The World is not yet Flat

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WASHINGTON – According to the new optimistic conventional wisdom, the world has become “flat”. Historic barriers of time, distance, culture and language have been overcome through the intervention of high speed internet and the new collaborative international networks that it enabled. True, the new technologies created opportunities inconceivable until just a few years ago. For instance, the outsourcing phenomenon in services, non existent until recently, now thrives. It does not really matter where many functions are performed. Everything goes on high speed internet. If it is cheaper to have the job done in India by equally skilled Indian workers, distance from the primary place of operation is no longer a factor affecting cost.

And, beyond IT services that require high speed internet connectivity, we also have the evolving sophistication of longer and ever more complex international supply chain networks relying on highly specialized lower cost producers and relatively inexpensive transportation. The average computer, or cell phone or video game machines are made of various parts produced in different countries based on where the combination of low cost and high skills are optimized. Finally they are precisely assembled in China or Malaysia or Thailand. After that, they are shipped under a well known US, Japanese or European label to retailers and customers all over the world. And so, for many products, because of sophisticated supply chains, we can have impeccable assembly, flawless final delivery with the additional advantage of lower cost.

Unquestionably this new paradigm, with all the associated redistribution of labor, from the high cost West to lower cost, but equally proficient, Asia, is working. From consumer electronics, to auto parts and garments we have now a proven new way of planning, distributing tasks, producing and delivering. And upgrades to these new systems occur on a daily basis.

All true. But this does not mean that the world has truly become flat. Some standardized operations can be part of the flat world. But this new paradigm, while extremely important for mass produced products and services, does not have universal applications. And the obstacle is not in technology.

The obstacle is in the human inability to make judgment calls on specific issues and to communicate effectively across cultural barriers. Indeed, when we move to higher levels of complexity requiring interactivity, customized solutions and judgment to be exercised by the clerk who gets the call or the order, or someone who needs to react fast and appropriately to a specific situation, we discover that the world is not at all flat.

People still operate not on the basis of their own judgment, but according to prepackaged systems that they have to follow. And systems are brittle. On the spot, ad hoc adjusments cannot be made, as they would force the decision-maker to go beyond rigid, inflexible protocols. Individual employees cannot make decisions, beyond a pre-scripted, usually narrow range of options. And this is not because they cannot communicate. They can communicate. They can interact, but they have no power to make decisions.

And, assuming that they had the power, on what basis would they exercise it? There are no set parameters. And so, issues that go outside the protocols are invariably kicked upstairs to people who supposedly have more knowledge and more authority. But this higher level decision-making layer is by no means a guarantee of a prompt solution. The new process is just as complicated. It is lengthy, cumbersome and uncertain, because it forces people to deal with new, special contingencies that have not been planned for.

And here is the issue. People, even people in managerial positions, are not empowered to make decisions, because they are not trusted to make the right decision. And this is because a decision on a specific situation may be quite subjective, a function of subjective judgment, evaluation and assessment that is made even more complicated when these transactions occur across cultural barriers. In the end, only top decision-makers seem to have the authority to make value judgments and this is no guarantee that they will be right.

And so, the world is flat when it comes to standardized procedures that have clearly defined specifications and agreed upon protocols. Beyond that, everything needs to be discussed and negotiated, with uncertain outcomes. And this is largely because communication and negotiations occur in some kind of normative vacuum in which there are no clearly agreed upon value systems and established priorities. And this happens even within industries that supposedly share the common “objective” language of science and technology.

Indeed, one very visible example of the absence of a “flat world” paradigm is in the fantastically flawed planning involved in the outsourcing of most of the complex components and processes in the manufacturing of many parts and finally assembly of next generation civilian aircraft.

In the last couple of years both Airbus and Boeing, the world leading aircraft manufacturing companies, have suffered a series of unplanned, costly and embarrassing delays in the delivery of new aircraft –specifically the double deck Airbus A 380 and the technologically innovative Boeing 787 “Dreamliner”. This is because the vast collaborative networks involving a large number of domestic and international suppliers (in the case of the 787 the suppliers are actually contributing about 70 per cent of the aircraft components) failed to operate and deliver in the way they were supposed to.

