Rethinking Technical Solutions

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Sitting in the corner office at Dialog, I was glad that I had taken Microeconomics. After a lot of time up north, I’d returned to Colombo for a bit to meet with some folks and chart out a path forward for GrowLanka. It’s really important to Ishani and I that this service project be sustained in the long term. So in Colombo I was busy meeting lots of people to figure out if there might be a fruitful partnership we could wager with an organization on the ground who shared our vision and commitment to bridging the information gaps in the labor market, an objective that I was able to achieve — but more on that later :)

Dialog (a mobile carrier akin to Comcast, AT&T, etc.) has a job alerts system for their users that is similar in function to ours’ so they seemed like a good place to go to. I got to meet with an executive at the company – and the 30 minute meeting we had was probably my most productive in the city. Boy did I learn. A lot. Dialog specializes in technological solutions. Hearing this executive talk, I was blown away not by just how business savvy they were but also by how committed to sustainability they seemed. Granted, my conversation was not really based in the business world — as this guy told me, “this is far more theoretical stuff.” Still, to know that people at the top tiers of organizations as expansive as Dialog are thinking long term about not just about how to do business but also about the right way to do it was really comforting. You need good leaders to move a country forward — in the political realm, in civil society, in the community. I was lucky to find them too in the business world in Sri Lanka.

It’s hard to boil our conversation down, but here are some of the takeaways — ones that really helped me rethink how I approach technological solutions to social problems and hopefully will help you rethink them too.

(1) You can’t just release your code into the world. A lot of funding these days goes into building the technical infrastructure for new apps, services, you name it. But less thought and follow through goes into how that service will be implemented, rolled out, scaled. We spent a year developing and iterating GrowLanka – but that wasn’t the end of it. We’ve been working on promoting our service, talking to people about it, campaigning for more than 5 months now and we’re not done yet. Eventually if this system is to sustain itself, we have to figure out a way to “create demand” for it but in the initial phases there has to be some momentum, there has to be enough of a critical mass of people using the system thinking, woah this is really helpful. Once you get that critical mass into the system, you get what some might call the hockey stick — suddenly all those people are telling there people about your system and your subscriptions skyrocket. The thing is it’s a rare day when you just get to that critical mass over night. So, even if you have the most brilliant app in the world, you have to figure out how to get the word out, how to tell people about it. And that’s not as easy as it looks! The point being, technology in and of itself isn’t enough. An app can be perfectly built but may gain no subscriptions – the rollout and active deployment of the app may just as well determine it’s success.

(2) Market Failure. A good way to think about where a technological solution might be useful is to think of market failures. Take the case of GrowLanka. There’s a labor demand and a labor supply – but somehow there’s a market failure, a mismatch such that the two aren’t lining up and feeding the other. The system isn’t working so there’s a better way to fix it, to get a more equatable and efficient allocation of that labor. Thinking about GrowLanka in terms of market failure helped me to think about why that market failure was occurring, among the most pressing reasons: a lack of trust, an information gap, distance, a skills gap, culture.

(3) Fulfillment. The data shows that technical solutions work best and are subscribed to most when they get the closest to fulfilling whatever need the user has. For users of GrowLanka — the need was getting a job. But GrowLanka wasn’t giving them a job, it was giving them information about a job, a crucial difference. A better GrowLanka might build on our initial layer of getting job alerts out to also then connecting people interested in a given alert directly to the employer or giving them an edge in the application process, an automatic interview if they expressed interest, for example. We had considered this before – the idea of matching people to jobs not just information about jobs is however an optimistic goal at best. There’s a plenary of challenges– technical, ethical, and practical– that come with trying to match people technologically; hence why human resources (emphasis on the human aspect) still exists!

(4) Ecosystems not value chains. Thinking about your technological solution not just in terms of how it creates value for the users– employers and job seekers in our case– but too how it functions within the greater “ecosystem” (labor organizations, government, confederation of businesses, the unemployed, etc.) allows you to better assess costs and benefits and figure out…

(5) Net Value Creation. Net value creation for GrowLanka, service project and student-headed social venture that we are, is about creating a surplus benefit on the whole for the communities we engage. Metrics are hard and are often murky for organizations like ours. We could measure GrowLanka’s impact by how many subscribers we have, how many text alerts are sent out each week as a business might do – but I’ll be honest with you that’s not really the best metric. A far better one would take into account the costs we’re incurring, how much it takes to maintain our system, the potential negative externalities we might be causing (are we, for instance, pushing out contractors from the labor market — by doing their job are we depriving them of theirs?), and all that considered, the overall value we’re providing. But measuring all that is tough and calls for far more rigorous analytics, such that we might be investing the same amount of our operational costs in running our system — and analyzing it for efficacy. That’s a trade-off that every organization needs to figure out. I will say this though, there’s no point creating an amazing system if there’s no net value creation or, even worse, you’re incurring more costs than you are benefits.

(6) Different forms of capital, different actors. There are many different forms of capital as far as I can see – finance, human, systems intelligence, environment, social, etc. The trick is figuring out which ones you care about most and which ones you need to measure to figure out how effective you’re being. But it’s still not that easy. Some forms of capital — human capital for instance– aren’t as easily measured as others. So you have to develop proxies to measure them. Again, that’s more work – you have to figure out where you stand and walk in knowing that depending on what sector you’re in – private, public, government – the answer and approach will be different. Knowing that and understanding that will help guide your priorities. It might even lead you to believe that a new investment or business model is needed for the kind of organization you want to run. Governments have a really crucial role to play here as well — in incentivizing the right kinds of capital, in regulating those that deplete value, in making sure that those actors that are doing good for the community have a shot.

Just some thoughts/takeaways on my end — sorry I know this post was a bit more technical but I do hope it helps. I sure learned a lot!

Up next: my favorite place in Sri Lanka

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