Nothing but nets: applying network theory to the workplace

All views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

For another view on networks and innovation, see this post from Innovation Crescendo.

The metaphor of the healthy workplace has been around long enough that it’s more or less one of those catchphrases business types throw out, like “getting the right people on the bus,” (hat tip to Jim Collins).  And like a lot of memes, “healthy workplace” sticks around because it holds an element of truth in it.  Organizations recognize the value of having a workplace that allows workers to thrive, grow and create.  Because of this, a number of methods have been proposed and are in use for evaluating how healthy an organization is.

I’d like to propose one more.  From working on genomics and transcriptomics, I’ve learned the value of looking at networks of molecules as one way to understand human health, and I’ve been thinking about how the concepts of using networks to measure health could be applied outside of biology.  Specifically, can we apply network theory to help monitor the health of a workplace?

We know, instinctively, that any workplace with more than one employee forms a network at a lot of different levels.  The more employees, the greater the complexity.  This is one of the most important things to us about where we work, isn’t it–the interactions we have on a daily basis?  For many individuals, one of the main perks of work is the chance to spend time and do productive things with like-minded, skilled people.  In knowledge-based industries especially, I think this is one of the most important things for the creative and the talented.

Given this, it’s possible to imagine that characterizing the network itself can be useful.  Biomarkers are routinely employed in biomedical research.  The network formed by the people at work may be a biomarker of organizational health.  It may be the expression of the overall robustness of the organization, just like the phenotype of a person is the ultimate expression of all the biological and chemical networks functioning inside her.  Step one, of course, is figuring out what that network looks like Continue reading

Maternal immune systems, autism and the value of prediction

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk

Following on these two papers (1, 2) published in Translational Psychiatry.

When I wrote about Gene by Environment (GxE) interactions and the possible health of children, I was describing how changes in maternal health might have an effect on child health at the level of what genes are turned on and off.  In that situation, there may be the possibility that actions by potential mothers before conceiving could positively impact child health.  In many other cases, though, the actions for predicted problems can only take place after birth.  Key point: in many cases these interventions are best done early, which is why states have newborn screening programs (although surprisingly the number of tested conditions varies from state to state).  In the context it’s interesting that a couple of recent papers have identified what may be a way to predict the development of autism in children.

The papers describe findings that may, if corroborated, have a large impact on autism prediction and, eventually, possible treatment and prevention for a subset of patients.  First, the team demonstrated through study of non-human primates that these human autoantibodies, when given to pregnant rhesus monkeys, led to significant changes in both maternal and infant monkey behavior.  Mothers in the experimental group showed more protective behavior toward their infants, and those offspring more frequently approached known and unknown monkeys despite not receiving commensurate social responses.  Male offspring also showed measurable increases in brain volume.  Second, the research team discovered that autoantibodies  to combinations of fetal brain proteins are found in a significant fraction of mothers who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) children, while mothers from the control group rarely have such autoantibodies to so many of these proteins. Continue reading

Internal and external motivation and the GSK big-bonuses-for-a-successful-drug initiative

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

The story in the Times of London about GSK’s new strategy for incentivizing its R&D teams by rewarding millions (yes millions) of dollars to deserving members of the team that gets a drug to approval has provoked a flurry of responses.   You can see posts from Derek Lowe, John LaMattina, and David Shaywitz that do a nice job of summarizing why this seems like a really bad idea in a lot of ways.  I don’t want to restate their arguments, other than to agree wholeheartedly that rewarding the lucky scientists will overall disincentivize researchers, will be difficult to administer fairly especially given the collaborative nature of biomedical research and the long, long timeframe for a drug to be approved, will have a great likelihood of upsetting and causing hard feelings in employees, and also misses the point that motivation is hardly what’s lacking in R&D these days.

I’d like to touch on that last point with respect to what I feel is particularly worrisome in this:  the complete externalization of motivation on the part of scientists, and the downstream consequences for ethical behavior and human health.  A recent survey commissioned by the Law Firm of Labaton Sucharow suggests that ethical standards on Wall Street are troubling.  About a quarter of respondents had observed or had firsthand knowledge of misconduct at their companies, and about a quarter also admitted they would engage in insider trading to make $10 Million if they thought they could get away with it.  If these GSK-type bonuses become the standard in BioPharma R&D, will we see a rise in unethical behavior on the part of scientists?  And could that lead to endangerment of human health, with clinical trials performed on compounds that are pushed farther than they should be because the R&D team is looking ahead to the possible prize?

