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David A. Hounshell’s “The Medium Is the Message, or How Context Matters: The Rand Corporation Builds an Economics of Innovation” offers a fascinating study of how a gang of operations researchers and economists attempted to quantify the effectiveness of defense R&D. The characters here range from future Nobel laureate economist Ken Arrow to pioneering “learning curves” researcher Armen Alchian. This chapter is a historical tour de force that any manager who cares about formal analysis of innovation will find strikingly relevant.

Similarly, Erik P. Rau’s history of operations research (OR) by the U.S. military during World War II is revelatory in how innovation champion Vannevar Bush sought to quash its influence. In stark contrast to the British, where Blackett’s Circus (named for OR pioneer P. M. S. Blackett) and similar boffins used the
mathematical techniques of OR to deploy radar, bombers and convoys more cost-effectively, Bush-who ran the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) and oversaw the development of both radar and the atomic bomb-actively resisted it. He understood that OR inherently required a level of operational collaboration between scientists and the military. That wasn’t the kind of collaboration Bush felt was best for either the command or the R&D community. So he tried to block it every step of the way. As Rau writes:

“For Bush, OR posed a threat to the OSRD, in part, because it could divert technical expertise away from research and development. OR also did not fit well into OSRD’s mission as Bush envisioned it. But the boundary between makers and users of new weapons, which the OSRD represented, would cause much discussionas Americans gained experience in OR.”

Ultimately, Bush lost this fight, one of the few bureaucratic battles he would lose in the war. But the overarching point is key: The role of OR as a collaborative medium to accelerate the flow of innovation to the field became more important over time. The techniques enlarged the conceptual bandwidth between the makers and users of weapons and systems.

David A. Mindell’s essay on radar and system integration, Donald MacKenzie’s overview of systems design philosophy in software development, and Paul N. Edwards’ tale of the rise of global systems models are just a few of the other excellent essays in this anthology.

The common denominator? How organizations adopt the tools, techniques and technologies of systems engineering to their own internal markets. This anthology takes history and injects it with a cultural sensibility. What are the organizational imperatives that give a systems approach power? Or inherently undermine its
effectiveness?

To the extent such questions are answered, this is a collection of case studies as much as historical essays. Yes, the authors each have their systems axe to grind. But, no, that sharpening doesn’t cut away at the sinews of the core ideas. If you want to appreciate why Boston’s “Big Dig” has overwhelming problems-indeed, if you want to appreciate why the deregulation of electricity generates even more controversy than it does power-you will find useful and actionable insights in this thoughtful collection.

Mark Twain once observed that history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. In the pages of Systems, Experts and Computers, you sense that tomorrow’s systems engineering innovations will find their echoes.

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