Recent Reflections on Organizational Permeability and Dynamics

There are a number of posts from the old list serve that look like they can stand on their own as relatively independent threads. But I was struck by the number of them that seemed quite related. There might have been a good deal of time that had passed between them, or they may have been sparked by independent events or ideas, but I kept on noting how they were related. They didn’t feel like they could stand up as independent threads – they felt like they needed to be adapted such that they could be combined into one coherent line of thought. Some of those linkages were clear at the time, but others not until I was faced with this task of figuring out how to coherently move them to another platform.

These particular posts address issues like organizational permeability & dynamics, mapping shareholders & stakeholders, how economic power might be best defined by the extent to which individuals have roots in multiple organizations, and even one about how social movements might affect the trajectory of business firms. The principle that is unifying these for me at the moment is something that always hovered around the edge of our work, but I don’t feel like I ever said explicitly until now – we can’t really understand how any firm will behave at any given point in time without a fuller historical perspective on how past firms have traversed through their entire life cycle.

This problem was especially acute in the entrepreneurial field that we were in. Almost all the studies with which we interacted were about new firms. What can we tell about the likelihood of success of an entrepreneurial endeavor from their initial behavior? It looks like this perspective obstructs us from key insights that comes from the patterns that firms settle into as they get older (and frequently as they die). To what extent does adherence to or deviation from those patterns tell us about how firms that are new to the world might fare (beyond the old platitudes like willingness to innovate, being lean and efficient, having the will/desire to grow, and all that nonsense).

I think this principle was implicitly behind your thinking when you pointed out the variability in the commonly held notions of what constitutes an entrepreneurial venture that led to our “elements of entrepreneurial success” framework. As you said at the time, some see an entrepreneurial venture solely as the time of enormously high return on an initial investment where it is important to exit before the firm settles into established patterns. Others see it as the growth of a fledgling firm into a large concern that employs many people and creates a large multiplier effect. We had other varying definitions as well. But this perspective only makes sense if one steps back from the specific behaviors of any one (or any series of) new firm and looks at the problem from a broader context that looks at a wide variety of firms in different contexts and at different life stages.

I suppose we had an even simpler implementation of this broader perspective when we did the functional differentiation study. While that still involved newer firms, we did ask a broader question of how the functions the entrepreneurs were doing when they first started the firm differed from what they were doing after they had been at it a few years. Again, we had to take a broader perspective for this to make sense. From my recollections of those times, we were taking these steps implicitly. The thinking still seemed implicit (present, but implicit) in many of these posts we placed on the list serve. For me, this is only becoming more explicit (though I am struggling to be articulate about it – it still needs work) as I try to think about the best way to make sense of and organize some of these previous thoughts.

Perhaps there is literature that has already made this jump (I saw a vague Facebook post not long ago that referred to a political piece that appeared to be making reference to multi-organizational economic power theory), but I don’t remember it from the time we were active. I remember pieces that made reference to the idea of the life cycle of firms, but I don’t remember those as much more than perfunctory. Then again, perhaps there was an extensive literature to which we didn’t pay a lot of attention because we didn’t fully grasp its applicability.

I’d be curious to hear your reactions and recollections around any of this. I felt like there might be some sort of revelation here when it first occurred to me, but my difficulties in articulating it are giving me second thoughts. Maybe I haven’t put my finger on what’s uniting these posts, but I’m pretty sure there’s something that does.

Social Movements & Organizational Behavior

Becky and I went to see Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story last night. What was most valuable for me was that in our fairly extensive post-movie discussion, I found myself coming back again and again to the ideas I’ve been trying to develop in our posts. The movie discussion led me to a series of questions about the impact of social movements on organizational behavior. How do private sector organizations typically react when they are in the path of a successful social movement? A better understanding of that process might be beneficial to participants in those movements and the organizations that are directly and indirectly affected by movement activities.

Back in March, I posted the following as part of a reaction to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers:

“The key to understanding entrepreneurial success, then, has less to do with the success of the newcomers than it does with the failure of established firms to preserve what they have…An interesting insight on this came to me from Robert W. McChesney’s Communication Revolution. While not a new idea, I was moved by how concisely he put it. McChesney warns his readers to beware of firms who obtain a disproportionate amount of their profit margin from the currying of political advantage rather than the inherent value of their products. He is speaking about media conglomerates, but the same notion applies to any other established ventures as well. Those who have will fight to keep – if they succeed, newcomers will be thwarted. If they fail, newcomers will step in. Failure of the old does as much (if not more) to explain entrepreneurial success than the victories of the new. Perhaps some of the more interesting entrepreneurial opportunities can be found in areas where established firms have to rely on political advantage to maintain their success.”

