Book Review

The Soul at Work by Roger Lewin and Birute Regine, published by Orion ISBN0752811851

People are notoriously difficult things. They are unpredictable, difficult to manage and the most complex bit of any business.

Even with quantum leaps in artificial intelligence and expert systems, law firms still need them. Clients expect them and the best ones can still outthink a computer even if they cannot match the billable hours.

The problem for a people manager comes in trying to predict how that resource will perform in different situations and in different relationships. If they are to get the best out of their human resources, they need to know how it works.

Roger Lewin knows more than most about complex creations. He has previously written an accessible introduction to complex systems in the natural sciences. Here he turns his attention to complex human systems in business and society.

Together with his psychologist co-author, he admits in the introduction that managers are not short of advice on how to manage. “The history of the (currently) $17 billion-a-year management consulting business (in the US alone) is a litany of new techniques that successively offer relief from the ‘old’ and, by implication, wrong-headed management styles,” they write.

What this book does is try to start from the basis of science and move to business rather than start from business and try to create a pseudo-scientific discourse around it.

The relatively young science of “complex adaptive systems” in effect says that systems evolve and adapt to their conditions. Its agents adapt and consequently so does the system as a whole.

Scientists have used this theory and its experimental underpinnings to create more effective computer programs – some of which underpin new virtual lawyer services – as well as try to predict the workings of stockmarkets.

There are problems with taking a theory that works in one sphere and applying it blindly to another, but Lewin and Regine are aware of this and discuss it.

What is important about their book – regardless of whether you accept that management could be treated as a complex adaptive system – is that they call for a refocusing on relationships.

Whether these relationships are the basis out of which complex human and business systems evolve, they are undoubtedly core to all businesses and firms.

What Lewin’s work does is to ask questions that trigger chains of thought in his readers.

The questions and the possible answers – whether in the sciences or the culture of the modern firm – can be powerful things, setting off chain reactions within their environment, forcing it to adapt.

Lewin and Regine’s book should be read not for what it says, but for what it may encourage you to say.