The Soul of an Old Machine


Robert Payne | Flickr

Henry Ford famously made inexpensive cars and paid his workers enough so they could afford to buy those cars. Ford aimed for a sort of virtuous cycle, in which a growing business would support a prosperous customer base that could in turn help the business grow further.

In the century since Ford’s heyday American business leaders have largely abandoned this approach, but it’s beginning to creep back into the conversation. Writing in The Atlantic, law professor Michael Dorff argues that too often today’s mission-driven corporations wear their ideals on their sleeves — giving to charity, promoting sustainability initiatives — but fail to build their businesses around a fundamental commitment to the well-being of workers and the wider community, the way Ford at his best did. (He had some execrable traits, too.)

Dorff describes such companies as “having a soul,” but we may not need such quasi-spiritual language to describe the Ford philosophy. You could also just call it a combination of long-term thinking, self-interest, and a conscience.

Unskilled Labor Has Left the Building

Greenville, South Carolina was a textile manufacturing hub till the industry moved overseas. Unlike other factory towns it didn’t just shrivel up; Greenville still makes stuff, and the city is doing better than many. But there’s a catch. Having become a center for advanced, automated manufacturing, with the largest BMW plant in the world, Greenville has attracted investment and maintained its tax base. But the community is stuck with a below-average per capita income and a high poverty rate (Technology Review).

That’s because Greenville’s economic growth is perched on precious few actual jobs, and those jobs it has demand skills that its blue-collar population doesn’t always have. Greenville’s story is the story of the future of manufacturing: Higher productivity with less human labor. People are still essential for these assembly lines, but there’s no such thing as well-paying work for the untrained any more.

A Cure For the Common Cold? Don’t Scoff Yet

Most company’s missions involve setting out to solve some intractable problem for people. But how do you go about solving a problem that nobody thinks can be solved?

For one answer, take a look at the latest attempt to cure the common cold — a long-shot effort that, happily if improbably, looks as if it might finally be meeting some success (Carl Zimmer in Stat News). Medical researchers in Atlanta and London are developing cold vaccines that show promising early results protecting monkeys from the rhinoviruses that cause sniffles, sore throats, and coughs in humans — and pose more serious problems for more vulnerable people.

The medical details are fascinating, but the story also holds a deep lesson about the nature of innovation. It turns out the last serious effort to develop a cold vaccine was back in the 1970s, and when it failed, scientists wrote this problem off. But a lot has changed in the ensuring half-century. It’s always useful to recall that yesterday’s failure file is a great place to look for new opportunities. Whether this research provides us with the legendary “cure for the common cold” or just fizzles out, it’s a reminder that time has a way of softening hard problems.

Climate Migration is Coming to a Shore Near You

Global warming has already reshaped the coastline. No matter how quickly we move to curtail carbon emissions today, that’s going to continue — which means that some Americans who live on the edge of the ocean are going to have to move.

In an interview on Bloomberg, Rutgers sociologist Karen O’Neill, who studies climate migration, describes three levels of human response to rising sea levels: Protection (build walls), accommodation (put buildings on stilts), and migration (move inland). O’Neill cautions against using the word “retreat” to describe that final option — it sounds like defeat. Forced relocation is always going to be painful, she says, but a carrot-driven approach can work, too — like building tourist attractions on the mainland to attract visitors who formerly thronged to barrier-island beaches.

Who Should a Startup Hire First?

You just founded a startup. Now you should hire people whose abilities complement yours, right? Wrong, says Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta (NewCo Shift). Founders typically hire first to fill gaps in their own skill-sets — but that can backfire, since it’s hard to evaluate candidates in an area outside your expertise.

Instead, Bahat says, when the company has a role to fill that you’re no expert at, try a “cell-division” approach: Bring in someone who does what you do, hand the newcomer some of your workload, and try out that unfamiliar role yourself. That way, whenever you do have to hire someone to fill it, you’ll know how to pick someone great.

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