Inherent in this discussion was the notion that pressure on existing firms looking to maintain their current advantage was coming from other economic actors (both direct and indirect “competitors”) seeking to carve out a niche of their own that may impinge on the territory of established concerns. What I had not seriously considered at the time was the impact of largely non-economic actors seeking to impinge on the territory of established concerns on behalf of the “public good”. How do preservation strategies differ given the different types of pressure?

There are a couple of ways that pressure from social movements differs from that provided by other economic actors. First, it is usually indirect. In most instances, movements target governments to make policy changes that affect the terms within which the established concerns can operate rather than go after the firms directly. Direct attacks on firms from social movements are usually more episodic and in search of more concrete, short-term concessions. I suspect most firms find these easier to placate or ignore. The more serious, longer-term threats are aimed at the public sector to change the conditions in which the firms are allowed to operate.

Second, social movement pressure usually focuses on questioning whether established concerns have the rights or proper justification to conduct business as they do. Other economic actors rarely have any interest in such fundamental questions. They are merely seeking a piece of the action. Hence, the stakes of social movement pressure are usually significantly higher. They can go as far as questioning the rights of specific firms to exist. The game in this arena has to be at least a bit different, though I suspect that outcomes are not that different when both or either of these types of pressure are successful.

I guess the question is how do firms divest from core businesses when public forces make it clear that the time to conduct those businesses is clearly limited? I suspect that the path is largely:

1. Utilize all lobbying and public relations resources available to delay public action against the business activities for as long as possible.

2. Once political momentum has built to the point where lobbying and public relations efforts are no longer effective, shift marketing to areas or countries where regulations or restrictions have yet to be enacted or seriously considered.

3. Shift the assets accumulated from the questioned practices to other firms or activities such that the impact on future wealth creation activities is minimal. A number of the more recent posts have been concerned with this particular step.

For social movements to be truly effective, their goal should probably be to force questioned businesses to move exclusively to step 3 as quickly as possible, and perhaps even focus on removing barriers to doing so. This is probably a tough step for most garden-variety lefties, thought perhaps essential to the achievement of stated goals.

There are a number of examples of this process currently in play. One that is further along the path is tobacco. Utility companies are clearly beginning this journey. The days of centralized electricity grids are clearly numbered. It is only a matter of time before decentralized production and storage is a fact of life. The path that utilities take to adapt to that reality is at the crux of the process that needs to be delineated. It’s also looking like the health insurance industry may soon be facing this road.

This process is also capable of playing itself out in shorter cycles with alarming implications. A recent book on health care economics by Shannon Brownlee entitled Overtreated (highly recommended if you’re at all interested in this topic) does a brief chronicle of the life cycle of the pain medication known as Vioxx. It’s astounding. Well before the drug was ever introduced, Merck knew full well that the FDA would be eventually be forced to pull it from the market because it would be incapable of withstanding clinical scrutiny. But they figured if they could build a way to keep it on the market for a few years, they could make a killing. And that’s exactly what they did. They used this process effectively in open defiance of the public interest.

It seems to me that this is another important piece of the puzzle laid out in previous posts that needs to be better understood to get a fuller picture of organizational permeability and dynamics. This also introduces a slant on public policy implications that may not have been clear from previous discussions. The framework here is patchy, but I wanted to at least note the highlights of this movie conversation in case it could be used in further development of some of the ideas with which I’ve been recently preoccupied.

Thanks as always for indulging me…


Can Economic Power Be Measured by Organizational Diversification?

An addendum to yesterday’s post…If you think more about mapping all the shareholders and stakeholders of a particular organization – or mapping all the organizations for which a particular individual is (or has been) a shareholder or stakeholder – a number of interesting questions emerge. Among the most intriguing is the extent to which wealth, status and power can be measured or attributed to the number of organizations in which an individual or entity is directly involved or invested. If our hunch that the boundaries of economic organizations and related institutions are highly blurred is correct, then it would only make sense that the most powerful individuals and entities are those that have direct involvement and influence in the greatest number of organizations. Hence, wealth, status and power are most aggressively pursued by getting involved in as many (influential) organizations as possible. Given basic limitations of human resources and attention, there is probably something of an upper limit to the number of organizations for which it pays to be active and affiliated. But within those limits (which can probably be at least loosely defined without too much effort), more is likely to be better than fewer.

