Opportunity lost

Imagine the year is 1978 and you are working for IBM, the largest computer company in the world. One day your manager asks you: “I heard that a college student named Steve Jobs has developed a small computer called “Personal computer” what do you think?” How would you answer that question? You cannot believe a computer can be developed that small and for personal use. Few weeks later you hear that Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), the second largest computer company in the world called Apple computer: “No one would want to have a computer at home, it is stupid.” Since you do not know what to do so you agree with the assessment of DEC and ignore it.

Imagine the year is 1988 and you are working for AT&T, the largest telephone company in the world. Your manager asks you: “Motorola has developed a wireless telephone that people can carry with them wherever they go. What do you think?” How would you answer that question? Few weeks later you find out that Nokia and Eriksson are also working on similar wireless phone then you ask yourself: “Why do people want to carry a telephone with them all the time? It does not make sense.” Since you do not know what to do so you ignore it.

Imagine the year is 1998 and you are working for Sony, the largest electronic company in the world. Your manager comes in with a question: “Apple just complete the design of an MP3 called iPod to compete with our Sony Walkman. What do you think?” How would you answer that question? You do not think a computer company would get into music business. You know that Sony Walkman is the most popular device in the world with hundred million users but you really do not know how to answer so you ignore it.

Imagine the year is 2005 and you are working for Nokia, the largest mobile phone in the world. Your manager asks you: “Apple is working on a new phone called iPhone. What do you think?” How would you answer that question? You do not think a computer company could get into telecommunication business and succeed. You know that Nokia is the most popular phone among several others so you ignore it.

Imagine the year is 2008, and you are working for HP, the largest personal computer in the world. Your manager come in with a simple question: “Apple just designed a tablet computer called iPad to compete with all personal computers. What do you think?” How would you answer that question? You do not think a tablet computer could change the PC market. But you really do not know what to do so you just ignore it.

Most people see what is coming but have no idea on what impact they will have on the future. They are blind about the future impact as they have no imagination and they often think: “It does NOT impact me so I do not care.” No one is taught about competition, technology changes, globalization, consumer market, and that is why so many people missed so many good opportunities due to their lack of vision.

We are living in a globalized world with changes are happening every day. It is difficult to avoid change, as new ideas, new technologies promote growth and make money for the inventors and their companies but most people ignore it. Although changes can create new opportunities, but they are often met with criticism from resistant individuals too. If we read all the cases above, we can see that changes often start with the leaders or key decision makers. It is up to them to direct the change to all team members. If the leaders have no vision, do not see change is coming then nothing will happen as in the case of all mainframe computer companies (Four of five largest mainframe computer companies are gone, except IBM after the personal computer is invented). Another resistance to change often happens at the personal interest as it often interferes with the ability to adapt to change. Some want to maintain the position to better advance their own personal interests, instead of the company’s interests, as in the case of AT&T when most of their technical people resist the change to wireless mobile phones.

Leadership plays a big role in operate a successful organization. When workers feel they cannot trust each other or managers, it becomes difficult for them to accept any changes. They often look at any change as negative or even assume they will eventually lose their jobs. This is the case of most academia and state universities as a change in training programs often means some professors will lose jobs and be replaced by younger professors who are more in tune with new technology and new ideas.

Last year when I was in Europe, I found that each university only graduated about a hundred or less computer science or software engineers per year. That means a country, on the average, would develop few thousands software workers per year when the market demand was in fifty thousand or more. Many European companies have to hire foreign software workers to come and work. When I asked: “Why don’t you train more software workers?” a professor said: “Our University receives government funding each year and we have to distribute to many fields of study, we cannot put a large amount into few areas such as software, technology or engineering. We do not have enough professors in that area, and what will happen to professors who teach arts, music, literature, social studies or history? That would be unfair to them so we divide funding into all fields to be fair with everybody.” Another professor added: “We want to keep a balance in our society; we cannot focus too much in one area but ignore the others.”

It seems to me that there is disconnect between companies, educators and students. Companies complain that schools do not develop enough workers for them and many graduates do not have the skills that they need. Educators believe that their students must be allowed to choose whatever they want to study and most are receiving adequate training to do anything that they want. And students are confused between what they learned and what the industry needs. Basically, No one communicate with each other. No one see that change is coming and the economy is driven by technology. Companies never communicate with educators about their needs and those that do, often found that educators did not listen to them. At the same time, educators believe that they know what are best for students and the goal of education is not develop workers to companies because college is NOT a vocational school. Since students are not well informed about career planning or market direction, many choose to study whatever they like rather than have clear understanding of which fields lead to career professions with good job opportunity.

Without changes in the education system, the situation will get worse. The vast majority of jobs now require more technical skills, problem solving skills, motivation skills, and communication skills. But college students do not know exactly what company’s needs and colleges do not teach them these skills. Today every country need to improve the competitive edge by focusing on science, technology, engineer and math (STEM) as most jobs created over the next decade will require at least a bachelor’s degree. According to the bureau of labor statistics 68% of job openings through 2020 will go to people with a college degree in STEM and many of these will be high paying jobs.

Imagine the year is 20XX and you are teaching for the best university in your country. Your provost asks you a question: “The neighboring country Y and X just changes their training programs to focus exclusively on STEM and they are using new teaching method called “Learning by doing”. What do you think?” How would you answer that question? Would you do something or just ignore it?


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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