Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Mark Buchanan on 21st Century Organization

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Mark Buchanan on 21st Century Organization
December 2007 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary


Mark Buchanan
American Physicist and Author


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  • What is the cost of this imperfect knowledge of organizations? What remedial steps and who should take these steps to rectify the imperfect knowledge of organizations?
    The cost is immense, and most organizations pay it in terms of inefficiency. Perhaps the first remedy is simply becoming aware that there is no real science of organizations, so donot take too seriously the next best selling book promising a revolution in organizational efficiency

    In The Science of Subtle Signals, you observe that, "people have two distinct channels of communication the obvious verbal and rational channel, through which information flows linguistically, and a nonlinguistic channel that we often ignore, but that carries at least as much information." Do you realistically believe that non linguistic communication can be captured? Should it be captured at all? Would it notdivert the organizations attention?
    I do believe it can be captured. Indeed, the work I wrote about in the article is doing so. You can programa computer to recognize quite easily the nonverbal signals that people give off that convey confidence or stress or suspicion, etc. But your second question is a very good one. Should it be captured? One might argue that non verbal means of communication are non verbal precisely because they aremore efficient thatway; our brains focus on the difficult conscious communications, while we carry out more primitive communications in other ways. I think that it is partially true. However, it is also true that these non-verbal channels can interfere with the workings of an organization; you can tell from them that two people who should be working together just donot trust one another, and then you can ask why. Without a way to measure this, you might never see it. Perhaps they don't spend enough time working together face to face, an increasing problem with todays far reaching organizations and employees in different countries.

  • Whats "science of subtle signals" and why is it important for the organizations to focus on this? Do you think its application would be more useful in some industries and companies than others? (For instance process driven industries vs. peopledriven industries?)
    The science of subtle signals is the science of how the people part of an organizationworks.We can all see the verbal, rational flows of information between people. But these only scratch the surface of how people interact, and its no wonder that you cannot understand how an organization works in terms of those aboveboard interactions alone. It would be like trying to understand a computer while looking at only 10% of thewires inside. Getting a better picture of the other ways that people interact, especially through non verbal cues, is therefore very important. Whats exciting and new now is that we have technology that can monitor and measure these signals, so they donot have to remain invisible. Clearly this is more likely to be important for people-driven industries, but all industries have groups of people interacting and making decisions.

  • Would the application of "subtle signals" not preempt the actual behavior (which otherwise would have been exhibited any way)? If a person is conscious of the possible interpretations of his behavior (especially non verbal), donot you think he might train himself to catch up with the expected behavior?
    Absolutely. Theres no getting around the fact that people adapt their behavior. Start measuring them, and as they become aware of how this affects them, they will start to change.

  • Howshould therefore the science of subtle signals be positioned? Should it be a back end tool used primarily for assessing the exhibited behavior rather than a front end tool trying to preempt?
    An important idea is that this science shouldnot just be something that "management" uses on "the employees". Employees themselves should be given the opportunity to use this technology to improve their own interactions with people.

  • In The Science of Subtle Signals, you observe that, "instead of revealing the cell andmicrobe, these deviceswould uncover patterns of activity that usually go unobserved in organizations: the dynamics of person to person relationships and the ways they affect managerial decisions and organizational practices." Does it not tantamount to transgressing into employees privacy? How do you build acceptance for this approach so that everyone willingly participates in deciphering the implications of those human transactions? Would this not raise ethical concerns?
    Yes, see above. I think the bestway is if the use of this technology is totally voluntary. At this stage, it is still very experimental, and we donot know the answers to how it will affect people and organizations. Its coming and it will be used, for both good and bad purposes, and we should try to think and learn how it can be used best. The ignorant way is for management to make people use the devices so they can gather data and monitor performance. You will get a guaranteed backlash and loss of trust.Much better let the employees use the devices and devise their own way of doing so. No doubt they will use them in unexpected ways. The idea should be that the devices can help employees do better, and that helps the company too.

  • As you have outlined, "most senior executives know fully well that the soft side of their operations is the most important enabler of a wellfunctioning team or company, but the tools for monitoring or measuring the soft side have always been expensive and unreliable. The technologies of sensing and observationmay be about to change all that,while increasing the number of factors and indicators that can be measured." Do you think technologies can be so intelligent to unravel the umpteen behavioral layers of an individual / individuals? Can you give us any illustration / few illustrations where technologyintervention was effective in deciphering the human behavior?
    I think the best examples come from the article. This is still in the experimental stages, but Alex Pentland is now working with some large companies like Cisco, Citibank, etc., in some larger experiments.

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