SHIFT was published by John Wiley & Sons, in London and New York, in 2003
This book started life as an attempt to provide an explanation for what went wrong to cause the great “Internet Bubble” of 2000. For human nature drives us to explain, and to understand, the phenomena around us and there had been no more visible phenomenon than the rise of Internet in the second half of the 1990s – together with the dramatic growth of the ‘Network Economy’ and ‘E-Business’, followed by the equally dramatic bursting of the stock market bubble these phenomena had generated. There was an almost messianic combination of over-enthusiastic venture capitalists and gullible private investors. But mere failure, as Plato realised, is no reason not to try again. It might even be a cognate of nobility. The idea for this book came from a long-forgotten sentence written by Thomas S. Kuhn in some old notes:
In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm, all of the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally relevant.’
In his introduction, Kuhn showed how it is the image of science which we possess that conditions our perceptions, an image derived from the study of textbooks from which each generation of scientists learns to practice their trade. Yet these books can seriously mislead us. As he explains with a typically felicitous example: ‘Inevitably, however, the aim of such books is persuasive and pedagogic; a concept of science drawn from them is no more likely to fit the enterprise that produced them than an image of a national culture drawn from a tourist brochure or a language text.’ This was exactly the case with the flood of Internet business books: they were as ‘persuasive and pedagogic’ as tourist brochures, but those – and there were many – who sought to draw a concept of Internet drawn from them were doomed to the misunderstandings, over-simplification and downright error which were at least partly responsible for the debacle of the second half of the year 2000. It seemed to me that was needed to interpret this confusion was an analysis of the image of Internet, and as I re-read Kuhn’s study it became apparent that his thesis provided a tool fit for the task of interpreting this revolution as adequately as it had interpreted earlier scientific revolutions.
For by Kuhn’s account, we are certainly participating in a revolution parallel to the great scientific revolutions of the past - those associated, for example, associated with Copernicus, Newton or Einstein - since the criteria for determining whether a paradigm shift is indeed a revolution, a major turning point in scientific development, are all eminently applicable to the brief history of Internet. There are three such criteria: that the scientific community reject one time-honoured theory in favour of another; that there is a consequent shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny; and that the scientific imagination be transformed in ways that entail a genuine revolution of the world in which scientific work is done. ‘Such changes,’ Kuhn argues, ‘together with the controversies that almost always accompany them, are the defining characteristics of scientific revolutions.’ These three criteria can clearly be applied to the ‘Internet revolution’ in so far as it has taken place, as can his three categories of problems in what he describes as ‘normal science’, namely the determination of significant fact, the matching of facts with theory, and the articulation of new theory. Here the need for clarity and definition – especially from the business point of view – is obvious. Such clarity would have helped to avoid some of the strategic errors of the past few years, and I believe an interpretation based on Kuhn’s work in the history of science will enable us to see through the theoretical fog which so often renders Internet confusing.
In science, Kuhn tells us, paradigm shifts happen when there are anomalies or disparate, odd scientific results that cannot be explained. When sufficient anomalies occur, those working in any scientific field must begin to consider that the paradigm under which they are doing their work is no longer of use or is actually dysfunctional. Today we are faced with the same kind of situation in the world overall, where our twentieth century business paradigm is dysfunctional in the face of new forces such as globalisation and digitalisation and we need to move to different fundamental assumptions. In this rapidly changing context, companies are faced with a pressing need to engage, to use my friend Richard Normann’s words, in his 2001 book Reframing Business: When the Map Changes the Landscape, in ‘reconfiguring the value space’
It seems to me that Kuhn’s ideas could be used to explain the Internet phenomenon as it made its transition from academia to the world of business, and none, and to interpret the moment of crisis which occurred from 2000 to 2001. It is clear, however, that the task of the present study might also be expressed in terms of Karl E. Weick’s Sensemaking in Organizations (1995) who briefly cites Kuhn, and lists the following aspects of sensemaking with reference to the example of the discovery of BCS (Battered Child Syndrome): someone notices something new, in the form of a surprise or something that doesn’t fit, in a continuous flow of events; discrepancies are discovered on examining past experience; new and plausible hypotheses are formulated to explain these novelties; the hypotheses are published; the hypotheses are not readily accepted because they derive from a different field of expertise. We will see that such a model for the process of making sense of what Kuhn describes as ‘novelties of fact’ or ‘novelties oftheory’ is akin to his own model. But I believe that in the case of Internet the scientific model developed by Kuhn affords greater insights which facilitate the process of ‘making sense’ of the phenomenon.
The basic proposition of the original version of this book was that only a reading of the different pasts of Internet would enable us to provide a meaningful interpretation of the present, and thus to designate the imminent new paradigm. Like almost everybody, I got it slightly wrong, but I also believe that things have turned out more or less as I imagined.
Yet the paradigm is not completed, and many new problems loom. Moreover, the "historical" part of the book, what Kuhn would call the pre-paradigmatic part, seems to me still valid and interesting - and often forgotten in the world of mobile and social media. So the idea is to add a new section about where it seems we are now going. So while Part I of this new book is a revised version of the original, Part II is entirely new and seeks to bring the underlying concept up to date - and to look once again into the future.
This new edition will be published as an e-book later in 2016.