What is it, and what does it mean
for records professionals?
Keynote address by Chauncey
Bell to the Annual Meeting
of the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators
July 17, 1997
I have been asked to speak with you about change. Some of the questions I have been asked to address include: what is and is not changing; what are the differences between public and private sector changes; how to think about and interact with change; how to slow it down or speed it up, depending; how to participate in bringing it; and how to take advantage of it. At the same time, I do not believe that it is useful to speak about change in a purely abstract or impersonal fashion. The changes about which we should talk are your changes, and they are going to affect your role and you, personally. Further, the changes coming-I believe that what you have seen so far is but the tip of the iceberg-are going to find you as their victim, or you are going to develop your competence to help shape those changes. There will be no way for you to stand on the sidelines for this dance.
It appears to many that you are on a collision course with one of the great forces in the world today-that many of your roles and functions are slated for replacement by computers and software, and that soon you will be good candidates for downsizing. Neither of these outcomes is inevitable, but you do have formidable opponents. One opponent is the shallow common sense of our time about what you do, and another is the enormous resources of the information industry that claims that it can handle "all the data" more efficiently. I don't believe that your essential role can be replaced by computers, because, for example, inventing the future, listening to concerns, and making and fulfilling promises do not fall within the capabilities of computers.
But what is certainly true is that you are competing with the computer industry to define the stories that determine how money, prestige and the power to act are going to be allocated to your discipline. You have been asleep, or largely silent, in the struggle to define the language and distinctions that set the story line-the identities and standards in which we interpret the value of what you do. The computer industry is insisting that the key terms have to do with the capture, storage, transmission, and retrieval of data and information. The story that comes from those distinctions says that the essence of your work is the evaluation, storage, and cataloging of information. In a world conceived as being constituted of bits of data, the computer does, in fact, offer awesome possibilities for storage and retrieval. And if that were to become the substance of the winning story about your work, then it would spell an end to the future of your discipline as you know it.
The first challenge that I invite you to consider, then, is to construct another story, based in language other than that of the information industry. In this story, the historical contributions that your discipline has made must take center stage away from the notions of storing and retrieving information. Your new story must take account of the historical role your discipline plays and has played in the making of history.
All of the branches of your work-administrative, legal, and societal archives-are today involved in what I am calling history-making. The administrative records may look like they are being kept only for operational purposes, but I urge you to look again. The cycle of history may have been 50 years in Queen Victoria's time, and 10 years in Kennedy's time. Today the cycle of reinvention is shorter. Our present institutions of health and welfare, for example, are not recognizable from 10 years ago, and the "operational" records are where responsible managers need to go today to observe how next year's and next month's history will be built. Those archives that you speak about as being kept only because they are required by law are in fact required because of questions of trust, oversight, and other concerns that those laws were attempting to take care of. If the concerns embedded in the laws are still valid, then managers are concerned with them in the present; if not, then the laws and their effects are social waste and that can be brought to the attention of the law makers.
Your job is not about storing and sorting information. It is about appraising and keeping records of history-making events and the acts spoken by history-makers, and doing that in a way that allows you to be effective partners for those history-makers in their re-membering of the past. Such a story will make clear that your job is not to compete with computers, software, and emerging computer networks in the categorization, storage, and retrieval of data. Santayana did not say those who could not retrieve the information were condemned to be unhappy or to produce more of the same information. He said those who could not re-member-i.e., assemble an effective interpretation of the past-would repeat that past.
In fact, from reviewing some of the literature, and from what I see happening in many other fields today as well, I believe you have begun to think of yourselves in terms of the machinery you use, as storage and retrieval machines, instead of designing your practices and machinery from a rich historical interpretation of your work. You are not alone in this, and that is why I said that you face such a formidable opponent. Managers and so-called knowledge workers, for example, today often think of themselves as people who "process information."
I have a second challenge for you as well. I invite you to take seriously the job of learning to participate in the making of history. I take it that part of the reason I was asked to speak about change has to do with this; some of you are already thinking about this. To build this new story that I am challenging you to build, I believe you are going to have to do your homework and build a new understanding of what it means to make history, for our current common-sense understanding of history-making is impoverished and mechanical. I will say more about this later.
Deliberate, conscious history-making calls for a sensibility to distinctions not often present in our politically-correct and publicity-sensitive age. The history maker, not to be confused with the historian, is sensitive to the centrality of listening to concerns and taking care of clients, to moods and emotions, to coordination and the promises we make, and to seeing these as fundamental structuring elements of work. Such an interpretation turns our typical way of seeing the world of work on its head. The current historical moment is a crossroads of interpretations; the stake in the debate is the shape of our future.
For nearly 20 years I have worked as a senior member of a team studying the ways that transformations come about in enterprises, articulating theory about how that occurs, and supporting large public and private organizations in making major changes in how they work and serve their clients. The theoretical foundations of our work, while rigorous and based in solid traditions, are nevertheless novel and have only rarely appeared in the literature. The background from which I am going to talk to you, is, itself, a change from the traditions in which people talk about change. The current popular discourses of change in organizations are built in several traditions of management practice, systems theory, and psychology. What I will speak to you about is built from different traditions: biology, philosophy, and computer science. As you watch yourselves listen to me talk, you can notice here, in a kind of live demonstration, some of the more important characteristics of change. It always comes with new language. The newness and new language trigger emotions: 'this doesn't belong to me'; 'it is foreign'; 'I don't belong to it'; 'it could be dangerous'. When we first encounter a domain of changes, parts are less than clear. If we are wise, we will pay close attention to those parts. All of us suffer from the habit of listening only to what we already understand.
What is new makes people in the U.S. uncomfortable, even anxious, because it is warning us that the world in which we have learned to navigate and cope is changing, and we will not be as competent (nor as powerful) as we have been if we don't learn new ways of navigating and coping.
Now more directly to our subject .
We are surrounded and enmeshed in changes today, in many domains of our lives. We are beset by changes in our workplaces, in how employers interact with employees, in the tools we use, and in the way we talk to each other. In many walks of life, lifetime employment is gone forever as a style of work relationship. Government departments as well as businesses have downsized and turned to subcontracting as a way of providing many essential services, often to firms with less secure labor conditions. People in many industries fear they will soon compete with computers for their jobs. Others already compete with people living in very different parts of the world, who do work for clients far away from them, through the new kinds of communications, networks, and computer tools that are available today. For example, some of the best programming teams in the world operate out of China and India. Our children do things that are different than what we did when we were children. We detect changes in our relationships with them from our relationships with our parents, even allowing for the different perceptions we have at different stages of life. My parents' parents wanted to live with my parents, and sometimes they did. My parents do not want to live with their children, and they do not. Communicating through computer workstations is a normal and essential element of my life, including certain coordination with my wife and children; for my mother the computer workstation is still an odious and potentially dangerous alien that she is committed to keep out of her household.
