Review: Risk Savvy – How to Make Good Decisions by Gerd Gigerenzer

Are you risk-literate?

Do you understand how reputable cancer treatment centers in the U.S. lie or mislead you by confounding statistics in their marketing?

Which preventive cancer screenings cause more harm than good? Which preventive cancer screenings are worth getting?

Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy (find in a library) is a crash course in risk literacy and a fun romp through several areas in which understanding risk and uncertainty matters enormously: your health and medical care (including defensive medicine and preventive screenings), bank finance and your money, leadership, romance, terrorism, and various runaway panics – Do you remember mad cow disease and how many people died from it?*

I first encountered Gigerenzer while studying cognitive models that could be implemented in computational agents, and specifically, his highly-cited papers on “fast and frugal” heuristics for us boundedly-rational mortals. [Note to economists: this includes you.] While his academic papers are quite accessible, Risk Savvy (find in a library) feels approachable to an even wider audience.

What’s particularly fun and enjoyable about the book is that Gigerenzer doesn’t just pick on laypeople for not understanding risk, but he also picks on experts for not only communicating risk so poorly, but for often lacking risk literacy, themselves. He backs this up with experimental data collected from physicians, bankers, and executives, and uses as a foil some of the best experts at developing simple solutions to complex problems: children.

Gigerenzer includes practical tools that could revolutionize the way we communicate and think about risk – for example, discontinuing the use of relative risks with unspecified or poorly specified reference classes (e.g., a 20 percent risk reduction!) and instead using absolute risks (e.g., a reduction in risk from 5 in 1000 to 4 in 1000).

Gigerenzer also advocates the use of icon boxes and fact boxes (examples available from the Harding Center for Risk Literacy) when health professionals and health-related organizations communicate with individuals.

The concluding chapter suggests ways that we might revolutionize school by teaching risk literacy using simple tools from a very early age. Gigerenzer specifically focuses on applied statistical thinking, rules of thumb, and psychology of risk and suggests focusing these in three areas: health literacy, financial literacy, and digital risk competence. He backs his suggestions with experimental data demonstrating that children as young as the second grade can, when presented with statistical information in the proper format, learn to accurately calculate risk.

Overall, I enjoyed Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy (find in a library) and recommend it to just about anyone, and especially to those working in health-related professions and anyone interested in making better decisions about their health, finances, and other areas of life.

*Over 10 years, about 150 people in all of Europe died of mad cow disease. In the same ten years, the other cause that led to an equivalent number dying was drinking scented lamp oil.

Review: Risk Savvy – How to Make Good Decisions by Gerd Gigerenzer

The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age

Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh’s The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age (find in a library) is a short but engaging read focused on three core ideas for talent management in the “networked” age:

1. Use an “Alliance” framework between employer and employee
2. Invest in and leverage employee networks
3. Encourage and/or run employee alumni networks and groups

The Alliance Framework

The book opens with the usual assertion that the old model of “lifetime” employment is dead. Where it begins to veer from the typical, though, is by frankly criticizing the alternatives seen as replacing lifetime employment: falsely ascribing “family” status to an organization and its members and employees, or fully resigning to a free agent, market-ruled alternative.

Most CEOs have good intentions when they describe their company as being “like family.” They’re searching for a model that represents the kind of relationships they want to have with their employees–a lifetime relationship with a sense of belonging. But using the term “family” makes it easy for misunderstandings to arise.

In a real family, parents can’t fire their children.

The authors instead point to professional sports teams as an exemplar of the Alliance framework. The professional sports team has a specific mission (win games and championships) and members come together to accomplish the mission, even as the composition of the team changes over time.

While a professional sports team doesn’t assume lifetime employment, the principles of trust, mutual investment, and mutual benefit still apply. Teams win when their individual members trust each other enough to prioritize team success over individual glory; paradoxically, winning as a team is the best way for the team members to achieve individual success.

Borrowing a military term, the authors suggest that organizations harness entrepreneurial talent by using a tour of duty framework. They are careful to note that companies are very different from the military: while a departing employee might get a farewell party, a soldier who leaves his unit before his tour is complete is AWOL and gets court-martialed. They argue that the metaphor is still useful, however, since both military and business tours of duty focus on honorably completing a specific, finite mission.

