Genomics, polio, and turning social business into a discipline

Why is the work in most offices around the world so inefficient and ineffective? Hundreds of millions of people suffer through pointless meetings and bad presentations. They wade through bureaucracy and email. And it all seems to go from bad to worse.

We complain. We share Dilbert cartoons. Yet, despite the extraordinary waste, we seem resigned to the way things are.

Well, the way things are stinks.

It’s time to change the way people work in offices around the world. It’s time to treat office work as a discipline that’s urgently focused on improving things.

Advances in Genomics

In technology, we’ve grown used to continual advances. And that’s particularly true in genomics.

In a recent TED talk on genomics, Richard Resnick talked about the amazing advances over the past few decades. When I was a kid, people didn’t think it would be possible to ever sequence the 3 billion base pairs in the human genome. Now we do it routinely, and it’s becoming faster and cheaper.

“The price to sequence a base has fallen 100 million times. That’s the equivalent of you filling up your tank in 1998, waiting until 2011, and now you can drive to Jupiter and back. Twice.”

The scale of such a change is unbelievable. And such incredible change isn’t limited to just technology.

Advances in eradicating polio

In another brilliant TED talk, Bruce Aylward talks about the incredible efforts underway to eradicate polio. And his sense of urgency is palpable.

So far, smallpox is the only disease we’ve eradicated from the entire planet. And polio presents numerous other challenges. The vaccine is more fragile. More people are affected. And there are no visible signs when someone is infected, making it easier to spread.

To eradicate polio, Aylward needs more than technological advances.

“We've had to create one of the largest social movements in history...There are over 20 million people in the largest internationally coordinated operation in peacetime [who] vaccinate 500 million children every single year.”

Imagine organizing, supplying, and training 20 million people (mostly volunteers) to go into some of the most remote regions in a variety of cultures and conduct a medical procedure on children.

It’s impossible. And they’re doing it.

The human benefit is immense. And there are financial benefits, too, as we eliminate costs associated with treating people.

“One congressman in the US thinks that the entire investment that the US put into Smallpox eradications pays itself off every 26 days....And if we can finish polio, some of the poorest countries on Earth will save over $50 billion in next 25 years.”

Saving lives and saving money. No wonder Aylward has such a sense of urgency.

Advances in social business(?)

Isn’t it odd that we don’t have such a sense of urgency when it comes to improving business practices?

With all of the people affected and the money at stake, isn’t it crazy that we’re not more focused on changing how hundreds of millions of people work?

The technical barriers are far lower than those in genomics. The social barriers are less daunting than what the polio teams are facing. And we already have the knowledge to do better. Countless books, blogs, videos, and conferences that tell us “how to.”

But we have no discipline. And we need one.

We need to create new roles and structures. To constantly collect and analyze data. To codify practices and continuously seek to improve them. To share failures and successes among practitioners.

That’s where the social business movement should aim. Going beyond a desire to work better to instilling pride in what we do and creating a framework for driving changes in a sustainable, scalable way.

That’s the movement I want to be a part of. Those are the kinds of contributions I aspire to make.