Individualism, Collectivism, Human Networks and Distributed Computing

July 20, 2009


According to Geert Hostede, “Individualism is on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism, that is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. On the individualist side we find societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him/herself and his/her immediate family. On the collectivist side, we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families (with uncles, aunts and grandparents) which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. The word ‘collectivism’ in this sense has no political meaning: it refers to the group, not to the state. Again, the issue addressed by this dimension is an extremely fundamental one, regarding all societies in the world.”

Figure 1 shows the Individualism Index for Japan, Germany and USA [1].

Individualism Index

Individualism Index

In my study of Japanese management twenty years ago, I found many arguments about how individualism and collectivism play key roles in business success.  One argument from Professor Robert Ballon of Sophia University struck me as very interesting.  His thesis is that the social characteristics of a group are related to the resource availability for the group.  If the resources are abundant, system allows individualism and also tolerates resulting duplication and resource wastage.  However, as the resources become scarcer, the group members tend to collaborate with each other to optimize available resources to meet the common goals for survival.  Even if the group starts with competition resulting in violence, eventually they learn that collaboration is a better way to assure the survival of the group as a whole.  This is especially true if the group coexists over a long period of time.  Business success depends on a balance of individualism and collectivism.  100% collectivism tends to foster tribalism and kills innovation thus reducing opportunities for business success.  100% individualism fosters cream skimming, greed, looting and eventual wastage of resources.

The quest for total resource optimization often leads to tradeoff of time against space and collectivism against individualism.  For example, in the days when global connectivity was limited, Japanese management evolved to optimize space that was a scarce resource and organized themselves to put the “group” first.  However, as the global connectivity broadened, people started to become more individualistic.  For example, playing golf in Japan is a very expensive proposition, but today, a Japanese business person can fly to Hawaii and play golf at a cheaper price.  Just-in-time inventory optimizes shelf-space.  However, it requires broadband transport to meet latency tolerance limits of consumers.

There are many theories on whether more dominant collective nature of Japanese management is conducive for success in global business in general and software business in particular which I discussed in my thesis.  However, more interesting aspect of collectivism is its ability to form human networks (humans networking as groups collaborating to achieve common objectives).  The human networks are considered intelligent because they accomplish their goals in multiple ways using information collected from the external world and using it to control it.  The human network consists of a group of individuals operating as a system [2]:

  1. Every system has a purpose within a larger system
  2. All of a system’s parts must be present for the system to carry out its purpose optimally
  3. A system’s parts must be arranged in a specific way for the system to carry out its purpose (separation of concerns)
  4. Systems change in response to feedback (collect information, analyze information and control environment using specialized resources)
  5. Systems maintain their stability (in accomplishing their purpose) by making adjustments based on feedback

According to Vancho Cirovski, [3], the effectiveness of the human network depends on the connections, communication and mastery (or specialization) of the individual human object.  Better the quality of mastery of the individual node, the quality of connection and communication, higher the effectiveness.  Human networks provide a perfect working model for distributed computing.  Malone [4] describes the distributed computing model:

  1. Organization consists of connected “agents” accomplishing results that are better than if they were not connected.
  2. An organization establishes goals, segments the goals into separate activities to be performed by different agents, and
  3. Connect different agents and activities to accomplish the overall goals.

Scalability is accomplished through hierarchical segmentation of activities and specialization. There is always a balance between the cost of coordination of the agents and economies of scale obtained from increasing the network size which defines the nature of the connected network.  Efficiency of the organization is achieved through specialization and segmentation.  On the other hand agility of an organization depends on how fast the organization can respond to changes required to accomplish the goals by reconfiguring the network.

Both efficiency and agility are achieved through a management framework that addresses Fault, Configuration, Accounting (utilization), Performance and Security (FCAPS) of all network elements (in this case the agents).  Project management is a specific example where Fault, configuration, accounting, performance and security are individually managed to provide an optimal network configuration with a coordinated work-flow.  Functional organizations, and hierarchical and matrix organizational structures are all designed to improve the efficiency and agility of an organization to accomplish the goals using both FCAPS management and signaling based arbitration of resources depending on system priorities and workload variations.

What does this have to do with Software, Computing Clouds, and Japanese Management?  Software is the electronically encapsulated human knowledge captured as workflows in executable form.  Therefore, the ability to rapidly develop software or translate domain knowledge into machine executable form is crucial to developing a competitive edge. Current efforts in developing manufacturing systems, banking systems, insurance systems, healthcare systems, and financial systems are just such efforts to translate the specific domain knowledge into executable form, establish interfaces to real world to synchronize the information and execute automated control.  To cope with the rapid increase of the velocity of information, we are depending more and more on complex software systems to manage information in many of these domains.  There are many implementations of the distributed computing model discussed above in developing workflow automation:

  1. Telecommunications network service creation, delivery and assurance
  2. The IP network and infrastructure management
  3. Transportation networks
  4. Power grid management etc.

All these implementations make use of distributed computing model to manage distributed shared resources to optimize the overall system availability, performance, security and utilization.

Computing clouds are emerging as vehicles to share distributed virtualized computing, network and storage resources to implement business workflows. Computing clouds in order to be massively scalable and globally interoperable must support dynamism and end-to-end connection FCAPS management.  Such management demands implementing distributed computing models that are as good as the human networking model.  Will the Japanese management that has successfully implemented distributed computing model in human networks, telecommunication system, be able to build reliable, scalable, secure and dynamically reconfigurable Computing clouds? This is the topic of my research and I invite anyone with appropriate insight to participate in an update to my thesis of almost twenty years ago.

[1] http://www.geert-hofstede.com/hofstede_dimensions.php

[2] http://www.thesystemsthinker.com/systemsthinkinglearn.html

[3] http://www.orgnet.com/MCO.html “Managing the Connected Organization” by Valdis E. Krebs

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