Tours of duty are defined by the specific mission to be accomplished, and not time-in-role as career experience is often reduced to. Tours of duty are also not “one size fits all,” and three different types of tours are suggested:

Rotational Tour of Duty

Typically at the entry or junior level, Rotational tours are not personalized to specific employees. Rotational tours are often used by consulting firms, investment banks, and tech companies who provide standardized on-boarding for new junior employees, often allowing them to rotate through a finite number of roles during the often two to four years of the tour, usually for a predetermined number of months (3, 6, or 9) in each role. The primary purpose of the Rotational tour is to evaluate potential long-term fit on both sides: employer and employee.

Transformational Tour of Duty

Transformational tours are personalized to individual employees and are less about specific time commitments and more about a clear and specific mission to be accomplished. The promise of the Transformational tour is that it gives the employee the opportunity to transform both his or her career and the company by accomplishing something substantive. The crux of the Transformational tour is this win-win synergy for employer and employee. The Transformational tour is personalized and structured at the outset with both the employer’s goal and the employee’s future career aspirations–whether in the current company or elsewhere–front and center.

Foundational Tour of Duty

Foundational tours often occur at the highest (founder/executive) level. Foundational tours occur when there is “exceptional alignment” between employer and employee as a defining hallmark of the relationship, and the employee is identified with the organization and vice-versa (e.g., Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway). Typical tenure in Foundational tours is 10 years or more, though Foundational tours are not restricted to executives, since Foundational tours at all levels ensure ownership, continuity, and serve as keepers of institutional memory.

No one ever washes a rental car. A Foundational employee would never allow the company to cut corners to meet short-term financial goals.

The authors spend the next several chapters of the book carefully laying out the prerequisites and steps for using tours of duty. First, they discuss the importance of defining an organization’s core mission and values so specifically and rigorously that some players feel strong alignment while others feel so out of alignment they might leave the organization. (The authors argue that organizations want to lose this latter group.) Next, they provide specifics on having the kind of honest, raw conversations with employees that are crucial for effectively using a tour of duty framework. Finally, they provide suggested timelines and tools for checking in and using feedback during the course of a tour of duty, as well as negotiating subsequent tours.

Employee Network Intelligence

In the second major strategy in The Alliance, the authors claim that employee networking is a good thing. Rather than seeing networking as a detriment to the organization or a behavioral indicator that an employee is thinking about leaving, The Alliance suggests that employers should pay employees to build, maintain, and leverage their networks. The authors argue that in the current era of knowledge work, human capital is defined not simply by the knowledge, skills, and abilities in each individual employee, but by all that those employees can bring to an organization through the responsible and skilled use of their individual networks. Employers should enable and train all employees to skillfully utilize social media, pay for learning opportunities and institute a formal system of knowledge transfer whenever external learning occurs, and even start a “networking fund” and allow employees to expense networking lunches.

Corporate Alumni Networks

The third strategy in The Alliance is that organizations should network with ex-employees substantially more than most currently do, specifically by creating corporate alumni networks to facilitate lifelong alliances between organizations and former employees. The authors note extensive potential ROI from corporate alumni networks, including the ability to hire more great people through referrals, new customers, access to competitive and network intelligence, and alumni as brand ambassadors. The authors provide specific how-to guidance on setting up and running corporate alumni networks, ranging from the relatively low-cost to the highly-involved.

Overall, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age (find in a library) turns some existing talent management practices sideways, if not upside down. While the authors are perhaps too light on caveating that the Silicon Valley talent ecosystem in which they operate may not generalize to other industries or fields, the talent strategies Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh are suggesting are by no means reserved for the tech world. The Alliance challenges leaders, managers, and HR strategists to think differently about legacy talent management practices that may no longer fit today’s environment.

Download the first chapter from the book website.

Source for the SlideShare at the top of this post: The Alliance: A Visual Summary from Reid Hoffman

The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age

Review: Understanding Social Networks by Charles Kadushin

9780195379471

I stumbled on Charles Kadushin’s excellent book Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, and Findings (find in a library) last year while preparing for my PhD qualifying exams. I already own Wasserman and Faust’s Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications, which is pretty much the go-to text and reference on SNA, as well as Borgatti, Everett, and Johnson’s Analyzing Social Networks but as a social scientist, I was looking for social science applications of network science, and Kadushin’s highly accessible book fit the bill nicely.

