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April 2012
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August 2012

May 2012

Summer Break

This marks my last post for the summer. I’ll be back online – both on this blog and on Twitter – most likely the last week of August when the fall semester starts at Lehigh, maybe the first week of September. There are a lot of things I want to get done this summer, both from a professional and a personal standpoint, in Bethlehem and beyond, and I decided to take a page from Seth Godin’s Linchpin book and try to focus my energy away from the Internet for those coming few months. If you know me personally this latest development won’t come as too much of a surprise to you. If it does... you and I really should catch up in person soon. I’ll be checking email once in a while, and that’s about it.

Those among you who need some reading in the meantime may enjoy my most viewed blog posts over the past year:

I’m looking forward to updating all of you in three months on the things I’ve done... and hearing about the things you've done too. Talk to you in late August. Take good care.


US Manufacturing: Lehigh Valley vs Delaware Valley

The Brookings Institution has a new report out on "Locating American Manufacturing: Trends in the Geography of Production", as pointed out in the Washington Post here (interestingly, food manufacturing not only is included in the computations, but represents the biggest sector in terms of jobs with 12.6% of the manufacturing pie). The report has excellent interactive features, so for today's short post I'll compare the manufacturing scorecards of the Lehigh Valley, aka Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton in Brookings terminology, and of the Delaware Valley, aka Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington. (For my non-local readers, Bethlehem is about 1 1/4 hour north of Philadelphia, so both areas are close from each other geographically.) 

  • Allentown is part of "Chemical Alley", a manufacturing group that "consists of metro areas that have a high degree of specialization in chemicals" (I'll make a wild guess here and venture that Air Products has something to do with this labeling) while Philadelphia falls into the "Diversified Manufacturing" category, i.e., "manufacturing employment... is relatively spread out among many industries."
  • With 35K manufacturing jobs, the Allentown metro area ranks 55 in the country while Philly's 187K jobs push it to rank 7.
  • Both the Allentown and Philly areas have seen a decrease in manufacturing jobs of about 35% between 2000 and 2010.
  • Manufacturing jobs represent about 10% of all jobs in Allentown (rank 20) but 7% of all jobs in Philadelphia (rank 63).
  • 22% of the manufacturing jobs in Allentown are classified as "moderately high-tech" while 17% of the manufacturing jobs in Philly are. (Moderately high-tech includes petroleum and coal products, transportation, appliance/component manufacturing.)
  • 8% of the manufacturing jobs in Allentown are classified as "very high-tech" while 24% of the manufacturing jobs in Philly are. (Very high tech includes pharmaceuticals, computers, aerospace, electronics.)
  • Average manufacturing wages:
    • Very high tech Allentown $64K Philly $99K US $93K
    • Moderately high tech Allentown $69K Philly $84K US $65K
    • Manufacturing Allentown $54K Philly $68K US $58K
    • All jobs Allentown $44K Philly $54K US $47K

Either the Brookings PDF file on Allentown has a typo or (1) moderately high-tech jobs pay better in Allentown than very high-tech ones, (2) very high-tech jobs pay about 1/3 less in Allentown than the US average. For the sake of restoring the area's competitiveness and its residents' earnings power, this should change fast.


Analytics and Linchpins

I recently finished reading Linchpin by Seth Godin, which I found to be a far better book than I expected in spite of its many disjoint thoughts. One thing that struck me was Godin’s attitude that “the easier it is to quantify, the less it’s worth” (p.96 of paperback edition). When I interact with business practitioners outside the crowd of analytics faithful I encounter at conferences, it sometimes seems that a few of them really don’t want to use mathematical models to, say, set their inventory. They cling instead that they have some magical, intuitive knowledge of future product demand that can’t be inputted in a computer. Of course, it makes at first their job more secure by giving the illusion that they are indispensable, until someone at their company or one of their competitors decides to implement analytical techniques.

