Anomalies & Enigmas
Learning on the fly
Even though I have spent most of my life as an entrepreneur, I have had many encounters with the corporate world. I can deal with corporates in straight business negotiation, but, on any other level there seems to be a problem of communication. We just seem to talk past each other. This wasn't a serious problem until, as a consequence of my books and writings, corporations started to come to me for explanation and guidance on e-commerce and e-business issues. I found I couldn't help them because there appeared to be too much of a mismatch of our concepts. Any reasoned explanations I gave were being interpreted quite differently from the way intended. At first, I found this totally perplexing. If anyone should be able to explain complex ideas to anyone I should be able to it; after all, this is what I had been trained for. Let me explain.
During World War 2, the British government set up dozens of secret research establishments all over Britain. They were the places where the cream of British scientists were gathered to apply science and technology to create novel inventions which would help defeat the enemy. Many became well known; such as the Aldermaston Atomic Research Establishment, The Radar Research Establishment at Great Malvern, the code breaking team at Bletchly Park, the biological warfare center at Porton Down. There were many more, all exploring the myriad of new possibilities opened up by the explosion of technological advances coming out of the war effort.
When the war finally came to an end, there was still a need for these research centers. It had been become apparent that any future conflicts were going to be won through the application of technology. Britain couldn't afford to get behind in this ever increasing drive towards further technological advance.
As these research centres expanded into new and more complex areas of activity, an inherent weakness became acutely apparent - a problem of communication. Practical application of the scientific effort needed close co-operation between the theoretical scientists and the engineers who would construct the hardware. This was proving to be a weak link because the scientist and the engineers came from different worlds, they didn't speak the same technical languages and they thought with different conceptual models.
At the highest level, it was decided to build a special college in the grounds of one of the secret research establishments, to train a new breed of scientific engineers: communication specialists. They wouldn't be required to invent, design or make things but simply to provide the essential missing communication link between the theorists and the constructors.
It was as one of the first students selected for the five year course they came up with, that I found myself at the College of Electronics, situated in the middle of the top secret Radar Research Establishment at Great Malvern, Worcester, England.
Not surprisingly, we were not taught specifically how to play this role of intermediary between scientists and engineers. Nobody had ever done it before so nobody knew what lessons needed to be taught. Instead, we were given a mixture of experiences and exposures. Half our time was spent learning theory while the other half was divided up through working with different groups within the research establishment.
At least, this is how four of the five years were spent, the first year we were sent away from the research establishment to a giant ordinance factory where they were churning out munitions. There we joined craft apprentices and spent the time making a special set of workshop tools which involved using every type of machine used in metal working and tool making.
Returning to the research establishment after this year of exposure to the realities of industrial production, we spent the next six months in the special engineering workshops attached to the research labs helping make components for guided weaponry. Then we spent another six months in a large drawing office, working with the draughtsmen who were planning out the work for the craftsmen to make.
It was at the beginning of the third year that I had my first real experience of the difficulties involved in turning theory into practice. We were all excited at the prospects of entering this third year because from then on the practical side of our education would take us into the scientific research labs.
Being students, working beside famous scientist on advanced secret research projects was not the greatest of interest. Our main excitement was the prospect of being able to draw all kinds of 'free' electronic components from the stores. Many of the student were keen hi-fi fans and had already constructed their own sound systems.
I wasn't one of the hi-fi buffs. I was more interested in the social side of college, so, when I went along to draw a selection of 'free' components from the store I didn't know how to use them or connect them up. I randomly connected thermionic tubes, resistors and capacitors together, switched on the power and the whole thing dissolved into flames and smoke.
In itself, this incident isn't remarkable. What was significant however was that I'd spent the previous month of practical work, in the college lab, plotting dozens and dozens of graphs which showed the effects of varying voltages, resistances and capacitances in a circuit with a thermionic tube. As amazing as it seems in retrospect, I had made no conceptual connection between what I'd been doing in the college lab with the components I'd drawn from the stores. I simply hadn't made the necessary connection between the theory and practice.
It was soon after that experience that I met Doctor Utterly. He had been one of the main researchers involved in the original development of Radar. He was now the head of the most important section in the research establishment: that dealing with the then new field of electronic computing. It was to this section I had my first assignment in the research labs.
After a few days of helping a lab technician to physically build an amplifier unit for some obscure experiment to measure fighter pilot reaction times, I was told I was to report to Dr. Utterly's office.
I'd never met him before so I knocked at his door with some trepidation. When I entered, I saw a wizened old man in a white lab coat staring intently at a large sphere made out of what looked to me like fine straw. He didn't speak at first, he was too busy waving black and white cards at the sphere.
