Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Human Systems

Following the recent financial crisis, a long-serving banking acquaintance of mine made the point that out of all the complexities, innovation, regulation and technology of the global financial system, the most critical aspect to understand was that the financial system is dominated at any one time by one of only two behaviours – fear or greed.

Be it financial meltdown or polar ice cap meltdown, the one common factor in the behaviour of the complex systems of business, markets, government, and society is, of course, us - the human.

As humans, it’s said that we each look for evidence to support our own view. So it’s hardly surprising that we seem to have a fair degree of difficulty separating out the individual meaning we make from what’s actually so.

It’s not just when editors from different newspapers view the same event very differently, or members of the management team interpret the operational data to show what they want it to show, where different and individual meaning occurs. Even a well known fact such as the distance between two cities, is, perhaps, less of a fact and more of a consensus of independent thinkers. The distance from London to New York is approximately 5,500 km. Fact or no?

Well, whatever perspective we each might have on the matter, rather helpfully, should we ever find ourselves disagreeing on what a metre is at some point in the future, we can always start by visiting the platinum-iridium bar at the French Academy of Sciences together. The bar has 2 marks on it denoting 1 metre (which was originally designed to represent 1⁄10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the North Pole through Paris).

From money to countries to the value of goods and services to systems of government, we’ve made everything up ourselves through the observations we make and through agreement – and, or course, disagreement.

The distinction between the information ‘outside’ that everyone can see from the individual meaning we give it is an often overlooked, yet critical to understand, aspect of human systems. Another is that a lot of the information processing we do as humans is automatic. Fortunately, we don’t have to manually sort and file all the information we come into contact with – we’d hardly have time to do anything else if we did!

However, combine automatic information processing with the tendency to assume our view represents the reality, and we face somewhat of a communications double whammy. First, when somebody speaks and we listen, our meaning making filters are already automatically set to seek out evidence to back our own views. In a sense, we’re often not really listening to the other person at all. Second, when we communicate, we can omit the really important aspects to conveying the meaning we want; aspects critical to enabling tension points to be identified and addressed, to enrol people, and to aid defining real solutions for shared problems or opportunities.

Business and societal transformation requires mass consensus. Yet sometimes it’s hard enough to get a few people to agree on how to address a mild issue.

But I believe there is innovation we can bring to human systems, to aid communication, and so help us work more smartly together.

When something happens, we, independently, make it mean something. When we communicate an idea or a plan, we attempt to convey what we mean, but the meaning made of it by the recipient is theirs alone.

Imagine, then, that we are each independent meaning makers - Autonomous Meaning Making Machines if you will. External information is all around us, and we each make our independent meaning from it.

When something happens (an event), or something is communicated (some content), our sense making filters kick-in. The meaning about the information we come into contact with for a given situation, the decisions we take and our resulting behaviour is influenced by these sense making filters.

Leveraging the information systems and communications framework of VPEC-T developed by Nigel Green and I, there are six sense making filters which have a significant bearing on how we create meaning from the information around us, and our resulting behaviours:

- Our Beliefs justify our perspectives and behaviour
- Our Goals define our perspectives and behaviour
- Policies, the ones we have chosen to adopt at least!, direct our perspectives and behaviour
- The Events we observe trigger behaviour; often we actively look for events to reinforce the perspectives we already hold, and tend not to notice events which are contradictory
- The Content we access informs our behaviour and the perspectives we make
- And our Trust relationships tend to dominate our behaviour and how we interpret information. Further, as we trust each other more, we'll tend to more authentically talk about our own beliefs and goals.

Combined with other ideas of human systems, these sense making filters help shine a light on the behaviours we each adopt, and how these behaviours combine in the behaviour of the multiple human systems we participate in as we go about our daily lives.

When we want to communicate a suggestion, plan or idea, or look to collaborate around a problem, remembering that information is relative, and holding these filters front of mind or using the six words to describe situations from the perspectives of different participants, can really help us better understand each other and convey the meaning we really want to.

