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高度分化的社会:速度优势超越规模优势

   

      

      几乎在所有时代,一个社会的成功取决于它能否将大型规范机构整合到一起。规模经济几乎就是获胜的法宝,最大的机构就是最成功的机构。

      时过境迁,我们已经不再那么迷信规模经济了。但是就在几十年前,机构还是越大越容易取得进步。在1960年,雄心勃勃的大学生总是想进入福特、通用电气和美国航空航天局,在宽敞明亮的办公室里工作。小就意味着不入流。在1960年,谈到“小”时,不可能是指一家初创公司,而可能是一家希德(Sid)大叔鞋店。

      我成长于20世纪70年代,当时“职位阶梯(corporate ladder)”的概念十分风行。通常一个人的标准计划就是:上一所名牌大学,接着进入某家公司,然后得到提升,承担更大的责任。雄心勃勃只不过意味着更快的升职。 [1]

      但是在20世纪末,事情发生了变化。规模经济不再是公司的惟一法则。尤其是在技术方面,小型公司的速度优势开始超过规模优势。

      后来发生的事情和我们在1970年的预期有所不同。圆顶城市和会飞的汽车并未出现。不过幸运的是我们有了镶有徽章的连体裤,用来代表我们的职业和地位。现在看来,未来经济并没有被少数几个庞大的树形机构统治,而是由很多动态的独立单元组成。

      并不是说大型组织不行了。对于极其成功的机构(如罗马军队和英国东印度公司)来说,组织规模依然像条约和政治那么重要。只不过现在大型机构正面临新的对手,这些竞争对手无法通过发现新技术来改变现行规则。现在我们需要给“大型规范机构总能获胜”添加一个限制条件:“在(规则)变化缓慢的游戏中”。但是谁也不知道变化会有多快。

      但是从现在开始,大型组织将越来越糟,因为他们再也得不到一流人才,这在历史上是史无前例的。现在的大学毕业生不想进大公司工作。他们更愿意加入那些很快可以成为大公司的热门初创公司。如果他们真的雄心勃勃,他们还可以自己创业。 [2]

      并不是说大公司会消失。我们说初创公司会成功的意思是大公司将会存在,因为成功的初创公司或者会成为大公司,或者会被大公司收购。但是大公司很可能再也无法扮演二三十年前那种叱咤风云的角色了。 [3]

      一种延续如此之久的趋势将永远消失,这多少有些令人感到意外。一条规则在适用数千年之后突然被改变,这样的事情会多久发生一次呢?

      这条延续千年的“大即是好”的规则给我们留下了很多传统观念,虽然都已经过时,但仍然根深蒂固。这也就只说雄心勃勃的人们需要取其精华,弃其糟粕。准确把握“择其善者而从之,其不善者而改之”十分重要。

      问题的切入点就是盛行“小”的领域:初创公司的世界。

      过去,尤其是在美国,经常会出现个别雄心勃勃的人们自己出去创业,而不是在公司打工。但是在以前只有外行人才这么做。十九世纪的伟大实业家们通常都没有受过正规教育。他们的公司最后都成为大公司,这些人最初都是机械师或者商店主。那都是受过大学教育的人不愿意从事的职业。在技术型初创公司,尤其是互联网初创公司,兴起之前,很少有受过教育的人愿意创业

      八个男人离开肖克利(Shockley)半导体公司(最初也是一家初创公司),之后成立了飞兆(Fairchild)半导体公司。他们当初并未打算成立一家新公司。他们只是想找一家愿意同时雇用他们的公司。最后其中一人的家长把他们介绍给一家小型投资银行,从而得到启动资金,然后就创业了。但是对他们而言,成立一家公司是一件很奇怪的事情,是走投无路时的选择。[4]

      而我认为现在,实际上每个知道如何编程的斯坦福或者伯克利本科毕业生,都至少有过创业的想法。东海岸大学也紧随其后,英国大学也不甘示弱。这种格局意味着斯坦福和伯克利毕业生的态度并非偶然,而是一种先进的趋势。这是世界未来的发展方向。

      当然,互联网初创公司只占世界经济的一小部分。但是它们引领的这种趋势有那么强大吗?

