Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The problem of knowledge

The leaders of the G20 (actually the G19 plus the EU) are due to meet in London this week. The agenda of the summit centres on the global financial crisis.

A global economy is an enormously complex real-time, self-adaptive communications and control system which works with a variety of signals: data, information, knowledge, wisdom. Or at least, it's supposed to be.

What happens when you try to substitute one type of signal for another in such a system? For example, if you substitute data with knowledge, or the reverse?

Consider, first of all, that the quartet of signal types (data, information, knowledge and wisdom) form a hierarchy: from simplest to most complex; from the most common to the most rare; from the immediate to the ultimate; from the most accessible to the least accessible; from the possessive to the characteristic; from present-focused to future-focused; from the impersonal to the personal; from the material to the spiritual; from input to output; from having to being; from news to views; from the dispersed to the concentrated.

Signal substitution will hinder the operation of the system.

Can the G20 leaders solve the economic crisis?

Based on the stated aims of the summit, the answer must be no because the aims appear to be a classic case of signal substitution.

The reason is what we might call the problem of knowledge. Will the G20 leaders have sufficient and timely knowledge about the financial crisis to solve it? No, on both counts. The knowledge they, or any one person or group of persons, possesses about all the relevant issues is limited. And even the knowledge they have may out of date. The well-known lag effects in economics will only be exacerbated with increased government intervention.

The biggest danger is that the G20 summit will introduce rules and regulations that will harm and hinder the operation of the global economy.

Note: See also Friedrich von Hayek's essay on The Use of Knowledge in Society (1945).


On 29 April 1962, President John F. Kennedy hosted a White House dinner honouring Nobel Prize winners. In his remarks, he mentioned that great polymathic genius, Thomas Jefferson:

I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

"The People"

It's interesting to observe how contemporary political leaders use the phrase "The People".

It is used to justify all sorts of things: "The People" demand this; "The People" want that; "The People" must have this; this must be done in the interests of "The People". And so it goes on. And on. And on. And on.

Who and where are these "People" exactly?

Curiously this is never mentioned.

Perhaps this is because "The People" almost always refers to only some, even just a few, of the people, including the political leader himself.

Surely this phrase should only be used when it genuinely refers to the real common interests of all the people. The phrase has become somewhat debased since it was first used in its proper sense in perhaps the greatest preamble of all great preambles:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Bright Interior

Thinking about yesterday's Earth Hour, I remembered this (click here for the full-size version):

It's an animated movie created by some researchers at Google showing how the geographical distribution of requests to google.com changed throughout the day on 14 August 2003. (To what end? Details here if you're interested.)

The activity on the map is highly correlated with economic prosperity, education, enlightenment and energy. The interior of the African continent is one of the darkest regions.

An equivalent map for Earth Hour, with light intensity corresponding to switched off (or non-existent!) lights, would show the interior of the African continent as one of the brightest regions.

Absurd or what?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Zamunda: A cautionary tale

Zamunda is the imaginary African kingdom in the Eddie Murphy classic Coming to America. In February 2003, I wrote a short story about leadership in African countries. Claimer: The events and characters in the story ARE based on actual events and characters from Zambian history. To give some context: About a year earlier, in January 2002, Levy Mwanawasa became President of Zambia after 10 years of increasingly corrupt rule by his predecessor. He had been handpicked by the incumbent. The questions that were in the minds of all Zambians at the time were whether President Mwanawasa would be his own man and just what kind of President he was going to be. As things turned out, he proved to be a pretty good one, a saint of a President indeed by African standards. The title I gave the story back in 2003 was Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, a title somewhat lacking in subtelty and tact it seems now six years on! The story is allegorical. See if you can spot the good old British Empire; Zambia's first President, the freedom fighter Kenneth Kaunda; Zambia's second President, the wily Fredrick Chiluba; and Zambia's third President, the late, great Mwanawasa. The story seems to suggest that it's all cyclical and that progress is only illusory. Such was my pessimistic, and yes perhaps even cynical, view at the time. I hope I was wrong.

