Monday, 4 August 2008

The creation of social tipping points: Rethinking influence (Part1) – from the second edition of Viral Change™ (2008)

The next blog entries over the next weeks will feature some added pages to Viral Change – Second edition which will be in the market towards mid August ( see major online bookstores UK/EU and USA)

There are many ways of understanding the creation of social tipping points and there are some differences between the macro- and micro-social levels. It’s a hot topic these days as each ‘interpretation’ has implications for many people involved in diverse areas such as marketing, health promotion, disease prevention, political marketing and social change of all sorts. My key point in this book and in my consulting approach to management of change in organisations is that, in the latter, the mechanisms of real change are not that different. But it is only when we start to understand the internal organisational management of change in the same way as internal infections or internal fashions that we are in a strong position to create lasting change.

Business and organisational management have incredibly thick skin, impermeable to the application of social sciences, despite the music you may hear from HR and OD departments. Inside the borders of the firm, life is usually mechanistic and predictable (top down and cascade down communication), whilst outside the borders, life is more organic, erratic and irregular. The firm usually understands its external markets and may segment customers well, but it’s usually unskilled and very sloppy in understanding its internal market. Employee segmentation is rudimentary. I call rudimentary a system that categorises people into high performers, low performers and the rest (OK, you have more than three baskets, but that still doesn’t change anything). Usually, a system like this is maintained to allocate money on an annual basis (a weak behavioural reinforcement mechanism) or to trigger command and control interventions (‘managing the poor performers’). In many cases I know, the HR department dictates that it must be a Bell curve-normal distribution and that people must fit into it. That is, a small percentage must be either high performers or poor performers. And it is extraordinarily common to even decide those numbers a priori. Managers then have to fit their departmental populations into the pre-assigned Bell curve as opposed to assessing their population first and then figuring out what kind of Bell curve – if any – they have. The metrics police rules with an iron hand. In that process, true understanding of degrees and qualities of influence amongst employees gets lost. The power law of influence and connectedness (small number with high connectedness and potential influence, big number with low levels of those) doesn’t fit into the Bell curve of the HR department.

We must bring the mathematics of networks back to the understanding of daily life in organisations. And along with the mathematics, we must bring an understanding and classification of employees in different terms, such as ability to influence, to be listened to or to model behaviours. That different segmentation is crucial to understanding how the behavioural tipping point creates internal social change (‘new culture’).

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