These are not mere changes in tastes, fashion, fads and brands, although we have those changes as well. What we are encountering today is more than changes in hemlines, a different curriculum in the high school, or changes in the schedule at the local theater. All around us we can see changes in who we think we are, what we think we are, and what we consider to be our possibilities (and impossibilities) in life. We are encountering, embracing, or resisting deep changes in how we work, play, pray, and parent.
One important feature of many of these changes is the way that networks and computers figure in emerging new ways of being and working. In my work I travel around the world. Since the worldwide innovation called credit cards, I am trusted and my business is happily accepted at large and small shops nearly everywhere (as long as I have paid my credit card bills.) In the last couple of years, I can travel around the world and explore and shop from my desk, via the Internet. If you haven't yet discovered the Amazon bookstore, I suggest you run right down and look at it. As I shop with my Citibank cards, there is a little software demon sitting inside Citibank's computers that watches what I am doing. If it looks like my card is being used in a non-standard way, the demon asks someone to call me, to verify that the person who just bought some dolls in Houston (for my daughter) was, in fact, me.
Computers and networks increasingly mediate our interactions with each other and our environment. They are emerging as the eventual dominant medium for commerce and the invention of identities. It is clear that they will shortly surpass television in that regard.
This fact is profoundly important for you, because these machines of action can be instructed to make their own inscriptions automatically. (I prefer the precise name "inscriptions" to the more general, and usually misleading, "data" or "information," as the name for what is being stored in archives and records.)
We are fortunate to live in a marvelous country that for more than 200 years has been the pre-eminent place for change-the place to go to reinvent or transform your life and its possibilities. This began when our forefathers and foremothers, having come to this country to build a different life, or to escape from a country in which they were constrained from building a life, complained for the last time to King George that they were fed up with his presumptions. They said they were finished with his laws, his taxes, his terrible interpretations about their concerns, and his idea that they should do his bidding. They declared their independence and freedom to pursue a different destiny.
Since that time, many people from many other places have followed a similar course to arrive on these American shores, adding in the process to our richness, our diversity, and our reputation as providing a space congenial to transformation and change.
The rest of the world has not our experience with change. Our roots are in change, not stability. We start changes, take responsibility for the changes, and then build our life stories around those changes. My grandfather emigrated from Scotland, studied hard, and rose to run a milling company in Colorado. My father earned two masters degrees in engineering at MIT and became a leading authority on aircraft logistics. I have built on their foundations, and at the same time I have built a "me" that is much transformed from them.
People in other parts of the world sometimes admire us, and sometimes revile us, but they cannot match our experience with change. Nor do they partake of the predisposition of openness to change that we share, for better and for worse, as a culture. Until this very day, in most of the rest of the world, many different kinds of deliberate changes have been forbidden, unthinkable, out of reach, or forbiddingly expensive. The result is that, where we live in a 200 year-old habit of expecting, calling for, and adapting to important kinds of changes in our identities and worlds, that has not been the case for the rest of the world.
Julia Alvarez, the novelist and an immigrant to the U.S., recently
wrote well of this in an article she called The Shape of a
In the old, old days before my students were born, my parents, and then I grew up in the Dominican Republic. What had happened and what would happen to us seemed pretty much out of our hands. There was a strong current of expectation and tradition which swept us forward through the events in our lives, everything preplanned. Girls got high-school educations, became engaged, married, raised their children, doted over their grandchildren, did their charity work, bossed their maids around, then died.
Boys, on the other hand, got college educations, drank a lot, had fun with girls, became engaged, got married, continued having fun with girls, supported their children's education, gave their daughters away at the altar, brought their sons into the family business, continued drinking and having fun, and then died from all the fun they had had over the course of their lives. Remember that I am recounting a boy's life from the perspective of a young Dominican girl who was envious of the freedom her boy cousins enjoyed which she didn't enjoy.
This view of how life worked out was the one I began my life with, a view as ancient as that of the Greeks who believed in a man's destiny. Destiny led a man inevitably through the events in his life. His only choice was whether to accept this destiny or fight against it.
Have you ever seen the emotional reaction of an educated young person from another part of the world on their first encounter with New York City? The head rotates up to look at the continuous rows of tall buildings, the eyes open wide and the pupils dilate, a noise emanates from deep in the body, and they are forever changed. If the person makes the interpretation that they are somehow too small for the new future that they now see possible, then they enter a phase of life in which they will be, in a certain sense, smaller and less satisfied than they had been before the experience. On the other hand, if they find themselves sufficient to the experience, and they open themselves to the possibilities and challenges, listening with awe rather than fear, they will be able to invent and experience a life formerly closed to them.
Now, my interpretation is that in some domains of life we in the United States don't fully experience our own relationship to change. True, for some changes, we are old hands, comfortable, sometimes amused, occasionally willing to expose our awe even if we do think that awe is childish. In the world of our work today, where changes in relationships, computers and networks are dancing together so powerfully, too often we are still raw, frightened immigrants, living in the interpretation that we are not going to succeed with all this new "stuff." To make matters worse, we often attempt to appear as if we are competent and know what we are doing when we are in fact ignorant. Too often we allow ourselves to remain confused, cynical, and overwhelmed or cowed by the continuous newness that surrounds us. We fail to notice that our trepidation, resistance, or resentment is the result of our attempt to enter a new era with the emotions of an old one.
It matters how we are predisposed to change, and how we choose to orient ourselves to change. Our emotional predisposition comes first-our bodies making an interpretation about the future that is coming to us-and that predisposition shapes the way that we listen to what is coming and get ready to participate in the emerging world. Some emotional predispositions are helpful. Awe, curiosity, playfulness and openness, for example, prepare us to listen well to emerging possibilities and changes. Other predispositions block our capacity to listen, think, and participate. For example, resignation, resentment, despair, and cynicism slow or stop our listening to the concerns of others and to the opening of new opportunities and possibilities in front of us.
Change. Whether we say it ourselves, hear others say it, or observe what we think of as change, it is a word, and it reveals our interpretation that some thing or some phenomenon has been transformed; that one thing has taken the place of another, or followed another; or that some new variety or variation of thing or phenomenon has emerged.
If you listen to Tom Peters, he will tell you that everything is changing, and that, as a consequence, we have entered a chaotic, hit-or-miss world. Although I can see why he thinks that, I heartily disagree. What appears to be changing depends upon where you stand to look. In the recent past we have changed how we produce local records of language from typewriters to word processors to networked word processors. (See the first exhibit, Key Transformations in Media & Inscriptions, below.)
Sometime later, some people invented desktop publishing and laser printing, and we found ourselves simultaneously transforming typesetting and printing. In the exhibit, the downward-facing vectors (triangles) show the technologies around which major transformations have been occurring, and the breadth of each vector shows the range of the transformations. For example, with a word processor at a certain point we find ourselves not only "writing" but also preparing our document with special typefaces in ways that used to be the exclusive domain of type preparation. The big yellow arrow shows the separate arrival of digital networking technology. More recently, we hear that newspaper, magazine and book publishing, as well as television and advertising are being transformed or damaged by what is happening with the Internet. There are a lot of changes, and yet, if we look from the right perspective, a great deal also is stable.
