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File under anachronisms
Saturday, May 07, 2005
What follows is fuzzy-headed stream of consciousness. Unless you're into mental exploration, you may want to skip this one.

Paradigm drag. I trick myself into thinking I'm improving today's world when in reality I have in mind the world of my childhood and early learning, echoes from a bygone era. My educational reform deals with the elementary school injustices of the early fifties and dysfunctional college-fu in the mid-sixties. (Duck and cover!) My thinking was of course shaped by my parents and my comrades, who were shaped by their parents, back through thousands of generations.

Many of the roadblocks to progress in modern-day business result from applying industrial-age mindsets in a decidedly non-industrial age. (Yesterday S&P and Moody downgraded both Ford and GM obligations to junk status.) Factories are so yesterday, and yet corporate managers still disbelieve that which they cannot see. They want to know the number of widgets produced or sold in a specific time period. News flash: the game has moved on, from widgets to information about widgets and perhaps the movie rights to widgets.

The point? I'm getting to it. Be patient.

I still act as if digital storage were scarce. It's an obsolete mindset. When I worked for NCR right out of college, the mainframes I sold contained core memory. Core was made of tiny ferrite rings woven together with three thin wires by women in Asia. It cost a mint. Computing was for corporations and the military.

Fast forward to the mid-eighties: my first PC. No hard drive. Storage is flopppies. 160 KB maximum. Soon upgraded to 320 KB. Then a hard disk with an amazing 10 MB. A big, hulking Iomega box the size of a PC with giant removable cartridges. Nonetheless, I'd find myself so desperate for hard-disk space that I'd cross my fingers and begin deleting superfluous DLLs from my Windows directory. I'd trash my .bak files. I deleted email the moment I was done with it. Disk space was money. Expensive real estate.

Today my two-year old desktop sports a 16 GB hard drive. Install an internal 160 GB drive. Back up to an external 300 GB drive. This website takes up 1 GB on the net. The cost of magnetic storage has ceased being an issue. No problem.

Yesterday over lunch, Mary Hodder casually said, "I don't do paper." Mary lives on the net. She hates it when someone forces her to take paper. Her home printer once sat idle for two entire years. Aside from reading books while on vacation, Mary reads RSS feeds. Search feeds point to relevant entries. Her machine pulls down about 3,500 posts and other items a day.

How does she decide what to keep? I asked. And how does she store what she may want to come back to? I probably waste 30 minutes a day saving files to this or that electronic cubbyhole so I'll be able to find them later or riffing through about 9' of paper files, usually getting distracted by things I'd forgotten I had.

Mary doesn't decide what to store: she never throws anything away. Occasionally, she'll trash spam email but otherwise, everything that flows into her aggregator resides on her local hard drive. Today that's about 100,000 items.

It's Saturday morning. I'm dreamily contemplating de-cluttering my life by following Mary's example. The hell with filing, classifying, labeling, and so forth. All I need is some virtual RFID tags to facilitate pulling needle-notes out of gigs of haystacks. I wonder how much time I spend applying yesterday's solutions to today's problems.

How does this impact informal learning? (Obstensibly Mary and I got together to talk about informal learning.) Earlier in the day I'd been skimming Relevance Lost, The Rise and Fall of Management Accounting, by H. Thomas Johnson and Robert S. Kaplan, a must-read for anyone who wants to understand why ROI thinking leads to unsound decisions. The accountants' obsession with a narrow set of reports dates back to times when information was scarce.

These days information is abudant. Perhaps over-abudant. Management information can be rolled up ad hoc with the click of the mouse. What-if queries can replace monthly reports. Managers can make decisions on the basis of available information, not limited by how many gauges will fit on their executive dashboards. Information systems are primed to serve, not restrict, and to focus on opportunity, not history.

Just as spreadsheets freed financial decision-makers of the tedium to run what-if scenarios, so should flexible scenario templates enable general managers to prototype the likely results of changes in business processs.

Coming back down to earth, as Smokey the Wonderdog woke me up this morning, I realized that a vital part of my book on informal learning will be demonstrating its value using both today's yardstcks and yesterday's.


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