The Scale of Social Systems: Tribes, and Tribes of Tribes

Formal systems scale forever: just add more teams, more hierarchy, more structure. Draw more lines. The largest organisations in the world are triumphs of formal structure: executive teams, functional teams, engineering teams, logistics and legal teams, distribution networks, innovation centres, and facilities management to keep the toilets clean. By contrast, Social Systems fragment: they can be aggregated at scale, as, for example, when we define a country, or a community, but their mechanism of scale is different.


If formal systems scale in one dimension (and they do: there is always a concrete link between one aspect and another), social systems scale in many: they are concurrently multi-layered, with the complexity that some layers contradict one another. They also scale in a granular aspect: whilst formal systems are linear, social ones are granular, meaning that the aggregated whole is made up of coherent smaller units. Units of bonded trust, pride, purpose, and intent. Tribes.

The Landscape of Trust is illuminating aspects of this: trust flows more easily horizontally than vertically, it’s held in strong social ties, and it probably includes aspects of cultural and ethnic conformity (meaning we are more likely to make new bonds that conform to existing ones: in other words, we grow our communities of strong social ties broadly within a frame that we know). So our primary tribe will have a certain uniformity, and that uniformity will likely colour which other tribes we engage within. The effects of conformity are pervasive.

How Trust Fails

One aspect i explore in Social Leadership is to build a broader understanding of our communities: which ones we should join, which we should leave, and which we should create afresh. But to understand that, we have to understand the mechanisms of joining, the notion of credentialing, and social acceptance. It’s clearly very different to join a cold community than a warm one: in this instance ‘cold’, meaning one where we have no first or second degree existing trusted connections, and ‘warm’ being a community where we do.

To recap some of the Trust work: a first degree of trust is an existing strong social tie, based on shared experience, values, and purpose. A second degree of trust is someone outside your network, but with a shared first degree connection, who effectively pre-credentials you to that community.

It’s easier to join these warm communities, but because of the nature (and bias) within our trust networks, we may carry that bias forward into a broader range of communities: so which we increase the volume of our connections, we don’t necessarily increase the diversity of views. Confirmation bias shows us this: more does not mean broader. It may mean a stronger confirmation of what we already have.

Much of my work at the moment is about understanding the complex and dynamic social systems that we exist within. Understanding how we form tribes, and then collective tribes of tribes is part of this exploration, and forgive my language but i am #WorkingOutLoud and exploring this myself. Specifically, the Socially Dynamic Organisation will have more broadly interconnected, diverse networks of strong social ties and trust. It will be cross connected, not simply hierarchically connected. That’s the context for this: if ‘more’ does not equal ‘more diverse’, then we will have to refine our skills at network building ever further, to build out more ‘cold’ connections, not simply warm and pre-credentialed ones. Indeed, understanding credentialing will become ever more important, something that probably sits within Social Capital in the NET model.

The NET Model of Social Leadership

One particularly fascinating aspect of ‘trust’ in these systems is the way it flows through first and second degree connections: if someone we mutually hold trust in introduces us, we may come with a pre-credentialed type of trust. So the flow of trust beyond our immediate tribe is not abstract of the current tribe, but rather may be preconditioned by it: this may reinforce the formation of broadly conformist meta communities, because we are unified within first and second degree trust networks.

There is an interesting exercise you can do to explore the effects of familiarity and confirmation bias: if you have lived somewhere a long time, you may think you know the area well, but walk out of your door, and follow a ‘left’, ‘right’ path: take first left, then first right, then first left, and so on. See how long it takes before you walk a street you don’t know.

When we move somewhere, we walk high level routes, setting out the broad sweep of geography, the high level relationship between ‘bus station’, ‘house’, and ‘restaurant’, and we fill in several alternative routes, but we don’t fill in every single route: we don’t need to, and our brains tend towards functional knowledge rather than expert. If you know how to get to the shops, there is no real benefit to committing every conceivable permutation to memory. So we think that we ‘know’ a place, but may just know one interpretation.

Communities are like that: confirmation bias shows us that people consistently overestimate the number of people that they know within a given community: because we only know the people who walk the same routes that we do.

Social Leadership 100 - Stories

Social Leadership is about understanding the broader map: engaging directly not simply in communities of conformity, but communities of difference. To understand the Socially Dynamic Organisation, we need to understand how social systems operate, and how they scale.

All organisations have social systems: when i talk about creating a Socially Dynamic Organisation, we are not undertaking the task of building it. Rather, we are undertaking the task of listening to it, of nurturing it, of engaging with it. The Socially Dynamic Organisation is not stronger because it grows a new capability, but rather because it manages to gain value from existing, but disconnected, capability.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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22 Responses to The Scale of Social Systems: Tribes, and Tribes of Tribes

  1. Pingback: Four Aspects of the Socially Dynamic Organisation | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  2. Great work and very important for community building in neighbourhoods. Our work is to connect neighbours at the block level through one neighbour taking the lead as a point person introducing themselves and planning a block social.

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