cutting-edge competition

🕔Aug 04, 2005

At first glance, the Stikinia Fencing Club and Fortune 10 corporations in fields ranging from aerospace to petrochemicals may not look like they have much in common. In fact, they have both benefited from conceptual technology developed by Alan Campbell, a Telkwa-based engineer who is extending the science around organizations and decision-making.

Perhaps you didn’t know there was a fencing club in Smithers, or a science of decision-making—or even an Alan Campbell.

I’ve been fascinated by how organizations work ever since I was a little kid
– Alan Campbell

None of this would be surprising: the club is pretty low-profile. The conceptual nature of achievements in decision-making science guarantees their absence from headlines. And Campbell himself is pretty low-key, retreating daily from his modest Tyee Lake home to an office a few steps away, where he tackles multi-million-dollar problems for all manner of organizations.

“I’ve been fascinated by how organizations work ever since I was a little kid,” he says, attributing this to his childhood in Trail, B.C. That’s where his father worked for what was then the world’s largest mining company in the world, Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company (now COMINCO).

Although Campbell describes it now as one of the better run companies of its day, he saw then that its inner workings produced a good deal of human suffering and environmental degradation. Young Alan’s mind was seized by big questions: Why were people’s best efforts to collaborate for a common purpose so often frustrated by their own actions? Why are the outcomes of organizations’ activities so often at odds with their stated goals?

Such questions shaped Campbell’s wide-ranging post-secondary education, which spanned geology, biology, computer science, ecology, and liberal arts courses such as anthropology and the psychology of human vision. They tugged at his finely tuned logical senses when, bearing a doctorate from the prestigious Stanford University, he found himself on science’s cutting edge by contributing to ground-breaking artificial intelligence projects.

They became more important than ever as he watched organizations acting “logically”—frequently aided by complex statistical calculations—but producing outcomes that were anything but logical, profitable or principled.

“The results were sometimes bizarrely inaccurate,” he says, recalling spectacular failures of science and human collaboration: exploding space shuttles, oil spills, rapid species extinction, and the systemic erosion of human dignity.

When [companies] aren’t working well, people resort to force to achieve goals
– Alan Campbell

Campbell learned to analyze organizations in terms of their underlying knowledge models: the systems of key principles, values, supporting ideas, and variable facts that determine formal and informal operating procedures.

He’s come to believe that undesirable outcomes of well-intended organizations spring from diagnosable faults in their knowledge models. “When [companies] aren’t working well, people resort to force to achieve goals,” explains Campbell, defining “force” as behaviour ranging from deception to extreme violence. “But force is neither efficient nor constructive.”

Equipped with knowledge models designed purposefully to deliver necessary outcomes, says Campbell, organizations tend to make principled, ethical choices—and highly valued outcomes result.

“When organizations are set up properly, people can collaborate constructively. Force becomes unnecessary for desirable outcomes,” he says. “When people can have fun collaborating, force actually becomes a boring alternative.”

By incorporating these principles into sophisticated computer models and expert decision-making systems, and applying these to a wide range of applications in the corporate and non-profit sector, Campbell has pioneered and helped define a new field: knowledge engineering.

His diverse clientele includes Fortune 10 industrial corporations, think tanks and government agencies. The products of his work have surely affected your life, and your environment: from the clothes you wear to the carpet on your floor to the black box that controls fuel injectors in your car.

Campbell believes any organization, from tiny clubs and non-profits to governments and multinational corporations, can use knowledge engineering principles. And like any applied scientist worth his salt, he looks for opportunities to put his technology to work. Therefore, when one arose in 1993 to redesign the Smithers Fencing Club (since renamed Stikinia), Campbell stepped up—bearing some formidable conceptual tools.

Only three years earlier, Campbell had begun coaching fencing. It had taken three engaging teenaged wanna-be fencers to convince him to do it because, although he’d fenced since childhood, he considered himself neither a hotshot fencer nor a competent coach. His spare time was limited as well.

