The unknown future of technology

Last week saw the fortieth anniversary of the first commercial passenger-carrying Concorde flight, as highlighted in this tweet by Aviation Week:

Concorde was probably the most well-known product of Harold Wilson’s government’s high-profile science and technology policy during the 1960s. (Strictly speaking, the joint Franco-British project started under the preceding Conservative governments, but much of the work was done under Labour.) That policy was announced in a speech in 1963, whose concluding passages included the following fateful words:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this [scientific] revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry. We shall need a totally new attitude to the problems of apprenticeship, of training and re-training for skill.

“The white heat of technology” became a watchword for the Labour governments of 1964-1970. Looking back, it might also be seen as a kind of curse. Some of the highest-profile advances of this era had little lasting impact, or were undone in later years by the kind of outmoded methods and practices that Wilson said should be rejected.

Concorde was one of those disappointments. The development and production of a supersonic aircraft was an incredible achievement, but it was only purchased by the national carriers of France and Britain. Other airlines conducted evaluations, and some went as far as placing orders. All the orders were cancelled over time. Concorde remained in service with British Airways and Air France until late 2003 when it was withdrawn by both airlines, due to low passenger numbers and rising maintenance costs.

Concorde’s purpose was purely to carry passengers faster than other aircraft. This purpose was shared on the sea by another 1960s technology: the hovercraft. Just as Concorde cut the time for Atlantic air crossings, the SR.N4 hovercraft operated by Seaspeed, Hoverlloyd and (after their merger) Hoverspeed allowed passengers to cross the English Channel in a fraction of the time taken by traditional ferries.

In the end, though, not enough people wanted to pay the premium to save on their travel time. The hovercraft service between England and France ran for just over thirty years — from 1968 until 2000. The cost of fuel ultimately made the service uneconomic — especially once cross-Channel duty-free sales were outlawed (like many forms of transport, traditional retail opportunities had subsidised the core service).

The real problem for the hovercraft and for Concorde was that they prioritised the wrong thing. Whilst their progenitors (including the British government, which subsidised both projects either directly or through its management of the transport operators) concentrated on speed, travel became a volume business. As foreign travel became more common, it would be more important for operators to have craft that could service as many passengers as possible. Since the high-speed options tended to have limited capacity, they were much less attractive.

As a result, Concorde was much less successful than the Boeing 747. The latter plane was developed at about the same time, but was far more capacious and flexible in operation. Concorde could only carry a maximum of 120 passengers, whilst the smallest 747 variant carried 480 people. The 747 was also capable of longer flights. Unsurprisingly, the Boeing remains in production (albeit in updated form).

On sea, a similar pattern emerged. Whilst hovercraft services operated, the traditional ferries stayed in service. Although slower, the ferries carried 3-4 times as many passengers and cars.  It wasn’t until the Channel Tunnel opened in late 1994 with a high-speed high-volume service that the sea-borne craft of all types were properly threatened.

This stark retelling of the history of Concorde and the cross-Channel hovercraft would suggest that those investments were a complete waste — the only return was 30-40 years of high-speed travel for a small minority of travellers. But there were other benefits. The most obvious is that the Anglo-French cooperation in developing Concorde was the foundation for the Airbus consortium, which is now the main competitor to Boeing in the production of large passenger and cargo aircraft. Hovercraft technology is not dead — in a modified form, it persists in surface-effect ships such as Norway’s Skjold-class corvettes.

The outcome of these experiments could not have been foreseen. That they were not commercially successful is not a reason for suggesting that they were misconceived from the outset. Their failure arose from changes in the market (the behaviour of the travelling public and the global oil market) as well as governmental action (liberalisation of air and shipping services on both sides of the Atlantic and the Channel, together with closer European integration). I am certain that almost nobody could have predicted the result of this combination of factors, even if they had foreseen each alone. In the end, though, very few unsuccessful ventures produce absolutely nothing of value at all.

And that is where I draw a link with current technology developments in the law. As I have mentioned before, the technologies of the future are not necessarily the ones we predict in the present. That said, there is an incredible amount of technological change and experimentation in legal services at the moment. Some of those experiments will be as successful as the Boeing 747 — changing the way people use the law across the world. Some will be as exciting as the hovercraft for a while, but will ultimately be beached for reasons that are currently unforeseeable.

