Visiting my local dojo this week, I saw an advert for a Workaholics Anonymous meeting that also takes place there.  They meet fortnightly, on Saturdays from 10 am to 12 noon. What  a pity, since Saturday mornings are my most productive work-times of the week!

Commuting in the age of email

If you believe, as the prevailing social metaphor would have it, that this is the Age of Information, then you could easily imagine that the main purpose of human interactions is to request and provide information.  That seems to be the implicit assumption underlying Lane Wallace’s discussion of commuting and working-from-home here.   Wallace is surprised that anyone still travels to work, when information can be transferred so much more readily by phone, email and the web.
But the primary purpose of most workplace interactions is not information transfer, or this is so only incidentally.  Rather, workplace interactions are about the co-ordination of actions — identifying and assessing alternatives for future action, planning and co-ordinating future actions, and reporting on past actions undertaken or current actions being executed.    To engage in such interactions about action of course involves requests for and transfers of information.    To the extent that this is the case, such interactions can be and indeed are undertaken with participants separated in space and time.   But co-ordination of actions requires very different speech acts to those (relatively simple) locutions seeking and providing information:  speech acts such as proposals, promises, requests, entreaties, and commands.  These speech acts have two distinct and characteristic features — they usually require uptake (the intended hearer or actor must agree to the action before the action is undertaken), and the person with the power of retraction or revocation is not necessarily the initial speaker.   An accepted promise can only be revoked by the person to whom the promise is made, for instance, not by the person who made the promise. So, by their very nature these locutions are dialogical acts, not monolectical.   You can’t meaningfully give commands to yourself, for example, and what value is a promise made in a forest?  Neither of these two features apply to speech acts involving requests for information or responses to requests for information.
In addition, inherent in speech acts over actions is the notion of intentionality.    If I promise to you to do action X, then I am expressing an intention to do X.  If your goals requires that action X be commenced or done, then you need to assess how sincere and how feasible my promise is.  Part of your assessment may be based on your past experience with me, and/or the word of others you trust about me (my reputation).   Thus it is perfectly possible for you to assess my capability and my sincerity without ever meeting me.  International transactions across all sorts of industries have taken place for centuries between parties who never met; the need to assess sincerity and capability is surely a key reason for the dominance of families (eg, the Rothschilds in the 18th and 19th centuries) and close-knit ethnic groups (eg, the Chinese diaspora) in international trade networks.  But, if you don’t know me already, it is generally much easier and more reliable for you to assess my sincerity and capability by looking me in the eye as I make my promise to you.
Bloggers and writers and professors, who rarely need to co-ordinate actions with anyone to achieve their work goals, seem not to understand these issues very well.  But these are issues are known to anyone who actually does anything in the world, whether in politics, in public administration or in business.   One defining feature of modern North American corporate culture, in my experience, is that most people find it preferable to make promises of actions even when they do not yet have, and when they know that they do not yet have, the capabilities or resources required to undertake the actions promised.  They do this rather than not make the promise or rather than making the promise conditional on obtaining the necessary resources, in order to appear “positive” to their bosses.   This is the famous “Can Do” attitude at work, and I have discussed it tangentially before in connection with the failure of the Bay of Pigs;  its contribution to the failures of modern American business needs a separate post.

A plan for infrastructure projects

While on the subject of infrastructure, and the UK Government’s lack of any apparent action to start new infrastructure projects despite the economic crisis, here is a draft plan of action:

  • Start with a national competition for suggestions for new infrastructure projects.  People and businesses in regional communities have loads of ideas for projects – should anyone in Westminster bother to listen.   Perhaps allow 1 month for this, so Month 1 is spent soliciting proposals.  Creating a press release to announce the competition and a web-site to receive suggestions could be done within a day.
  • In the meantime (also during Month 1), create a temporary government agency like Australia’s national infrastructure agency, to receive these proposals and do a preliminary filtering in terms of (say): employment impact, wider business impact, social impact, cost, and long term potential for follow-on benefits.   A leading management consulting firm or two could be used to detail the criteria, assess all the proposals against the criteria (tedious but necessary work), and produce this long listing, winnowing down from (say) hundreds of proposals to (say) 50.  Month 2 could be devoted to this effort.
  • Then, have an appointed national committee, comprising politicians from all three major national parties, people from business and industry, the trades unions, people and politicians from the regions (say about 20 people) assess the 50 long-listed proposals and winnow them down to (say) 10.   This should be done in closed session in one, dedicated, all-day-and-all-night effort, over (say) 7 days.   We want the committee to bond, because we want their conclusions to be unanimous.
  • Then, prepare detailed technical and financial plans for each project on the shortlist.   This could be achieved within (say) 21 days.    As with the earlier stages, this work could be undertaken with the assistance of consulting and/or engineering firms, major corporations or banks  – there are currently lots of bankers at a loose end, I hear.  Hell, I’d even volunteer for this myself, because of the fun it would be and the importance of the work.
  • Then, fund the final 10 projects immediately and start digging ground (or spinning fibre, or whatever).  These projects should be give short, sharp names (eg, Fibre-up; Fast-Track) and short descriptors, so that every person over 16 can identify with them, and support them.  Insist that each team’s management produce detailed progress reports online each month, with (say) quarterly public hearings.   We want this work done, done well and done properly.

