Acquiring, Evaluating, and Implementing Information in a Knowledge-Driven Economy
The old saying "knowledge is power" is more true today than ever before. Find out why old ways of thinking and applying information need to be changed in order for business and society to flourish.
Most of us who’ve been involved with the evolution of digital imaging and the associated infrastructure are familiar with how hard it is to introduce new technologies. Friction always comes with newness. This month I want to deviate from the technical nature of our business to share some thoughts with you about the evolving rate of knowledge worldwide and how it will affect us.
Since 1965, when Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore published his landmark observation on the growth rate of integrated devices, the rate of human knowledge discovery has skyrocketed. Moore observed that the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on an integrated circuit is increasing exponentially, doubling approximately every two years. Furthermore, he observed that the cost to produce this was inversely proportional to the density increase. This simply means we double our processing capacity and sell it for half the cost of the previous generation. We’re all familiar with this in the form of cheaper, faster computers and more complex operating systems. Moore’s Law shows no sign of decline, at least for the foreseeable future.
What most people do not realize is that the rate of discovery follows a similar expansion. We’re all aware of the impact of digital technology in virtually every area of our lives. What most are unaware of is the rate of expansion. Generational doubling is not significant in the early phases of geometric expansion. But we’re at a point in the curve now where it’s becoming huge.
According Jack Uldrich’s book Jump the Curve: 50 Essential Strategies to Help Your Company Stay Ahead of Emerging Technologies, the entire base of human knowledge will double in the next six years. Think about that for a moment. Everything we know, since recorded history began almost 10,000 years ago, will double in the next six years. Put another way, half of mankind’s knowledge has not yet even been discovered as of today.
Collision with the industrial economy
This is a scary enough thought, but we need to look closer. For quite sometime now we’ve been on a collision course—and now we’re about to collide head-on. The decisions we make over the next few years will determine how the industrialized West will continue to remain viable in the face of ever increasing globalization and the relentless quest to find the lowest cost producers.
Let me be perfectly clear. In my opinion, there is no way we can remain competitive if we continue to use the methods of the past. I’m not talking about equipment, but rather the management methods of the industrial and post-industrial periods. Bear with me, lest I sound like some stodgy economics professor.
The industrial era was largely based on the guild system. You started off as an apprentice, became a journeyman, and eventually a craftsman and master craftsman. Knowledge was shared, learned, and implemented over many years. Those who were at the top of the food chain never shared their knowledge outside of the system with those below. Likewise, information was not shared within the industry. Our own industry today still has this ridiculous tendency to hoard knowledge and technique, often calling it trade secrets. While it is important to maintain a competitive edge, successful companies from this point forward will do so differently.
Secondly, the way we hire and train blue-collar employees leaves us at a disadvantage. Most line-level workers come with little education beyond high school. Now, with the workforce changing with mixed ethnic, cultural, and national origin, we are further handicapped in this area. We face language and education barriers. The old model was instruct once, use many times. The basic information was taught and the worker performed the operation over and over in an assembly line.
Long production runs—if they’re not already gone—are becoming a thing of the past as emphasis shifts to just-in-time and mass customization. Digital printing has facilitated the individualization of our work as we implement databased marketing and variable-data imaging. The Total Quality Manufacturing (TQM) movement of the 1990s was designed to repurpose the traditional mass-manufacturing line to a flexible, adaptable, manufacturing model based on what the customer actually wanted or ordered, instead of producing for finished inventories. This evolved into mass customization as we know it today. This well established trend will only accelerate.
The collision comes when the illiterate, poorly educated workforce is increasingly asked to learn more new information faster and to adopt and implement on demand. The situation is further compounded by short-sighted owners and managers who have taken the position of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” By the time they wake up to the fact it’s already broken, it’s simply too late. The market has shifted and they are left behind.
Line workers are also highly fearful of change. It’s difficult enough to do the job in a consistent, predictable manner for even the best employees. When we start throwing new ideas, technologies, and methods at them, panic sets in. It’s not that they don’t want to do the job or learn the new methods. It’s more about the fear of not doing it right and looking bad in the face of the boss. This is the fear-of-failure model.
Failure of higher education
The next hugely serious factor we face is the failure of higher education. I’m talking about high school, community college, and even four-year college programs. Since World War II they’ve focused on delivering passive, risk-averse worker bees to the corporate factories of the world. Industrial-age manufacturing was based on efficiencies. Efficiencies mean there is no room for free thinking, deviation, or questioning of methods. It’s all about standard operating procedures.
