Archive for the innovation and its history Category

Just found out I’ll be chairing the annual teaching roundtable at next month’s Economic and Business Society conference in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s not a surprise. I was one of the leaders in adding a teaching session to the conference back in Providence in 2007. And even though other problems kept me from proposing a session myself this year (the same ones that have kept me away from Iterations for some time), as an EBHS trustee, I’ve been a long-time advocate of putting teaching-related content on the program. Last year, in Braga, Portugal, I and others managed to finangle two sessions. I imagine we could have had a second session this year as well (the conference chair, Jason Taylor from Central Michigan, is also a fan of teaching sessions). But I just haven’t had time to assemble conference panels and such.

Or even to prepare a paper of my own. The reality is that it is extremely difficult to find time to do research/write in any significant way during terms. And last summer, I was occupied primarily with getting my mother moved into assisted living and rewriting an economic history that had gone quite badly the previous iteration. Add in recurring bouts of depression and learning in December that I have Type II diabetes, and I just haven’t had time to make proposals or write papers.

But I am looking forward to the trip, for personal reasons and professional ones alike.

First, I just love this conference and its people. I haven’t missed one since first going in 2002. It’s the only academic conference I go to every year anymore. Many years it is the only one I go to.

This is partly because of my evolving interests mean I’m more likely to attend non-academic conferences than academic ones with my limited travel dollars. But it’s also because EBHS offers something I haven’t found in any other organization — a dedication to multi-disciplinary collegiality and scholarship. As far as I know, EBHS is the only organization out there that regularly focuses on bringing lots of economic historians together with lots of business historians.

Oh, you’ll see the occasional economic historian presenting before a business history group, or an occasional business historian doing the same before economic historians, but the dominant world view is always one or the other. Which isn’t bad — it’s just that EBHS then provides a very valuable niche.

And we need that kind of scholarship. We need more people who regularly engage in the extended exchange of ideas and careful listening to people with different ways of doing things. It’s too easy to convince ourselves of the importance of marginal scholarship when we only interact with people who share our discipline’s methods.

And, what is even more important, it seems to me, we need it for our teaching. Teachers whose only contact with “research” comes with those who do the same kind of research are going to be much less likely to interact effectively with students who have learned to value other kinds of methodologies.
We rarely get the top scholars of our fields, much less “big names.” (Unless they’re serving as keynote speakers. Last year we managed Michael Bordo, Li Bozhong, and Patrick O’Brien (oh yes, and the Portuguese Minister of State, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos. This year I’m looking forward to seeing Dick Steckel.) But we get people I consider more important: the people on the ground who teach economics, business, and history at 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier schools.

People less concerned with living in the penthouses of technical research, but people committed to keeping the foundations of the building filled in with sturdy examples and rooms furnished in ways that visitors (i.e. students) find welcoming and worth buying.

As people know, I have lots of problems with the way higher education is done today, particularly at lower-tier schools like my own. Serious problems. Fundamental disagreements with the way things usually get done. Deep fears about the future of what we do and its usefulness.

But places like EBHS give me confidence to go on.

Not because the people of EHBS are somehow more convinced about my arguments. They aren’t. I expect many of them see my idealism and out-of-the-box ideas as flaky (or as dangerous) just like my Luther colleagues do.

In fact I know they do. Because unlike my Luther colleagues, they have listened and conversed with me both deeply and often over the years.

No, I don’t go to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who share my philosophical or pedagogical or political bent. It isn’t, and they don’t.

No, I have gone to EBHS every year because it’s made up of people who I know will listen. Who, though they rarely go far outside a particular scholarship or teaching box themselves, they recognize the fundamental importance of deeply listening to those who do.

So if you’re interested, and able to find a way to spend a few days the Hyatt on Capitol Square in Columbus, come over and join us April 14-16. You won’t regret it.

And you don’t have to be on staff somewhere as an economic or business historian. We’ve had accountants, political scientists, and philosophers. I’ve chaired panels with bankers and with bureaucrats. Heck, a couple years ago, I had a panelist from a federal government agency who wrote an outstanding paper on the history of x-ray medicine.

And how often are you going to find me willing to put “federal government” and “outstanding” in the same sentence.


