Thursday, March 26, 2009

Computers Change Everything (and Nothing)

Technology and technology business is often assumed to be the result of some brilliant person creating Great Technologyâ„¢ that gets everyone all excited, then some money get injected, and everyone lives happily ever after upon the riches heaped upon those closest to the idea.  There is no way to predict success because everything information technology changes so fast that nothing is relevant from one minute to the next.  This is all nonsense, of course, but it's infections thinking.  Avoiding it is a lot easier when we get out and look around a little.

Yesterday, I presented for the Ohio Investigators Association.  These are the people in law enforcement and compliance organizations who spend their time trying to figure out what happened on the way to an event that ended badly.  While preparing my remarks, I thought about all of the changes that have affected investigators over the years.  Computers and other kinds of information technology have really changed a great deal about the way that investigations are pursued.

While the technology has changed radically, change itself is nothing new to investigators.  Now we have mobile devices all over the place and pervasive networking to consider.  Before that we had Web browsing activity.  Before that we had email.  Before that we had the computers at the office and home.  And of course the media, that metric boatload of floppy diskettes sitting next to the computer.  Before that, faxes.  And photocopies instead of originals or the easy-to-identify (and hard-to-read) carbon copies.  Of course, the telephone changed things, as did the telegraph.  I could go on but it seems unnecessary to establish that change is a constant.

Change goes far beyond information technology.  Consider the importance of chemistry.  The right solutions will lift ink off of checks, making certain types of fraud possible.  There is mechanical engineering to help answer questions like just how fast that car was going when it hit that person crossing the street.  Technology in use for roads and tires changes over time.  Someone has to deal with those details and weigh them against what can be determined after the fact like just where everyone wound up in the end.  All of this reminded me of a talk I gave to an audience that included medical examiners, one of whom wore a shirt that I shall never forget.

So how do investigators, medical examiners, and other people who try to answer critical questions make sense of all of this?  Surely with change happening so rapidly there is no hope of keeping up, that no previous experience can help us.  I have heard some people even argue that experience will hurt us, causing us to think in old ways about things that no longer apply.

The simple fact is that in the face of constant change, investigators must do precisely what I do when I am asked to render a formal opinion for a legal proceeding: follow the scientific method.  Doubt everything.  Look for ways to disprove any hypothesis that would explain the data.  Then test.  Development of hypotheses and null-hypotheses will require taking the time to understand how this newfangled technology works, but this isn't a problem for scientists: it's what we do.  The people who grew up to be scientists were the children who took things apart, not because they wanted to break things but because they wanted to understand how they worked.  This process has been around a long time and has served us well, whether looking back at what happened or looking forward to what we might do next.

Not every investigator is a scientist or engineer, however.  Many investigators are energized by solving puzzles.  Here is where things get interesting: the complete picture of "what happened" often requires the kind of thought that will put the pieces together, as well as the kind of thought that will dig down into the specifics of each piece to show what each can and cannot mean.

I suggest that for technologists, we find several useful lessons here:
  1. Progress comes not from sudden inspiration, but a method to capture the inspiration, to test it, and to find a way to put it to some use.  A successful approach for the long term is a methodical approach.  Is your business or technology operation methodical?
  2. We need depth to know what we're working with.  Not understanding what is and isn't possible will lead people to insane conclusions.  Do you hire technologists who have the right depth?
  3. We need breadth to put the pieces together.  We cannot stay too focused on any datum, or group of data, losing sight of the problem that we're trying to solve.  That's a recipe for creating the perfect answer to a question that no one cares about.  Do you have product or program managers to keep everyone moving in a relevant direction?
  4. Not everyone involved in the process will master every stage of it.  The more common case is that effective investigative operation will require people to work together.  Administration will be needed to ensure that the right steps happen in the right order and that the process is sustainable.  Scientists and engineers will need to understand the technology and its application.  Investigators will need to put the pieces all together.  Is your organization's leadership fostering needed collaboration?


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