Collaboration and the Price of Fish

A recent trip to India produces a flashback to a fascinating study on Kerala's fishermen.

Sardines

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Business in India can feel as hectic and challenging as the traffic. But I find many compensations - the endless good humor and kindness and verve of people, for sure. This week, attending a busy technology event on the Southwest coast, I had a couple of chances to relax, sitting by palm trees, watching the sunset over the Arabian Sea and thinking idle thoughts.

Honestly, my thoughts were not so idle. Southwestern India was the setting for one of the most fascinating studies I have ever read. It is a compelling review of the economic life of local fishermen in Kerala, and its findings strengthen much of my thinking about data, collaboration, economics and human capital.

The study, “The Digital Provide” by Robert Jensen, from the Quarterly Journal of Economics (August 2007) is elegant and detailed. In one section, Jensen charts the prices that subsistence fishermen received for their sardines. In the chart you can clearly see the effect before and after the introduction of cellphones. It strikes you immediately as a dramatic visualization of fundamental economic change.

Mobile Phone Adoption

The value of conversation

Before the availability of cellphones in each region, fishermen had to take whatever price they could get as they landed their fish. The prices varied widely and unpredictably. This instability held back their economic development in every way. Without stable prices, they could not plan or invest. New boats, home repairs, healthcare, education - all these stood out of reach if they did not know how they would live tomorrow.

With cellphones, fishermen can quickly, easily and cheaply compare prices up and down the coast. They may travel to another market if necessary. They negotiate from a position of strength with market data. In turn, the stability of prices enables investments, however small, that previously felt impossible. The impact on the entire economy of the villages has been remarkable.

From Kerala to Harvard and back

In the Harvard Business Review, back in 1993, Alan Webber, founder of Fast Company magazine wrote “What’s So New About the New Economy?” For Webber, the information economy lives through communication. What we know, how we create new knowledge, how we innovate and develop - all these essential features of the modern way of work are driven by discussion and knowledge-sharing.

“In the new economy, conversations are the most important form of work.” Webber likely did not think of South Indian fisherman, but his words apply very well.

Collaboration on data. Conversation. Storytelling. For me, these principles are not just features or functions of a software product. They stand as agents of profound change in our lives and our economies. In a data-driven business, the talk around the data is truly the most important form of work. These discussions can happen in many ways. Simply chatting 'round the water cooler about this months sales’ figures is collaborating on data. Sharing annotations and commentary in a software package is collaboration. Exchanges prices on the phone is collaboration.

This is the reason why innovation and design focus so much on these topics.

Meanwhile, back on the shore, I watch that sunset and the fishermen drawing in their nets. They look a world away from the technology conference I’ll return to tomorrow. But no - they are an essential part of our work there. And our work is essential to them too.

Photo credit: wbaiv / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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