Empty Chair Full of Angst

January 27, 2017

Yesterday we witnessed the swearing in of a man most people thought would never ascend to the presidency. Whatever your political leanings, it is safe to say that Donald Trump will change the way things are done in Washington and the world. Many will welcome these change, but most people, given that Mr. Trump lost the popular vote, will not.

The question is, how did this happen? This is one of those questions with many answers but little understanding. Trade? Immigration? Globalization? Terrorism? War? Russian hacking? FBI interference? The list can go on and on, and it does, but it’s important to look at each one to try and understand what is exactly going on in the United States and the world.

The policy and political pundits will be satisfied to talk and speak in conjectures and platitudes. Those that are content with this outcome will enjoy the NFL playoffs, reveling in the new “America First” promise. Only time will tell if that promise is hollow, harmful or both. While still others take to the streets to put the new president on notice that they will not sit idly by and allow anyone, not even the President, to roll back hard fought and hard won rights. More people are expected to attend protest rallies today in Washington than attended the inauguration.

So what’s with the empty chair? I’ve heard that Amazon keeps an empty chair at meetings, to represent their customers. The idea is that this visual reminder keeps customers top of mind when making product decisions. A company like Amazon, which, perhaps better than any other, takes their customers very seriously, takes into account how every action will affect their ever growing customer base.

Companies live and die by how they communicate with their customers. Ignore your customers at your own peril. In an increasingly interconnected, globalized, technical world, almost everyone, anywhere is a potential customer. Tech companies know this, which has started to lead to the hyper growth of global brands and a global market. The American consumer, while still preeminent, is not as important as he or she once was.

I’m now recommending a new chair be added to the conference table. Not just at Amazon, but at every large American technology company. This chair represents the average American citizen, not as a consumer, a customer or a demographic, but rather as a human being, who lives in a quickly changing country, and increasingly unsettling society, due to no small part, to technology companies creating life changing products. The question is, whose lives are they changing, and how? What are the short and long term ramifications?

While it may not be a legal requirement, as with shareholders, or a business necessity, as with customers, it is quickly becoming a moral imperative and a case of self survival to start considering the larger effects actions take. Jobs go overseas to take advantage of cheap labor and lax regulations. Outsourcing provides simple support for U.S. companies from eager and hungry workers around the world. The information or knowledge age, trumpeted as the next big job creator, will be short lived. Robotics and artificial intelligence are taking away the need for any human workers at all. These are just a few changes that are increasingly causing American workers sleepless nights.

We are at a time of low unemployment, but at the same time, we have record number of people working as independent contractors, working part time, working multiple jobs and struggling with wage stagnation. People are nervous and while Tech companies extol the virtues of this new workforce, they themselves work in increasingly coddled offices with free food, lunch, sleep pods, and game tables, with all the best benefits available.

Imagine a world where the very companies that represent the best and brightest the nation has to offer, are actively pursuing technologies that will put millions out of work. Artificial intelligence and self driving cars have the potential to put tens of millions of drivers, insurers and support workers out of work. It is these people that need to be in that chair, at the meeting. It is these people that need to be thought of, spoken to and included in decision making. If not because it is the right thing to do, then because it is for self preservation. This election sent a message. People want a seat at the table. Tech companies ignore this message at their own peril. Pull up a chair.

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