Edgeware - Primer



The compression of time and space

One of the unique dimensions of the late 20th century is the apparent compression of space and time. Why should health care leaders care about something as seemingly esoteric as the compression of space and time? Most of the models of organization, methods to improve performance, and measurement concepts which dominate the management field today were created with the implicit assumption of space and time lags. In other words, they were designed for a world which in many instances no longer exists. When these approaches are tried in contexts where there is this space-time compression, the results are often frustration, stress and lack of improvement. This section of the paper will demonstrate the compression of space in time using examples from manufacturing, banking and health care.

Dee Hock, the founding CEO of VISA, refers to the major impact the compression of time has had in financial markets. In the past, there was an expectation of a time lag (or 'float') between the initiation and completion of most financial transactions. For example, if you purchase an item on credit there is a time lag between when you make the transaction and when the cash is paid to the supplier. We have elaborate systems designed to take advantage of this float. This luxury of a time lag (or 'float') disappears with the use of debit cards or equivalent systems of real-time transfer of funds.

Min specs


Hock argues this same reduction of time lags happens with information today. We used to have the luxury of a time lag between the discovery of an idea and the application into practice. This time lag is almost non-existent in many aspects of society today. In health care, medical research is reported on (often in 'sound bites' on the news). The public access to medical research has often created a push to put the ideas into application immediately.

An example of a time lag reduction that has had a remarkable impact on
manufacturing around the world is the idea of 'just in time' inventory systems. The idea was a simple one, eliminate the need for storing, financing and managing inventories by creating real-time order and delivery systems between suppliers and producers. When the concept was first introduced there were many skeptics. Yet in a very short period of time, this was standard practice in many (perhaps most) manufacturing industries. Just in time inventory changed the relationship between suppliers and producers. It was both facilitated by the improvement in technology and shaped new improvements in technology to get the most benefit from the concept. Boundaries became blurry between what was "in the organization" and what was "outside". Networks were created to minimize the potential problems if a supplier could not provide the needed goods on time. The definition of success for a supplier was altered and new skills of flexibility were needed in the employees and the physical production systems.

Case Study: Time & Space Compression

At a large hospital in Montreal, a change in procedures demonstrates this compression of time and space. Recently the hosptial administrators made a decsicion to eliminate all radiology film from the hospital. Instead, x-ray images were stored in computer files and doctors wiewed them on their computer screens. Films which traditionally needed to be handled, processed and delivered through intermediaries were now directly available from the radiology department to the surgeons or other direct service providers. After hearing how quickly and radically this changed the ability of the radiology department to serve the patient care physicians, several hospitals in Toronto are planning to eliminate radiology film. In this example, film and all of its associated people and systems were intermediaries which created both time and space lags between the tests and the reading or interpretation of the tests.

In terms of compression of space, we can now bypass many of the intermediaries in our society. Intermediaries play the role of a bridge between organizations or individuals. When we can access the organization or individual directly rather than through an intermediary, we are again witnessing a compression of space.

The financial service industry is another case where this compression of time and space can be demonstrated. Technology has allowed us to bridge huge distances and create connections which permit simultaneous creation and dissemination of information. We see this reduction of time lags in banking where the currency float of a few years ago has shrunk to a point of being virtually non-existent. Money can be transferred instantly between individuals, organizations and countries. The increased degree of connectedness aided by technology has eliminated some of the intermediaries in our society. One of the banks' prime roles was to be the intermediary between those who had money to loan and those who had need to borrow money.  For a price, the banks would match the players. Today, this is becoming less significant. When the information of who has money and who needs money is more widely available, many corporations are bypassing the intermediary role of the bank. This is not unique to financial services. Due to the technology which allows increased connectedness, in many industries one can go directly to the source of the information, product or service.

In our organizations, intermediaries are often layers of management or supervision. Part of their job is to bridge the gap between the providers of service or front-line workers and upper management. Bridging the gap creates time lags in our organizations. These lags provide the information float and hence the luxury (and sometimes the frustration) of time delays.  But these intermediary positions are being eliminated in many industries, including health care, through downsizing. If the positions are eliminated but the role of intermediation and the expectation of float still exist as old mental models, we will simply see over-worked employees trying to fulfill the same roles but with less resources and less success.

Learn as you go


"The tendency of people in positions of power is to believe that they can control and they believe in the power of 'let us figure it out.' 'Let's hire the experts, let us sit in a room, figure it out and then it'll happen.' That is a common theme and it's one that I just don't believe in."
James Taylor
President and CEO
University of Louisville Hospital
Louisville, Kentucky

Intermediaries also imply external 'designers' of a system. The designers are distanced from the deliverers of the service. This is a separation of thought and action in both space and time. The planners plan and others implement - a separation in space. The plans are created first and predetermine the action steps to take - a separation in time. Complex adaptive systems have the capacity to adapt and evolve without an external designer. They self-organize without either external or centralized control.

In highly interconnected contexts, where there is a compression of time and space, the assumptions of float, intermediaries and external designers are problematic. Many management models, such as traditional strategic planning processes, are built on the assumptions of float, intermediaries and external designers. When these assumptions hold, the models are relevant and useful. They can improve effectiveness and efficiency in organizations. When the assumptions are invalid, these models can lead to an illusion of control but an actual loss of effectiveness and adaptability.

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All Components of Edgeware Primer Copyright 2000, Brenda J. Zimmerman.
Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto, Canada.
Permission to copy for educational purposes only. All other rights reserved.