Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative and innovation.

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Archive for December, 2008

December 17th, 2008


Living Digitally

The other day I received an email from Don Tapscott, promising me a free copy of his latest book Grown Up Digital, to send to a friend or relative for Christmas, if – here’s the catch – I wrote a review of it to post on either Amazon or Indigo. I just checked and there are just two reviews posted on Indigo and one on Amazon, so I understand why he is making this offer. Still, the implicit message is that a good review is expected. So I’ll forego the offer and post an entirely uncompensated review here.

One of the key themes in Tapscott’s work is that the “Net Generation” – people born between 1977 and 1997 – have grown up with readily available information technology; not only have they greater facility with technology than previous generations, but the technology has shaped their consciousness. Tapscott cites eight norms that he claims characterize this group: freedom, customization, a critical stance to institutions (scrutinizing), a desire for corporate integrity and transparency, a desire to mix work and entertainment, collaboration, speed, and innovation. His main message to all and sundry institutions is that, if you are to succeed in your relationship with the Net Generation, you must respect its norms. All this sounds plausible, but is the Net Generation really that different from all others?

Methodologically, the book was based on online surveys of 7700 Net-Geners (aged 13 to 29), along with control groups of 800 Gen Xers (ages 30 to 41), and 800 baby boomers (ages 42 to 61). Obviously, using the control groups was essential, though the surveys should also have been conducted offline, given that smaller proportions of both Gen Xers and boomers than Net Geners are online. As he was writing for popular consumption, it wasn’t a surprise that Tapscott’s main form of evidence was anecdote. He published only a little of his data. And, he claimed (on p. 34) that the eight norms differentiate Net Geners from their parents. As an academic, I’d like to have seen a book that was stronger on data than anecdote. If Tapscott feels that this would have hurt his sales, then he could have found some other way to make the data available, perhaps as a CD packaged with the book, or online.

Chapter 9, which deals with the Net Gen and democracy, interested me most. He argued that Net Geners are looking for personal involvement in democracy that goes beyond the traditional “you vote, we rule.” Barack Obama, the candidate who most acutely realized this and then translated into his online campaign, was clearly the beneficiary of massive support from Net Geners, as Tapscott approvingly observed. The chapter advocates expanding the Net Gen model of interactivity and collaboration in the political realm.

The chapter ends with a set of recommendations based on the eight norms (p.268). Two strike me as particularly dubious.

“If you’re a politician, stop using attack ads” because “Net Geners are sick of vacuous politics … want to know what politicians stand for … [and] want to revitalize the Founding Fathers’ marketplace of ideas.” But two pages before that, Tapscott told us how Net Geners are using YouTube to skewer politicians they dislike or mistrust. Politics, for any generation, is about both advocacy and critique. Net Geners are as willing to criticize as any other generation. My reading is that they are more partial to satirical putdowns than straight-out big lie attacks, and the Obama campaign was better at playing to this sensibility than was the McCain campaign.

The second recommendation was to “forget about putting

December 10th, 2008

The Policy Issues we Should be Discussing


The coalition did bring change, not necessarily the change that was expected, but an important change nonetheless, stability in the leadership of the Liberal Party. And now that Michael Ignatieff is in place, it’s essential to return to the policy issues that brought the coalition into being, namely the nature of the economic stimulus package and appropriate funding for political parties.

The neo-Keynesian position on economic stimulus – espoused by this year’s Nobel laureate in economics Paul Krugman, 2001 Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, and senior Obama adviser Lawrence Summers – is that monetary stimulus and tax cuts won’t be sufficient to bring the global economy out of this recession. Monetary stimulus isn’t being passed along by the financial intermediaries, which are using the infusions of government money to shore up their own balance sheets. Tax cuts would go mainly into savings, as happened last spring in the US. That leaves fiscal policy to do the job of taking up slack and priming the pump for a private sector recovery.

I suggest three criteria for choosing spending projects: speed, efficiency, and effectiveness. In general, there is a tradeoff between speed and efficiency (spending no more than necessary for a project), but now excess capacity should hold down input costs. Smart procurement policy can create incentives for starting quickly and timely completion. The most important criterion is effectiveness, by which I mean defining great things that we, as a society, can do together.

The problem with entrusting the responsibility for fiscal stimulus to the Harper Government is that it’s just not in their DNA. The Conservatives don’t respect the public sector and have no vision of societal projects; they just want to give money back to taxpayers. Barack Obama’s speech about his stimulus package, delivered on YouTube last Saturday, exemplifies a leader defining a vision and outlining the projects that flow from it. (Notice that one of the projects, connecting all schools and libraries to the Internet is something the Chretien Government did over a decade ago.) By outlining a visionary and vigorous fiscal policy, the Liberals would define themselves as a clear alternative government, ready to contest an election early in the new year. Here are a few areas I’d suggest:

  • Energy efficiency and alternative energy
  • Enhancing public transit, in particular by implementing road pricing in larger cities
  • Improving the delivery of government services
  • Education, particularly reskilling, and research
  • and that Conservative b

December 1st, 2008

Stephen Harper and George Bush: Soulmates Going Down Together?

Government, Politics

In an interview reported in the New York Times last week, George Bush said “I came to Washington with a set of values, and I’m leaving with the same set of values.” Did anyone ever write his own political obituary more accurately? At the root of all Bush’s policy failures was his inflexibility and unwillingness to adopt his ideology to changing circumstances.

Stephen Harper, now on the verge of defeat in the House of Commons, often gives the appearance of pragmatism. His government’s economic statement last week, however, shows that, like George Bush, he is the captive of an inflexible ideology. In Harper’s case, there are two id