The Paradigm Shift



Before becoming too attached to current paradigms, look at some rules and regulations that once governed people and how they lived, worked, and thought about the world. As ridiculous as some of these now appear, at one time they were legitimate, given the rules of the day.

• For a long time it was believed that the world was flat (a view still held by some).

• Emily Dickinson's poetry was judged to be unpublishable because it didn't rhyme.

• Football coach Knute Rockne's use of the forward pass at Notre Dame was viewed as a fad that would not last.

• Black athletes were deemed incapable of playing major pro­fessional sports.

• Einstein's appearance and behavior suggested retardation.

• Colonel Sanders was considered too old to start a business.

• Men insisted that iron ships would not float, that they would damage more easily than wooden ships when grounding, and that the iron bottoms would rust.

Many situations exist to demonstrate the paradigm effect in action. Here is a simple example to demonstrate this concept, followed by a more comprehensive demonstration.

In the early 1970s, a major corporation was faced with the seemingly impossible task of engineering and producing a special customer request in an extremely short time period (about half the normal lead time), under severe budgetary constraints. In response, the company formed a multidisciplinary team to con­currently design, tool, and produce the item. Because repre­sentatives of the different functions worked in the same room and collaborated on the problems, the product was delivered ahead of schedule, below cost, and with few production problems (in contrast to the usual situation). At this point, the situation doesn't sound like a paradigm effect example, but it really was. After completion of the project, the company failed to see through their existing paradigms to the long-term benefit of such an approach, and went back to business as usual.

This next example does not focus on a specific organization, but suggests how a generally accepted set of rules or standards in a an organizational function, such as data processing, can have an effect. When computers were first introduced, they were huge behemoths that required highly trained specialists to operate them. The governing paradigm logically became one of centralized computing, with the ignorant masses precluded from any contact with the machine. All applications and development involving the computer were strictly controlled by data processing.

In the 1970s technology changed to allow remote access, software improved, and more people were trained to use computers. The logical conclusion would have involved an immediate move to more decentralized processing. However, in most cases, this approach didn't fit the existing paradigm of centralized control and an elite cadre of DP professionals, and the change was slow to come. As a result, many employees outside data processing were frustrated because they were trained to use the computer, yet they could not get direct access.

An even more dramatic effect came about with the development of personal computers. DP professionals saw PCs as they wanted to see them, and were skeptical about their potential value. In fact, Ken Olsen, President of Digital Equipment Corporation, stated in 1977, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home." Of course, this viewpoint carried over into the workplace as well. How wrong was the paradigm shared by Olsen and others? Just look around in any office or factory today for the answer. While these examples are significant, the impact of these situations was not catastrophic; things just took longer to happen as a result of the paradigm effect. The examples in the next section demonstrate what can happen when paradigm paralysis occurs and organizations cannot respond effectively.


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