When I’m not wasting people’s time with my blog, I’m wasting my time posting as IowaPacker on the forums of

As I was finishing up a post there today, I realized that what I was saying there had larger implications for my own work on “iterative listening”.  But, frankly, I’m too tired of composing right now to rewrite the thing.  So instead, I’m just reposting the thing I wrote there.   If you’re not a football fan, much less a Packer fan, feel free to ignore all those details.  I really don’t think what I’m saying is limited to trivial questions like whether the Packers current starting quarterback is going to be good or bad.

A few comments on this thread…

1. Dallas game and its different strategy (Terry’s point). When I see a game opening up differently than several games preceding it, my mind says “different game plan.” To me it says more than just “QB reading the progressions differently than before” or “quarterback deciding to gunsling more.” In short, when I watched the opening quarter of the Dallas game (before Favre got hurt), I saw Mike McCarthy having decided to do something a bit different against Dallas.

Now I’m bummed that the Packers lost the game. And I didn’t like the emphasis on the long ball that opened the game (regardless of whose idea it was, McCarthy’s, Favre’s, or the Gatorade salesman’s). But here’s why I hope it was McCarthy’s idea, and I think the reason will surprise most.

I hope it was McCarthy’s idea and not Favre’s because McCarthy is still with the team. One of the things I like a lot about Mike McCarthy is is willingness to innovate, his willingness to try new things, his willingness to take t he initiative and make the other team react tohim. And I like all that about him even knowing that sometimes he’s going to get it wrong and sometimes he’s going to screw up big time.

That’s an inevitable characteristic of innovation — sometimes the particular innovation is a going to turn out to be a horribly bad idea. But I’d rather have a coach that innovated and made the occasional mistake as a result than one who played the percentages and tried to just “stay with what worked”.

I admit that when McCarthy was hired, one of the things that I made me less than enthusiastic was that he was coming in as a “west coast offense” coach. I didn’t want another coach that was beholden to the past, even a past that has been as successful as the WCO has been under Walsh and the second generation (e.g. Mike Holmgren). I wanted someone who would provide us with the next great offense, not another example of the last one.

And so I have found myself pleasantly surprised that McCarthy has been proving himself far more than just another WCO discipline. Even if I (still) think he screwed it up in the pre-Rodgers part of the Dallas game.

That, to me, is the biggest lesson of the Dallas game.

2. Rodgers and the evidence of the Dallas game (Heatseeker’s original point) Of course point one, despite its length, has next to nothing to do with Heatseeker’s original post. Which, to be (for me) concise about it, is spot on.

It just doesn’t make sense to give Rodgers performance in that one game as much credence as others seem to do. Yeah, he had a pretty darn good game and I was really happy to see it. But one game is just that, one game. In statistics its the small sample problem. Make an inference from one data point if you must, but don’t, please, claim any sort of “proof” from it. That is just dumb.

And that’s true whatever you think Heatseeker’s “agenda” is or isn’t. I don’t know what Heatseeker’s agenda is, and frankly I don’t give a damn if he has one. I agree with him because he’s got the point about “inference and evidence” right, and I ought to agree with him EVEN IF I think he’s been corrupted by some agenda opposed to mine.

Take the inference I make “from the Dallas game” about McCarthy-as-innovator in #1 above. On its surface, it’s doing the same thing — looking at one example (the Dallas game) and drawing a long, fairly-complicated, inference about McCarthy (“he’s an innovator”). Yet, if you look more closely that’s not what I was doing at all. What I was doing was adding the Dallas game’s “example” and adding it to the rest of McCarthy’s performance since he was hired as a “WCO coach”).

I can make claims about how good McCarthy is going to be that are based on two-plus years of his being a full time head coach of the GB packers. I can make them now.

I can’t do the same about Rodgers. BECAUSE I DON”T HAVE ENOUGH DATA TO DO ANYTHING BUT MAKE A BALD-FACED GUESS. Oh, I can claim that the Dallas game, or the Cincinnati game, shows him to this or the other thing. And if I did, Heatseeker would be correct to point out that I was doing nothing but making an inference from a very small sample. And he’d be correct to point that out even if he was doing it to further a secret or not-so-secret agenda.