In the next exhibit, we begin to show where the world is more stable. Every organization constitutes itself with declarations about a regular set of structures. Competent managers continuously adjust the offers of the institution, and adjust the technologies it uses and its division of labor (roles and processes) to keep "tuned" to clients. Regardless of those changes, as the exhibit emphasizes, the fact of accountabilities to take care of client concerns does not change.
Underneath we find the great sources of stability, shown on left in the next exhibit. Over the last years, the "information technology interpretation" of the role and responsibilities of archivists and records managers has dominated, and with that domination you have been drifting towards the interpretation that your essential role lives fully in the area illustrated in the first exhibit, above. I insist that is a serious mistake. The core of your role needs to be understood in the stabilities, illustrated on the left, below.
Santayana was right. To enter the future well, we must pay considerable attention to those aspects of life that are stable. At the same time we must be open to the possibility that some of our historical interpretations are bunk, and we must declare, carefully, what we will carry with us from the past into the future. Let me tell you a story to show you the situation.
In the 1850's in Paris, an illness we now know to have been puerperal fever was killing a tremendous number of mothers and babies. But the doctors of the time did not know more than that a killer fever would appear and race through the population of babies and mothers. 'According to Pasteur's biographer son-in-law Vallery-Radot, between April 1 and May 10, 1856, in the Paris Maternity Hospital there were 64 fatalities due to childbirth fever out of 347 confinements. The hospital was closed and the patients were transferred to a different hospital. (but) the contagion followed these women and nearly all of them died.' (Source: The Life and Times of Louis Pasteur by David V. Cohn.)
Now Pasteur was invited to the hospital to see if he could help. Of course in those days he didn't have the reputation he has today. Then, he was someone who had exercised some magic with beer and cheeses; he belonged to a profession so new it was barely named. He certainly lacked the dignity and station in life of a medical doctor. He was a chemist who had been observing the behavior of microorganisms in an era in which people didn't believe in microorganisms. After his review, Pasteur announced that he knew what was killing the babies: the doctors. They were, he said, spreading the microorganisms that caused the deaths with their hands and their instruments. To stop the spread of the disease, he told them they must "wash" their hands and instruments in an alcohol flame, and take certain other measures. Appalled at this "opinion" of a non-doctor, the doctors of the hospital, who believed they already employed substantial and sufficient sanitary measures, ridiculed Pasteur. They fell into moods in which they were not capable of listening to Pasteur's interpretation. We are told that only one doctor listened. He followed Pasteur's instructions. His patients and their babies did not die. Other mothers noticed. They voted with their feet and his practice grew, to the detriment of the other doctors' practices. Only when those other doctors began to be in danger of losing their practices, their livelihoods, and their reputations did they begin to take notice of the "ideas" of this non-doctor. (I suppose some of those arrogant, closed-listening doctors also had wives who were pregnant and who told their husbands, make no mistake, they were going to the other doctor for the delivery of their child.)
Those doctors who ridiculed Pasteur were, according to the common sense of their time, acting responsibly. However, that common sense didn't have distinctions in it for observing the behavior of microorganisms. Pasteur was not a doctor, but he knew about something very important for the care of the doctors' patients: he knew about the invisible little organisms that had the capacity to kill human beings. Our common sense wisdom about the construction of the world helps us to navigate in our world; it is always ready at hand. We don't need to think in order to speak the common sense. But sometimes that common sense can lead us away from what we need to see.
I want to bring you at this moment some distinctions for thinking about what is stable in the midst of this whirlwind of changes we have been discussing.
People gather together in institutions and enterprises to take care of collections of concerns that make sense in their culture at a moment in time. Without the commitment to take care of concerns that matter to people, there is no meaningful action. Some of our concerns are permanent: food, shelter, clothing where it is cold, companionship, family, health, community, spirituality, and so forth. Others shift as we cultivate different ways of being. Today in the U.S. we are concerned about being able to eat fast, having our children literate with computers, being physically fit, and staying youthful. Even when these concerns are shifting, which they do, they tend to shift relatively slowly. If we are watching, and listening to our clients, we can normally track their changes.
Another stable feature of our institutions and enterprises is that people's emotional reactions to their worlds, and the moods in which we find them are connected deeply to these concerns. For example, the moods and emotions of people being laid off from an institution in which they had understood they had permanent employment will show (or hide) certain indignation, outrage or resentment from the betrayal: the listened-to promise of permanent employment, which has been taking care of the person's need to take care of family and future, was broken. When our concerns are taken care of we are more or less tranquil; when we take care of our own concerns we are proud. When our concerns are in danger we are alert and in action, or, if we think that nothing can be done, resigned and/or resentful.
In the world of inscriptions, listening to/for concerns is fundamental to the process of creation, appraisal, and management of records. The criteria for these actions are devised in the practice of listening, and it is precisely this aspect of your work that information technology cannot replace. Information technology can help you to listen better, because you can be available in more places, or more of the time, or more quickly, or can offer you better ways of connecting with others, but information technology cannot listen. It can record noises, but it cannot re-member the past or produce interpretations about its implications for the future. This is what you have been working to accomplish, and you are necessary. I urge you not to surrender your opportunity to define how all of us will interpret your discipline to the shallow stories offered by information technology.
"You are hired," or "You are fired" is not information, and it cannot be adjudged or predicted from history. It is an invention, brought forth in language, in which a new set of future possibilities appears.
Often the computer industry leads our culture in its tendency to confuse communication and information, as if they were the same things. They are two different phenomena. Information has to do with what is present and can be asserted. Communication has to do with our successful living together, through the intentional coordination of actions. We human beings bring action, and coordinate that action in language, more specifically in speech acts. We listen to each other's concerns, and we make requests and offers, promises and assessments, declarations and assertions. Not coincidentally, and not incidentally, the earliest recorded work of archivists was concerned exclusively with making and maintaining records of exactly these speech acts as they were made by royalty and the ruling and priestly classes.
What I am saying here will not be found in any of the currently-available textbooks, any more than what Pasteur told the physicians at the hospital in Paris in the mid-1850s could be found in the medical textbooks of the time. You need good practices for "searching in the information" to find out about it. Yahoo!Ò will not bring it to you, not even as a pin buried in a haystack of 5,456,279 Site Matches you might get as a result of some search. In short, you need the kind of historical discipline to which you belong to find grounding for what I am talking about in the inscriptions of the world.