There are a few important things to bear in mind during this period of novelty.

Experimentation is necessary, which means that some things won’t work out quite as intended. Firms that stick to what they know might be lucky to survive, but they may still be overtaken by those that experiment and fail.

It is possible to try more than one experiment. Unlike other professional services firms, law firms struggle to diversify in the services that they offer — few stray beyond the law — but they can try different ways of working.

Don’t forget the people factor. At a technology level, Concorde and the large hovercraft were a success. They delivered exactly what was promised — fast, safe travel. But they didn’t serve people in the way they wanted. The market chose something different. Likewise, law firms’ may create technology-based services that are successful in their own terms, but fail to appeal to people for some reason. Projects that are driven by technologists (in the broadest sense of the term) are more likely to forget to consider how people (lawyers, clients, regulators, and others) might react.

What is going on elsewhere? This is crucial. The lessons learned from Concorde resonate beyond the companies and teams directly involved in that project. On the other hand, had those people paid closer attention to the development of the package holiday and the work being done in other areas of the aircraft industry, they might have decided to cut their losses much earlier than they did. Likewise, law firms need to be aware of how other firms’ experiments are progressing. Just as businesses need to avoid reinventing their own wheels, they should try not to repeat other people’s mistakes but build on their successes instead.

Law firms, memory and history

Today is 1 May, the first day of a new year for most UK-based law firms (financially, at least). All our clocks have rolled back to zero and there should be a clear way forward into the unknown of the coming year. With that in mind, I have been thinking about history.


A couple of years ago, I spent some time talking about the use of history within organisations with Julie Reynolds. We first connected following a conference session at KMUK in 2010, in which a colleague of hers described a knowledge transfer project involving Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. I referred to this in a previous blog post, but the links I provided there are dead or dying (Posterous is about to be closed, for one thing).

The work with the Hunterian Museum (along with other museums)  focused on the ways in which objects in the museum’s collection (some quite unusual) could be used to support different kinds of conversations within businesses. This is how I summarised it in 2010:

What [they] have done as part of the Knowledge Transfer Project is to develop a set of modules aimed at developing business skills, using exhibits from the museum. Some of these are quite intriguing (to say the least). They showed us images of two exhibits they use on the ‘building confidence’ module: a set of dentures made for Winston Churchill (designed to maintain his slight speech impediment so that no-one would notice the change) and “a painted silver prosthetic nose, mounted on a spectacle frame, from the mid-1800s. The nose was worn by a woman who had lost her own as a result of syphilis.” (Quoted from a Hunterian volunteers’ newsletter, in which there is also a picture of the nose.) She later presented it to her physician stating that she had remarried and that her new husband preferred her without it. It is easy to see how these items could spark a valuable learning conversation about confidence in a business or personal context.

Following her involvement in this project, Julie started a course in Manchester and we met a few times to discuss how her experience in curation might be used in a commercial context. She had previously worked for other businesses to help them connect with their own histories through archives and collections of artefacts. During these conversations, I quickly realised that law firms rarely refer publicly to their histories. Very few provide an ‘origin story’ on their websites and I suspect even fewer use archivists or similar professionals to preserve key documents for future use. (If you know better, please let me know in the comments or by email.) Julie had some great ideas of ways in which we might use the firm’s back-story to support some types of business development activity, but we weren’t ready for them. (The picture at the top of this post shows the imaginative container in which Julie presented her proposed ideas.)  I was disappointed that we couldn’t make it work, but I still wonder why firms have a problem with history.

After reflection, I think there are a number of different issues. The immediate one is that referring to the past doesn’t appear to help in winning work for the future (beyond highlighting juicy recent deals that might resonate with clients). When seeking legal advice, clients might be interested in the depth of experience within the team who will do the work. That probably doesn’t translate into an interest in the longevity of the firm or its antecedents. History, on this analysis, is a distraction. Another factor is that law firms are very fluid businesses. They have practically no existence separate from the people constituting them at any given moment. That means that history might be considered irrelevant, if not misleading. Finally (and back to the starting point of this post), the annual financial cycle is so strong that firms might actually sense 1 May as the beginning of current history, and so anything before that date is pre-history. (I think this last factor is actually diminishing for a number of reasons.)

