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People and Networks Matter (So the liberal arts do, too)

If I was to distill down my time as a consultant, the key finding might be this: “People and networks are the essential fabric of the business world.” This fact is constantly discounted – by me as much as anyone else. People, for better or worse, make the world go round. [1]

The clients I’ve worked for have had many different kinds of business and corporate problems – insufficient personnel to throw at a problem, specialized analytical challenges, lack of domain expertise, change management, etc. – but no matter what the issue was facing the company, it was impossible to separate the challenge from its human dimension.

This can be extremely frustrating, because in a hypothetical ‘ideal world ‘ consultants and companies could just crunch numbers and solve all their problems. CEO thinks they need to optimize pricing? No problem, run some numbers, come up with the correct approach, rinse and repeat. Trying to identify new business lines? Same thing. Ad infinitum.

But what happens is that, in even the most cut-and-dried of engagements, there are human or political factors to contend with. Does the organization have the capacity to manage two business models at once while it tries to transform itself? Are its leaders able to convince the board to try a risky strategy? Can they see the inherent risks of the status quo?

Success = People & Politics * Institutional Capability * Market / Environmental Context. My thesis here is that the first part is taken for granted – even by people who explicitly say it’s important, whether in vying for talent or serving customers!

A  social tripwire for the naive and ambitious 

This sounds simple, but it’s forgotten again and again. Whether it’s companies hurting their customers, or ignoring the political ramifications of their decisions, not a day goes by that there isn’t an article which can’t be restated as “Company XYZ fails to consider human element; weakened in marketplace as result.” I think that this can happen especially easily for tech companies because there is a certain hubris which easily befalls the smart, analytical, and rational (read: engineering… or consultant!) mind.

What happens is that the numbers or some other intrinsic assessment implies [ACTION A]. But this is like a physics problem which says, “ignore the effects of air resistance.” Fine if you’re designing a mailbox, but a big problem if you’re building a skyscraper. As it turns out a lot of ‘problems’ in the marketplace aren’t so much technical as they are political. Consider Spotify or Pandora: it’s an impressive technical achievements to stream millions of tracks and billions of plays, but in some respects more of a commodity than the ability to license content with survivable economics!

Music and other media content is the one place where a lot of potential entrants do think about the political problems, with often discouraging consequences. What I don’t mean to imply is that entrepreneurs and others should discount their ability to conquer hard or intractable people problems – but that it represents a sort of hidden competitive threat / advantage that a lot of people don’t envision.

You can look at very technically sophisticated companies tackling complex problems and still see this pattern. Why does Microsoft succeed so wildly in the ‘golden days’ of Wintel (1990s)? Not because its products are untouchably good, but because it had huge developer networks and corresponding network effects. Countless examples could follow. [2]

Back to the liberal arts

I majored in political science, and it provided me with a lot of tools to parse the world. Brilliant professors helped highlight the ways in which nation-states’ analysts performed calculations but – like businesses – undervalued the human factors. The U.S.A. in Iraq, for example, dissolved the Iraqi Army. This looks like a very bad decision in retrospect, and at the time was as much politically informed as it was by sound cost-benefit calculations. It’s something you would never take lightly when you register the difficulty of building political (that is, social) institutions.

If you filled your company with bright bushy-tailed economists and engineers, you would doubtless have a potent analytical task force – but one which I’d wager could be easily blindsided by a host of potential challenges. This is why diversity of thought is so important – and an openness to new ideas. The biggest challenge for Google and Facebook in the coming years is as likely to be regulatory and political as it is technical or competitive (though there will be a lot of that, too).

If you just silo all your political thinkers in D.C. and have them try to clean up after your [privacy/antitrust/security/public relations/privacy] mess, you’re gonna have a bad time. The problem is finding an English major who can talk to engineers, or an East Asian Studies practitioner who can illustrate why culture should impact business decisions when trying to conquer Asia. It’s hard.

There are plenty of companies that lack both technical and human smarts. (Here I mean, a deep understanding of the role people play – not intelligence by itself). As difficult as it is to win over good technical talent – there are only so many Caltech, MIT, and Stanford graduates each year – my feeling is it’s a bit easier to know where to look. How do you tell if someone is a superstar contributor in the liberal arts business world? There are a lot more confounding factors, compared with trying to judge whether someone is a rock star hacker.

A lot of people, myself included, will wish for a simpler reality. When I wrote my thesis, I was trying to answer this question in the context of the idea of Progress. Is technology alone enough, or are politics – the political sphere, made of social people acting together and against one another – essential? I thought that politics mattered, but I wanted to prove myself wrong. Instead, I proved to myself that even the most technical of systems can’t escape politics and people. [3] It’s not a surprise to find that business can’t, either.

I say all this about the importance of people – but I forget / ignore / disbelieve it all the time. Next time, I’ll share some insights into my own network topology and my thoughts on networking and people on a personal development level.



[1] The other bits remaining would include questions like, “Seriously, how does the economy keep working without falling apart?” Note that this question is not (always) answered by the ‘people’ finding. My guesses include ‘serendipity,’ ‘inertia,’ and ‘magic,’ but I’m still working on it.

[2] Apple & Google successes are UI / UX driven; Nokia’s present failure is belied by its incredible innovation in terms of underlying phone tech. Etc…

Note that Steve Jobs has publicized this point on occasion.
Jobs, 2010, WWDC Keynote: “[At Apple] We’re not just a tech company, even though we invent some of the highest technology products in the world… It’s the marriage of that plus the humanities and the liberal arts that distinguishes Apple.”
Jobs, 1996 on NPR: “I think our major contribution [to computing] was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers.”

[3] Please read the paper, or its abstract, for more details.

For a simplistic example, take the proposed mosquito-defeating laser. It would zap female mosquitos out of the air and kill them before they could spread malaria. Setting aside issues around the social construction of technology (how one type of laser, or options, or electricity became the mode), it’s clear that implementation of such a system would need to grapple with the political questions of where to install such systems, how to pay for them, who to own them, and how to convince people to allow them in the first place. This kind of surprising challenge has faced makers of related equipment like water filters, solar lighting, free wells, and more. The point is, you can’t just make something and then auto-magically experience some social change; there’s a political layer intermeshed which is, for now, inescapable.

[4] People in politics forget people too, sometimes! See: stories about how Obama can be too cerebral and not do enough back-slapping pol stuff, whether with baby-kissing or getting to be on good terms with the Saudis or raising SuperPAC $.

[5] Photo by James Cridland from Flickr via Fotopedia

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 2 Responses 

  1. leanne berge

    I appreciate your thoughts on this subject – very well articulated.

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