Sunday, December 4, 2011

Institutional memory and reverse smuggling

Originally from

Institutional memory comes in two forms: people and documentation. People remember how things work and why. Sometimes they write it down and store that information somewhere. Institutional amnesia works similarly. The people leave and the documents disappear, rot, or just become forgotten (as it were).

I worked for several decades at a large petrochemical company. In the early 1980s, we designed and built a plant that refines some hydrocarbon type stuff into other hydrocarbon type stuff. Over the next thirty years, institutional memory of this plant faded to a dim recollection. Oh, it still operates, and still makes money for the firm. Day to day maintenance is performed, and the skilled local crew is familiar with the controls, valves, safety systems, and other such.

But the company has forgotten how it really works.

A few things conspired to make this happen:

  • The downturn in the oil industry through the 1980s and 1990s caused a moratorium on new hires. By the late 1990s, our group was a mix of people over 55 and under 35, with few in between.

  • We gradually made the move to fully computer-based design.

  • A series of group reorganizations physically moved our office several times.

  • A major corporate merger several years after that completely dissolved us into a larger petrochemical firm, causing a significant institutional and personnel shakeup.

Institutional archaeology

In the early 2000s, several of my colleagues and I retired.

In the late 2000s, the company remembered that this plant existed, and thought about doing something with it. Specifically, increase output by debottlenecking one unit, and doing a feasibility study on addition of a second unit.

Now they had a problem. How was it built? Why was it built like that? How does it work?

Institutional memory grows hazy at this point. The alien machinery hums along, producing polymers. The company knows how to service it, but isn't quite sure what arcane magic was employed in its construction. In fact nobody is even sure how to start investigating.

It falls to some of the then-younger engineers, now the senior cohort, to dig up documentation. This is less like institutional memory and more like institutional archaeology. Nobody has any idea what documentation exists on this plant, if any, and if it exists, where it is, or what form it might take. It was designed by a group that no longer exists, in a company that has since merged, in an office that has been closed, using non-digital methods that are no longer employed.

The first step is finding out what the plant's name is. It turns out that the name most engineers use is just a colloquial name based on its location, and it has another official name. Several of them, even. There is the name of the internal project that designed it, and the name of the joint venture under which it was actually built.

There was a unique ID assigned in 1998 as part of a document-management revamp. There is another unique ID, assigned in 2001 for digitization purposes. It's not entirely clear which document management systems are current, incidentally. Also, some of them point to other document-management systems.

No luck here. The 1998 ID points to documents located in a "library" at an address that hasn't existed since long before 1998, which might explain why that 2001 ID doesn't point to any digitized documents older than some recent reports on routine maintenance. At the time, I had naively hoped digitization would solve our problems forever. My manager was reading a dense book about it that I picked up out of curiosity. It had seemed persuasive.

But, the old-fashioned phone and email tree worked a bit better. The old research division is still mostly intact, and their physical library exists. Someone there is able to find documentation on the plant's polymer processes, as well as copies of some engineering documents duplicated for the R&D library's local records. Big paper blueprints and engineering drawings, as well as books of data, in dusty filing cabinets. The paper documents tauntingly sport IDs announcing that they had been digitized by Big Digitization Corp at some point in the past. Who knows what happened to that archive.

Deciphering documentation

Some documents assembled, the engineers get to work trying to get a handle on how to organize a debottlenecking project. Unfortunately, the documents seem to be written partially in hieroglyphics, and are only partly complete. They make some very slow progress. The manager half-jokes that engineering schools should teach a course in engineering archaeology, where students are given a pile of 30-year old documents and asked to figure out what's going on. I like the idea. Maybe even read an old engineering textbook, like the collectors into repairing old vacuum-tube electronics do.

Some of the methods and notation are familiar, but others are long obsolete. Even where nothing has officially changed, cultural assumptions about what should be documented explicitly or can be assumed have changed, making interpretation difficult. And it would really be nice to have a big-picture overview book. At the end of the project someone should've been commissioned to write a book, "What This Goddamn Plant Is: And, How It Works". That book is effectively being written now, only by archaeologists.

Reverse corporate espionage

A former colleague and I were contacted some time after this by another former colleague who now had some sort of management role in this group. Would we be amenable to consulting part time on a project relating to the old Plantname? I agreed. It sounded interesting, and I was being offered an hourly rate amounting to several times my previous salary.

Thus I landed the strange job of trying to explain to the company how its plant worked.

I could draw on several kinds of personal memory for this job. I remembered how some things worked, and the 30-year-ancient engineering practices were my own. More importantly, I had an idea of what was important and how the pieces fit together.