This concept is probably easiest to understand when applied to individuals. For the overwhelming majority of people who work for someone else for a living at the level of middle management or below, the only economic organization in which they are truly invested is the one for which they work. There are some that might develop close ties with a particular client or vendor, but most are only directly invested (via their labor) in their employer. Opportunities for affiliation with other organizations for these people are largely available through volunteer opportunities in their spare time (or via their limited disposable income). And while there are some genuine opportunities to develop strong ties, investments and influence to other organizations through volunteer efforts, there is overwhelming pressure placed on people to limit their involvement to consumption of services or proxy memberships. Hence, in many developed societies, most people rarely have meaningful investment or influence in more than one organization.

We begin to see a little more flexibility (and organizational diversification) in a number of the professional occupations, where trade associations, professional societies and training requirements compel members to maintain involvement and connections with a myriad of organizations. While the multiple organizational contacts are a requirement for those being trained into the profession, they can become very expensive to maintain once individuals have settled into careers. Some types of organizations (Universities, for instance) are better at supporting their employees in maintaining those multiple affiliations than others, and hence those same organizations are likely to be better in developing active collaborations with other organizations in their everyday work. It’s probably no mistake that these tend to be the places rated as the best places to work in the society. Others may be better served in the future by increasing their support of employees maintaining their professional affiliations with other organizations (more on that in a bit…).

The “entrepreneur” plays an interesting role in this scheme, because almost by definition, they have to establish some type of foothold in a myriad of different organizations in order to obtain the suppliers and customers to sustain a new venture. Those most comfortable with making those types of contacts (as well as those who step into a new venture with those already intact) may have a better chance of keeping their heads above water with a new firm. Here’s an overstated but intriguing hypothesis: opportunities for failure are likely to be greater for new firms that are more dependent on attracting disparate individuals to their business than those who have secured the support of existing organizations. Individual networks, though highly important and occasionally capable of generating enormous payoffs, have a higher rate of error than networks of organizations.

As one gets into the upper echelons of organizations and organizational power, meaningful links with other organizations become commonplace enough to suggest that the links alone are a useful measure of that power. As I mentioned yesterday, fortunes can accumulate to the point that investment in organizations completely independent of one’s own becomes compelling. These are the people serving on multiple boards of directors or seeking high public office. They are more apt to cross-pollinate disparate organizations via seemingly spurious individual connections. Their influence is wielded through their impact on multiple organizations, not just the one through which they are primarily affiliated.

Let’s get Marxist for a minute. If the case can be made (and I suspect it has) that the notion that power is held by controlling the means of production is dated, perhaps it can be replaced by the notion that power is held through active involvement in a myriad of economic organizations and related institutions. Conversely, control over others is exerted by restricting the number of organizations within which they are involved. Hence, labor is kept in place by limiting their meaningful involvement to the organization that employs them. It’s funny that that this is the objective that much of organized labor is fighting to maintain. Perhaps this is the cognitive dissonance that they have yet to acknowledge…

While an intriguing and compelling view of the world can be drawn from this “Neo-Marxist” perspective, I suspect it remains an open question as to how much hoarding of this type of “power” is desirable. I think a compelling case can be made for pushing organizational permeability further down in all organizations. It is certainly more in keeping with the notion of transient employment practices that characterize most of the modern world. If any job experience required more direct involvement with a multitude of other organizations, termination of employment in one firm might lead to smoother transition of employment to another. This would limit the pain of the initial termination as well as limit the need for the public sector to assume responsibility for the individual during the transition. It’s a network/relationship view of the world, but one that might lead to a more smoothly functioning society if a greater proportion of the population were integrated into these fluid-boundary networks.

