I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ‘trial and error’. I’ve also been reading Henry Petroski’s book ‘To Engineer is Human: The role of failure in successful design‘. I’ve also been thinking about this in the context of social customer care and how so many companies who are looking to go down this route are looking for answers to some of the following questions:

  • What’s the ROI?
  • How do I scale it?
  • What skillsets do my agents need?
  • Who owns it?
  • Where should I start: Twitter, Facebook or communities?
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In his book, Petroski gives many examples of engineering failures, where bridges have twisted or buildings collapsed. But what intrigued me, and continues to do so, was the fact that none of these ‘failures’ set out to be. These buildings and bridges were designed with the utmost rigour, by engineers with expertise, experience and knowledge. And yet, a combination of events conspired resulting in ‘failure’. This notion of ‘failure’ is an interesting one.

Petroski writes (p43): “…engineers hypothesize about assemblages of concrete and steel that they arrange into a world of their own making. Thus each new building or bridge may be considered to be a hypothesis in its own right. In particular, one hypothesis of a structural engineer might be that so and so bridge across such and such river under these and those conditions of traffic and maintenance will stand for so many years without collapsing. Now if such a bridge were built and were to carry traffic year after year without trouble, the hypothesis would be confirmed time and time again – but it will never be proven until the so many years under the original plan had elapsed. But should the bridge collapse suddenly under no extraordinary conditions before those so many years were up, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the original hypothesis was incontrovertibly wrong.”

He continues (p44): “The process of engineering design may be considered a succession of hypotheses that such and such an arrangement of parts will perform a desired function without fail. As each hypothetical arrangement of parts is sketched literally or figuratively on the calculation pad or computer screen, the candidate structure must be checked by analysis. The analysis consists of a series of questions about the behavior of the parts under the imagined conditions of use after construction. These questions may be easily answered for designs that are not particularly innovative, but a computer may be required to perform all the calculations needed to analyze a bold new design. If any of the parts fails the test of analysis, then the design itserlf may be said to be a failure. A design can be altered by strengthening the weak link and then analyzing the new design. The process continues until the designer can imagine no possible way in which the structure can fail under the anticipated use. Of course, if the designer makes an error in calculation or overlooks the possibility of failure or does not program the computer to ask the right question, then the hypothesis will erroneously be thought to have been verified when in fact it should have been disproved. Absolute certainty about the fail-proofness of a design can never be attained, for we can never be certain that we have been exhaustive in asking questions about its future.

“The fundamental feature of all engineering hypotheses is that they state, implicitly if not explicitly, that a designed structure will not fail if it is used as intended. Engineering failures may then be viewed as disproved hypotheses. …On the other hand, the past success of an engineering structure confirms the hypothesis of its function only to the same extent that the historical rising of the sun each morning has reassured us of a predictable future. The structural soundness of the Brooklyn Bridge only proves to us that it has stood for over one hundred years; that it will be standing tomorrow is a matter of probability, albeit high probability, rather than one of certainty'”

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Over the past few years a different type of customer service has emerged. One that is more intimate and humane. The challenge facing many eager to participate is, as that incredibly prescient book The Cluetrain Manifesto points out in the Introduction (pXXXI):

“Though corporations insist on seeing it as one, the new marketplace is not necessarily a market at all. To its inhabitants, it is primarily a place in which all participants are audience to each other. The entertainment is not packaged; it is intrinsic. Unlike the lockstep conformity imposed by television, advertising, and corporate propaganda, the Net has given new legitimacy – and free rein – to play. Many of those drawn into this world find themselves exploring a freedom never before imagined: to indulge their curiosity, to debate, to disagree, to laugh at themselves, to compare visions, to learn, to create new art, new knowledge.”

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Social media is a journey. The journey you make – individual or corporate – is intrinsic in finding the answer to your questions.

And when you do set out on your bold new journey, do you set out looking to prove or disprove the ‘failure’ or ‘success’ of your hypothesis? How do you know you have the right hypothesis? What’s your next hypothesis? How do you hypothesise about a ‘ freedom you never before imagined?

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