The way we educate is at the root cause. The goal is to get an “A” in the class, to avoid average or mediocre performance, and at all costs avoid failure. Good grades mean you will get a better job. This fear of failure is drilled into every student from the time they start first grade. It stands to reason that if you question the established practices, you risk failure and potentially your next wage increase or position promotion. So, the good worker protects himself by staying within the lines, doing nothing to make trouble or call attention to his performance. The best he can hope for is to maximize his performance within the limitations of the existing system.
As long as things are not changing, and we continue in a repetitive mass-assembly model, no problem. But this model collapses when change presents itself. The entire purpose of how the employee was initially trained becomes irrelevant. His purpose no longer creates value. Now it’s change or die, meaning plant closure or lay-off. The situation is usually too far gone to address by the time it’s recognized. I’ve been involved in a number of large-scale factory turnarounds over the last 20 years that have come in the late stages of this realization. The usual result is a temporary immediate improvement—delaying the inevitable. It doesn’t have to be this way.
What we need to do
This is a societal issue. You can’t change the education model overnight. But you can influence it locally. Get involved. Bring these issues forward. You may not think you have a voice, but a large groundswell of recognition and support for this kind of change exists.
On the immediate level, change-management methods must be assessed and implemented. All kinds of tools are available for this. Begin your own educational process to discover what will work in your own situation. A quick Google search on change-management tools delivers 187,000 results.
W. Edwards Deming is well known for his admonition to “drive fear from the workplace.” Fear, to me, means False Evidence Appearing Real, another way of saying fear of the unknown. Simply put, fear is failing to get the facts and understanding how they will change our current world and perspective.
We cannot resist change—it is evolutionary and progressive. We can embrace the tools to manage it. Driving fear from the workforce will take time because it requires the worker to trust management. A fundamental distrust has existed between workers and owners and managers for the last 100 years. They do not understand what we do or why we do it. They are fearful of their jobs because they don’t know how to deal with the coming change. This leads to resistance to ideas and implementation, and the cycle repeats.
A very simple approach is to propose imaginary situations to improve production. An example would be to say, “We have a situation (stated problem) that needs to be fixed. We need your help. If we couldn’t use any of our methods or practices, how would you fix this?” There are no right or wrong answers. Let them know that too. You want wild and weird ideas because current logic or methods no longer work. A reasonable solution almost always can be deduced from this brainstorming. Participation in the process leads to ownership of the new ideas.
Finally, when it comes to education, we need to think differently. The past 15 years have seen more and more emphasis on math and engineering for technology. I do not disagree with this, but I would like to expand on it. The foundational emphasis needs to be on Liberal Arts.
I can hear the groans, but think about this: Liberal Arts embraces all as-pects of knowledge—history, composition, literature, philosophy (including logic and ethics) psychology, sciences, and mathematics. This is the foundation of an educated, knowledge-based society. As I see it the flaw in the current educational model is too much emphasis on technologies that are constantly evolving. You are behind the minute you graduate. A Liberal Arts education provides the framework for continual knowledge expansion within the context of historical learning.
Two key areas must be changed. The first is that we have a fundamental responsibility to teach our students how to learn to love to learn. This is the only way they will embrace new ideas and be willing to investigate and move forward.
Secondly, we need to change this whole grading/failure model. My own philosophy is fail fast. This means we have a control for performance against which we continually test. Our goal is to defeat and replace the control. This is also called A/B Split testing, a process that’s been used in the advertising and scientific communities forever. Failing fast means we either test and fail—verifying the validity of our current practices—or we find a better way and this now becomes our control. There are many, many excellent procedures to use for this purpose, and we need to start the process today.
On the one hand, what I’ve outlined sounds challenging and somewhat depressing when considered from the historical viewpoint of industrial economy. On the other hand, when the market or the economy becomes too crowded and the profits too slim, you change the rules. That is exactly what we need to do if we are to remain profitable and viable for the next generation.
Mark A. Coudray is president of Coudray Graphic Technologies, San Luis Obispo, CA. He has served as a director of the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association Int'l (SGIA) and as chairman of the Academy of Screenprinting Technology. Coudray has authored more than 250 papers and articles over the last 20 years, and he received the SGIA's Swormstedt Award in 1992 and 1994. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.