Monday question: Will IBM live longer than Rome?

Cities and companies are both forms of social organization, we organize ourselves in corporations and we organize ourselves in cities. In his recent book, Imagine (2012) Jonah Lehrer recounts some really interesting research on one of the major differences between these two forms of organization. The research in question is on creativity and life spans. It turns out that the creativity in a city – measured in different ways – grows with the size and the concentration of the city. For a company the opposite is the case – as a company adds 10 000 employees a significant reduction in creativity can be observed, Lehrer notes.

There are deep methodological challenges with an experiment like this, of course, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that this was true. What would explain it? Would it be the teleological nature of the corporation as opposed to the city? A corporation exists to accomplish something, it is analogous with goal-directed behavior. A city has no purpose. A city is much more like a daydream.

Lehrer also discussed the necessity and unplanned nature of daydreaming in his book. It strikes me that a city may be our way to daydream together, to imagine and create a non goal-oriented environment for our creativity. A corporation is our way to work together, and as such it becomes more boxed in. It is directed problem solving vs un-directed.

There are other differences too, I think. The loose organization of a city versus the hierarchy and strong ties of the corporation. And, of course, as Lehrer notes: cities almost never die, corporations live shorter and shorter lives. The average life-span of a company is around 40 years, although some are as old as 700 years or older. One important characteristic of old companies, researchers have found, is that they are very tolerant of what happens at the edges and they do not attempt to centralize decision making. I think of recently-turned-100-years IBM and it strikes me that we do not know if IT-companies will be outliers or if we should expect them to perish sooner because of the pace of innovation in our sector.

Here is the Monday question then: rank the following companies and cities in order of how long you expect them to live (remain in their own name and under their own brand) in absolute years – and note the difference in difficulty!

Companies:

  • Microsoft
  • IBM
  • Google
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Oracle

Cities:

  • Stockholm
  • San Jose
  • Berlin
  • London
  • Rome
  • Amsterdam
  • Washington
  • Beijing

Interesting, isn’t it? I will try to figure out what order I believe they should come in, but I can already tell you I find it very hard to figure out both.

Beethoven and the peculiar machine – what would you say?

So, a quick thought experiment this wonderful Monday morning: What if researchers going over Beethoven’s old papers found a small, and wonderfully complicated little machine, a mechanic wonder, that when applied to paper crawled over it, detected the lines of score paper and started to write out musical works. The machine – according to the notes they found with it – was said to have been designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, who called it a Universal Music Composer. Beethoven found it when 16 years old, and decided that he would use it to become a famous composer, because the music written with the device was fantastic.

He worked hard to master it, because it took hours to understand all the complicated settings and mechanisms, and he developed mysterious sequences and calibrated methods that when implemented in the little device allowed him to write music the likes of which the world have never known. He spent at least 10 000 hours mastering the thing before he was able to, his notes show, write the ninth symphony.

The little device was very, very delicate so no-one has dared open it. Attempts by researchers to use it to write music has created bland pieces or horrible cacophonies, nothing even resembling genius or mastery of the musical arts.

When the news of this wonderful mechanical device spread it created a fierce debate and a horrible divide in the opinions of musicologists everywhere. The first faction essentially called using device cheating, and condemned what Beethoven wrote as fake. The second faction said that nothing changed. Beethoven was still a genius, but with a different tool and a different art.

Where would you stand?