Chapter 1: The Winds of Change
America and the world are in transition. The basis of economic power and wealth is rapidly shifting. Whereas in the past economic power was determined by access to key physical resources such as petroleum, steel, or manufacturing, economic power is increasingly being determined by access to key knowledge resources. Evidence of the shift is seen in the profitability and valuation of different industries. US Steel, the pride first of Andrew Carnegie and then of JP Morgan, was once the largest corporation in the world. It represented real power. Today, while still involved in steel production, it is a minor company with paltry profits. Petroleum, while still a potent economic factor, is decreasing in importance.
In the nineteenth century, 70% of the population of North America was involved in farming. By the 1950s that number was down to 5%. Today it is down to 2%. There is reason to believe that that percentage will shrink further. Similarly in the early part of the twentieth century, 50% of the population was involved in manufacturing. Today that number is down to 14%. This percentage will also continue to decrease.
Several of the companies with the highest market valuation in the world did not exist twenty-five years ago -- and neither did their industries. Among these are Microsoft, the leading provider of software for the personal computer, and Intel, the leading provider of the personal computer microprocessor. The company with the highest valuation (at this writing) is GE.
Amidst such obvious and dramatic changes it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that management principles and the values we use to guide our lives must also constantly change. Thus in the recent past we have heard talk of a New Economics in which everything is in flux and profits are unnecessary. Before that the vacuous fad of Re-Engineering promised constant upheaval, but that just puttered before fading from serious discussion. For a management philosophy to be both effective and enduring it must be based on principles that transcend daily occurrences and swings in markets. Indeed it should help explain cycles and prepare managers to deal with swings in markets, cycles, and long-term trends.
Such a management system must be based on knowledge tested and confirmed over decades. That basic knowledge would change slowly only after significant evidence required it. The system would encompass knowledge from diverse fields, some of which are normally considered to be unrelated. Metaknowledge in the generic sense of the word represents the presuppositions and knowledge that each of us has and that, in large measure, frame our thinking and help determine our actions. But MetaKnowledge, with a capital M and K, is the specific system of knowledge put forth in this book that brings together some of the most advanced thinking in several fields into a system of knowledge. MetaKnowledge is a system of knowledge that serves as the foundation for management in the twenty-first century. It is a kind of metaphysics for management, or a metamanagement.
When Aristotle coined the term "metaphysics" it was meant to deal with topics beyond physics. In philosophy, metaphysics became primarily an examination of our presuppositions of reality, especially physical reality. The emphasis was often on a theory of knowledge. But the analogy with metaphysics is limiting for several reasons. Physics has often been called the queen of sciences. Models from physics and chemistry have been applied to most areas of our understanding, including psychology, biology, and economics, with some success. However it is becoming increasingly clear that biological phenomena operate in subtle and complex ways that often seem to defy basic fundamental physical principles without actually violating them. Life seems to operate at a different level, with principles and rules that we are just beginning to appreciate. Our MetaKnowledge must also include lessons from biology, ecology, and other life sciences. MetaKnowledge is a more accurate and descriptive term for the basis of our understanding than both metaphysics and metamanagement.
No single field of knowledge is sufficient to guide us in our actions, yet most of us are trained in just one, often narrow, area of expertise. But our knowledge base has become increasingly complex and diverse. Luckily it is possible to put together a system of knowledge that draws from many fields but does not require us to become expert in any of them. Yet each area of knowledge modifies the others and thereby creates greater wisdom than any single field on its own. That is one of the promises of MetaKnowledge.
MetaKnowledge also gives us an intellectual and moral compass independent of the personality or biases of the reigning management hero of the day. It is based on theory or knowledge and not on "gut."
The Knowledge that Binds
A story here may be helpful. In an interview in the January 11, 1999, issue of Fortune magazine, Jack Welch of General Electric enthusiastically proclaimed the success and value of his quality program. By instituting a Six Sigma initiative that focused on process improvement, profitability increased by 67% in a little more than three years. Six Sigma is the name of a quality initiative with the main goal of creating a defect rate of less than 4 defects per million for every part, compared to a more typical 35,000 defects per million. This remarkable interview brings out two very startling facts:
1. General Electric was considered one of the best-run companies in the world prior to instituting a quality program, their profitability and stock price had grown dramatically during Welch's tenure, and it became the most valuable company on the planet based on market capitalization. It was voted the most admired company in the world by other managers. Yet upon instituting their Six Sigma quality program they were able to make drastic improvements quickly. The more established belief is that once a company reaches a certain level of success it becomes increasingly difficult to wring out improvements. In the interview Welch praised his quality program and the remarkable effect it was having on his company. Besides the 67% improvement in profitability, working capital turns increased from four times a year to nine times a year. Other financial indicators were also affected positively.
