Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Digital Darwinism

"In 2014, CEOs must focus on leading their organizations to think like and become more like ‘tech’ companies, because within a few years, digital business capabilities will dominate every industry. Urgent action is needed because first-mover advantage is common in digital business, and fast followers must be very fast."- Gartner, "CEO Resolutions for 2014 - Time to Act on Digital Business," published in March 2014.

A more succinct way to state the above is "continuously evolve or rapidly become irrelevant."

You have to look no further to see the effects of gross negligence to adapt than the U.S. Post Office. Last year, I got divorced, sold the house, and moved to a new location.  My ex-wife moved to a different location.  And although we both created mail forwarding requests, she kept getting mail that was addressed for me. She moved over 4 months ago, and even today she is still getting my mail when it is mailed to my former address.

When I asked the USPS about it, I was told this:  only the first initial of the first name and the last name are used by the USPS for processing mail forwarding at a specific address.  Since my ex-wife has the same first initial as I do, that explained why she was receiving my mail (and that of my deceased father, who also shares this characteristic). I was in shock then, and it still leaves me shaking my head when I consider that statement because there is no need to restrict the amount of data that is used when considering whether or not a name on an envelope matches an entry in a database.

To describe a specific alternative, the concept of fuzzy searches have been around since my days at IBM in the 1980's.  The linked article describes how it is used, but the underlying idea is to remove all vowels, replace certain digraphs with functional equivalents, replace duplicate consonants with singular instances, and replace certain consonants with their functional equivalents. For example, "Larry Salomon" may become "Lry Slmn"; "CEOs must focus on leading" may become "C mst fks n ldng"; etc.

Combine this with a conversion to uppercase / lowercase, and then apply an MD5 hashing algorithm (a 16-byte value) to the result to get a (relatively) unique fingerprint for the name.  Couple this with the ridiculously cheap cost of disk storage per gigabyte and you have the ability to support whatever mail forwarding needs could possibly exist.

To put this in perspective, as of 2013 there were 7.125 billion people living in the world.  Not excluding a single person, even infants, if there were a single mail forwarding request for every one of those people, the storage requirements would be:  7,125,000,000 x 16 bytes per hash / (1024 x 1024 x 1024 bytes per terabyte) = 106 terabytes of storage. Contrast this with Facebook, which (as of 2012) collects 500 terabytes of data on its users per day. And while no single cause can fully explain the dire financial straits of the USPS, symptoms like this do not inspire confidence that the leadership has any clue how to meet the ever evolving needs of its customers.

"Adapt or die."  Live by this mantra, and you will continue to stay ahead of your competition.