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Nuggets in the network: Tom Peters On excellence

PETER COCHRANE, British Telecom's research lab director, has a vision of tomorrow's university in which inefficient campuses and libraries will be replaced by friendly electronic networks. He says the scheme will help people cope with an information overload that forces them at present to spend 80 per cent of their time finding information. Far too little time is left for decision-making.

Mr Cochrane is one of a growing gang of technofreaks (with the likes of Nicholas Negreponte, head of MIT's Media Lab) who want to help us tailor data to our narrow-band needs. What rubbish]

As an hour-a-day on-line user (addict?) I know the value of the information highway. And its limitations.

Consider Mussie Shore, a software designer at Lotus Development and, according to Industry Week, one of the best 'graphical user interface designers'. While working on a spreadsheet design, Mr Shore got to musing about a placemat he had seen at a diner in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 'It had a sort of co-ordinate system across the top and down the side,' he recalled, 'with an aerial view of Portsmouth. It had little numbers on sketches of some of the buildings, and circles with callouts showing a magnified version of the church or the old general store. I saw that this placemat was communicating far more information about the lay of the land than I've ever been able to communicate with these high-powered computers.'

Shore's vignette reveals the wellspring of most creativity - the unlocking of dilemmas through insights gained in unlikely places.

I know it works for me. Ideas about corporate renewal come from spring barn cleaning in Vermont. Routine trips to the grocer provide more data on customer service than reading trade journals. Watching kids at play offers inspiration about self-organisation.

And on it goes. American football coach Bill Walsh got his ideas about ball-control passing from watching basketball. He observed that teams putting the ball into play from the sidelines complete 90 per cent of their passes. Why not the same in football, he mused. Soon his quarterbacks were completing an unprecedented two-thirds of their tosses.

But what about facts - cold, hard statistics? Guess what? There aren't any. Been following the US health care debate? The principal players can't even agree on how many of us are uninsured - estimates vary by millions. Ditto the new jobs debate: some confidently proclaim, with (literally) a ton of supporting evidence, that most new jobs pay well; others confidently point to slave wages for most of the new positions.

Immigrants? Robbing us blind with their excess use of social services? Or making us rich with the taxes they pay? It depends who you ask. All are armed, of course, with reams of 'incontrovertible' hard data.

Lynn Payer, in her book Medicine & Culture: Varieties of Treatment in the United States, England, West Germany and France, says: 'Often all one must do to acquire a disease is enter a country where the disease is recognised.' Germans have a thing about the heart and many conditions diagnosed by doctors there as heart ailments would be ignored or diagnosed as something else by US medics. For the French, life is food and drink: many problems classed as stomach or liver disorders in France are labelled differently in the US.

Given such confusion, we probably should be spending 90 per cent of our time collecting information, not just the 80 per cent that worries BT's Mr Cochrane.

Don't tell that to the business schools. I've long thought their heavy reliance on case studies is a fatal flaw. Cases provide students with all the information, then the classroom debate centres on the deciding. Truth is, deciding is a cinch. The real art in business lies in digging up oddball information that casts a new light. Trusting some 'knowbot' (an information-seeking robot) to do the job for you is loony. The results are likely to be about as effective as the attempts at computer-created novels.

Business is poetry. It's former Gannett chairman Al Neuharth's passion for USA Today, and damn the research that labelled him a fool. It's Ted Turner's insane 1980 commitment to an 24 hour a day all-news TV station - known these days as CNN.

I eat numbers for breakfast. I gorge on facts, of all flavours. Yet, I know that anything I come across has at least 100 plausible explanations; moreover, anyone can produce convincing evidence that will completely negate the 'hard' data I'm now devouring.

I also know, like Mussie Shore of Lotus, that inspiration is more likely to come from a placemat in a diner than from my next 10 hours on-line or a three-day conference of experts that I pay dollars 2,000 to attend.

TPG Communications