Power isn’t everything

I have been reacquainting myself with some of the materials science reading that I did as part of my Physics studies over 30 years ago. My brain is too far removed from the maths to deal with the more technically complex stuff, but there is a classic pair of books by J.E Gordon that are easily accessible to the lay reader: The New Science of Strong Materials, or Why You Don’t Fall Through the Floor and Structures, or Why Things Don’t Fall Down. Reading the latter, I was struck by some of the insights in the chapter on shear and torsion, more from a historical perspective than an engineering one.

Gordon reflects on the development of the aeroplane, and remarks that some aspects of the new aeronautical engineering were easier to tackle than others. 

The aeroplane was developed from an impossible object into a serious military weapon in something like ten years. This was achieved almost without benefit of science. The aircraft pioneers were often gifted amateurs and great sportsmen, but very few of them has much theoretical knowledge. Like modern car enthusiasts, they were generally more interested in their noisy and unreliable engines than they were in the supporting structure, about which they knew little and cared less. Naturally, if you hot the engine up sufficiently, you can get almost any aeroplane into the air. Whether it stays there depends upon problems of control and stability and structural strength which are conceptually difficult. (p.259)

He then goes on to tell the story of the German monoplane, the Fokker D8, which initially had an unfortunate habit of losing its wings when pulling out of a dive. As a result, the Germans could not capitalise on its obvious speed advantage over the British and French biplanes. Only once Fokker had analysed the effect of the relevant forces on the wings did he realise that the loads imposed on the plane were causing the wings to twist in a way that could not be controlled by the pilots. Once the design of the wings was changed so that they no longer twisted, the D8 served its purpose much more effectively.

Gordon makes a similar observation with regard to automobile development.

The pre-war vintage cars were sometimes magnificent objects, but, like vintage aircraft, they suffered from having had too much attention paid to the engine than to the structure of the frame or chassis. (p.270)

Reading this, I wondered whether organisational KM efforts have had similar shortcomings. Certainly, in many businesses, the KM specialists proceed by trial and error, rather than careful scientific study. There is also a tendency (driven in part by the need for big strong metrics and RoI) to focus on things like repositories and databases. Are these the powerful engines of KM, destined to shake apart when faced with conceptually difficult structural challenges? I suspect they may be.

Instead of concentrating on raw power, we need to work out what our KM activities actually do to the structure of the organisation, and how they affect the parts different people play in making the business a success. In doing that, we may find that small changes make a significant difference. It is not an easy task, but it is a worthwhile one.