      我想是的。互联网初创公司的潜力是无限的。和科学一样,财富看上去也呈现分形式扩张『注:具有有限的面积,却有无限的周长』。当瓦特开始研究蒸汽动力的时候,蒸汽动力对英国经济的影响微不足道。但是他的工作带动了更多人从事蒸汽动力研究,最后的结果甚至超出了当初整个经济。

      互联网也是如此。如果互联网初创公司可以为那些雄心勃勃的人提供绝佳的机会,随后会有更多雄心勃勃的人建立初创公司,初创公司的影响力也会呈现分形式扩张。

      即便互联网应用将来只占全球经济的十分之一,也会为剩余经济成分定下基调。经济中最有活力的部分一直扮演这样的角色,无论是在工资方面,还是在着装标准方面都是如此。不仅因为它的声望,而且还因为经济中最活跃的部分蕴含着有效的原则。

      未来趋势似乎取决于那些自主的小型组织,各自的表现需要分开衡量。阻抗最小的社会才会取得成功。

      和最初的工业革命一样,在初创公司方面,有些社会将比其他社会做得更好。工业革命起源于英国,后来发展到欧洲大陆和北美。但是并没有遍布全球。同样,这种新新趋势只能出现在条件成熟的地方,只能发展到那些已经有活跃的中产阶级的地方。

      20世纪60年代硅谷发生的转变也存在类似的社会现象。当时硅谷出现了两种技术:一种是制造集成电路的技术,一种是制造新型公司的技术:通过发明新技术实现快速增长。前者迅速发展到其他国家,而后者没有。五十年之后,初创公司在硅谷和美国其他一些城市非常普遍,但是在世界上其他地方还很少见。

      初创公司没有像工业革命那么广泛传播的部分原因(或许是主要原因)在于它们与社会相背离。尽管工业革命带来了很多社会变革,但它没有和“大即是好”的原则相抵触。相反:两者相辅相成。新型实业公司适应了既有大型组织的习惯,如军队、和行政部门等,并且两者的融合效果非常好。“工业长官”对“工人部队”发号施令,并且每个人都知道自己应该做什么。

      从社会角度来看,初创公司似乎更加格格不入。在统治者肆意窃取商人劳动成果的社会里,工业化很难发扬光大,同样,初创公司也很难在珍视等级和稳定的社会中繁荣兴旺。工业革命来临时有一些国家已经走过了那个社会阶段。而现在对初创公司来说,做好准备的国家似乎并不多。

注释

[1] 这种模式的奇怪结果之一就是:要想赚更多钱通常只能当经理人。这是初创公司需要解决的问题之一。

[2] 美国汽车公司的表现一直不如日本汽车公司,其中有很多原因,但至少有一个原因是:美国毕业生有更多选择。

[3] 可能有一天公司会发展到拥有很多收入而员工不会很多。但是在这种趋势上我们还有很长的路要走。

[4] Lecuyer, Christophe, 《制造硅谷》 MIT出版社, 2006.


      For nearly all of history the success of a society was proportionate to its ability to assemble large and disciplined organizations. Those who bet on economies of scale generally won, which meant the largest organizations were the most successful ones.

      Things have already changed so much that this is hard for us to believe, but till just a few decades ago the largest organizations tended to be the most progressive. An ambitious kid graduating from college in 1960 wanted to work in the huge, gleaming offices of Ford, or General Electric, or NASA. Small meant small-time. Small in 1960 didn't mean a cool little startup. It meant uncle Sid's shoe store.

     When I grew up in the 1970s, the idea of the "corporate ladder" was still very much alive. The standard plan was to try to get into a good college, from which one would be drafted into some organization and then rise to positions of gradually increasing responsibility. The more ambitious merely hoped to climb the same ladder faster. [1]

       But in the late twentieth century something changed. It turned out that economies of scale were not the only force at work. Particularly in technology, the increase in speed one could get from smaller groups started to trump the advantages of size.

      The future turned out to be different from the one we were expecting in 1970. The domed cities and flying cars we expected have failed to materialize. But fortunately so have the jumpsuits with badges indicating our specialty and rank. Instead of being dominated by a few, giant tree-structured organizations, it's now looking like the economy of the future will be a fluid network of smaller, independent units.

       It's not so much that large organizations stopped working. There's no evidence that famously successful organizations like the Roman army or the British East India Company were any less afflicted by protocol and politics than organizations of the same size today. But they were competing against opponents who couldn't change the rules on the fly by discovering new technology. Now it turns out the rule "large and disciplined organizations win" needs to have a qualification appended: "at games that change slowly." No one knew till change reached a sufficient speed.

       Large organizations will start to do worse now, though, because for the first time in history they're no longer getting the best people. An ambitious kid graduating from college now doesn't want to work for a big company. They want to work for the hot startup that's rapidly growing into one. If they're really ambitious, they want to start it. [2]

        This doesn't mean big companies will disappear. To say that startups will succeed implies that big companies will exist, because startups that succeed either become big companies or are acquired by them. [3] But large organizations will probably never again play the leading role they did up till the last quarter of the twentieth century.

