I’ve been a fan of Frances Cairncross since reading her insightful book, The Company of the Future, about the changes taking place within organizations and within society as a result of the accelerating adoption of digital technologies. Although books on new technologies seem to be published by the bushel, I’ve found that good ones dedicated to the impact that these technologies are having on organizations and people are few and far between. That’s why I was so happy that Frances graciously accepted my request to speak with her.
A lot has happened since 2002 when The Company of the Future was first published and I was extremely curious about Frances’ perspective on things now that many of the technologies (collaborative and otherwise) had progressively improved. After writing for the The Economist for two decades (most recently as its Management Editor), Frances Cairncross, today, is the Rector of Exeter College at Oxford University where she gets charged by the interaction and education of young people many of whom are sure to be leaders of the future.
I have always been extremely interested in explaining the impact of new technologies to the people who can make the most use of them (usually, not technologists themselves). I think that’s a key reason for my interest in Frances’ work. When I mentioned this to her, she reminded me that this is precisely the perspective that economists such as Alfred Marshall have brought to the table in explaining the impact of the telegraph and trains on organizational structures more than a hundred years ago.
I was curious about her ruminations on recent developments and the first area that we spoke about was the current economic environment (e.g., financial crisis, etc.). She mentioned that the financial crisis seems to be pulling organizations in different directions at once as they try to react and adapt to the new reality (inducing investment in technology), but also increasingly question any additional spending (putting pressure on investments in technology and other areas). It’s a dichotomy that will only grow more intense not only because of the current economic climate, but also because organizations continue to grapple with the changes brought about the accelerating pace of adoption and development of digital tools.
One of the areas that Frances mentioned as ripe for tremendous change is the public sector now that governments will come under increasing pressure to make the most of any funds available to them. She mentioned that each day there are new examples of innovative ways of delivering government services by better adoption of digital platforms from places such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Nevertheless, she expects to see much more change in the near future.
We spoke quite a bit about change in general and, as an economist, she understands how slow cultural change can be, but has been a keen observer of its progress. In her current position at Oxford, she’s been able to witness the behavior of young people and how different things have become. For instance, whereas in the past, congregating at a specific time and place either required precision planning and promotion (or luck), today, a quick message on a cell phone can move groups of young people with the synchronicity of a school of fish. Although organizations are still trying to understand how to make use of all of these new digital tools (not only Internet, but also, mobile-based), newer generations have it in their DNA.
Finally, I asked Frances about her thoughts on the opportunities available to people and countries in Latin America. She quickly suggested that these should look at examples of companies such as one that she was able to visit in Costa Rica, which provided technical services to orthodontists stateside by crafting models of patient’s teeth and shipping these through one of the priority mail carriers. In other words, look for high quality production that is now a possibility for Latin American companies, as the “death of distance” becomes more of a reality.
All in all, having the chance to talk with Frances was enjoyable and helped me tremendously in terms of gaining additional insight into the changes that are happening before our eyes. Either way, I hope she continues to put her ideas in writing because it would continue to enrich the public discourse.