2. Welch adopted the quality program fifteen years after other major organizations like Ford, Intel Corporation, Motorola, and Harley-Davidson, all of which had experienced dramatic improvements. It was Motorola's success with Six Sigma that eventually became the beacon leading to Welch's turnaround. It took Welch so long because he had a prior notion that quality would come from "acting well and fast."
How the Change Came About
Jack Welch decided to make the change only after speaking to his friend Larry Bossidy, whom he describes as being the only person in the country who hated quality more than he. Bossidy, who had been appointed CEO at Allied Signal, Inc., needed to improve results, and fast. Allied Signal, Inc., was in trouble and needed to try something different, so Bossidy went to Motorola looking for solutions. He then applied Six Sigma at Allied Signal. According to the Fortune article, Bossidy told Welch, "Jack, this ain't b.s. -- this is real stuff, this is really great stuff." Welch then polled 10,000 employees who came back and said they desperately needed a quality initiative. Now Welch has only praise for the quality initiative. According to him, "The results are fantastic. We're going to get $1.2 billion of gain this year."
Ten to fifteen years may not seem like a long time, but remember, we are talking about our managerial elite. Even though Jack Welch is generally recognized as one of the great managers and CEOs of the latter half of the twentieth century, it took him fifteen years to adopt a methodology that would bring fantastic results to his company. What about mediocre companies and those that are struggling? How long does it take them to adopt a better way? In some cases they won't, and in many cases they won't be around in the future. If it took the best manager of the day fifteen years to adopt a methodology that he now swears by we can each be forgiven if we are a little slow to embrace some required changes.
The first thing to note about Jack Welch's break with his old notion of quality is that he heard a strong message from someone he trusted and respected, someone who was the only "guy in the whole country who hated quality more than me." He heard it from a former non-believer, a friend who spoke his language. This opened Welch up to listening to his own managers, who also strongly felt the need for improved quality at GE.
General Electric was not in any kind of crisis. As a result of strategic decisions Jack Welch had made fifteen years earlier, it was either number one or number two in all its markets. The company was thriving, as were its shareholders. Its management was among the most admired in the world. Why should it change?
Most companies that do shift radically are either in crisis or in the midst of a competitive challenge or both. The fact that GE made a big change when there was no imminent crisis demonstrates one of the real strengths that led to Jack Welch's reputation at the pinnacle of American management. But this book will not be a love fest for Welch or any other manager. We want to move away from accepting management ideas because of a strong personality and toward management ideas based on theory and long-term results. Let me give two examples where Welch's actions are directly contradicted by MetaKnowledge. One, his insistence on eliminating the "bottom 10%" of managers year after year, even when the company was doing well. He used loose statistical analogies for justification, but statistical theory, or what we call knowledge of variation, definitively and unmistakably contradicts his position. Two, he also produced precise increases in earnings that matched his forecasts for most of his tenure. Knowledge of systems and variations tells us that this is only possible in a fantasy world. In the real world there are and must necessarily be month-to-month and year-to-year variation. No one has a 100% prediction rate. If you want financial reporting to actually measure something then it must show these variations. Otherwise the financial reports are just psychological statements meant to assuage financial analysts and stock investors. They become nothing more than a form of the Emperor's new clothes. We will have a lot more to say about these two examples in later pages.
The story of GE's conversion to quality highlights two important points for managers to appreciate.
1. Ideas that work eventually get adopted, even when there is massive resistance. The direction is never straight. There is always some backtracking. The names get changed, in this case from Quality to Six Sigma. But the effective idea, almost always, wins out and gets adopted. There is a kind of evolution of the most fit idea and approach. This very much mimics biological evolution. At any given time many ideas are being tried. Some last several generations and permutations. Others, like Re-Engineering, die quick deaths. But over time we see the survivors form a kind of species of ideas.
2. Major change, even among the smartest, most sophisticated people, comes not from hi-tech solutions but through human interaction. Welch made a 180-degree shift in his thinking, but only because a trusted friend told him it would work. Human nature is one of those areas that changes very slowly, if at all. Those futurists who predict rapid and instantaneous change often overlook the fact that people's habits would also have to change overnight, and that does not happen except in the most radical situations.
General Electric's adoption of quality as a major corporate initiative was accompanied by a fundamental shift in its knowledge base and belief system -- a paradigm shift. It involved not just an addition of facts or knowledge to the existing system, but rooting out a whole belief system and replacing it with something else. Welch went from believing quality was B.S. to becoming the leader of a quality jihad.
