Monthly Archives: March 2013

It’s more complicated than that

tufte-0003pn-10817Yet another scientific correction which finds that a system doesn’t really work the way we thought it did.

I was listening to a podcast discussing research recently published in Nature about the mechanics of memory. Specifically, long term potentiation and the re-enforcing binding between synapses which result in linked networks of memories (kind of).

I’m interested in the whole idea of neural plasticity and dynamic systems of consciousness – you might not be. What I found more universally interesting, was the description of yet another scientific correction – a finding that a system doesn’t really work the way we thought it did.

One of the common patterns I find in science – and even more common in management practices – is the decomposition of complicated (or even complex) systems into simplified views of cause and effect. In the memory discussion above, there had been a long held belief of the critical role of a certain structure of receptor area on a cell. All the memory research had shown that this structure was always involved whenever memory was being formed or damaged – so, it followed that it must be a critical enabler – cause and effect.

In the new research, scientists tried to find out the minimum conditions in which memory could be formed – and in the process were able to create an experiment in which the structure was not present at all. Even though the structure wasn’t there, memories still formed. The simple conclusion was that receptors were more ‘promiscuous’ than had been thought – in other words, that the complex organic system is more adapatable than had been thought. These results require ‘a fundamental change in our thinking with regard to the core molecular events underlying synaptic plasticity.”

Perhaps drawing a bit of a long bow here, but it reminds me of so much of the decomposition / mechanical mindset making conclusions at a level of detail which is part of a more complex/complicated holistic system which is being observed.

Early comments regarding the US President’s Brain Map initiative have similar reservations. No doubt there are a lot of fantastic insights which will flow from investments in this research – but – as many brain scanning studies are finding – beware of black and white conclusions regarding cause and effect.

I see a parallel here with some of the strategic management consulting that I’m involved in. The process of independent observation, insight, discussion and advice can be seen as an exercise in finding the critical receptors in an organisation. Often, the ‘best practice’ and cause and effect logic is presented as ‘evidence based’ and the recommendations which follow involve doing something that adds or changes the structures of the receptors. If you stick around long enough, you often find that the organisation finds a way to improve without any of the critical structures that were proposed. It does this by adapting (sometimes promiscuously!) and the improvement emerges through the complexities of the people operating within the management systems.

The learning from this is to embrace plasticity – in the brain and in an organisational context –  to be aware of the complexity – and to treat each intervention as part of an on-going range of evolutionary experiments rather than a prescription to ‘fix the problem’.


(image:  Edward Tufte, Complicated: yellow, print on canvas, 29 ½” x 29 ½”, edition of 3 )

Makers – Making Trouble?


Anyone following any kind of technology news can’t escape the growing interest or hype in 3D printing. The ‘Maker’ movement is being propelled by the lowering of entry costs of systems which can combine easy-enough-to-use design software with easy-enough-to-use 3D ‘printers’ which can sculpt an object, usually using lasers, according to the design you ‘draw’ with the software. The printed object is becoming price competitive to low volume alternatives provided by traditional large scale industrial processes.

There are a number of heavy evangelists promoting the concept and it is taking on a kind of cool-tech arts & crafts guild image. Chris Anderson, the foresight focused founder and ex-CEO of Wired recently left that organisation to pursue his dream of the Next Industrial Revolution where Atoms are the new Bits. It sounds great to me and for those as old as me to remember, very Jetsons. I can see some of the tremendous opportunities and give full credit to people like Chris who are willing to craft a new personal brand around this concept.

Chris’ move (at least as it’s been reported) reminds me a little of when Shai Agassi left SAP to set up Better Place. I don’t know about the timing of the Maker movement over the Electronic Refuelling movement, but if things proceed, I hope Chris can learn something from Shai’s own journey. After evangelising the concept around the world, setting up a company to show that it was possible, and raising hundreds of millions of dollars, Shai was fired by his board.

Perhaps unlike the electronic refuelling idea, the consumerisation of technology has a more inevitable momentum behind it. On a positive note, there is already a growing market for small, industrial ‘craftshop’ businesses using the technology to provide widgets designed by people who can’t afford the whole at-home-printer set up or who don’t think it is quite easy-enough-to-use. Already you can find small shops willing and able to print you a gun, a bike, an action figure, and even a car.

The big question for me, is – why are we so excited about the Next Industrial Revolution – when we haven’t completed the last?

A couple of weeks after reading Chris’ article about the brave future awaiting us, I read an interesting assessment of Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft issues by Paul Marks, New Scientist’s chief technology correspondent. Paul’s opinion was that the complex federated supply chain model used by Boeing was always going to be a high risk because of the lack of end to end quality assurance running through the vast network of suppliers to suppliers to suppliers to assemblers etc..

Ironically, the Dreamliner was slated to be the first, best, biggest, brightest plane every built completely off a shared digital design. It is a great example of a Global Maker. Thousands of ‘makers’ working together, sharing the same software designs and ‘printing’ parts to fit together perfectly like a great Lego set.

While the Dreamliner project did struggle with many technical challenges, the biggest challenge was, and remains, with the human system – not the technology. The people running the workshops have multiple agendas and mixed incentives.

It seems to me that we have here a perfect snapshot of a point in the evolution of society and technology. Unlike Chris Anderson however, I believe that the Next Industrial Revolution will occur in the way that distributed networks of people work together to achieve results which have higher quality and are more resilient than anything they could print for themselves.

Clearly, we still have some ways to go. Viva la revolution!