America’s Golden Age is behind us. And, I don’t believe there is any chance of reversing a trend that began thirty plus years ago. The best case scenario is to arrest the rate of economic slippage – never mind social and cultural slippage, which are probably lodged in irreversible decay. As Robert Kaplan says in his book, The Revenge of Geography, we might prolong our position of strength by preparing the world for our own obsolesence. But even this outcome will require the strength of will that has yet to be demonstrated by leaders in business, education, and government.
A nation’s economic cycle is generally acknowledged to proceed from trade to industry to finance. Add a new cycle reality called service. If the potential for new job creation is to be found largely in the service sector why is it that we continue to flail in our attempts to excel in that sector of the economy? Few metaphors speak as loudly about the eclipse of our nation.
Let’s face it. Manufacturing is lost to our shores for all intents and purposes. Service is the new game in town but from the way we treat our clients, patients, students, donors, and citizens – customers, all, to my way of thinking – you would think that we are flush with options on which to fall back. We are not. Labor productivity is stalled; education is at third world levels; the rate of household savings is paltry; regulation and taxation suffocates businesses and individuals; unemployment seems permanently mired at deep recession levels; the national debt is in the stratosphere, and fraud runs rampant among other serious afflictions.
The federal government, especially, is hell-bent on redistributing wealth rather than getting out of the way so that risk capitalists will create wealth. It is no wonder that business leaders are fixated on how quarterly earnings affect their pay packages, and when push comes to shove, cutting corners and worse. It is rare to see business leaders get compensated for delivering excellence in service to those from whom they benefit the most: the customer.
In survey after survey consumers judge excellence in their suppliers to be in the 5% range. Perform any human endeavor at that level of proficiency and you are an abject failure. In the service sector, however, that is par for the course. In the Far East, cultural determinants do not confuse service with servitude. In the West, and particularly in the United States, the most that a service worker can muster when asked to perform a personalized service is “no problem.” That kind of attitude is ingrained and certain to keep our level of excellence at 5%. In the meantime, off-shore locations feast on our indifference to service.
In higher education the disconnect is serious and severe as universities continue to train our human capital to fight old wars. Not among our finest schools will you find a program of instruction geared to the art and science of Service Management. The dozens of universities I have approached with a blueprint for launching such course of instruction have all nodded politely but have taken little action: the priesthood in education is comfortable in its own ossification.
The United States economy has structural defects which will not go away simply by mouthing rhetorical flourishes. Decline might be inexorable but we should not stand by as mere spectators. The will and purpose to restore our economic vitality must be marshaled by every American. It must begin, first and foremost, by demanding of our leaders, our institutions, and ourselves to be unafraid to serve. It is the remotest possibility that we can salvage the service economy and consequently our nation unless our standard of performance is nothing less than service excellence.
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