But what is the impact of the anti-historical attitude amongst firms? The most significant for me is that without organisational memory, the firm has to fall back on personal recollection by distracted individuals. The result is probably even worse than anything produced by Jane Austen’s “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.” This is sometimes manifest in the way that change is resisted. The classic lines, “That’s not how we do things here” or “We did that before and it didn’t work” can be heard in all sorts of organisations. But without a documented history there is no way to deal with them. A historical account can be used to disprove such statements, or to show why things that were true in the past no longer apply. If there is no historical account such a rebuttal is not possible, and so resistance succeeds. At a practical level, that is why documented after-action reviews can be so powerful.

In the end, it’s a paradox. Law firms need to look to the future and update themselves to meet new economic, regulatory, client or technological challenges, but many of them will fail to do so because they prefer to pretend that they have no past.

Storing our future knowledge?

Over the summer, I read a couple of blog posts about knowledge storage that I marked to come back and comment on. Separately, Mary Abraham and Greg Lambert have suggested a fairly traditional approach to selection of key knowledge for storage and later access.

Dover Castle

First, Greg issued a clarion call for selectivity in information storage:

Knowledge Management should not be based on a “cast a wide net” approach to the information that flows in and out of our firms. In fact, most information should be ephemeral in nature; addressing only the specific need of the moment and not be thought of as a permanent addition to the knowledge of the firm. When we try to capture everything, we end up capturing nothing. In the end we end up losing the important pieces of knowledge because they are buried in a mountain of useless data filed under the topic of “CYA”.

I had to Google “CYA”. And thereby hangs a lesson. How can we know when we make a decision about recording the present for posterity that the things we choose will be (a) comprehensible to those who come after us and (b) meet their as yet unknowable needs?

For centuries, the study of history relied on official records and was therefore a story of kings and queens, emperors and presidents, politicians and popes. The things that were left behind — castles, cathedrals, palaces and monuments as well as documents — actually provided us with only slender insight into the real lives of the majority of people who lived at any given point in time. Only when archaeologists and social historians started to untangle more trivial artefacts like potsherds, clay pipes, bone pits and everyday documents like manorial rolls, diaries, or graffiti were we given a more rounded picture of the world of our predecessors. At the time, those things were ephemeral — not created for posterity. The lesson we always forget to learn is that we don’t get to write our history — the future does.

Because Google has access to a vast mass of ephemera, I was able to learn what “CYA” means. In Greg’s context, it is the stuff we think we might need to keep to protect ourselves — it is an information security blanket.

Mary Abraham picked up the thread by addressing the Google question:

Folks who drink the super search kool-aid will say that the cost of saving and searching data is becoming increasingly trivial, so why spend any time at all trying to weed the collection?  Rather, save it all and then try Filtering on the Way Out.  On the other hand, look at the search engine so many of us envy — Google.  It indexes and searches enormous amounts of data, but even Google doesn’t try to do it all.  Google doesn’t tackle the Deep Web.

So why are we trying to do it all?

That’s a good question, and one that Greg challenged as well. I want to come to that, but first the Deep Web issue needs to be dealt with.

As I understand it, the problem for Google is that many useful web resources are stored in ways that exclude it — in databases, behind paywalls, or by using robots.txt files. That may be a problem on the public web, but it shouldn’t be in the enterprise context. By definition, an properly set up enterprise search engine is able to get access to anything that the user can see. If there is material in a subscription service like Westlaw or Lexis Nexis, then searches can be federated so that the result set includes links into those services as well as a firm’s own know-how. Alternatively, a firm or search provider can make special arrangements to index content through a paywall. There simply should not be a Deep Web problem in the enterprise context.

