Since the Industrial Revolution, the rate of growth of the world’s aggregate economic output has been extraordinary (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/world-gdp-over-the-last-two-millennia), with the slope of the graph going from the almost horizontal to the almost vertical. There are many reasons for this, but a key one has been the increase in productivity, as fundamental scientific discoveries were converted into an iterative series of technological and process applications that enabled capital to be transformed into ever growing wealth, even if often unequally. In essence, most of the world “levelled up”.
As with reasons for growth, there is debate about why productivity varies over time and by geography. And vary it does. As economist Robert Gordon has shown, real US GDP per hour increased from an average of 1.79% per annum between 1870 and 1920, to 2.82% per hour between 1920 and 1970, only to fall back to 1.62% between 1970 and 2014. A 1% annual variation may not seem much, but, because of the effect of compounding it matters.
And now, in the midst of a pandemic, there is much debate about whether a virtual and distributed workforce will be more or less productive. Frankly, it is too early to tell, as there is anecdotal evidence each way.
However that may be, productivity matters. It is clearly linked in some way to step changes or new directions in scientific knowledge; but pure science (which is undertaken for its own sake) has no economic value unless one does something with it. Knowledge has to be applied. In the supposed “golden age” of productivity, from 1920 to 1970, that was often through the medium of the corporate research laboratory, such as IBM, DuPont, Merck, Xerox PARC, and Bell Labs. Those milieu transformed basic science into technologies or products that have made the world what it is today, and which we now take for granted.
Nevertheless, there is a nagging sense that all is not well. Somehow quantity no longer seems to produce the same quality. Why is much debated, and is too large a subject for a blog post. What matters is somehow finding a better way to convert knowledge into applied intellectual capital. Without that, knowledge is just knowledge.
Consider, for example, the (re)insurance industry. Essential, knowledge-based, full of highly-educated and very smart individuals. And yet…
Somehow the industry is often still slow to incorporate, adapt and apply new knowledge, or to develop effective new products and processes. As a result, it moves sideways, or improves incrementally at best, and sometimes goes backwards- at least so far as it appears to the outside world. As we have written before, according to a McKinsey study, many companies in the industry actually destroy, rather than create value, barely earning their cost of capital. Now the industry faces numerous challenges, some of which may prove existential if it proves unable to address, manage and mitigate them.
For Awbury, the creation and application of intellectual capital to create value-added products is a fundamental part of our “corporate DNA”. It is what our client base expects and demands. We do not pretend to be “better”, or that knowledge is an end in itself; but we do understand that thinking needs to be transformed into doing, rather than endlessly refined, discussed and debated.
The Awbury Team