Doing the Tough Stuff

technology

Organic Growth for companies. Most of our Singapore’s small medium enterprises grow organically despite the introduction of much Merger & Acquisition support from the Singapore government such as M&A Tax Allowance (which was enhanced following the 2015 Budget) . In challenging times, even larger companies may still want to conserve cash to be invested internally rather than go on an M&A ‘spree’ – that is if they believe that they will be able to emerge larger after the temporary downturn.

To the end of doing the tough stuff called sticking to organic growth, McKinsey has a couple of pretty good questions to ask oneself when planning strategically for value creation along short to long-term timescale.

  • How balanced is our portfolio? If we take our portfolio of growth and innovation initiatives and plot them against NOW NEW NEXT, how balanced does the distribution look? Do we have a perspective on which of the six “growth plays” would be successful in our business?
  • Who is thinking about disruption? Are we as systematic in NEXT as we are in NOW? Is anyone tasked with disrupting our core business—or are we leaving it up to competitors? What are we doing to explore additive business models?
  • Are we limiting our horizons? In exploring NEW opportunities, do we impose limiting mind-sets on how we define consumers, our category, or the addressable channels?
  • Do we use advantaged insights? Do we rely on the same data and insights as our competitors—or do we have a source of distinctiveness?
  • Are we agile enough? Have we been able to accelerate our time-to-consumer and time-to-market? Or are we still stuck with cumbersome and slow innovation processes?

Source: Now, New, Next: How growth champions create new value.

Ultimately, these questions may also start leading companies to consider acquisition in the mid to long term horizon where threat of disruption may force even very niche companies to place some hedging bets through incubation of related peripheral technologies.

Wrong Concoction

Historically, technological advancement combined with economics have helped to push civilization towards greater levels of achievements; yet too often, there are times when they are combined in the wrong ways that produces somewhat problematic results for the aggregate society. An example would be the problem of counterfeit products, which is recently featured in The Economist. Interestingly it has extended beyond just luxury goods, luxury consumer electronics to the more sophisticated stuff like cars, computer and machine parts. The chief argument against counterfeits is not so much that they are unsafe. As technology advance, counterfeits that are of low quality would naturally be abandon by the market anyways. The reason for the market’s embrace is a result of their avoidance of taxes and the willingness to accept lower margins, which allows them to price way more competitively.

Another time when technological advancement is combined with skewed human intentions is the gender-based abortion that The Economist is hinting at. The distorted sex ratio have potentially disastrous consequences on society at large. Unfortunately the imbalance is already a fact and will take at least a generation to restore some balance so in the meantime we will probably have to put up with way lower rates of marriages (if rates sustain, it would only be because divorce rates have also been increasing; which implies re-marriages).

Well, more arguments for big governments, or if not, intrusive ones.

Dot.con

Dot.con
Popped!

I’ve recently finished John Cassidy’s Dot.con I got from library many days back. John Cassidy is a staff writer at The New Yorker and I always liked his writings about Economics. I’ll probably find a chance to lay my hands on his latest book, How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities soon.

Meanwhile, Dot.con have been an interesting read. It’s an old book, no doubt. I believe reading about the Internet Bubble now seem rather weird given that it has happened a while back and don’t appear to have any immediate relation with what I’ve been working on. Still, I think that events like this have lessons to offer that are often missed out and I was looking to read something a little further back given that I’ve been updating myself with The Economist all the time. John Cassidy didn’t fail me, starting his story from the time when the technology was developing for the rise of modern Internet, describing the roles that the US military and government played in its conception, research funding and even implementation. He combines the events leading up to year 2000 with interesting comparisons of speculative manias of the past and talks about retrospective telltale signs of irrationality.

He introduced me to Charles Mackay and his writing, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I subsequently realised I had the sections of Charles Mackay’s book in my 4-inch tome, The Real Price of Everything by Michael Lewis. Those pieces have just been added into my reading queue.

Cory Johnson reveals that John Cassidy was a rare skeptical voice with regards to the Internet Boom, but failed to live up to the promise of the title of the book:

Indeed, he is unable to dismiss the most fundamental notion (a mantra among the true believers) that the Internet changes everything. Despite the stock market meltdown, almost any reading of the evolving business practice wrought by the Internet suggests that more dramatic changes are yet to come.

In a sense, the Internet is not quite exactly an illusion so to speak. But I don’t think that was what John Cassidy was driving at. His idea is that business fundamentals have been abandoned during the period and it shouldn’t have been. The numbers he cites about businesses losing money even as stock prices climb is startling. He might have been against the arguments of the New Economy though, and he could have supported his argument with the fact that falling prices (with economic expansion) isn’t entirely an internal affair of US but a result of the external forces as well.

