We are all in this together

A couple of links to start with: John Stapp and “Has ‘IT’ Killed ‘KM’?

Picture credit: Bill McIntyre on Flickr

I don’t have much truck with heroes. Many people do great things, in the public eye and otherwise, and it seems invidious to single certain individuals out mainly because they are better known than others who are equally worthy of credit. However, I make an exception for John Stapp.

Every time you get into a car and put on a seat belt (whether required to by law or not), you owe a debt to Dr Stapp. As a doctor in the US Air Force, he took part in experiments on human deceleration in the late 1940s. During the Second World War it had been assumed that the maximum tolerable human deceleration was 18G (that is, 18 times the force of gravity at sea level), and that death would occur above that level. The Air Force wanted to test whether this was really true, and so a research project was set up. In order to test the hypothesis, an anthropomorphic dummy was to be shot down a test track and abruptly brought to a halt. Measuring equipment would be used to gauge the effect of the deceleration on the dummy. An account of the project is provided in the Annals of Improbable Research. That account indicates that Stapp had little confidence in the dummy.

While the brass assigned a 185-pound, absolutely fearless, incredibly tough, and altogether brainless anthropomorphic dummy — known as Oscar Eightball — to ride the Gee Whiz, David Hill remembers Stapp had other ideas. On his first day on site he announced that he intended to ride the sled so that he could experience the effects of deceleration first-hand. It was a statement that Hill and everyone else found shocking. “We had a lot of experts come out and look at our situation,” he remembers. “And there was a person from M.I.T. who said, if anyone gets 18 Gs, they will break every bone in their body. That was kind of scary.”
But the young doctor had his own theories about the tests and how they ought to be run, and his nearest direct superiors were over 1000 miles away. Stapp’d done his own calculations, using a slide rule and his knowledge of physics and human anatomy, and concluded that the 18 G limit was sheer nonsense. The true figure he felt might be twice that if not more.

In the event, Oscar the dummy was used merely to test the efficacy of the test track and the ballistic sled on which his seat was first accelerated and then decelerated. Once that was done, testing could start.

Finally in December 1947 after 35 test runs, Stapp got strapped into the steel chariot and took a ride. Only one rocket bottle was fired, producing a mere 10 Gs of force. Stapp called the experience “exhilarating.” Slowly, patiently he increased the number of bottles and the stopping power of the brakes. The danger level grew with each passing test but Stapp was resolute, Hill says, even after suffering some bad injuries. And within a few months, Stapp had not only subjected himself to 18 Gs, but to nearly 35. That was a stunning figure, one that would forever change the design of airplanes and pilot restraints.

The initial tests were done with the subject (not always Stapp) facing backwards. Later on, forward-facing tests were done as well. Over the period of the research, Stapp was injured a number of times. Many of these injuries had never been seen before — nobody had been subjected to such extreme forces. Some were more mundane — he broke his wrist twice; on one occasion resetting the fracture himself as he walked back to his office. It is one thing to overcome danger that arises accidentally, quite another to put oneself directly in such extreme situations.

And he did it for the public good.

…while saving the lives of aviators was important, Kilanowski says Stapp realized from the outset that there were other, perhaps even more important aspects to his research. His experiments proved that human beings, if properly restrained and protected, could survive an incredible impact.

Cars at the time were incredibly dangerous places to be. All the padding, crumple zones and other safety features that we now take for granted had yet to be introduced.

Improving automobile safety was something no one in the Air Force was interested in, but Stapp gradually made it his personal crusade. Each and every time he was interviewed about the Gee Whiz, Kilanowski notes, he made sure to steer the conversation towards the less glamorous subject of auto safety and the need for seatbelts. Gradually Stapp began to make a difference. He invited auto makers and university researchers to view his experiments, and started a pioneering series of conferences. He even managed to stage, at Air Force expense, the first ever series of auto crash tests using dummies. When the Pentagon protested, Stapp sent them some statistics he’d managed to dig up. They showed that more Air Force pilots died each year in car wrecks than in plane crashes.

While Stapp didn’t invent the three point auto seatbelt, he helped test and perfect it. Along with a host of other auto safety appliances. And while Ralph Nader took the spotlight when Lyndon Johnson signed the 1966 law that made seatbelts mandatory, Stapp was in the room. It was one of his real moments of glory.

