Like almost everyone else I know, I’d been meaning to read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Once my friend and critic Susan Spaulding gave me a copy, I had to get down to it. Susan was right: I had a lot to learn even though I’d blogged a series called The Flattening of Everything.
The premise isn’t startling: technology and the companies that have run with the technology like Dell and Microsoft and Google and Wal-Mart and Netscape (personally I give credit to Mosaic and Marc Andreessen rather than the company but it’s not my book) have flattened the world. National boundaries are no longer the economic impediment they once were. Jobs flow with much less friction to where they’re most efficiently done. One consequence is the enormous economic growth in India and China as they weave their way into the global supply chains of the multinationals. Another consequence is a widening gap between haves and have-nots. A third consequence is the end of jobs security as we might have known it.
Friedman’s genius is that he gives names to things we knew but had no words for. Then he adds things we didn’t know but should’ve. Finally he adds true insights. His faults are few but there are some. He uses H-P as a favorable example too often given its recent lack of success. Some of his oft-quoted sources have made a name for themselves more as oft-quoted sources than as doers (maybe I’m just jealous). Sometimes he’s a little too gee-whiz. The world’s changed before. But the faults pale next to the strengths of the book.
Here’s one story that floored me:
We all know that some jobs are being outsourced. Customer support is the most cited example. Then there’s programming. The only reason we pay outrageous prices to have technicians in the US analyze our medical lab test results is state licensing laws for technicians. OK, but taking orders at a McDonald’s drive-through windows, that’s location dependent, right? Like plumbing, right? No, wrong!
Friedman tells the story of how drive-through orders at the McDonald’s in Cape Girardeau, Missouri – you know the one, just off I55 – go to a call center in Colorado Springs, Colorado for processing between the time you shout at the microphone and the time you drive to the pickup window. Why not? Once your order became electronic at the microphone, it doesn’t cost significantly more to send it to Colorado than straight to the local kitchen. Along with the order goes a digital picture of your car. When you get to the pickup window, you get what you ordered – not close to what you ordered and not what the car in front of you or the car behind you ordered.
The order takers in Colorado are really good; they don’t make mistakes. They are paid 40 cents more an hour than the average MacDonald’s employee. It costs the franchise owner in Missouri more per order to use them than to use his own employees. But, with mistakes greatly reduced, the drive-throughs handle thirty more cars per hour. That’s real money not even considering customer satisfaction.
Friedman’s point is that almost any job – no matter how local it seems – can be decomposed into at least some parts that can be outsourced for greater efficiency – AND better customer service. No one in Bangalore is gonna fix my plugged pipes on the Jersey Shore; but maybe, if the plumber here were scheduled by someone there, we’d know when he was gonna come. (This is theoretical, of course, I have a great plumber and am dependent on him.)
And the price of communication has nowhere to go but down. Just like the price of computing. So the world just gets flatter and flatter.
I intend to blog more about this book unless a lot of you post comments saying “we’ve already read it, cut it out.”