Railtrack and the Joint-Action Society

For some time, I have been writing on these pages that the currently-fashionable paradigm of the Information Society is inadequate to describe what most of us do at work and play, or to describe how computing technologies support those activities (see, for example, recently here, with a collection of posts here).   Most work for most people in the developed world is about coordinating their actions with those of others  – colleagues, partners, underlings, bosses, customers, distributors, suppliers, publicists, regulators, und so weiter.   Information collection and transfer, while often important and sometimes essential to the co-ordination of actions,  is not usually itself the main game.
Given the extent to which computing technologies already support and enable human activities (landing our large aircraft automatically when there is fog, for example), the InfoSoc paradigm, although it may describe well the transmission of zeros and ones between machines, is of little value in understanding what these transmissions mean.  Indeed, the ur-text of the Information Society, Shannon’s mathematical theory of communications (Shannon 1948) explicitly ignores the semantics of messages!  In place of the InfoSoc metaphor, we need another new paradigm, a new way to construe what we are all doing.  For now, let me call it the Joint-Action Society, although this does not quite capture all that is intended.
I am pleased to learn that I am not alone in my views about InfoSoc.   I recently came across an article by the late Peter Martin, journalist, editor and e-businessman, about the lessons from that great disaster of privatization of Railtrack in the UK.  (In the 1980s and 90s, the French had grand projets while the British had great project management disasters.)  Here is Martin, writing in the FT in October 2001 (the article does not seem to be available online):

Railtrack had about a dozen prime contractors, which in turn farmed out the work to about 2,000 subcontractors.  Getting this web of relationships to work was a daunting task.  Gaps in communication, and the consequent “blame culture” are thought to be important causes of the track problems that led to the Hatfield crash which undermined Railtrack’s credibility.
.  .  .
These practical advantages of wholesale outsourcing rely, however, on unexamined assumptions.  It is these that the Railtrack episode comprehensively demolishes.
The first belief holds that properly specified contracts can replicate the operations of an integrated business.  Indeed, on this view, they may be better than integration because everyone understands what their responsibilities are, and their  incentives are clear and tightly defined.
This approach had a particular appeal to governments, as they attempted to step back from the minutiae of delivering public services.  British Conservative governments used the approach to break up monolithic nationalised industries into individual entities, such as power generators and distributors.
They put this approach into effect at the top level of the railway system by splitting the task of running the track and the signalling (Railtrack’s job) from the role of operating the trains.  It is not surprising that Railtrack, born into this environment, carried the approach to its logical conclusion in its internal operation.
.  .  .
In 1937, the Nobel prize-winning economist Ronald Coase had explained that companies perform internally those tasks for which the transactional costs of outsourcing are too high.
What fuelled the outsourcing boom of the 1990s was the second unexamined assumption – that the cost of negotiating, monitoring and maintaining contractual relationships with outsourcing partners had dropped sharply, thanks to the revolution in electronic communications.  The management of a much bigger web of contractors – indeed, the creation of a “virtual company” – became feasible.
In practice, of course, the real costs of establishing and maintaining contracts are not those of information exchange but of establishing trust, alignment of interests and a common purpose.  Speedy and cheap electronic communications have only a minor role to play in this process, as Coase himself pointed out in 1997.
.   .   .
And perhaps that is the most useful lesson from the Railtrack story: it is essential to decide what tasks are vital to your corporate purpose and to devote serious resources to achieving them.   Maintaining thousands of miles of steel tracks and stone chippings may be a dull, 19th century kind of task.   But as Railtrack found, if you can’t keep the railway running safely, you haven’t got a business.”

Peter Martin [2001]: Lessons from Railtrack.  The collapse has demolished some untested assumptions about outsourcing.  Financial Times, 2001-10-09, page 21.
Claude E. Shannon [1948/1963]: The mathematical theory of communication. Bell System Technical Journal, October and November 1948.  Reprinted in:  C. E. Shannon and W. Weaver [1963]: The Mathematical Theory of Communication. pp. 29-125. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Illinois Press.

