Getting the message across

March 24, 2000

When it comes to business schools, Harvard, Stanford and London have the big names, but Heathrow has the influence.

At least that is how Keith Devlin sees it. The Heathrow Academy of Management is his name for the self-help industry based on the business manuals that fill airport bookstores. Publishers presumably believe that business travel induces an urge for career advancement that can be met only by buying a tome on achieving success by better filing.

Perversely, Devlin's own book risks being a set text at Heathrow, promising as it does to build business success by better knowledge of management. But it would be a shame if its audience were confined to the frequent-flier set.

For one thing, Devlin knows that although the spread of computer power has made information problems bigger and more intractable, the issues were there long before Moore's law put megabytes on every desk. He points to the charge of the Light Brigade (1854) and the Tenerife airport crash of 1977, each of which cost hundreds of lives, both apparently the result of misunderstood and misheard words.

The core of the book is an analysis, with many examples, of the ways in which words are used and ideas transmitted. At one extreme are things that ought to be unambiguous but are not, such as the pilot's message at Tenerife: "We'll report runway cleared", which was heard as "Runway cleared". At the other lies a wealth of messages that we understand implicitly. If you drive in a foreign country, you will stop at a red traffic light without needing to be told, says Devlin. The knowledge is implicit in most people's learned behaviour.

The frequently reiterated message is that no data mean much without their surrounding context. As Devlin points out, a fertilised egg in the human womb contains DNA in which there is all the information needed to produce a small but complete Homo sapiens . Even so, such data make no sense outside the womb: they need the support system provided by the mother to be of any use.

That is why, suggests Devlin, it is harder than one might think to teach expertise. He points to the example of EL Products, a US firm that bought a competitor called Grimes in 1988. The idea was to get hold of Grimes's skills in high-quality lamp production. EL kept the Grimes management but sacked the shopfloor workers, only to find that the bosses had no idea how to produce lamps; only the production workers knew that.

And it is not only in the private sector that organisations work in ways the management diagrams might not reveal. The US navy went to vast expense to computerise the file-card system used for ships' spare parts. But in practice, spares had been distributed via an informal, trust-based network that could only function because of the slack in the paper-based system.

In the current climate of mer-ger mania, Devlin illuminates the problems of mergers and also explains why managements think them necessary.

He is also careful not to overstate his message, unlike the true Heathrow professor. He concedes that thinking about knowledge, the context in which you use it and the way others will perceive it, will not guarantee business success. But it might give you a 5 per cent advantage over the people who have not thought things through in the same way. In plenty of situations, that will be decisive.

One quibble: no book on information should be allowed out of doors with the pitiful index accorded to this one.

Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES .

Infosense: Turning Information into Knowledge

Author - Keith Devlin
ISBN - 0 7167 3484 2
Publisher - Freeman
Price - £14.95
Pages - 213

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