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Science, Society, and Excellence by Design

Michael Specter does a nice job reminding us of the importance and value of science based understanding and decision making.  I highly agree with his concern that while the world has become more connected and more capable, and science has contributed so many advances, there are many people who are still willing to believe falsehoods or unsubstantiated theories, and confuse issues of facts and science, with policy and politics.

This is important to understand for the Designer, because while good design should be rooted in facts, science, and engineering, it must also face the reality of populism and politics.  Take health care information technology, or genetically modified foods as two good examples.  Both are subjects for which there is a rich and broad potential for designing solutions and improvements that can benefit mankind, yet both are subjected to highly charged debate, filled with both prejudice and confusion.

One must be careful to understand and differentiate between the science/engineering/fact based aspects of the design, and those aspects that are not so grounded.  This does not mean the political/emotional/prejudicial is unimportant.  It simply means be careful to distinguish the two and address each appropriately.

I have found this in many types of design challenges.  When doing process reengineering for example it is easy for an organization to act with fear at the idea of simplifying operations.  The facts/science/engineering may show a far better method of organizing work execution, yet the designer must be cognizant of the potential for the organization to resist the changes for reasons that are factually groundless even if personally very real.  This is a trivial example.

The examples Michael discusses are real and much larger, and as a human race we must become more skilled at dealing with this challenge because, as science capabilities accelerate (and they are/will due in great degree to the advancements in computer technology) the opportunities for improvement…and debate, will increase.

Several hundred years ago the world debated the science that said the world was round. This one argument was one of the few, and went on for many decades.  Today such scientific discoveries happen all the time, and have much greater consequences.  As a society we must become skilled at the process of  learning about, absorbing, accepting, and reacting to, this increasing pace of scientific advancements.

So Excellence by Design should not only include design based on the underlying principles of science/engineering,  must also take into account the very possible and in some cases likely resistance to the design.

Designing a ‘Network’ business

Thomas Friedman is a NYTimes columnist and author of several books including The World is Flat, and Hot, Flat, and Crowded.  He has recently written about China for the NYTimes and in his most recent article describes the difference between ‘Command China’ (represented predominantly by the Communist Party and the State) and ‘Networked China’ (represented by the growing entrepreneurial businesses of China and it’s people.

Mr. Friedman is not making a political point but an evolutionary one and it is worth listening to.  He references a new research paper by John Hagel, entitled “Shift Index”. Interestingly, though the paper uses a lot of big consult speak, it very much hits the same themes I highlight as drivers for one core belief in Excellence by Design that “The world has shifted to be essentially uncontrollable and unpredictable…due to the convergence of many factors but the largest are Technology advancement, the rise of Consumerization, and Globalization and its elimination of barriers to entry.  As a result, the capability of change to occur has dramatically accelerated: innovation is quicker to arise, faster to market, and more easily adopted by wider audiences”.

Back to Mr. Friedman’s article.  He reiterates the implication of this (as Hagel points out) in saying “We are shifting from a world where the key source of strategic advantage was in protecting and extracting value from a given set of knowledge stocks — the sum total of what we know at any point in time, which is now depreciating at an accelerating pace — into a world in which the focus of value creation is effective participation in knowledge flows, which are constantly being renewed.

It’s worth rereading the above and then asking yourself (or your business) an essential question.  Are you and your business striving for ‘Command’ Excellence or ‘Network’ Excellence?  If you design at all, are you designing with the intention of becoming excellent in this more fluid, dynamic mode of business?  Are you managing the business to capitalize on knowledge you have…or the knowledge you need to have? It really can have a huge difference.  In the former, you believe you are more knowledgable, powerful, controlling than others, and seek to maintain/maximize dominance of these stock of information/capability.  In the latter, you are constantly seeking the new information, new connections, relationships, opportunities.  The former can lead to arrogance and resistance to change, the latter to a more inquisitive and faster moving sense.  Which is your business?

Think about this as you consider designing your products and services, and the systems and processes that support them, and also the competencies and information sharing means of your people and partners.  Sounds like a tall order but one that can be more systematically approached by using some the the principles of Excellence by Design.  In a future post I’ll spend more time elaborating on how to go about that.

In any case it is worth a discussion with your staff and peers about the ‘Shift’, moving from a ‘Command’ to a ‘Network’ mode, and the resulting implications on the business, its operations, and especially the people, partners, and customers that bring it to life.