Mithridatism & excess: an argument for bounded applicability

November 5, 2006

A report on the BBC this morning suggests that parents should buy an exercise machine for their children. The twist is that their game controller will only work if they are on the treadmill. A Dr Campbell is quoted as saying that this is a terrible indictment on society and he has my full agreement. Mithridatism is the process of taking small does of poison in order to build an immunity against poisoning. The techno-fetishist approach here evidenced is to prescribe more of the poison as a cure. It links to an observation I made having walked around the exhibition hall at KM World last week and listened in to several conversations and presentations: when people become obsessed, the cure to any failure in application of their obsession seems to be more of the same.

Now I know my son (when I point this out to him as I will) will suggest that a similar machine should be set up linked to my beloved Powerbook; children are great hypocracy detectors. So if I get that confession out of the way I can move on to my wider concern.

Tool making and tool using have always been critical to the evolution of humans. It also seems to be a characteristic of each major phase shift in tool development (or ideas for that matter) produces a messianic belief that said new technology or idea represents the fundamental answer to the problem of life the universe and everything. Now as all educated people know, the answer to this is 42 (and I buy into the base 13 theory as divine inspiration whatever Adams says), it is not the latest wonder gismo.

Now this is to be expected. Something new is exciting, it solves some problems that have previously been intractable, it seems to offer almost infinite promise. However it will in turn become bounded as its limitations are discovered. The problem with the techno-fetishist is that they fail to accept the idea of boundaries. Reading Robert Frost might help but I doubt it. I attack BPR type approaches to knowledge management, as I think the mechanical and engineering metaphors are inappropriate to a management discipline which is primarily about interactions between human agency and the environment. However, in respect of the ordered aspects of an organisation where there are repeatable relationships between cause and effect it is entirely appropriate. However BPR advocates want their method to apply to everything. When the failures start to be documented they don’t realise they have exceeded the applicable boundaries of their concept. Instead they argue that it was not done properly, or the management were not committed enough or worst of all: the culture was not alligned. Next thing we know, six stigma arrives: BPR on speed. Now nothing will be allowed to escape the construction of explicit measurement.

We seem the same with pure technology. A long time ago now I and others tried to write systems that would provide clinical diagnostic capability. We would capture the knowledge process of the Doctor and put into into computer system. Now those approaches had some use, but they failed in their overall mission. However more and more money has gone into solving the problem. I hate to think how much money is being spent in the US at the moment in an attempt to get a computer to predict the next terrorist outrage. At a different level, failure to get a Community of Practice to work within a technology environment results in further attempts at automation.

It would be nice, while continuing to strive to make things better, if we also focused on the a priori limits of new technologies and methods. The problem is that hype is now a part of life (and it was ever thus) and the things you have to say to sell a new idea or concept almost always lead to over selling and the setting of false expectations.

The basic concept of bounded applicability which I created some years ago (I am sure someone else also thought of it before but I have no reference) simply states that any method or tool has limits. You know you are reaching those limits as the cost/benefit ratio of handling new issues becomes adverse. At this point you should not carry on doing the established approach more furiously, but instead realise that you are approaching a boundary and gain perspective so you can look on the other side.

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