I’ve enjoyed the little stories told by Dot.con surrounding the whole boom and crash of the Internet, especially those about individuals trapped in those industries contributing and taking part of the boom. Besides that, Dot.con serves as a good look at human behaviours during a speculative mania.

Printing Stuff

Ad Billboard
Cheaper way of lighting up...

Imagine you need a square meter of light, perhaps for a single ’tile’ on the ceiling that emits lights at your building. You’d probably get contractors to make a box with circuits inside that connects to a couple of fluorescent tubes (or if you’re quite rich, a couple of LEDs) and then cover the thing with a translucent white piece of acrylic. The entire structure is bulky and probably quite energy consuming. Now, scientists have found a way to make a ‘sheet’ of LED that would allow you to make that ‘lighted tile’ much more easily and is also much more compact. Essentially, the technology allows you to print a circuit that is wired in a way that acts as a diode, and one that emits light.

And since we’re at the issue of printing stuff; we mentioned previously about industrial prototyping machines that churns out 3D structures/models. I was quite intrigued by the idea of being able to print out a peg for your clothes or even design a shoe that fits you perfectly. But perhaps even more amazing would be the ability to print out cells, tissues and even organs as reported by The Economist.

The article mentioned about growing organs from scratch and raised the example of bladders being grown from original cells of patients. Essentially the patients are donating organs to themselves; the same applies for the printing of organs. The idea is appealing because there’s nothing artificial about them beside the involvement of doctors in the process of growing the cells and putting them together – ultimately the organ is still organic and from the patients. Perhaps then, Iran’s model for kidney donation won’t be so appealing anymore.

Serious thinking on the Internet

Serious thinking time!

The Straits Times, on 19 February this year, republished an article written by Adam Cohen of the New York Times. Cohen’s article reminded me about some of the benefits of the Internet which many often overlook in view of the tremendous upwelling of “junk” (for instance, rag and gossip made more accessible online) on the Internet.

Cohen argues that some feel the Internet may be “driving culture ever lower”, but it is also allowing “a wealth of serious thinking”. He uses the example of a BBC podcast “In Our Time” which delves deep into history to examine “arcane topics from history, literature, science and philosophy”. This certainly would be the other side of the “Internet coin”, the benefits that could be accrued to laymen and academics alike. Albeit one needs to be interested before one can actually be open and be exposed to such “high-brow” knowledge, but at least it provides avenues for those interested to be enlightened.

While I admit I am not in the least interested in the “arcane topics” listed above, I am myself a beneficiary of the Internet in terms of exposure to “serious thinking”. TED.com is a good example. Short-form for Technology, Entertainment & Design, the website devotes itself to “Ideas Worth Spreading” by broadcasting presentations relating to these spheres and more, allowing netizens access to a more interactive / interesting showcase of what might be normally deemed inaccessible and arcane, meant only for academics and to be showcased in libraries and institutions. I have watched lectures / presentations that have amazed and enthused me about issues that interest me but would not propel me to borrow books from the library about it, such as on HIV/AIDS.

So… if you are bored, dont just watch paint dry on Youtube, watch something educational on TED.com and dont let your brain rot and idle.

Biz Connect

Social Media
Buzz Who?

Just recently, The Economist was tabulating the impacts of social networks and featured significant discussion on their impact on the business. The Big Money has a list of top 50 brand names (they call them ‘companies’) that has been doing well on Facebook as a social media vehicle for their brands. It appears that Facebook have become some sort of brand management tool that is carefully balanced with fans/consumer followings and interactions. As applications proliferate on these social networking platforms, there is a risk that all these commercial stuff are crowding out the actual social messages that are being sent over it. While

Google recently produced Buzz as I’ve highlighted previously, and The Economist thinks that it’ll hardly do much to dent the influence of Facebook and Twitter.

Diversity & Sophistication

Product Nodes
Just like societies...

Economics have been a subject troubled with the idea of scarcity and thinking about means of distributing resources to produce what we call ‘wealth’. Scarcity is a clear-cut notion and ‘abundance’ represents the other end of the spectrum. The problem is that we are so familiar with scarcity we cannot be quite sure what really represents abundance (infinite, in short run or long run?) and thus, we actually have a problem quantifying wealth. What constitutes richness? Money? Gold? Having the most expensive resources? Having in abundance the most useful resource? Having the most diverse resources? Having human capital?

