Scalable – Not What You Think it Means

  • August 13, 2013
  • Scott

[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

We hear the word “Scalable” all the time.  And I don’t think it means what the people using it think it means.

When investors and entrepreneurs use the word scalable, it is usually in the context of scaling the size of revenues independent of the number of people employed by the company (or largely independent).

Not long after the excellent advice from Paul Graham to “do the things that don’t scale“, I read this post by Tim O’Reilly – about unemployment:

This New Yorker piece by Atul Gawande has buried in it the solution to our under-employment crisis: stop focusing on financial outcomes for companies, and start focusing on results that make a better world.

But what on earth does he mean? He explains it pretty well:

There are several accounts of extremely labor-intensive projects that have saved millions of lives (training in Bangladesh about how to treat cholera, given door-to-door, and a similar project in Uttar Pradesh to help counter infant mortality.)

Gawande puts these projects in historical context by talking about how hard it was for the world to embrace hospital cleanliness as a life-saver, and the costs involved:

“Reactions that I’ve heard both abroad and at home have been interestingly divided. The most common objection is that, even if it works, this kind of one-on-one, on-site mentoring “isn’t scalable.” But that’s one thing it surely is.

So, what kinds of projects could we be embracing that better humanity, require a lot of labor, and allegedly “don’t scale”? Those are probably exactly the kinds of projects we should be taking on.  Tim goes on to say:

It seems to me that rediscovering the kinds of tasks that require investing human capital to make real change are exactly the kinds of things we need to focus our economic energies on.

Human labor and effort isn’t bad.  It is an investment. What should we be investing in?


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