Constructivism, Echo Chambers, and Management

January 2, 2019

The main part

Everybody knows echo chambers. The Internet’s echo chambers made public headlines when sociological studies found out that the Internet does not necessarily lead to a wiser, better informed, more tolerant society. Quite the contrary. Let’s not forget the huge potential for knowledge exchange on the Internet, but let’s also consider the fact that Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. make it easier than ever before to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals. Whereas geographical distance posed natural limitations to exchange thoughts on niche topics or political matters, the Internet and its forums have torn down these barriers. A good large scale study of 50’000 Internet users found an “increase in the mean ideological distance between individuals” (see Flaxman (2016)). Echo chambers are closely related to filter bubbles. Somewhat related, Pentland (2013) contrasts isolation chambers and echo chambers and argues that the sweet spot of return and performance due to social learning lies somewhere in the middle: having the right mix of connectedness and isolation at the same time, not being over-connected but also not too isolated. Echo chambers can emerge at various places. Reviews on amazon contribute just as much as facebook groups or ebay reseller reviews.

But, if there’s strong evidence that people experience these phenomenons online, don’t managers experience these behaviors in their off-line settings, too?

I argue that managers do also suffer from filter bubbles, echo chambers, and isolation chambers in their day-to-day activities. Even worse, their actions build areas of like-mindedness and selective perception through concrete, self-enforcing enactment of behavior patterns. In this text, I argue through example - without much empirical evidence at a sample size of a few anecdotes.

An example of a filter bubble

To me, a typical examples of real world filter bubbles are KPIs and the focus on these. It was over-quoted Peter Drucker who said that you can’t improve what you can’t measure. Through measuments, we - the managers - define what we look at. By focusing on process performance such as turnover per minute, visitors per hour, average time spent on a certain task, we construct a perception based on a projection. This projection into a lower dimensionality must naturally reduce detail. We can’t describe the nuances and differences in a number - unless we measure it. And here comes the problem, while it might be possible to measure almost everything, we must focus on selected areas to reduce complexity and improve manageability. Once something works, we tend to continue to stick to what worked in the past. We look at reports, see what we want to see and forget that there’s a whole world out there apart from this.

An example of an echo chamber

Managers, just like other people, tend to surround themselves with like-minded, compatible people. The characters of a management team, just like any other team need to work together well. Some strong characters and some weak characters, some people that hold power, some who like to acquire power through conformity or hide behind conformity - a typical management team. Critical discourse is not always happening. Especially when politics are in play, people tend to rather confirm their discussion partner than to disagree and lose a potential supporter. To me, these are typical examples of group think and echo chambers.

Solutions

Solutions exist. Critical assessments of current mental, managerial models help to uncover the blind spots, the echo chambers, the filter bubbles. While seeking outside consultants is important, an over-reliance on these would be harmful again. As Pentland (2013) also noticed, the sweet spot needs to be hit. Not too much isolation and not too much connectedness. Regular reviews of variables depicted in corporate reports, for example on balanced scorecards, help to refocus strategic attention on areas that matter most for the future of corporations.

References

Flaxman, S. A. R., Seth And Goel (2016) ‘Filter bubbles, echo chambers, and online news consumption’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 80, pp. 298–320.

Pentland, A. S. (2013) ‘Beyond the echo chamber’, Harvard Business Review, 91(11), p. 80.