receptive lunar energies on a personal, subjective, intrapsychic level and on the external, organizational and social level. (Michell's study of the Glastonbury Abbey is one of his most famous.) Architecture, social activities and daily personal practice were, according to this legend, all designed to support spiritual attainment and the readiness of Earth to receive divinity. This is a claim that certainly has a lot of implications for the design of life sustaining work environments.

Ours is an amazing era full of both beauty and dross. It is a time of great possibility and horrific anxiety. Perhaps humanity will so lose its balance on the planet as to be thrown off by the centrifugal forces we have set spinning at an ever faster pace. Or, perhaps a beautiful, fractal order will appear to us all, revealing an underlying Michell-like harmony that the most recent story in the headlines can never find. Maybe it's always been like this.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rainforests, Women in the Workforce, and Big Science

A recent study publicized in The Financial Times asserts that "cattle ranching it the single most important cause of the tearing down of rain forests in Brazil." The Greenpeace photo at left captures one image of the rain forest being burned to make way for cattle grazing. I find this deeply upsetting because the rain forests are critical to the Earth's overall ecosystem. What I find encouraging in the information, however, is the fact that, like so many other ecological nightmares, what is happening to the rain forests in Brazil is totally reversible through human choice. Stop eating Big Macs and rib eyes five days a week, and you can help save the rain forests and sustain the planet for future generations. This is not really that difficult to do; it involves changing some habits. Furthermore, the story also highlights the interconnectedness of all elements of the Earth's living system. Everything is vibrating with everything else, amplifying and perpetuating some frequencies while extinguishing others. Seen from that perspective, individual action is part of a very complex musical score.

The graphic at right is taken from a recent Manpower Employment Outlook Survey, which indicates that the tune being played by the economy may not be all sad. As reported by The Financial Times, 30% of employers around the world are finding it very difficult to fill open positions in skilled manual trades, sales, technical work, and engineering, among others. No better case could be made for a focus on designing life sustaining work environments than this study's conclusion that "organizations need to identify the values, character and style that sets them apart and create an emotional connection between employer and employee...that make people love working there and bring them fulfillment."

It should not be too surprising to find that financial services, the industry at the heart of our worldwide recession, is one of the least life sustaining work environments around, especially for women. As reported in The New York Times, research on Harvard College alumni women by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, found that careers in finance, with their 70 hour work weeks, are uniquely difficult for those trying to combine work and family. And, it's not only the long hours that are giving Finance a questionable reputation with women, it's a bottom-line pocket book issue. Harvard grads working in Medicine who took off a year and a half (to have a child, for example) earned 16% less than co-workers who had not done so during the same time period. But, those who earned MBAs and went into Finance suffered a much steeper 41% decline in earnings as compared to peers.

An ironic structural ingredient of this story is that students of employment dynamics hypothesize that many talented women have been lost to the sciences and mathematics in order to pursue high paying careers in Finance, only to be penalized financially for their gender and to find themselves in an industry that continues to be dominated by men in large part because women must step out of work at least temporarily to have children. So, an industry whose primary innovation in recent years has been credit default swaps has benefited from the involvement of talented women who might have made more dramatic social and technological contributions through fields that would have treated them better as the members of a biological class. Hmmm. This seems worth considering not only in terms of individual career choice but also from the perspective of Finance organizations that would like to start doing a better job of supporting women in their workforce.

Another recent study, also reported in The Times, indicate that women are pulling even with men in compensation in the sciences, but are still underrepresented in applicant pools creating "a puzzle that offers an opportunity for further research." Maybe it's because the really bright women under study were thronging to Finance during the years of the analysis?! (Parenthetically, this is the sort of comment that is somewhat maddening to the reader of this
newspaper. Two stories carried within three days of each
other that are obviously related don't get connected by the reporters working for the same institution. No wonder the price of the Times as a company has fallen by something like 90% in the last five years!)

Turns out that some of these science jobs can be absolutely
fantastic! Take the pursuit of fusion in occurring at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore CA. The objective of this mammoth project is to use lasers to create a "tiny star" in which hydrogen atoms will be fused into helium under heat conditions hotter than the temperatures found at the core of an actual sun.

The intent of the project is extraordinarily exciting in that, according to its advocates, it holds the potential of releasing thermonuclear energy safely and allowing radically new types of non-polluting power plants to come into existence. According to NIF's director, Dr. Ed Moses, "if fusion energy works, you'll have a limitless supply of carbon-free energy that's not geopolitically sensitive."
However, it is the scope of the work environment dynamics that is particularly of interest to Art of the Future. First conceived in 1972, the NIF is now a 24/7 facility that has involved 10,000 workers and contractors over the last twelve years to arrive at the point where there will be an initial ignition soon of lasers (They hope!) that will be fired for the next 30 years. To design a work environment that will successfully maintain the continuity of the project seems to be a truly daunting task. For example, right now, the US taxpayer is funding the operation of the project to the tune of $140M/year. What happens if there are snafus that delay the project (further) and Congress starts demanding a quicker payoff? What will the organization's strategy be in that eventuality? How will the project be handed off from Moses to whomever comes next as its Director? What will happen to the NIF's organizational culture in a post-Moses era? How will be effective in recruiting key talent from around the world to work on this project if work visa restrictions continue to be tightened? What sort of requirements will the talented members of this workforce make on the NIF if progress there is slow but rapid in competing energy generation industries?

To achieve its ambitions, the NIF not only has to do more than get the science right; it has to build and maintain a work environment where the scientists will do their best work over a very long period of time filled with many prospective uncertainties. This can happen organically by just bringing talented and dedicated people together and allowing them to evolve; and it can happen consciously by asking that same set of people to be involved with the design of a work environment that will foster their achievements.

These seemingly disparate stories are actually not that far removed from each other: If more women were in the scientific workforce there might well be a more rapid pace of developments that would protect natural habitats, such as those of a rain forest, that are in many ways a womb for life on earth. And, the good news is that there seem to be a number of forces in play that will bring that outcome about.