Anyone in business has witnessed the myriad difficulties of managing organizations of people. Key information fails to flow to those who need it, departments fight with one another, and managers make decisions on fine sounding theories rather than real information. Most mergers and acquisitions never realize the magical “synergies” that were envisioned. Indeed, there’s good reason for believing that there's a lot of truth in what organizational theorist Elliott Jacques asserted several years ago:
“management is in the same state today that the natural sciences were in the 17th century… there is not one single, well-established concept in the field of management on which you can build a testable theory.”
Indeed, business leaders flock after management fashions from re-engineering and Total Quality Management to the unthinking race for corporate downsizing and Knowledge Management, each of which offers a precious few gems of legitimate insight, along with an intoxicating haze of conjecture. Why? Why isn't there anything that would really deserve to be called a 'science' of organizations? One possibility is that the most important workings of any organization depend on underlying webs of social interactions that we rarely talk about, or even acknowledge exist, let alone know how to measure or manage. But this may be set to change, in part through modern technology.
All CEOs know full well that the “soft side” of their operations, the human side, is by far the most important, but they have also never had tools that would help them to monitor or measure what happens there. Today, however, scientific practice in many areas is being transformed by the availability of cheap, tiny sensors that gather data anywhere, anytime and on anything, from atmospheric pollution to human bio-signals. Businesses of all kinds are following suit, and exploiting networks of sensing devices to manage systems for supply and production, achieving greater efficiency than ever before. The next visionary challenge is to deploy networks of “social sensors” that can reveal the workings of the human part of the company.
I'm currently writing an article on this emerging field for the international business magazine strategy+business. I'm looking mostly at the fascinating work of MIT scientist Alex Pentland, who with colleagues is developing a range of wearable sensors that automatically record where people go, who they interact with, the tone of their voice and speaking patterns with others, as well as other aspects of their body language. From the data gathered, Pentland's group has found they can predict more than half of the real-world behavior of people in the business setting, including who will come out ahead in negotiations, who people really listen to, and so on.
This may seem a little like Big Brother (and the researchers insist that privacy issues are indeed extremely important hear), but this technology also promises to gather the kind of data on which a far more accurate science of the organization might be built. Imagine an automatic system that could detect the breakdown in trust on which a creative team depends, and flag up specific steps that could fix it, or map out the complete flow of information and knowledge within an organization – even what happens at the water cooler or during social gatherings – and identify key hubs of exchange or bottlenecks. The technology of wireless sensors is increasingly making it possible to do this by attending to the unconscious and instinctual side of human behavior, as well as the conscious and calculating, and doing so in an objective way. It seems likely that social sensing will soon help forward-looking companies out-compete their rivals. It may well also set us on the path to something that could more fairly be called a real “science” of organizations.
The article will appear sometime in the Autumn.