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

  • Theodore Kinni
  • September 01, 2016

What’s happening this week at the intersection of management and technology.

A tech industry in name only: 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.

“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.”

More agile, more inclusive decision-making: I’ve been reading The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, by MIT Sloan School prof Catherine Turco. It’s an ethnographic analysis of TechCo, a pseudonymous social media firm in which Turco embedded herself for 10 months. Turco reports that, in a sometimes quixotic quest to create a “radically open” firm, TechCo’s founders “have taken the spirit and tools of social media and embraced them as organizational philosophy.”

As you might imagine, this quest has its tensions. One of them relates to decision making, which, coincidently, another Sloan Schooler — Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the MIT Center for Digital Business — just described over at HBR. “Organizations I work with increasingly struggle to straddle two painfully polarizing operating principles. On the one hand, they desperately seek greater agility; on the other, they genuinely want to include all the right stakeholders in their processes,” writes Scharge. “In other words, more people want to make more-agile decisions more often. This tension drives my clients mad.”

Schrage says that decision rights — first described by Michael Jensen and William Meckling in 1992 — hold the key to resolving this tension. And he recommends using the RACI framework, or one of its many variations, to analyze and define them.

Check it out, TechCo.

How to look good on video calls: Everybody thinks that Mark Zuckerberg taped over the webcam on his laptop to foil hackers, but I think he was sick and tired of looking sick and tired on video conferences. If I’m right, he’s not alone. In a Quartz article, Anne Quito reports that a Steelcase survey revealed that 72% of us feel self-conscious about ourselves on video and 58% of us think we look “washed out or tired.”

Quito offers four tips for looking your best on video calls (in addition to changing out of your pajamas). First, she says, “mind the camera height … too low, it shoots up the nostrils … too high, a camera can project a distorted picture.” Second, “look at the camera, not yourself.” Third, “find the light.” Aim your desk light toward yourself at a 45-degree angle and bounce it off the desk. Fourth, “clear the background … clutter in the background can be distracting, if not outright embarrassing.”

Now, you’re ready for your close-up.