Divided loyalties

In this hour-long video, Google VP of Engineering Douglas Merrill claims that leadership, contrary to popular belief, is not a significant factor supporting innovation within organizations. He adds that good leaders are effective at selecting diverse participants in groups assigned to work on solutions to problems. Diversity allows issues to be addressed from a variety of perspectives, which results in a greater likelihood of successful projects.

Merrill says Google fosters good-natured debate among its employees as they work on innovations for its search algorithms, advertising products, and web applications. He insists there is little expectation of getting things right the first time. The company encourages experimentation knowing it will usually result in failure and, at best, will lead to only incremental changes. The accumulation of small modifications equates to significant transformations in its products and the way it does business.

When approaching innovation, Merrill wisely insists, “Whatever you do, start with the user.

While Merrill advocates multiculturalism in the workplace, Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, argues that diversity causes neighbors to become less involved in community activities and less trusting of each other. Putnam recently published the results of his five-year study of social capital, which concluded that in the U.S., a neighborhood’s ethnic diversity has the effect of reducing its members’ participation in civic affairs such as voting, charity work, and neighborhood associations.

A native of Port Clinton, Ohio, Putnam is currently the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and principal investigator of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America. Putnam observes that people make commitments to other people rather than to events or organizations, and his recent study indicates there is more social interaction and a higher level of trust among people with similar ethnic backgrounds.

Michael Jonas writes in the Boston Globe:

Diversity, [Putnam’s study] shows, makes us uncomfortable—but discomfort, it turns out, isn’t always a bad thing. Unease with differences helps explain why teams of engineers from different cultures may be ideally suited to solve a vexing problem.

Putnam’s critics counter that he fails to take into account the ways in which individuals connect through social networks on the Web. During the past five years, it has become easier to identify and participate in online groups devoted to even the most obscure topics and interests.

Americans can find innovative ways of overcoming the isolation that diversity and an increasing reliance on technology seem to cause, suggests Putnam. For 150 ideas to increase civic engagement in a community, see the Saguaro Seminar’s initiative Bettertogether.org.

Putnam’s research has been discussed in:

Are we emotionally closer to our coworkers than to our own neighbors? The Saguaro Seminar is currently studying the effects of workplace policies on social capital both at home and at work.

3 Replies to “Divided loyalties”

  1. Putnam writes:

    People mostly choose where to live, and that simple fact opens up a hornets’ nest… since people with a certain characteristic may choose to live in distinctive areas. For example, the fact that people with children live nearer to schools does not mean that proximity to a school caused them to become parents. In our case, however, selection bias is prima facie implausible as an explanation for our results. For selection bias to produce a negative correlation between diversity and sociability, paranoid, television-watching introverts would have to choose disproportionately to live in mixed neighbourhoods.

    Having been a fan of Putnam’s Bowling Alone, I find myself thinking his attribution of causality here is problematic.

    Do “people mostly choose where to live” in the U.S.? Yes, on a macro level. But on a micro level, no. A myriad of financial and societal factors often cause people to live in places that are ill-suited for them personally, but that are “the best they can do” under the circumstances. Even if we accept the presumption that “people mostly choose where to live,” his whole case is undermined by not being able to quantify “mostly.”

    Even accepting that people “mostly choose where to live,” what they don’t control is change in their neighborhood — the choices of others that can take their initially preferred environment and modify it in ways they would not have chosen. Will people move when this happens? History says yes — but in California, among the most diverse of states, there are powerful governmental inhibitors to personal mobility (cf. California property-tax law and “Proposition 13”). Suddenly we have people living in environments that they would not have chosen, if they had it to do over again.

    Finally, Putnam rejects the possibility of selection bias by popping off a nice sound bite, but look just before it: “For selection bias to produce a negative correlation” (emphasis added). Putnam’s critics, and I am now one, aren’t necessarily arguing negative correlation. We’re arguing lack of causality. There may be a positive correlation with a lack of causality. Selection bias may have inflated the positive correlation, where really the correlation is lower or nil. A negative correlation, as Putnam pithily observes, would be shocking, and is really just a red herring to throw us off the scent.

    I’m disappointed in this particular distillation of the data. I would have expected better from Putnam.

  2. Mike:

    I think Putnam’s study adds something to the discussion, but my first reaction was that American communities, like American families, have evolved dramatically and are now defined in very different ways than they were by previous generations. We may actually have closer ties to colleagues than to our own families. Our increasing mobility makes a geographic location something to which we may justifiably prefer avoiding a strong commitment. And online networking may amplify our sense of responsibility for the well-being of people of other races and religions who live thousands of miles from us.

  3. NOW it all comes together…Douglass Merrill! Thanks again for the e-mail, and for such a good post, above. I wish I could get top people at my company to read it, instead of crashing through a porcelain shop with a full set of horns…

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