Total time, from start of campaign to shoveling: 3 months.
Of course, I realize getting major projects to shovel-ready normally takes longer than 3 months.  THIS FACT SHOULD NOT STOP ALL THESE PROJECTS STARTING SOMETHING WITHIN 3 MONTHS.  A key task will be creating semi-permanent, quasi-independent parastatal bodies (quangos) to run each project, to acquire land, employ people, etc.   That can all be done after the projects start, since the first main purpose of these projects is to boost aggregate demand and employment in the short run.    Our models here should be the  USA’s Tennessee Valley Authority and Australia’s Snowy Mountains Scheme, updated for the Internet age.
Not all infrastructure projects need to involve alteration to the earth’s physical landscape. My own proposal would be to create a major national organization – part-research lab, part-investment bank – to identify, to prototype, to seed, and to invest-in business ideas for future-generation Internet applications, starting from about Web 6.0 (whatever that will be) and upwards – a Xerox Parc for 21st-century e-services, with an investment budget of (say) USD 5 billion or so to start.  I would start this with public funding, with the aim of privatizing it once it becomes successful.
And (added 2009-02-12), if 3 months is too long (and it is), here are three potential major national infrastructure projects suggested by journalist Andrew Rawnsley:

  1. A national high-speed rail network (I would call this Fast-Track, or similar)
  2. A national, super-fast broadband fibre optic network (Fibre-Up), and
  3. A large-scale renewable energy production program, connected to the National Electricity Grid (Green-Power-to-go!).

There would be nothing stopping the Government spending (say) GBP 1 million on each of these to prepare outline feasibility and financial plans, with the aim of launching one of them within a month.
Building a national fibre broadband network without thinking also about what would run on it would not be sensible, which is why I propose the Web6.0 idea above.  But a little creativity could generate lots of proposals for non-physical infrastructure, which would create UK employment here and now, train people, stimulate demand, and leave something behind for future generations, for example:

  • Digitizing the contents of ALL Britain’s art galleries and museums, something which could employ artists, photographers, and lots of those unemployed media studies and IT graduates.
  • Digitizing the contents of the British Library, the main University Libraries and the national archives.
  • Digitizing ALL past census records.
  • Recording the life story of every citizen over 65.
  • Recording a performance at every live music venue in the country, including pubs and churches.
  • Producing online visitor guides to every locality in the country, annotated by people resident in the locality.
  • Producing a digital record (films, interviews, oral histories, photos, etc) of every factory facing downsizing or closure, with a record of the skills and networks being lost.

It should not need saying that all this digitized information, if paid for from the public purse, should be made freely accessible online.  These projects could be our generation’s equivalent of the Works Progress Administration.   I am sure there are many more ideas, both sensible and wacky, than these.
Well, Mr Brown?  What are you waiting for?  How about some vision?  If not these projects, then what?  If not now, then when?

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 that was here was LS Lowry’s painting: “The Canal”.

Presidential planning

Gordon Goldstein has some advice for President-elect Obama in managing his advisors.  Goldstein prefaces his remarks by a potted history of John F. Kennedy’s experience with the CIA-planned Bay of Pigs action, an attempted covert invasion of Cuba.    Although Goldstein’s general advice to Obama may be wise, he profoundly mis-characterizes the Bay of Pigs episode, and thus the management lessons it provides.   As we have remarked before, one aspect of that episode was that although the action was planned and managed by CIA, staff in the White House – including JFK himself! – unilaterally revised the plans right up until the moment of the invasion.   Indeed, the specific site in Cuba of the invasion was changed – at JFK’s order, and despite CIA’s reluctance – just 4 days before the scheduled date.  This left insufficient time to revise the plans adequately, and all but guaranteed failure.  The CIA man in charge, Dick Bissell, in his memoirs, regretted that he had not opposed the White House revisions more forcefully.
Anyone who has worked for a US multi-national will be familiar with this problem – bosses flying in, making profound, last-minute changes to detailed plans without proper analysis and apparently on whim, and then leaving middle management to fix everything.  Middle management are also assigned the role of taking the blame.  This has happened so often in my experience, I have come to see it as a specific trope of contemporary American culture — the supermanager, able to change detailed plans at a moment’s notice!     Even Scott Adams has recorded the phenomenon. It is to JFK’s credit that he took the public blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco (although he also ensured that senior CIA people were made to resign for his error).  But so indeed he should have, since so much of the real blame rests squarely with the President himself and his White House national security staff.