I could challenge you here again as archivists to discover where there is grounding for what I am claiming. It would be a good mystery to pursue, but I would rather give you a hand. The first observation of the performative structure in our language, the structure in which we bring forth and shape action and realities in our worlds, appeared in the 1950's in the work of a philosopher named John Austin, at Oxford University in England. It has not yet arrived in the mainstream literature. The main figure in the United States today is Fernando Flores, who founded the company I work with. His professor, John Searle of the University of California at Berkeley, was a student of Austin. If you go to the country's business schools and ask how action happens in human enterprises, you will get many different answers, but none of them will address the palpable truth of the matter and show you how we human beings bring forth action in our speaking and listening together.
Listening and speaking in ways that support the invention of new futures-as archivists and records managers are called upon to do-is creative, and not mechanical work, and it is a stable competence that is going to be enriched, not replaced, by the emerging technologies.
We have entered an era in which every single inscription is potentially a fake. Further, we can see all around us an epidemic of mistrust in government institutions. Trust is becoming a popular word. If you listen carefully, however, people are normally speaking about a phenomenon which, while we can identify with its sentiment, is "soft," vague and mental or psychological. While it is true that there are historical, cultural, and "purely" emotional aspects of trust, that is not where I want to start here. I invite you to notice another, more central and more concrete dimension of trust. Trust is the assessment we make that someone is sincere and competent for taking care of some world of action.
Trust, understood in this way, can be built or rebuilt systematically. How? We gain trust when we assess that the other person is listening well to our concerns, when they demonstrate, repeatedly, a competence to successfully address those concerns, and when they participate in articulating and creating a future in which we share. What we call "commitment processes" are successions of transactions among people in organizations in which requests and promises are articulated, and fulfilled or not. It is in the "commitment processes" of an organization that trust is built, or trust is lost. A person, a group, an institution or a work community builds an identity of trustworthiness over time. When identities change, suspicion and lessening of trust can also occur.
How is trust lost? Inevitably there occur breakdowns in human coordination, and with each breakdown a loss of trust is a possibility. Most obviously, you lose trust when someone fails to fulfill a promise. But, sometimes the other party is often not aware that action was expected. You lose trust when you interpret that someone is not listening well to your requests. You lose trust when you interpret that the other person is "going through the motions" of listening responding only to your words, and not to the concerns that lie behind them.
Loss of trust works like an avalanche, building momentum with each successive loss. Mistrust is expensive. When we mistrust, we change suppliers, we follow up every promise in the expectation that it is likely not to be fulfilled, or we do the work ourselves, or we do without it. Without trust, the capacity of a community to coordinate action, to make promises, and to build futures together breaks down.
Inscriptions play a fundamental role in the constitution of trust. To trust a community of people to take care of concerns that matter to us, we must see that the community is competent for making and taking care of inscriptions, because we know that we cannot trust our memories for reliable reportage about what has been requested, promised and fulfilled, what remains to be fulfilled, and what promises are pending. One of the main contributions of the archivist to the constitution of trust in the community is the way that, by judicious design and management of archives, the role of a fair and reliable witness is available in the community.
The phenomena of trust and mistrust are stable, as are the roles that they play in our ability to effectively coordinate action in every community. However, the size and number of communities with which we are interacting are growing, which daily gives us greater opportunities to form trusting and/or mistrusting relationships.
On the other hand, the media through which we speak, listen, and coordinate action with each other is changing rapidly and radically, as I illustrated in the first exhibit.
For several thousand years people have made marks on fixed and transportable media to record commitments between people, draw maps, create art, and otherwise make inscriptions to support their conversations. The essential practices of making inscriptions have stood without major change, until we started using computers and networks, since the time when Egyptians, Chinese, Aztecs, and others first made notations on stone, clay, or paper about the declarations of kings and the members of their courts, about conquests, defeats, and accomplishments, and about promises made and fulfilled in the midst of exchanges. We tell stories and report events and facts about who we are, where we have been, and where we are going, and as we do that, or immediately after, we inscribe the speaking.
Modern societies are built on top of such practices for making inscriptions. We do not have the capacity to build adaptive, trusting communities of action without inscriptions.
With the worldwide appearance of computers and networks, our capacity to create and manipulate inscriptions has entered a new era. This leap in our capacity is, I believe, as profound as were the leaps when humankind invented writing and alphabets, when we invented books and printing, and when we invented electronic media. Today, as I am sure many are telling you, we are watching the birth of an era in which whole new worlds of tools will appear, including simulation, 3D animation, and networked computers that will in turn let us invent practices for education, management, entertainment, collaborative work, and records administration.
What is especially significant about the current developments is that they are transforming the technological space of communication and inscription together. Formerly, I typed a letter, made a copy, and filed it. Today, I type and address a message on the computer, and in one stroke I have composed, delivered, and stored it. Further, if I have designed my network well, others who I designate have immediate access to what I just said. If they wish, they can have my communication appear automatically in their calendar as something about which they will be prompted to take action. The new medium, constructed of computers, software, and networks, is simultaneously a radical innovation in communication, and in making and managing inscriptions. The effects are already dramatic. The Internet and the World Wide Web are not fads. They or their subsequent versions are here to stay. The new electronic commercial frontier is opening with all the energy of a gold rush. The changes are happening on a global scale with a speed that it is difficult to appreciate.
In response to the new opportunities for communication that the computer and network technologies are opening up, people are inventing new ways of taking care of old concerns, and inventing new concerns. The computers and networks offer a new kind of capacity to speak, listen, read and write, comment, request, purchase, promise, and at the same time to automatically make inscriptions recording any speech act that happens across the network. These new infrastructures for communication are giving us the capacity to generate coordination tools like ATMs, cellular telephones, fax and interactive television, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing, and the scanners at supermarket checkout counters. Altogether new kinds of offers and coordination are appearing. Credit cards and credit card readers register identities and promises in world-wide networks that allow banks and airlines, for example, to shape offers in which fliers get commercial and personal services at the same time (frequent flyer programs). As a consequence of their participation in these networks, banks and airlines are able to enter into new marketing relationships with their customers; the infrastructure allows them to interact with their customers in much richer ways than was possible before.
Roughly two years ago, for example, General Electric decided it would do an experiment with the World Wide Web. After careful deliberation, GE opened a web page where it could have conversations with its suppliers: it posted requests for things and services it wanted to purchase, and suppliers made offers there. Over two billion dollars of business has passed through that web page. But that is only the beginning. GE's suppliers liked the page so much that they talked about it to other customers of theirs, and those customers asked GE if possibly there could be a way that they, too, could make requests of GE's suppliers on the same page. GE answered, why not?, and made their web page available to other purchasers. You can go there from your desk. The "URL" (Internet address) http://www.tpn.geis.com/ takes you directly to the GE Trading Process Network. In minutes you can "wander around" the site and "enter into a conversation" with GE in this new media. They offer there:
" software and services to help buyers locate new suppliers worldwide, streamline their purchasing processes and dramatically shorten cycle times. (and) access to various tools that help them market their companies as well as their product and services to potential customers around the world."