By using the ideas of human systems and the six words of Beliefs, Goals, Policies, Events, Content and Trust, I believe we can find genuinely new ways to communicate; to come together and resolve the underlying tensions within the human systems in which we all participate – our business, market, government, societal systems. By tuning into our information sense makers and remembering that information is relative, new possibilities for human communication is perhaps available to us.

If you like the ideas, there’s nothing like trying them out to see how they might work for you.

If so, here's an invitation; try taking a major issue you are currently dealing with, and holding front of mind that information is relative, consider what the beliefs and goals of the other people or groups of people involved in the situation are. Beliefs tend to justify our behaviours, and goals define them, so it’s a good way to start to understand where everyone is really coming from. Think about how you might express your own beliefs and goals about the situation too, and from this place see if better collaboration or even breakthroughs on the issue can start to take place.

In the end, each of our perspectives on any given situation is ours to hold.

If we can understand better how to understand the other’s perspective, we might discover better ways to express ourselves. And if we can do that, we might get to solve more of the thorny, interesting and high-value business and societal problems together. Or if we can’t, at least we might have more certainty on what our disagreements are really all about.


  1. Interesting blog and I agree wholeheartedly with the central premise better understanding of the perspectives of others must be a good thing for the betterment of human systems in general. Still for me a theme that appears to be implicit in the themes of this blog is the need to understand how to inculcate, encourage, ‘positive’ behavior and inhibit, discourage ‘negative’ behavior. How do we construct human systems where the behavior promotes the understanding of the perspective of other individuals within the system. And systems where collaboration is encouraged which implies systems where altruistic behavior is promoted and selfish behavior is inhibited.

    For any system there is a set of all facts about any system including human systems. One could even make the case that every system that humans can view are human systems in that humans have an effect on them.

    If we take Einstein's relativity then an observation must always be qualified by specifying the state of motion of the observer.

    If we take quantum mechanics view it is not possible to observe a system without changing the system, the 'observer' must be considered part of the system being observed. No matter how remote or removed for the system itself.

    Impossible to separate out our own view of a system, individual meaning imposed by the observer, from what is actually happening in the system. Everything that a human thinks or does is subjective. Is subject to an implicit/explicit conscious/nu-conscious interpretation through our meaning making machines. Influenced by received wisdom and current academic or industry trends. What is hot and what is not in how to interpret the information received about the system.

    This problem is compounded by communication of the information collated about the system. Of unintentional miscommunication and unintentional interpretation but also to willful misrepresentation or willful miscommunication of information.

    It's hard enough to communicate information accurately between well intentioned individuals due to the meaning making filters each individual brings to the party. Let alone in circumstances where one or more of the individuals is seeking to gain advantage through intentionally misinterpreting or communicating information.

    In all human systems we encounter the problems of Darwinian forces where 'wining' is the objective. Whatever wining might be for the individuals and sub groups concerned to the group as a whole.

    Everybody wants to make a contribution ranging from being heard or influencing or directing or dictating the outcome within a group in however small or large a way. Everyone has an opinion which is in part formed by their meaning making filters, they wish to express. Tension points arise from a collision of meaning making filters and the outcomes ‘wining’ that individuals in the group want.

  2. So there are differing interpretations, through meaning making filters, of information regarding a system leading to individual silo views of reality about the state of the system. A partial information view also leads to this silo view of current system state. Even with concurring interpretations of information of current system state reality individual will tend to differ as to views on future state options. The silo views lead to tension points. Tension points with regard to the interpretation of the current system state and to activities to execute to influence future system state outcomes.

    Participants have to want to engage on a level playing field to reach agreement to achieve a common goal. More often than not conflicting Darwinian drivers cause them not to. It is often the case, with all the good will in the world, individuals within a system fail to collaborate to reach consensus and act cohesively toward the common good and instead act to promote short term individual gains.

    Often collaboration is impossible as honest communication and consensus requires compromise. Many individual are primarily concerned with just fulfilling their needs and wants and are quite willing to do so at the expense of others. The Paretro rule or 80/20 rule is a good example of this human trend. Pareto made the observation the 80% of the wealth in all societies is owned by only 20% of its constituents. We in the rich developed world are quite willing to take the lion’s share of the earth’s resources at the expense of the poor in the developing world. There aren’t riots on the streets to feed, house or educate the world’s poor. There are, take the ‘poll tax’ riots of the 80’s, when our individual financial concerns are impacted.

