Team work, specialization, fact-checking

[26 January 2012]

This week’s New Yorker has an interesting essay on brainstorming (doesn’t work, it says). It brought my evil twin Enrique running, waving his copy in the air. “Look at this. Look at this!” he shouted.

I looked at the passage he pointed out. Pursuing the observation that “like it or not, human creativity has increasingly become a group process”, the author quotes one Ben Jones, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who has quantified the trend away from solo work and towards work in teams.

“‘A hundred years ago, the Wright brothers could build an airplane all by themselves,’ Jones says. ‘Now Boeing needs hundreds of engineers just to design and produce the engines.’”

“Well,” I said to Enrique, “no question that teams are bigger today.” “But …” he spluttered. “But what?” I said. “But Boeing doesn’t make engines.” “They don’t?” (I love to play dumb; it drives Enrique speechless with frustration. But he seems to be right. If I’m reading their Web site correctly, Boeing hasn’t manufactured an engine since 1968, and those weren’t aircraft engines in any case.) “But what makes the airplane go, then?” “GE makes engines,” Enrique snarled. “Rolls-Royce makes engines. Pratt and Whitney makes engines. Boeing makes airframes” (along with many other things, I hasten to add, none of them engines). “How can someone be interested in specialization and not know that?”

Didn’t the New Yorker use to have a fact-checking department?