Humans and Information: Managing a herd of cats.

I was talking to a project manager the other day about our common struggle: information systems management. We argued the various pros and cons of software designed to organize teams and information (’cause we’re nerds). As our conversation progressed over issues of human error and information tagging, I got to thinking about the similarities of maintaining knowledge and maintaining groups.

Group dynamics and information sharing are inextricably linked in a number of ways. On top of that–or maybe because of that–maintaining groups and information systems takes a lot of the same resources and methodology. Here are some links between the two:

Link #1: Group relationships (i.e. ‘cohesion’) effect how information is shared.

Rupert Brown says in Group Processes (2000) that the more tightly bonded group members feel to one another, the more likely they are to share information–whether it’s useful or not. However, tightly cohesive groups tend to be more isolated from the environment so their information can become repetitive or outdated. On the other hand, loosely associated groups tend not to share all information with everyone, but the information they do have tends to be unique and up to date because of the members’ contact with non-group members. Therefore, managing the groups dynamics directly influences the play of information throughout the group.

Side note: On the flip side of the coin, we might be able to say that information directly influences group relationships. If young adult drama-dies have taught me anything, it’s that a rumor can make or break a friendship.

Link #2: More people effect group maintenance. More information effects system maintenance.

Network theory (and common sense) states that the more nodes a network has, the more complex the network is. Just think about how your family’s dynamics changed after your sister married that guy. Adding a node (brother-in-law) to Thanksgiving dinner changed the dynamic of the network (family). Moreover, larger networks with more complex arrangements require more resources in order to maintain them. For information systems, this might mean more people or more time spent on data entry. For groups, it might mean more time and energy spent on group-building activities, managing rumors, or resolving conflict, etc.

Side note: I suspect that the larger and more complex the network, the more inertia it develops which is why very large groups (like governments) take so long to respond to changes in the environment (like a world-wide economic downturn).

Link #3: Information systems management is necessarily human systems management.

Collaboration not only requires that we share information, but that we share information in a way we can all recognize, access, and manipulate. Each team member must be trained in a standardized method for handling group information. We all have to use the same file-naming system, the same date system, the same tags. Furthermore, as we alluded in Link 2: a) the more types of information there is to be handled, the more complex the system for managing it becomes and b) the more people handling the information, the more complex the system for managing it becomes. Information management is directly dependent on group management.

This link seems to be where project managers and emergency managers spend so much of their time. It seems like we’re all struggling to get everyone else to manage information correctly.

Link #4: The person who manages group life also tends to manage information flow. 

It’s easier to spot in small, informal groups, but in every group there is a gatekeeper. A gatekeeper is a person who manages access to benefits which they do not own. For instance, access to the boss, a spot on the agenda, or access to illicit information (like rumors or secrets which they may trade for more political capital).

I, personally, like to think of the gatekeeper as someone who manages the group’s Transactive Memory System (TMS) which is a fancy sociological term for knowing who knows what. Usually, the gatekeeper is well connected in the group and–especially if they’ve been there a long time–generally knows who knows what. They are a valuable resource for members as they can direct them to those members with the expertise or connections they need. Gatekeepers control information flow in the group in a very direct way.

Here’s where I go out on a theoretical limb. We’ve experienced often how information gets stymied during a crisis and a lot of research (including my own) is focused around how to open the channels of communication. What if part of the problem of information flow is that the gatekeeper gets overwhelmed by requests literally or figuratively? What if they don’t prioritize information correctly and let something important drop? What if they can’t help the group efficiently because there’s too much noise (i.e. the opposite of data) to process requests for information/expertise?

So the solution might be to decentralize gatekeeping duties across the whole group (or at least more members), but then you run into the increased maintenance cost of more people handling information.  Hmm….

Conclusion: 

There seems to be an intimate association between handling group members and handling information. They take a lot of the same resources and processes and the cost in terms of time and effort of maintaining each seemed to be linked. Each individual may have a limit to how much information they can process at one time, necessitating collaboration with other individuals. But collaboration is inherently more costly as networks increase in complexity. Therefore, managers must cleverly walk the delicate line between too little and too much information, between too few and too many team members.

So if you ever feel like the system should behave better than it is, keep in mind: you’re actually managing two related, yet unique systems. Problem in one might be symptoms of problems in the other.

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An Unusual Winter: Boston’s trouble with Emergence

A man drags a shovel up Beacon Hill during a severe winter snow storm in Boston
Photo courtesy of Boston.com

This has been an interesting winter for Boston. Yes, lots of other places have had just as bad–or even worse–conditions and I don’t want to minimize that. But Boston has unique problems.

Shouldn’t they have been prepared?

I mean–winter’s happen every year. And every year, Boston has to deal with snow. What’s the big deal? Homeland Security Watch has this to say,

“Boston is a city that can handle a snowstorm.  Indeed, it can handle any single blizzard.  What is causing problems is the quick succession of substantial snow storms in the past month, along with sub-freezing temperatures preventing melting, that has slowly choked the transportation arteries of this densely built city.  This is leading to an unfortunate set of cascading outcomes that normally would not be a concern during normal winter weather.”

From the outside, it looks like Boston is simply incompetent, when the truth is that this is not a normal problem. It is what Harvard professors Dutch Leonard and Arn Howitt refer to as an “emergent crisis.” Emergent crises are especially hard to recognize and treat for 3 reasons.

  1. They look like normal problems. Boston has had snow before. This is a normal problem and has a normal response: plowing.
  2. Since they look like normal problems, the experts sent to deal with it, tend to get tunnel vision. Leonard & Howitt state, “Often, experts (and, perhaps even more so, teams of experts) are not adept at recognizing that their approach is not working. Often, they ignore “disconfirming evidence” (i.e., the flow of data tending to show that what they are doing is not working) and “escalate commitment” to their existing approach. The person or team working on the situation may not only believe that they are about to succeed (with just a little more effort and time) but also feel pressure not to lose face if they fail to handle the assigned situation.”
  3. Finally, emergent crises are especially difficult to treat because they have all of the qualities of a non-standard emergency (…”the difficulty of recognizing novelty, the challenge of creativity and improvisation of new approaches and designs under stress…”), with already deployed teams not trained in this kind of emergency. It can be hard to convince organizations already working on the problem to shift gears.

In a broader sense, emergent crises are a good example of how hard it is for responders to recognize data from noise. As I wrote here, one of the main jobs of cities, organizations, individuals, etc is to process information from the environment. More often than not, the information is meaningless (you don’t care that your shirt is touching your shoulder), but sometimes it matters (if your shirt is caught in a corn husker, suddenly you care it’s on you). But knowing what is important and what isn’t is extremely difficult since we generally don’t have the big picture or know the future (by the way, that’s why teams are so useful–each person holds a different part of the picture. Working together makes it easier to do stuff right.).

So what do we do?

Well… nothing. The human condition is such that we will always struggle a little bit to recognize new problems. But I think there’s a Communications theory that can help a little. It’s called Groupthink– you may have heard of this already. Essentially, when groups value consensus, they tend to ignore data which opposes or contravenes  their decisions and plans. Group Think could be complicating the emergent crisis/data-noise problem. But there is a solution: diversity. When groups value contrary opinions, they avoid tunnel vision and are much more successful at recognizing emergent problems.

Further reading