       It's kind of surprising that a trend that lasted so long would ever run out. How often does it happen that a rule works for thousands of years, then switches polarity?

      The millennia-long run of bigger-is-better left us with a lot of traditions that are now obsolete, but extremely deeply rooted. Which means the ambitious can now do arbitrage on them. It will be very valuable to understand precisely which ideas to keep and which can now be discarded.

      The place to look is where the spread of smallness began: in the world of startups.

      There have always been occasional cases, particularly in the US, of ambitious people who grew the ladder under them instead of climbing it. But till recently this was an anomalous route that tended to be followed only by outsiders. It was no coincidence that the great industrialists of the nineteenth century had so little formal education. As huge as their companies eventually became, they were all essentially mechanics and shopkeepers at first. That was a social step no one with a college education would take if they could avoid it. Till the rise of technology startups, and in particular, Internet startups, it was very unusual for educated people to start their own businesses.

       The eight men who left Shockley Semiconductor to found Fairchild Semiconductor, the original Silicon Valley startup, weren't even trying to start a company at first. They were just looking for a company willing to hire them as a group. Then one of their parents introduced them to a small investment bank that offered to find funding for them to start their own, so they did. But starting a company was an alien idea to them; it was something they backed into. [4]

      Now I would guess that practically every Stanford or Berkeley undergrad who knows how to program has at least considered the idea of starting a startup. East Coast universities are not far behind, and British universities only a little behind them. This pattern suggests that attitudes at Stanford and Berkeley are not an anomaly, but a leading indicator. This is the way the world is going.

     Of course, Internet startups are still only a fraction of the world's economy. Could a trend based on them be that powerful?

      I think so. There's no reason to suppose there's any limit to the amount of work that could be done in this area. Like science, wealth seems to expand fractally. Steam power was a sliver of the British economy when Watt started working on it. But his work led to more work till that sliver had expanded into something bigger than the whole economy of which it had initially been a part.

       The same thing could happen with the Internet. If Internet startups offer the best opportunity for ambitious people, then a lot of ambitious people will start them, and this bit of the economy will balloon in the usual fractal way.

      Even if Internet-related applications only become a tenth of the world's economy, this component will set the tone for the rest. The most dynamic part of the economy always does, in everything from salaries to standards of dress. Not just because of its prestige, but because the principles underlying the most dynamic part of the economy tend to be ones that work.

      For the future, the trend to bet on seems to be networks of small, autonomous groups whose performance is measured individually. And the societies that win will be the ones with the least impedance.

       As with the original industrial revolution, some societies are going to be better at this than others. Within a generation of its birth in England, the Industrial Revolution had spread to continental Europe and North America. But it didn't spread everywhere. This new way of doing things could only take root in places that were prepared for it. It could only spread to places that already had a vigorous middle class.

       There is a similar social component to the transformation that began in Silicon Valley in the 1960s. Two new kinds of techniques were developed there: techniques for building integrated circuits, and techniques for building a new type of company designed to grow fast by creating new technology. The techniques for building integrated circuits spread rapidly to other countries. But the techniques for building startups didn't. Fifty years later, startups are ubiquitous in Silicon Valley and common in a handful of other US cities, but they're still an anomaly in most of the world.

       Part of the reason—possibly the main reason—that startups have not spread as broadly as the Industrial Revolution did is their social disruptiveness. Though it brought many social changes, the Industrial Revolution was not fighting the principle that bigger is better. Quite the opposite: the two dovetailed beautifully. The new industrial companies adapted the customs of existing large organizations like the military and the civil service, and the resulting hybrid worked well. "Captains of industry" issued orders to "armies of workers," and everyone knew what they were supposed to do.

       Startups seem to go more against the grain, socially. It's hard for them to flourish in societies that value hierarchy and stability, just as it was hard for industrialization to flourish in societies ruled by people who stole at will from the merchant class. But there were already a handful of countries past that stage when the Industrial Revolution happened. There do not seem to be that many ready this time.

Notes

[1] One of the bizarre consequences of this model was that the usual way to make more money was to become a manager. This is one of the things startups fix.

[2] There are a lot of reasons American car companies have been doing so much worse than Japanese car companies, but at least one of them is a cause for optimism: American graduates have more options.

[3] It's possible that companies will one day be able to grow big in revenues without growing big in people, but we are not very far along that trend yet.

[4] Lecuyer, Christophe, Making Silicon Valley, MIT Press, 2006.

Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Paul Buchheit, Jessica Livingston, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this

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