Story time 11: ferreting and the new conditions of corporate knowledge

FoldersA friend of mine in graduate school, Jimmie Weiner, used to joke that he wished that someone would steal his research and publish the results. "So I can find out what I have."

This is what we all want: someone to come in and find a forest in the trees. I’d be grateful if someone could figure out what my new book is about. It would make the writing go a lot faster.

Sometimes, this is what a client hires me to do. I am sent a batch of research studies, and it’s up to me to ferret my way through them.

Sometimes the client wants a comprehensive review, but more often s/he wants me to see if I can run through the data and analysis and return with a single good idea.

Mark Murray at JWT recently hired me to look at four research decks for a pharmaceutical company trying to crack a new market. Some of the decks were distressingly bad. There are people out there who are selling the corporation a bill of goods. But certain diplomacy rules apply. Mark and I hold our noses and I proceed.

If you are new to the data, and you move at pace, things leap into view. It is a little like my recent post on the Razr, where it seemed the faster a new product moves through the development cycle, the more likely it is to preserve what was smart, fresh and genuinely powerful about the original concept.

In this case, the faster we move, the more surely we discover the concepts that integrate good insights and winnow out bad ones. (Which is to say there are, really, no similarities between the two. Ok, they are, in fact, opposite. ‘Concept first’ versus ‘concept last.’ This moment of pattern recognition brought to you by the effects of blogging at 31,000.)

Anthropologists are trained in a particular kind of pattern recognition. They are obliged to think of a culture all at once because, according to the post Kantian idea here, a culture, given its druthers, orders all the world all at once.

Or, this is what anthropologists used to think before they cavalierly took "culture," the field’s most powerful notion and valuable asset, and bet it at the epistemology table. In a couple of rolls, they lost the whole thing, rendering themselves still less clueful, still more provincial, and now pretty much the poor cousins of the social sciences. (Oh, those French croupiers. Never trust them!) Fortunately, the culture concept was spirited away by other disciplines and certain anthropologists just in time.

As it turns out, my education at the University of Chicago, with its tough minded Boasian/Sahlinsian clarities, appears to have immunized me against the deepest stupidities penned by the post-modernist camp. This means, I say piously, that "patterns" are still prepared to reveal themselves to meā€¦even as they hide like small forest animals whenever a postmodernist comes thundering by.

But, I don’t have to rely on my anthropological training alone. My stay at the Harvard Business School taught me something about "cracking the case." This is a wonderful thing to see. By the time someone graduates with an MBA, he or she has scrutinized around 500 cases. They are superbly good at spotting all but only the things that matter and driving their way to a recommendation. (And, of course, cases are deliberately filled with red herrings to tempt and confuse.)

And this is why the first Harvard MBA I saw in action stunned me with his speed and acuity. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, we were met at the Coca-Cola Company to solve a problem. Before we could settle in, Khalil Younes, then the most junior person in the room, told us exactly what the problem was and exactly what we should do about it. That’s pattern recognition.

Let me return to the failed comparison above. I think it is true that the Razr demonstrates that the faster things happen in the corporate world, the better they happen. And speed is the advantage in ferreting as well. The faster we go, the more surely we capture the more robust patterns. The faster we go, the more surely we find and solve the key problems.

The corporation has for a long time worked at improv speed. For some time, it has been as if we have been forced to breathe data in and conclusions out. And these days it feels as if things are speeding up, and sometimes we wonder whether the corporation can survive its hyper ventilation. Still, it could be that the pace at which we are being forced to act is actually the best pace at which to work in any case.

It’s as if the future is forcing to give up the inefficiencies of the committee, the bloody mindedness of the time servers and the numb skulls, the stultification of Murphy’s law(yers), and finally become the economic, corporate actor(s) we should have become in the first place. It is as if a dynamic world releases us from our worst inclinations and pushes us into what is everyone’s favorite state of thinking, deciding and doing: something that moves at speed, engages our real gifts, and plays out our real joys. It is as if we are, to steal a phrase from Rousseau, now "forced to be free." (And so we must be conclude that the worst of all possible worlds is really the best of all possible worlds. I am Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, at your service.)

Naturally, there are necessary conditions, without which the press of dynamism makes the world a chaos, a torment, a veritable New Orleans. The corporation must equip itself with people who are fewer, more powerful, smart, well trained, capable of intellectual improv and playing well with others, and who are given very fast execution, almost instantaneous feed back, and the chance to iterate often. That’s not so much to ask, is it?

7 thoughts on “Story time 11: ferreting and the new conditions of corporate knowledge

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  2. Ennis

    Grant, with all due respect, this is why I am a positivist. Interpretation is a great way to come up with hypotheses but the mind is great at seeing all sorts of patterns; consider the visions of the Virgin perceived in every imaginable smudge.

    Positivism says, OK – maybe you’re interpretation is correct. Let’s see how consistently it applies. Let’s see how much leverage it gives. Without this second step it’s harder for people like me to sort out the genuinely insightful points (like the ones that Grant makes) from the snake oil that is commonly peddled but which sounds pretty good.

  3. Peter McB.

    Ennis — your comment is interesting, since you are asking for some objective assessment of a subjective pattern discerned, perhaps vaguely and imperfectly at first.

    In my experience, all the successful entrepreneurs I have met have objectively-false beliefs about their own chances of success. They believe, strongly and contrary to all the evidence, that their vision is how the world really is, or soon will be, and that given enough time, resource, and opportunity, they can profit from it. Irrational is the word most of us would use for this characteristic. They certainly would not give a positivist nice, warm feelings.

    Of course, unsuccessful entreprenuers, IME, also have these objectively-false beliefs. So, this characteristic does not distinguish them.

  4. Grant

    Ennis, yes, you are right, of course. Without more careful, thoughtful scrutiny, the world would be hard to endure. But I wonder if we shouldnt divide the world of marketing into those with fast twitch muscles, the sprinters who do best when travelling at speed, and those with slow twitch muscles, those who good at long distances. But this is of course one of those, “let’s say the world divides into two categories” notions that are so beloved of the fast twitch variety. Thanks, Grant

    Peter, great point, if people had any idea what the odds really were against, they would cease and desist. So might we all. Thanks, Grant

  5. John McCreery

    Free metaphor for sale (steal it if you like). I tell my students in Japan that studying Japanese marketing is like standing in front of a fire hose and trying to extract a few drops of water.

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