Ecologists and Engineers

Stephen DeAngelis

July 27, 2006

The always interesting New York Times columnist David Brooks writes today about relationships [“The Relationship Blend“]. Relationships, of course, are important for any business person or anyone who believes in Tom Barnett’s mantra that “disconnected defines danger.” What I found really interesting about Brooks column, however, was his take on differences between “ecologists” and “engineers.” My partner, Tom Barnett, fits more into the ecologist arena while I have been more of an engineer most of my life. If Brooks is accepted at face value, one would assume that ecologists and engineers can’t get along.

In the world of public policy, there are ecologists and engineers. The ecologists believe human beings are formed amid a web of relationships. Behavior is shaped by the weave of expectations and motivations that we pick up from the people around us every day. The engineers believe all this relationship talk is so much mush. They believe behavior is shaped by incentives. You give people the resources they need and socially productive, rational behavior will usually follow.

This is, of course, a false dichotomy, which is why Tom and I get along so well. Connect an ecologist with an engineer and you get some version of progressive realism (a policy recently promoted by Robert Wright in the New York Times). Of that article, Tom wrote:

It rolls for the first chunk, when Wright is describing the broad outlines of progressive realism as a bridge between idealism and realism, but then it gets bogged down in some old-think on turning to the UN as the ultimate answer. Wright’s earlier points about faith in markets should have led him to promote the notion of more competition–thus new rules and new institutions rather than tired formulas of UN-this and arms control-that. Still, good piece overall. I would gladly call myself a progressive realist. That label certainly beats Republican versus Democrat, or Wilsonian versus Kissingerian, or Idealist versus realist. And that’s Wright’s main point: the old dichotomies get you nowhere.

Other examples of engineers who have connected with ecologists are Bill Gates and Dean Kamen. The results of ecologist/engineer connections is almost universally beneficial. To be fair to Brooks, his column is about politicians (natural ecologists in that they appreciate the power of relationships) who turn into engineers once in office (believing that all problems can be solved by throwing enough resources at them). The result, Brooks writes, is often “policy failure.” To make his point, Brooks focuses on America’s failure to increase its percentage of college graduates despite having thrown billions of dollars at the challenge. He writes:

When politicians address this problem, they inevitably ignore the core issues — lack of preparedness, personal crises, disengagement, cognitive dissonance. They flee to the issue of tuition costs. They think like engineers.

In other words, even in domestic situations “disconnectedness defines danger.” In an earlier blog, I discussed Frans Johansson’s book The Medici Effect and noted what an intoxicating experience the Medici Effect can be. The Medici Effect is all about getting ecologists and engineers and artisans and scientists and so forth to connect. When that happens, great things result. I really think that is what Brooks is trying to say. He certainly can’t believe that ecologists promote better policies than engineers. Any myopic attempt to solve problems will result in bad policy. Resilient organizations understand that.

Speaking of resilient organizations, Mark Safranski commented on yesterday’s blog about retaliation and ways to overcome it [MULTINATIONALS 2.0: THE EVOLUTION TOWARD A NETWORKED AGE]. Mark wrote:

The “globally integrated enterprise” is structured somewhat closer to a scale free network, though it actually isn’t one, it would still be a radical departure from past practices for most companies. Technically, we are talking about a corporation that would be a modular hybrid that employs a devolution of decision-making power and organizational decentralization to increase the orporation’s resiliency.

For those unfamiliar with scale free networks, they are networks that are not uniformly distributed but consist of many highly connected hubs. Wikipedia explains them this way:

Using a Web crawler, physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and his colleagues at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA, in 1999 mapped the connectedness of the Web. To their surprise, the web did not have an even distribution of connectivity (so-called “random connectivity”). Instead, some network nodes had many more connections than the average; seeking a simple categorical label, Barabasi and his collaborators called such highly connected nodes “hubs.”

This probably shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was since most connections go through commercial servers. Safranski’s point is that globally integrated enterprises with distributed centers of excellence resemble this structure. One of the advantages Safranski believes such enterprises possess is better damage control. He wrote:

On the flip side, the increasing ubiquity of real-time global communication has made corporate reputation a vital but fragile commodity. The room for error, scandal or ethical shortcomings is virtually nonexistent once a story has arrived on the global media radar. As with militaries or heads of government, corporations have only a few hours, perhaps minutes to react to an emerging story in a way the global audience will consider credible, sufficient and responsible. It is here that a resilient structure is required, specifically, as Steve wrote:

“…the essence of a Resilient Enterprise — freer linkages, richer exchanges, greater feedback loops, and improved environment for sharing and innovating.”

This kind of a structure is an advantage in two ways to a corporation facing a crisis. First, the freer flow of information from the outside, closer to real-time, simultaneously throughout the organization reduces the distortion of stovepiping and groupthink and prevents many problems from arising in the first place. Secondly, there is an acceleration of organizational response time, particularly where pro-active, autonomous, decision-making is part of the institutional culture.

It strikes me that one advantage scandalized corporations have over government departments or agencies is that they can change their name in hopes that the public quickly forgets past sins. Of course, if only the name changes past transgressions will be repeated and negative consequences will result. That is not resilience.