Kadushin, emeritus Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, has been engaged in social science research on network topics since the mid 1960s and has example after example of not only his own work with networks in social science, but also citations of all of the other social scientists I’d expect to see: Ron Burt, Ed Laumann, Stanley Milgram, Stephen Borgatti, Daniel Brass, and Barry Wellman, to name only a few.

Kadushin takes a decided and purposefully social approach to social networks, noting in his introduction that although network science can be applied to power grids, for example, understanding social networks really requires examining them “as if people mattered.” Kadushin proceeds to explore both the psychological and sociological theories underpinning networks as well as the social consequences of networks and their structures.

The first few chapters provide an overview of network concepts, moving from individual network members (Chapter 2) through entire social networks and their subcomponents and network properties (Chapter 3) and finally network segmentation (Chapter 4).

Chapter 5 explores the psychological foundations of social networks and the book continues through successive levels, next examining small groups and leaders (Chapter 6), then entire organizations (Chapter 7), small-world networks and community structures (Chapter 8), followed by network processes like influence and diffusion (Chapter 9). Chapter 10 explores social capital as a function of networks and network position and Chapter 11 gives much-needed attention to ethical dilemmas in social network research. Finally, Chapter 12 reviews “ten master ideas” of social networks.

I found Kadushin’s book extremely helpful in pointing to citations of social network analysis applied to social science. For any social scientist interested in social networks, I’d strongly recommend starting with Understanding Social Networks (with Borgatti, Everett, and Johnson’s Analyzing Social Networks as a second choice). I will also note that while Kadushin focuses on social science, he does not shy away from covering the work of physicists and others on networks, though he avoids mathematics in his explanations (but references the appropriate papers).

Likewise, for the general reader, I can’t think of a better book that explains social networks and their applications to social science and social ideas than what Kadushin offers here. An additional strength of the book is Kadushin’s enjoyable writing style and clear and concise recap at the end of each chapter in which he informs the reader “where we are now.”

My physical copy of Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, and Findings is heavily annotated so I also ended up buying the Kindle version, which was only $9.99 at the time of this writing. (The paperback version is $19.96 on Amazon at the time of this writing, but Amazon’s prices do regularly fluctuate).

In sum, Kadushin’s Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, and Findings (find in a library) is probably the most enjoyable book on social networks I’ve read and has been particularly helpful in identifying particular applications of network science in the social sciences.

Review: Understanding Social Networks by Charles Kadushin

Sapiens: Yuval Noah Harari’s Wide-Ranging “History” of Homo Sapiens

I picked up Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (find in a library) because of my academic interest in early social complexity and specifically how we humans became the complex social creatures embedded in networks that we are today.

Ostensibly a “history” book (Harari’s PhD at Oxford was in history), Sapiens unexpectedly turned out to be much more than a history book full of names, dates, and places. Instead, Harari focuses on what I can best describe as large-scale shifts in the population (both form and quantity) of the Earth, and, of critical importance, the origins of these shifts.

While Harari doesn’t specifically bring a complexity science perspective to Sapiens, he is erudite and obviously exposed to a broad range of ideas and academic disciplines in addition to history. Biological anthropology, archaeology, cognitive psychology, environmental science, and economics are all very well represented.

Harari doesn’t pull any punches and relies heavily on research and science throughout the book. He discusses both sides of issues and notes if evidence is scant and debate continues, for example, in the competing hypotheses regarding what happened to Homo neanderthalensis, commonly known as Neanderthals. This question appears to have been answered in recent years by DNA evidence, though some “how” questions still remain.

The book is heavy at just over 400 pages, but Harari’s style drew me in from the start: The book opens with a two-page “Timeline of History,” in which he starts at 13.5 billion years ago goes through the Industrial Revolution and ends, interestingly, at “the Future.”

To give an example of his style:

13.5 billion years ago: Matter and energy appear. Beginning of physics. Atoms and molecules appear. Beginning of chemistry.

3.8 billion years ago: Emergence of organisms. Beginning of biology.

[…]

500 years ago: The Scientific Revolution. Humankind admits its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power.

I know of no other author who’d pen “Beginning of physics” and “Beginning of biology” in this manner.

Harari is both concise and a contrarian, and I love a contrarian thinker.

Moreover, he gets complexity and the means by which large-scale cascades and changes can occur as the result of many small interactions (“tipping points,” to borrow Malcolm Gladwell’s book title).