I remember a mentor at Merck asking me after my first year how I liked my bonus.  I responded enthusiastically.  He nodded, smiled a  little and said, “Enjoy the feeling.  Because next year it won’t be the same.  It’ll just be something you expect.”  And he was right.  We talk about the perks of working for BioPharma, but there’s actually a cost to being in an environment that provides the kinds of lavish benefits we get in industry.  It can cause the personal source of motivation to shift from internal to external rewards.  Ultimately, for people who are creative, I think the best work is done when internal motivators are a strong part of the driving force–something Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive.  It’s why I think games work so well as a tool for getting things done.  They tap into internal motivating factors.  After all, no one (other than World of Warcraft Gold Farmers and the like) spends hours playing a game because they’re being paid to. We should not be trying to make an engaging, exciting pursuit like research into just something we do because it pays the bills.

Girls, G.A.M.E.S., STEM and fun

There’s a lot of serious work going into understanding fun.  And for good reason.  If a game is fun it can make a developer millions of dollars.  And if it’s not…  The element of fun is also the underlying concept behind the rise of gamification approaches in business.  You know that a concept has entered the mainstream when it gets satirized in Dilbert.   Companies are experimenting with adding game-like elements such as competition, leaderboards, interactive simulations, and other similar innovations to the workplace.  Since humans enjoy games and games act to engage peoples’ attention, the theory is game-like features (or outright games) will help companies be more efficient, train more effectively and even drive innovation.

And the key element is fun.  Something about the alchemy between the participants and the system has to work in the right way to trigger the sensation of pleasure and interest.  Without it, the leaderboard withers, participation lags (or worse, gets mandated which is a death knell for fun), and the investment doesn’t pay off.  There’s a nice post over at techcrunch (HT @geoffclapp) dissecting the concept of “hafta” versus “wanna,” which I think is one of they important elements underlying fun.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of a recent initiative put forth by Northeastern University, in collaboration with the Institute for Systems Biology, the National Girls Collaborative Project, and others.  The very bold, very exciting goal is to build a large, public-private collaboration that will create games that interest girls in the science, technology, engineering and math fields (STEM), and that will increase the probability that girls continue into STEM careers.  That initiative, appropriately, is called Girls Advancing in Math, Engineering and Science (G.A.M.E.S.).

At this beginning stage, there are many clear challenges ahead and no one is denying that a lot of effort and coordination will have to take place for this to have a shot of working.  I attended their kickoff meeting and volunteered to be part of their researching efforts, because I’m interested in seeing how these games will be developed to try and make them appealing and fun for girls.  Already at the first meeting it was clear there will be some healthy debates about how to do that, whether girls really do get different kinds of fun from their games, and also how to prioritize fun versus more educational goals such as showing girls that research involves more failure than success and how that’s okay.

I expect it will be interesting. I expect to learn a lot about games and tools for measuring subjective information.  I hope others check it out and get involved.  It’ll be fun!  And if it isn’t we’ll want to figure out why, because that’s the kind of data this project really needs in order to be a success.

Coda:  For another take on the strange power/fascination of games, check out his New Yorker story about maybe the worst video game in the world–and how it’s led to over a million dollars in charity donations.  And yes, I realize this game is not in any way, shape or form, “fun.”

Trying to keep my feet on the ground and not in my mouth

On the blog Ask a Korean! the author recently explored the concept of faulty memes and facile narratives in the context of the recent Asiana Airlines crash.  He pointed out that the connection Malcolm Gladwell suggested in Outliers, where he suggested the relatively high rate of airline crashes by Korean Airlines in the late 1900s was due to specific culturally-derived relationships among cockpit crew members.  In the post, the author critiques Gladwell’s arguments, showing several instances where the known facts of the events leading to a 1997 crash of a Korean Air flight were omitted or misinterpreted.

The post boils down to saying Gladwell used the facts that were convenient to the story he was trying to tell, and ignored those that didn’t fit, and that the result was too great a focus on cultural factors as the driving narrative behind these crashes.

This touched a nerve.  I currently subscribe to about 50 people on twitter and among those about five tweeted or retweeted links to the post.  On Ask a Korean! the author related that within a day that post had received 24,000 views.  Malcolm Gladwell sent a response which was published yesterday, and other bloggers have chimed in with their own views.

My own take is a personal one.  For me the greatest immediate impact was on my own writing and what I try to do as I blog.  As I write I am trying to tell stories, to put out ideas, because that seems the natural and most engaging way to put out information.  And I think it can be very easy to be selective in the use of facts and information to try to make a case.  Which is something I don’t want to do, because then I’m not drawing real connections between interesting things happening in different fields, I’m just building a tidy, pretty facade.

I’ll try not to let preconceived notions get in the way, and I’ll also ask you–all four or five of you that read this blog once in a while–to call me on it if you see something inaccurate and misinterpreted or selectively reported.  I don’t claim to be a journalist, but I do want to be fair and truthful in the things I say.