Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Using magnets to understand the corporate culture

Magnet Grabbing Businessman
I have always been fascinated with the how human nature mirrors several aspects of Mother Nature. A natural extension, some of those patterns also repeat themselves in organizational systems created by humans.

A good example comes from magnets and organizational culture. A magnet made from an iron core has millions of microscopic metal particles polarized in the same direction. In the absence of that cohesive field orientation across all particles, you just have a regular piece of metal.

When you apply an orthogonal magnetic field, those metal particles tend to reorient themselves along the axis of the external field. When the external field is removed, the metal particles tend to return to their original alignment, but not entirely. This effect is known as hysteresis. In simple terms, magnets have a memory.

And now to the analogy to organizational structure. In a large company, employees are the little metal particles united in a common body. With the proper external force, the particles will align in the same direction; remove that force and the metal particles tend to go back to their old orientation. Apply a strong enough field for a long enough time and these particles tend to stay permanently aligned in the same direction, thus creating a magnet.

Another interesting part of the magnetization phenomena is that the reorientation happens in individual clusters rather than in a uniform way throughout the metal body. In other words, some portions of the metal reorient themselves along the new field before others do. At some critical point, there is an avalanche effect where all particles fall in line under the influence of the external field and its neighboring particles. There is a nice animated illustration for the effect here.

Sounds familiar?

I just liked the thought and its implications to the challenge faced by executives to reorient a company in a new direction, keeping the external field in the desired direction long enough for the employees to start maintaining that direction on their own.

Can you do your part in a situation where change depends primarily on external factors? Sure, as long as you are aligning yourself with the external field, you help exert field pressure on your peers. Typically, that is the role of early adopters, evangelists and technology champions; helping the top-brass move the company towards the intended direction.

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