The Future Of Business Theory Is Science, Not Ideology

It was a quiet week for me in blogland: a pulled back muscle, a cold, holiday visitors, parties.

But I still had some thoughtful posts at GigaOM that I summarized in the weekly update this way:

The general direction of business change is… what? – Stowe Boyd via GigaOM

A great deal of what passes for management theory is at best anecdotal understanding, or at the worst, ideology. It is not grounded scientifically. One of the primary themes here is going to be gleaning a better understanding of the future of work based on the application of scientific understanding. And that understanding might come from psychology, like cognitive science or social psychology, to better understand human motivations, needs, and how we shape each other’s thinking through social interaction. Or it might come from social network analysis approaches: for example, looking into field research on influence in social groups, and applying those insights in the business context.

I hope also to point out where business practices run contrary to scientific results, like the notion that intimidation and confrontation are necessary and effective tools. The evidence from cognitive psychology is fairly conclusive that this is false, across the board.

This week, I undertook some of that sort of writing.

  • In You have to forget the old before you can learn the new, I explored the difficulty of change from the perspective of evolutionary biology. In this perspective, change for the better can involve a movement from one peak in a fitness landscape moving to another, taller fitness peak. But the difficulty in making the change is not just climb upward to a higher peak: many people and companies find moving into a valley between the two peaks — to accept a short-term decrease in efficiency, during the transition — harder still. Hopefully, the awareness that before we can adopt and become expert in new and better business practices we have to unlearn older practices where our current expertise was hard won. So that valley is where we are actively forgetting lessons learned, and trying to move up the new slope, and learning new lesson as we go. The difficulties in that two-step are the root cause of a lot of technology adoption problems, especially in technologies like social tools in business.
  • In If crowdfunding is so great, why don’t companies do it internally?, I ask what I thought was an  obvious question, and considered the company in economic terms, as a marketplace for ideas and capital. If a company’s people are the source of all great product or service ideas, and there are the mechanism to bring them to life as well, why not treat the entire company as a market of investors, and provide them with a virtual currency to decide what should be funded and what should not? This would also allow for a way to keep track of who is best at guessing, and giving them — as part of their Return-On-Guessing — a bigger pile of virtual money to invest in the next year, quarter, or month.
  • In Speedback trumps feedback, I highlighted Karen May’s anecdotal knowledge about how giving feedback seemed to be both easier and of greater impact in short-term training settings — ‘speedback’ — than in the everyday context of employee and peer reviews, and connected that to the well-researched phenomenon of ‘swift trust’, which is the psychological pivot point on which short-term project cooperation is based. Here’s is a great example of social psychology shedding light on a foundational trend in business today, and perhaps one of the ten most important factors in the near future of work. So speedback is one element of a greater, and scientifically well-understood phenomenon, swift trust.
  • And finally, in Remote workers are more engaged?, I explore Scott Edinger’s research into data from an investment firm’s 360º feedback process. Looking at the data he discovered that workers *not* colocated with their bosses rated their bosses higher. His take — largely anecdotal, but supported by the dat, remember — is that leaders take a different approach to their interactions with non-local staff. In a nutshell, they value the time with the remote workers more, use communication tools more effectively, and spend less but more focused time with them. This leads to the workers rating the leader higher than others, because — among other things — this looks like the leader values his staff’s time more, which might be just a side-effect, but might be the clincher. So, the counterintuitive conclusion is that allowing people to work remotely might lead to highly levels of engagement between leaders and their teams.

I will be continuing this line of inquiry in 2013, so stay tuned.

And some of those insights and research findings will be forming themes in my long-format writing project, Beyond Social: Imagining The Postnormal Business. (Sign up for the newsletter, here.)

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