Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Altered Minds: Innovation in Mallorca

It was informative to hear an interview for the BBC with Brent Hurley, one of the founders of YouTube. His business was a product of California's Silicon Valley, where he still believes, despite the emergence of serious technology leaders such as YouTube, that young entrepreneurs can make it if they have the right products and are able to draw on the right talent pool. Hurley described Silicon Valley as a "state of mind", one which allows new businesses, even when confronted with what might seem obstructive taxation (as there is in California), to breakthrough. It is all a question of mentality, and this mentality can permit similar technology-based clusters to rise up elsewhere.

Hurley's views are, however, ones predicated on a particular culture. The American business culture has long hailed the risk-taker and the entrepreneur, it has long been aided by risk capital, it has long been one of the "can-do" rather than the cannot. The American business culture also underwent a seismic shift in its attitudes when the realisation was made as to the competitive nature of Japanese corporations. From the late 1970s onwards, this culture was transformed within organisations. Hierarchies became less the order of the day. Participation, empowerment, flat structures all found their way into the management and organisational lexicon.

In Mallorca, ambitions are harboured for something along the lines of Silicon Valley. It would be more of a Silicon Hollow, one fancies, but there are certain factors which could allow such ambitions to be realised. Well, one in particular; the climate. Mallorca's a nice place to live and work, it has a nice lifestyle, it has a Mediterranean climate (obviously), one similar to Californa's. This climate-lifestyle axis has brought interest in terms of business location from overseas, while the technological infrastructure, notably Palma's ParcBit, does offer some grounds for being optimistic that a technological new age dawns in Mallorca and helps to move the island's economy away from its dangerous and lop-sided dependence upon tourism.

But initiatives such as ParcBit can only go so far. The vision, albeit an unclear one, for a more technological future is obscured by the existence of elements that California does not suffer from. There is, for example, a very different business culture, both generally and within organisations, one that is partially a reflection of what remains a societal culture: one of the hierarchy.

This hierarchy can often come in the form of a patriarchy or matriarchy. Families have a tendency to dominate the business culture and so the culture mirrors the deference shown within the family structure. It might be a culture which is healthy for continuity but it is rarely a culture which fosters free thinking, challenges to decisions, innovation. It is also a culture which can breed one of the most pernicious elements of the family organisation, that of nepotism, and this nepotism is something else which manifests itself in wider business and governmental society. Friendships, family ties, networks, who-you-know count for more than merit, talent and what you know. Nepotism and "amiguismo" are regularly cited by younger Spaniards as being reasons why they all but give up on finding decent employment and so help to fuel the brain drain heading abroad.

The hierarchy is everywhere. It exists in different types of business - from multinationals to the small business - in government "companies" (albeit the number of these are being reduced) and in political parties. Along with the omnipresence of the hierarchy comes the nepotism and the power of the network, and there is an example of just this which has seemingly been at work in Mallorca, an example right at the heart of business innovation.

The IDI is a Balearic Government "company". The acronym stands for Institute of Business Innovation. It should, therefore, be an agency for good in pursuit of a goal of greater economic diversification. But the IDI has been savaged by cutbacks under the current government. Jobs have gone, but there are also accusations flying as to the basis upon which job elimination has been made. They centre on political bias, i.e. employees with sympathies for parties (most obviously PSOE) were let go in favour of those who are supporters of the Partido Popular.

There may well of course be very valid reasons unassociated with political affiliation for employment decisions having been made, but if affiliation was a real factor then it confirms the power of the network being commanded by the hierarchy, in this instance one political party and that party's leadership.  

Mallorca has a disadvantage in the technological stakes which comes from its less than satisfactory educational system, but this cannot be wholly blamed for a lack of innovation. After all, for any group of underachievers there will always be one overachiever and potential business genius. Mallorca also has a history of entrepreneurialism. It is not as if, therefore, there aren't elements in Mallorca which could make a success of a new technological age. But paramount to this success is the need for a change in culture at governmental and corporate levels. The eradication of hierarchies and the doffing of the cap are as necessary as the elimination of the network and the nepotism.

Brent Hurley believes that Silicon Valleys can be replicated anywhere. If the talent exists, then maybe so. But they won't be if the culture doesn't allow them to flourish. The state of mind that needs to alter is that of the keepers of the hierarchies - the political parties and the corporations. Alter minds, and the entrepreneurial spirit in Mallorca might just fly.

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