Thinking about a ‘Physics of People’

This an entry in the series A Physics of People which contains 3 posts in total.

Physics of PeopleFurther to Stowe Boyd's piece Socialogy and a Scientifically-Grounded Understanding of People and his Physics of People tag, I've been thinking about other people's thoughts and ideas on the subject. What does the idea of a 'Physics of People' consist of and how it might take shape? The following extracts and quotes chart the thinking and writing on the subject over the past ten years or so.

Starting Points for a 'Physics of People'


The first idea that I'm aware of comes from an article in the IBM Systems Journal. Written in 2003 by Cynthia Kurtz and Dave Snowden, the following extract is an initial call for a 'Physics of People', along with the recognition of the challenge involved:

We would like (but do not expect) to see simulations of human behavior able to encompass multiple dynamic individual and collective identities acting simultaneously and representing all aspects of perception, decision-making, and action.

This quote really leaves nothing on the table, conjuring up the idea of an omnipotent, all-knowing reality. Whilst this has an unmistakable element of 'Big Brother' within it, it's also reassuring to know that physics itself seeks an understanding of reality that is equally, if not more profound.

Critical Mass

Philip Ball wrote Critical Mass in 2004. He holds a doctorate in physics from Bristol University and was an editor for the science journal Nature for 10 years. Critical Mass examines some of history's greatest thinkers and at it's heart, the book seeks answers to the following question:

Are there any "laws of nature" that influence the ways in which humans behave and organize themselves?

Publishers Weekly wrote the following review:

Ball enthusiastically demonstrates how the application of the laws of modern physics to the social sciences can greatly enrich our understanding of the laws of human behavior: we can, he says, make predictions about society without negating the individual's free will.

While Ball himself writes:

To develop a physics of society, we must take a bold step that some might regard as a leap of faith and others as preposterous idealization: particles become people.

The idea that particles become people tends to ignore fundamental elements of being human, not least free will, our emotions and consciousness. That said, Ball recognises the shift in thinking that needs to take place in order for a 'Physics of People' to take root.

Reactions to Critical Mass

Writing in 2009, James Governor wrote a review of Critical Mass which gathered further comment and reaction. James speaks very highly of the book when he writes:

I have been meaning to get a few ideas down about Philip Balls’ Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads To Another for a while. After all, it pretty much blew my head clean off. I totally loved the book – its changed my thinking more than any work of recent time.

This is then followed up on his blog by a reader's comment:

Besides physics, there’s queuing theory, systems dynamics, formal nonviolence theory, and large but probably finite sets of knowledge that would inform the social media expert. Predicting human behavior, individual and group, has been the focus of disciplines including politics science, ethics, religion, and more. Prediction is the root goal of all science.

Given the value of science and it's goal of prediction, it would be reasonable to conclude that a 'Physics of People' would be of interest to businesses, economists, sociologists and psychologists, to name but a few.

Implications for Business

The extracts above serve as the foundations for the 'Physics of People' idea. Over the last ten years or so, a handful of people have been asking the questions and thinking about how a better understanding of people and their behaviour will advance business, society and humanity as a whole. Key to this is the notion of prediction and the accuracy of understanding that enables successful predictions to be made.

The following sections, in chronological order, highlight examples about what a new and different understanding of people's behaviour might mean. for business. Some of these extracts weren't speaking directly about a 'Physics of People' but with a little imagination, the links should be pretty straightforward.

Thomas Otter

In December 2007, Thomas Otter considered the impact of online social network analysis on HR and business as a whole. There's a lot of points in his post and I've taken a slight liberty in condensing the extracts, but the points speak for themselves:

Strong online social network analytics within a corporation would enable HR to do some seriously deep study of the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses.... I got a glimpse into a toolset that would enable HR folks to really grasp the information flows within the organisation. If you could start to mash this stuff up with some formal organisation modeling tools…gosh... The HR professional that is able to actually analyse this, and the impacts on the business will be key.

Social Network Analysis is one possible route or component of a 'Physics of People' and as above, it's impact has great potential.

Brian Sommer

Frustrated with the offerings of HR vendors, Brian Sommer wrote the following in June 2009:

Businesses need analytics with foresight not hindsight. Here’s what an analytic application should do. First, HR vendors must learn to use something else besides just transaction data. They need to ask questions of executives to learn how they detect a bad management situation. They would learn about ‘proxies’ or ‘clues’ that something is amiss. They would then build an analytic application that scans all employees, all managers and all departments to see: When a single department is leading many of these indicators, these are ‘early warning’ indicators that a bad, dysfunctional, ineffective, toxic or pathologically flawed manager is in charge.

While the above is more biological in tone than physical, the point remains, current offerings aren't strong when it comes to predictions and providing meaningful early warning signs of behaviour, relationship or cultural friction.

Morris Panner

The next quote, written by Morris Panner in 2009 talks about a new system of managing people:

Finally, a new system of managing people is required. Communication across the enterprise means that collaboration will replace top-down, command and control directives. In one address, Cisco CEO John Chambers noted that he was awfully good at the command and control part of managing a business, but it was the collaboration and distributed management that required constant innovation and work.

Collaboration is often held up as a 'new paradigm' when it comes to new forms of work. While this is now arguably a cliché, the lack of a 'Physics of People' perhaps accounts for some of the hype and the challenges experienced by John Chambers. If something isn't predictable, then it's likely to require a lot of innovation and work in order to make any meaningful progress.

Stowe Boyd

The final and most recent sound bite comes from Stowe which takes us full circle. Not only is his Socialogy project funded by IBM, but I think he hits the nail on the head when he writes:

I agree that a more coherent understanding of the ‘physics of people’ is needed for businesses to take the great step forward implied by social business’ value proposition.

In Conclusion

The 'Physics of People' term feels fresh and somewhat embryonic. From the writing above, it's still very much a new idea. That said, there are some initial signs of recognition and the implications for business are profound.

If the promise of social business or any related transformational innovation around the understanding of people is going to happen, then I'd argue strongly that something resembling a 'Physics of People' will be either be a core component, or a core facilitator of such a change.

Image credit: phono

This an entry in the series A Physics of People which contains 3 posts in total.

A Physics of People - Series Navigation
  1. Can You Predict Team Performance?
  2. A Physics of People and The 5 Criteria to Transform Business
  3. Thinking about a ‘Physics of People’

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