The question this raises is: how can we convince such practitioners that analytics aren’t a threat (representing the big bad world that is continually replacing humans by computers) but instead an opportunity (of said humans to focus on higher-value tasks)? Or, what retraining do these people have to receive to be able to take advantage of the opportunity?    


HBR articles

The May 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review has many great articles I wholeheartedly recommend, including:

Last month’s issue (April 2012) also did not disappoint, in particular:


GoodSemester, Part 2

Here is my long promised sequel to my blog post on GoodSemester – please read Part 1 if you haven’t already. There were two topics I wanted to discuss regarding this educational startup but didn’t have space for in the Part 1 post: (1) how such a site can change the way we teach and (2) how the company fits in the innovation framework developed by Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School.

My first comment is that such sites where students can upload their course materials have gained in popularity – Coursehero comes to mind, among others – and it is only a matter of time until a market leader emerges and aggregates the information disseminated between “frat files” and online accounts. GS’s high-quality design and easy-to-use interface makes it a good candidate to play that role in the near future. (This is because students can create their own groups and share documents among group members, without needing an instructor to be assigned to the course. So for instance a fraternity could get accounts for all its members and have them upload notes and materials for easy reference.)

This means that we educators have to embrace the fact that all our materials will be soon available online for many to see, even if we’d prefer to keep control over what the students have access to. This raises the following questions, and I’d be curious to know people’s thoughts on possible answers: how should we (educators) adapt the way we teach so that we continue to bring value? Should we continue to assign homework or, if students have all access to a bank of past exercises, should we only give midterms and final exams, as in my engineering school in France? Should we abolish large lectures and only have recitations where students practice without a grade, since they’ll be able to read or watch lecture materials from their dorm room? How do we use this technology to move toward more customized interactions with students and away from “one size fits all” to provide superior training?

My second purpose for this new post on GS is to discuss how it fits in Christensen’s framework on disruptive innovation. Recall that GS’s purpose is to disrupt an industry dominated by Blackboard and CourseSite, the latter being open-source. Christensen’s key idea is that newcomers disrupt incumbents when they offer a product that is good enough for the low end of the market and thus captures market share in a segment the incumbents don’t bother fighting for. (Then the product improves and more and more higher-end segments get impacted, but the incumbents retreat every time to protect the high end of their market.)

Based on the demo I’ve seen, GS appears to be a far superior product. It also seems to be directly aiming at institutional markets, which are the bread-and-butter of the incumbents, and plans to generate revenue using what looks like a fairly standard freemium model available to both individuals and institutions. In other words, its business model is apparently to go head-to-head against the incumbents to build critical mass instead of chipping away at the customer base by first focusing on, say, students who want to create their own groups (something that – to the best of my knowledge – Blackboard and CourseSite don’t offer). Admittedly, students might be unwilling to pay for the service, and the higher education sphere has its own peculiarities and inertia that might make GS’s strategy viable. But Christensen makes a convincing case in favor of competing against non-consumption (targeting a non-consuming part of the population and turning that segment into consumers) as a recipe for success for innovators.

Christensen also points out the need for many disruptive innovators to create new channels instead of using existing ones. Talking with technology services departments at universities to convince them to switch their course management software to GS is simply using an existing channel. Recruiting professors and students to use the service and spread the word on a large scale beyond beta-testing would be creating a new distribution channel. GS has many features in its favor, in particular the ease with which it supports collaborative tools – a “job” (to use Christensen’s terminology) that students are already trying to get done, but which is not supported by CourseSite or Blackboard, both of which are very one-directional in terms of information flow.

Finally, Christensen recommends being “impatient for profit, patient for growth.” In his words (p.290-1): “When someone tells you as a senior executive that you must endure years of substantial losses before a new business will become huge and profitable, this flags a plan to cram a disruptive technology into a sustaining role in an established market… [As for growth,] Disruption – and competing against nonconsumption in particular – requires a longer runway before a steep ascent is possible.”

Wise words that I hope GS will abide by. Its superior product deserves to win.