Silicon millenarianism

Here we go again! We have another blogger predicting the end of the office.   Funny how it’s almost always bloggers and journalists and thinktank-swimmers doing this – always people whose work, most of the time, is by themselves, and who therefore fail to understand the nature of actual work in modern organizations.   As I’ve argued before, workplace interactions are primarily about the co-ordination of actions and the assessment of people’s intentions concerning these actions, not (or not merely) about sharing information.  Why did Barack Obama summon the Chairman and CEO of BP to the Oval Office earlier this week?  Why was the CEO also called to testify before Congress?   Why didn’t the President or the Congressional Committee simply place a conference call?  Because it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to accurately assess another person’s intentions without immediate physical proximity and face-to-face interaction with said person.
If all you are doing is writing a blog or researching a story, perhaps you don’t ever appreciate this fact about work.  But anyone tasked with doing something other than writing knows it.   Seth Goodin thinks that within 10 years TV programs about office work will seem to be “quaint antiques”.  I bet him they will not at all.  Moreover, I bet the people in those offices will still be using paper, still having meetings, and still talking by the water-cooler.   In fact, while you’re placing my bets, put me down for 100 years, not 10.

GTD Intelligence at Kimberly-Clark

I started talking recently about getting-things-done (GTD) intelligence.  Grant McCracken, over at This Blog Sits At, has an interview with Paula Rosch, formerly of fmcg company Kimberly-Clark, which illustrates this nicely.

I spent the rest of my K-C career in advanced product development or new business identification, usually as a team leader, and sometimes as what Gifford Pinchot called an “Intrapreneur” – a corporate entrepreneur, driving new products from discovery to basis-for-interest to commercialization.  It’s the nature of many companies to prematurely dismiss ideas that represent what the world might want/need 5, 10 years out and beyond in favor of near-term opportunities – the intrapreneur stays under the radar, using passion, brains, intuition, stealth, any and every other human and material resource available to keep things moving.  It helps to have had some managers that often looked the other way.
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Learning jazz improvisation

A few days ago, writing about bank bonuses, I talked about the skills needed to get-things-done, a form of intelligence I believe is distinct (and rarer than) other, better-known forms — mathematical, linguistic, emotional, etc. There are in fact many skill sets and forms of intelligence which don’t feature prominently in our text-biased culture. One of these is musical intelligence, and I have come across a fascinating description of taking jazz improvisation and composition lessons from pianist and composer Hall Overton (1920-1972), written by Jack Reilly (1932-2018):

The cigarette dangled out the right side of his mouth, the smoke rising causing his left eye to squint, the ashes from the burning bush got longer and longer, poised precipitously to fall at any moment on the keyboard. Hall always sat at the upright piano smoking, all the while playing, correcting, and making comments on my new assighment, exercises in two-part modern counterpoint. I was perched on a rickety chair to his left, listening intensely to his brilliant exegesis, waiting in vain for the inch-long+ cigarette ash to fall. The ashes never fell! Hall instinctively knew the precise moment to stop playing , take the butt out of his mouth and flick the ashes in the tray on the upright piano to his left. He would then throw the butt in the ash tray and immediately light another cigarette. His concentration and attention to every detail of my assighment made him unaware that he never took a serious puff on the bloody cigarette. I think the cigarette was his “prop” so to speak, his way of creating obstacles that tested my concentration on what he was saying. In other words, Hall was indirectly teaching me to block out any external distractions when doing my music, even when faced with a comedic situation like wondering when the cigarette ashhes would fall on the upright keyboard or even on his tie. Yes, Hall wore a tie, and a shirt and a jacket. All memories of Hall Overton by his former students 9 times out ot 10 begin with the Ashes to Ashes situation. A champion chain smoker and indeed, a master ash flickerer, never once dirtying the floor, piano or his professorial attire.

Hall Overton, composer, jazz pianist, advocate/activist for the New Music of his time and a lover of Theolonius Monk’s music, was my teacher for one year beginning in 1957. I first heard about him from a fellow classmate at the Manhattan School of Music, which at that time was located on East 103rd street, between 2nd and 3rd avenue, an area then known as Spanish Harlem. This chap was playing in one of the basement practice rooms where I heard him playing Duke Jordan’s “Jordu”. I liked what I heard so much so I asked him where he learned to play that way. Hall Overton, was his reply. I took down Hall’s number, called him and said I wanted to take jazz piano lessons. He sounded warm and gracious over the phone which made me feel relaxed because I was nervous about playing for him. I had been playing jazz gigs and casuals since my teens but still felt light years away from my vision of myself as a complete jazz pianist. Hall was going to push the envelope. We set up weekly lessons.
Continue reading ‘Learning jazz improvisation’