    We would seem always to be bumping up against the hunter gather inside us all. Even though for most of us in the rich world our daily survival needs are met we still struggle to fulfill our seemingly endless emotional and material wants. Some are more able than others to put aside these wants and attend to the needs of others.

    In most human systems and the environments they inhabit do not encourage altruistic behavior but favor those who exhibit selfish behavior. You have to want to understand another’s perspective many won't pursue this behavior unless incentivized - rewarded - to do so. Whether the reward be positive 'I get stuff' or a negative 'I've avoided stuff'. Carrot and stick.

    We have to square the individual human animal and it's instincts for food, shelter, sex and emotional security and fulfillment with the wider needs of the human system group within which they operate.

    Most prisons it would appear are human systems where such behavior, understanding other's perspectives, is positively discouraged as it is detrimental to an individual’s survival within those systems. The behavior that surfaces in such institutions punishes any who might be considered as week. The human instinct for emotional fulfillment through retribution, an eye for an eye, has created human systems, prisons, where punishment is the single most important policy driving factor.

  3. The fact that physical and emotional punishment is handed out by fellow inmates and not the directly by the state is unimportant. Many would see this as, believe it to be, a good thing. Furthermore would say people who end up in prison deserve to be in such an environment and receive the outcomes that arise from basic human survival behavior. The goal of gaol should be punishment. These are not environments within which understanding another’s perspective behavior is promoted nor about society attempting to understand the perspectives of those incarcerated. Failure to understand these perspectives however ultimately has a negative consequence for society.

    So we construct human systems, prisons being an extreme example, which are antithetical to and actively discourage behavior which promotes understanding others perspectives.

    Ultimately the willingness to understand others perspectives must be learnt as behavior which offers rewards beyond the fulfilling of basic instincts. And it is the individual within the system who must exercise the will to understand another. This individual behavior though is more of less inhibited and/or encouraged depending types of human system we inhabit. For the more ‘enlightened’ it is clear that this sort of altruistic behavior is beneficial to the individual and the system as a whole – even if the system is a prison or similarly dystopia.

    It is incumbent on us all as individuals attempt to do understand others. The question that keeps surfacing is how can we construct human systems and environments where understanding another’s perspective is encouraged and rewarded. Most of our current human systems would not seem to do so at all or not to do so very well. It is hard to foster agreement in a system which does not foster the understanding and respect of others perspectives. How capable are we as human animals of ever doing so?

  4. I do not think that we are, typically, INDIVIDUAL makers of meanings. The meanings we give to events and information derive mainly from the media, peer groups and various intellectual, religious and political leaders. At its best this gives us science and organised compassion. At its worst, religious bigotry, groupthink and tabloid-driven hysteria.

    I do not deny the responsibilities of individuals but if we want to obtain consistently good interpretations of facts we need to focus on corporate culture and teamwork processes.

  5. York, thank you so much for your thoughts.

    I think you highlight well a number of tension points in human systems, specifically on 'winning' versus 'losing' and what this means for the individual and the whole. And of course, with free will, there will always likely be 'good' and 'bad' behaviour from the perspective of a given observer.

    To my mind, this re-enforces the need to describe the issues and opportunities in a way that all participants can see and have a dialogue around, so that more perspectives can at least be considered as the system evolves. Evolving systems that work for a minority can ultimately only be counter-productive for everyone.

  6. David, thank you - and a very well made point.

    We should definitely explore this aspect of human systems further and I'll post some ideas shortly. (I've been developing a 'Maslow Diamond' as a representation of the gravitation toward the collective behaviour you describe, though as you say, there is of course need to acknowledge individual responsibility too).

    I wholeheartedly agree human systems should give attention to representing the perspectives of groups, as well as the individual. The sense making filters I describe (and VPEC-T of course) help understand system behaviour from both an individual and a grouping perspective.

    I recognise I majored on the individual in this first post (in an attempt to highlight information relativity), and will seek to address group aspects subsequently.

