On Black Holes And Business

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What movies can teach the corporate world

”Understanding something intellectually is completely different from seeing it, feeling it”

This is how Kip Thorne, an astrophysicist and probably the foremost expert on gravitation in the world, summed up his experience working with Interstellar, the space movie featuring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway.

For the first time in a Hollywood movie, and most likely ever, black holes and worm holes are depicted in Interstellar the way they would actually appear to the naked eye. In the movie the black holes and wormholes are created directly from the equations of Einstein, depicting how black holes bend the light from the stars, pulling space and time with it and creating a disc of light above and below the black hole. 

In the process Kip Thorne may even have discovered new features of gravity hidden in the mathematics and he expects to write several technical papers on it for the astrophysics and graphics communities.

It’s common in business that a company does not know what it looks like – in some cases quite literally and in others on a metaphorical level.

In 2011 when I was heading communications and marketing at the Maersk Group we quite literally did not know what our new competitive edge looked like.

We were set to announce a multi-billion investment in the world’s largest ship, the Maersk Triple-E, and we wanted to make a video visualization for the press conference and YouTube. We brought in an agency to produce it.

Naturally, they asked for our drawings. We promised to deliver them, but ran into an unexpected problem – there were no such drawings. Maersk had ordered 20 vessels that no-one had seen.

There were piles of papers describing each and every feature of the ship, but they were intended for engineers and shipbuilders. Nobody knew exactly what the ship looked like until the ad agency came up with the first visualization. It’s not too far from the actual ship delivered in 2013.

You can define a black hole mathematically and a ship by technical specifications, but it only comes to life when you see it – and that goes even for scientists and engineers. It starts to speak to our imagination.

This fact is overlooked by most companies. They seem to think that numbers tell the story of a business, but turnover, return on investment and profit speak only to the financial stakeholders – the board of directors, the executives of the company, the business press and the stock market.

They do not reach the real business. The business in which employees and customers undertake thousands or even millions of transactions every day.

It takes time and effort to dig out the finer nuances – Kip Thorne had 30 people working with him on the black hole visualization, but the results were worth the effort. The same will apply if companies start showing what their competitive advantages look like.

Photo: NASA GSFC/CC



Steen Reeslev is the managing partner of This Is Touch – a company providing television airtime for corporations in the growth markets of Latin-America, Asia, and Africa. Previously he was senior vice president responsible for Group Relations at A.P. Moller-Maersk. This Is Touch is based on experience from A.P. Moller-Maersk. The company produced a large number of films on all aspects of the business. The high quality of the films gave access to airtime on television in more than 30 markets.