Oar pullers and sail inventors

Years ago I worked for one of the big systems consulting firms. In a conversation on a flight from New York to Chicago, one of the partners told me, "Jim, we can't have everybody thinking for themselves, 90% of the people here are just pulling on the oars. If everybody decides to steer we won't get anywhere." There's a huge amount of industrial logic in this. You want to control risk. You want predictable results. You want control and replicability.

What makes the transition to a knowledge economy so scary is that it disrupts this equation. What if one of those guys pulling on the oars figures out how to make a sail? [ McGee's Musings]

At the dawn of the Web era, I worked for a division of a large publishing conglomerate. One day I found myself on the top floor of its Manhattan headquarters proposing, to the other divisions, that we aggregate the searching of our disparate websites.

This, I was told, was hopeless: a multi-man-year, multi-tens-of-thousands-of-dollars effort.

That didn't seem right to me. So, being a sail-inventing kind of guy, I went home, noticed that the divisional sites were all indexed by AltaVista, and wrote a script to aggregate search across them.

I delivered this solution the next morning, proving that it was in fact a one-man-evening, zero-dollar effort. (I also gave myself an early glimpse of what Web services would one day become.)

Naturally, nothing came of it. To this day, there is not a full aggregation of search across all the company's web properties.

It's easy to ignore the invention of the sail, for a while. As per the Business 2.0 article Jim elsewhere cites, this may even be rational. The buildout of "subtechnologies, arrangements, and architectures" in the wake of an sudden and epochal shift is, necessarily, not so sudden.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2002/03/12.html#a132