Archive for category Multidisciplinarians
William Storage 14 Jun 2012
Visiting Scholar, UC Berkeley Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society
I’ve been looking into the range of usage of the term “Design Thinking” (see previous post on this subject) on the web along with its rate of appearance in publications. According to Google, the term first appeared in print in 1973, occurring occasionally until 1988. Over the next five years its usage increased ten-fold, then calming down a bit. It peaked again in 2003 and has declined a bit since then.
Rate of appearance of “Design Thinking” in publications
since 1970 (bottom horizontal is zero) per Google.
More interesting than term publication rates was the Google data on search requests. I happened upon a strong correlation between Google searches for “Design Thinking” and both “Bible verse” and “scriptures.” That is, the rate of Google searches for Design Thinking rise and fall in sync with searches for Bible verses.
A scatter plot of search activity for Design Thinking and Bible verse from 2005 to present shows an uncanny correlation:
US web search activity for Design Thinking and Bible verse (r=0.9648) Source: Google Correlate
From this, we might conclude that Design Thinking is a religion or that holism is central to both Christianity and Design Thinking. Or that studying Design Thinking causes interest in scriptures or vice versa. While at least one of these four possibilities is in fact true (Christianity and Design Thinking both rely on holism), we would be very wrong to think the relationship between search behavior on these terms to be causal.
A closer look at the Design Thinking – Bible verse data, this time as a line plot, over a few years is telling. Searches for the both terms hit a yearly minimum the last week of December and another local minimum near mid-July. It would seem that time of year has something do with searching on both terms.
Google Correlate relative rates of searches on Design Thinking
and Bible verse, July 09-July 2011 (r=0.964)
If two sets of data, A and B, correlate, there are four possibilities to explain the correlation:
1. A causes B
2. B causes A
3. C causes both A and B
4. The correlation is merely coincidental
Item 3, known as the hidden variable or ignoring a common cause, is standard fare for politics and TV news (imagine what Fox News or NPR might do with the Design Thinking – Bible verse correlation). But in statistics, spurious correlations are bad news.
Spurious regression is the term for the scenario above. In this linear regression model, A was regressed on B. But there is some unknown C probably having to do with seasonal interest/disinterest due to time availability or more pressing topics of interest. Searches on Broncos and Tebow, for example, have negative correlations with Design Thinking and Bible verse.
Watch for tomorrow’s piece on Politics Thinking and Journalism Thinking.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr., in How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, credits the church as being the primary sponsor of western science throughout most of the church’s existence. His point is valid, though many might find his presentation very economical with the truth. With a view that everything in the universe was interconnected, the church was content to ascribe the plague to sin. The church’s interest in science had something to do with Easter. I’ll get to that after a small diversion to relate this topic to one from a recent blog post.
Catholic theologians, right up until very recent times, have held a totally holistic view, seeing properties and attributes as belonging to high level objects and their context, and opposing reductionism and analysis by decomposition. In God’s universe (as they saw it), behavior of the parts was determined by the whole, not the other way around. Catholic holy men might well be seen as champions of “Systems Thinking” – at least in the popular modern use of that term. Like many systems thinking advocates in business and politics today, the church of the middle ages wasn’t merely pragmatic-anti-reductionist, it was philosophically anti-reductionist. I.e., their view was not that it is too difficult to analyze the inner workings of a thing to understand its properties, but that it is fundamentally impossible to do so.
Unlike modern anti-reductionists, whose movement has been from reductionism toward something variously called collectivism, pluralism or holism, the Vatican has been forced in the opposite direction. The Catholics were dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of reductionist science because one of their core values – throwing really big parties – demanded it.
The celebration date of Easter is based on pagan and Jewish antecedents. Many agricultural gods were celebrated on the vernal equinox. The celebration is also linked to Shavuot and Passover. This brings the lunar calendar into the mix. That means Easter is a movable feast; it doesn’t occur on a fixed day of the year. It can occur anywhere from March 22 to April 25. Roughly speaking, Easter is the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. To mess things up further, the ecclesiastical definitions of equinox and full moon are not the astronomical ones. The church wades only so far into the sea of reductionism. Consequently, different sects have used different definitions over the years. Never fearful of conflict, factions invented nasty names for rival factions; and, as Socrates Scholasticus tells it, Bishop John Chrysostom booted some of his Easter-calculation opponents out of the early Catholic church.
