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Google isn’t satisfied with revolutionizing the search engine. Success is measured in various forms, not the least of which is creating a new verb. But ‘googling it’ isn’t the only way they have been branded onto the popular culture landscape, and never was this more clear than a few years ago, when rumors of the generous job perks enjoyed by the company’s Mountain View employees started flying around the tech community. Free gourmet meals, car washes, commuter shuttles, massage rooms, and an on-site gym are just a few of the benefits available to staffers – and all on Google’s dime.
But while Google’s attack on the standard-issue corporate mentality is to be applauded, and hopefully copied, it isn’t actually new. Some companies are going to even greater lengths and are finding success – and growing profits – by embracing a radical new management philosophy – workplace democracy.
Some key defining factors of democracy in the office include the employees’ ability to choose their own work hours, bosses, co-workers, projects, and salaries. And it’s far enough removed from the norm to leave many CEOs scratching their heads, and clamoring to find out how they can bring it to work in their corporations.
One of the founders (and an outspoken proponent) of this business style is Ricardo Semler – an entrepreneur, bestselling author, and the CEO of Semco, Inc., one of Brazil’s largest companies. Semler took over Semco in 1980, when it was still a small manufacturing concern started by his father and pulled in profits of $4 million per year. Today, Semco’s annual revenue is well over $250 million, and involves high-tech engineering, technology services, HR support, and commercial real estate interests.
Interview with Ricardo Semler
Upon taking the reigns at Semco, at 21 years of age, Semler was dismayed by the corporate culture – the management’s inability to listen to employees’ concerns, and the company’s inflexibility in approaching new business ventures. Within two months, he had laid off most of the top-tier management, in an effort to start fresh with as little ‘foot-dragging’ as possible. His new approach to business and employee management was based on a very simple idea – a good, strong business is built by great, happy employees.
People are considered adults in their private lives, at the bank, at their children’s schools, with family and among friends–so why are they suddenly treated like adolescents at work? Why can’t workers be involved in choosing their own leaders? Why shouldn’t they manage themselves? Why can’t they speak up–challenge, question, share information openly? – Ricardo Semler, The Seven-Day Weekend
From hiring decisions to meeting attendance, Semco believes its people are capable of making their own choices. This democratic philosophy is even extended to office architecture where, instead of cubicles and walls, work spaces are separated by rows of plants – encouraging more interaction between employees (an idea which has been copied, to great acclaim, at Google’s headquarters).
By relinquishing control, a skill that Semler finds lacking in most corporate business leaders, and constantly questioning the accepted standards, Semler has created a company where employees are encouraged to follow their own interests and strengths – resulting in high profit margins and one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry. And the ongoing success of the company stands as great proof that this philosophy works.
Semler has brought worldwide attention to Semco’s business practices, and CEOs around the world are taking note. In his recent book, Let My People Go Surfing,Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard discusses the evolution of his company’s democratic work environment and the importance of supporting and valuing employee ideas. Workplace democracy is a wildly different concept from the corporate mentality that has permeated typical business practices – but as more companies adopt these standards, we can expect to see happier, more productive employees – and hopefully, a stronger, healthier economy as the result.
Popularity can be a funny, fickle thing – just ask Dean Kamen, inventor of the over-hyped, under-sold, and much beloved Segway PT (personal transporter). Prior to the first public introduction of the vehicle in 2001, media outlets were buzzing with news of its release, with everyone from venture capitalists to Steve Jobs touting the electric-powered mover as the next big thing. Despite the hype, Segway failed to overtake the market as predicted, instead gradually building a loyal following of enthusiasts in countries around the world.
SegWay promotional video
While the vehicle may not have roared out of the starting gate – or more accurately, gently motored – it is more a consequence of timing than engineering. Designed as an energy efficient alternative to cars, Segway was made available to the public in 2002 – long before soaring gas prices and economic crises became nightly news topics. Coupled with the growing awareness of the need to be more environmentally conscious and responsible, many consumers are now taking a closer look at transportation options that don’t rely on the gas pump.
The vehicle itself looks simple enough – but don’t let that fool you. Reportedly over $100 million dollars was spent in the development of the 2-wheeled transport, including a proprietary software system, and mechanics that continuously shift and self-correct for every movement the rider makes. Steering, acceleration and breaking are all controlled by the body position of the user, as the unique balancing system relies on onboard computers communicating with gyroscopes, tilt sensors, and motors. These constant adjustments to reach equilibrium make the ride extraordinarily stable and safe, allowing it to be driven on changing terrain, at speeds of up to 12.5 mph.
Safety has been a focus for Segway engineers since the initial design development. Several automatic features regulate the speed, and can even stop the vehicle if anything hits the front grid. The company has also issued numerous recalls in order to update the onboard software and to fix any glitches that could cause the machine to malfunction. As the Segway has grown in popularity across the globe, many countries are have created new laws and mandates regarding its use in order to protect riders and pedestrians. Though new legislation has been stymied by the difficulty in defining what exactly a Segway is – scooter, motorcycle, bicycle?
Whatever classification the Segway falls under, interest in this new form of personal transportation is growing. Tour companies in many cities – including Paris, Barcelona, and Minneapolis – have bought fleets of Segways, offering tourists an opportunity to enjoy the sites on two, self-balancing wheels. They are even available for visitors to Disney’s EPCOT Center. The all-electric vehicle has also been adopted by several police and private security forces – giving officers the ability to cover more ground, faster response times, and reduced operating costs.
