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How Are You Clumping?

“Human beings are social animals. We come together two by two in friendships and marriages; we form families and teams and the larger aggregations of practices, communities, societies, and nations. These groups assemble to achieve distinctive aims and to provide the satisfactions of sociability…Management thinkers, influenced by economists, have been slower to see the importance of social groups in organizations. They have looked at official organizational units over less formal structures, or have focused on individual workers rather than the groups they belong to.”1
If you look closely at this quote, you’ll see who is blame for the bulk of the silly in our lives today: It’s those economists again. Why do economists always seem to factor in humans as if Taylor’s Scientific Management ruled the Earth? An esteemed colleague once explained: “Economists have always had physics envy. For generations, they avoided the social sciences as soft and squishy, preferring the publication possibilities and Nobel prizes in the ‘hard science field.’” That is, until Behavioral Economics came along and discovered that the social sciences actually may offer valid descriptors of messy, incoherent human behavior.
But I digress. What we are seeing with Gov 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, social media, etc., is nothing less than a celebration of the social over the machine. We hold conferences, unconferences, ‘Tweetups’ and meetups – all to stay on top of the latest technology, use cases and examples so we can advance the cause in our agencies and businesses. We argue for openness and access to one another, as a superior organizing principle when you need to gather messy humans into a clump – certainly preferable to the long-lamented organizational chart.
The next step? Understand that not all clumps are alike. The folks on the beach blanket near you are sharing the same environment this long hot summer, are dressed like you and engaging in similar water-worshipping behavior. Chances are, however, you only look purposefully clumped, at least from the perspective of the pilot in that passing biplane advertising the nearest happy hour. You have nothing else in common with these folks, and likely do not engage them in conversation. You do not share a leader, there was no formal training, and you “gathered” in this group without really thinking about it. (Let’s be honest, you wish you had more personal space and weren’t so clumped.)
You are a group.
Teams: “[A] small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”2 “The group of members evolves into a team by co-generating a shared framework and processes for their interaction and their work. 3

Let’s say you decide to play beach football. Ok, that’s ambitious. Instead, let’s build a sand-castle with these people. You agree on labor division, you set a site that will survive at least one tide cycle, you enlist the nearest children in the endeavor – since what you are really doing is establishing a stable attractor to keep the little darlings from wandering off. There are processes for molding, moating, and the fine engineering required for the construction of the cupola and gargoyles. (The castle in the photo belongs to my son-in-law, a self-destroying castle with an internal moat. Genius.)
You are a team.
“Firstly, … people are trained in role, and expectation of role instantiating that role with ritual. Secondly … the crew only exists for a short period of time before it dissolves, and then reassembles with different people occupying the roles but with the same expectations. A crew is clearly a formal community which require investment in training and considerable social reinforcement over time.”4

Nearby, an emergency. Someone wandered too far from the jetty and is in distress. The lifeguard alerts the nearby medical services, grabs her life buoy and runs to the victim. The medical team arrives, sets up a perimeter and prepares for resuscitation if necessary. Every member of the crew has a role to play, and even if they have never met the lifeguard, the information she will communicate to them will be clear, structured and unfettered by language confusion.
You are witnessing a crew.
You have seen this phenomenon among flight crews, on surgical teams, in the emergency room, and among special forces squads or Marines engaged in hostile action. People have an identity (door-gunner, anesthesiologist, shortstop, nurse, first officer, etc.), often described as part of their identity. As with teachers or lawyers, members of crews are in professions, with their affiliations secondary to their identity. In a very real sense, the crew becomes part of each individual’s identity. This does not occur on the team or group level – people speak of part of a cohesive whole, and reunions among crews years later feature more hugs than those that celebrate teams.
Everyone in the crew understands not only their role, but the jobs and roles around them. The expected interactions are rehearsed and honed. While not used in business as often as teams, the concept of crews is an extraordinary study in understanding how to recognize and occasionally formalize roles in a team setting.
As we apply social media, information transparency, technology solutions, and process analysis, etc., we should consider the context. The information needs and process stability for those we serve will vary greatly depending on whether the work calls for a team or a crew – or even whether a group (community of practice) construct is appropriate for the need. We should also consider how individuals in a community of practice may clump into teams for short-term needs; or even into crews for specialized tasks.
There is room for increased sophistication in how we think about social media. Let’s not make the mistake of the economist and neglect what the social sciences have to teach us about clumping in social systems.
1 Cohen, D., & Prusak, L. (2001). In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
2 Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (2006). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
3 Beyerlein, M., & Lin, J. (2010). Participation and Complexity in Collaborative Knowledge Generation: Teams as Socio-Intellectual Environments. In A. Tait & K. A. Richardson (Eds.), Complexity and Knowledge Management: Understanding the Role of Knowledge in the Management of Social Networks. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

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Adriel Hampton

Great stuff, John. It is sad that we have spent so much of the last few hundred years building in ways antithetical to our hardwired social models.

Dick Davies

Jay Deragon has a quote – “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” — Clay Shirky, which factors into the mechanics of your grouping model, I think.

tony joyce

John, good post. You’ve grabbed some nicely succinct definitions from a field where there are many opinions and not all that much concensus. We probably should remember that there are other clumps that need some defining (or standardizing).

Dick’s quote from Jay Deragon is useful for reflection. A crew comes together for an emergency, but disipates when the criris is resolved. They bring their individual skills and some amount of practice in going through the routines. Most crews are lucky enough to have practiced together, but really good ones, think fire and police, are so well practiced that the needed intimacy grows quickly on the scene.(1)

What happens when they dont’t dissapate after the event? Maybe the crisis isn’t solved. Or the crew (or their bosses) want to “be prepared” for the next one. Or we want to keep some combination of skilled people together for a while to preserve the intimate knowledge they cocreated during the affair. (This last reason may be the true genesis of KM “best practices,” a concept that is so roundly disparaged these days.)

What do we do then? I suspect that, with many good intentions, we create an institution.

(1) “Sources of Power, How People Make Decisions” Gary Klein