Anyhow, here it is, the complete and unexpurgated original text:

Once upon a time, in the land of Zamunda, there were multitudes of chiefdoms: lots and lots of chiefdoms, some small, some big, some isolated, some integrated, trading, warring, intermingling, living chiefdoms. And so they had gone on, century after century. And so it seemed they would continue into perpetuity.

But one day a group of itinerant bandits, forty in number, happened upon the sleepy land of Zamunda. They were led by Zaafira, a fierce and crafty woman, who had earned the nickname 'Bandit Queen'. Zaafira and her men raided the Zamundans continually and robbed them of untold quantities of golden grudas. They stowed their spoils in an immense secret cavern on the periphery of Zamunda.

On one particular occasion as Khalil, a poor Zamundan (indeed all Zamunda had become impoverished), was foraging for food in remote parts, he saw the bandits approaching on horses laden with sacks of grudas. Having concealed himself, Khalil saw Zaafira stop at a certain spot and say: "Open, Maize-ame!" Immediately the door of the secret cavern flew open and the Bandit Queen and her men hid their treasure inside. Once the bandits emerged from the cavern, Zaafira sealed the entrance of the cavern with the magical words: "Shut, Maize-ame!" And the bandits rode off.

When it was safe, Khalil approached the secret cavern and tried the magic words. Once again the cavern door opened and Khalil was able to carry off many grudas. In keeping with the meaning of his name ('friend'), Khalil shared the wealth he retrieved from the secret cavern with all the people of Zamunda. Khalil shared the secret of the wealth with key Zamundan leaders. Eventually, the Zamundans regained their wealth and their pride and they were able to chase away the bandits.

As the years went by Zamundans forgot their past woes, as it seemed their former idyllic existence had been restored. In the course of time, however, they were to face the usual adversities that visit any society. And by this time, Khalil and almost all Zamundan leaders, had forgotten the magical words to open the secret cavern. They tried "Open, Rice-ame!" and "Open, Wheat-ame!" and all manner of grains, except maize. Meanwhile, the Zamundans grew increasingly restless and, once again, came to know poverty. Almost all Zamundan leaders had forgotten the magic words, save for one, that is: Ali Baba. It was he that came to the rescue of all Zamunda. Or so it seemed at the time.

Ali Baba kept the magic words to open the secret cavern all to himself. Once he had ensconced himself at the helm of Zamunda, he formed a group of what he called the forty operatives to extort what few grudas the Zamundans still had. For the first time in its history, Zamunda became a single chiefdom.

One day Ali Baba yawned and realised he had grown quite bored of ruling Zamunda and decided he wanted to become a professional philosopher. He would have liked to install one of his sons as chief in his place, but, alas, they had inherited all of his brains (which is to say very little) and none of his cunning. And so, Ali Baba appointed the aptly named Mustafa ('chosen') instead, shared with him the magic words, and embarked on his philosophical career.

Mustafa, unfortunately for Ali Baba, turned out to have ideas of his own. He wished, in order to consolidate his own position, to be sole possessor of the knowledge of the magic words, and had Ali Baba discredited and thrown into a lunatic asylum for the rest of his days. Mustafa continued his reign until, in his turn, he played Ali Baba to his own Mustafa.

And that, according to legend, accounts for the cyclical history of Zamunda and the poverty we now find ourselves in. My son, it's late. Go to sleep. Get some rest. Mustafa's workhouse awaits us in the morning...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Is Science simply a matter of opinion?

Humanity is confronted with a number of issues whose solutions rest on the answers to scientific questions.

Take just two topical examples: one from the science of climatology and the other from the science of economics.

First, climatology. The issue here is what has come to be known as climate change. Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN panel of scientists and other experts, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change." In fact, there is currently a global campaign (Earth Hour) to switch off all the lights for one hour this coming Saturday 28 March 2009 at 20:30 local time all over the planet. The purpose is to highlight climate change. There's only one problem: There are other scientists and experts who question the scientific validity of climate change. Who is right? Is it all simply a matter of "everyone is entitled to their own opinion"?

Second example: economics. Noting (and ignoring for now) the view that economics is not a science at all, how is that some economists say "fiscal stimulation" is the only way to solve the global economic crisis whilst other economists say that it will lead to economic disaster. Who is right and who is wrong?

