Friday, August 15, 2008

how self-organization, social capital and tacit knowledge affect an organization's absorptive capacity

Having just finished Darwin's Cathedral, I have returned to Charle's Ehin's book "Hidden Assets". The main idea is how self-organization, social capital and tacit knowledge affect an organization's absorptive capacity.  This is an interesting thesis, but I have to confess, I got quite bogged down in his evolutionary appeals.  Evolutionary psychologists are frequently critiqued for their loose functional appeals to pre-historic cultures.  These are anything but well understood.  In fact, when done poorly, they come across like an Umberto Echo book where backward connections are ridiculed for the conspiracy theories they engender.  Backwards connections do not imply causality.  Usually what happens is an author has a point they want to support.  To do so they look for a plausible selective advantage for the desired trait.  I found Ehin's book full of such tenuous appeals.

Poorly done evolutionary appeals also leave the genie out of the bottle.  In "Hidden Assets", Ehin gives evidence that un-management (his term for full self-organization with tribe sized business groups) is the strongest leverager of human capital.  While I believe this rather dogmatic assertion may apply in specific cases, I think it is a huge over-extension when generalized.  However, Ehin uses a functionalist appeal to evolutionary psychology to bolster his argument.  In doing so he fails to identify why we should accommodate evolutionary tendencies for un-managment but reject evolutionary tendencies towards despotism and hierarchial structures.  I suspect a standard free-loader argument would come into play here.  However, Ehin never used it.  This substantially undermines Ehin's book.  The questionable validity of functional appeals really demeans what should have been a very interesting thesis.

Successful explanations about how self-0rganization, social capital and tacit knowledge affect absorptive capacity would seem to require the following elements:
  1. multi-level selection theory  (see Wilson's "Darwin's Cathedral")
  2. structures limiting free-loader exploitation (see Wilson's "Darwin's Cathedral & Atran's "In God's we trust)
  3. organizational entropy  - a.k.a - the rise and fall of organization structures (see Willis, 2004 in "A complexity and Darwinian approach to management with failure avoidance as the key tool")
  4. group neuropsychology (I think the evolutionary psychology of religion is a fruitful approach to this question, although other branches of science certainly can offer quite a few insights as well)
  5. a pragmatic philosophical base (I think Peirce is probably the best resource here - his physics background resonates well complexity theory and its history)
  6. a tool like relational (social) networks for exploring and testing predictions
However, this certainly isn't an exhaustive list.  What elements need to be brought together for a full answer to Ehin's thesis?

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