Humane behaviour

September 1, 1995

During the past few years there has been a discernible shift in popular attitudes towards the social sciences, accelerated by government consultations about national competitiveness and technology foresight. Gone are the days of sweeping iconoclasm and vague panaceas when sociologists were perceived to call into question the motives of everybody but themselves.

The days of judicious technical "modernisation" which followed were a sensible and necessary response to the political backlash which that unrestrained iconoclasm had produced. Now, the public mood has changed and the desire to understand the huge socio-economic changes which engulf us is back on the agenda. The time has now come for the social sciences to speak more directly and perhaps more controversially.

11 = /As a symptom of this "rediscovery of society" the recent government Technology Foresight exercise, ostensibly seeking to identify future technological priorities, returns time and again to the theme of people as the critical connecting link - the "difficult bit". Huge scientific investments simply cannot be realised without taking relevant patterns of human behaviour into account. Social scientists, meanwhile, cannot accept as non-problematical the assumption that technological development is invariably "rational" and human response to it is often not and, therefore, cannot honourably take on the task of devising techniques for persuading consumers to "accept" a wide variety of products, risks or lifestyle changes which would otherwise be distasteful to them. The human dimension should come at the beginning of the research agenda and not at the end, and knowledge of it should help to shape the eventual technological and other policy outcomes.

Since Technology Foresight has been mentioned we might begin most appropriately with the major research issue which is closest to it: the nature of innovation. Once we were content to conceptualise the innovation process in terms of the formal phases identified in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's 1963 Frascati definition of R&D (fundamental research, applied research, experimental development, first commercial production, etc.). Like a relay race, the baton of new product or process development was passed from hand to hand until the race reached its preordained conclusion in full commercial production and subsequent diffusion.

The crucial factors which differentiated success from failure were seen in terms of discontinuities (dropping the baton) and disincentives (motivation). Though these research issues are by no means irrelevant it is now understood that innovation is, in reality, much more complex than this simple linear model would suggest. Many of the Frascati stages are conducted in parallel or not at all, there is constant interaction with prospective customers and other stake-holders, and the entire process is permeated by a range of conflicts and clashes of interest which have to be managed in a way which the simple linear model could not foresee.

A new non-linear model of innovation therefore exists in outline and, indeed, the Economic and Social Research Council can take some credit for having encouraged its development. But a great deal of empirical detail is needed before we understand its implications fully. This is not desk research. It inevitably involves establishing a direct relationship with companies who, alone, can provide the critical raw material for the researcher to analyse.

We can see some of the fruits of this in the work of Michael West at Sheffield University's Institute of Work Psychology and at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics; a detailed survey of 171 small and medium sized firms in a variety of industries, for example, has shown how successful innovation is associated not only with market pressures, but with effective communication and greater team-building within the company. Of course we need to know much more about the nature of these teams which are now springing into existence in "intelligent" organisations and the typical psychologies, cultures and aspirations to which they give rise. Since successful innovating companies are embedded in complex networks we also need to explore the spatial aspects of innovation, and precisely why it is that geographical concentrations of successful innovating companies can occur; the M4 corridor and Silicon Glen. The financial institutions of the City of London would be an interesting example in the service sector.

Innovation is only one aspect of a company's activity. Currently, there is great public interest in the general concept of "business process", which forms the basis of a joint Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council/ESRC/Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council research initiative on innovative manufacturing. By penetrating beneath formal departmental functions and official titles to analyse underlying processes, it is possible to get to grips with the reasons for a firm's success or failure. Again, it requires the cooperation of the company concerned in order to open up the "black box", but, once it is opened, with all its real relationships both within and without the organisation exposed to scrutiny, this approach holds out the promise of developing, on the basis of empirical observation, what amounts to a new theory of the firm.

There is a long-term alliance-building, even a "political" aspect of company behaviour in relation to both customers and suppliers which is not adequately explained by the orthodox textbook accounts of profit maximisation. It should be emphasised that the concept of "business process" applies not only to manufacturing but to all organisations.

The perspective of non-linearity can be applied more broadly. Beyond the specific demands of the individual customer there is a general sense in which new technologies not only have a unilateral impact on society but are "socially shaped" by it. We see this in current work on cognitive engineering where the interactive relationship between the individual and increasingly complex information systems (for example, flight or process controls, or sophisticated medical equipment) can be modelled and the environment re-designed in order to enhance human performance. In a similar way, but on an altogether larger scale, the revolution in information and communication technologies with its drive towards virtuality provokes huge practical and intellectual questions relating to the interplay of technological possibilities on the one hand, and the values and needs of workplaces and households on the other. How far off is the "virtual society"?

