Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Problem of Change

Imagine you are a first-rate aerodynamic engineer. The year is 1946, and you have been creating the products that won the war. However, today your boss walks in and says the days of propellers are over: you are now to work on an entirely new technology: rockets. How will your organization adopt the new technology? What project should you work on first? What should you expect? What if it doesn't work?

This is the situation organizations around the world face every day. Many of them have been successful using previous conventional technologies. But now they hear about some new technology and wonder what should they do.

Of utmost importance is executive vision. The effort involved in any significant technological change is immense. Effective management requires the ability to manage change. The key to managing change is the vision of where you want to be. Without high-level management leadership the change will not happen. Management must support the change. There must be an understanding of the risks and benefits of the new technology, but more importantly, an understanding of the difficulties of this kind of change.

To return to the aerodynamics to rockets metaphor, management must understand that despite the organization's previous success, with the new technology they are re-starting at square one. Management should not expect the first project using the new technology to be a trip to the moon. Small scale experiments are necessary first.

Furthermore, management must expect a few projects to "blow up on the pad". An effective engineering organization uses these "failures" to learn and improve. Without an acceptance of the risk of failure, no progress will be made.

This leads to the next major area of importance: the engineering organization. The effective engineering organization is at its core a learning organization. The organization has management support to examine new technology to determine if it is worthwhile or merely the latest flash in the pan.

The organization must be process and people focused with a culture of improvement both continuous and discontinuous. It understands technology transfer and has effective means of communication, training, and people development.

Many of the management techniques that produced success previously will be applicable to the new technology. How do you know which are applicable and which are not? And of those that are, how do they apply? Determining the answers is part of the process of technological transition. Invariably mistakes will be made. These mistakes must be treated as learning opportunities, not blame opportunities or the transition will not succeed.

Those organizations that have management support and already have in place an engineering culture are much more capable of change and the adoption of new technology than those without. While seemingly obvious, too many executives do not understand that the key is not technological at all, but the very way they themselves do their job.

Monday, July 6, 2009

I See You

Back in the old days the science fiction super genius Damon Knight wrote a story called "I See You". He's one of the giants of the field, and wrote some amazing classics (for example, "To Serve Man").I don't know if you can get his collections anymore, but you can get an ebook at the EBookMall, which has the summary:

A machine is invented that can view any person, place, or thing at any time in the past or present anywhere in the universe. The implications for politics, personal privacy, crime and punishment, space exploration, and historical research are mind-boggling and brilliantly explored in this short story. Hugo Award Nominee

While we don't quite have the "anywhere in the universe" part yet, we are nearly there as far as "the present" and even the recent past.

All that is needed is a user interface to an abstraction layer over all the traffic cams, surveillance cameras, nanny cams, cell phone videos, paparazzi, drone cams, flikr's, street-views, facebook's, you-tube's, etc on the internet. And your friendly search engine, of course. You could pick a place, say Trafalgar Square, and a time. The new tool would stitch together all the video and image sources to allow you to change viewpoints and pivot around the action in 3-D.

While this is fun, combine it with face recognition software to take the idea of "following" someone to a whole new level of creepy stalking. Now you are not just waiting for the next 140 characters but can actually watch them as they type. Set alerts to be notified when they emerge into view of any camera anywhere in the world. Back up the action and watch from a different angle. Use video interpolation software to fill in any missing parts.

Now go back and read the story. Just add a little more programming and we're there.