By the 6th century, the papal authorities had legislated a calculation for Easter, enforcing it as if it came down on a tablet. By the twelfth century, they could no longer evade the fact that Easter had drifted way off course.
Right around that time, Muslim scholars had just translated the works of the ancient Greek mathematicians to Latin (Ptolemy’s Almagest in particular). By the time of the Renaissance, Easter celebrations in Rome were gigantic affairs. Travel arrangements and event catering meant that the popes needed to plan for Easter celebrations many years in advance. They wanted to send out invitations specifying a single date, not a five week range.
Science appeared the only way to solve the messy problem of predicting Easter. And the popes happened to have money to throw at the problem. They suddenly became the world’s largest backer of scientific research – well, targeted research, one might say. John Heilbron, Vice-Chancellor Emeritus of UC Berkeley (who brought me into History of Science at Cal) put it this way in his The Sun in the Church:
The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions. Those who infer the Church’s attitude from its persecution of Galileo may be reassured to know that the basis of its generosity to astronomy was not a love of science but a problem of administration. The problem was establishing and promulgating the date of Easter.
The tough part of the calculation was determining the exact time of the equinox. Experimental measurement would require a large observatory with a small hole in the roof and a flat floor where one could draw a long north-south line to chart out the spot the sun hit on the floor at noon. The spots would trace a circuit around the floor of the observatory. When the spot returned to the same point on the north-south line, you had the crux of the Easter calculation.
By luck or divine providence, the popes already had such observatories on hand – the grand churches of Europe. Punching a hole through the roof of God’s house was a small price to pay for predicting the date of Easter years in advance.
Fortunately for their descendants, scientists are prone to going off on tangents, some of which come in handy. They needed a few centuries of experimentation to perfect the Easter calculation. Matters of light diffraction and the distance from the center of the earth to the floor of the church had to be addressed. During this time Galileo and friends stumbled onto a few work byproducts that the church would have been happier without, and certainly would not have invested in.
The guy who finally mastered the Easter problem was Francesco Bianchini, multidisciplinarian par exellence. The church OK’d his plan to build a meridian line diagonally across the floor of the giant church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome. This church owes its size to the fact that it was actually built as a bath during the reign of Diocletian (284 – 305 AD) and was then converted to a church by Pope Pius IV in 1560 with the assistance of Michelangelo. Pius set about to avenge Diocletian’s Christian victims by converting a part of the huge pagan structure built “for the convenience and pleasure of idolaters by an impious tyrant” to “a temple of the virgin.”
Bianchini’s meridian is a major point of tourist interest within Santa Maria degli Angeli. All that science in the middle of a church feels really odd – analysis surrounded by faith, reductionism surrounded by holy holism.
Yesterday I commented on how corporate managers tend to move on to new, more fashionable approaches, independent of the value of current ones. I played around with using models from religious studies for understanding rivalry in Systems Thinking. Several good books interpret the rapid rise and decline of management initiatives and business improvement methods from the perspective of management-as-fashion. As with yesterday’s topic I think the metaphor of business mindset as religion also helps understand the phenomenon. In the spirit of multidisciplinary study, I’ll kick this around a bit.
The fad nature of strategic management initiatives and business process improvement methodologies has been studied in depth over the past two decades. Managers rapidly acquire strong interest in a new approach to improvements in productivity or competitiveness and embrace the methodology with enthusiasm and commitment. The recent explosion of tech/business hype on the web, consumed by small business as well as large, seems to increase frequency and amplitude of business fashions. Often before metrics can be established to assess effectiveness, enthusiasm declines and the team becomes restless. Eyes wander and someone hears of new, even-stronger magic. Another cycle begins – and is exploited by high-priced consultants ready to help you deploy the next big thing. Cameron and Quinn, in Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture give a truly dismal report card to nearly all organizational change initiatives.
Each successive cycle increases the potential for cynicism and resentment, particularly for those not at the top. Barry Staw and Lisa Epstein of UC Berkeley showed a decade ago that bandwagon application of the TQMS (Total Quality Management System) initiative in the 1990s did not correlate with increased profits, but correlated very well with decline of employee morale and increases in CEO compensation. Quite a few top managers were highly rewarded for spearheading TQM but retired with honors before TQM’s effect (or lack of it) was known.