The circumstances surrounding Britain as a trading nation are also changing. This has been the result of a long-term, post-imperial transition, but the recent collapse of communism has accelerated the process. Two major forces have intersected and, to a degree, are pulling in opposite directions. On the one hand there is a trend towards "globalisation", reflected in the prominence of multi-national corporations, the enhanced regulatory role of international agencies and the communications revolution which has brought businesses closer to markets in a technical sense. On the other hand, the end of communism has weakened existing alliance structures and trading blocs. A bipolar world divided ideologically on the basis of a conception of social class has become a more fragmented world, preoccupied with national roles and identities. These anxieties are to be found most acutely in the new nations which have emerged in the post-communist era, but they are experienced more generally.

Both of these major international trends require careful study. The world may be becoming a smaller place, but it is becoming more complicated. Original research is vital here for underpinning assessments of risks and opportunities. For example, the research of Simon Clarke at Warwick University has shown how ownership of former Soviet industrial enterprises has changed hands and how the former nomenklatura class has re-established itself in a new guise; Julian Cooper and Philip Hanson at Birmingham University have analysed the trend of growing regional autonomy in Russia and how the core problem of decommissioning the huge Soviet military/industrial complex is being addressed. These are only a few examples of the need for deep and perceptive research, which is equally pressing with respect to other key regions of the world. Companies and governments must be informed about the risks, sources of social instability and changing balances of political forces which influence their calculations.

Potential instability and uncertainty are not phenomena that one only observes abroad. Technological changes and exogenous international forces are producing huge changes in British society. Indeed, these changes are so deep that the ESRC has recently undertaken a revision of the Registrar General's classification of social class - the first since 1921 - to take account of such factors as the growing prevalence of part-time working, self-employment and single parent households; one can no longer simply equate professional skill or occupation with class. In future social scientists in Britain will be operating within a new framework of empirical analysis.

As competitive pressures grow and the nature of work is transformed, so public concern has increased correspondingly about those groups in society which appear to be excluded from this tidal wave of change - the problem of the so-called (and highly contested) "underclass". How large is this group, in what sense is it disengaged from British society and how can it be re-integrated? An extensive research agenda surrounds these key questions. Closer acquaintance with the empirical realities of social exclusion invites social scientists to grapple with some of the thornier theoretical issues to do with social integration - the antidote.

How, for example, can strong communities be reconciled with individual freedom? This question has arisen once again in relation to Etzioni's influential writings about "communitarianism". We need to understand in the context of the modern world whether a form of social organisation which might avoid the obvious disadvantages of central planning or unrestrained individualism is more than sheer nostalgia. How can one encourage "generalised reciprocity" and, thereby, begin to accumulate "social capital"? - to use two of the key concepts developed by Robert Putman in his seminal study of Italian politics.

Finally, there is the state itself which is searching for its own sources of integration and collective identity. Given the radical policy agenda which has been carried through in Britain during the last 16 years, the determination and political will of political leaders should be distinguished from the prevailing trend of institutional power. The privatisation of public utilities, the creation of "next steps" agencies and the setting up of a series of new quangos to regulate these new activities has amounted, in the words of Rod Rhodes, to a "hollowing out" of the state. Loss of subsidiarity due to the forces of globalisation is a further factor. There is a rich research agenda to be explored here as both central and local government seek new ways to coordinate policy and discharge their electoral responsibilities. "Governance" and "accountability" have emerged as among the key concepts which political scientists are applying. Of equal interest to the "hollowing out", however, is the "filling in". Central government has replaced direct administrative control over much of the public sector with a complex series of indirect guidelines, charters and audits. On the face of it the analysis of audit sounds a minor technical matter. However, the crucial point, which Michael Power has picked up in a recent Demos publication, is that audit on the present scale is not just a technical procedure for measuring performance, but, increasingly, defines what primary activities will be pursued; in terms of staff time and resources the process of recording and measurement can take precedence over the primary activity itself. As in the former centrally-planned economies of Eastern Europe, an audit culture generates its own complex games of deception and counter-deception which are now a common feature of working life. Performance indicators are met formalistically; goal posts are moved without warning. The overall costs and benefits of this form of regulation, weighed against the pros and cons of simpler management systems founded upon (perhaps naive) assumptions of professional trust is an intriguing contemporary issue.

Inevitably, the above account is highly selective and personal. Nothing has been said about macro-economic performance, problems of the urban and global environment or problems of human learning and communication. At the end of September the ESRC will announce its new thematic priorities. This will provide a much more complete picture of the key interdisciplinary research issues for the future.

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