Social physics: the flow of ideas and examples

I was reading a New Scientist article about Social Physics while crunching my granola this morning. I found the author Sandy Pentland’s 11 min TEDx talk (and enjoyed watching it at 1.5x speed). He explains how smartphones with special apps, plus some Big Data tools have allowed him to analyse the patterns of idea flow and collective intelligence – face to face as well as electronic. The patterns and rules he has spotted form a “Social physics” which show us how the flow of ideas shapes culture, productivity and creative output of companies, cities and societies.

His research shows that:

  • People overwhelmingly rely on social learning and are more efficient because of it.
  • Instead of individual rationality, our society appears to be governed by a collective intelligence that comes from the surrounding flow of ideas and examples; we learn from others in our environment, and they learn from us. A community with members who actively engage with each other creates a group with shared, integrated habits and beliefs.
  • When the flow of ideas incorporates a constant stream of outside ideas as well, the individuals in the community make better decisions than they could by reasoning things out on their own. It’s not enough to have ideas within the group, creativity comes by absorbing ideas from outside the group.

The more cohesive a team is, the more engaged people are, the better the productivity of the team. The team functions like an ideas-processing machine.

More social physics videos.

So what? Social Physics in the corporate world?

Our approach to productivity and efficiency in the corporate world is often

  • Individualistic (personal performance objectives)
  • Process-oriented
  • Distributed (scattered teams and homeworkers relying on electronic media to collaborate)
  • We have employee engagement scores, and vaguely understand that employee engagement is correlated with high performance companies. So sometimes we focus on getting high scores on the well-known survey questions rather than the actual underlying social physics.

On the other hand there are some encouraging signs:

  • continuous improvement initiatives like lean six sigma
  • ideas and knowledge spreading through enterprise social software like (in our case) the Sharepoint Newsfeed

That’s only the briefest attempt to think about what social physics means for the corporate world. What do you observe?


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