    Best wishes

  7. There are elements in your posting with which I find strong resonance. Especially "a lot of the information processing we do as humans is automatic" (which I take to imply that it's not grounded in some rigorous logic), and "we don’t have to manually sort and file all the information we come into contact with" - I find that some of by best intuitions have been those that only find justification some time "after the event". (I did have some problems with your discussion of "meaning" - that's such a tricky word! - but if I pass over that the rest makes sense to me.)

    I'm reminded of some experiments by Tim Guilford, in the Oxford Zoology department, on Pigeon navigation (using GPS recorders attached to the pigeons). The fascinating thing for me was that they learn and locally optimize a route, but never completely optimize it globally. This suggests to me that "animal" learning systems (including humans) rely far more on memory and pattern matching ("see this, go in this direction") that they do on building logical models and using them to deduce a route (which we effectively do when looking at a map). I think there are echoes here of the way, e.g., Google approaches language translation.

    In the final analysis I don't yet find that the separation of "values" into "beliefs" and "goals" adds anything greatly to the insights of V-PECT. I think your core message (as I perceive it) is equally valid if you just stick to values. Thus, when dealing with a situation, beliefs and goals work together to _define_ a person's response to some stimulus; _justification_ is (I suggest) an internal parameter which has little external relevance.

  8. Graham, thanks, and thanks also for passing over 'meaning' at this point! :)

    Very interesting observations especially from my perspective on Values.

    The idea behind the focus of the separation of Beliefs and Goals in human systems is we can often find there is tension between the two, and that behaviour is affected differently by each. Wrapping into Values is helpful, but the more I have engaged with the work, the more I find it useful to explore these 2 deeply. It's still VPEC-T, with a deeper focus on the 'V'.

    I will reflect on your points further.

    Best wishes

  9. I've developed a framework model for the way that meaning is encoded into messages and extracted from them on my own blog (Most discussion focuses on just the decoding so just seeing the two ends together adds something I think.)

    This doesn't address the individual/group issue though.

  10. Of course I am sympathetic with the ideas you present, but I worry slightly about the anthropic nature of your argument. Sure it is true that we, as information receiving agents, filter inbound signals to suite our own expectations of the universe. This comes from our survival instinct if nothing else. However there has to be an “informational framework” beyond the constraints of personal experience.

    Investigations into such a framework are not helped by Computer Science’s arrogance, or dare I say ignorance. It may well be true that we have made great advances in the field of Information Technology (IT) over recent decades, but all such advances have been made without any deep understanding of just what information “is.” Some would have us believe that we have a grip on information and that we can do marvellous things with it, but this is a simple fallacy. We certainly understand much about data – how to type it, aggregate it usefully and so on – but we have little or no understanding as to how it interacts and coalesces to form information, and certainly not from any of the contemporary standpoints that have powered our current IT revolution.

    Nevertheless there are some things we do know about information. We know we live in an informational universe, for example, with the world’s very best physicists considering information to be more fundamental than the very matter that makes up the reality we experience around us. Yet even these guru’s appear happy to fuel controversy. Few proven and truly scientific concepts have an immediate informational flavour, but the notion of entropy is certainly one. Wikipedia describes entropy as being “the expected amount of information needed to exactly specify the state of the system,” yet physicists believe that informational content decreases as entropy decreases. This need not necessarily be the case, however, as information changes according to the context in which it is interpreted. Indeed there are some who believe the reverse position to that of the physicists and consider informational content to increase as order rises. Whatever the case it is clear that we have a long way to go yet before we can truly say we even have the slightest appreciation of the truth.

    For me the way forward lies with physics, but then I normally get tagged as being a maverick!

  11. When you talk about human systems is that really shorthand for "systems with a strong human component" for example the stock market which, as your colleague so insightfully pointed out, like all financial systems is driven by fear and greed (human characteristics), and yet contains a great number of non human components to: companies, economic forces, the Government, IT systems etc. Is the thesis that in systems with a human component, human frailties will dominate, or is there an argument for non-human parts of the system being susceptible to VPEC-T style analysis? Does a comuter has values? Does an economic system have trust relationships?