The basic premise of all scientific inquiry is that a natural or artificial phenomenon or system, be it the global climate or the global economy, exhibits order and is capable of being objectively and rationally explained and understood. Understanding forms the basis of prediction, design and control. Science, in its proper sense, cannot simply be a subjective matter. If it is, it ceases to be science.

The first and most important thing to realise on these important scientific issues is that two equal and opposite answers to the same question cannot both be right. Fully accepting this fact naturally leads to the next steps: ascertaining the criteria for assessing truth or falsehood; applying the criteria; embracing the truth and rejecting falsehood.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Truth be told

What is the most incisive and truthful international news programme on TV today?

You have three goes.

OK, first one:

Answer: _________


Have another go:

Answer: _________

Sorry, wrong again.

OK, last try:

Answer: _________

Let me put you out of your misery.

It's The Daily Show.

You mean The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, that Daily Show?

Yip, the very same. Besides the US Edition which airs Monday to Thursday on Comedy Central, there is an international Global Edition which airs at weekends on CNN.

But isn't that a comedy show?

Yes, well, actually it's a particular kind of comedy show, it's satirical.

But still, how can that be a news programme, let alone an incisive and truthful one?

Satire has always been more about telling the truth than about making jokes. It has a very long history dating at least as far back as the Ancient Greeks (with Aristophanes being the foremost exponent). Many others have followed in the satirical tradition: Swift, Twain, Mencken, Orwell, Soyinka,...and Stewart.

Any other good examples of such shows?

The BBC's Have I Got News For You is extremely good. It's less scripted and more improvisational though. And it has a two-team quiz format.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quantitative Euphemising

The English word euphemism is derived from the Greek word euphemismos. The Greek word has three parts: the prefix eu-, which means "well" or "good"; the root pheme, which means "speaking" (or literally "a voice from heaven, a prophetic voice"); and the suffix -ismos, which is used to turn a root verb into a noun and means "the practice, characteristic behaviour or quality, state, or theory of" (and hence vegetarianism, optimism, senilism, and Capitalism respectively). Therefore the word literally means "the practice (or belief) of speaking well or good of". To the Ancient Greeks it meant "speaking words of good omen" or "using auspicious words instead of inauspicious ones".

In contemporary English, a euphemism has come to mean an indirect, opaque or convoluted word or phrase that is deliberately used in place of a more direct, clear and simple one. The motives for using euphemisms vary from the benign (the desire to avoid being unnecessarily offensive or harsh) to the malign (the desire to conceal, mislead or deceive). Describing the death of someone's loved one as "passing away" or "passing on" is on the benign side. Describing the relationship between donor nations and recipient nations as an "equal partnership" on the other end of the spectrum.

The global financial crisis has thrown up a first class example of a world class euphemism.

When President Robert Mugabe and the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe print money it is called, well, printing money. When Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Governor of the Bank of England print money, or President Barack Obama and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve print money, it is called quantitative easing.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

In the beginning was the web...

This month is the 20th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. The good folks are CERN have created a (what else?) website to commemorate the event, with some fascinating content including a copy of Berners-Lee's original proposal. Mike Sendall, Berners-Lee's supervisor at the time, wrote on the cover "Vague but exciting" and added at the end "And now?".

"And now?" indeed.

The story of the web is a story of a web, a web of unlikely connections. It's interesting that the web was invented by a British physicist working as a software engineer at a particle physics lab that straddles the border of France (an EU country) and Switzerland (a non-EU country). Of course, it helps to have great tools (thanks Steve Jobs) and great collaborators.

How the Web Was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web (2000, OUP) by James Gillies and Robert Cailliau is probably still the best book ever written on the early history of the web.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lessons from the end of the earth

The island at the end of the earth.

That is what "Madagascar" means apparently. This stunning photograph shot in 1967 for National Geographic probably shows us why.

Madagascar, a large tropical island off the south-east coast of Africa with over 20 million inhabitants, has been in the news this year for all the wrong reasons. All the wrong, and sadly all too familiar, reasons that keep recurring in both space and time across the continent of Africa.