We’ve seen that most of the rich, developed world appears to be the same, with the similar institutions, rule of law and informal market rules; most of them produce certain complex niche products while importing a variety of inputs as well as many other consumer products. On the other hand, developing economies appears more diverse. This shows that the end state of riches can probably be attained through different pathways. The Economists’ latest Economic Focus discuss how recent research shows that sophistication in the economy signals at the potential of an economy.

The Product Space map that the researchers came up with shows that an economy producing at a more centrally located product zone where it is easy to diversify into many other products would fare better than one in an isolated region. However, the isolated products often yield greater profits because they are probably rarer and so competition amongst economies leads to evolutionary forces pushing certain economies into these corners of product space possibly at the expense of potential. In any case, versatility is treasured and flexibility in production will aid economic growth.

Automated Eyes

I stumbled upon Tineye, a ‘reverse image search engine’. It basically allows you to upload an image and then perform a search for pictures that are similar to the image. This is the beginning of answering a question my friend have posted me a couple of years back when he asked if the Internet can help us find out the name of a person from a photo of him/her. Alternatively, if you have a picture of a place, you might want to upload the image to search for where exactly it is. Alas, Tineye is not yet capable of all that, to quote from the Wiki article:

A user uploads an image to the Web application search engine or provides a URL for an image (or for a page containing the image). The search engine will look up other usage of the image in the internet including their time of appearance and including modified images based upon that image. Tineye does not recognise objects or persons in an image, it recognises the entire image, and some altered versions of that image. This includes differently sized versions of the image.

The search engine is provided by Idée, Inc., a Canadian firm that also produces other image-matching technology products, like PixID. A demonstration of the power of this product is shown in this video that follows:

It purportedly helps client tracks usage of their photographs or images online and print publications to manage image license and also to ‘uncover unauthorized image usage’, and it kind of reminds me how it makes patent trolls’ job easier, reflecting a worsened state of gridlock. In other words, while the software may help to raise the opportunity for transactions and thus contribute value to creators, it might potentially discourage mashups in the area of graphic designs. Of course, it has a potential for good as well; scanning through a film can help the production crew find out whether they have obtained permission for all the images or clips used and would thus know what to filter out if they are unable to identify the owners.

The potential of such technology always works both ways and eventually it will be up to Economics to resolve the issues.

Googley Social

Surpassing Yahoo! Search directory and indexes a decade ago, they let you search things online, things that you probably never will manage to find by trying out random keywords followed by “.com” on the URL bar. Not losing out to Hotmail which offered 2MB and Yahoo! Mail which offered 3.5MB during the ‘good old days’, they started an email system that gives you several Gigabytes of space in your inbox, which was virtually unheard of during those days.

And though Facebook took and lead in social networks and and proved that it is going to be revolutionizing the web and business world somehow, Google has decided to join in the fun. The public profile page is like a lite version of Facebook’s profile page and Buzz’s advantage over Google Wave (which haven’t seem to take off at all; I don’t really use it though I have an account and plenty of inactive friend on it) is that you don’t require a ‘separate’ sort of account with Google, it comes right in your Gmail system.

And the success of introducing this feature as part of the Gmail system is reflected by the fact that millions of users responded with feedbacks and concerns. Google is using its size to its advantage this time and their fine-tuning and feedback gathering process is going to be important, just as it is for any new products. That’s probably why they should lend a ear to what Farhad Manjoo have to say on Slate.com about What’s Wrong With Android?

Open Musings

Mind
Extracting Neural Info in Progress...

Popular Science featured an article about mind-reading technology; it describes the development of technologies and computing that helps to reconstruct images from purely information extracted from brain scans. That is pretty amazing since it is basically deciphering the code used to contain information in our minds and then trying to build up the information that is stored in the codes.

What I was wondering is if these images reconstructed actually reflects any sort of thoughts by the person. In other words, has the brain processed these images at all? In the Awareness Tests that was part of a campaign by Transport for London to raise awareness of presence of cyclist to other road users, you realise that you do not see some things that you don’t focus on in an image sequence. The question then, is whether the brain really didn’t see the images or it merely didn’t process it. Would these mind-reading technology at this moment be showing those details or parts that we didn’t notice?

Or perhaps they need to improve the technology before they can answer such questions; then the complex ethical problems will set in. Philosophy can’t work on an ethical problem until infringing it becomes a real possibility. Even then, they almost never help us get an answer. So meanwhile we’ll just think and wait around.