As General Motors Goes, So Goes the Nation?

Sep 24, 2012

The Lab Man often tells colleagues that trends in industry swing like a pendulum, and unfortunately industry has a tendency to swing to extremes of the pendulum path.  The thing to remember is that the pendulum does swing back eventually.  Here are two cases in point.

General Motors recently announced they are going to insource 10,000 information technology jobs.  That’s right – INSOURCE!   This change is led by GM’s new IT chief, Randy Mott, who was quoted as saying "We plan to rebalance the employment model over the next three years so that the majority of our IT work is done by GM employees focused on extending new capabilities that further enable our business." Why the change?  Mott gives the following reasons:

  • Outsourcing has led to too many software applications, with over 4,000 often redundant apps being used within GM worldwide.
  • GM needs to expedite product development and decision-making.
  •  IT contractors don’t understand the auto industry.
  •  GM can afford the cost of running its own data centers. 
  •  GM believes it can find cost-effective, high-quality IT talent in Michigan and elsewhere throughout the world.

My response to this profound reasoning is “DUH”!  But I’m glad that someone like Mott is pushing the pendulum back. 

Some of you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with the science and laboratory world?  Pendulum swings are contagious, and will quickly catch on across many industries.  This study regarding decision-making trends among CEO-level Harvard Business School graduates shows that strategic decisions by one CEO influence the actions of CEO peers especially, it would seem, in reunion years!  So substitute any pharma company name for GM and wait to see if the outsourcing trend begins to swing back. 

The pendulum also swings with regard to how we do, or attempt to do, science.  In The Lab Man’s pharma/biotech career I have seen pendulum swings related to the Human Genome Project, Target-Based Drug Discovery, Rational Drug Design, Combichem, HTS, in-house supercomputers and more.  In all cases, the pendulum swung wide and most companies raced to follow it – only to race to follow it  back some time later.  I remember when pharma companies were all acquiring cosmetic companies because of the future of “cosmeuticals.”  That cycle came and went pretty quickly!

It was with some amusement that I read a recent article in C&EN about how tuberculosis research is finally generating promising compounds after returning to a phenotypic drug discovery approach using sophisticated cell-based assays.  Now, lest you feel consigned to live through continuous, non-productive pendulum swings, let me point out that some things do advance as an often unintentional result of these swings.  The Lab Man can remember when cell-based assays were considered barely “better than nothing.”  If not for the aggressive swing toward HTS in the past two decades, we probably would not have fought through the steep learning curve of how to do robust cell-based assays and technology providers would not have developed the now-excellent tools now for such.  The rush toward genome-centric, target based drug discovery may have proven disappointing in leading directly to new drug entities, but biology researchers still learned a great deal about fundamental biological functions.   As the C&EN article points out, “with a better understanding of the conditions under which the bug survives in the body, they are trying to conduct smarter drug screening programs.” 

So, when you find yourself on the pendulum, try to take the long view.  It will swing back, but it never returns to exactly the same place.  We can actually pick up some knowledge and tools on these swings that may not be apparent mid-swing.  The trick is to endure the swing and prepare as best you can to adapt for the inevitable pendulum return.  

Until Next Time,

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!



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