In one of my favorite passages, Harari invokes chaos theory in explaining why history can’t be explained deterministically nor can the future be predicted. He writes on page 240:

So many forces are at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations in the strength of the forces and the way they interact produce huge differences in outcomes.

He continues, explaining that exacerbating the problem of predicting the future is the fact that history is a Level Two chaotic system. A Level One chaotic system, like the weather, does not react to predictions made about it. A Level Two chaotic system, on the other hand, reacts to predictions made about it. Example: stock marketscog.

Harari also talks about the spread of ideas over networks: culture (the idea of “memetics”) and nationalism. [Robert Axelrod’s model The Dissemination of Culture uses agent-based modeling to explain the process of cultural dissemination.]

Perhaps the most helpful idea in Sapiens is Harari’s discussion of how we evolved to become Homo sapiens from our chimpanzee forbears and, importantly, what differentiated the Sapiens species from our closest relatives (i.e., the now extinct other members of genus Homo: Homo rudolfensis, Homo erectus, Homo neaderthalensis, Homo denisova, Homo floresiensis, Homo ergaster, Homo soloensis and, quite possibly, others which have simply not been discovered in the archaeological signatures to date). This section of the book, the Cognitive Revolution, tackles the implausibility of the Sapiens catapulting from “an animal of no significance” to the very top of the food chain and spreading like wildfire across an entire planet. Rich with discussions of extant research in psychology and genetics, Harari argues that the collective ability of Sapiens to create shared mental models and myths very likely explains the successes that simply could not be achieved without collective action on such a massive scale. This idea is key for both cognitive and social psychologists seeking to understand how individual cognition results in the emergence of behaviors at the aggregate level of groups, and sometimes enormous groups.

For those looking for a quick exposure to Harari and his ideas, while I heartily recommend reading Sapiens, Harari’s 2015 TED talk nicely covers his take on the role of shared mental models (or “stories”) in the Cognitive Revolution of Homo sapiens:

I’d be remiss if I stopped here, since Harari goes on to discuss the transition of Sapiens from hunter-gatherer bands to agricultural pastoralists during the Agricultural Revolution and then, provocatively, the surprisingly very few forces that have managed to unite mankind into what is increasingly one single global society on planet Earth: money (and, importantly, trust in what money represents), empires, and religions. Harari does not shy away from frank discussion of religion, including humanism.

Finally, Harari covers the Scientific Revolution and how a fundamental shift in our thinking – namely, that despite what empires or religions might profess to know, Sapiens in fact, were ignorant of many things that science could answer – that ultimately spurred so much progress in what is truly the blink of an eye in the very long history of Homo sapiens.

The combination of history, science, and critical interpretation made Sapiens (find in a library) a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Sapiens: Yuval Noah Harari’s Wide-Ranging “History” of Homo Sapiens

Book Review: PhD by James Hayton

James Hayton opens his book titled simply PhD with an admission of being a sort of accidental PhD student, using what he was told in one failed admission interview to game the next one. I appreciate his honesty. Where he succeeds in this book, subtitled an “uncommon guide to research, writing, & PhD life” is offering both practical strategies and also a reasoned understanding of human nature, citing Daniel Kahneman’s excellent Thinking Fast and Slow (which should be on everyone’s required reading list) as one of his major influences. Even though his PhD was in applied physics, Hayton did a nice job generalizing his experience and what he learned about the process of PhD study so that it applies to other fields.

His thoughts on skill development during a PhD are probably the best part of the book, as are his perspectives on what earning a PhD actually means rather than what people often imagine it to mean. He gently disagrees with some ideas like writing garbage and fixing it later and offers alternatives.

Many of the other ideas he shares are not new per se (e.g., cut off internet access), but he wraps them together in a slim and accessible volume. The first two-thirds of the book cover bigger-picture issues like research, academic literature, academic writing, publishing, and conferences. The final third of the book focuses specifically on writing a dissertation or thesis, building on earlier ideas in the book.

The book suffers from a handful of editing mishaps – an irony considering Hayton’s insistence on relatively careful writing and the editing process – and it was much less comprehensive than other books in this genre like Getting What You Came For by Robert Peters. I think the US $30 list price was a bit of a stretch considering it’s a small, short book with very wide margins, but it’s certainly worth US $13 if you are pursuing a PhD.

Book Review: PhD by James Hayton