Anomalies & Enigmas
Industrial Age reactions to Information Age ideas
It is difficult to generalise on the way corporations react to the rapid advances of digital communication, so, I'll recount a few personal experiences which are typical. They will illustrate some of the problems that occur when Industrial Age dogmas encounter the new concepts that are required in the Information Age.
A few months before starting to write this book, I'd been contacted by the owner of a multimedia production company who had read my books and was intrigued by the possibilities they presented. He explained that he was creating educational CD-ROMs for the education division of a large multinational telecom company and thought my ideas might be of interest to them.
A meeting was arranged with the head of the education division, at which I explained my thoughts about evolving systems, group communications and leveraging knowledge. This rang several bells, as the company were currently experiencing many problems associated with adapting to digital communication technology. They seemed receptive to new inputs and asked me to start working with them straight away on a consultancy basis.
I wasn't quite sure how I'd approach their particular problems so I made it quite clear that I wouldn't be providing any positive tangible solutions, no plans - only a strategy. This they said they understood.
The suggestion was that I work with a new group which was just being set up to bring all employees up to date with the latest advances in telecom technology. I learned later that the pressure to improve the education had come not from within the company but from a committee of main shareholders who felt that the company was losing ground to new competitors coming into their traditional markets.
At the initial meeting with the leader of this new group, I had my first suspicions that things were not going to go well. I was shown the outline of their plan. It consisted of a bell shaped curve that plotted the educational level of all employees in the company. The horizontal scale indicated the degree of education achieved and the vertical scale indicated the number of employees at each level of education. The bell shape, being typical of many distribution curves, showed most employees bunched around an average and falling away either side to indicate the lesser numbers who were either poorly educated or exceptionally educated.
Their plan was to move this curve to the right. That is to increase the education of all employees an incremental amount to effectively raise the general level of employee education. They were offering a special bonus to every employee who took a set course of instruction in telecommunications that had been prepared by the company's education department. To the corporate mind of the Industrial age this made perfect sense. To me, this plan seemed inadequate and incomplete because their stated objective was to be competitive in the Information Age..
I'd visualized this company as a kind of living organism, that consisted of specialised functioning parts. It made no sense to me that you needed to provide a standard education for all the parts. For most of the employees, a standard education in telecommunications would be of very little real value. In most cases it would represent only more informational noise.
I'd had in mind a plan to encourage employees to develop their individual specialisations; expanding their current areas of interest and knowledge. In this way, individual knowledge and areas of speciality could be leveraged to give the company a much wider and deeper range of expertise. My idea, I told them, was to create a pool of specialists, whose knowledge could be leveraged and shared through a suitably efficient communication network. Unfortunately, the manager couldn't seem to be able to reconcile my ideas with the master plan.
I became even more alarmed when I was told that the company was standardising on all it's computer hardware and software. Departments who used non standard equipment and programs were going to be heavily penalised. This I'd encountered before. If ever there was a sure sign that a company had the wrong attitude for competing in the new world of digital communications this was it. Such a policy belongs to the sedentary world of established industrialisation, the Industrial Age, not the fast moving, rapidly changing, unpredictable environment of the Information Age.
In the Industrial Age, standardization is a deep seated dogma. Costs are reduced with bulk buys; servicing and training costs are minimised. It all seems so logically sensible to create standards. That is, until you stop to consider that companies are now entering a period of rapid technological change. Standards are continuously being invented, revised and abandoned; new rules, new methods, new paradigms are manifesting almost on a daily basis. Standardisation in this environment is not only ineffectual it can become a serious handicap.
The motivation to standardise computer systems seems to stem from the Industrial Age tendency for companies to organise themselves into hierarchical structures of control. IT divisions are usually a separate branch of this hierarchical structure; the IT management often entrenched in ivory towers. Computing in a company is so ubiquitous, appearing in all manner of company business activities, that the influence and control of the IT department can easily become dominating and autocratic.
Even a main board of Directors might not be able to exercise much control or influence over a resourceful IT management. They are the technologists at the hub of a company's nerve centre and very few people in the company have the knowledge to understand or query any of their decisions.
It goes against the grain of any corporate manger to surrender any power or control, so, most IT departments try to keep all matters relating to computing tightly contained within their own domain. However, in the Information Age with its rapidly changing technology, it just isn't practical for any reasonably efficient IT department to be able to keep up with all new and rapidly changing developments in computers and digital communications. There is just too much of it to be fully comprehended by even the largest IT department because of the fractal effect: the more you learn the more you find there is to know.
Rather than admit any lack of knowledge or surrender any control over this technology, many IT departments will deliberately reduce the technology level of a company in order to keep it safely within the extent of their own limited knowledge. This is not a good strategy for an effective IT department to adopt if the company is to maintain competitiveness in the digital economy. The correct way to go is to allow a company to increase it's the range and scope of its technical competence even if it means losing control. Such an idea is anathema to Industrial Age management thinking.
The next problem I encountered was with the policy of informational exchange. I take the view that any product of a company reflects the total knowledge that the company has about that product. The corollary being that the more knowledge you can input into a company relevant to its products the better and more competitive those products will be.
I proposed setting up a system that would encourage exchange of information with the outside world and introducing Internet communication strategies. This suggestion was greeted with horror. Mention was made of company secrets leaving the company and of staff being identified as suitable targets for head hunters. It was a no-no. The idea that people should communicate with any anyone in the outside world about their work for the company was not acceptable at all.
The final straw came when I proposed introducing a communication strategy that utilised the principle of evolutionary design. I explained that I was intending to provide a piece of software that would allow employees to communicate and exchange knowledge more efficiently - specifically to take advantage of the new advances in digital technology and the Internet.
To explain the essence of evolutionary design, I likened the software to growing extensions to employee brains. The software would evolve to adapt to individual needs and capabilities, allowing more effective individual communication strategies to be employed.
With my credibility already somewhat stretched, this did not go down too well. I think they half expected me to start talking about brain surgery and implants. When I showed them the software I had in mind things started to go downhill fast. They began to get nervous and reacted towards me as if they were dealing with a somebody who was not quite right in the head.
I'd presented them with a screen with forty-eight plain rectangles into which you could enter names.
"What is it?", they wanted to know.
I explained that it represented a cafe and into this virtual cafe could be entered the names of people whom the user considered to be useful contacts.
"Like an address book of business contacts?", someone asked.
I confirmed that this could be a way of looking at it, explaining that the metaphor of a cafe helped construct a more useful mental model. On a white board I demonstrated with a little sketch how a list of names could be represented as people in a cafe and how you could mentally think of getting small groups of people in the cafe to sit around a virtual table together where you could have discussions with them. They then began looking at each other with a mixture of alarm and disbelief.
They then asked me what else the software consisted of and I told them that this was all there was to it at the moment because it had to evolve as a direct response to being used. I then attempted to explain the principle of evolutionary design, where you start with virtually nothing and let the product design itself.
To illustrate what I was meaning I told them that any evolutionary design could start off as a green frog. No planning was needed and in time that green frog would turn into a highly complex and efficient piece of software. I might add that this explanation was not easy because the company was located in a North European country where English was not the native language. In other words they were very far from understanding what I was talking about.
At the moment I began my explanation of the principle of the green frog, the head of the educational division joined the confused gathering. Not surprisingly, my consultancy arrangement with the company was terminated very shortly afterwards.