Friday, August 13, 2004

Human Resources Management and the 4 Fundamental Forces of Nature

Most people are aware the physicists have identified 4 fundamental forces that explain every interaction in nature. They are: Electromagnetism, Strong Nuclear Force, Weak Nuclear Force and Gravity. But do they explain every interaction? How about Human Resources Management? Can we really make a connection between physical laws and those governing the interactions among people in the workplace?

A great place to start this blog is with one of the greatest physicists of all time, Sir Isaac Newton. However, starting with Newton can be difficult as he (and his theories) are much too linear. In essence, Newton stated (among other things) that "for every positive action there is an equal and opposing reaction"--he actually used the word "force" vs. "action" . . . but "action" is much more commonly used. In other words, Newton felt he could predict the nature of every action in the universe by applying his new theories and a new form of mathematics he invented called Calculus (now you know you have Newton to thank for having to study Calculus!). While his theories work exceedingly well at the macro level (for example: predicting the path of a fired cannonball, or the motions of planets), they break down and are inadequate to describe interactions at the micro (actually, subatomic) level because they are not able to predict the complex interactions between sub-atomic particles. This is much like, given our current technology, we can't predict the weather with 100% accuracy, or predict the outcome of elections, or the future state of the economy. There are just too many variables and complex interactions involved to predict the outcomes of elections, weather, or the future state of the economy, etc. In other words, Newton's theories are not adequate to the task of predicting complex reactions.

To this point, what could be more complex than human interactions? The number of variables attendant to human behavior and interaction are almost incalculable! Just think . . . are you able to predict with 100% accuracy the success (or failure) of every person you hire? Are you able to gauge precisely what your employees' reactions will be to a new policy that you've implemented? Of course not. The reason is that the variables of human personalities and perceptions are so vast and complex that we cannot with absolute certainty predict how people will behave using a linear set of rules (like Newton's); that is, for every action we take, we can accurately predict how it will affect and impact another person. Even after 26 years of marriage, I cannot predict with absolute certainty how Cindy (my wife) will react when I do something unexpected (which is frequent!).

Therefore, what we need are new rules to understand Nature (and Human Behavior) completely. As indicated earlier, physicists feel that they are on to something in this regard with their formulation of the 4 Fundamental Forces of Nature. These 4 forces are:

1. Electromagnetism--the laws governing the interaction of photons and electrons. The principal/force of electromagnetism is what account for our ability to speak through a telephone, watch TV, power our houses, operate computers, etc.. It was discovered by British (a Scotsman, actually!) physicist, James Clerk Maxwell in the late 19th century.

2. Strong Nuclear Force--this is the force that binds sub-atomic (protons, neutrons, electrons, etc.) together. The strong force is why matter does not go flying apart. As an aside, the logo I use for my company, Smith, Scott&Associates, is derived from a Feynman Diagram (named after the late Nobel Laureate, Richard Feynman--the creator of the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics) which is used by physicists to represent the Strong Nuclear Force. In my case, I imply, by my logo, that my company is the "Strong Force" that binds two parties together--the candidate and the company. Pretty cool, huh? :) )

3. Weak Nuclear Force--this is the force that governs radioactive decay (why uranium will ultimately be transformed into lead as an example).

4. Gravity--this force is responsible for why the apple fell on Newton's head in the first place!

Scientists today are seeking a "superforce", that is, one basic force which will unify all of the 4 "fundamental forces" listed above. They have come very close in that they have succeeded in unifying the first 3 forces--only Gravity remains outside of the "grand unification". But it's a tough nut to crack! Physicists have attempted to use exotic concepts such as "superstrings" and 11 dimensional universe/s to rationalize their theories with what actually happens in our universe). In fact, even after the great success that Albert Einstein had in his 20's (relativity, special relativity, etc.), he spent the rest of his life trying to reconcile the force of Gravity with relativity (and in consequence, with the other 3 fundamental forces). Needless to say, it's a thorny problem that has kept many of humanity's best minds very occupied. This superforce, when discovered, will be a "theory of everything"! By applying it, we'll be able to understand every reaction in the universe! In fact, we'll be able to explain how the universe actually came into being, etc.! Very exciting stuff indeed!

"OK, sounds good, Gary", you say, but how does this apply to Human Resources Management???

My feeling is that we have come very far in our understanding of human interaction and human resources management--much like physicists today have come very far in their understanding of the universe and the fundamental forces that govern it. However, just as they (physicists) are many years away from uncovering a "superforce" or "grand unifying theory" (or colloquially, "TOE" or Theory of Everything) and its application, so are we from understanding the true nature of human interaction. In other words, companies that attempt to manage/lead their people through the application of fundamental principals and expect that all employees will react similarly are sure to be disappointed. The nature of human interaction is much too complex to be governed with 100% accuracy by the application of a linear, or one-dimensional way of managing/leading. People are just too different and complex. My thought is that for now, we'd be better off applying Chaos Theory (also being used today to predict the weather, elections, etc. that were referenced earlier) to predict human behavior--although even to do this we'd have to understand all of the intricacies of human behavior--again, a very tough nut to crack!

So, let's assume then, that because we are far away from understanding all of the variables of human behavior, that we have not yet developed a "one size fits all" philosophy of human resources management, or a "grand unified theory". We, therefore, must act for the good of the majority of our employees--knowing in advance that whatever we do will not be universally successful or liked. We must strive to understand the "fundamental forces" that govern interactions in our companies (maybe there's more than 4! :) ) as completely as possible, before attempting to predict how employees will react to things that we do. This is why I always spend so much time preaching about the importance of understanding Company Culture before making HR decisions. Understanding company culture helps the HR professional (and corporate management) to better understand the "driving forces" that govern how employees will react--based on what actions we take as managers and leaders. Just remember that unlike Newton, their reactions will not always be equal and positive! And remember also, that even understanding "culture" only allows you to predict approximately what an outcome will be. We must always allow for the fact that like physics, human interaction is highly complex, variable and difficult to predict. If we had more time, I'd talk about another principal of physics, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principal (that is, that in subatomic reactions, "the more precisely the POSITION is determined, the less precisely the MOMENTUM is known") and it's impact on hiring/employment decisions. However, we'll have to save that for the next class. :)

If you'd like to do a bit a quick reading on the subject, try anything on Physics written by the late and great Isaac Asimov (I'd recommend a specific book, but he wrote over 300!) or The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav. If I had to recommend only one book, it would be Zukav's. Zukav's book is 22 years old, but it is still a fantastic and compelling guided tour through the exotic and mind-boggling world of sub-atomic particles and physics. Reading it just may ignite your interest and passion for physics . . . as it did my own!