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Malcolm Gladwell: Want My Data? Give Me Value

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What does the man who coined the term "tipping point" think about the impact of technology on our society? Have we passed the point of no return in privacy? Are schools to blame for the lack of qualified engineers? Do companies have the right approach to serving customers?

So many questions, so little time. CMSWire talked to Malcolm Gladwell, a dropout who went on to write five bestsellers, just before he gave the keynote address at Gainsight's recent Pulse 2014 customer success summit in San Francisco.

Want to hear even more from Gladwell? Buy a burrito. Just yesterday, Chipotle announced it is using its packaging as a medium for essays by a slew of popular writers and comedians, including Gladwell.

Thoughts on Technology and More

Gladwell, who is also a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the sort of man whose ability to challenge established thinking has thrust him into the spotlight, as the answers here show.

Murphy: We're asking for a lot of information from individuals with the promise of giving them better service. Do you think this is a fair exchange?

Gladwell: It's a fair exchange if the promise is followed through — if I get better service. So long as the trade is a fair and honest one, it makes sense. Where it doesn't make sense is where there's suspiciously little we get in return. I suspect that's how people felt about the revelations about the NSA — the returns we were getting as a society were not worth what we were giving up.

Murphy: What do you think of the new European Union court decision that may force Google to give up some of the information it has collected on individuals. Have companies like Google and Facebook  gone too far? Are you worried about the social impact?

Gladwell: That's not the issue. The question is do we have the right as a society to govern the use of information by these companies. And the answer is, of course, we do. It's up to us to decide how much is enough and to intervene when we think a line has been crossed. They don't have an unfettered right to information. They should be subject to the same rules as anyone else.

Murphy: The conference we're attending is about customer success, the idea that corporations can become vested in the success of their customers.  It's gotten to be a very hot and crowded field. Do you think this is a sound concept, or should companies produce their best product and leave it up to the free market to decide who succeeds?

Gladwell: Any kind of innovation that gives customers another alternative in how they choose to work with their suppliers or their partners is a good one. I don't think you can ever say one model is better than the others. I think there are different companies at different times, or different customers at different times, that have different needs. I may have a different relationship with my software provider than you. And I love the idea that we now have a range of choices that we didn't have in how we choose to manage that relationship. I think the biggest mistake we make in any realm is to assume that one size fits all. It does not.

Murphy: You and I have seen a few different waves come and go in technology — the multimedia era of the mid-90s, the dot-com boom of 2000. There's a lot of people who think we now may be on the peek of another boom. What's your feeling on that?

Gladwell: The waves of enthusiasm around technological transformations are both dangerous and incredibly useful. Is there danger associated with what is a very useful trend right now? Yes, there totally is. I guess I have a certain amount of faith in the resilience of the economy to deal with those sorts of ups and downs.

Murphy: We hear a lot about the shortage of qualified engineers in the technology world. You have some interesting views on education. Are our schools doing enough right now to educate the young in math and science?

Gladwell: I have a chapter in my book, David and Goliath, on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and its issues.  We don't have a lack of interest in math and science in our kids. We have a drop-out problem. Kids try it and get overwhelmed. There's something wrong with the way we're teaching them, not with their basic level of interest. That responsibility falls on the educational system. It's not a fault in our society as a whole. 

 
 
 
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