Perhaps equally importantly, I unofficially had some documentation. During our office moves and reorganizations, the document situation became increasingly dire. I would wait days to get something mailed to me, after tracking down a series of merged document libraries, some of which were halfway through the digitization processes. Paranoid corporate management also had rules about anything relating to trade secrets, which meant anything relating to the polymer process at all, which made it hard to work while visiting contractors' offices.

So, we developed a don't-ask/don't-tell policy of making private copies of documents and carrying them around with us. Engineers, to generalize, hate waiting around for stupid reasons, and having documents meant that we could get to work. It also made us look better, since we got things done on time, instead of having to send out lame excuses that we're late because we're waiting on a fax.

My job now was to smuggle these documents back into the company. I would be happy to just hand them over. But that doesn't make any sense to the company. The company officially has these documents (digitally managed!), and officially I don't. In reality, the situation is the reverse, but who wants to hear that? God knows what official process would let me fix that.

No, the documents need to be brought back in to where they 'already were' unofficially. Physical copies are made and added to the local group library. Eventually they'll probably work their way into the digital document management system, the next time someone canvasses and notices some documents with no inventory control tags. I hope they aren't lost this time, because I won't be around in another 30 years to smuggle them back in again.

Oh, and as an external consultant, I'm not allowed to know some of the trade secrets in the documents. The internal side of the team needs to handle the sensitive process information, and be careful about how that information crosses boundaries when talking to the external consultants. Unfortunately, the internal team doesn't know what the secrets are, while I do. I even invented a few of them, and have my name on some related patents. Nonetheless, I need to smuggle these trade secrets back into the company, so that the internal side can handle them. They just have to make sure they don't accidentally repeat them back to me.

We hear a lot about the spy-movie kind of corporate espionage. I'd love to read a study of reverse corporate espionage, where companies forget their own secrets and employees have to unofficially get them back. I'm convinced it happens more than you'd think.

A solvable problem?

I'm not sure what the moral to this story is.

Better organization and document management could solve some of the problems. But attempts to fix corporate document management also caused some of them, so one has to be careful. We might've had better luck if more of the physical office libraries still existed. We only retained some of the documents because one of them did.

Memory of techniques and importance is even harder. Maintaining a continuous gradient of ages in the company probably helps, so you don't fall off a memory cliff when one cohort of employees retires.

But maybe engineering archaeology will always exist. The more I look around, the more the engineering world, once you go back more than a few years, looks like subterranean New York City. A mass of strange engineering feats humming away out of sight, produced by long-forgotten ancient peoples, leaving only fragmentary maps and diagrams.

-An engineer, 2011-12-04

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Time to back away from friendship

Updated: September 1, 2011, By Judith Martin

Dear Miss Manners: I have a friend who doesn’t listen very well, yet thinks she is an excellent conversationalist. When I talk to her, my words are just there to let her find an opening to talk about herself, which she does with gusto. Sometimes both conversations go on at the same time. (She doesn’t care if she talks over me.) She can’t wait—it’s too important because it’s about HER.

The original conversation is just in her way, I guess. If I wait a minute, she realizes that I was talking. I can hear her change gears and retrace her steps to the original conversation. She’ll stammer something about what I had been talking about.

It’s demoralizing, because I know she’s just remembering her manners, but is really interested in talking only about herself. If I say a strong opinion in a conversation, instead of responding to it, she’ll yelp out a different side of the thought and never comment on my opinion. It’s like I’m talking to myself.

And if I talk of something that she can’t plug into her own life, there is dead silence for a minute, then she overreaches for something far-fetched, just so she can talk about herself. Anything is better than just responding to what I am saying.

As might be expected, I don’t dare complain to her about this. She is not keen on getting complaints. I would be screamed at.

Gentle Reader: Your friend has no interest in you whatsoever and screams at you if you dare to question her.

Miss Manners recommends changing your telephone number. She hopes you do not harbor the illusion that the failure to exhibit respect and—in the case of a friend—genuine interest and affection is a mere oversight that can be corrected by calling it to the offender’s attention.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sink ‘friends’ who pushed cruise plan

Updated: August 25, 2011 By Judith Martin

Dear Miss Manners: The daughter of a dear friend planned a destination wedding shortly after her engagement a year ago. She chose a cruise, with the wedding on an island we would be visiting on the cruise.

My husband and I were reluctant to go for several reasons. We both had to take a week of vacation and go on a cruise in which we have no interest. We tried polite refusals to the invitation but finally caved in and agreed to go.

Two weeks ago, the bride canceled the wedding. We have trip insurance, but it will not cover this type of cancellation— the wedding was called off only three weeks in advance, so we get nothing back if we decide not to go.

We are now stuck with a cruise that we do not want because of the canceled wedding. My husband refuses to go and has withdrawn his request for time off from work. I will not go without him.

