Venn Diagrams, Robert Hooke, and this week at SOM

October 30, 2008

And… we’re back. Things have been a bit quiet on the blog here, as a week of finals followed by a week of Managing Groups and Teams (read: playing with Lego’s, bartering for marbles, and surviving a hurricane on a remote island) has come and gone with little mention here. But ancient is history is, well, ancient, and in this environment, last week occasionally feels like a decade ago. In fact, this week has a similar feel. Luckily, with the luxury of a cold that won’t go away, I find myself at home on a Thursday night, finally stealing a free moment to read about Venn Diagrams.

Yes, Venn Diagrams. Those overlapping circle charts you probably remember from grade school. They are an amazing tool for answering questions like “How many of the marbles are blue?” or “How many of the boys in the class are wearing shorts?” That said, they are also a wonderful metaphor for how learning seems to happen at SOM, both inside and outside the classroom.

John Venn was born in Hull, Yorkshire in 1834, at least as far as Wikipedia is concerned. He appears to be an inquisitive-looking man with an impressive white beard and wavy white hair. In 1883, he was elected to the Royal Society, where he joined a long line of entrepreneurial scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke (if you aren’t familiar with Hooke, I highly recommend looking him up. He did early work on optics, cells, architecture, medicine, steam, and a host of other things. His book Micrographia is amazing. I also named my small poetry publishing company after him, fyi.) But even more importantly, in 1880 Venn wrote an article entitled “On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings”, which was published in the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. It took a few years for someone to actually coin the term, but, for all intents and purposes, the modern Venn Diagram was born.

Now, cross the Atlantic Ocean and fast forward 128 years to SOM this week. Over the last four days, we have read cases covering competitive strategy in the lobster market circa 1971, the carving out of Air Canada’s different operating segments a few years back, a whole lot about January’s FCC auction of the 700mhz spectrum, some more about Wallmart, even more about airlines, and on and on. At first glance, I have to admit, there doesn’t seem to be much of a through-line to all of these topics. But, sitting in the Travel Clinic today, waiting for a cocktail of shots in anticipation of our trip to Africa in January, I ran into a fellow student. We got to talking about the breadth of this reading, and how it seems somewhat unformed, and that’s when good old John Venn’s diagram came into my head. (Thanks, Athan!)

No one in our class is likely to work in lobster fishing. Maybe a few will wind up with an airline at some point. But, and I realize that this “ah-ha!” moment may seem a bit obvious and boring after you’ve read this far, as we talked I started to make the connections between these different cases and realized how valuable it is to engage in problem solving across so many different types of industries and time periods. The new SOM curriculum, from my perspective, engages this insight head on, and embraces it. Any business school you go to is going to bombard you with cases from all sorts of angles. But, with the emphasis at SOM on multi-perspectival approaches to single classes, each case is immediately situated in one of the interstitial spaces that are created when Venn’s circles overlap.

And, in all honesty, I find that exciting. Even at home, with a cold, on a Thursday night.

For further reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venn_diagram (Wikipedia’s entry for Venn Diagram)

www.hookepress.com (Blatant self-promotion, but, go anyways and make me happy)

http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/15491 (Micrographia @ Project Gutenberg – Make sure you get a version that has the images in it. If you want to see a picture close up, I have a big photo in my house of one of the pages.)

http://powells.com/biblio/1-9780060538972-2 (The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London – This is a great book. And if you don't already shop at Powells.com, well, shame on you.)

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Neil Alger