Friday, January 16, 2004

Graph Theory and the American President

After reading several news reports, hearing interviews on NPR, etc, I decided to go ahead a buy a copy of Ron Suskind's book, The Price of Loyalty.  I got curious about this O'Neill fellow, and ran a search on him.  This web page turned up.  Yes, this is a page on the official US Dept. of Treasury web site.  Yes, It identifies Paul O'Neill as the current Secretary of the Treasury.  No, it does not mention that they fired him a year ago. 

This is not a review of the book, as you can tell from the title of this article.  Others have written reviews (1 2 3 4) ; besides, I haven't finished the book yet.  This article is, in the Corpus Callosum tradition, an attempt to link a right-brain idea with a left-brain idea.

Graph Theory was developed in the 1700's by Leonhard Euler.  Graph theory, or Topology, is a way of modeling the relationships between points and the lines that connect those points, without being concerned with the length or curvature of the lines.  It is a way of studying the essence of relationships, without worrying about irrelevant details.  Not surprisingly, it has found applications in the study of such diverse subsects as computer networks, social networks, and epidemiology.  Brian Hayes wrote a couple of essays explaining the basics of Graph Theory (1 2).  One of the applications of Graph Theory is explained in Mark Granovetter's article,  The Strength of Weak Ties, American Journal of Sociology, 78 (6): 1360-1380, which, unfortunately, is not available online.  One of his points is that a part of the strength of a social network comes from the relatively weak ties that exist between persons who interact mostly on a casual level.  One way to look at this is to imagine a world that contains many little villages, and all of the people in each village have a very close relationship to one another. If there is nobody traveling between the villages, each village will have to -- literally -- reinvent the wheel.  If, on the other hand, there are people who travel from one village to another, ideas can spread rapidly, and the villages can group together to form things like countries.  Thus, although we tend to view close relationships as being somehow better or more important than distant relationships, it is the distant relationships that enable societies to achieve greatness.

On page vii of The Price of Loyalty, Paul O'Neill is described as "a well-positioned integrator -- one of the few in this administration."  The context is this:

O'Neill, with his affinity for assessing how process leads to outcome, often cited the separation of information into silos -- guarded as core assets by self-interested players -- as one of the great obstacles to managing the huge, unwieldy, American Government.  It has created an acute need for particularly skillful integrators -- those who can move freely between the silos, pick and choose, and form connections to create a fabric of shared purpose.

Notice that there is a conceptual similarity to one of the problems in governmental organization that was cited as contributing to the intelligence failure prior to 9/11: no one "connected the dots."  Mr. Suskind is correct in his analysis, that it is petty personal power games that cause people to guard their stash of information.  Knowledge is power.  Knowledge shared is power shared.  Controlling who can travel from one stash of information to another is one way of retaining power. 

It is fashionable in corporate arenas for managers to criticize employees if they are "not a team player."  As far as I can tell, this means that the employee is not playing the game the way the boss wants it to be played.  It has nothing to do with true teamwork.  I have the impression that Mr. O'Neill was not a team player; that is why he was dismissed.  He went around trying to generate dialogue, compare and contrast ideas,  to make the most of what Granovetter calls "the strength of weak ties."  This was interpreted as threatening by those who would hang on to power by controlling access to information.  Although such Machiavellian tactics are effective -- for individuals -- in the short run, they stifle growth and creativity in the long run.  This has the effect of helping the few at the expense of the many.  Clearly, the exercise of such a tactic is contrary to the ideal function of government: the few are supposed to help the many.  That's what we pay them to do.