Social Physics: The Revival of Science in Management

There is much here-say in management theory. For the most part, it resembles more folk-lore than science. What we call “best practice” is mostly just a mere belief. It might be a good or even a wise guess, but is it the truth? Is it, as Frederick W. Taylor would have framed it, the one best way to do things?


For the most part, we do not know, but we choose to belief. Take yearly performance reviews. They were sacrosanct for years, but now one of the inventors, Acccenture, of them is getting rid with most of the immense red tape around  it (more). According to many leading scientists, management theory follows  fashion much more strongly (e.g. see Jeffery Peffer, “Leadership BS” in sources).

But once in a while a theory comes along which has a solid scientific foundation. Such as MIT professors Alex Pentlands “Social physics“. As discussed in previous posts, there are two main ways of organizing: By hierarchy or by team. Both organizations forms have its merits, depending on the situation. What Social Physics does is to provide a much better scientific foundation to the art of organizing by teams by using empirical, immensely data rich studies based on a clearly, mathematically formulated hypotheses.

Science on the grandest scale

Every person in a social physics  study is equipped with a sociometric badge around the neck, a video and audio device that captures every interaction of the individual over weeks, months and years. The mass data captured this way is processed and every communication in its frequency, with whom, about what, with which length, with which tonality of voice, with which verbal or non verbal replies is analyzed by harnessing the power of todays video and voice analyzing software.

Such a grand study of social interactions has never been done before, simply because is could not have been done, as the technology has not been available before. The graph compares traditional social science (management is a discipline of social sciences) and the new social physics studies done by Pentland.


Never before have so many measurements been analyzed so holistically over such a long duration. On top of that, these are field measurements, not measurements under laboratory conditions. The value that these kind of studies can provide is nothing short than a revolution for all social sciences. Its value is immense – and it is frightening, too.

Social (Nature) Laws

The title “Social physics” is revealing an ambition of Pentland: To identify the basic laws of social interactions. It is, he admits, a frightening term as we like to think of ourselves to be on control of what we do, how we think and who we are.

Without further ado, let me give you a short introduction into its main insights:

Which team produces the best results?

The best teams, measured by productivity or innovation, are those teams who:

  • Discuss a high number of ideas
  • Have very diverse ideas
  • Give short feedbacks to one’s others ideas without getting bogged down in details

On a deeper level, much of the ideas of team theory are confirmed: It helps to create cross- disciplinary teams, it helps to invest team in bonding team mates together,  it helps to mix male and females in teams, the inner workings of a group esp. in the way feed-back is given is important.

What keeps a team consistently great?

The constant exploration for new ideas outside the team.

A team will produce excellent results if it engages inside the team. And it will keep on delivering these results if its team members go out hunting for new ideas outside the team at regular intervals. Periods of intense engagement inside team are followed by intense hunting for ideas (i.e. engagement with non team members) outside the team.

What is shaping the culture of organizations?

An organizational culture is a set of social norms and the social pressure to stick to these norms. The process how culture is changed is:

  • The team is acting on its ideas
  • The idea is imitated by others
  • Repeated successful imitation creates social norms
  • Social norms create social pressure

That raises the question: When is imitation happening? First of all, the team must be seen acting on the new idea. Without visibility of the action, no imitation will happen. Second, the transmission mechanism works if there are strong links between the actor and the imitator. To determine weather there are strong links or not only the number of interactions between two persons is important, but the communication form: Telephone calls are, for example, much more potent than email exchanges.

How can we organize social physics for corporate advantage?

First, it is important to understand a cooperation as a social system. Second, the social system should be measured. The Sociometric badge that Pentland uses would obviously be best, but taking stock of the state of communications inside and outside teams will do in lieu of these gadgets: Meeting schedules, existence and frequency of project groups, meeting culture etc. To analyze all of these are rather traditional tools of any organizational developer.

Having taken stock of the status the next step is to “nudge” or to “tune” the social exchange system:

  • to look at the geographical layout of offices
  • to introduce cross layer, non hierarchical communications channels (see post on team management)
  • to accelerate or slow down the number of exchanges between individuals and groups
  • to provide incentives (not primarily monetary) to engage
  • to use the strong links of key players inside a network to influence others

There can be too much interchange, too much communication, too much engagement. In that case “echo chambers” are created, where new ideas do not spread but fads are repeated again and again. Such is the problem of some social media exchanges, where the same news and ideas are repeated incredibly quick with no foundation at all. The need to slow-down confirms some of the central trains of thoughts of Tom deMarco‘s work: Speed   without time for reflection is inefficient and ineffective.

The dark side: Omniscient control

Social physics is what Dave Eggers in his bestselling book “The Circle” must have had in mind. Taking silicon valley legends like Google, Amazon or Facebook as inspiration, Eggers describes a future dominated by a fictional omniscient company. A dominance, which surpasses the control of a government. A dominance, benevolent and evil at the same time. Social norms are enforced, all areas of life are subjected to the values of one company, the Circle.

Social physics reads like a scientific guide how to get to that future. Pentland recognizes that and is the proponent of a “new deal on data“, a deal that would define private and public spheres for the benefit of all, the society and individuals as well as companies.

The light: The revival of management science by social physics

Just as i happened to read Pentlands works on social physics, i stumbled upon the works of Mary Parker Follet, 1868-1933.  She was a very early thinker about management. Even so her works comes from another century, it looks like her observations remain true today and have received a foundation with social physics, to quote a few:

“Diversity, friction and conflict can be put to work for social advancement”

“Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders”

“Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Difference must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed”

Pentland is transforming management from narrative storytelling centered on best practices into science. Quote:

The main work of science, art, or leadership is the same: developing a compelling story about the world and then deciding to test it against reality:

  • In science, stories are tested against real-world behavior
  • In the arts, against their ability to influence cultural dialogue
  • and in management, against their success in business or government

Social Physics received a lot of attention on the world economic forum  (WEF) 2014 and 2015, as it provides a way to restructure not only companies and whole societies. Have a look, it is inspiring!













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