What do you know?

Maybe you've heard some of the news coverage about the Houdini exhibit at the Outagamie Museum in Appleton, WI. The museum, based in magician Harry Houdini's hometown, opened a new exhibit that reveals his biggest secret: the trick behind the famous Metamorphosis escape in which a handcuffed Houdini is placed in a sack and locked in a trunk yet still manages to escape and switch places with an assistant

Maybe you've heard some of the news coverage about the Houdini exhibit at the Outagamie Museum in Appleton, WI. The museum, based in magician Harry Houdini's hometown, opened a new exhibit that reveals his biggest secret: the trick behind the famous Metamorphosis escape in which a handcuffed Houdini is placed in a sack and locked in a trunk yet still manages to escape and switch places with an assistant on the outside.

The trick is one of the classics of magic. It is still in use by many illusionists around the world, and, as it turns out, magicians everywhere are furious at the museum for giving the secret away.

The museum, on the other hand, insists that the show did not reveal anything not already available in books or on the Internet noting that, “people will appreciate magic more by knowing the secrets.” This furor over the Houdini exhibit not only raises the lid on the locked trunk, it also raises more than a few questions about what it means to leverage information, or to “create new value” from the knowledge you possess.

Fleets today are very rich in knowledge assets. They have more information than ever before about their own operations, the equipment they run, their drivers, their customers and their customer's freight. Some of it is stored in databases and files, while other knowledge resides with particular people as experience or expertise. Computers have made it easier to gather, analyze, aggregate and communicate this information in endless e-ways. So like the museum, carriers must decide how to best use what they know to bring additional value to their customers and profit to their companies.

As the museum discovered, however, it isn't as simple as charging eager customers to peek behind the curtain; there are consequences, corollaries and repercussions. Leveraging knowledge sets things in motion and then, who can tell what might happen?

For example, suppose a carrier uses new load and route optimization software to analyze the routing of a particular shipper's freight. In the process, he discovers inefficiencies, opportunities to combine some loads and reroute others to reduce the total number of miles the carrier's trucks must travel to deliver the shipper's products to their various customers. Does the carrier say, “This is obviously a way to bring more value to the shipper in the form of improved efficiency and decreased costs; I can't wait to tell them the news”? Or does he say, “Finally, a way to make a decent profit on this business. I can't wait to tell our CFO”?

Using knowledge to create new value generates a sort of static electricity that causes questions concerning business ethics (and even morals) to cling to propositions. It is unavoidable. Think about the issues surrounding use of the new driver safety performance history files, or the debate over the use of onboard electronic data recorders to track drivers' hours of service and the attraction between knowledge and tough decisions is apparent. The air positively crackles with it.

By the way, according to the Boston Herald (June 2, 2004), at least one professional magician sided with the museum. Bob Rath, vp of the Houdini Club of Wisconsin, was quoted as saying, “It would take some forty hours of practice to do the trick successfully. The performance is more important than the secret, and just because somebody is going to know the secret‥ isn't going to make them any great magician.”

In other words, having knowledge is one thing, but using it successfully, wisely and well is the real magic. In today's information-rich and complex world, it might be easier to escape from a locked trunk.

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