Looking closer, I noticed that the straw sphere was being gripped by a large black beetle which had been glued at its back to the bottom of a glass rod. The poor beetle wasn't aware that he was holding the straw sphere. It was under the impression that it was running across a straw landscape and away from the various shapes of black and white boards which threateningly kept appearing in its vision. The beetle was stationary and the straw sphere was revolving below, being suspended and propelled by the beetle's 'running' feet.
The eminent scientist then walked over to a blackboard on the wall and proceeded to draw a schematic of the beetles nervous system. He explained how the black and white boards were charging up certain areas in the beetle's brain causing it to make decisions as to the direction of its movements. At that moment, my life long interest in biological structures was born. (I heard later that Doctor Utterly was one of four scientists who had originally founded the Radar Research Establishment. All of them had been biologists).
Briefly explaining the connection between the beetle's nervous system and the computer his department was developing, he then asked me to get to work on designing some circuitry to improve the shape of the pulses which were driving the new computer they were building. I couldn't believe he was asking me to do this. Me! Who didn't even know how to connect a few components together.
Asking around the people who were working on various other projects in the lab I managed to get a rough idea as to what was required and the way to go about it. A trip to the library and I'd discovered how to connect things up and how to calculate the value of the components. Within a couple of weeks I'd constructed an electronic flip-flop circuit and was busy fine tuning the characteristics of the pulse to improve its shape. It quite astounded me that I could be doing real research work after such a short period of initiation.
Three months later came my next assignment. I had to assist a physicist who was working on a machine to measure the magnetic spin resonance of atoms. It happened that he had no knowledge of electronics at all and required a special kind of amplifier which selectively filtered a broad bandwidth of very low frequencies.
With the confidence I'd gained from creating the pulse shaping circuitry in the computer lab I went down to the library to dig out references to filtering circuits. This time I had no technicians around to give me a helping hand and I had to improvise with the circuits I'd found. Melding three frequency selective amplifying circuits into single design seemed like it would do the trick. Immediately there were problems. It didn't work as it should; the amplification was wildly out of control.
The physicist saw I was in difficulties and tried to help out. It was a case of the blind leading the blind. Running backwards and forwards to and from the library, we tried various solutions and the number of connections and components grew and grew, giving the amplifier the appearance of a large bird's nest. It was not until we'd discovered the principle of negative feedback that we started to get anywhere.
By the end of a week of frustrating effort, it finally worked. A few tweaks of the component values and the amplifier performed perfectly, filtering the exact range of frequencies required. In that week I'd not only managed to build the circuitry but managed to get a strong grasp of the concepts involved in frequency filtering and feedback circuitry. So also did the physicist.
These experiences taught me a valuable lesson. Learning isn't necessarily a direct result of teaching. It can also result through practical application. The significance of this, which I was to realise much later, was that you didn't have to have an immense range of knowledge to achieve sophisticated goals; by means of a bottom up approach you could cut straight through the complexity of surplus information get at just whatever was necessary to achieve effective results. A very valuable conclusion when applied to the gargantuan information base available through the Internet and very useful for deciding how to go about creating an e-commerce venture.
The implications of this is best explained by observing how young children approach the use of computers. Most adults are awe struck by the way in which young children can so easily pick up the use of complicated programs. With my own boys I was quite keen to get them started into computing early. Despite constant, encouragement, threats and bribes, neither took the slightest interest in anything other than using the computer for mindless games. Then at the age of twelve the oldest boy came in from school one day and told me he wanted to use the computer to do his school homework.
Eagerly, I showed him how to start Power Point and immediately he started playing around with the mouse and the keyboard. When I ventured to show him how to use the program he brushed my offer aside, telling me that my explanations would only confuse him. Within an hour or two he had completed a fairly passable presentation, complete with a 3-D graphics heading. I was quite staggered and more than a little humbled that I hadn't been of any help.
I learned later that the motivation for using the computer had not been instigated by the teacher. Some of the other boys had brought in computer generated homework submissions and his spidery handwriting and crude drawing were shaming him into action. It wasn't long before he was doing all of his homework on the computer, gradually progressing to various paint programs and a demand for a digital camera.
I was keen to encourage his use of the computer and made constant attempts to give him assistance but, every time, my teaching efforts were met with either indifference or an impatience to get on with what he was doing. Even when he suddenly decided he needed to use a spreadsheet program to create something or other for his French homework (yes, French homework) he would accept no offer of help at all.
Now from this description you'd think of my boy as some kind of school swot, a potential nerd. Nothing of the kind. He was a fairly average scholar and had only just discovered girls. He was using the computer more and more, simply because it enabled him to complete his homework assignments easier and more quickly.