People are already using the Internet to do some of this on an individual basis, but the world is not going to transform until this extends more broadly to organizations and institutions and goes beyond connections made by technology. Some of this will come as conventional organizations adopt to a new world view, and some as individuals create new organizations from their individual networking tools. Either way, the implications are fascinating…

Shareholder/Stakeholder Mapping

It’s occurring to me that a number of our more interesting conversations – both past and present – might be best advanced by an attempt to draw “maps” of shareholders and stakeholders over the full life cycle of any firm. I don’t think anyone would care to dispute the notion the stakeholders and shareholders change over the life of a firm, but I’m not sure we’ve seen much work on how those changes come about – who maintains an interest and who divests (and when), distinguishing between “active” and “defensive” interests, understanding how existing stakeholders seek to recruit new members or remove others, and tracing when stakeholders hold “exclusive” interests in a firm and when they allow their interests to be more diversified.

To overstate the case a little, it should be possible to look at the growth trajectory of any firm and be able to identify the specific stakeholders and shareholders as well as the exact nature of their interest in the firm at any point on the curve. We should also be able to roughly predict how stakeholder and shareholder membership and behavior will respond to changes in growth and performance. Or, more modestly, we should at least be able to better understand the issues that stakeholders and shareholders are likely to confront during various points of the life cycle of a successful firm.

As a crude initial example, let’s go back to the wildly successful startup firms that our friends in entrepreneurial studies are so fond of trying to find. The initial impetus for this line of thinking goes back to the question you asked years ago about how long does a firm remain “entrepreneurial”? More specifically, you raised the point that there were a class of venture capitalists who were only interested in a successful firm during its initial period of rapid exponential growth, and would look to divest the moment the growth rate showed the first signs of slowing. So those people may now opt out, but that does not mean that the firm is unprofitable – there are likely to be other types of investors looking to get in, albeit with slightly different goals. As this firm settles into a more steady growth rate, it becomes more important to labor, the public sector, new firms that might grow out of its multiplier effect, etc. Perhaps the society starts to believe that the firm’s product or service needs to be integrated into public education. New stakeholders come in, whereas old ones begin to turn their interests elsewhere…

After a while, growth starts to plateau or decline. Perhaps the product or service has become commodified. Some investors begin to drift. The firm places inordinate interest in reducing labor costs or seeking structural advantages from the public sector. Previous labor stakeholders become more defensive and many drop out, replaced with new labor stakeholders in lower-wage areas or countries. While some older investors seek to protect their previous investments or drop out, new investors who see value in breaking off parts of the firm to incorporate into other concerns become attracted. The public sector seeks new ways to replace the jobs that have been lost.

An interesting variable in all of this is the original “owner” of the firm. Let’s assume for the moment that she started in her garage and tied most of her own personal assets into the start of the firm. Perhaps she was like the venture capitalist who got out early by selling the potential of the firm to another buyer at an enormous premium. If she stayed, there is likely to have come a point where a large percentage of her personal assets would be more rationally invested in some firm other than her own. Perhaps this led to significant interests in other ventures, board memberships in both the private and public sector and other developments that blur the boundaries of the original firm and countless others. By the time her original firm ceased operation, hardly anyone noticed – both the functions and assets had been seamlessly integrated into other concerns.

This is all skeletal and crude, but hopefully enough to provide a grasp of the idea. I think it might provide a more accessible framework to the “elements of entrepreneurial success” ideas we conceived years ago, and also begin to give some real teeth to the “blurring organizational boundaries” argument that everyone understands intuitively but have yet to formally identify or define. The strategy here is not unlike the one we used for our product-market taxonomy years ago – start back at where an organizational boundary may have been clean and identify the processes that begin to make it blurry.


Malcolm Gladwell, Again…

Being down for a few days with a minor illness has given me an opportunity to get through Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. After finishing the book, I went back and looked at the post I wrote here about his first book. It’s amazing how much of that post is as applicable to this latest book as it was to the first. The basic themes that seem to always apply are:

  • Gladwell latches on to an important insight, and expounds upon it in an enticing and insightful manner.
  • He makes beautiful use of engaging stories to make his points, though his pure reliance on those stories (and the inconvenient links between them that he carefully chooses not to address) do more damage to some of his arguments that I suspect he realizes.
  • His motivation to explore the topic at hand tends to be driven by belief in fantasies that undermine his ability to emerge with a better overall understanding of the world.
  • For all the flaws and infuriating tendencies, his work is still highly provocative, worth the effort and moving thought in a roughly positive manner.