My husband thinks that the bride and her family should compensate guests who cannot get any money back. Our friends heavily pressured us to go and threatened to end the friendship if we did not. We are trying to be gracious, but we have paid a significant amount of money to attend this destination wedding. Do you have any advice for us?

Gentle Reader: Lots: Do not commit to major expenses of time and money for things you do not want to do.

Do not consider people friends if they threaten to break off the friendship if you do not cave in to their wishes.

Stop debating about asking these people for compensation. Miss Manners assures you that their original lack of regard for your circumstances indicates that they are not going to worry about, much less pay for, the losses incurred by you and probably dozens of others.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mission impossible: stop another recession

August 7, 2011 6:19 pm
Mission impossible: stop another recession
By Nouriel Roubini

The first half of 2011 showed a slowdown of growth – if not outright contraction – in most advanced economies. Optimists said this was a temporary soft patch. This delusion has been dashed. Even before last week’s panic, the US and other advanced economies were odds-on for a second severe recession.

America’s recent data have been lousy: there has been little job creation, weak growth and flat consumption and manufacturing production. Housing remains depressed. Consumer, business and investor confidence has been falling, and will now fall further.

Across the Atlantic the eurozone periphery is now contracting, or barely growing at best. The risk that Italy or Spain – and perhaps both – will lose access to debt markets is now very high. Unlike Greece, Portugal and Ireland these two countries are too  big to be bailed out.

Meanwhile, the UK has seen flat growth as austerity bites, and structurally stagnating Japan will recover for a few quarters – after double-dipping after the earthquake – only to stagnate again as the stimulus fizzles out. Even worse, leading indicators of global manufacturing are slowing sharply – both in the emerging economies like China, India and Brazil, and export-oriented or resource-rich countries such as Germany and Australia.

Until last year policymakers could always produce a new rabbit from their hat to trigger asset reflation and economic recovery. Zero policy rates, QE1, QE2, credit easing, fiscal stimulus, ring-fencing, liquidity provision to the tune of trillions of dollars and bailing out banks and financial institutions – all have been tried. But now we have run out of rabbits to reveal.

The misguided decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the US at a time of such severe market turmoil and economic weakness only increases the chances of a double dip and even larger fiscal deficits. Paradoxically, however, US Treasuries will probably remain the world’s least ugly safe asset: risk aversion, equity declines and a looming slump could even see treasury yields fall rather than rise.

Fiscal policy is now contractionary in both the eurozone and the UK. Even in the US the issue is only the amount of drag, as state and local authorities, and now the federal government, cut spending, reduce transfer payments and (soon enough) raise taxes. Another round of bank bail-outs is politically unacceptable. But even if it were not, most countries, especially in Europe, are so distressed that their sovereign risk is actually leading to banking risk – as banks are loaded up with distressed government debt.

Hopes for quantitative easing will be constrained by inflation that is well above target levels across the west. The Federal Reserve will probably start a third round of QE, but it will be too little too late. Last year’s $600bn QE2 (along with $1,000bn of tax cuts and transfers) produced a growth bump of barely 3 per cent, for one quarter. QE3 will be much smaller, and will do much less.

Nor will exports help. All advanced nations need a weaker currency, but they cannot all have it together – if one is weaker another has to be stronger. This is a zero sum game which risks only the resumption of currency wars. Early skirmishes are beginning as Japan and Switzerland try to weaken their exchange rates. Others will soon follow.

So can we avoid another severe recession? It might simply be mission impossible. The best bet is for those countries that have not lost market access – the US, UK, Japan, and Germany – to introduce new short-term fiscal stimulus while committing to medium-term fiscal austerity. The US downgrade will hasten demands for fiscal reduction, but America in particular should commit to look for significant cuts in the medium term, not an immediate fiscal drag that will worsen growth and deficits.

Most western central banks should also introduce further QE, even though its effect will be limited. The European Central Bank should not just stop rate hiking: it should cut rates to zero and make big purchases of government bonds to prevent Italy or Spain losing market access – the outcome of which would be a truly major crisis, requiring doubling (or tripling) of bail-out resources, or debt workouts and a eurozone break-up.

Finally, since this is a crisis of solvency as well as liquidity, orderly debt restructuring must begin. This means across the board reduction on the mortgage debt for the roughly half of America’s households that are underwater, and bail-ins for creditors of banks in distress. Greek-style coercive maturity extensions, at risk free rates, must also come for Portugal and Ireland, with Italy and Spain to follow if they lose market access. Another recession may not be preventable. But policy can stop a second depression. That is reason enough for swift and targeted action.

The writer is chairman of Roubini Global Economics, professor at the Stern School, NYU and co-author of Crisis Economics

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.