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

Johnny Handle, Northumberland, Ted Relph, President of Lakeland Dialect Society, and Sid Calderbank, Lancashire, founder of the National Dialect Day
newsMeet the enthusiasts determined to stop them dying out
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. Argyll, has remained derelict for more than 25 years
arts + ents

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Austen Lloyd: Company Secretary

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: EAST ANGLIA - SENIOR SOLICITOR LEVEL ROLE** -...

Citifocus Ltd: German Speaking Client Specialist

£Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Prestigious asset management house seeks a...

Citifocus Ltd: Performance & Risk Oversight

£Negotiable: Citifocus Ltd: This is a varied role focusing on the firm's mutua...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Director - SaaS (SME/Channel) - £140,000 OTE

£90000 - £140000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achievin...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game