The Speaking of Actuaries blog recently featured a post by Emily Kessler on the role of universities in actuarial education and qualification. Emily makes it clear that the actuarial discipline, like others, should draw on a variety of other disciplines to thrive and innovate:
Any profession needs to have a constant stream of intellectual capital. Medicine, law, finance, psychology, actuarial science – no profession can move forward without a constant stream of new thinking, from the broad possibilities to the detailed mathematics. I may not understand quantum mechanics, but I know that its theories are the root of modern electronics. I applaud the Nobel-prize winning physicists whose theories (which I don’t understand) paved the way for my iPod.
Emily makes an excellent point. You don’t need to know everything about everything to help create something great like the iPod—one of the most successful and game-changing innovations of our time. The iPod was more than a new way to listen to music. It paved the way for the iPhone and a slew of other handheld devices that have revolutionized the way we access information and communicate with one another.
How did Apple, a computer company that languished for much of the 1990s, deliver such an incredible product in the audio market, one dominated by larger, more successful companies like Sony? Specifically, why didn’t Sony give us the iPod?
In a recent episode of the Harvard Business IdeaCast, Morten Hansen, professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, offered one explanation for why Apple succeeded with the iPod and iTunes, while Sony failed with “Sony Connect” (Sony what?). Hansen points to stark differences in the social culture within Apple and Sony. Essentially, Apple was able to harness the collective creativity among its employees, while Sony failed to do the same across independent platforms.
Hansen expands further in his book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results:
Sony, not Apple, should have given us the iPod. Sony failed miserably because it couldn’t collaborate across its many decentralized divisions. It could deliver only one kind of performance—wonderful products coming out of independent business units that had a great deal of freedom. But it couldn’t add another level of performance—great products resulting from collaboration across its divisions. It failed to move its performance to a higher plateau—to gain the best of both worlds—by keeping the benefits of having independent business units and reaping big results from collaboration. It lacked disciplined collaboration.
Actuaries, like other professionals, store and produce a great deal of valuable information at an individual level. Individual thinking is vitally important because it leads to the pursuit of self-interest in a capitalist economy and also ensures a varied mix of ideas and solutions to problems.
But we can do much more at the company, industry, and social level by combining what we know with other actuaries as well as members of other disciplines. To date, we’ve been encumbered by geographic and social barriers. This is by no means unique to the actuarial profession; knowledge workers across the globe stare at the same walls and ceilings.
Fortunately, this is changing thanks to Web 2.0 and social technologies that allow individuals to collaborate regardless of conventional barriers. I’m confident that we will see new iPods delivered at an even faster pace as we move into the 21st century—one that will take interdisciplinary collaboration to levels we cannot fathom today.
In future posts, I’d like to explore various collaboration technologies that actuaries and other knowledge workers can use to increase their productivity, market value, and contribute to their industries. Current examples of these technologies include wikis, message boards, YouTube-style videos, social media sites like LinkedIn, Google Wave, and others. If you already use these or other technologies, please let me know in the comments. Additionally, if you have suggestions for future topics, please let me know about those too.