It has been argued by some that Africa's biggest problem is one of image and that the 24-hour news channels do not reflect the reality on the ground. There's something to be said for that I suppose: I remember asking John, a friend from Belfast, what it was like living in The Troubles (this was before Tony Blair came along with the Good Friday Agreement). "Surprisingly normal," he said, and went on to explain how, most of the time, they just went about their day to day lives without incident.

And yet, and yet. Just how "normal" could life have been in Northern Island with its segregated communities, thousands of British troops on the streets, and hundreds of active paramilitary freedom fighters or terrorists (depending on which side you supported)? The truth is the people of Northern Island had probably grown accustomed to living with the abnormal. So much so that the abnormal had become normal.

And so it probably is in much of Africa today. We have become so accustomed to living with the abnormal that it has become normal. Or rather, the abnormal has remained abnormal and we have become ab-normalised.

Recent events in Madagascar have been tragic and farcical in almost equal measure: a 59-year old duly elected president ousted from power by a 34-year old former DJ who cannot constitutionally become head of state anyway because he's below the stipulated minimum age (40); a supine military aiding and abetting the theft of state power; a pliable judiciary endorsing it; and the restless, mindless, pitiless mood for "change" by the fickle mob. Yes they could, and yes they did: the hapless and helpless incumbent president stepping down after more than 100 civilian deaths and before the many more that were sure to follow if he had dared to resist the inevitable.

Why do such things keep happening in Africa?

Perhaps we're asking the wrong question about the wrong place. Why doesn't this sort of thing happen outside Africa, in Europe say? This casts rather a different light on the matter altogether. For we know that such things were once just as frequent and just as widespread in Europe.


But not any more.


Price versus Value

More wisdom from Warren Buffet's latest annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders:

[T]he market value of the bonds and stocks that we continue to hold suffered a significant decline along with the general market. This does not bother Charlie [Munger] and me. Indeed, we enjoy such price declines if we have funds available to increase our positions. Long ago, Ben Graham taught me that “Price is what you pay; value is what you get.” Whether we’re talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down.
[Emphasis added]
Perhaps the U.S. and British governments should take heed as they buy up so-called toxic assets. The cure may literally end up being worse than the disease.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The 10 most dangerous words in the English language

"Hi, I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help."

-According to Ronald Reagan

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Five democratic tests

They don't come any redder (in the political sense) than Tony Benn. So we have plenty of ideological differences. But in one of his last speeches in the House of Commons, he said something very wise indeed:
The House will forgive me for quoting myself, but in the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person--Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates--ask them five questions: "What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?" If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.
That's worth repeating. These are the five tests of democratic leadership:
  • What power have you got?
  • Where did you get it from?
  • In whose interests do you exercise it?
  • To whom are you accountable?
  • How can we get rid of you?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Devil Wears Pravda

Read that title again.

Did you read it as "The Devil Wears Prada" (P-r-a-d-a)? Or as "The Devil Wears Pravda" (P-r-a-v-d-a)? If you read it as the first title, you were wrong: you were probably, and quite understandably, thinking of the book or the movie by the same title.

The Prada in "The Devil Wears Prada" refers, of course, to Prada, the Italian designer label. How exactly Prada relates to the Diabolical One is the subject of aforesaid book and movie.

But what about the Pravda in the second title, "The Devil Wears Pravda"?

Pravda, meaning "Truth" in Russian, was the name of a leading newspaper that was run by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. This name is exceedingly ironic given what we know about the Soviet era and its widespread misuse of propaganda.

But back to the immediate question at hand: In what sense is it that "The Devil Wears Pravda"?

In his writings, St. Paul speaks of Satan transforming himself into an angel of light and his servants transforming themselves into servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11: 12-15).

In other words: The Devil Wears Pravda.

The devil (evil) rarely comes dressed in a red suit, with horns and brandishing a three-pronged staff.

On the contrary, evil often comes packaged as "truth" or "freedom" or "justice". The devil is, quite literally, in the details: in the outworking and full ramifications of what is being presented.

Many lies, much bondage and major injustice has been inflicted on mankind in the name of the exact opposite (namely truth, freedom and justice).