But what of the main issue — by storing too much, we lose our ability to find what is important? I think Greg and Mary are right to challenge the “store everything” model. There is much that is truly ephemeral — the e-mail that simply says “Thanks” or the doodles from that boring meeting. The problem with those, though is not that keep them, but that we created them in the first place. If the meeting was that boring, should the doodler not have gone and done something else instead? Isn’t there a better way of showing appreciation than sending an e-mail (especially if it was a reply-to-all)? I think that is the bit that is broken. Some other things are ephemeral even though they do need to be captured formally. Once an expenses claim has been paid, and the taxman is satisfied, there is little need to keep the claim forms available for searching. (Although there may be other reasons why they should not be discarded completely.)

However, I am still concerned that we cannot know what will be useful in the future, or why it might have a use. At the heart of an organisation like a law firm there are two strands of information/knowledge. The first is a body of technical material. Some of this is universally available (even if not comprehensible) — statutes, cases, codes, textbooks, journal articles: documents created externally that we all have to understand. Some is specific to the firm — standard documents, briefing notes, drafting guides: our internal know-how. I think this is the material that Greg and Mary are concerned with. And they are right that we should be critical about the potential immensity of these resources. Does that new journal article say anything new? Is that textbook worth the space that it takes on our shelves? Is our know-how really unique to us, or is it just a reflection of market practice? These are all crucial questions. However, almost by definition, as soon as we fix this material in some form it is of mainly historical interest — it is dying information. The older it gets, the less value it will have for our practice and our clients.

The other strand is intangible, amorphous, constantly shifting. It is the living knowledge embodied in our people, their relationships with each other and our clients, and their reactions to formal information. That changing body is not just responsible for the knowledge of the firm, but its direction and focus. At any time, it is the people and their connections that actually define the firm and its strategic preoccupations. In particular, what our clients want will drive our future knowledge needs. If we can predict what our future clients commercial concerns and drivers will be, then we can confidently know what we should store, and what to discard. I don’t think I can do that. As a result, we need to retain access to more than might seem useful today.

Patrick Lambe catches this tension neatly in his post “The War Between Awareness and Memory.” I looked at that in my last post (five weeks ago — August really isn’t conducive to blogging). As I was writing this one, I recalled words I last read thirty years ago. This is how John Dos Passos caught the same mood in the closing words of the eponymous prose poem that opens the single volume edition of his great novel U.S.A.

It was not in the long walks through jostling crowds at night that he was less alone, or in the training camp at Allentown, …

but in his mother’s words telling about longago, in his father’s telling about when I was a boy, in the kidding stories of uncles, …

it was in the speech that clung to the ears, the link that tingled in the blood; U.S.A.

U.S.A. is the slice of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, a radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stock quotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a publiclibrary full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil. U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley finged with mountains and hills. U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms at Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home.But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.

Sometimes questions about the “laws bound in calf” or “dogeared historybooks” are less important, maybe even a distraction. The real life and future knowledge of the firm is the speech of the people. That cannot be reconstructed. We need to be aware of all the ways in which we can preserve and retain access to it, for use when a client comes up with a new conundrum for us to help them resolve.

From bureaucracy to agility

Last year, I referred to a post by Olivier Amprimo, who was then at Headshift. He is now working at the National Library Board in Singapore, and is still sharing really interesting thoughts. The latest is a presentation he gave to the Information and Knowledge Management Society in Singapore on “The Adaptation of Organisations to a Knowledge Economy and the Contribution of Social Computing“. I have embedded it below.

For me, the interesting facet of what Olivier describes is the transition from bureaucratic organisations to agile ones, and what that means for KM. Traditional KM reflects what Olivier isolates in the bureaucratic organisation, especially the problem he describes as the confusion between administrative work and intellectual work. In doing traditional KM (repositories of knowledge, backed up with metrics based on volume) we run the risk that administrative work is enshrined as the only work of value. However, it is the intellectual work where agility can be generated, and where real value resides.

Olivier describes the agile organisation as one where the focus is on rationalisation of design.

What is important is how the individual forms and is conditioned by work. The work is the facilitator. This is the first time that the individual has been in this position. This is where the knowledge economy really starts.

