Sunday, February 15, 2009

Energy in networks

I was just typing up some annotations from a book I had read last year, and thought I would jot down a couple of ideas. One of the challenges of designing for systemic change is how to treat group dynamics? Do you assume that group dynamics have few causal factors that can be controlled? Or do you assume the environments that influence group dynamics can, generally, be perturbed positively or negatively (depending on one's intended goal).

"There is a fundamental mismatch between the nature of reality in complex systems and our predominant ways of thinking about that reality. The first step in correcting that mismatch is to let go of the notion that cause and effect are close in time and space... Small changes can produce big results – but the area of highest leverage are often the least obvious." (Senge, 1990, p. 63).

No matter which side of the coin one falls on, I don't think one can understate the complexity involved in designing through group dynamics. Precision is, on any substantial time scale, impossible, but does that mean all levels of accuracy are as well? As I have been thinking more about this conundrum, some quotes from Parker & Cross' book on social networks seemed relevant.

In this section they are talking about a rather elusive topic of energy. Do you find it energizing or de-energizing to work with someone? The definition of energy was left open in the surveys, so I think the standard connotation of motivation, worthwhile future effort, etc can be read into it.

Two themes emerged. First, energizing interactions are clearly influenced by people’s behavior, but they are also influenced by certain characteristics of the individuals and the relationships between them. For example, two people – one trusted and one not trusted – can exhibit the same behaviors in a conversation but with different results. Similarly people can be energized by the vision of someone who has integrity and stands for more than his or her own personal gain. Yet the same vision articulated by someone without integrity can be highly de-energizing. Thus energy is not entirely a product of a set of behaviors in a given interaction but is also affected by people’s day-to-day actions. (Cross, Parker, 2004, p . 57)

This seems to illustrate the conundrum behind designing through group dynamics. Two measurable behaviours can look the same but lead to radically different group responses. I think Scott Atran's work on components of religious behaviour shed quite a bit of light on these differences. Numerous heuristics intertwine to produce a sense, as David Sloan WIlson would say, of viable group commitment. The challenge is knowing what non-trivially observable behaviours and actions make the difference. I think systemic designers are right to avoid this difficult problem, but I am not sure it is intractable.

According to Cross & Parker,
Energy lives in a sweet spot in five dimensions of conversations or group problem-solving sessions: a compelling goal, the possibility of contributing, a strong sense of engagement, the perception of progress, and the belief that the idea can succeed. (p. 57-58)

Certainly if network theorists can start to tackle some aspects of this question, then some of those the relevant fields of psychology can - and if they can, is it just a matter of multi-disciplinary training before those in educational change fields can?

Cross, R. Parker, A. (2004). The hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. USA: Harvard Business School Publications.

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