Significantly, I did not type the text above. I used the faculties of my workstation to cut and paste directly from the inscription GE uses to make their offer in their web site, which "appeared" directly in front of me through the faculties of the World Wide Web and the Internet. Let me tell you what I think is happening here. GE can no longer be understood primarily as a company that manufactures and sells electrical products and services connected with those products. GE discovered that by beginning to do business with their suppliers in this new media, they had actually constructed the equivalent of a new marketplace. Others clamored to be admitted to do business in that marketplace, and GE agreed, becoming in that moment the convenors of a new marketplace. Then, having found themselves in that position, they have gone on to teach others how to set up their own electronic marketplaces and their own electronic tools of trade to make themselves more effective business people. In this example we can see how the web is shifting the space of communication we live in. We can observe the emergence of communities that could not be formed before, transactions that could not have been completed before, and promises that cannot have happened before. Finally, there are new political organizations that are going to arise from all this. That's really interesting. If we know how to observe, we are watching history being made.
Colleagues of mine estimate that the new generation of tools now coming available in the Internet have reduced the cost of building and deploying networked computer tools by a factor of 80 times. That kind of improvement produces an irresistible provocation or impetus to make changes in tools supporting important kinds of actions. Importantly for archivists and records administrators, these new tools have radically different kinds of capabilities for making and retrieving inscriptions than have the previous generations of tools.
What is going to happen to your field, to its people and practices in the midst of these changes? What is going to happen to you? As a way of thinking about this, I suggest you develop a working familiarity with the history of what happened with the emergence of desktop publishing (DTP). While the technological changes impacting your roles today dwarf those of DTP, nevertheless the changes around DTP were rich and deep, and we can use it as an analogy to what is happening to your technological and professional possibilities. To think well about the complex of changes and stabilities of which we are speaking, you need the proclivities of an amateur historian, which, after all, was another part of what our friend Santayana was urging upon us, was he not?
Desktop publishing arrived to us in the mid-80s. Its first home was the Apple Macintosh. Those talking about desktop publishing were not interested in automating and replacing a collection of old jobs and practices concerned with taking text from manuscript to composed and printed form. They were interested in marketing a new capability that was, in the beginning, absolutely unconnected to traditional text composition, printing and publishing capabilities. They called it desktop publishing as a metaphor to help the market they were targeting understand the kinds of things that could be done with the new technology. The new technologies at the core of desktop publishing-hardware and software for text entry, editing, graphical page makeup, and rapid, high-quality printing, brought together into one domain a set of practices that had in the past belonged to separate, if interconnected domains of work.
To have a powerful story, we must begin with the clear interpretation that the technology we are observing, and the practices that it enters and transforms, all serve stable, deep and abiding human concerns, and as we watch the tools we must keep our attention on those concerns and how the tools assist us in interpreting, taking care of, and even clarifying and evolving those concerns. In the case of DTP, the underlying concerns have to do with how we listen to one another and communicate expressively with each other. We human beings dwell in language, we coordinate actions in language to take care of our concerns together, we re-member in language and construct ourselves as animals that remember and invent futures for ourselves, and we bring forth our interpretations of reality in language.
The paraphernalia of desktop publishing enabled a writer of text to specify the form of the text and the composition of the page; in other words, to engage in practices that used to belong to the field of typesetting and graphic design. The effect of that, for every person who writes and has access to the equipment, has been to enrich tremendously the capacity to express oneself in writing. Text can be made more arresting, appealing, expressive, approachable; text can be presented in ways that evoke the expressiveness of heartfelt oral language. Marvel that it is, the alphabet alone and unadorned is rather ascetic. Today, any modestly computer-literate person has manipulated type styles and sizes and, increasingly, routinely incorporates graphic elements into printed pages that they compose personally. I personally designed, composed, and entered into these pages the exhibits you will find here.
Today this new field, only ten years old, is already relatively stable. We can take for granted our ability to manipulate its hardware and software tools (if not ourselves, then assistants, or specialists who work with us or temporary workers we engage. A single phone call to a temporary agency will find these skills for us more easily than the stenography that my secretaries used to practice.) This regularity and stability belies the turbulent and contingent beginnings of the "new" capability of desktop publishing. Many of us remember the early days of word processing, with multiple applications and highly divergent and entirely incompatible tools on the market. Then came Apple, with the Macintosh computer and the first widely-available commercial GUI system. For the builders of the early desktop publishing software, the Macintosh stood as a question that begged for an answer.
With DTP tools in place, copy shops inside institutions or private shops on the corner like Kinko's, born out of the revolution in reprographics brought on by the copy machine, began to offer a whole new range of services. Desktop publishing opened new possibilities for the production of text in many domains: different appearances of text and graphics on the page, different speeds of composition and editing (all faster), and different locations. We can generate inscriptions locally where we are working, and produce text "locally" where we want it read, and locally can be almost anyplace.
Other aspects of desktop publishing practice opened new possibilities for what texts are produced and available when and where. Fast transmission of digitized inscriptions, combined with the compositional and design capabilities of desktop publishing tools, has lead to a wide dispersal of what formerly were local texts. The New York Times, for example, is now printed and distributed simultaneously in several parts of the country. The tight integration of new practices for inscribing text, viewing the inscription (on the screen) and putting the inscription on transportable media (digital marks in the computer and bits on transmission lines moved to another screen) has made it possible to move much faster than in the past. Books that used to take a year to go from manuscript to printed copy are now completed in a fraction of that time.
When desktop publishing first appeared, few people in the fields of graphic design, printing, or publishing paid close attention. Since then, however, in scarcely more than 10 years, the employment effects have been dramatic, transforming old jobs, opening new opportunities, closing others, and reinforcing certain central historical practices. The roles of manual press operator and typesetter are all but gone, relegated to craft production for highly specialized and limited markets. There is still a need for copy editors and proofreaders, but in smaller numbers and for more sophisticated activities.
There has been a very substantial change in the role of secretaries. Initially, it appeared that DTP was a vast complication in the already stressful change that began with word processing. Some of you will remember the wonderful IBM Selectric typewriter-with its accompanying well-dressed young man in a black suit with a tiny vacuum cleaner in a briefcase. They were everywhere. With this mechanical and marketing marvel, IBM dominated the typewriter market and captured the hearts of secretaries throughout the land. Though it may have meant "less work" and more capabilities, word processing interrupted a love affair with a tool. A few secretaries embraced DTP by beginning to learn its faculties, but most just waited to see what would happen. What has happened in the evolving era of word processing and DTP is that today we have only a small fraction of the number of secretaries-meaning people in the role of preparing text by working at keyboards-at work in our organizations. But, in the meanwhile, we have separated out another part of the traditional role of the secretary-arranging meetings, managing conversations, and following up on commitments-and we have institutionalized that as an autonomous and new role that we call "administrative assistant." This is a good example of the kinds of transformations that we construct in the midst of organizational and technological changes.