I found an example of the kind of agility that Olivier refers to in an unexpected place: a short account of the work of Jeff Jonas, who is the chief scientist of IBM’s Entity Analytics group. His work with data means that he is an expert in manipulating it and getting answers to security-related questions for governmental agencies and Las Vegas casinos. For example, he describes how he discussed data needs with a US intelligence analyst:

“What do you wish you could have if you could have anything?” Jonas asked her. Answers to my questions faster, she said. “It sounds reasonable,” Jonas told the audience, “but then I realized it was insane.” Insane, because “What if the question was not a smart question today, but it’s a smart question on Thursday?” Jonas says.

The point is, we cannot assume that data needed to answer the query existed and been recorded before the query was asked. In other words, it’s a timing problem.

Jonas works with data and technology, but what he says resonates for people too. When we store documents and information in big repositories and point search engines at them, we don’t create the possibility of intelligent knowledge use. The only thing we get is faster access to old (and possibly dead) information.

According to Jonas, organizations need to be asking questions constantly if they want to get smarter. If you don’t query your data and test your previous assumptions with each new piece of data that you get, then you’re not getting smarter.

Jonas related an example of a financial scam at a bank. An outside perpetrator is arrested, but investigators suspect he may have been working with somebody inside the bank. Six months later, one of the employees changes their home address in payroll system to the same address as in the case. How would they know that occurred, Jonas asked. “They wouldn’t know. There’s not a company out there that would have known, unless they’re playing the game of data finds data and the relevance finds the user.”

This led Jonas to expound his first principle. “If you do not treat new data in your enterprise as part of a question, you will never know the patterns, unless someone asks.”

Constantly asking questions and evaluating new pieces of data can help an organization overcome what Jonas calls enterprise amnesia. “The smartest your organization can be is the net sum of its perceptions,” Jonas told COMMON attendees.


Getting smarter by asking questions with every new piece of data is the same as putting a picture puzzle together, Jonas said. This is something that Jonas calls persistent context. “You find one piece that’s simply blades of grass, but this is the piece that connects the windmill scene to the alligator scene,” he says. “Without this one piece that you asked about, you’d have no way of knowing these two scenes are connected.”

Sometimes, new pieces reverse earlier assertions. “The moment you process a new transaction (a new puzzle piece) it has the chance of changing the shape of the puzzle, and right before you go to the next piece, you ask yourself, ‘Did I learn something that matters?'” he asks. “The smartest your organization is going to be is considering the importance right when the data is being stitched together.”

Very like humans, then? A characteristic of what we do in making sense of the world around us is drawing analogies between events and situations: finding matching patterns. This can only be done if we have a constant awareness of what we already know coupled with a desire to use new information to create a new perspective on that. That sounds like an intellectual exercise to me.

Detroit: the picture in our attic

I haven’t seen that many of the great American cities. I have visited New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, but not San Francisco, LA, Atlanta, or Seattle. However, I can say that I have lived in one: Detroit. It still remains my favourite. It saddens me greatly that this vibrant town has become a byword for depression and misery.

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In the Summer of 1985, I spent six weeks at Wayne State University Law School, which had an exchange programme with my home university. (This may seem odd, until one adds the information that the University of Warwick was actually sited on the edge of Coventry, the closest Britain came to having a Motor City.) In retrospect, this was a very happy time. I had work to do (mainly researching the activities of the Department of Housing and Urban Development with special reference to the Urban Development Action Grant program), but I also explored the city itself. Not just the civic magnificence of Woodward Ave (the Public Library and the Institute of Arts), but also the commercial opulence of the Fisher Building and General Motors Building in the New Center and the comparatively characterless Renaissance Center downtown.

My recollection of the city, though, is not rooted in these overbearing buildings and boulevards. It was the people and heart of Detroit that I fell for. Even in the mid-80s the beginning of decay was obvious. There were neighbourhoods that had not been touched since being burned in the 1967 riots. Few streets were without a gap where a house had been torched. Even so, everyone I met was unfailingly courteous and welcoming. I walked nearly everywhere, and never felt particularly unsafe. (Although being propositioned by a rather seedy gentleman downtown one afternoon was a bit of a low point. He thought I was Canadian.)

