track record
by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Resource Books All rights reserved.
track record n. phrase  Originally the chronicled athletic achievement in track and field events, now used to refer to personal accomplishments in business or any other aspect of life.
There is nothing that fails like success.
                    -- G. K. Chesterton

There are plenty of success stories around.  Success sells.  In any book store, you can browse through a stack of shelves all dedicated to the subject.  Readers expect to learn by analogy the formulas for success.

Quite likely, though, a multitude of policies and decisions participate in a success, and not all factors are controllable.  Success can occur in spite of some of them.  You might not get a chance to read about the in-spite-of's.  Except for running and jumping and throwing, a "track record" means little.

Not surprising, writers like to write about their successes, to document their own track records.  There may well be better lessons in a failure.  I'd like to write about my successes, too, but they are few and small.  Not much to be learned from them.  My failures are abundant.  Some are not so small.  Here's one of them.

    The assignment in the early seventies: Build a world-wide electronic mail network based on a galaxy of emerging technologies...
    • peer-to-peer networking protocols,
    • store-and-forward, packet switching,
    • semiconductor memories and microprocessors,
    • and -- oh, right, facsimile.
    More people owned FAXes than ever heard of PCs. A certain company brought to the party a leadership position in reprographics, facsimile, and laser scanning technology.  I served on the corporate staff and rode a bicycle to the office every day.  Nobody could figure out what else to do with me, so I was given a budget and a team of business development experts.

    My strategy was to develop cooperative ventures with the common carriers.  To everybody's surprise, the company won conditional support from the United States Postal Service and the PTTs (Postal, Telegraph, and Telephone companies) of several countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

    The German Bundespost, however, imposed the condition that electronic mail terminals must be manufactured in a plant established within the country's borders.

    The team independently derived the fact that the value of a network increases according as the square of the number of subscribers -- n (n - 1) / 2, actually, a relationship later to become known as Metcalf's Law.  

    Without Germany on the network, other tentative participants would doubtless drop out.  Yet the investment in a new factory abroad required authorization from the highest company levels.  There were the inevitable staff reviews and controversy.  The project faced a "recommendation for non-concurrence" from a V.P.   I made an appointment with him.

    "Your proposal is good except for the German plant," said the V.P.  "Take that part out, and you have my support."

    I cleared my throat.  "As I tried to explain, the network is all of a piece. Germany insists on a plant, and -- "

    "Haven't you ever heard of Venray!"

    "A city in France, I believe."

    The V.P. sat forward in his chair.  "Venray is where we built a factory three years ago."

    "It's been shut down, though," said I, recalling the history imperfectly.

    "Don't we wish!" the V.P. snapped.  "First, there were start-up delays; later technical problems forced the postponement of product introduction.  All at once, the market window slammed in our faces.  But we were stuck -- are stuck!  How do you close a plant in a country that has a law against firing people?"

    "For the case at hand," I protested, "the product is already field proven.  By sharing a joint financial interest with the Bundespost -- our customer -- we have all but eliminated the market risk."

    The V.P. shook his head impassively.

    "You surely don't expect this proposal to atone for the sins of all previous projects."

    "Sorry," said the V.P.  "The company tried it before and it did not work."

    That was that.  Other managers and staff reviewers fell in line.  The company's decision was to authorize investment in a network only for domestic operations.  The project failed, victim of an invidious comparison (see analogy).

So much for my own track record.  Maybe if I really had one, I'd like the term; however, in retrospect, that peer-to-peer electronic mail network using store-and-forward, packet switching protocols doesn't seem like such a hot idea.

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