The strange disappearance of British manufacturing

The decline following World War II of textile manufacturing in Britain, home of the industrial revolution, has always puzzled me.  How could an industry that arose against great odds and survived successive wars and depressions have fizzled out so quickly?  Was it simply that the Lancashire textile industry depended on the suppression of rival manufacturers, first in English-occupied Ireland and North America, and then throughout the British Empire, and that the end of empire after 1945 also meant the end of British textiles?  This analysis seems somewhat too simplistic for me.   Once on a flight between Hong Kong and London in the mid 1990s, I sat next to a salesman for a small Lancashire company selling specialist dyes to textile manufacturers.   Although having fewer than 30 employees, the company was more than a century old and had managed to diversify its customer base to manufacturers in South and East Asia, while all its nearer customers went under.   Needless to say, its raw materials came from all over the world.  How could this small company survive and not its larger UK customers, I still wonder?
I have just come across the second-world war correspondence of American journalist A. J. Liebling, whose writing is simply riveting.   In an article called “The Lancashire Way” (first published in The New Yorker in 1941), he describes the supreme adaptability of British industry during war-time.   In a fascinating description of industrial resilience, technological flexibility and industrial-policy-on-the-hoof, Liebling records a discussion he had with an un-named British Ministry of Supply official:

I said that when I left New York a few months ago our armaments plants were working two or three shifts and we were building new plants as fast we could, and he answered, “Yes, that’s how we tried to do it at first.  We stopped depending on the obvious soon after Dunkerque.   Now when we need more cartridges, we don’t wait until we have built a new cartridge factory.  We get some from a man who used to make fountain pens and some more from a chap who once manufactured lipsticks.  We get shell fuses from a shop that once turned out prams – baby buggies, you know – and fuse components from costume-jewelry fellows.
. . .
In Westminster we have a candlemaker doing tank parts, for instance.  Some of the candlemaker’s lathes are a hundred years old. A fellow who used to make dental pumps – you know, those things the dentist puts under your tongue to draw away saliva – is now making an important part of the mechanism for the Bren gun.  Then the fellows who used to make the metal tops of soda-water siphons are very useful, so are beer-bottle-cap markers, who, with the aid of a little jiggery-pokery, change over to cartridge cases.  A lot of those small fellows are damned good mechanics. A man whose shop has only a couple of machines which he has been using for several different operations often proves more adaptable than a big-factory boy who has been used to ordering a special machine tool for each new job.
. . .
Lancashire, you know, used to be at least seventy percent textile before the war.  There were, of course, the textile mills.  Then there were the machine shops, which turned out textile machinery for the most part, and there was a good deal of miscellaneous light industry.  However, there weren’t any steel mills or locomotive plants or motor works.  It’s only twenty percent textile now, and it’s working full blast – harder than ever in its history.  Some of the mills are still making textiles required for the war effort and for a minimum civilian consumption; the others have been closed down.   But the machinery plants have been expanded and the textile labour has gone into them.   Most of the people have been weavers and spinners for a generation and never went near a lathe. There’s a sort of sense, though, that people acquire from being around any kind of machinery.  They get the swing of the new work much faster than, say, agricultural workers or white-collar fellows turned into a mill. The companies that are allowed to continue making textiles act as trustees for the whole industry.  The owners of the closed plants get an indemnity out of the profits of those that stay open.  The companies that stay open are pledged to protect the future interests of the closed ones – take care of the other fellows’ customers as well as possible during the war, for example.” (pp. 611-613 of Liebling 2008)
Reading this article, I kept thinking:  these are the grand-children of the people who created the industrial revolution, so none of this should be surprising.    What is surprising is that this history has not been celebrated in Britain.  And, it is hard to square such flexibility and resilience with the fate of UK industry after 1945.  I wonder then, in fact, if the organizational and financing structures involved in some manufacturing companies operating on behalf of others during the war did not in fact facilitate the exit of the owners of capital from British industry after it.  I can think of no other explanation of how such adaptability, resilience and applied technological intellect (what the Germans call Technik) should have disappeared so quickly.
A. J. Liebling [1941]: The Lancashire Way.  The New Yorker, 22 November 1941.  Reprinted in:  A. J. Liebling [2008]: World War II Writings.  New York City, NY, USA: The Library of America, pp. 611-621.
The image shown is LS Lowry’s painting: “The Canal”.