Which brings me to…

/enter chiding lecture mode

3. Agendas, hidden and otherwise. One of the reasons I hate most discussion of the “news” on major networks like CNN is that purported journalists descend far too easily into the discussion of this or that politician’s or businessman’s “agenda”. One of the (many) reasons I think “ESPN journalist” is an oxymoron is that the people who talk at us from our TV find it far to easy to get into agendas. Whether Chad Johnson/Brett Favre has an agenda or whether Chad Johnson thinks Mike Brown/Ted Thompson has an agenda is really beside the point for the issues at hand.

Sure, people have motives. Some good, some bad, all of us have motives. And some of you have motives which are utterly stupid motives (since they contradict my values, and everyone knows I’m the only one who is never utterly stupid smile.gif Well, not when I’m sleeping, anyway).

But one thing I find is that if I look and listen hard enough, I can learn something valuable even from people with utterly stupid motives. But I do that only if I’m willing to put my view of their motives and their agenda aside.

Not if *they* put their agenda aside. If *I* put their agenda aside. If I can’t put their agenda aside, I might as well not pay any attention to them at all.

Chiding them about their agenda, yelling at them, calling them names? Oh, that might make me feel good in the short term. One of the reasons all of us are petty from time to time is that it makes us feel good to act petty. Nyah, nyah, nyah, and all that.

But in the long run it doesn’t get me anywhere. The other person doesn’t change. And I have spent my time on something that didn’t get me anywhere either.

And the older I get, the less willing I am to waste time. The more I notice cases like that of Gene Upshaw and think, gee, that could be me any day now.

So, my advice to everyone is, the next time you feel tempted to call out another poster of Packer Chatters for his or her “agenda,” ask yourself the following question: Am I willing to “listen and learn” from this person even if I think he/she’s got a hidden agenda that I think corrupts what he/she says?” If your answer is “yes,” then put his/her agenda aside and listen harder. And if your answer is “no”, then put his/her agenda aside and hit the scroll key.

Because that’s part of my no-longer-hidden agenda. I’d rather listen to just about anything than talk about agendas. I’ve got too much else I want to learn from people.

Some agendas are important. From my religious standpoint the agenda of Jesus is important to reveal. If someone has a “Hitler” or “Pol Pot” type agenda, that’s important to reveal. But a “bash Favre” or “bash Rodgers” or “bash Thompson” agenda.

That’s trivial, next to what you can learn from the people with those agendas.

If you don’t like my agenda, then set it aside.

Listen. Or scroll.

Those are the only two choices that make sense.

Set aside the other person’s agenda.

/exit chiding lecture mode


Okay, I’ll admit it.  I often get carried away in my enthusiasm for ideas.  Despite priding myself on demanding “evidence” and on examining such evidence critically, the fact of the matter is that I often get persuaded — and persuaded deeply — without doing a whole lot of either.

Fortunately, I also try to put myself in a position where others will point out my sloppy thinking.  (As, for example, David has just done in the “scholarly journals” thread here when he asks for my evidence on the demand for higher education.  I”ll get back to you on that one, David, I promise I will, but it might take a while.  I’ve got a lot of evidence I’ve got to dig out and through first.)

But reading David’s comment, and visiting both the Healthcare Wordsmith and a recent slashdot thread on “New grads shun IT jobs as ‘boring’, all within the last 8 hours, have me thinking.  I tend to be a “the world has changed” kind of person.  In particular I believe that higher education must transform itself if it is to remain relevant (and marketable) in this new world.

But how much of that belief is because I’ve got evidence to back me up and how much of it is because I have jumped on a bandwagon du jour?

Given that I”m writing a book on the subject, I’m hoping that its not just me being a bandwagon jumper and that, between now and the time the book is finished, I either have the evidence or change my arguments accordingingly.

However, there’s a couple interesting things about bandwagons.  First, sometimes the bandwagon is travelling in the right direction.  (If it wasn’t, we’d never get cool concerts, would we?)  Second, and more importantly, the first people on the bandwagon often have to get on without sufficient evidence a priori.

That’s an essential part of entrepreneurship.   Jumping into something in the uncertainty of “before the evidence is in.”  Any schmo can see the iPod is a success … now.  But harken back to the days when whoever had the idea about the iPod wheel first had the idea…they didn’t know the future market. They were guessing.

