Archive for November 11th, 2009
“We have to believe in free-will. We’ve got no choice.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
A family of 4 deer crossed in front of my car this morning. I had to slow down and proceed with caution as the road on both sides was densely forested and there always seems to be a straggler or two who cross once you think you can safely proceed. My daughter riding in the back seat offered an observation. “How come deer always wait for a car to come along before crossing the road in front of it?” Seems like a perfectly reasonable statement from a seven year old, who while precocious (of course) still struggles in seeing the world from perspectives other than her own point of view (don’t we all).
I explained that the deer cross the road when they desire and don’t actually wait for a car to pass by in order to jump in front of it – it only seems that way. However, to an observer who regularly passes by in a car, who only observes the deer crossing when they drive by, it seems like a perfectly reasonable explanation that deer cross the road only upon viewing a car, which creates an uncontrollable urge on their part to run in front of it.
If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it does it make a sound? Can a sound exist if there is no one there to hear it? If you think that existence is human centric then the answer is not as clear then if you believe that humans are merely part of the story of what is going on around us. The tree will create the same vibration through space whether there is any measuring device, i.e. someone’s ears, nearby. (We can get deeper into this, making assumptions about an event happening but nothing, absolutely nothing, no mechanism, no organism being there to perceive the event.)
It also reminds me of Schrodinger’s Cat – an example used to illustrate the point in the world of quantum mechanics, that has a cat in a box and upon opening the box to examine the state of the cat (alive or dead) you actually change the state of the cat. In other words the very act of measuring something can cause its properties to change.
For the purists in the survey world we could argue that when you ask someone about “Overall Satisfaction with their Organization” you run the risk of actually changing the way that they might respond. This might be especially true if you first ask about other aspects of organizational life which can get them thinking about issues that they had not been previously thinking about. On the other hand the pragmatist in me says that if you ask the question routinely in the same fashion at the same point in the questionnaire it is not a big issue. Work done on item placement on surveys shows that it can have an impact, but rather minimal in my opinion, when you are looking for big organizational elephants to tackle rather than nuanced differences.
What about other aspects of life, organizational or otherwise? Do we routinely use the same causality logic, driven from the point of view of the observer, as when deer cross the road? I have an inkling that many of us do, even when we know better. I am pretty sure for instance, that the road repair crews have discussions in the morning to determine which way I will be driving that day before setting out their cones and construction equipment. I am also sure that toll booth operators and parking lot attendants upon seeing me get into their line, decide to slow down the flow of cars in my lane. And I am 100% certain that if there are multiple lines at an highway exit, ticket window or at airport security that the longest slowest moving line is the one I am supposed to be in. At this point I have just given up and automatically move towards that line. (That last one may have a basis in reality, if you think about normal distributions and the likelihood that you need to go where the majority of other people need to go.)
Upon starting work with a new client, a client that I may never have previously known much about or thought of, I start to see their logos and products everywhere I look. They are more cognizant to me personally rather than actually having more advertising, products or services out there.
Does the point of view of the observer influence their interpretation of events? Of course it does. High ranking managers, especially in larger organizations, may not get the opportunity to observe organizational events the same way as others in the organization experience them. They tend to be shielded from that, (if you were cynical you would say that they are being managed by their subordinates) which may cause them to come to the conclusion that there organization is running in a fashion incongruent with reality. One reason why organizational surveys are as popular as they have been over the years is because they can help cut through the shielding if done properly. Senior managements are often captivated during a feedback session which offers a point of view which may be rare for them to experience.
The notion of free will revolves around the concept of whether people (and deer) have freedom of choice in picking which decisions they will make in life or whether our outcomes, our fates have been predetermined by some external force. But the choices we make are inextricably bound up with our interpretations of events – our point of view. The implementation of free will then is then potentially also driven by the fact that two people who observe the same event may interpret the event differently, and thereby take different courses of action, depending on their point of view which varies their interpretation of the event. A single interpretation of an event is not likely from all observers because of the unique point of view of the various observers. All you have to do is to listen to the various “news” shows that are popular today to realize how varied the “neutral” interpretation of events can be.
People within organizations and those helping them interpret events and other data flows that impinge upon the organization have a challenge. In order to make the best possible decisions for the organization the challenge is to openly examine events from multiple points of view and to come to the realization that the decisions made will be interpreted differently depending on the point of view of the observer. You may come to what you view as the optimum decision but realize it will be interpreted divergently and hence will need additional explanation and transparency to be understandable from the viewpoint of others. Wait…I think I just saw a deer cross the road.
