Saturday Dec 10, 2005

Collective Goods and Group Members

Our understanding of how groups and organizations operate has significant influence on how we talk about a company, a cartel, an oligopoly, a standards organization or any other group with a collective interest. Successful groups and organizations, whether it comes to a company, an open source software community or a family, have become successful because, among other important needs, they have addressed the inherent tensions between individual and group purpose.

There are many ways to look at this tension between the member and the group. Here, I should note that religion, at its core, seeks to resolve the apparent contradictions we face in life, including the most significant aspects involving the tension between the community and its members. Religion achieves this resolution through various practices and rituals including ones that govern commerce, compassion and caring. However, resort to such harmony cannot always be available and seems to have escaped many a modern human being. The interested reader should turn to Kierkegaard, who was among the first to realize this "modern" affliction.

Organizational theorists have explored and contrasted the individual and the group purpose from other, more philosophical perspectives.

In my most recent entries, I've pointed the reader to Etienne Wenger's Communities of Practice. Wenger has focused on the "what" and the "how" of participation within communities. Wenger's point of departure involves his interest in the connections between learning, identity, community and practice. (These are all near and dear to Open Source software development.)

There were others, prior to Wenger, who were interested in other characteristics of organizations and their members.

For example, Chester Barnard outlined the conflicting interests of the individual and the organization, noted the difficulty of measuring motivation, suggested the diversity and importance of incentives, individual integrity and informal social groups within the background of a formal organization. (Of course, my reading of Chester Barnard's The Functions of the Executive, although physically complete for the first time, is hardly fresh. Perhaps if I read these books for a living and if I were an academician, I would be more careful and conservative when it came to commenting on his and others' works but there are noticable contrasts that come to mind which might be useful to record and share.)

Currently, I'm also continuing my sporadic reading of The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups by Mancur Olson. While Barnard was moved by the problem of satisfying individual purpose within the context of an organization, Olson sought to find when individuals would stay away from collective action involving public (group) goods. When would members of a group fail to act to obtain a valuable good for the group? The group could be, for example, a corporation and the public good could be the successful (and presumably moral) generation of larger revenues through provision of better goods and services.

Here, I'll quote from page 45 of Olson's book, where he underlines the significance of the number of members in a group when it comes to the group's ability to obtain a collective good —

Whether a group will have the possibility of providing itself with a collective good without coercion or outside inducements therefore depends to a striking degree upon the number of individuals in the group, since the larger the group, the less the likelihood that the contribution of any one will be perceptible. It is not, however, strictly accurate to say that it depends solely on the number of individuals in the group. The relation between the size of the group and the significance of an individual member cannot be defined quite that simply. A group which has members with highly unequal degrees of interest in a collective good, and which wants a collective good that is (at some level of provision) extremely valuable in relation to its cost, will be more apt to provide itself with a collective good than other groups with the same number of members . . . The standard for determining whether a group will have the capacity to act, without coercion or outside inducements, in its group interest is (as it should be) the same for market and nonmarket groups: it depends on whether the individual actions of any one or more members in a group are noticeable to any other individuals in the group. This is most obviously, but not exclusively, a function of the number in the group.

In closing, it is worth noting that Barnard, in The Functions, had already realized not only the effect of the number of members on group dynamics but also the problematic of perceiving member contribution to the attainment of collective purpose.

So, why do we watch group sports? Could be because it is one sure place where individual contributions are most obvious to see and perceive?

I know I watch group sports for far more interesting reasons — skill and beauty of group interaction and flawless execution come to mind immediately —





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