Managing Excerptations: Social Learning

Managing Excerptations: Social Learning

I started my blog to kick my non-writing habit. I've now got enough material to start blocking out a book (hooray!). So while I'm doing that, I thought I'd start a small series looking at some of the books that have influenced me.

"Managing expectations" is one of my least favourite managerialisms. I cringe whenever I hear it. Expecting is about hope, which is the only thing that keeps many professionals going. We take what we can from life and do our best with it.

So this series is about some of the excerpts that caught my eye over the last six months. They're part of what gives me hope about the profession of management.

If you're stuck in a desert, you have two basic choices. Wait and hope or try to walk out. Both may result in a thirsty doom and there are valid strategies for both. One key issue for deciding to wait is the likelihood of rescue. If it's unlikely someone will come looking for you then waiting and hoping is a fools errand.

The profession of management is in the midst of a transformation. Some call it digital but digitising analogue processes is just part of what's going on. We're shifting from an industrial to a creative economy. And it's not as a result of our own efforts. We're having to react. Because the shift is a social one.

Because it didn't come about by choice, many management professionals find themselves in deserts. We can wait and hope for rescue or we can try and walk out. There is a decent chance we will be saved if we wait. But if so do we deserve to be recognized as management professionals? I think not. We need to try and walk out.

This means exploring the emergent management world of the creative economy. Exploration in a Big Data world effective exploration of the world of ideas is one of the few genuinely strategic management activities. And when it comes to learning about exploring the Big Data world, a good first read is Alex Pentland's 2015 book 'Social Physics: How Social Networks Can Make Us Smarter'.

On the issue of exploration Pentland offers three basic ideas:

"Social learning is critical. Copying other people's successes, when combined with individual learning, is dramatically better than individual learning alone. When your individual information is unclear, rely more on social learning; when your individual information is strong, rely less on social learning. The power of social learning can be seen in social networks. Increasing your reach and your network's diversity makes it more likely that you can find the best strategies."

"Diversity is important. When everyone is going in the same direction, then it is a good bet that there isn't enough diversity in your information and idea sources, and you should explore further. To avoid groupthink and echo chambers you have to compare what the social learning suggests with what isolated individuals (who have only external information sources) are doing. If the so-called common sense from social learning is just an overconfident version of what isolated people think, then you are likely in a groupthink or echo chamber situation."

"Contrarians are important. When people are behaving independently of their social learning, it is likely that they have independent information and that they believe in that information enough to fight the effects of social influence. Find as many of these 'wise guys' as possible and learn from them. Such contrarians sometimes have the best ideas, but sometimes they are just oddballs. How can you know which is which? If you can find many such independent thinkers and discover that there is a consensus among a large subset of them, then a really, really good strategy is to follow the contrarian consensus."

Social learning. Diversity. Contrarians. These are the elements necessary for management professionals to make sense of what is going on as we shift to the creative economy.

But how many management teams, especially those in large organizations, are notable for these three traits? Not as many as we might otherwise think. If people tend to do what they know and are familiar with, then management professionals will be managing to Industrial era methods.

Which is much the same as waiting and hoping.

Image via Gratisography