Social Miracles

This is a very nice appeal by Duncan Watts to not forget that central control and hierarchy is not the best way of solving organization problems. His desire it to temper the drive toward a centralized solution to the problem of “intelligence failure.” I’m glad he wrote it because if there’s one thing that’s rarely intelligence it’s a centralized hierarchy.

He tells some classic stories of organizations that engaged in such transcendent problem solving that the results seemed miraculous. They were. This is the kind of problem solving that only a healthy organization with a deep pool of social capital can pull off.

Much the same kind of recovery happened in lower Manhattan in the days after Sept. 11, 2001. With much of the World Trade Center in rubble and several other nearby buildings closed indefinitely, nearly 100,000 workers had no place to go on Sept. 12. In addition to the unprecedented human tragedy of lost friends and colleagues, dozens of firms had to cope with the sudden disappearance of their offices along with much of their hardware, data, and in some cases, critical members of their leadership teams. Yet somehow they survived. Even more dramatically, almost all of them were back in business within a week-an achievement that even their own risk management executives viewed with amazement.

Once again, the secret to their success was not so much that any individual had anticipated the need to build up emergency problem-solving capacities or was able to design and implement these capacities in response to the particular disaster that struck. Rather, the collective ability of firms and individuals alike to react quickly and flexibly was a result of unintentional capabilities, based on informal and often accidental networks that they had developed over years of socializing together and collaborating on unrelated and routine-even trivial-problems. When talking about their recovery efforts, manager after manager referred, often with puzzlement and no small sense of wonder, to the importance of informal relationships and the personal knowledge and understanding that these relationships had engendered

Perhaps the most striking example of informal knowledge helping to solve what would appear to be a purely technical problem occurred in a particular company that lost all its personnel associated with maintaining its data storage systems. The data itself had been preserved in remote backup servers but could not be retrieved because not one person who knew the passwords had survived. The solution to this potentially devastating (and completely unforeseeable) combination of circumstances was astonishing, not because it required any technical wizardry or imposing leadership, but because it did not. To access the database, a group of the remaining employees gathered together, and in what must have been an unbearably wrenching session, recalled everything they knew about their colleagues: the names of their children; where they went on holidays; what foods they liked; even their personal idiosyncrasies. And they managed to guess the passwords. The knowledge of seemingly trivial factoids about a co-worker, gleaned from company picnics or around the water cooler, is not the sort of data one can feed into a risk-management algorithm, or even collate into a database-in fact, it is so banal that no one would have thought to record it, even if they could. Yet it turned out to be the most critical component in that firm’s stunning return to trading only three days after the towers fell.

Thank’s to Karim for the pointer.

0 thoughts on “Social Miracles

  1. Luis

    Ben… not sure if this was intentional or not, but your RSS is now only a sentence or two + ellipses, whereas it used to be your full content. Think you could fix that? I hate having ellipsized entries in my blog reader 🙂

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