Stepping back from this, it occurred to me that this was the modern child's natural approach to handling complexity. He hadn't read a single word from any of the computer books or manuals. He'd simply used a bottom up approach to go directly to the solution of his particular problem: which was to complete his homework with the least possible effort. It seemed that without being encumbered by any formal instruction to set up a rigid framework, he'd simply built up his own knowledge base from scratch. There is a clue there somewhere, Doctor Watson.
This trial and error, bottom up technique of learning, accords with the way many professional computer users approach complex applications. Invariable they pay scant heed to the manual when they first encounter a new program. Their first approach is always to play around and do something constructive. It seems their learning process starts by forming a small base of knowledge and then building outwards from it. Manuals and books are used only when specific problems are encountered during use. This makes sense in an information rich world where it is totally inefficient to take up time with information which might be redundant to actual needs.
In contrast, such an attitude is not common in most of the traditional academic world where emphasis is placed upon providing set courses which cover a broad range of information and mental constructs.
There are several possible reasons for this difference between the way professional people in the world of digital communication acquire knowledge and the way students acquire knowledge. Principally, students are given a broad range of knowledge because the teachers and most likely the students themselves have no idea what particular area of knowledge would be directly applicable to a student's post college life. Even if this were known, it would hardly be practical to have every student studying different course material.
Once out of college, and in any occupation connected with digital communication, the range and depth of all the information applicable to any specific employment is almost certain to be far beyond any human capability to comprehend. Thus, anyone needing knowledge is forced, by the practicalities of efficient use of time, to be selectively parsimonious about what they attempt to learn. General knowledge is a luxury, which is not a practical reality for any busy careerist..
Another reason for the difference in learning between the academic and professional worlds is that the world of academia is like the world of law: it is built upon a long history of precedence. Quite rightly, the educational system is not receptive to every new idea which comes along. Looking through the history of knowledge, time and again you find instances of the great breakthroughs in thought being totally rejected at the time of their introduction. New ideas and concepts are accepted into the mainstream of education only after a suitably period of trial and rigorous examination.
In contrast, the fast changing world of e-business and e-commerce is constantly looking for and experimenting with new concepts and strategies. The field of digital communication is moving too fast for the conventional educational system to properly absorb all the new ideas, techniques and methods which are constantly appearing.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many of the new ideas and concepts arising in the environment of digital communications turn out to be very short lived. Emergent effects caused by rapidly advancing technology and the changing strategies of competitive businesses give all knowledge a degree of fleeting impermanence. Wisdom and knowledge isn't absolute or necessarily lasting in the digital communication environment. It is often temporary, subject to change and sudden reversal.
Another factor that is creating differences between the way in which students and professional workers acquire knowledge is what can be called "the fractal effect". Fractals are those odd mathematical functions which create lines or surfaces which look the same at whatever scale you view them. Examining a small section of a fractal, shows variations seeming to look the same whether it is viewed with 10 times magnification, 100 times magnification, a thousand times magnification or indeed any magnification whatsoever.
This fractal effect readily becomes apparent when searching for information on the Internet: the more you look into any particular detail, the more detail you will find. Searching into any small area of speciality opens up a seemingly bottomless pit. The more you learn the more you find there is to know. Pursuing a line of thought on an Internet search is seldom a satisfying experience because invariably you end up feeling less informed than when you started: the search reveals so many gaps in your knowledge.
Students are seldom aware of this fractal effect; teachers usually filter and distil information before teaching it. This often leaves post graduate students totally at a loss when they have to build up their own knowledge base without the direction of a guide or a teacher.
There is yet another problem, even more formidable than the fractal effect. The conventional world has grown used to a stable knowledge base. Education is based upon a stable society steeped in tradition and proven concepts. There are conventional rules of thought, established procedures, recognised values. These are the end results of the settling down of civilisation after the industrial revolution. It is the way of the Industrial Age.
Suddenly, a new cultural, social and technological revolution is upon us. It is being called the Information Age. We find ourselves plunged into an unfamiliar world where all the rules are changed. It is an "Alice in Wonderland" world ruled by the Queen of Hearts. It is not just that there are new rules or that some of the rules have changed. The new rules which apply in the digital world of communication and e-commerce are sometimes the exact opposite of the proven and accepted dogmas which apply in the conventional world. This is what is so unnerving: applying any Industrial Age business approach to communication and commerce in the digital world is not only likely to be ineffective but actually destructive.
This is a very serious problem for any individual or company entering the world of e-commerce. Traditional business procedures are unsuitable, traditional management techniques are totally inappropriate. Conventional marketing strategies are no longer effective. There are no suitable courses to take, there are no reliable books to learn from. Worst of all, the search for solutions leads mostly into the confusing and disorientating labyrinth of digital information on the Internet.