Plumbing the paradox of Silicon Valley: Where culture trumps ICT

silicon-valley

The late management master Peter Drucker’s perhaps most quoted aphorism is “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In California’s Silicon Valley, culture makes a daily meal of a key benefit of its products and services: information and communication technologies (ICT) that decentralize and make knowledge work – now the essential activity of Silicon Valley with most if not all manufacturing done outside of the area – location independent.

As a geographical location, Silicon Valley has effectively obsoleted itself but doesn’t know it yet or simply cannot accept it. There are a couple of reasons why Silicon Valley remains defined by location even though for much of the world, Silicon Valley connotes ICT innovation rather than a spot on Google Earth.

First is its founding in the 1960s. Intel made microprocessors there. Hewlett Packard manufactured test instruments and minicomputers in Silicon Valley. Late in the following decade, Apple Computer got its start there. These companies all predated the information economy even though their products would later give rise to it as the 20th century drew to a close. As manufacturers, their cultures are heavily based on the Industrial Age paradigm of commuting in daily to a centralized work location: the plant and the office.

That cultural touchstone combines with a second powerful element that reinforces daily commute trips to Silicon Valley companies: Stanford University. Stanford and Silicon Valley’s proximity to it was the academic component of Silicon Valley’s synergy of the early years that brought together academics and cutting edge engineers. Stanford lent Silicon Valley an academic, campus culture that remains in place today. Silicon Valley companies honor that culture by regarding their headquarters as “campuses.” Apple and Google have built enormous mega campuses that offer the amenities of the most modern college campus such as gyms, food service, and laundry facilities (but without the dorms).

The raison d’etre of the campus is another c-word: collaboration. Silicon Valley’s campus culture is strongly tied to the belief that collaboration can only truly occur on the campus in real time, face to face — much like graduate fellows discussing the latest theories of quantum mechanics. That discussion might produce an important breakthrough.

In 2012, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and Hewlett-Packard soon thereafter paid homage to the campus culture by ordering staff to report to the office daily and cease working from elsewhere. Enforcing the collaborative campus setting was the hoped for secret sauce to lift these companies fortunes during a challenging time in their histories. The campus culture combined with Silicon Valley’s Industrial Age roots also spawned the so-called “Google Bus” that transports staff back and forth daily between their homes in San Francisco and the corporate campus.

Even though the very ICT tools Silicon Valley brought to the world make collaboration possible anywhere and in real-time and non-real-time via voice, text and video, its Industrial Age roots and campus culture continue to define it today. But with it comes the huge and unnecessary cost of a time sucking commute and horrible traffic borne daily by Silicon Valley workers.

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