Economists, the Credit Crunch, and ELNs

In today’s Sunday papers there is a story about a bunch of Economists writing to The Queen to explain why they missed the Credit Crunch. Here’s a shorter article¬†by the Huffington Post which might appeal to US readers.

It’s quite nice to have a Queen in such circumstances – she’s above it all (so there’s no finger pointing and has so much respect that when she asks people they jump. So when she asked the obvious question – why no one anticipated the Credit Crunch – a bunch of them sat down to figure out why.

The answer is very relevant. It’s why systems fail, Space Shuttles explode, companies fail, and in my particular interest – how a group of well meaning people in a company can fail in their quest to replace a Paper Lab Notebook with an Electronic Lab Notebook. From the article:

“Everyone seemed to be doing their own job properly on its own merit. And according to standard measures of success, they were often doing it well,” they say. “The failure was to see how collectively this added up to a series of interconnected imbalances over which no single authority had jurisdiction.”

Besley stressed that the experts had not been in “finger-wagging mode” and had agreed that the causes of the credit crunch were extremely complex. “There was a very complicated, interconnected set of issues, rather than one particular person or one particular institution.”

….. snip …..
“In summary, Your Majesty,” they conclude, “the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.”

Lots of bright people. Complex problem, with interlinked components, dimly understood, with diffuse responsibility. Everyone working diligently on their own bit. It’s no ones fault – they all tried their best, etc.

Sounds very much like a lot of ELN projects . ELNs by their very nature are complex, span multiple areas of expertise, and require different parts of the organization to have conversations they aren’t used to having.

This is why we run “Fire Drills” – to get the customer’s organization to see the whole picture. Works very well. This overall perspective is one of the most valuable things we can bring to our customers, the result of an awful lot of interesting experiences in many different ELN deployments, across a whole variety of industries and company sizes.

Sadly we see a lot of ELN projects which are doomed from the very start, because they fail to appreciate and manage the complexity of what they are trying to undertake. I hesitate to say it, but I am inherently skeptical of any ELN project team, or indeed any consultant, who claims to be fully in control – these projects just aren’t that simple. If you think you know what you are doing, you’re probably just unaware of the problems which are going to seriously ruin your day.

For me, a healthy paranoia is much more encouraging as it shows respect for the challenges ahead. The Credit Crunch has “cost” each of us a mind-boggling amount of money and it would be a shame to lose the lesson.

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