An agent-based model of why incompetence spreads through big organisations

July 7, 2009

Italian research scientists use agent-based modelling to demonstrate the “Peter Principle” or organisational incompetence.

It is a truism amongst disgruntled workers in large organisations that their managers are complete idiots.  This is often justified with reference to the “Peter Principle”, named after the Canadian psychologist Laurence Peter who first observed this phenomena in 1969.  The international aid sector is no exception.

Stated simply, the Peter Principle is:

All new members in a hierarchical organisation climb the hierarchy until they reach their level of maximum incompetence.

A new study by researchers at the Universita di Catania has produced computational evidence explaining why this might be the case.  From the MIT Technology Review article on their paper:

[The researchers] say that common sense tells us that a member who is competent at a given level will also be competent at a higher level of the hierarchy. So it may well seem a good idea to promote such an individual to the next level.

The problem is that common sense often fools us. It’s not so hard to see that a new position in an organization requires different skills, so the competent performance of one task may not correlate well with the ability to perform another task well.

Peter pointed out that in large organizations where these practices are used, it is inevitable that individuals will be promoted until they reach their level of maximum incompetence. The unavoidable result is the runaway spread of incompetence throughout an organization.

The research team has used agent-based modelling to simulate this common practice of promotion. They found that, contrary to intended effect, performance-based promotion leads to, “a significant reduction in the efficiency of an organization, as incompetency spreads through it.”

The best way to counter this effect?  Alternately promote competent and incompetent people or simply promote people randomly (or based on non-competence criteria).

A nice review can be found at the MIT Tech Review and the full text can be found here, “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study”

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UKCP09 launches today

June 18, 2009

After several months of delay and some behind the scenes controversy, UK Climate Projections 2009 (UKCP09) launches today, June 18th, 2009.

From the press release:

The UK Climate Projections (UKCP09) are being launched on Thursday 18 June. UKCP09 provides the latest information on how continued emissions of greenhouse gases may change the UK’s climate over 21st century. The information provided by UKCP09 will be valuable to anyone with responsibility for forward planning in the public, private and voluntary sectors. UKCP09 comprises a package of information including, publications, key findings, user support and customisable output. This is primarily available on-line. Please note that the sites will not go live until the Secretary of State has finished his announcement to the House, sometime around 12.30.

* For access to the main technical information about UKCP09, and the full range of information and support, go to http://ukclimateprojections.defra.gov.uk.
* A gentler introduction is available at http://ukcp09.defra.gov.uk.

UKCP09 is accompanied by a training programme – Projections in Practice (PiP) – and more information can be found at www.ukcip.org.uk/training.

What is so interesting about these projections is the background controversy and delay.  They will be some of the world’s most advanced downscaled climate projection available, but the project has been delayed due to methodological criticism and claims of over promising.

The critique, coming mostly from climate modellers and chaos mathematicians, suggests that some of the claims are too ambitious and that the levels of uncertainty are too high to produce such granular predictions.

From a past issue of New Scientist, cited here:

At the Cambridge meeting Lenny Smith, a statistician at the London School of Economics, warned about the “naïve realism” of current climate modelling. “Our models are being over-interpreted and misinterpreted,” he said. “They are getting better; I don’t want to trash them per se. But as we change our predictions, how do we maintain the credibility of the science?” Over-interpretation of models is already leading to poor financial decision-making, Smith says. “We need to drop the pretence that they are nearly perfect.”

He singled out for criticism the British government’s UK Climate Impacts Programme and Met Office. He accused both of making detailed climate projections for regions of the UK when global climate models disagree strongly about how climate change will affect the British Isles.

Smith is co-author, with Dave Stainforth of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Oxford, of a paper published this week on confidence and uncertainty in climate predictions (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society ADOI: 10.1098/rsta.2007.2074*). It is one of several papers on the shortfalls of current climate models.

Some authors say modellers should drop single predictions and instead offer probabilities of different climate futures. But Smith and Stainforth say this approach could be “misleading to the users of climate science in wider society”. Borrowing a phrase from former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Smith told his Cambridge audience that there were “too many unknown unknowns” for such probabilities to be useful.

Policy-makers, he said, “think we know much more than we actually know. We need to be more open about our uncertainties.” Meanwhile, the tipping points loom.

From issue 2617 of New Scientist magazine, 16 August 2007, page 13

There is no doubt that such projections will be welcomed by the scientific and policy communities.  One hopes that an adequate understanding of the uncertainties involved will also be appreciated.


Play and the human spirit

April 7, 2009
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Neuroscientists draws conclusions about the positive  influence of play on human adaptiveness, intelligence and innovation.

Some of us at HFP have an infatuation with the TED website.  Here is our latest find: play. 

What is the opposite of play? Not work, as we are all likely to respond, but depression. Check it out. It is a bit long at 26 minutes, and the guy  could be a bit more playful in his delivery, but interesting none-the-less:

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.html


“A Force More Powerful” serious gaming to teach non-violent strategies

December 19, 2008

This is another fantastic example of combining contemporary gaming technology with humanitarian, training, and learning expertise on crucial issues.

A group of filmmakers and nonviolence activists at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) have created a serious game simulation which teaches players nonviolent resistance strategies under oppressive regimes. A Force More Powerful: The Game of Non-Violent Strategy”

From the website:

Can a computer game help people learn how to defeat dictators, military occupiers, and corrupt rulers–not with laser rays and AK47s–but with a non-military strategy and nonviolent weapons?

Featuring ten scenarios inspired by history, A Force More Powerful simulates nonviolent struggles to win freedom and secure human rights against dictators, occupiers, colonizers, and corrupt regimes, as well as campaigns for political and human rights for minorities and women. The game models real-world experience, allowing players to devise strategies, apply tactics and see the results.


“Virtual Peace” humanitarian training simulator

December 18, 2008

This project is a cutting edge example of collaborative technologies for humanitarian aid.

Duke University researchers have created an online world similar to Second Life, in which students can train for emergency humanitarian response situations.  The game is designed to help students learn disaster relief and conflict resolution skills through online simulation.

From an HFP perspective this project integrates new, online technologies with social networking to encourage collaboration in a cross-organisational context.  Players act as representatives of different groups, including the UN, local government, and international NGO’s, who must work together to understand each others goals and achieve a shared outcome.  There is also a great white paper online discussing the benefits of simulation in this environment, “Simulation and Game Environments Improve Learning”

From the website;

Virtual Peace: Turning Swords to Ploughshares brings together digital learning technologies and international humanitarian assistance efforts. Students and educators enter an immersive, multi-sensory game-based environment that simulates real disaster relief and conflict resolution conditions in order to learn first-hand the necessary tools for sensitive and timely crisis response.”

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