System Conductivity

Look for people with tolerance for ambiguity and intrinsic motivation for engaging technical and organizational systems, and I think you find people who are likely to try new technology tools at work. I'm still playing with the ideas of All of Us as Accidental Systems Designers and trying to understand why some people take to this role easily, and others do not.

Hoffer, George, & Valacich describe one of the characteristics of successful systems design teams (they focus on teams as it is so rare that true systems design can be done individually) as: "Tolerance of diversity, uncertainty, ambiguity." Tolerance of ambiguity is "... 'the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable,' whereas the intolerance of ambiguity refers to 'the tendency to perceive (i.e., interpret) ambiguous situations as sources of threat' (p. 29)." (Judge et al., 1999, based on Budner (1962), full pdf)

Think about how people approach new technology tools.

My classic example is how different people react to the suggestion to use a wiki to manage a team project. Tolerance for ambiguity, as described above, describes the response I see from some of my colleagues: they are willing to give it a shot -- they may roll their eyes at yet another of my suggestions, but they are game to try. Intolerance of ambiguity describes another (luckily, much smaller) portion of my colleagues: they see a wiki-like tool as something that will lose their data, lose their rights to their data, or add one more thing to their already long list of things to do. Another response is more extreme: a colleague hears my suggestion and proposes we take it to the next level. Something like, "Wiki sounds great, but let's also try using a group Twitter tool so we can stay up-to-date on the progress of the project. I've never done it, but this would be a great time to try."

I think this is someone who has both tolerance for ambiguity and intrinsic motivation for engaging technical and organizational systems. The trait -- tolerance for ambiguity -- reduces the perceived hurdle of trying something new, and the task-specific state -- intrinsic motivation around organizational and technical engagement -- combines with tolerance to push us in a new direction. This kind of person is well situated to be an accidental, but elated, systems designer -- They are getting to do what they enjoy, and have the internal capability to put up with the challenges. Intrinsic Motivation: (from Hennessey & Amabile, 2005):

Intrinsic motivation is the motivation to do something for its own sake, for the sheer enjoyment of the task itself.... Theorists have emphasized the role of certain psychological states in the experience of intrinsic motivation, including a sense of self-determination or perceived control over task engagement (Deci and Ryan, 1985) and a sense of optimal challenge (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997) that enhances self-perceptions of competence (Deci and Ryan, 1985). The highest level of intrinsic motivation state has been labeled "optimal experience" or "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).

Who are these people who actually enjoy engaging technical and organizational systems?

Maybe in the old days they were time and motion study experts (the kind with a passion for improving the organization, not the kind focused on driving the worker out). The Gilbreth's would be in this group. Their family life was the source of the book (1948) ) and movie (1950) "Cheaper by the Dozen." Modern versions could include your colleague who's always pestering you to try a slightly better way to do things in your team, or professors of management, at least the ones with a technical bent.

System Conductivity

I'm going to call the combination of tolerance for ambiguity and intrinsic motivation for engaging technical and organizational systems: System Conductivity -- both as it relates to the ability to direct technical and organizational systems toward new designs (cf. symphony conductor); and the ability to carry the necessary energy for new design (cf. electrical conduction).

I expect people in the category of having both high tolerance for ambiguity and high positive intrinsic motivation for engaging technical and organizational systems to be perhaps even be proactive, rather than accidental, designers -- people who look for opportunities to improve, or at least try to improve, the performance of their systems. The best designers will have also have an underlying systems sense that helps them understand the costs, benefits, opportunities, and hurdles related to attempts to use technologies that are not quite stable, practices that may or may not be better than what we are currently using, and on-going revisions to work practices built on such systems.

By thinking about system conductivity, we can better understand our own motivations and attitudes, as well as those of our colleagues -- and how these motivations and attitudes are likely to influence willingness to try new technology tools and organizational practices. And here's to all those tech support folks who must put up with those who lack system conductivity: httpv://