The changes in the role and capabilities of graphic designers were more dramatic. Graphic designers went through a rough initial period in which many thought they could be damaged by the new technology. Many people decided that they would now finally have what they needed to realize their secret lifelong dream to be a designer themselves, and some initially thought that the role of graphic designer would now be sold in a box called DTP. Today, however, designers have mastered the new technology and are using it to improve the kinds of offers they make. Increasingly sophisticated applications offer richer design options as part of the basic toolkit of today's graphic designer, and designers are back at the center of print production, but working from their desktops, not their drafting tables. Some in the typesetting and printing business re-tooled themselves and invested in the new technology. Those who did not are already out of business. A whole host of new companies with distinctive new offers also have emerged, providing data translation services, digitized art and photography, and specialized hardware, software, and services to improve the kinds of inscriptions that can be provided. Publishers readily appropriated the new technology as a production tool, and made experimental investments in some new media-for example publishing with CD-ROMs-but for the most part they are just now coming to grips with the competition between paper and digital media for publishing inscriptions. USA Today is an example of a company that invented a whole new and very large niche-the national newspaper-with the benefit of the emerging technology.
The new technologies do more than simply eliminate or re-allocate much of the work we know. They change the space in which we make relationships with each other, and bring new possibilities for action. What roles will be available to archivists and records administrators? As occurred with the professions involved in the world of print production and publishing, some or many of your roles are bound to change, and there may take place a blurring of the lines between your current roles and the roles of librarians, historians, even computer programmers. We can not know exactly what your jobs will be like in ten years, but one thing is certain: your job is not to be a more sophisticated computer, but to assist in co-inventing a new world. Most of today's managers and most of the current body of management practices and theory are at a loss to cope with multiple emerging worlds of relationships and action. We know a different future is inevitable; the central job of leaders is to invent the narratives and emotional structures in which communities will give shape to that future and participate in it. Much of the current wisdom suggests that the way to do this is to imagine and build scenarios of possible tomorrows: visions, missions, objectives and the like. I submit to you that once again, Santayana is right: the prudent path to the future begins, instead, in retentiveness, in a careful interpretation of the past; in this case, the past of your discipline.
In some parts of the world it is still possible to observe the old style of retail transactions in stores where one person shows the product, a second writes up the order, and a third takes the money. That style is very old, and its roots have to do with mistrust and the handling of inscriptions. The handling of the product, the making of the record, handling of the money are separate, so that it is more difficult for theft or other mismanagement of product or money to occur. Today, when we are buying a product, especially with a credit card, the style looks anachronistic. But when we encounter the analogous structures of work in offices, with long waiting in lines, different lines for filling in different forms, and yet another line for paying fees, we haven't yet grasped how anachronistic are these essentially feudal structures of working organization. We still organize many of our great organizations, including government departments, universities, and libraries, in similar styles.
The new generation of technologies will accelerate the rate at which these old styles are undermined, challenged, and transformed. With computer networks now encircling the world, we have the possibility of an inscription that can receive instructions, consult its own clock and other references, and, at a time instructed, speak to us in a way it has been instructed to speak. In data-recording devices like bar-code readers, new technologies record the transactions and trigger multiple actions automatically. In government institutions and businesses, software tools that interact with metering and signaling devices will observe changes in accounts and records, report important changes, out-of-balance and out-of-standard situations, signal the onset of pending events, and initiate action in the organization. An important part of the traditional work of comptrollers, accountants, auditors-and of archivists and records administrators-will be taken over by this sort of tool, and will disappear into the networks. Which parts will be taken over? Those parts in which the work really can be reliably described by algorithms; the parts that are truly comprised of mechanistic repetition of activities that do not require human listening, judgment, or commitment for their successful completion.
The world of records is a world of inscriptions: their appraisal, and the resulting instructions for their classification, storage, preservation, and retrieval. In the same way that the computer industry confuses information and communication, you confuse information and archives. I invite you to begin to separate these important distinctions. Inscriptions are not the same as information, bits of data. Inscriptions are records of people speaking and people acting, and they only make sense in contexts that must be re-membered by acts of appraisal, classification, destination, and management-your acts. One of your key practices that computers can simulate, but never do, is to listen to the concerns of human beings. Computers can give you tools for listening better, but they cannot listen for you. Appraisal is the result of a careful, measured listening to the concerns embodied in content, context and structure. This is where your criteria for classification, storage, preservation, and retrieval are developed, because listening for concerns is listening for relations, is communication, not information, and because concerns are not fixed facts; they shift and adjust, depending upon who is listening, when they listen, and what kind of world they listen in. And because the worlds we inhabit are ceaselessly changing, the work of listening is never complete, once and for all. If you, in your role as archivists and records managers, were to assist in the development of a computer algorithm incorporating all of the sensibilities necessary for effective listening today (assuming such sensibilities could be incorporated into algorithms in the first place), you would find it necessary to repeat the work next year, or even next week, as the world of concerns and possibilities will have shifted. Listening is ongoing sensitivity, or attunement, to the world and the historical identities and action that constitute and are constituted by it. In the process, you and I are co-inventing our own future.
This listening is what you have done in the past; it has been at the core of all your practices, albeit often invisible to all but the most tenacious of observers. When many of the visible aspects of your practices have disappeared into networks, listening will remain. In remembering this (and other aspects as well), you re-member yourselves for the future that is coming. And more than only yourselves; by being archivists and records managers, and thinking about your work in this way, you will help to re-mind the rest of us of the centrality of listening to concerns in the handling of inscriptions, in the turning of inscriptions into records, and of the importance of records to the making of history-ours.
Living with, adapting to, inviting, bringing, leading and/or resisting changes present a series of challenges. I have been saying to you, directly and indirectly throughout this address, that it is up to you to bring the future that is coming to you. If you want a prediction about the future, the smart money is on the information technology story about your job being essentially about capturing, storing, and retrieving information, and for many of you, your jobs as you now understand them will shortly disappear. If you don't like that outcome, it is time to move into another path of action for the future, in which you invent your own story. To invent that story, to make it stick, and to mobilize a set of communities around action to make that story the basis of a new and different future is what leadership, and bringing and managing change, is all about. From our work I make five recommendations to you.
Homero Resendez is the name of a man who works for a client of ours, a cement and concrete company in Mexico that also happens to be the third or fourth largest cement company in the world. Homero heads a small staff group in Monterrey, Mexico that is responsible for bringing critical new practices to the company. He is trained as an engineer, and a normal, kind, unassuming person, with none of the firebrand or revolutionary about him. About three years ago, using the distinctions we had brought to him, he began to focus his attention on the way his company delivered concrete to its customers. His company and its competitors don't deliver when they say they will. Consequently, their customers don't trust their suppliers. It's expensive for contractors to have work crews tied up doing nothing while they wait for concrete to arrive, and so it is common practice to order concrete from two suppliers. To complicate the situation, remember that once the concrete is mixed with water and goes into the truck for delivery, it sets up in two hours and has to be gotten rid of, no matter what. Often, whichever competitor shows up first gets the business, and the late competitor's order is canceled. Over half of the orders for concrete are therefore changed or canceled every day, which produces waste, chaos, and resignation for all the participants in the process. His company, well aware of the wastes and difficulties involved, had been dealing with the situation with ever-more-rigid control over their customers. But no customer, in any part of life, likes to deal with suppliers who have rigid procedures that must be followed to get services. Finally, the situation that Homero was confronting was not just a problem with his company or their industry; that style of coordination is typical of Mexico today. Homero found himself confronting overwhelming obstacles. To change a process, he would have to change the attitudes and behaviors of dispatchers, drivers, managers, customers, and do so in a background of accepted cultural norms of behavior pointing in the other direction.
