Saturday, June 27, 2009

What institutions will survive?...

If they do what will they look like?

Yesterday driving home from taping USFR I checked the news and markets (and traffic on I65 - particularly gruesome accident there) and of course, there were more than a few announcement that Michael Jackson was still dead.

But leave it up to WBBM in Chicago on the Noon Business Hour (an outstanding collection of business programming) to tell me something about MJ I was mildly interested in.

Being a business show, they spent some time talking about Jackson's finances (not pretty) and then a music business expert slipped in a statement to the effect that unlike the Presley estate, Jackson's body of work probably would not be worth much over the next decades, because recorded music is essentially a Dead Business Model Walking.

This strikes me as perceptive. In fact, I began to wonder what intellectual property would retain much value as the digitization and access to words, songs, etc, becomes freer, faster, and easier.  To date our legal system seems fairly powerless to reverse this trend.

So if we were to start a list of enterprises that likely won't be around in 25 years, say, I think I would put the music industry (as we know it) on the list.  The exception might be live performances, perhaps.

But what else will slip away?

Well, we've talked about various forms of printed information - books, newspapers, magazines.  I would consider them candidates.  Additionally, there are serious questions what TV will be.

But what about universities?
"Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning", he writes. "There is fundamental challenge to the foundational modus operandi of the University — the model of pedagogy. Specifically, there is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn."

    The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It's a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril. [More]
I had not thought about this - college was a long time ago. But I do think the college experience is profoundly different that it was back in the day, both socially and educationally.  The author goes on at length to center in on collaborative learning, and there along with others, I found a common thread running through my list of endangered business species.
I think there are two ideas that pretty much sum up this whole discussion. One is multi-way interaction (as opposed to reliance solely on 1-to-many lecturing). The second, not unrelated, is collaboration among educators and students, and especially among students themselves.

I also think it's pretty clear some ways the modern Internet is able to facilitate the implementation of both these ideas. Namely, things like: video lecture series, social networking tools, constantly improving search tools, online and open-access books, journals, and reference materials, collaboratively made encyclopedias, and on, and on....

Let me conclude by referring to something I wrote about two months ago, that is Clay Shirky's diagnosis of the impending demise of traditional media journalism. (See here.) Near the end was this:

    [T]here is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.

    Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time.

In other words: collaboration among consumers of information.

Interesting parallel, wouldn't you say? [More]
For a number of reasons, tools like the Internet and texting are making collaborative effort easier and more productive.

Is agriculture another possible victim/beneficiary of the power of collaborative effort?

As Aaron and I try to build a business organization for his future and my exit (see the next Top Producer Perspective) I am increasingly seeing his working methods and signature skills are reflective of mine, but tending in a collaborative direction.

I have always worked alone, or with Jan - like many old married couples we function essentially as one. I was neither  comfortable with, nor adept at group efforts.  Needless to say this has limited our ability to expand to what technology could do to increase our two-person productivity.  This has not been insignificant either.

Part of the problem for me I believe has been the need to supervise someone else at a distance or give incredibly complicated instructions to cover contingencies. Often this was nearly impossible.

But nearly full-time communication has changed everything for farm operations, I think, and as such allows for larger work groups which can capture even more economies of scale.  In short, collaboration may determine our future as well.

A few years ago I wrote a short story about farming in 2020.  Looking back over it, I envisioned a farm business model similar to law firms, i.e. "Dewey, Gougem and Howe".  I'm not claiming prophetic powers, but that type of multi-principal operation could be the more natural form of work for those who follow the Boomers.

The operational and economic advantages seem considerable at first glance. The analogies to other professions and how they adapted earlier are at least partially valid, I think. And now with the incredible advances in communications, a generation raised in a more connected world seems to be guiding farming away from the "solitary sturdy yeoman" archetype.

The more pertinent question could be "How fast?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


"How fast?" With lightning speed. You have watched the livestock industry. The progression was poultry, hogs, fed cattle. Do you think grains are exempt?

If you were to Myers-Briggs personality test farmers of the past, as a group they would have fallen into the introvert category out of necessity. Many occupations can be bifurcated on an introvert/extrovert basis. (Do you know how to tell if your accountant is an extrovert? He looks at your shoes instead of his own!) Historically we as a group have chased growth mostly as a function of efficacy. We went from every farm having multiple livestock species to single species. Multiple crop to single crop farming styles. Efficiencies have been measured by # of sows per farm to pigs per sow per year. Efficiencies have been measured by # acres to maximum yields and double crops.

You have noted in past writings that farm rental agreements are shifting from the good old boy, taking care of my neighbor method to rental auctions. It is paradigm shifts like this that will necessitate successful future farmers to fall into the extrovert category. Diminishing returns have limited expansion on the do it yourself model. Future successful farmers will be managing people who will be doing the grunt work.

Further down the road I believe we will begin to return to the model that will once again include multiple enterprises on the farm. Concentration of risk in single enterprise farms will prove deadly unless our government chooses to create a moral hazard in agriculture with to big to fail mentality.