In this particular book, the nice insight is the notion that success does not come from nowhere, and that context is as or more important than individual initiative in achieving it. It’s a case that I’ve wanted to make for years, but my take has always been too pedestrian (remember the “resume study” I wanted to do of the biotech industry?).  Gladwell is great at finding clever and sexy ways to bring forth his key points.   At first, I was impressed and enticed by the way he showed that some of the elements of that “context for success” were even more random than anything I would have ever considered. The stuff about birth order and cultural legacy seemed like pure genius. Until…

It occurred to me that the “randomness” of the contextual elements he was identifying underscored his fundamental belief in the Horatio Alger view of success. While there may be no such thing as a purely “self made man”, those who succeed need to acknowledge the heroics of others in getting them where they are. Gladwell ultimately does not acknowledge systematic advantages. Instead, success is individual initiative mixed in with a little dumb luck and some heroics from those who came before. Two steps forward, three steps back.

Gladwell tips his cap towards his delusions at the end of the second-to-last chapter. “We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?” The answer, of course, is probably none, and Gladwell’s failure to understand that shows that he doesn’t truly grasp his own insights.

As you’ve heard me say a million times before, the reason that the answer to Gladwell’s question is near zero is because the social system will not allow that many newcomers to be successful at any one time. Too much entrepreneurial success would be too disruptive to the system, and would require too many more people or firms currently accumulating wealth to stop doing so at the rate to which they’ve become accustomed. All the individual initiative in the world is not going to stop that from happening. Newcomers will usually be undone by the efforts of established wealth to keep what they have. The key to understanding entrepreneurial success, then, has less to do with the success of the newcomers than it does with the failure of established firms to preserve what they have.

An interesting insight on this came to me from Robert W. McChesney’s Communication Revolution. While not a new idea, I was moved by how concisely he put it. McChesney warns his readers to beware of firms who obtain a disproportionate amount of their profit margin from the currying of political advantage rather than the inherent value of their products. He is speaking about media conglomerates, but the same notion applies to any other established ventures as well. Those who have will fight to keep – if they succeed, newcomers will be thwarted. If they fail, newcomers will step in. Failure of the old does as much (if not more) to explain entrepreneurial success than the victories of the new. Perhaps some of the more interesting entrepreneurial opportunities can be found in areas where established firms have to rely on political advantage to maintain their success. Of course, this may be a chicken-and-the-egg question; the shift of profitability from the inherent value of products or services to the currying of favor on behalf of those products is sometimes driven by modest successes from competitors. Clayton Christianson’s work speaks to this, and the recent debates on “net neutrality” provide an interesting example. There’s also all the stuff around the American automakers, but the barriers to entry in an industry like that are so high that it might be a different beast. Still worthy of understanding, but perhaps a different beast.

But maybe I’m too tough on Gladwell. Spectacular failure is frequently more valuable to forwarding thought than is modest success, and I love the fact that he seems willing to cross that line. We’re all the better for it…


The Death of Evidence

This month that just passed marked my 25th anniversary of making a
living in the social sciences. I got my first research job in Rural
Sociology in April 1980 while I was still an undergraduate. I had
the pleasure of being trained by a fairly close-knit faculty, many
of whom were fairly late in their careers. They happened to
remember a time that is likely to be oblivious to most who work in
the social sciences now, and held a number of highly useful views
that have lost favor today and are remembered as little more than
quaint. For better or worse, many of those views have stuck with me.

They used to talk about the time when it would take them a couple of
weeks of intensive labor to generate the results for a relatively
straightforward multiple regression equation. If you think about
this, it makes sense; if all you’ve got are hard copy grids of
data, a statistics book with all the necessary formulas and
distribution tables, a pad and a pencil, you can imagine that it
would take forever to calculate a multiple regression equation that
meets the simplest publication standards. Add the fact that they
had little to no computing power at their disposal (aside from
likely being late adopters, who wanted to devote the precious few
computing resources available in those days to social scientists?)
and had extensive teaching and committee responsibilities, and you
can see why doing quantitative social science in those days was such
a risky business.

They did it anyway, but with an outlook quite a bit different than
anything we see today. Given that results were so hard-earned, they
needed to actively engage in a number of activities that would
increase the probability of their results being fruitful. So they
made sure that the theories they were anxious to test were highly
developed conceptually before using any statistics on them. They
made sure their data met the basic standards for normal distribution
and agonized over how to most effectively operationalize any and all
of their key concepts. In other words, they applied the standards
for statistical testing in the way they were originally intended by
the theorists who developed them. Anything else would have likely
led to disaster.