Here's the point. Although in the beginning he had no idea how to do it, Homero committed himself to making a change in this area, because it was clear to him that there was enormous waste involved for his company and its clients, and that if another way of doing business could be invented, his company would have a devastating competitive advantage over its competitors. He got the right help from us. He and his team visited hospitals, emergency medical dispatch teams, and the offices of Federal Express to see how those organizations made orderly, reliable businesses around disorderly, completely unpredictable situations. Then we went to work together¾with drivers, dispatchers, and systems people¾to invent a new practice and a new dispatch system.
Two months ago, Homero's company, Cemex, announced a new offer for concrete in Guadalajara. They promise their customers that they will arrive within 10 minutes of the time they promise. If they are as much as a minute late, they will return a significant portion of the charge for the concrete, and deliver it anyway. At Cemex, the drivers, dispatchers, and everybody else involved knows what they are doing, why they are doing it, what a difference it makes to the clients and to them¾and they are proud of their accomplishment.
On hearing of this transformation, people ask how our design team overcame the great difficulties of making changes in an organization: the habits and resistance of people. The way that the question is asked is badly framed. Such a framing assumes that the answer will lie in the genius of Homero Resendez or in some new technique that he applied. (I suspect a good archivist might notice the way the framing of the question, even the unspoken framing, leads towards a class of conclusions that would be misleading.) The fact, however, is that it was not difficult at all, once the team put its attention on the right matters. The drivers and dispatchers, for example, were not proud of continuously arriving late to disappointed or angry customers, and they were aware of the waste they were producing. Their unpleasant moods, in fact, came from and showed their years of confronting betrayed customers on the one hand, and, on the other, managers who had no idea how to change the situation and therefore appeared indifferent to the messes.
The guiding principle of the design team's work was the same as for the new offer the company made to its customers: promise to do things that matter to clients, organize yourself to fulfill the promise, and act consistent with that promise. The design was done by people who were promising to do things that mattered to their clients. What they did was not something easy and obvious to do. If it had been, then it would have been done long before. Because the team faced big challenges, they got good help and they invested personally to develop new competence to do what they could not do before. The past did not automatically equip them with the skills and distinctions they needed for what they faced.
In the exhibit below I summarize some of the more important changes that the team brought about in the way that the company's people coordinate with each other.
To be involved means to care and to become competent for taking care of what matters to you. We involve ourselves in and make declarations about what we care about. Competence in life, the capacity to do the right kinds of prioritization in modern life, to decline what we will not do, and serenity and satisfaction with life come from involvement in it.
I suggest that you adopt and develop yourself in constructive roles that allow you to construct a meaningful life in the midst of whatever changes come. You may elect to lead, act as a responsible follower, or be a judicious observer. When changes come, if you have not chosen one of these, you will find yourself in the role of victim or excluded or cynical onlooker.
In their new book Disclosing New Worlds (MIT Press, 1997), Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores and Hubert L. Dreyfus tell a story about the accomplishments of the group MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Briefly, you may remember that 20 or 30 years ago, when I was young, if a pillar of the community got drunk and ran down a child, our society labeled this a tragic accident. Then a group of mothers whose children had been killed got together and began to say, in a very public way, that people who had a history of getting drunk and driving cars, and in the course of that killing a child, were committing premeditated, i.e., first-degree, murder.
The history of MADD illustrates the different kinds of roles that are available to us that can contribute to the process of bringing an important change.
The mothers of MADD were concerned with taking care of the lives of our children, and altering certain social behavior that, at the time, was considered, if unpleasant, nevertheless common, accepted, and inevitable. The mothers of MADD, some of us remember, were shrill and angry when they started. They were not polite and they did not hesitate to express in their indignation, anger, and loud voices their grief over the deaths of their children. Many people were put off by the strong emotions around this movement. Nevertheless, some people joined up and lent their identities, even though they were uncomfortable with what appeared to be unpleasantness, because the underlying concern for the safety of children was a good one. In response to MADD's fund-raising campaigns, a much larger community dug into their pockets and made financial contributions. Some thoughtful people lent their voices and dared to say that the MADD mothers were absolutely right, even at the beginning when the conventional wisdom was that they were overstating their case. Also, some people who disagreed with the MADD mothers nevertheless treated them with respect and brought carefully-worded arguments against them. These people help, because they showed MADD the ways that its interpretation was not yet succeeding, and so helped to refine MADD's new story.
But in the beginning, as I remember, the great majority of people shied away (or fled) from the "unpleasantness" of MADD, and another large number of people attacked it through gossipy conversation about what a shame it was that those horrible people were attempting to make such terrible accusations about good people who had made a mistake and gotten involved in a terrible accident, and so forth.
I call this story to your attention as a worthwhile example of a tremendous change that was made in our national sensibility, though we can see that in the beginning only a small number of concerned people got involved. This is a piece of history-making worth noticing. In the history of MADD we can see a variety of roles it is possible to play when the time comes for changes to be made: leaders, to be credible, usually get deeply in touch with the grief that accompanies important concerns that are not being taken care of; followers commit to follow those leaders into uncharted territory to take care of important concerns; those who lend support, identity, and money to the new story, by speaking or acting in its behalf; those who responsibly oppose the new story, and out of respect for its speakers engage in public conversation about it; those who elect not to participate in the conversation; and those who engage in destructive forms of criticism: slander, gossip, derision and so forth. There are many ways to constructively participate besides being a leader, although, all the action begins with leaders.
Successful leaders and followers learn to talk with each other, to seduce people into their stories, and to develop competence at designing the kinds of emotions that are needed to move into a future different than the past we recently inhabited.
Many people in the world are skilled at building trusting relationships with people and bringing action in those relationships. Nevertheless, remember that the doctors in the hospital in Paris had no language for discerning (and were thereby blind to) the world of microbes that was killing their patients. Similarly, you lack a rigorous, grounded language for observing the way that action happens in human enterprises, even though it is certain that some of you have significant experience and competence in that regard.
Today I have been speaking from a new interpretation about how action is brought, universally. People make requests and promises, and constitute networks of commitment among themselves. That is where intentional, recurrent action always starts. In this regard, I recommend you go to work, and begin to re-interpret and re-articulate how action happens in your organizations.