Take just one example: Everyone knows that overpopulation is one of the greatest threats to the planet and to mankind, right?


The truth is the exact opposite. Julian Simon amassed copious evidence to debunk this and many other commonly held economic and social "truths". (Vividly illustrating Julian Simon's ideas, UCLA economist Deepak Lal noted the absurdity of the view that if a cow has a child per capita income automatically goes up, while if a human has a child it automatically goes down.)

The lesson is this. Nothing presented or peddled as truth should be automatically accepted as truth at face value. Everything must be thoroughly probed and examined and only what passes the most stringent tests is to be accepted as the truth. Likewise, anything that fails the tests must be rejected as lies.

The analogy with designer labels holds good. Polonius in Hamlet observes: "For the apparel oft proclaims the man." Not quite. More accurately, we should say: the apparel often proclaims the man's intended image and not necessarily who or what the man really is. Designer clothes project a certain image which may be far removed from the actual character of the man wearing them.

The only way to confirm the presence of truth is to test for it. Appearances can be deceiving. You see, the Devil wears Pravda.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Warren Buffet on the global economic crisis

You know there's economic trouble when the richest man in the world tells you that his flagship company lost 9.6% of its market value in the previous year. You know that the trouble's really serious when he says:

This debilitating spiral has spurred our government to take massive action. In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone "all in." Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel. These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome aftereffects. Their precise nature is anyone’s guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation. Moreover, major industries have become dependent on Federal assistance, and they will be followed by cities and states bearing mind-boggling requests. Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won’t leave willingly.
Warren Buffet tells the full story, with his usual charm and wit, in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders which was released on 28 February 2009.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Effective Executive, Chapter 1: Effectiveness Can be Learned

We're back with the long-awaited series on Peter F. Drucker's The Effective Executive (1966).

The following summary of chapter 1 is quite long as chapter 1 is itself a microcosm of the whole book.

The job of the executive is to be effective. Effectiveness is the ability to get the right things done. Effectiveness is NOT intelligence, imagination or knowledge. Effectiveness is what turns intelligence, imagination and knowledge into results.

I. Why we need effective executives
  • Effectiveness is the specific tool of the knowledge worker within an organisation.
  • Manual work only requires efficiency, i.e. the ability to do things right. The productivity, that is the efficiency and quality, of manual work can be measured in terms of a definable and discrete output. Previously, the bulk of the workers in organisations were manual workers and therefore only a few people were required to be executives, that is concerned with getting the right things done.
  • Society is now made up of large, knowledge-based organisations staffed by knowledge workers. The knowledge worker primarily applies his mind to his work, whereas the manual primarily applies his hands to his work. The knowledge worker primarily uses knowledge, theory and concepts; the manual worker primarily uses physical strength and manual skill.
  • The viability and prosperity of modern society depends crucially on the productivity of the knowledge worker (or the executive). The productivity of the knowledge worker cannot be measured with the same yardstick as that of the manual worker.
  • The nature of knowledge work and the knowledge worker is fundamentally different from that of manual work and the manual worker. Specifically:
  1. The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped.
  2. The knowledge worker must direct himself towards performance, contribution, and effectiveness.
  3. The knowledge worker’s primary work is thinking.
  4. The motivation of the knowledge worker depends crucially on his being effective and able to achieve. Without effectiveness, the knowledge worker’s commitment to work and contribution will diminish rapidly.
  5. The knowledge worker’s output (knowledge, ideas, information) is useless in itself, unlike the manual worker’s output (a physical product like a ditch, a pair of shoes, or a machine part). Unlike the manual worker, the knowledge worker must make a deliberate effort make his output effective.