“And I was pretty shy,” he grins. But he agreed to give lessons, provided that others would set up and administer the club.

Initially, the fledgling club operated according to B.C.’s Societies Act. As it grew to about a dozen kids, Campbell saw it plagued by injuries, accidents, behaviour problems, discipline issues, antiquated equipment, and access to competitive opportunities determined by wealth rather than ability.

Three frustrating years later, Campbell had an Aha! moment: “If knowledge engineering applies so well in an industrial setting,” he asked himself, “why not to a sports club?”

He set to work in the same way he builds such models for clients: interviewing experts to derive the critical operating principles, ideas and facts which underlay their successful organizations. In this case, that meant talking to Olympic-level fencers and the organizations who cultivated them.

These discussions unearthed the critical element common to these athletes’ training environments: good fencers have tons of fun doing what they do. With this in mind, he overhauled the club’s mission statement. Instead of “winning,” it became simply to “have fun scoring touches.”

As with any good mission statement, the supporting principles, decision-making procedures, and success indicators flowed naturally from it. Participants signed contracts which explicitly endorsed the overhauled knowledge model, and chose a new club name: the Stikinia Fencing Club.

It sounds absurdly simple, but the model’s application dramatically transformed the club. To begin with, Campbell became comfortable engaging, or disengaging, students and parents based on how they related to its mission statement.

“I accepted members on the basis of their enthusiasm for having fun scoring touches—they really didn’t have to look like athletes,” explains Campbell. “And I declined to coach people who weren’t having fun scoring touches.”

The result? Discipline ceased to be an issue. Coaching became more fun for Campbell, which made lessons more fun for his students.

The newly inspired coach sought out expert training counsel and teased out learning insights from students by regularly asking them to analyze the most fun moments of their fencing experience. Using the knowledge model to design lessons and plan competitions, Campbell found himself instructing eager students three nights a week and on many weekends.

Within a year, the club boomed to more than 200 participants, with up to 20 high-performance athlete/coaches and a long waiting list.

New partnerships were established between the club and the school district. Corporate sponsors clamoured to furnish the club with safe, Olympic-quality gear for everyone. Accidents and morbid injuries quickly dropped to zero, and club members developed powerful social bonds. And consistent with predicted outcomes of the new knowledge model, the club began to turn out champions.

In the new club’s first year, students Teresa Milne and Campbell’s daughter Christy respectively took gold and silver medals at the provincial championships. For each of nine years thereafter, the club members brought home medals.

“Most or all of the high-performance fencers medalled at the provincial and national level, and many won gold,” says Campbell. “We always had a provincial champion in our club. All of them were among the top 16 in Canada…. You have to be having a lot of fun scoring touches to get that far.”

One member, Melanie Friesen, set her sights on the world championships. Campbell implemented a model training program, including nutrition, fitness and top-notch equipment.

“The financial resources were barely there, and coaching talent was marginal,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “But the athlete was very keen, and we had strong community support.”

In 2002, Friesen qualified for the Canadian elite squad at the North American championships. “Merely being a Canadian champion won’t qualify you for that level of competition,” emphasizes Campbell. “You have to have demonstrated enough ability to win.”

Campbell still beams about the fact that Friesen was the only athlete in the Canadian elite team who only packed a Canadian passport and trained solely in Canada, unlike her counterparts who enjoyed costly training opportunities in France, Germany, and the U.S.

“No one would think you’d be able to do that from small club like ours. But it’s absolutely possible for athletes from small towns to do really well, by focusing on having fun,” he concludes. “You don’t need to mortgage your home or have a genius-level Olympic coach. You just need a good organization and a wonderful community behind you.”

Campbell is currently taking a sabbatical from coaching, to work on software development projects. He still chuckles at the contrast between “sooty industries” and Smithers’ white-clad fencers, both of whom have benefited from knowledge modeling.

“This knowledge engineering approach can make organizations a lot safer… and lead to a great deal of joy,” he concludes.

© Larissa Ardis