This all began to change in 1975 (I believe) with the introduction
of SPSS. While SAS may have come out sooner and been more
statistically rigorous, it never shared the goal of being incredibly
easy to use. SPSS was designed by social scientists with an eye
toward making a wealth of statistical tools available to anyone with
the simplest skills and low-level access to a mainframe computer.
Suddenly, results that had previously taken weeks to generate could
now be done in minutes. In addition, there was now a much greater
variety of statistical tricks and tools that could be employed. And
perhaps most important of all, all these statistics could be easily
generated by a program that required absolutely no knowledge of
statistics to be run successfully. Most of my statistical training
in school was motivated by trying to understand all the various
techniques that I was routinely generating on the computer.

The dramatic reduction in the cost of generating statistical results
completely changed the face of how social science was performed.
Gone were the days of assuring adequate conceptual development and
that data met basic distributional requirements; – the computer could
easily generate the results no matter how flimsy or questionable the
data. This would ultimately give birth to the age of keeping busy
doing social science without thinking. In many circles, theoretical
development would be seen as little more than corroborated
empiricism. Finally, the advent of cheap statistical results
dramatically increased the number of iterations performed to
complete the statistical testing for any one project. Rather than
carefully laying out the concepts and the rigorous data prior to
calculating a relatively small number of statistical tests,
practitioners would take half-baked concepts and marginal data and
massage them through a wide variety of transformations and
statistical techniques before any final results were generated and
presented. Keeping track of all the iterations performed and the
rationale for each of them became a separate project in and of

Though the logic of generating results became more convoluted, the
time and space to present those results to the scientific community
either remained constant or shrank. It was largely impossible for
practitioners to fit the rationale for all their statistical
gyrations into the same 20-page journal article or 20-minute
conference presentation that needed to contain the substantive
argument, literature review, results, conclusions and implications
of the project. For a while, practitioners appeared to live by an
ethic that said that while one might not be able to present all the
statistical gyrations and the rationale for them in a conference
presentation or journal article, they would still prepare at least
an informal supplement containing this information so that if anyone
asked for it, it would be completely available in all its splendor
and glory.

Of course, no one ever asked for this information. People were too
busy and roughly overwhelmed with information overload to want to be
bothered with the petty details of how a conclusion was reached, so
inquiries into the nuts and bolts of the statistical methods were
never asked. As a result, it didn’t take long for this ethic to be
abandoned. It got lost for two reasons. First, it atrophied from
the sheer lack of use; – why make the effort if no one subjects the
work to the scrutiny? Second, continued advancements in computing
power lead to further increases in the number of statistical
gyrations that many practitioners would take; – so much so that the
authors themselves could not keep track of all the choices and
modifications they had performed to generate their final results.

This has all been compounded by the bureaucratization of the
production of knowledge. Many practitioners now organize their
research efforts like a business. The principal authors are
frequently the CEOs of the research projects, concerning themselves
only with the high-level concepts and “strategic direction” of the
work. The details of the production of the statistical results are
frequently left to the graduate students, whose efforts are
frequently not scrutinized. A favorite example comes from the tail
end of my graduate career. I was doing some work for a department
who had a member who had recently completed their dissertation. In
the dissertation, they had reported their statistical results using
linear structural modeling and a computer program entitled LISREL,
which was the big macho statistical technique of the time. During
staff meetings and other consultations, members of this department
sought this individual’s advice on issues related to this technique,
because they were now seen as an authority on it. The truth was
that this person could barely explain the difference between a mean
and a median. They had paid one of my analyst colleagues to do the
LISREL analysis for the dissertation for them and explain what it
all meant. So they were viewed as an authority on something about
which they knew very little. This method of organization is
probably fine for making widgets or creating a decent restaurant,
but it seems a little troubling for generating knowledge.

The end result of all these trends has been a growing distance
between what constitutes knowledge and the means used to produce
that knowledge. This is true not only of consumers of knowledge,
but also for producers. If you go to a conference today and ask a
presenter about the measures they used to construct an index, or
about the Cronbach’s Alpha for a given scale, they’ll look at you
like you’re a psychopath, and then proceed to tell you that
everything they’ve done is reliable because it’s based on something
someone else did at least once. You know that the logic and/or
methodology of their analysis is likely flawed, but there is no way
to get them to go to the level of detail necessary to address the
concerns. Important levels of scrutiny have become little more than
quaint artifacts in today’s fast-paced world.

