Under Control

NONLINEAR SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

Oft times this columnist campaigned for creation of wealth tough technology and people's ability to deploy same. My background in physics makes this a no-brainer for me. Less often do I treat the social forces behind emergent technology. But knowledge development is the full partner of technology in the creation of wealth.

And wealth is more than "bottom line" dollars. It can be a quality, an ability, or an experience. Companies are formed and evolve as cultural adaptations to historical change. How can we best deal with the DNA of the "Dilbert Syndrome"? How can we create and direct efficient organizations? We can use "top-down" directives, or the "bottom-up" approach. A simple story might help clarify our thoughts on this matter.

Imagine a cocktail party. The problem is how best to manage a party that can exist in two modes: convivial chatter or raucous roar. Conversations are conducted at a decibel level sufficient to be heard over the noise level of the other imbibers. You must be loud enough to be heard, and total loudness is proportional to the number of people in the room.

In one scenario, guests arrive singly. Once there are thirty guests, the tone of the party changes from convivial chatter to raucous roar, with dancing. At the same time the content of the conversations change from information exchange to something of a much more fundamental emotional context

In the second scenario, the party never gets to the threshold level of thirty participants. Instead, the host engages in a bit of social engineering - i.e., plays the stereo real loud. This alone pushes the party over the edge from convivial to a raucous. If the stereo is for some reason turned off, the noise level of the party-goers remains high. To bring it back down, it's necessary to propose a toast or break a martini glass. The party-goers have no control over the issue. For any two of them to have a quiet bit of conversation it's necessary for them to step out on the balcony.

This simple behavioral model mirrors that for some "emergent" social behaviors, and demonstrates that simple intervention can change complex social states. Individuals have little freedom in the matter; you can't command guests to dance or chatter. All you can do is foster an environment where talking is difficult and dancing inevitable. In other words, crank up the stereo, dim the lights, serve industrial strength drinks, and recruit the first dancers.

Why is Morley talking about parties? Is this important? You bet your bippy it is. We've learned the following:

Talking it further, we have framework for industrial organizations. We can take old behaviors from an old environment and trade them for new behavior in a new environment. To do so we have to remember the following:

This philosophy can change our way of thinking just as surely as changing salespeople's commission rate will change what and how they sell.

This article is based in part on a talk given by Chris Meyer of the Center for Business Innovation. Ernst and Young, New York, at the third annual Chaos Conference held in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

As appeared in Manufacturing Systems Magazine October 1995 Page 16
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