Sacramento Bee, Jul 14, 1994
By Tom Peters
Forget about the hard data, it's inspiration that matters
British Telecom research lab director Peter Cochrane sees a vision of
tomorrow's electronic university in which inefficient campuses and libraries
will be replaced by friendly electronic networks.
The new scheme, he told London's Independent newspaper will help people cope
with information overload that currently forces them to spend 80 percent of
their time finding information; far too little time is left for
Cochrane belongs to a growing gang of technofreaks (MIT Media Lab boss Nicholas
Negreponte is head man, perhaps) who want to help us tailor data to our
narrow-band needs. What rubbish!
As an hour-a-day on-line "user" (addict?), I know the value of the information
highway. And its limitations.
Consider Mussie Shore, a senior software designer at Lotus Development Corp.
and one of the best "graphical user-interface designers," according to Industry
Week. While working on a spread sheet design, Shore got to musing about a place
mat at a Portsmouth, N.H., diner.
"It had a sort of coordinate system along the top and along the side," he
recalled, "with an aerial view of Portsmouth and little numbers on some of
these sketches of buildings and little circles with callouts that made a
magnifled version of the church or the historical general store that was pulled
out to the side. I saw that this dinky place mat was communicating way more
information about the lay of the land than I've ever been able to communicate
with these high-powered computers."
Shore's vignette reveals the wellspring of almost all creativity - unlocking
dilemmas through insights gained in unlikely places.
I know it works for me. Ideas about corporate renewal come from spring barn
cleaning in Vermont. Routine trips to the grocery store provide more "data" on
customer service than reading the trade journals. Watching kids at play offers
inspirations about self-organization.
But what about facts - cold, hard statistics? Guess what? There ain't any. Been
following the health care debate? The principal players can't even agree on how
many of us are uninsured - estimates vary by millions. Ditto the new jobs
debate: Some confi- dently proclaim, with (literally) a ton of supporting
evidence, that most new jobs pay well, others confidently point to slave wages
for most new positions.
Immigrants? Robbing us blind with their excess use of social services? Or
making us rich with the taxes they pay? It depends who you ask. All are armed,
of course, with reams of "incontrovertible" hard data.
In her book "Medicine & Culture: Varieties of Treatment in the United States,
England, West Germany and France," Lynn Payer says, "Often all one must do to
acquire a disease is to enter a country where the disease is recognized."
The Germans have a thing about hearts - and many conditions diagnosed by German
docs as heart ailments would either be ignored or diagnosed as something else
by U.S. medicos. For the French, life is food and drink: Numerous problems
classified as stomach or liver disorders in France are labeled differently in
the United States.
Given such confusion, we probably ought to be spending 90 percent of our time
collecting information, not just the 80 percent that worries British Telecom's
Don't tell that to the business schools. I've long thought their heavy reliance
on case studies is a fatal flaw. Cases provide students with all the
information, then the debate centers on the deciding. Truth is, deciding is a
cinch. The real art in business lies in digging up oddball info that casts a
new light on something.
Business is poetry. It's former Gannett Chairman Al Neuharth's passion for USA
Today, and damn the research that labeled him a fool. It's Ted Turner's insane
1980 commitment to an all-news, 24-hour-a-day TV station - known these days as
I eat numbers for breakfast - I gorge on facts of all flavors. Yet, I know that
anything I come across has at least 100 plausible explanations; moreover,
anyone can produce convincing evidence that will completely negate the "hard"
data I'm now devouring.
I also know, like Lotus' Mussie Shore, that inspiration is more likely to come
from a place mat in a diner than from my next 10 hours on-line or a three-day
conference of experts which I pay $2,000 to attend.
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