Because of GM and their ilk, Detroit is very much in the news at the moment. Whatever the cost to the American tax-payer (which appears to be the greatest concern to the likes of the Harvard Business School and the Wall Street Journal), the real cost is being felt by the people of Detroit left behind as their more mobile neighbours abandon this great city. As Don Witt, the cab driver in the interview above, puts it:

They [the motor industry] have always been the heart of Detroit — the heart and soul of Detroit. They made the middle class in Detroit. If General Motors and Chrysler go bankrupt, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the city for a while. … You’re actually destroying the middle class of Detroit so that, along with the city, you’re going to have to rebuild the middle class.

[I hope non-UK readers can see the footage. There is an associated story on the BBC News website.]

Bill Ives recently linked to a touching collection of photographs of Detroit’s dereliction. Others have also documented the physical toll wrought by the decline of this city.

I cannot pretend to understand all of this. But I feel that Detroit (along with similar cities) bore the brunt of our prosperity. Just as Dorian Gray stayed beautiful as his picture aged, we have prospered as Detroit suffered. It suited the motor industry to concentrate its activities (almost to the exclusion of everything else) in a small number of locations. As a consequence, the failure of that industry brings about the failure of the city. There was no back-up plan. The diversity of Detroit’s people was not matched by diversity in its industrial leaders. That is surely unforgiveable.


I spent the Easter holidays in Italy. However, that wasn’t the full extent of my holiday. For various practical reasons, including personal preference, I drove to our destination (the rest of the family flew). On my way back, I was able to spend some extra time sight-seeing.

One of the things I wanted to do was to see some of the First World War cemeteries. I didn’t know why — it was just something I had never done. I am glad I did, although it was much more harrowing than I expected.

Prior to the First World War, the bodies of soldiers who fell in battle tended to be buried, cremated, or left in situ. The cemeteries created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (founded in 1917) provide a clean break with this tradition. The Commission’s principles have been emulated by other nations and traditions, but few memorials are as moving as those on the Western Front. The simplicity of those principles is immensely respectful of the dead.

  • Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial
  • Headstones and memorials should be permanent
  • Headstones should be uniform
  • There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed

Wherever you are in the UK, you are never far from a memorial to local soldiers, sailors or airmen lost in war during the last century. Even the school I attended had a plaque immortalising the old boys who had given their lives in 1914-1918 or 1939-1945. (I saw similar memorials in many Italian towns and villages as well.) Despite these constant reminders, I was not prepared for the emotional impact of the memorials in West Flanders.

Despite the generally flat landscape of Jacques Brel’s plat pays, there is a curved low ridge around Ieper (Ypres), which has been the site of conflict on a number of occasions (even before WWI). Between 1914 and 1918, a number of battles over this salient accounted for the lives of about 450,000 young men. (All the information provided in West Flanders suggested nearly 250,000 soldiers of the France and the British Empire, together with just over 200,000 German soldiers.) These numbers are almost unimaginable, but awful when you can actually see the landscape over which they fought.

The only way I could start to comprehend the scale of this sacrifice was to personalise it. In Ieper, I found five graves belonging to soldiers killed on the same date as my visit, 21 April, but in 1918.

  • 139636 Lance Cpl. E.J. Jones (Royal Engineers)
  • 18934 Lance Cpl. A.R. Ockelford (Royal Engineers)
  • 143532 2nd Corporal R. Wilson (Royal Engineers)
  • 177166 Sapper Oliver Smith (Royal Engineers)
  • 42544 Private C.G Hawkes (Essex Regiment)

May they rest in peace.

At the largest cemetery of all, Tyne Cot, the dead of Passchendaele 1917 are commemorated. Here there are nearly 12,000 men buried, and a further 35,000 whose graves are unknown remembered on a massive memorial wall. Another 55,000 casualties whose graves are unknown are commemorated on the walls of the Menin Gate in Ieper.

The emotional impact of these names, and the landscape over which the men bearing them fought and lost their lives, was heightened by the knowledge that so many of them were born in the 1890s and slain in their 20s. My own children were born in the 1990s. Little facts like this start to put the large numbers into perspective.

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.

Your boom is not my boom

I am currently reading Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap. (There will be a review when I have finished it.) In the first chapter there is a graph of the birth rate in the United States which brought home to me how much our unarticulated assumptions matter.

