Friday Fable. The Cherokee Nation’s “WHY THE BEARS HAVE SHORT TAILS”*

Posted by jlubans on August 18, 2017

Caption: Illustration by Paul Bransom (1921)

“AT first all the Bears had long tails.
One winter day the Bear met the Fox, who had a fine lot of Crawfish. Being hungry the Bear wanted some too: so he asked the Fox where and how he got his Crawfish.
The Fox replied:
‘Go and stick your tail down in the water and let it stay there until it pinches you. The more it hurts, the more fish you will have.’
This was what the Bear had in mind to do: so he proceeded down to the lake and made a hole through the ice.
Sitting over it, he let his tail hang in the cold water.
When it began to freeze, he felt a pain; but as he wanted to catch lots of fish, he did not stir until his tail was frozen fast in the ice.
The Fox's instructions were not forgotten: so he suddenly jumped up in the expectation of getting heaps of fish; but he merely broke his tail off near the body instead.
And ever since the Bears have had short tails.”
One might think this Native American story has nothing to do with cubicle land. How could the duped bear’s frozen tail offer any lessons for the workplace?
Well, who’s that lurking in the background? Mr. Fox. Reynard.
My first “professional” job in the 60s – my title was “Junior Science Librarian”! – was at a famous engineering school.
The president (a “bench” engineer) of that school was convinced automation was a way once and for all to control library costs – reduce the payroll.
In any case, he imposed on the library a former systems analyst (Mr. Fox) who proceeded to tell us all about scientific management and how easy it would be to move from print to full electronic text. It sounded really good and like the bear in the fable we were convinced we’d have more than our share of “crayfish” if we automated.
Cluelessly, we began a huge project of automating the periodical collection. We worked overtime coding forms, punching cards, running tallies, and producing reams of printouts. Ye olde manually typed list would have accomplished just as much in one percent of the time!
That the IBM corporation was just around the corner was not a plus; it was in their interests back then to promote automation of everything.
Soon, we realized just how big a job it was. (It would be several decades before genuine automation would produce benefits.)
Our foxy consultant was hired away by a major library to head up their automation effort – with the same result!
We were left with rolls of flexowriter paper tape, stacks of punch cards and piles of alphabetical printouts. Other than the experience, we had little to show for the thousands of hours of effort.
We kept our tails, but at least two of us had our tails kicked out the door;
one deservedly so, one very unfairly.
I went west to a new administrative job somewhat wiser and less likely to stick my tail into icy water. I began to ask questions.
Two decades later, Illustrative of how bizarre organizational life can be, the engineering school campus named its new library building after the former president.

*Source: Myths of the Cherokee, by James Mooney in “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017
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