Although the Segway’s popularity is taking a longer time to develop than originally predicted, there is no mistaking the unbridled enthusiasm displayed by owners. Segway Inc. has been quick to support this budding acclaim – taking an active role in the yearly SegwayFesT events by offering technical seminars, Q & A sessions, and social gatherings. Whether riding around on city streets, or playing Segway Polo – a sport played on the MIT and Microsoft campuses – riders aren’t difficult to spot. They’re the ones smiling.
Under the title heading of Craig Venter’s Wikipedia entry is a note reading – “the neutrality of this article is disputed… please do not remove this message until the dispute is resolved.” This note could serve as a metaphor for Venter’s relationships with those in the scientific community, where ongoing struggles for funding create fast enemies, and unabashed ambition and a keen business acumen are rare and often ill appreciated. Venter has long been an anomaly in the scientific research community – making bold proclamations, using progressive, nonstandard techniques, and failing to tip-toe around his colleagues’ rules of acceptable conduct. That his methods are atypical is without question, but do they work?
Venter first rose to international prominence through his work in genomic mapping – determining the sequences that make up human DNA, and identifying and mapping the 20,000+ genes of the human genome. (The genome is a full set of chromosomes, or all the inheritable traits of an organism.) Lacking an advanced degree in biology, the specifics of this achievement are nearly impossible to comprehend, but the possible benefits to the medical and scientific communities are much simpler and easy to grasp. An understanding of genomic sequencing could end disease and genetic disorders. Period. All of them – cancers, Alzheimer’s, Down Syndrome, tuberculosis, AIDS, even color-blindness. For the millions of research hours given over to the search for a cure, the promise of controlling – or changing – our genomic code is the best possibility for overcoming flawed or mutated genetics.
A monumental undertaking, Venter raised the ire of colleagues by promising a completed map in three years, and at a fraction of the cost, compared to the reported estimates of the NIH/US government-supported Human Genome Project. That his boast did much to expedite the race has gained Venter little favor among others in his field, sparking a war of words – and a questioning of his scientific integrity – that still haunts him today.
Venter’s latest project is no less ambitious. Living aboard a 93-foot sailing yacht with a team of researchers, Venter traveled the same sea-going route as Charles Darwin and Joseph Banks, hoping to map the DNA of every bacteria and microorganism on the planet. Field samples are subjected to the same shotgun sequencing technique used in human genome mapping – in which researchers focus on small, separated strands of DNA which, once unraveled, are then reconnected by highly-specialized computer programs.
Craig Venter: A Voyage of DNA, Genes and the Sea
Venter continues to remain a pioneer in engaging the unknown, navigating the often muddy waters of political and social interests, in the hopes of profitable discoveries. But despite loud cries to the contrary, this isn’t all about money. His ultimate goal is to build a synthetic genome, primarily for experimentation, but also in anticipation of creating modified microorganisms that will produce clean fuels and biochemicals. He may be outspoken, but his willingness to ask questions, and his commitment to discovery, are opening up a new era of scientific advancement.
Craig Venter on Creating Artificial Life
As we move further into the new millennium, there is a growing public awareness – and concern – over our energy reliance and usage, and the possibility of the devastating effects that reliance could have on our environment. The Internet Age has connected us to the world around us in ways we could never have thought possible a mere generation ago, and to a great extent the ability to access information is helping us to make better, more responsible decisions about our impact on the planet. Using public transportation, recycling and cutting down on waste, and using energy-efficient home appliances are all excellent methods of reducing our carbon footprint, but environmental scientists and ‘green’ advocates alike are stressing the need to get smarter about our consumption – to use power more efficiently and effectively than ever before.
To address these concerns, many energy companies are expressing interest in developing ‘smart grid‘ technologies, that will give consumers the ability to monitor and adapt their energy usage, and save money in the process. By replacing older meters with new boxes fitted with a wireless chip, consumers can view – hour by hour – their home’s energy consumption over the Internet. In addition, consumers will also be able to adjust, or turn off, select appliances and electric outlets – all with the click of a mouse. While many of these projects are still in the development phase, ‘early adopter’ communities are reporting positive results.
Boulder, Colorado is one of the first American cities to adopt this new technology, and the 50,000 households who comprise ‘Smart Grid City‘ are seeing lower monthly electric bills, and a greater understanding of just how much energy they are using at any given time. Many houses are also outfitted with solar panels, which feed electricity back into the home, with the reserve going either into battery storage (for use in the event of a power outage) or back onto the grid to serve other homes.
Boulder – Smart Grid City
Consumers are also learning new methods of cutting back. Heating and cooling systems in the homes can now be controlled online – a boon in climates with extreme hot or cold fluctuations. When Broward County, Florida installed a smart grid system, users could program the air conditioning to turn off in the morning after they left for work, and to start again before they returned.
The push to develop these technologies comes not just from concerned citizens and environmental groups, but by the companies who rely on consumer usage to turn a profit. Smart grids could reduce stress on the current system, by urging customers to use high-energy consuming appliances at off-peak hours. This would give the utility a greater ability to serve all their customers, lessens the possibility of blackouts and lowers monthly energy bills resulting – they hope – in happier, loyal customers. As alternative energy options continue to gain acceptance and market share, traditional utility companies have to adapt to public demand, or face an uncertain future.
Proponents of this technology got a big boost in January, when President Obama announced his plans to increase funding for ‘clean energy’ projects – including the ongoing development of smart grids. While it will be several years before ‘smart grid’ becomes a household reality for most Americans, this new concept is making many rethink their day-to-day energy usage and make decisions that are more responsible and conscientious. The technology is here, it’s only up to us to use it.