Here is the graph (taken from Wikipedia):

This shows a clear increase in birth rate between 1946 and 1962 (known as the Baby Boom), followed by a slump between 1963 and 1980 (Generation X) and a rise again between 1981 and 2000 (Generation Y, or the Millennials). Compare this with the birth rate in the UK, as illustrated in the graph below (drawn using figures from the Office of National Statistics).


I have shaded three areas in the UK chart, marking years after the 1930s in which the birth rate rose significantly above the norm. The peaks occurring in the periods 1944-49 and 1957-1972 exceeded the mean for the century (just over 700,000 births per annum, apart from a slight dip below this in 1945). I have marked another bulge between 1986 and 1996, but the birth rate in these years is still below the mean for the century (the peak year is 1990, with 706,140 births — 2000 below the mean). By comparison, the birth rate over the same period in the US exceeded that in some years of their post-war baby boom.

For me, this difference between the US and UK is striking. It means that we need to be careful when using terms like “baby boom” and when assessing the impact of generational change in the workplace. As the US Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in 1985 (“Recent trends in unemployment and the labor force, 10 countries”):

In North America, birth rates peaked in the late 1950’s . In Western Europe, however, the peak occurred in the early to mid-1960’s, which coincided with the tapering off of North American birth rates. In Australia and Japan, the peak was reached much later, in the 1970’s.

In the United States and Canada, the children born during the baby boom reached working age in the early 1970’s, whereas those in Western European countries reached working age nearly 10 years later, during a period of generally declining economic growth . For Australia and Japan, the entry of the baby-boom generation is just beginning or yet to come.

There are two significant implications for the workplace. The first is that the UK baby boomers will be retiring ten years after those in the US. As a result, whereas the US needs to cope now with the “yawning gap in skills, experience, leadership, knowledge, and experience” (as Generation Blend puts it) that the loss of this cohort will bring, UK businesses have another decade to work out how to respond. On the other hand, the United States can almost count on their Millennials to replace the Baby Boomers, given the significant similarity in the birth rates. In the UK we do not have that luxury — there are not enough people in Generation Y to fill the places of the retiring generation. As a result there is almost certainly a different dynamic between the generations in the UK than there is in the US, and those of us on this side of the Atlantic need to be conscious of this when taking our cue from American studies and commentary.

Back again

There’s been another long gap in transmission. This time I can blame work followed by a holiday in Ireland and catching up with work again for the past week.

(I don’t know how some people manage to find the time to blog as much as they do. I only do this from home — because access is too slow at work and because this definitely isn’t about work, except tangentially — and I keep getting sucked into other stuff.)

Anyway, here are some random bits from the last few weeks.

We spent the last two weeks in August in Ireland — mostly wet, but with a glorious few days (including the day of the Connemara Pony Show, which was a blessing, given that most of the family wanted to spend the whole day there. Our base in Connemara was a cottage owned by Liz Kane, a local fiddle player. When we first arrived, she was still on tour in the USA, but when she got back she kindly dropped in and played for us. She also listened to the girls playing their violins, and talked about the way she teaches traditional fiddle to the local children.

What I found interesting was that in her teaching Liz said she concentrates on the sound. Rather than using formal written music, she uses a shorthand notation that is much easier for children to pick up, and her objective is to get them to play by ear. Along the way, some of them do learn formal notation, but that is incidental. Liz also looked at one of the music books that we had taken along, and was quite critical of it — not because the tunes were wrong, but because her understanding of the music and the practicalities of playing it led her to suggest some minor changes. In doing so, she amply demonstrated two things for me (and you should bear in mind that I am not musical, apart from enjoying other people’s playing). Firstly, her changes were clearly part of the tradition — just because one hears a tune played in a particular way, that does not mean that it is fixed that way. It is permissible, even encouraged, to seek alternatives that might sound better or suit one’s playing better. The second thing was that it made the poverty of explicit knowledge clear to me. A simple rendition of a musical score (an expression of the knowledge of the composer) will often be cold and lifeless. It is only when one can bring to the score a set of tacit understandings, opinions and traditions that real music results.