The Bay of Pigs action had another, more existential, problem.  CIA wished to scare the junta running Cuba into resigning from office, by making them think the island was being invaded by a vastly superior force.  It was essential to the success of the venture that the Cuban government therefore think that the force was backed by the USA, the only regional power with such a capability and intent.  It was also essential to the USA’s international reputation that the USA could plausibly deny that they were in any way involved in the action, in order for the venture not to escalate (via the Cold War with the USSR) into a larger military conflict.   Thus, Kennedy ruled out the use of USAF planes to provide cover to the invading troops, and he continually insisted that the plans minimize “the noise level” of the invasion.   These two objectives were essentially contradictory, since reducing the noise level decreased the likelihood of the invasion scaring Castro from office.
The Bay of Pigs fiasco provides many lessons for management, both to US Presidents and to corporate executives.   One of these, seemingly forgotten in Vietnam and again in Iraq, is that plans do matter.   Success is rarely something reached by accident, or by a series of on-the-fly, ad hoc, decisions, each undertaken without careful analysis, reflection and independent assessment.

A salute to Dick Bissell

For those who know his name, Richard Bissell (1910-1994) probably has a mostly negative reputation, as the chief planner of the failed attempted invasion of Cuba at the “Bay of Pigs” in April 1961.  Put aside the fact that last-minute changes to the invasion plans (including a change of location) were forced on Bissell and CIA by the Kennedy Administration; after all, as Bissell himself argued in his memoirs, he and CIA could have and should have done more to resist these changes.  (There is another post to be written on the lessons of this episode for the making of complex decisions, a topic on which surprisingly little seems to have been published.)  Bissell ended his career as VP for Marketing and Economic Planning at United Aircraft Corporation, a post he held for a decade, although he found it unfulfilling after the excitement of his Government service.

Earlier in his career, Bissell was several times an administrative and organizational hero, a man who got things done.  During World War II, Bissell, working for the US Government’s Shipping Adjustment Board, established a comprehensive card index of every ship in the US merchant marine to the point where he could predict, within an error of 5 percent, which ships would be at which ports unloading their cargoes when, and thus available for reloading.  He did this well before multi-agent systems or even Microsoft Excel. After WW II, he was the person who successfully implemented the Marshall Plan for the Economic Recovery of Europe.  And then, after joining CIA in 1954, he successfully created and led the project to design, build, equip and deploy a high-altitude spy-plane to observe America’s enemies, the U-2 spy plane.   Bissell also led the design, development and deployment of CIA’s Corona reconnaisance satellites, and appears to have played a key role in the development of America’s national space policy before that.
Whatever one thinks of the overall mission of CIA before 1989 (and I think there is a fairly compelling argument that CIA and KGB successfully and jointly kept the cold war from becoming a hot one), one can only but admire Bissell’s managerial competence, his ability to inspire others, his courage, and his verve.  Not only was the U-2 a completely new plane (designed and built by a team led by Kelly Johnson of Lockheed, using engines from Pratt & Whitney), flying at altitudes above any ever flown before, and using a new type of fuel (developed by Shell), but the plane also had to be equipped with sophisticated camera equipment, also newly invented and manufactured (by a team led by Edwin Land of Polaroid), producing developed film in industrial quantities.  All of these components, and the pilot, needed to operate under extreme conditions (eg, high-altitudes, long-duration flights, very sensitive flying parameters, vulnerability to enemy attack).  And the overall process, from weather prediction, through deployment of the plane and pilot to their launch site, all the way to the human analyses of the resulting acres of film, had to be designed, organized, integrated and managed.
All this was done in great secrecy and very rapidly, with multiple public-sector and private-sector stakeholders involved.   Bissell achieved all this while retaining the utmost loyalty and respect from those who worked for him and with him.  I can only respond with enormous admiration for the project management and expectations management abilities, and the political, negotiation, socialization, and consensus-forging skills, that Dick Bissell must have had.  Despite what many in academia believe, these abilities are rare and intellectually-demanding, and far too few people in any organization have them.
Richard M. Bissell [1996]:  Reflections of a Cold Warrior:  From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.
Norman Polnar [2001]:  Spyplane:  The U-2 History Declassified.  Osceola, WI, USA: MBI Publishing.
Evan Thomas [1995]:  The Very Best Men.  Four Who Dared:  The Early Years of the CIA.  New York City, NY, USA:  Touchstone.