Google Ngram for TQM, ISO 9001 and Six Sigma over a 20-year period
The skepticism given TQM by many professionals was shown by a poster seen in many cubicles in those days. It contained a statement attributed to Petronius (incorrectly attributed to Petronius, probably derived from Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization!):
We trained hard but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization
Having been a consultant in those days, I was painfully aware of what the TQMS and ISO 9001 fads had done for how consultants were viewed by hard-working employees. The last data I’ve seen on use of consultants in strategic initiatives (Peter Wood, 2002) showed that most firms used outsiders to justify and implement such programs. In the management-fashion metaphor, consultants are both the key fashion suppliers and its advertisers, skilled at detecting and exploiting burgeoning sales opportunities.
In a little over twenty years of working with large corporations, I got to witness many process, quality, and management initiatives:
- Quality Circles
- STEP – Solutions Through Employee Participation
- IDEF0 – Integration Definition for Function Modeling
- McBer Competency Framework
- Keys to Self Renewal
- Continuous Improvement/Kaizen
- Natural Work Groups
- Statistical Process Control
- BWA – Business Workflow Analysis
- McKinsey consultation
- CPIP – Continuous Performance Improvement Program
- QFD – Quality function deployment
- Leadership Councils
- Matrix Management
- Integrated Product Development
- BPR – Business process reengineering
- SDWT – Self-Directed Work Teams
- Boothroyd Dewhurst DFMA – Design for Manufacture and Assembly
- Process-Based Management
- TQMS – Total Quality Management System
Three of these stand out – Statistical Process Control and DFMA, because, in their most technical interpretation at least, they produced measurable results; and TQMS, because it was embraced with unparalleled gusto but flopped miserably. Despite the negative views of these initiatives in the ranks, I have little reason to find fault with them; they may have all been successful in due time with due commitment. In general, it was the initiatives’ frequency that demoralized, much more than the content. Today’s business fads are less intrusive and less about the organization. But that could change.
In the TQMS years I was at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, then rival of Boeing in Seattle. Douglas employees, both wary and weary of TQMS, read the acronym as “Time to Quit and Move to Seattle.”
As a religious parallel, I’m interested in the way ancient religions grew tired of their gods and invented new, oddly equivalent ones to replace them. At some point the Egyptians seemed to feel that Amun-Ra’s power had faded, though he had replaced the withered Nun. Isis and Osiris took Amun-Ra’s place. In the Greek world Asclepius and Hercules/Melkart replaced the Olympian gods. In Rome Mithras replaced Helios, both solar deities. Divine succession may have something to do with the eventual realization that the gods failed to do man’s bidding. The ancients were perhaps a bit more patient than modern business is.
In the 1990s, corporate messianic expectation surged. Religious parallels abound in the TQM literature, e.g., Robert J Bird’s observations on Transitory Collective Beliefs and the Dynamics of TQM Consulting, in which he quotes a Business Forum article stating that TQM “will change our lives as much as the advent of mass production”. The long, slow route of continuous improvement wasn’t yielding fast enough. Leaders looked to consulting firms in the sky to deliver immediate bottom line salvation. When it didn’t materialize, a new generation of humbler, more earthly gods emerged. Agile, Scrum, Targeted Innovation, and the seven habits of highly effective business secularists.
Closely related to messianic expectation is the concept of sacred scapegoats (see René Girard and Raymund Schwager). In ancient times, when a tribe grew impatient with their king or priest, they threw him into a sacrificial pit, imagining that his sins, their sins, and the current bad times would go along for the ride. A new king was chosen and hopes for renewal were celebrated. Our New Year’s Eve parties retain a hint of this motif. Kings got wise to this risk and introduced the practice of delegating a mock king for a day, selecting some hapless victim/king from the prison. The mock king was both venerated and condemned, then went down the well with the collective sins of the tribe. The real king survived to usher in the new year.
Applying this model to continuous improvement dynamics, it may be that there’s more than mere fashion to the speed with which we replace business methodologies. Their adoption and dismissal might simply be part of a stable process of coming to terms with unrealized goals, unreasonable as they might have been in the first place, and throwing them down the pit.
History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. – Mark Twain