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Organizational Brownian Motion

| On 13, Mar 2008

Michael S. Slocum

Brownian motion is the random movement of particles suspended in a liquid or gas. This phenomenon was first observed by botanist Robert Brown in 1827 (“A brief account of microscopical observations made in the months of June, July and August, 1827, on the particles contained in the pollen of plants; and on the general existence of active molecules in organic and inorganic bodies.”) and later introduced to the realm of physics by Albert Einstein in 1905 (“Über die von der molekularkinetischen Theorie der Wärme geforderte Bewegung von in ruhenden Flüssigkeiten suspendierten Teilchen.”).

To illustrate the concept, consider a beach ball 30 feet in diameter. Imagine this beach ball in a sold out soccer stadium for a match between Manchester United and Arsenal. The ball is large enough to lie on top of many members of the crowd. The fans hit the ball at different times and in different directions with the motions being completely random. The ball is pushed in random directions, so it should not move on average. At other times, we might have 20 fans pushing right, and 21 other fans pushing left, where each fan is exerting equivalent amounts of force. In this case, the forces exerted from the left side and the right side are imbalanced in favor of the left side; the ball will move slightly to the left. This type of imbalance exists at all times, and it causes random motion. If we look at this situation from a helicopter above the stadium, so that we cannot see the fans, we see the large ball as a small object animated by erratic movement. Consider this animation to help illustrate the concept:

[IMG height=177 alt=”Brownian Motion – FLASH Animation” src=”” width=250 border=0]
Click here to view animation.

Now let’s use this concept to describe an organizational dynamic all too common. If you consider the intentions of the members of an organization being positive (excluding then any malicious misdirection) we can assume that all employees are acting in a manner they believe to be beneficial to the organization that they serve. However, with no concise set of daily operational actions that was generated to support organizational objectives, the employee moves from crisis to crisis creating as many solutions as possible given the time they have to spend on them. This is far from ideal. This is ignoring the future to focus on the present. Sometimes it seems like this is necessary, but in the long run this behavior will make sure there isn’t a long run.

Let’s consider our animation of Brownian motion. The large blue disk is the organizations location in the domain of organizational performance. With a known starting location (the organization’s current state) and no organized employee support for a specific future state (goal), the actions of the employees (the red disks) will move the current state (blue disk) slightly depending on any local bias without organized or intentional movement of the organization towards any goal let alone the ideal goal. This is Organizational Brownian Motion. Many organizations experience this dynamic on a daily basis and it is counter-productive. Trial and error derived solutions with no characterized ideal resolution as a target allows problem solving in an organization to produce the same effect in the evolutionary map of a system. There is no intentional maturation of a system in relation to the strategic adoption of functionality but rather a haphazard amalgam of problems with sub-optimal resolutions. Every time we allow this to happen we create competitive opportunity. So ultimately, lack of organizational focus, at the macro-scale and the micro-scale, is all our competitors need to take market share from us. Studies have shown how difficult it is to create loyal customers and any erosion of their confidence yields more losses in that area. We need an organized strategic planning apparatus that decomposes organizational goals into actions for every person in an organization. We also need a systematic approach to problem solving that yields solutions that not only support the aforementioned strategies but also optimizes system evolution and minimizes the creation of any competitive opportunity.