Delays at one level had cumulative effects at another level, resulting in more compounded problems for other suppliers farther down the line. The net effect amounted to substantial delays in components delivery and final assembly. In the end, delivery schedules were missed by wide margins, not once or twice, but several times, indicating that –notwithstanding investigations and corrective actions– the true nature and scope of the problems was not identified and properly corrected the first, second or even third time. And all this notwithstanding the high priority due to the fact that failure to deliver on time had immense negative economic impact in terms of revenue losses on the two companies.

So, the laptop supply chain model does not fit new airliners. And why not? Because it would appear that the airliners are far more complex systems with myriad of parts that have to flawlessly fit with zero margins for error. Still, technological complexity can explain some of the problems; but not repeated huge snafus. Boeing and Airbus are aerospace giants run by the best in the business. These are not amateurs. Common sense would suggest that seasoned industry leaders are cognizant of the highly specialized nature of all components and processes part and parcel of their industry and thus of the potential problems.

But, if this is so, how could there be so many errors? And why has it been so difficult to fix them? Most likely, because sophisticated new cooperative patterns require a higher level of understanding, communication, feed back and cooperation across cultures that, while obviously assumed, failed to materialize when it was really needed.

Most probably the human element was underestimated. The planners did not factor in the inability to effectively communicate, understand and appreciate the nature of the problems across cultural lines. This communication and feed-back failure was so extensive that the new, recalculated estimates about the time and actions needed to correct the flaws have been wrong again and again, leading to more and more recalculations and reissuing of delivery estimates. 

But how is it possible to get it so wrong so many times? After all here we are talking about cooperative efforts managed by competent scientists and engineers surely endowed with above average intellect. Furthermore, we are dealing with engineers who have the distinctive advantage of sharing the objective language and frame of reference of science; as opposed to people trying to create cooperative systems founded on personal value judgment, opinion and subjective preferences. But the scientists got it wrong, time and again.

Surely these examples of flawed planning and execution will be analyzed and studied in detail. But, whatever the outcome of future examinations, these repeated failures would point to the inability to take into account the intangible human elements of culture, expectations and ways of disclosing and communicating critical information in a timely and effective manner.

Which is to say that fiber optic cables and high speed internet can be powerful enablers; but only to the extent that they allow fast communication about agreed upon processes and activities, or at least activities that can be easily placed within a known common denominator. Of course, they can also be tools that allow new forms of communication, while opening up new forms of collaborative activities. By they do not guarantee outcomes. The somewhat unpredictable way in which human attitudes, cultures and dispositions interact in the end will determine outcomes and both the quantity and quality of results.

Once we leave the safe ground of routine, pre-arranged, carefully scripted actions, we enter a more complex terrain littered with the obstacles created by different or even incompatible values, priorities and even moral references.

The internet and all the sophisticated material that can travel through it simplifies access to information. But it is no substitute for the complex need to engage in a process of human dialogue, with all its potential pitfalls of miscommunication, mistakes and misplaced expectations.

This does not mean that the world will never become flat. It may become flat. In fact, it is highly desirable for the world to become flat, meaning by that the possibility to create direct communication and cooperation based on shared values, criteria and expectations. But this will happen not so much because of technology, but because of changes in the level of human volition focused on the effort to understand and be understood.

Technological tools can create and will create wonders. But as the Airbus and Boeing examples illustrate, if even the best world scientists miscalculate and repeatedly make huge, horribly costly, errors in their collaborative efforts, it would be naïve and wrong to assume that clear communications and collaborative systems can be easily established by peoples still deeply divided by language, culture and experience.

Technology can bring us closer. Yet, if we want to establish voluntary collaboration across cultural divides –as opposed to coercion– it is up to us to try and shape the dialogue. And this effort at dialogue would be inane unless premised on a serious analysis of our sets of values, priorities and goals and those of the others whom we want to have a dialogue with.

A truly flat world is premised on truly shared values; or, at the very least, in our ability to really understand and take into account in our own thinking the values of others.

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