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Commencement Addresses

Capturing Your Competitive Advantage

  • Date: 05/14/2005
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • To say that we live in interesting times is the understatement of our modern age, as America now stands at the nexus of opportunity and necessity.

    Why? Because the primacy that America has long enjoyed around the world is increasingly being challenged by the very same forces of technological innovation that America itself unleashed.

    Perhaps no story better illustrates my point than the one about the two executives of a global company flying back to the U.S., in first class of course. After dinner, they begin to relax and to contemplate their careers, where upon one turns to the other and says, "You know, I have finally figured out what this global economy is all about."

    "And what is that?" asks his colleague.

    "Well, I am finally going to get paid what I am worth, and I am scared to death of it!"

    Some of you may laugh, but please know that as your university, we continuously ask for feedback from employers on the kind of skills they want us to instill in our students. We mostly hear the usual litany - give us communications skills, writing and quantitative skills, interpersonal skills suitable to working in a team environment, etc...etc...etc.

    But recently, a new request is being heard: "Give us emotional resiliency."

    Think of it, emotional resiliency as a job skill!

    What executives of high-tech start-ups are increasingly telling us is that their employees need to be prepared for failure, to be prepared to adapt to the fast pace of technical innovation, and to be prepared for changing careers three, five or more times during their lifetimes, if not even more, and that most workers will have to have the emotional resiliency to re-invent themselves time and again.

    Whether as individuals or as a society, you see, we prepare ourselves best for change by continuously developing our skills.

    That is why we say that opportunity favors the prepared mind!

    The simple fact is that "Industry structures are in constant churning - firms are merging, acquiring, leaving, dying, entering, growing, downsizing, outsourcing and spinning off. At a faster and faster pace, the U.S. economy is experiencing the phenomenon the economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction'..."
    (Reamer, Andrew, Larry Icerman, Jan Youtie, "Technology Transfer and Commercialization: Their Role in Economic Development," Georgia Institute of Technology, August 2003, p. vii)

    "With the availability of new production, transportation and communication technologies, developing countries can effectively compete with industrialized ones in a number of markets."
    (Reamer, Ibid)

    Consider this fact: "Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are now global corporations; only 49 are countries. Everything is global, and everything is competitive."
    (Chris Foster, chief scientist and deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Development, as reported at the 2004 SSTI conference, Philadelphia)

    It is truly the Age of Global Change, an age in which the process of globalization is abundantly evident and shows that the peoples of the world are moving increasingly towards one another.

    In his new book, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman claims that the world is now so overwhelmingly interconnected that the playing field is no longer tilted in favor of anyone - it is now flat - hence the title of his book The World is Flat.

    Of course, globalization is a process that has been going on since the dawn of our civilization, although we act as if we had only now discovered it.

    Indeed, globalization involves dimensions of social, cultural, technological, and economic change, which characterize the movement of our civilization away from the parochial and toward the global or universal.

    "And now (wireless technologies and) the Internet (are) poised to narrow the commercial and cultural gulfs separating rich nations from poor even further in the decade to come."
    (Business Week, November 6, 2000, p 72-100)

    Why? Because "by decoupling communication from physical location," . . . and from time (think of asynchronous capabilities in wireless devices) - a decoupling that is far more pervasive than that by which transportation once shortened time and distance - the internet is becoming the sort of "disruptive innovation" that is transforming business and society around the world.
    (Council on Competitiveness, NII, Interim Report, 7/23/04)

    In a global, internet-driven economy, the issue is no longer just a matter of simple competition, it is one of America's capacities to innovate and thereby continue to have economic growth.

    Ironically, this is not really a new phenomenon. Change in the workplace and in our society has always been the case, because as new technologies and innovations change the way we do business, companies have always had to retool their equipment, and their workforces.

    Quite simply, a changing workplace requires a changing workforce. Staying the same is not an option!

    And that is something that all of us must grow to accept and to understand, because we will have to continue learning and re-tooling ourselves for the changing nature of our work.

    No protectionist policies will change this fact.

    The former president of Thompson Products, John David Wright, used to say that running a business "...is like riding a bicycle. Either you keep moving or you fall down."
    (Wright, John David, "The Rush to Diversity," Fortune, September 1955)

    Today, this applies to nations as well. Indeed, an expanding economy grows precisely because innovation adds new jobs at the leading edge just a little bit faster than it destroys old jobs at the trailing end.

    You remember from your history courses the story of the Luddites, don't you? The Luddites were those 19th Century British craftsmen who organized to destroy new manufacturing equipment, particularly textile machinery.

    They believed that new technology - in this case, power looms and wool-shearing equipment - was being used to diminish employment, and they were willing to do almost anything to protect their jobs, even if it meant, in some cases, their execution or deportation.

    In the end, however, they lost while society gained. The new technologies added more product availability and increased demand for those products, which created many more textile jobs than they eliminated, and the industry has grown and prospered.

    Throughout history, you see, whenever there is technological change, we find that those with the most invested in the status quo are the last or the least likely to change. So invested are they that some fail to see that there is no further status in the quo, and that leads to a general distrust of the free-market system and the belief that new technology encourages self-interest at the expense of individual self-worth.

    We simply must accept the fact that the world is changing and that jobs change with it. The current jobs in our economy will undoubtedly be destroyed at some point in the future, because that is the natural course and evolution in any economy.

    Ladies and gentlemen, success in the new global economy will belong to those who are willing to take chances and make choices that create new knowledge and new technologies and quickly translate those discoveries into marketable products and services.

    In this environment of global change, where everything is global and everything is competitive, winners enjoy success only because of an uncanny ability to innovate and adapt. They have the emotional resiliency to expand their knowledge, and thus to increase their worth. And that is your lesson for today.

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