II. Who is an executive?
  • Every knowledge worker in an organisation is an executive IF, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organisation to perform and to obtain results. Such a person must make decisions; he cannot simply carry out orders. He must take responsibility for his contribution. And he is supposed, by virtue of his knowledge, to be better equipped to make the right decision than anyone else.
  • Most managers are executives-though not all.
  • Many non-managers are executives in modern society.
  • Many managers are not executives –they are superiors and overseers of other people BUT they do not have responsibility for or authority over the direction, content and quality of the work, or the methods of its performance. Their productivity can still be measured with the same methods as those used to measure the productivity of manual workers.
  • Whether or not a knowledge worker is an executive does NOT depend on whether or not he manages people. This is because knowledge work is defined by its results NOT by its quantity or by its costs. Consequently, the number of people involved or the size of the managerial task are irrelevant. In fact, a knowledge worker may be so busy “managing” that he has no time for his actual work and to make fundamental decisions. An individual knowledge worker may be as productive or unproductive as a team of 200 knowledge workers. "Throughout every one of our knowledge organisations, we have people who manage no one and yet are executives."
  • Executives are those knowledge workers, managers, or individual professionals, who are expected, by virtue of their position or their knowledge, to make decisions in the normal course of their work that have significant impact on the performance and results of the whole organisation.
  • The executive plans, organises, integrates, motivates, measures and makes decisions.

III. Executive realities

The realities of the executive’s situation inside an organisation, at one and the same time, demand effectiveness from him AND make effectiveness exceedingly difficult to achieve. (By contrast, effectiveness for an executive outside an organisation is much easier to achieve.)

There are four major realities about an executive’s situation inside an organisation that push him towards non-results and non-performance:
  1. The executive’s time tends to belong to everybody else
    • We can define an executive operationally (that is, through his activities) as a captive of the organisation.
    • An executive can also be defined as someone who normally has no time of their own because their time is always pre-empted by matters of importance to somebody else.
  2. Executives are forced to keep on "operating" unless they take positive action to change the reality in which they live and work
    • Unless the executive changes it by deliberate action, the flow of events will determine what he is concerned with and what he does.
    • If the executive lets the flow of events determine what he does, what he works on and what he takes seriously, he will fritter himself away “operating”.
    • Events rarely tell the executive anything, let alone the real problem. They are often not even symptoms in the sense in which a patient’s narrative is a clue for a physician. What events are relevant and important, and what events are merely distractions, the events themselves do not indicate.
    • What the executive needs are CRITERIA which enable him to work on the truly important, that is on contribution and results, even though the criteria are not found in the flow of events.
  3. The executive is within an organisation
    • The executive is effective only if and when others in the organisation make use of what he contributes. Organisation is the means of multiplying the strength of an individual.
    • Usually the people most important to the effectiveness of an executive are NOT his subordinates, but his peers or his superiors. Unless the executive can reach these people, and can make his contribution effective for them and in their work, he has no effectiveness at all.
  4. The executive is within an organisation
    • “Even the largest organisation is unreal compared to the reality of the environment in which it exists.”
    • There are no results within the organisation. All the results are on the outside.
    • All that there is within the organisation are efforts and costs.
    • The only reason the organisation exists is for the service it provides to its environment
    • BUT it is the inside of the organisation and all its workings that is most visible to the executive. Unless he makes deliberate efforts to gain direct access to outside reality, he will become increasingly inside-focused.
    • Much of the quantitative information that is presented to executives is inside-focused and misses most of the important and relevant outside events. These events are frequently qualitative, and indeed unquantifiable. They are not yet “facts”, that is “events” that have been conceptualised, defined, classified and endowed with relevance.
    • “The truly important events on the outside are not the trends. They are changes in trends. These determine ultimately success or failure of an organisation and its efforts. Such changes, however, have to be perceived: they cannot be counted, defined or classified.”
    • “Executives may become blind to everything that is perception, i.e. event, rather than fact, i.e. after the event.”
    • “Executives live and work within an organisation. Unless they make conscious effort to perceive the outside, the inside may blind them to the true reality.”

IV. The promise of effectiveness

  • Increasing effectiveness may be the only area where we can hope significantly to raise the level of executive performance, achievement, and satisfaction.
  • More able and knowledgeable people are welcome of course, but it unrealistic to expect the supply of such people to be significantly increased. At best, we can hope for someone to be good in one specialised knowledge area.
  • However, each knowledge worker should try to at least learn what other knowledge areas are about, why they exist and what are their aims.
  • Since we can’t increase the supply of better people, we should try and make better use of the people who are available. That is, rather than increasing the supply of a resource, increase its yield. Effectiveness is the one tool to make the resources of ability and knowledge yield more and better results.