I don’t suspect we reached this particularly sad state of affairs
through any sort of maliciousness. Certainly when the problem
began, it was merely a matter of the research enterprise taking more
turns and generating more information than can adequately be covered
in a small amount of space or time. As the problem matured a bit, I
suspect that some researchers were willing to hide their flaws in
thinking (or, perhaps more likely, lack of thinking) in the sheer
volume of activity in which they engaged to produce their results.
But now, I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve reached the point where
some people are willing to exploit the space and time limitations
that constrain well-reasoned arguments to forward points of view
without having to consider the possibility of contrary evidence.
All you need to do is select a few points of evidence (and withhold
the troubling ones), set your own context, strategically refute one
or two bits of counterevidence without putting that counterevidence
in context, and look real authoritative without ever attending to
the basic rules of evidence. It may be a bit intellectually
dishonest, but it’s still effective.

I’m wondering if Malcolm Gladwell might epitomize this problem.

It’s definitely not fair for me to make this judgment yet, because
I’ve only read a few pages of The Tipping Point. I just opened the
book to a random space and read about twenty pages while waiting to
get into the shower on Friday morning. Lack of context
notwithstanding, I was astounded by what I read. He seemed to be
basing his argument on what constituted “Mavens” and “Salesmen”
solely on a couple of interesting people he had met. I sensed no
attempt to explain how the traits of these particular people might
be generalized to others in anything but the most speculative ways.
There was no attempt to delineate the breadth of their influence, or
of those like them. He quotes a study that claims that folks who
watched ABC News around the 1984 presidential election were more
likely to vote for Reagan because the anchorperson smiled more often
when talking about Reagan than about Mondale. It’s a provocative
claim, but the evidence cited to support it was so selective that
the argument bordered on fraudulent. He makes a claim that ABC
otherwise covered stories in a way that was more hostile to Reagan
than the other networks, but does not present the source of that
claim or the evidence for it. I’ve heard the opposite on numerous
occasions, but have no grounds from this author on how to judge
these competing claims. He presents no evidence about the
demographic of the audiences that tune into these broadcasts that is
independent of the study he wants you to believe. There is no
direct evidence about the content of the news stories they run. It
was nothing but a bunch of provocative (and intuitively satisfying)
claims with no solid evidence to support or refute them. Yes, the
claims he makes are fun to think about, but there appears to be
little of substance behind them.

This is not the only place I’ve seen these tendencies. There’s a
guy at Johns Hopkins who’s been hawking an organizational “culture
of safety” questionnaire that has many of the folks I work for all
excited. Every time I come in contact with him or his work, I feel
like I need a shower. There may be something to his findings, but
it’s awfully hard to tell. He’s very selective about the evidence
he presents and shows no interest in explaining everything he shows
to you. He makes no attempt to address the existence of contrary
evidence or test for what might be some fundamental biases in his
work. He’s slick and demur, but I can’t help but think that he is
intellectually dishonest. Perhaps I’m not being fair, but I’m just
not used to feeling quite this level of skepticism when confronted
with academic work.

I don’t know what’s worse; the fact that we have people producing
this type of work, or the ease with which so many of us are ready to
consume it. Are we so easily seduced by provocative hypotheses and
the flights of fancy we’re inclined to take around them that we are
blind to the need for decent evidence to back them up?

The political environment we’re currently living in is not helping
matters any, given the current administration’s flagrant disdain for
facts. But it seems strange to see this level of discourse coming
from intellectuals. While I can see how we may have come to this
point, that knowledge brings me no comfort. How do we go about
reducing this level of intellectual degeneration?

Someone could say that I’m guilty of using Gladwell’s tactics to
make the case for criticizing him. But all I’m doing is getting the
ideas down before I lose them. Before I ever did anything to make
them public, I would make a concerted effort to examine – …let’s see…
what should we call it? How about evidence?

And I’ll start by actually reading the book from the beginning. I
was curious to see if any of my initial thoughts resonated for you
given that you’ve read it. I’ll keep you posted as I delve into it