The General

Author: Stephen Phillips, Executive Director Morgan Stanley and BIS Editorial Board Member

Please note this post contains the personal views of the author and are not connected with his employer

I am a fan of 1960s and 1970s British science fiction TV series.  The forerunners of today’s boxed sets and the binge habits they engender, these productions reflect a simpler but no less sinister, dystopian view of the world.  I used to be somewhat embarrassed by my viewing choices, but recent events in the UK suggest I am not the only nostalgic person with a hankering to go back 40+ years to relive those halcyon days!

One particular favourite is The Prisoner, which is being rerun on one of the myriad of satellite channels.  I recently found myself watching Episode 6: “The General”, which concerns a new technology with mind altering education capabilities; teaching a three year degree course in 3 minutes via television, an early form of product placement or a new spin on information literacy perhaps?

Number 6 (the main character) believes the technology may be used for mind control and discovers “The General” to be a sophisticated super computer that can answer any question.  Number 6, determined to sabotage it asks” The General” a question it cannot answer; typed on a keyboard to produce a punched card which is then fed into a slot in the computer: the preferred GUI of the day!  The computer starts to smoke and shake as it overloads before exploding and killing the bad guys.  “What was the question?” asks Number 2, “Why?” responds Number 6.

Clearly there are many parallels with the recent emergence of super computers, AI and robotics; but not natural language programming which had not be foreseen in 1967!   However, I recount this episode for a different reason.  The reaction of “The General” was remarkably similar to that of information professionals at two recent conferences when I posed them the question: “Why do you exist?”

Having taken inspiration from Simon Sinek and his TED presentation, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sioZd3AxmnE), website and book (https://www.startwithwhy.com/ ).  Sinek explains that, whilst we can all talk extensively about what we do and how we do it, the most successful people and organisations can articulate their “why”.

What is their “why”?  It is their purpose; the cause or belief that inspires them, allowing them to drive their business forward and appeal successfully to clients, sponsors and stakeholders?

Unfortunately, no one can tell you your Why, but I recommend you start to figure it out, and quickly.  Establishing a shared belief will galvanise you and your team with a common sense of purpose and mission.  Furthermore, if you align it with your organisations’ mission it enables your clients, sponsors and stakeholders to buy in and advocate for you.

Don’t forget,  your stakeholders do not need to know (and much less care) about what you do, and still less how you do it: that’s your job as a subject matter expert.  They do need to know Why you are there and how you will help the organisation deliver its goals.  It is critical you link your vision to your organisation’s goals, cascading that vision and the objectives to your colleagues to enable them to feel you all share the purpose.  They in turn can then link their individual objectives to those goals, thereby making them part of the whole organisation.

Unlike Number 6, we cannot cause the omnipresent (but not omniscient) super computer to go into meltdown or roll back the technology tide; but if you “magnify your mission” you will have a shared sense of purpose, understand where and how you fit in, how our contribution benefits your organisation and enable you to chart your strategy to ensure information professionals continue to create value for the future.

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