Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Is efficiency effective?

A week ago I gave a talk at TEDx Rochester about a phenomenon I'm researching: the rise of social business and distributed manufacturing. Social business models adhere to a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. And distributed manufacturing, a shift powered by increased access to rapid prototyping tools, is a shift away from our current centralized manufacturing.

I was happy to receive a range of feedback. The geeks beamed: "Now I have an excuse to buy a 3D printer!" A travel agent told me how my thesis applied to her work, as did a community art-space organizer. And the skeptics? I know they were out there, but for the most part they were silent. One of them, one of my fellow speakers, pulled me aside and asked, "How can this be efficient?"

I'm not quick on my feet so I stumbled in my response to him. When he asked, "How can this be efficient?" I dodged his concern and answered with something snippy and defensive, like "Efficiency isn't the issue. I just want an alternative to foreign children making our products."
In part I stand by that snippy response. It captures the passion I feel about this shift. But now that I've had a week to think about it, a better response comes to mind; I think I would have brought it back to his own talk, in which he and a team of puppeteers made a case for transitioning from lecture teaching to guided inquiry. They based their argument not on efficiency but on effectiveness.

Efficiency is about doing things faster and cheaper, and lecturing is efficient. But effectiveness is about doing things that are rich and meaningful. What he was arguing is that guided inquiry is effective, but he didn’t compare the effectiveness against its efficiency. I want to question whether they have to be mutually exclusive. While it would be easy for me to claim that efficiency and effectiveness are opposed, I've got Roger Martin's voice in my head telling me to resolve them, to find the space where they meet, or at least complement each other. Because both of them have staying power.

I want to now address concerns about efficiency. I see three choices before us:

1. We drop efficiency as a value (not likely)
2. We make these new distributed models adhere to our current definition of efficiency
3. We redefine efficiency, factoring in externalities

We need to answer these questions not only about distributed manufacturing, but about other distributed models that are on the rise. The local food sector faces similar challenges about efficiency, as does the alternative energy sector.