Seen from our digital world, it’s extraordinary to think that you might lose your life for professing a belief in zero and infinity.
But as recently as 1600 Giordano Bruno, a former Dominican cleric, was burned at the stake in a Roman square on a charge of heresy for suggesting in his book On the Infinite Universe and Worlds that the earth was not the center of the universe and that there were infinite worlds like our own.
The concept of zero and infinity were at the center of the philosophical wars raging at that time. Zero and its twin, infinity, the other side of the same coin, were dangerously subversive ideas because they fatally undermined the Church’s teachings, which were founded on the ideas of Greek philosophers and mathematicians, and in particular Aristotle.
The Aristotelian system, refined by Ptolemy, became the dominant philosophy of the Western world for the best part of two millenia. Aristotle placed the earth at the center of the universe, and dealt with problems like Zeno’s Paradox by rejecting zero and infinity. Aristotle declared that mathematicians “do not need the infinite, or use it”.
The Aristotelian view of the universe – which ‘proved’ the existence of God as the prime mover, the source of all motion in the universe – became a foundation for Christian belief. Questioning the Aristotelian doctrine was tantamount to questioning God’s existence.
Indian mathematicians were not challenged by the concept of zero and the infinite and seem to have adopted them as early as the 4th century. The Mayan people of Central America used the concept of zero well before that. And the Babylonians too used zero as a placeholder. Widely adopted by mathematicians across the Muslim world, zero and infinity were anathema to the dominant Western mindset.
It was the Italian mathematician Fibonacci (yes, he of Da Vinci Code fame) who is credited with bringing zero, and the other Arabic numerals, into Western mathematics in the 13th century. It would be more than 400 years before they were accepted and could be openly exploited by the founders of modern mathematics such as Descartes and Pascal.
Italian merchants loved the Arabic numbers – and presumably couldn’t give two hoots about the philosophical implications. Governments tried to suppress their use [in 1299, Florence banned Arabic numerals, ostensibly because they were too easy to change and falsify] but in the end bowed to commercial pressure. Arabic notation was allowed into Italy and soon spread throughout Europe as the most practical way of calculation.
Reading all this in Charles Seife’s excellent book Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, I couldn’t help thinking about parallels with my working world of BPM.
BPM flame wars on LinkedIn discussions are as close as we’ve come to burnings at the stake, at least as far as I know. But resistance to new ideas is always fascinating and it’s certainly been apparent in the adoption of our own zero: the language of process.
I think we’re now at the the end of the 13th century. Our Italian merchants are individuals and teams out there looking for a way to collaborate on performance improvement. Their Arabic numerals are end-to-end business processes. They’re adopting process thinking because it works.
It took a shift in the mindset of the elite – the Enlightenment – to liberate mathematicians to think the unthinkable and adopt zero and the infinite. And from that liberation springs the mathematics that underpins so much of the science and technology that we take for granted today.
In the same way, BPM will deliver its full potential when the mindset of executives shifts to recognise the value of a strategic approach to process. Right now, pragmatism at the grassroots is typically driving process adoption. Which is great, but it’s like the early days of electricity adoption, in the first decades of the last century. It was when a standard voltage was adopted, and a grid created, that the real value of electricity could be realised.
One day, every C-level exec will recognize the process perspective as an essential pillar for the platform that underpins operational excellence and continuous improvement across the enterprise. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m quite hopeful that we’ll get there in well under four hundred years.