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Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Better Instrument?

A poor workman blames his tools. Sometimes an amateur musician imagines that he would produce a better sound with a more expensive instrument. Sometimes an amateur photographer imagines that she would produce better pictures with a more expensive camera.

The trouble is that most violinists would be unable to make much difference in sound between a cheap violin and a Stradivarius. The finest violin is not worth much in the hands of an average violinist, or (for that matter) in a room with poor acoustics.

A violin student needs a reasonably good violin, but cannot take advantage of a fantastically good violin. My mother, who is a violin teacher, often sees students (or their parents) wasting their money on expensive instruments. Far better to concentrate on practice, improving technique rather than seeking excuses.

Conversely, an excellent musician can often make a great sound from an average instrument. When I was younger, I had a cello that I played very badly. One day, a friend who was a top student at the Royal Academy of Music played someone on my cello. It sounded fantastic. For a few days later, I thought I could still hear her sound resonating in the instrument when I tried to play.

It is certainly the case that some instruments are better than others, but the relationship between the instrument and the sound produced depends on a lot of other factors - the musician, the music played, the acoustics.

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What are the lessons of this for any kind of systems innovation? If we think of a system innovation as an instrument (in other words, a means to an end), then it is clear that the outcome is not solely dependent on the technical quality of the instrument, but depends mostly on how the instrument is used by an individual or organization. A fool with a tool is still a fool. Calculating the "business case" for acquiring a better instrument depends on predicting how effectively and expertly the instrument is going to be used. See my paper Reasoning about systems and their properties.

Sometimes the adoption of a new instrument by an organization involves expert consultants, who are the first users of the instrument within the organization. This may produce short-term results, and their use may "resonate" for a while, but this effect may not endure, unless the organization practices conscientiously.

Do you have any examples of this? Please contribute comments.

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