We spent the second week in a very different way. While the rest of the family rode every day (even the one recovering from a broken ankle), I tried being a tourist. However, it turns out that some parts of Ireland are truly short of interesting things to visit. (I think this is caused by a variety of things, but the island’s 20th century history doesn’t lend itself to the preservation of stately homes, which is one of the mainstays of Anglo-Scottish tourism.) As a result, I spent a lot of time in bookshops like Woulfe’s in Listowel and O’Mahony’s in Limerick. That’s my kind of holiday! I had gone with a stock of Irish-tinted books (such as Paul Muldoon’s survey of Irish literature, To Ireland, I, Gerard Donovan’s new collection of stories, Country of the Grand (a Librarything Early Reviewer’s copy), and At Swim-two-birds by Flann O’Brien), and I bought more, but the reading that made most impact on me was about France. 

Graham Robb’s book, The Discovery of France, is almost incredible. He gives a striking account of how rural France before (and in some instances after) 1900 was conventionally poverty-stricken and backward, but whose traditions and practices made perfect sense and probably produced a much more viable and sustainable community than the modern emphasis on commerce and constant economic improvement. His writing is beautifully lucid and often sheds light on modern issues as well as historic ones.

For example, in writing about the persecution of the cagots (a rootless tribe scattered throughout France), Robb illustrates the self-perpetuating truth of prejudice across the ages:

It finally became apparent that the real ‘mystery of the cagots’ was the fact that they had no distinguishing features at all. They spoke whichever dialect was spoken in the regions and their family names were not peculiar to the cagots. They did not, as the Bretons believed, bleed from the navel on Good Friday. The only difference was that, after eight centuries of persecution, they tended to be more skilful and resourceful than the surrounding populations, and more likely to emigrate to America. They were therefore feared because they were persecuted and might therefore seek revenge.

Then, referring to Flaubert’s fictional Yonville-l’Abbaye, home to Madame Bovary:

A progressive bourgeois like the town chemist, M. Homais, who is not directly dependent on the land, can afford to revel in the stupidity of peasants: ‘Would to heaven our farmers were trained chemists or at least lent a more attentive ear to the counsels of science!’ But improving land is expensive and animals are a comfort. A peasant might invest in fertilizer and increase the yield of grain, but why should she risk her livelihood in a volatile market? Grain prices are even less reliable than the weather. A pig in the paddock is worth more than the promise of a merchant in the city.

Only people who have more than one source of food would use the expression ‘stuck in their ways’ as an insult. The smallholders of Yonville had good reason to be cautious. At about the time when the novel takes place, in the little market town of Ry, which Flaubert appears to have used as a model for Yonville-l’Abbaye, a woman complained to the authorities that she and her children were starving to death.

If Yonville or Ry had been better connected to the city of Rouen, which in turn was connected by the river Seine to Paris and the Channel ports, they would have suffered more from shortages and unrest. In troubled times, towns and villages that lay within the supply zone of cities were sucked dry by military commissioners and the civilian population. Agricultural progress might create a surplus and encourage investment, but it could also create excessive demand and a transport network that would quickly pump out the region’s produce. Wheat growers and wine growers were more worldly but also more vulnerable to change. In the poorer parts of southern France, where the staple crop, the chestnut, was expensive to transport and not much in demand, winter supplies remained safely in the region.

There are pre-echoes of our flat world in this passage. As we have over-specialised ourselves, we have imposed similar specialisation on others. See the tragic irony in this report from Agence France-Press about the travails of Kenyan bean growers:


“Kenya strayed from sustainable farming and followed the temptation of exporting, when it’s clearly preferable to produce and consume locally,” says Claude-Marie Vadrot, an ecology expert with French weekly Politis.

“With subsistence farming, there’s more or less always a market for your products, but when French or European retailers no longer want beans, then Kenya will be left with nothing,” he explains.

Going back to Ireland, there is a link between this and the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. It is claimed by many that one of the reasons why the potato blight had the impact that it did was that during this period Ireland remained a net exporter of food (grain and meat). The potato became the default foodstuff for the tenantry. When the crops failed, starvation was inevitable.

Who says we learn from history?