When we commit to make changes in an organization's pattern of behavior, that means we are committing to bring action in opposition to other long-standing habitual actions. My colleagues and I call the kind of program in which one brings a significant change in practices, in which rigid or persistent old practices need to be displaced, a mobilization. We mobilize a new practice.
In my experience there are two great impediments to successfully mobilizing a new practice in any organization, public or private. The impediments are the same in public and private organizations.
On the other hand, I count four key elements for a successful mobilization.
My fourth recommendation is that you learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff-to discern the changes that are just beginning, or are about to begin, that spell new opportunities. Anomalies are the small, sometimes annoying and sometimes nearly invisible ways in which the future shows up in the present. In the "old days" the unreliability of the U.S. Mails was just the thing that Frederick Smith, the founder of Federal Express needed to see the future that was possible. Innovation is not about genius, but about listening well, and having the right conversations about the cares of others. At the heart of the matter is again the critical competence of concernful listening. Federal Express is a business built upon the recognition that no one was promising the delivery of the package. When the company started, the air freight companies engaged their customers in long conversations about the difficulties of being in the airfreight business. Federal Express stopped all that conversation and made a simple promise. "Your package will arrive tomorrow morning, period. How we do it is our problem. Anxious about where it is? OK, then call us and we'll tell you where it is." If we look carefully, Federal Express offers us a textbook example of inventing the future out of listening to everyday practices and concernful conversations with clients and technologists. After you take the promise seriously, everything else about Federal Express is simple. Try to understand the company from its routes and technologies, and you will never get to the end.
The past several hundred years have given us the industrial revolution, mass production, radical changes in transportation and communication around the world, the computer, software, and network industry, globalization, and downsizing. I am speculating here with you that in the era coming to us next we will see the Internet producing a vast transformation in the worlds of commerce and inscriptions, among other things.
You have arrived at a branch in the road. The tradition in which your discipline has been moving has been recently shaped in powerful ways by the language and thinking of what I call "The Cartesian Information Clearing"-and has led to the interpretation that records professionals are paid for doing things that overlap with the jobs of computers. This is much deeper than a question of semantics. It is a question of interpretation, jobs, and livelihoods, and, from my point of view, that means that members of your discipline should be well-prepared to deal with this question.
It is time for you to invent and tell a new story about yourselves, a story you can "sing around the fires" at night that tells of your past accomplishments and the future you are bringing. To be seductive, your story must show how you take care of things that matter to people. It must be a story in which you and your clients, together, can thrive; a story that builds your identity for the future.
To put it to you directly: you need to apply the best traditions of your work to preparing the space for interpreting where your discipline is headed, or else it is likely to end up where it is headed, and many or most of you will find yourselves replaced by computers. True, the computers will do certain important mechanical parts of your jobs with more speed and reliability (and fewer complaints) than you are able to do them now. On the other hand, the real center of your work could be damaged or lost for some period of time, and that would be a tragedy for all of us.
Once you produce a new interpretation, and build a new story, then the job is to cultivate practices of living and working that give the people in your field the opportunity to invent meaningful lives for themselves. Here, to repeat, the little examples of typewriting when the computer was arriving, desktop publishing, and now the networked internet era, can be helpful.
People who are in tune with the age in which they live and act do not resist or hold back change; they invite it, in the right moment, and shape how it appears.
It may look to some that I am saying that the traditional mechanics and activities of your field are no longer important. I want to emphasize: that is not my message. Rather, those are the parts of your work where computers and networks are going to be, literally, orders of magnitude less expensive and more effective than people moving data around by hand. To produce the best future for yourselves you therefore will need exceptional faculties for manipulating inscriptions and records and for collaborating with others to make history. For the former area, a tremendous number of people are available and eager to help you develop those faculties. For the latter area, I suggest you apply your own discipline to the question, and that you seek new help.
I am sure for many of you the gap between public and private institutions remains so great that it is not clear to you that much of what I am saying is really something you need to take account of. I want to leave you, in that question, with one nagging question of your own. The client (often, in public institutions, the constituent) is a recent invention in both domains. In the public domain, we used to be the public, and the lawmakers decided our fates, even if we did elect them. In the private domain, we used to be consumers. Now, in both domains, we, the democratic public, are emerging as clients, and in that capacity, with our difficult alter-egos the press, we are now the emerging or already present dominant force in the lives of those institutions. That commonality goes deep. Businesses are not in business to make profit. They are in business to take care of the concerns of their customers, and if they do that well, they make a profit at it. There is an analogous truth for public institutions.
In the future that I am painting for you, your old friends comfort and tranquillity have become enemies. In times of turbulent change, you cannot trust them to tell you when you are doing well; in fact, if they tell you that you are doing well, then I say you are definitely in trouble. Your new friend, in this context, is a new interpretation of the old nemesis anxiety. I suggest you learn to embrace and learn from the anxiety that all of our bodies produce as we interpret the changes going on around us. This is a good example of how the future that is coming demands that we build new languages of interpretation and new interpretations of familiar emotions.
The activities of your discipline, properly, have always been
oriented to the past, and that orients you to the past.
In the same way that auditors and accountants are oriented to
the past, that fact affects powerfully the way that many of you
interact with the world. For the challenge of re-inventing your
discipline that I believe you confront over the coming years,
that is a serious weakness that you must overcome. In that challenge,
I wish you luck and I offer my solidarity, for a future without
a rich extension of the discipline you have been tending for so
many centuries is less interesting to me than one with you bringing
re-membrance to all of us as one of our key inheritances.
For further reading:
Damasio, A. R. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Avon Books, 1994.
Dreyfus, H. L. What Computers Can't Do: a Critique of Artificial Reason. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
Dreyfus, H. L. What Computers Still Can't Do: a Critique of Artificial Reason. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
Dreyfus H., and S. Dreyfus. Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.
Flores, F. "The Impact of Information Technology on Business", unpublished address to the 50th Conference of the Association for Computing Machinery, San Jose, CA, March 1997. Available in streaming video through the BDA web site: http://www.bdaus.com/
Flores, F. "The Leaders of the Future", pp. 175-192 in Beyond Calculation: The Next 50 Years of Computing, P.J. Denning and R. Metcalfe, eds. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1997.
Flores, F. and R. Solomon Creating Trust. In the "Trust" issue, Business Ethics Quarterly, forthcoming in 1997.
Heifetz, R. A. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.
Fiumara, G. C. The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. New York: Routledge, 1995
Spinosa, C., Flores, F., and H.L. Dreyfus. Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.
Tufte, E R. Envisioning Information. Cheshire, Conn.:Graphics Press, 1990.
Tufte, E. R. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire, Conn.:Graphics Press, 1997
Chauncey Bell is a Senior Vice President at Business Design Associates, Inc., 1420 Harbor Bay Parkway, Alameda, California 94502. Phone: 510 814 1900
<A HREF=mailto:Chauncey_Bell@bda.com>Chauncey Bell</A>