Imagine a clear glass jar full of gum balls. Imagine 100 people trying to guess the correct number of gum balls within the jar in order to win some fabulous prize. Say you took those 100 people and randomly split them into 2 groups of 50. Within one group you would take an average of the 50 independent responses to the number of gum balls and that would be their guess as to the total number of gum balls within the glass jar. The second group would also make 50 independent guesses but there would be no averaging of the responses, no collaboration. So there would be 51 guesses competing for the prize, one, an averaged response and 50 other single person responses.
If you were a business person and the success or failure of your business depended on correctly guessing the number of gum balls in the glass jar which approach would you go with, the average response of what 50 people thought or one of the 50 individual guesses? What if your business success depended on having the best track record over a sustained period of time? The equivalent of repeating the above experiment about 100 times, say once a week for 2 years. Which approach would yield the best long term track record for your business?
When this experiment is actually played out the results may or may not surprise you. The best guess is often times not the average of the 50 independent responses. The best guess is often times from one of the 50 whose responses were not averaged, but as you repeat the experiment 100 times, the person who made the best guess will change each time. Your odds are 1 out of the 50 that you would select the person with the closest guess on the number of gum balls. The group whose responses were averaged will often score number 2 or number 3 if you were to rank the guesses from best to worst, but they will do so consistently.
As a business person does it make more sense to take a crap shoot and go for the 1 chance out of 50 that you will select the individual who will provide the best guess this time, or will your company prosper more if you consistently were able to score in 2nd or 3rd place? If there are no prizes for scoring in 2nd or 3rd place maybe you would take the crap shoot, but sustained consistent performance on the part of a business is often much more highly rewarded than a strategy that gets it right one time out of fifty.
This is a very simple depiction of Critical Mass Decision Making, as described in The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. The basic theme of Critical Mass Decision Making is that large groups of people have within them a type of group intelligence that if properly unlocked can be very beneficial for organizational decision making. This approach has been used for things as diverse as finding lost submarines, predicting elections (more accurately than traditional polling methods), and determining future terrorist targets.
Imagine if you had a company of 10,000, 50,000 or 100,000 people and you could tap into the intelligence already available within your company to answer questions regarding which products should be developed, how should they be marketed or priced, which expansion opportunities should be taken advantage of, how the organization should be structured for optimal performance etc. Imagine if that information was easily available through survey research techniques…..Imagine.
The Earth used to be round.
The group that first proposed that the Earth was round is thought to be the Greeks. Although a little bit of researching turns up some potentially conflicting claims, credit is typically given to Pythagoras (of theorem fame). Some say Aristotle first thought up the idea. Either way the notion that the Earth is round has been around a relatively long time.
The Earth is now thought to be flat.
Thomas Friedman suggests that the Greeks were wrong, at least from a current economic perspective. His book “The World is Flat” examines the consequences of the dot com bust that occurred in 2001 and the “flattening” of the world in subsequent years. This is one of the scariest books I have recently read (at least from an American or European perspective).
The dot com euphoria that captured the hearts of the world’s stock markets fueled an “easy cash” machine for the high tech companies. Anybody building things internet or computer related were showered with cash, including telecommunications companies. Telecommunications companies spent billions and laid fiber optic cable around the world in anticipation of greatly increased utilization of telecommunication services driven by data and internet demands. Manufacturers of fiber optic cable couldn’t keep up with the demand. Then came the bust. Many technology companies went out of business, entered bankruptcy, selling assets for pennies on the dollar or simply struggled to survive in greatly diminished form.
All of this extra capacity for data transmission began to drive down the price of using the internet and related technologies for businesses and consumers. This price reduction and capacity has changed the world and brought about far reaching sociological changes. Places like China and India are no longer simply low wage manufacturing centers but are becoming knowledge centers that can instantaneously communicate with the far reaches of the world. Today businesses are taking advantage of the “flattening” by outsourcing, off-shoring, joint ventures, etc.
Why is this scary to an American or European?
As the world becomes flatter and flatter the competition for jobs, of almost any kind, is no longer simply with others in your locale. The competition for jobs becomes world-wide and with the wage disparity that exists and the tremendous population resources, it becomes increasingly attractive for American and European companies to place those jobs not in America or the UK for instance, but in lower wage areas like China and India. Some companies handle this as a lower cost expansion and growth opportunity and others cut jobs in one place in order to move them to another. In either case companies feel compelled to take advantage of these opportunities because of the global nature of the competition they are now facing. If they don’t continually drive down the cost of their goods or services, while maintaining quality, someone else will, taking away their customers (who feel the same pressure) and eventually driving them out of business.