Ultimately, John Stapp is a hero to me because he was true to his convictions — he had a hypothesis and tested it on himself. In the modern business vernacular, he ate his own dogfood. Over and above that, he did it because he could see a real social benefit. His work, and (more importantly) the way he did it, has directly contributed to saving millions of lives over the last 60 years. Those of us who seek to change our environments, whether at work or home, or in wider society, should heed his example. If there are things that might make a difference, we shouldn’t advocate them for others (even dummies) without checking that they work for us.

Now, the other link. Greg Lambert at the 3 Geeks and a Law Blog has extended the critique of IT failing to spot and deal with the current financial crisis by suggesting that KM is equally to blame.

Knowledge Management was originally an idea that came forth in the library field as a way to catalog internal information in a similar way we where cataloging external information. However, because it would be nearly impossible for a librarian to catalog every piece of internal information, KM slowly moved over to the IT structure by attempting to make the creator of the information (that would be the attorney who wrote the document or made the contact) also be the “cataloger” of the information. Processes were created through the use of technology that were supposed to assist them in identifying the correct classification. In my opinion, this type of self-cataloging and attempt at creating a ultra-structured system creates a process that is:

  1. difficult to use;
  2. doesn’t fit the way that lawyers conduct their day-to-day work;
  3. gives a false sense of believing that the knowledge has been captured and can be easily recovered;
  4. leads to user frustration and “work around” methods; and
  5. results in expensive, underutilized software resources.

In a comment on that post, Doug Cornelius says:

I look at KM 1.0 as being centralized and KM 2.0 as being personalized. The mistake with first generation KM and why it failed was that people don’t want to contribute to a centralized system.

We have to be careful, as Bill Ives points out, not to throw out the baby in our enthusiasm to replace the 1.0 bathwater with nice fresh 2.0 bubbles. However, Greg and Doug do have a point. We made a mistake in trying to replicate the hundreds or thousands of databases walking round our organisations with single inanimate repositories.

The human being is an incredible thing. It comes with a motive system and an incredibly powerful (but probably unstructured) data storage, computation and retrieval apparatus. Most (probably all) examples of homo sapiens could not reproduce the contents of this apparatus, but they can produce answers to all sorts of questions. The key to successful knowledge activities in an organisation, surely, is to remember that each one of these components adds a bit of extra knowledge value to the whole.

Potentially, then, we are all knowledge heroes. When we experiment with knowledge, the more people who join in, the better the results. And the result here should be, as Greg points out, to “help us face future challenges.” We can only do that by taking advantage of the things that the people around us don’t realise that they know.

2 thoughts on “We are all in this together”

  1. I’m about to mention Vannevar Bush for the second time ina week, which feels rather spooky. To me, the point about the memex idea (the bit of the web we still don’t have – make your own links and connections) was that the memex was personal: it would let us make our own connections between our personal discoveries – which is one of the ways in which we learn anyway. If we can crack that, maybe KM1.0 and KM2.0 are the same thing anyway? Except, except … where is the motivation to the individual to want to make their knowledge widely shared.

    And apart from the motivation element, classification will remain a thorny issue, surely. We have too much information (data, knowledge, whatever … stuff). Most of us are skilled indexers, librarians or what have you. Even if there was a shared indexing methodology and heirarchy – and to think I used to work in polyheirarchical thesaurus construction – what is the chance most of us woud learn to use it. Or bother to. Without – that word again – motivation.

    It intrigues me Stapp wasn’t the only one working for ‘the public good’: Vannevar Bush was too. But how do we inspire – and reward – that kind of level of altruism on a consistent basis?

  2. Mark –

    That was an odd mix of thoughts smashed together. But I think that’s what many law firms need to do with their IT systems and approach to KM: smash some stuff up.

    I think most IT systems push users to isolating information in silos. Even those that encourage sharing, like a document management system, are deeply flawed as sharing tools.

    People are complaining about information overflow. KM needs to seize the opportunity to help individuals deal with this flow in a way that is incredibly useful to them and beneficial to the larger organization.

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