On Business, Poetry and the Wellspring of Creativity

Article excerpt

British Telecom research lab director Peter Cochrane sees a vision of tomorrow's electronic university in which inefficient campuses and libraries will be replaced by friendly electronic networks. The new scheme, he told London's Independent newspaper, will help people cope with information overload that currently forces them to spend 80 percent of their time finding information; far too little time is left for decision-making.

Cochrane belongs to a growing gang of technofreaks (MIT Media Lab boss Nicholas Negreponte is head man, perhaps) who want to help us tailor data to our narrow-band needs. What rubbish!

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

Consider Mussie Shore, a senior software designer at Lotus Development Corp. and one of the best "graphical user-interface designers," according to Industry Week. While working on a spread sheet design, Shore got to musing about a place mat at a Portsmouth, N.H., diner.

"It had a sort of coordinate system along the top and along the side," he recalled, "with an aerial view of Portsmouth and little numbers on some of these sketches of buildings and little circles with callouts that made a magnified version of the church or the historical general store that was pulled out to the side. I saw that this dinky place mat was communicating way 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 almost all creativity _ unlocking 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 grocery store provide more "data" on customer service than reading the trade journals. Watching kids at play offers inspirations about self-organization.

And on it goes. Hall of Fame football coach Bill Walsh got his idea for ball-control passing from watching basketball games. He observed that teams given the ball out of bounds complete 90 percent of their in-bounds passes; why not the same in football? Walsh mused. Soon even his journeymen quarterbacks (let alone Joe Montana) were completing an unprecedented two-thirds of their tosses.

But what about facts _ cold, hard statistics? Guess what? There ain't any.

Been following the health care debate? The principal players can't even agree on how many of us are uninsured _ estimates vary by millions. …