Understanding what occurred requires that we understand something about human knowledge. What is knowledge? How is knowledge related to skills and intelligence? This line of inquiry can be called metaknowledge or knowledge of knowledge. But metaknowledge can be a whole lot more, and MetaKnowledge is a whole lot more.
Today many corporations such as IBM and British Petroleum are recognizing the strategic importance of knowledge by naming the equivalent of a chief knowledge officer. If knowledge is of strategic importance, shouldn't it be one of the main concerns of the CEO? Just what is the role of knowledge in corporate success and economic well-being?
The Usefulness of MetaKnowledge
A robust management theory should be applicable to almost any business and industry. If someone versed in the theory were to fall asleep today and wake up one hundred years from now, he would still be able to apply it in a well-run organization of the future. MetaKnowledge as a system of knowledge is such a theory.
MetaKnowledge cuts across many disciplines, such as theory of knowledge, statistics, linguistics, psychology, systems theory, mathematics, and others. One doesn't need extensive training in any area, just enough to keep from getting into trouble. Knowledge from each area gives a new dimension to the other disciplines, and together they form a system.
In a real sense, what we know is rooted in our minds through beliefs that reach deep into our unconscious. We all know or believe things of which we are unaware and rarely question because they are so fundamental to our understanding of reality. Yet other people can have very different unconscious beliefs from ours. Two examples would be that the world was flat or the center of the solar system. Some people believe the average employee is lazy and has to be forced to come to the office or factory and then forced to work. Other people believe that given the proper environment, most people will flourish and develop an intrinsic motivation to excel. People with different beliefs often end up not talking to each other but talking through each other and becoming adversarial.
Never has the need to understand other cultures' views been greater. I don't just refer to people of different nationalities or those who speak a different language. Cultures are changing everywhere. While McDonald's is considered a symbol of the influence of American culture in other parts of the world, Chinese restaurants in my neighborhood are at least twenty times more numerous. When my daughter took me out for Father's Day we had a typical American meal -- sushi. Today the leading Christian continent is arguably Africa, where there is an enormous demand for new churches and parishes are growing. In Europe and North America churches are regularly closing and parishes are being combined. Many North Americans and Europeans practice some kind of Eastern discipline such as Yoga, T'ai-Chi, Ch'i-Gong, or some form of Eastern meditation. Sometimes these changes lead to domestic clashes of culture such as the political clash between the organic food movement and those industries that sell pesticides and fertilizers to conventional farmers. Another is the economic clash between conventional medicine and so-called alternative forms of medicine. In each case there are differences of belief so deep that they can seem irreconcilable.
While major shifts in culture are occurring in society and business, substantive knowledge is also changing rapidly. The half-life of the knowledge of a computer programmer is six months. If he or she is away from the discipline for six months half his or her knowledge becomes obsolete. MetaKnowledge can help us adapt to change because it is one step removed from the frontline and changes more slowly. It is more fundamental and so provides a reliable reference. It is a technology that is not likely to change significantly. But when changes in MetaKnowledge do occur they have revolutionary implications.
I believe much of MetaKnowledge as developed here is timeless. It would have given a manager an advantage centuries ago and it will be useful a hundred years from now. Nevertheless we will discuss it in the current context of three major trends that are impacting us personally and commercially. First is our increasing ability to improve our knowledge of the world, and therefore our ability to produce in all areas of economic importance including farming, manufacturing, the service sector, and knowledge products. As a result we are mastering physical needs in the developed world. This is allowing us to redirect more of our resources to nonphysical needs such as psychological well-being, mental health, and personal achievement. It is creating a new post-industrial economy.
Our mastery of physical production is at the foundation of the second trend, an explosion of communication and processing tools that include phones, faxes, e-mail, computers, cell phones, and audio and video digital technology that are converging in the Internet. As a result communication is increasing throughout the world and we are all being connected. This in turn feeds into the third major trend of globalization.
In a sense MetaKnowledge can be considered a proxy to wisdom. Wisdom requires a big picture view, both physical and temporal, and therefore implies the ability to do things for which there is no current evidence. Wisdom allows one to go with the tide when it's appropriate and to go against the tide when it is not. With MetaKnowledge we hope to create a management wisdom that will help guide companies, individuals, and societies over the coming decades. We hope to create a framework for a management system that is truly international. MetaKnowledge offers us a window to the future.
Copyright © 2004 by Rafael Aguayo