Thursday, September 1, 2016

TechSavvy: Every Company Is a Tech Company and Tech Is No Longer an Industry

MIT Sloan Management Review, September 1, 2016

by Theodore Kinni

If you’re competing on the uneven playing fields created by so-called tech companies — like Uber, Airbnb, and Alibaba — that seem to be able to ignore the rules of the game with impunity, you’ll want to read Anil Dash’s latest missive on Medium.

Tech Industry“Once upon a time, it made perfect sense to talk about ‘the high tech industry’ in America — pioneering companies like Intel or Fairchild Semiconductor or IBM or Hewlett Packard made computer processors and related hardware, and most of the companies in Silicon Valley dealt with actual silicon from time to time,” writes Dash. “But today, the major players in what’s called the ‘tech industry’ are enormous conglomerates that regularly encompass everything from semiconductor factories to high-end retail stores to Hollywood-style production studios. The upstarts of the business can work on anything from cleaning your laundry to creating drones. There’s no way to put all these different kinds of products and services into any one coherent bucket now that they encompass the entire world of business.”

But we try anyway, and that needs to stop ASAP, argues Dash. “The reason is simple: A reductive name for the industry masks an enormous set of social challenges that we need to tackle quickly. Mature industries develop their own regulatory frameworks, their own systems for self-regulation, and their own standards for monitoring transgressions within the industry. Today, tech as an industry is almost completely lacking in all of these areas.”

The consequences? A lack of accountability — resulting in situations like the Theranos scandal in which “its founder and its investors all shielded themselves under the cultural cover of being a glamorous member of the ‘tech industry’ rather than a prosaic medical supplier.” The spreading of the “tech’s well-known shortcomings around inclusion and diversity into new fields” is another conundrum. And, continues Dash, “companies ranging from AirBNB to Uber [that] have relied on their status as ‘tech companies’ to systematically shirk inconvenient laws in each new city they enter.”

The solution? Since all companies are tech companies these days, we should define them by the businesses in which they engage, not how they choose to compete. “All it takes is a little discipline in how we communicate,” concludes Dash. “How we talk to each other, to our lawmakers, to the media — each of those little shifts will affect how we think about the impact that tech-enabled companies are having on the world. There’s no doubt that technology itself can have a hugely positive impact. But ensuring that it does may depend on us taking apart the idea that technology is created or sustained by a ‘tech industry’ in the first place.” Read the rest here.

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