Is there any light at the end of this competitive tunnel?
There has been much talk and continues to be much talk about the differences in people by generation, by country of origin, by ethnicity etc. Much of those differences, when it comes to people at work are the results of either unchallenged folk wisdom (e.g. you just can’t trust this younger generation, I remember when I was their age…), contrivances of some of the lay press looking for interesting stories, eager consultants looking to sell prepackaged solutions as well as management teams looking for reasons as to why their policies and practices are failing or at least not working up to their expectations.
The workers of today in China, those who are currently working in sweat shop like conditions, are driven by economic necessity rather than any kind of difference in what they are hoping for out of a career or the work environment. They have the same desires, the same hopes and dreams as you or I. The same hopes and dreams that our grandparents had and our children have. Some of us have the very fortunate luck of being born in countries with fairly high economic standards that allows for us some additional freedom of choice; most of the people in the world today do not get that luxury.
The wave after wave of immigration that built and is largely responsible for the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that drove the US economy to its current heights was not accomplished by people who simply felt like uprooting their families, leaving behind the familiar and sometimes living apart for long periods of time. It was accomplish by people who out of economic necessity were willing to put up with conditions of uncertainty, hardship and worse. It was accomplish, by and large, by people looking for a better life, an escape from the harsh conditions of where they were from. (There were of course millions who were brought to American shores against their will as slaves).
Recently I examined the attitudes of employees of a company who had located some of their back office operations in India. They wanted to know why turnover among this population was high, what this group wanted, and what would keep them engaged in their work? The answer ended up being that given the relatively recent “start-up” nature of this group, the employees had concerns that any employee group anywhere on the planet would have. Where is the company going? How do I fit into that? How committed is the company to our group? What can my career here be like? How will I be developed? The company of course was putting into place all the business processes and procedures for the “business operation” to be successful and given the huge amount of work that represented, the impression one was left with was that they had not put the same amount of emphasis into the human side of the equation, taking into consideration what people would want out of the working environment. The unstated assumption being made by that company was, “After all we were in India, and shouldn’t they be happy just to have a job?”
What becomes clear if you look at organizational culture data long enough is that People are People and given the same choices, the same opportunities, will have the same desires and behave in a similar fashion (I am excluding people with various forms of pathology). They will vote with their feet if they find themselves in a situation they do not like and they have other opportunities available to them. People want to have a clear understanding of what is expected of them, what the organization stands for, they want to be enabled to perform their jobs, given the resources they need in the broadest sense, and they want to feel like there is a future for them on a personal level if they stick around with the organization.
The notion that People are People is the light at the end of the tunnel. As economic conditions around the world equalize, as people in developing countries have more choices and more opportunities open to them, they will make the same choices based on the same thought patterns that someone in New York, Frankfurt, London or Los Angeles would make. What we want to accomplish, in a post-flattened world is to bring the level of opportunities available to people up to those that currently exists in places like America, rather then a lowering of the standard within America in order to be able to compete. This equalization, the eventual end-state of globalization, is how America and other western nations will be competitive. This equalization of standards is very likely a long way off, but on the other hand the world is changing very rapidly.
Longing to put the genie back in the bottle, to make things go back to the way they were before the world became flat is not the answer, both from a practical standpoint and a moral standpoint. From a practical standpoint the genie never gets back in to the bottle once it is out and there is no moral high ground is holding back people in the developing world from achieving their potential and to have a life equal to one that you or I enjoy. As humans we need to be challenged to live up to our potential. Organizations as well can be challenged to live up to their potential – total potential, not just financial potential, as I firmly believe that organizations have a social responsibility as well as a responsibility to shareholders. (Those that execute on that social responsibility have a track record of also achieving financial results.)
One of my favorite quotes is by Stephen Jay Gould, the noted anthropologist. He said, “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops”. Helping organizations tap into that potential, where ever it may exist in the world is a noble endeavor, fulfilling that social responsibility role, furthering the effort to make the world round again, not just for one group but for everyone.
In the December 14, 2006 edition of The Wall Street Journal there is a cover story about Dr. Rashmi Barbhaiya who “lived a comfortable life in New Jersey as a researcher for drug maker Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., commuting from his five-acre suburban estate in a blue Mercedes”. Dr. Barbhaiya has moved back home to Pune, India and will continue to work on drug development with an Indian research team at a company he is founding. Why did he move back to India, back home? Because he could.
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.