Past results are not a guarantee

You’ve see the fine print at the bottom of the mutual fund adverts so many times now that your eyes just pass over it. “Past results are not a guarantee of future performance.”

And they’re not, although we humans have a predilection toward believing that they are.

Even evidence presented to our eyes is ignored, in preference of the belief.

Take the IT Infrastructure Manager at a mid-sized organization, for example.

The enterprise he works for is, like most organizations, primarily a desktop user. Those desktops, in turn, run Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, and the client for one other application essential to their business.

Over the years more and more people are trying to work from home, if not during the day then certainly in the evenings and on weekends. Remote access is a constant source of help desk tickets. (The help desk, in turn, only works 9 to 5.)

In a survey of all staff done for training needs — they were about to do a mass upgrade from Windows XP/Office 2003 to Windows 7/Office 2010 — a couple of additional questions were inserted, asking what people ran at home.

35% of the staff, when they were using their own money, didn’t buy Windows. They’d bought an iMac, or a Mac Mini, or a MacBook. Some were running Microsoft Office on their Mac OS systems, others were running OpenOffice, or Apple’s iWork, both of which could interchange files readily. A few were Google Docs users. Others had taken an old PC or laptop but were running Linux on it, with OpenOffice, StarOffice or Google Docs.

Then there were the people coming into the systems using an iPad or an Android tablet.

The Infrastructure Manager, faced with this data, made VPN using a method that required a Windows-based client mandatory. After all, “everybody runs Windows”.

He couldn’t see that Microsoft’s past domination of the market had ended. Yes, it’s still the largest platform in terms of share, but it’s not just the odd person who resists the tide these days.

He needed to change his assumptions and make things work openly. He chose instead to close the environment.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a stack of requests for laptops awaiting decision now. For if you move to close the doors in the way he has, that’s the outlet for working from home: a portable compliant machine, paid for by the organization.

The point of this story is that in all industries, in all economies, in all countries, the times are changing constantly.

For the past thirty years, labour was seen as the reason to close a facility here, and open one there. Not for skills, but for cheapness. Labour cost ruled all.

We called it globalization.

In the past six years there’s been a new trend building. A shift to quality goods rather than mass cheap goods. A shift to customized manufacturing in small amounts. A relocalization of efforts — where the value add in design, engineering, customized outputs, fast turnaround and the like make labour such a small piece of the whole that you can afford to pay well for the people involved.

3D printers, and other tools, are democratizing these capabilities: a plant might have an $80,000 3D printer being driven by a server; prototypes can be done at home with a $1,500 3D printer driven by an ordinary Mac or PC.

These are clean industries. They don’t require huge facilities and industrial parks: they’d fit nicely into neighbourhoods with shops, restuarants, professional offices and residences all intermixed. (There goes our assumption about zoning and driving all over hell’s half acre to go between a pod of this and a pod of that on a highway.)

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, resigned his post because he’s done a start up. He’s shipping drone aircraft — not the war-making kind, but simple aerial observers that can be used to test soil moisture from above (only irrigate when needed), or report back traffic patterns (instead of one radio station helicopter in the sky, hundreds of observers in real time), or just be a new generation of remote controlled aircraft for a kid to play with. It’s all based on open source software, 3D printing, and is being done in North America, not in China.

Before you plan your career based on what’s gone on before, take a good look around and make sure that tomorrow is going to be like yesterday.

That’s the only way past results matter.

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