V. But can effectiveness be learned?

  • Effectiveness is NOT a gift one is born with, it can be learned.
  • What are the elements of effectiveness? What does one have to learn and how does one learn it?
  1. Is effectiveness a knowledge which one learns in systematic form and through concepts?
  2. Is effectiveness a skill which one learns as an apprentice?
  3. Is effectiveness a practice which one learns through doing the same elementary things over and over again?
  • There is no such thing as an “effective personality”. Effective executives differ widely in their personalities, temperaments, abilities, knowledge and interests. All they have in common is the ability to get the right things done.
  • All effective executives have the same, common practices that make effective whatever they have and whatever they are.
  • Effectiveness is a habit, that is a complex of practices. Practices are very simple. Practices can always be learned. Practices are learned by practising and practising and practising again, until the practice becomes an unthinking, conditioned reflex and a firmly ingrained habit.
  • There is no reason why any, normally endowed individual cannot acquired competency in any practice. Mastery may require special endowments, but all that is required for effectiveness is competency.
  • There are five essential practices that have to be acquired to be an effective executive.

Effective executives:
  1. Know and manage their time (Chapter 2)
    • They know where their time goes and they work systematically at managing the little of their time that can be brought under their control.
  2. Focus on outward contribution (Chapter 3)
    • They gear their efforts to results rather than work. They begin with the question “What results are expected of me” rather than the work to be done, or its techniques and tools.
  3. Build on strengths (Chapter 4)
    • They build on strengths: their own strengths, the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates; and on the strengths in the situation, that is, on what they can do. They do not build on weakness, or start out with what they cannot do.
  4. Concentrate on priorities (Chapter 5)
    • They concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results. They force themselves to set priorities and stick to their priority decisions. They have no choice: they do first things first and second things not at all. The alternative is to get nothing done.
  5. Make effective decisions (Chapter 6 and Chapter 7)
    • They practise a systematic decision-making process:
      • Follow the right steps in the right sequence;
      • Make a judgement based on “dissenting opinions” rather than on “consensus on the facts”;
      • Make few, carefully considered fundamental decisions rather than many, fast (and wrong!) decisions;
      • Strategic, rather than tactical.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A dead language?

Latin is a dead language.
As dead as dead can be.
It killed off all the Romans,
And now it's killing me!

This schoolboy ditty could conceivably be titled The Refrain of the Juvenile Classicist.

But is Latin really a dead language?

The (mature) classicist Peter Jones writes the "Ancient and Modern" column in The Spectator. Here's his take on the matter.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Varley funny: An Open Letter to John Cleese

Here they are: Two of the best humourists on the planet going man to man, eyeball to eyeball, pen to pen. They both happen to be called John, Cleese and Varley. Enjoy:

An Open Letter to John Cleese

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The very gods themselves

I have had recent occasion to recall a line from Friedrich Schiller's play The Maid of Orleans (1801). One of the characters, Talbot, an English general, makes the following lament (translation by Anna Swanwick):
Folly, thou conquerest, and I must yield!
Against stupidity the very gods.
Themselves contend in vain. Exalted reason,
Resplendent daughter of the head divine,
Wise foundress of the system of the world,
Guide of the stars, who art thou then if thou,
Bound to the tail of folly's uncurbed steed,
Must, vainly shrieking with the drunken crowd,
Eyes open, plunge down headlong in the abyss.
Accursed, who striveth after noble ends,
And with deliberate wisdom forms his plans!
To the fool-king belongs the world.

(emphasis added)
It is not a particularly encouraging thought: "Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain."

[An interesting aside: The Gods Themselves is the title of a highly acclaimed science fiction classic (Nebula award for best novel in 1972 and Hugo award for best novel in 1973) by the late great Isaac Asimov. The novel is made up of three intricately structured and interlocking parts: "Against Stupidity..." (Part I); "...The Gods Themselves..." (Part II); and "...Contend in Vain?" (Part III).]

The same thought can be expressed in economic terms: The supply of stupidity so far outstrips demand, that there is little realistic prospect of the equilibrium price of stupidity ever reversing its downward trend.