Monday, November 10, 2014

Black Box Model

A long time ago, a friend who was the superintendent of schools often wrote articles for the local paper about the school district. Often he would discuss school finances with a lot of figures. This was great for the mathematically inclined, but left most of the readers overwhelmed with facts and figures.

Likewise, how many of us can explain modern banking or a wireless communication device or its cousin, a microwave oven? How about the causes of the rise of terrorist organizations? Our world and the components of our modern society, and the interactions of a lot of societal elements are becoming more complex. Friedman popularized the Flat World concept that our neighbors are 12,000 miles away because of international trade and instantaneous, copious communications.

The Black Box Model suggests that we can only explain how something works by describing its inputs and outputs. We might describe modern banking by the types of customers and the benefits they derive from doing business, but we're not really sure about the extent and types of investments the banks make--loans, etc.--in order to return a little bit more money to their deposit customers. Similarly with cellular and wireless communications.

Madison Avenue and Washington DC discovered a long time ago to sell the emotions that product/service/ideology would bring us--whether it be happiness, contentment or fear of the future. That's how we're going to be describing how the world works in the future: with emotions and images. We won't be able to reason it out how "things" work but we will be able to describe what it looks like and how we'll feel when it works or doesn't work.

My superintendent friend was encouraged to tell more stories that describe the dire state of the district: teachers buying crayons and paper on their own; ordering textbooks on Amazon using their personal credit card without a hope of being reimbursed; students relying on 1950s civics books that know nothing of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War and the protests, Watergate and Nixon's resignation, the growing tension between the three branches of government, Reaganomics, the Houses's impeachment of Clinton, the Bush dynasty, women on major party presidential tickets, etc.

Unfortunately, the Black Box Model might be explain the use of faith, emotions and images to motivate a group--whether it be the members of a society about the perils of privacy violations or employees of an organization about wellness--but it cannot be used to solve problems. For that we need to understand the 'process' within the Black Box. Some days, it seems even the field of journalism has given up on explaining who, what, where, when, why and how--resorting to emotional appeals and opinions about major events. Trying to fix ongoing--therefore chronic--issues within our organizations, we should not rely on platitudes and planks. We need to dig deep and work smarter at figuring out how to make our 'machine' work better.

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