Because unless someone has some divine powers, any evidence we might have about the “future” is built on an analogy to what has happened in the past.   Now some of those analogies are so good that we’d be damn fools not to believe them (as long as I’m sitting in Calmar, IA, the apple I let loose tomorrow is going to fall to the ground just like they’ve been doing since well before Isaac Newton had his idea.

But the interesting analogies that we draw on daily to tell us what to believe about the future, they have quite a bit more evidentiary uncertainty build into them.

And as change accelerates, that evidentiary uncertainty increases.  Change means more confounding variables, and makes drawing the analogy more problematic.

Yet we must still draw analogies.

*     *     *     *     *

So where does this leave marketing?  Marketing gets a lot of bad press as “fluff” and “hype” and “deception.”  No real surprise there, since a big chunk of marketing effort is designed to work on our emotions more than on our reason.   Or, if you will, on the emotions we connect to the “evidence” as we draw one analogy or another.

But is this truly bad?  After all, in the end, our evaluation of the quality of the product is in the future.  And, if the marketer is correct (in the empirical sense of the term), we will see “quality” differently in the future (after we use the product) than we have in the past (where, at the moment of marketing, all the “evidence” has to be found).  We demand the marketer provide us with evidence — truth in advertising, and all the rest — yet we’re demanding something that, if the marketer is correct, he cannot provide.

Because if he’s correct, he’s predicting a future that hasn’t happened before.

Don’t mistake me here.  I’m not saying marketers should lie.  Or that all consumer protection laws that encourage truth-telling are bad.  Hardly.

What I’m saying is that, when it comes to making an argument about the future, “evidence” and “facts” aren’t a trump card that ends the argument.   And, for good or ill, the essence of most “world has changed” talk, despite the diction that chooses past tense, remains an argument about the future.



I’ll never be asked to give a commencement addresses. Such things are for men and women of perceived great accomplishment. Accomplishments of the sort — political power, bestselling novels, great wealth accumulation — that are for some reason absent from my resume.

And don’t get me wrong. Great accomplishments are important. Without them we wouldn’t have a lot of the magical things we have in today’s world. (Or a lot of the evil things we have, but that’s a cheap shot, and one not just aimed at the Hillarys and Dubyas of the world.)

But the everyday sort of activity — the sort done by those of us among the great unmentioned — that is even more important. Of the 26 million or so businesses in the American economy, 99 % are small businesses with less than 500 employees. And most of them are of businesses with 20 or fewer. The unremarked-upon small entrepreneurs who wear ill-fitting clothes and have cheesy commercials on late night television (if they advertise at all) and remember their employees at Christmas.

Or the average teacher or the average craft worker or the average janitor.

None of these are going to get invited to give commencement speeches.

Greatness, much as you or I might dream of it, of “making it big,” is overrated.

And as an objective of public policy, its downright dangerous. Political systems naturally favor the powerful — its one of their great flaws. The more we emphasize the great among us when we are talking about institutionalizing mechanisms for social change, the more we concentrate that power. And the more likely that everyman and everyman will fail to have the quality economic impact a growing system must have from them.

Be clear: I’m not talking in favor of some feel-good socialist mentality here. De-emphasizing greatness is not the same as emphasizing mediocrity. Exactly the opposite. When a society defers its decisionmaking, its creativity, its innovation, to the experts and the celebrities who hit it big, that is when mediocrity among the great unmentioned increases.

Few ideas are as bad as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” or “the greatest good for the greatest number.” That way lies deference to the promulgation of 70,000 pages of “helpful” federal regulations a year by the experts at the alphabet soup of agency and department following the recommendations of blue ribbon task forces and study groups.

That way leads to interference and corruption and stifling of innovation of the small, everyday, un-remarked-on sort. The great among us — the kind of people who speak at commencement addresses — tend to be distant from the concerns of the everyday innovator. They don’t have to face the choice between hiring $100/hour accountants and lawyers or trying to do their Subchapter S tax returns and trying to just figure out which of those 70,000 pages apply to them.

Celebrate not the greatest. Celebrate the everyday. And leave them the hell alone.

All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts