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16 juin 2013 7 16 /06 /juin /2013 10:45

D'innombrables réactions cellulaires doivent être coordonnées pour que le cerveau fonctionne correctement. Et pourtant, le hasard joue un rôle essentiel dans ce système parfaitement organisé.

Silvio Rizzoli, Benjamin Wilhelm et William Zhang

Nous pensons, éprouvons des sensations et des émotions, et agissons grâce aux 100 milliards de neurones qui se trouvent dans le cerveau humain. Tout comme les employés d'une grande entreprise, les neurones se partagent les tâches en fonction de leurs domaines de compétence. Ainsi, chaque neurone remplit une fonction bien définie. Mais, comme une entreprise, le cerveau ne peut fonctionner que si les différentes parties communiquent efficacement. Quels sont les mécanismes sous-jacents qui assurent cette communication ?

Les neurones transmettent les signaux sous forme d'impulsions électriques, nommées potentiels d'action. Ces derniers se propagent le long de prolongements cellulaires qui ressemblent à de longs filaments, les axones, au bout desquels se trouvent de petits bourgeonnements, les boutons ou terminaisons synaptiques. Chaque neurone est connecté à d'autres neurones par plus de 10 000 de ces points de contact. Il existe deux types de synapses qui se distinguent par le mode de transmission de l'information : les synapses électriques, relativement rares, et les synapses chimiques, beaucoup plus abondantes(voir l'encadré page 70). Dans le premier type, le signal électrique est directement transmis entre deux neurones par des points de contact entre les membranes cellulaires. Ces synapses transmettent, par exemple, l'information électrique entre les cellules du muscle cardiaque et permettent ainsi la contraction coordonnée du cœur.

Signal électrique et signal chimique

Toutefois, la plupart des neurones du corps humain présentent des synapses chimiques. Dans ces espaces interneuronaux, une fente d'à peine 20 nanomètres sépare la cellule émettrice de la cellule réceptrice. Puisque les potentiels d'action ne peuvent pas franchir cette fente, ils sont d'abord convertis en signaux chimiques sous forme de neurotransmetteurs libérés dans la synapse qui, eux, franchissent facilement l'obstacle. Avant d'être libérés par le neurone émetteur, ces neurotransmetteurs sont concentrés dans ce que l'on nomme des vésicules, de petits sacs membranaires sphériques.

Dès qu'un potentiel d'action arrive, les vésicules fusionnent avec la membrane de la terminaison du neurone présynaptique, et s'ouvrent vers la fente synaptique, où elles libèrent les neurotransmetteurs qu'elles contenaient. C'est le mécanisme d'exocytose(voir l'encadré page 66). Les petites molécules de neurotransmetteurs diffusent dans la fente et se lient à leurs récepteurs localisés dans la membrane de la cellule réceptrice, le neurone postsynaptique. Cette liaison déclenche à son tour une cascade de réactions qui reconvertit ce signal chimique en impulsion électrique ; ce potentiel d'action se propage dans ce neurone récepteur jusqu'à ses propres synapses – et tout recommence. Le signal produit au niveau du neurone récepteur inhibe ou active ce dernier selon les cas.

La fonction d'une vésicule ressemble à celle d'un facteur qui transmet des informations sous forme de lettres. Pour que le flux d'informations ne s'interrompe pas, le facteur doit acheminer chaque jour de nouveaux messages. Pour les vésicules, c'est pareil : après avoir fusionné avec la membrane plasmique et libéré leur contenu dans la fente synaptique, elles se reforment à l'intérieur du neurone par invagination de la membrane présynaptique – un processus nommé endocytose (voir l'encadré ci-dessous). Elles se remplissent à nouveau de neurotransmetteurs, prêtes à intervenir pour de nouvelles transmissions de signaux électriques.

Mais comment ces sphères arrivent-elles à destination ? Les neurobiologistes savent depuis longtemps qu'en plus des vésicules recyclées, de nouvelles vésicules sont produites dans le corps cellulaire des neurones. Celles-ci migrent le long des axones à l'aide de protéines sur de longues structures ressemblant à des rails, les microtubules. Si ces mouvements étaient connus, on ne comprenait pas comment les vésicules se déplacent dans les terminaisons synaptiques. Une des principales raisons de cette ignorance tient aux dimensions de ces petites sphères : avec un diamètre d'environ 50 nanomètres, elles sont invisibles en microscopie classique. Les chercheurs peuvent certes les observer à l'aide de la microscopie électronique, mais cette technique ne permet pas d'examiner des tissus in vivo et n'est donc pas utile pour étudier des mouvements.

Pour rendre visibles des structures aussi petites que les synapses, les biologistes utilisent la microscopie à fluorescence. Dans cette technique, on marque certains composants des tissus avec des molécules fluorescentes et on les active avec de la lumière d'une longueur d'onde définie. Les particules émettent alors une lumière et apparaissent sous le microscope comme des structures lumineuses (voir l'encadré page 69).

Toutefois, la résolution de la microscopie à fluorescence classique est limitée à quelque 200 nanomètres. Cette limitation est une conséquence de la longueur d'onde de la lumière utilisée. Plus la longueur d'onde de la lumière qui illumine l'échantillon est courte, plus la résolution de l'image est bonne. Voir des vésicules, c'est un peu comme essayer de remplir les carrés d'un papier millimétré avec un crayon gras et à mine épaisse. Quand on examine des vésicules par microscopie à fluorescence, les régions voisines de la synapse apparaissent également fluorescentes. Cette technique n'est donc pas adaptée pour suivre le mouvement précis des vésicules.

Mais au cours de ces dix dernières années, les chercheurs ont fait des grands progrès dans le domaine de la microscopie à haute résolution, nommée « nanoscopie ». Une des techniques innovantes a été développée par le physicien Stefan Hell, de l'Institut Max-Planck de chimie biophysique à Göttingen. Elle s'appelle microscopie STED (de l'anglais Stimulated Emission Depletion, c'est-à-dire déplétion par émission stimulée) et est fondée sur le principe de l'émission stimulée, déjà postulée en 1917 par Albert Einstein. L'échantillon est éclairé avec un premier rayon lumineux et un second rayon, nommé « rayon STED », est superposé. Ce dernier diminue la surface visible – tout comme une gomme enlèverait la couleur qui aurait débordé du carré du papier millimétré. La résolution du microscope est ainsi augmentée d'un facteur dix environ.

À l'aide de cette technique, nous avons même pu suivre le mouvement de vésicules isolées. Nous voulions savoir par quel chemin et à quelle vitesse ces petites sphères atteignent leur site d'ancrage sur la membrane présynaptique. En 2008, nous avons donc fait pousser des neurones issus de l'hippocampe de rats sur de minces lames de verre. Nous avons laissé les lames pendant 10 à 20 jours dans un milieu nutritif à 37 °C pour permettre aux neurones de former des connexions synaptiques. Nous avons ensuite marqué les vésicules avec un colorant fluorescent et nous les avons filmées sous un microscope-STED.

Les longues migrations des vésicules

Nous avons été surpris de constater que les sphères se déplaçaient apparemment au hasard dans la terminaison synaptique ; elles changeaient très souvent de direction(voir la figure 2). Un grand nombre des vésicules filmées, surtout celles qui se trouvaient dans le réservoir des vésicules, ne bougeaient quasiment pas, tandis que d'autres traversaient très rapidement la terminaison synaptique. Leur vitesse pouvait atteindre jusqu'à huit micromètres par seconde – une vitesse considérable étant donné que le diamètre de la synapse est d'environ un micromètre ! Cependant, comme le chemin des vésicules était aléatoire, leur déplacement net vers la membrane restait limité.

Qui plus est, nous avons remarqué que les vésicules ne bougeaient pas seulement à l'intérieur de la terminaison synaptique, mais s'échangeaient entre synapses voisines(voir l'encadré page 68). Ainsi, chaque minute, environ 60 vésicules entraient dans une terminaison et en sortaient. Le mouvement entre terminaisons ne semblait pas non plus être directionnel : les petites sphères changeaient apparemment de sens de façon aléatoire.

Beaucoup de trafic passif

Pour déterminer si les mouvements sont guidés par une simple diffusion ou suivent des « rails », comme c'est le cas pour leur transport dans l'axone, du corps cellulaire vers les synapses, nous avons utilisé des inhibiteurs spécifiques détruisant les microtubules et les filaments d'actine des neurones. De nombreuses composantes cellulaires sont transportées le long de ces protéines filamenteuses. Nous avons montré que même si les inhibiteurs réduisaient la mobilité de certaines sphères, ils ont peu modifié le trafic. Nous en avons conclu que certaines vésicules sont transportées activement, mais que la majorité se déplace par diffusion.

Si les neurotransmetteurs bougent apparemment de façon aléatoire dans les synapses, comment est-il possible que notre système nerveux transmette aussi rapidement et précisément des informations ? Est-ce que ce sont les potentiels d'action qui mettent de l'ordre dans le système ? En 2010, pour tester cette hypothèse, nous avons filmé le mouvement de vésicules pendant que nous stimulions électriquement les cellules. Pour ce faire, nous avons placé la lame de microscope avec les neurones entre deux électrodes. Dès que nous activions le courant, le champ électrique produit sur la lame déclenchait des potentiels d'action dans les neurones. Ces derniers se propageaient très rapidement dans le tissu nerveux. Nous avons observé le mouvement des vésicules pendant la stimulation, et juste après.

L'intérêt des processus aléatoires

Nous avons constaté que les vésicules n'étaient pas du tout influencées par l'arrivée des potentiels d'action : elles continuaient à se déplacer apparemment au hasard dans la vésicule synaptique ou restaient immobiles. Seules les vésicules situées à proximité immédiate de la fente synaptique fusionnaient avec la membrane présynaptique et libéraient leur contenu dans la synapse.

Étant donné la précision du fonctionnement du cerveau, on pensait que tous les processus sous-jacents étaient minutieusement contrôlés et structurés. Nos observations en microscopie STED montrent au contraire que la transmission des signaux repose sur des mécanismes aléatoires. Elle est pourtant d'une grande efficacité, car quelques vésicules synaptiques sont toujours en mouvement, c'est-à-dire qu'il y en a toujours suffisamment à proximité de la membrane présynaptique, prêtes à fusionner et à libérer leur contenu dès qu'un potentiel d'action arrive. C'est pourquoi le processus de fusion membranaire n'a pas besoin d'être contrôlé d'une façon plus rigoureuse.

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12 juin 2013 3 12 /06 /juin /2013 07:49

Managing Without Managers

In Brazil, where paternalism and the family business fiefdom still flourish, I am president of a manufacturing company that treats its 800 employees like responsible adults. Most of them—including factory workers—set their own working hours. All have access to the company books. The vast majority vote on many important corporate decisions. Everyone gets paid by the month, regardless of job description, and more than 150 of our management people set their own salaries and bonuses.

This may sound like an unconventional way to run a business, but it seems to work. Close to financial disaster in 1980, Semco is now one of Brazil’s fastest-growing companies, with a profit margin in 1988 of 10% on sales of $37 million. Our five factories produce a range of sophisticated products, including marine pumps, digital scanners, commercial dishwashers, truck filters, and mixing equipment for everything from bubble gum to rocket fuel. Our customers include Alcoa, Saab, and General Motors. We’ve built a number of cookie factories for Nabisco, Nestlé, and United Biscuits. Our multinational competitors include AMF, Worthington Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Carrier.

Management associations, labor unions, and the press have repeatedly named us the best company in Brazil to work for. In fact, we no longer advertise jobs. Word of mouth generates up to 300 applications for every available position. The top five managers—we call them counselors—include a former human resources director of Ford Brazil, a 15-year veteran Chrysler executive, and a man who left his job as president of a larger company to come to Semco.

When I joined the company in 1980, 27 years after my father founded it, Semco had about 100 employees, manufactured hydraulic pumps for ships, generated about $4 million in revenues, and teetered on the brink of catastrophe. All through 1981 and 1982, we ran from bank to bank looking for loans, and we fought persistent, well-founded rumors that the company was in danger of going under. We often stayed through the night reading files and searching the desk drawers of veteran executives for clues about contracts long since privately made and privately forgotten.

Most managers and outside board members agreed on two immediate needs: to professionalize and to diversify. In fact, both of these measures had been discussed for years but had never progressed beyond wishful thinking.

For two years, holding on by our fingertips, we sought licenses to manufacture other companies’ products in Brazil. We traveled constantly. I remember one day being in Oslo for breakfast, New York for lunch, Cincinnati for dinner, and San Francisco for the night. The obstacles were great. Our company lacked an international reputation—and so did our country. Brazil’s political eccentricities and draconian business regulations scared away many companies.

Still, good luck and a relentless program of beating the corporate bushes on four continents finally paid off. By 1982, we had signed seven license agreements. Our marine division—once the entire company—was now down to 60% of total sales. Moreover, the managers and directors were all professionals with no connection to the family.

With Semco back on its feet, we entered an acquisitions phase that cost millions of dollars in expenditures and millions more in losses over the next two or three years. All this growth was financed by banks at interest rates that were generally 30% above the rate of inflation, which ranged from 40% to 900% annually. There was no long-term money in Brazil at that time, so all those loans had maximum terms of 90 days. We didn’t get one cent from the government or from incentive agencies either, and we never paid out a dime in graft or bribes.

How did we do it and survive? Hard work, of course. And good luck—fundamental to all business success. But most important, I think, were the drastic changes we made in our concept of management. Without those changes, not even hard work and good luck could have pulled us through.

Semco has three fundamental values on which we base some 30 management programs. These values—democracy, profit sharing, and information—work in a complicated circle, with each dependent on the other two. If we eliminated one, the others would be meaningless. Our corporate structure, employee freedoms, union relations, factory size limitations—all are products of our commitment to these principles.

It’s never easy to transplant management programs from one company to another. In South America, it’s axiomatic that our structure and style cannot be duplicated. Semco is either too small, too big, too far away, too young, too old, or too obnoxious.

We may also be too specialized. We do cellular manufacturing of technologically sophisticated products, and we work at the high end on quality and price. So our critics may be right. Perhaps nothing we’ve done can be a blueprint for anyone else. Still, in an industrial world whose methods show obvious signs of exhaustion, the merit of sharing experience is to encourage experiment and to plant the seeds of conceptual change. So, what the hell.

Participatory Hot Air

The first of Semco’s three values is democracy, or employee involvement. Clearly, workers who control their working conditions are going to be happier than workers who don’t. Just as clearly, there is no contest between the company that buys the grudging compliance of its work force and the company that enjoys the enterprising participation of its employees.

But about 90% of the time, participatory management is just hot air. Not that intentions aren’t good. It’s just that implementing employee involvement is so complex, so difficult, and, not uncommonly, so frustrating that it is easier to talk about than to do.

We found four big obstacles to effective participatory management: size, hierarchy, lack of motivation, and ignorance. In an immense production unit, people feel tiny, nameless, and incapable of exerting influence on the way work is done or on the final profit made. This sense of helplessness is underlined by managers who, jealous of their power and prerogatives, refuse to let subordinates make any decisions for themselves—sometimes even about going to the bathroom. But even if size and hierarchy can be overcome, why should workers care about productivity and company profits? Moreover, even if you can get them to care, how can they tell when they’re doing the right thing?

As Antony Jay pointed out back in the 1950s in Corporation Man, human beings weren’t designed to work in big groups. Until recently, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. For more than five million years, they refined their ability to work in groups of no more than about a dozen people. Then along comes the industrial revolution, and suddenly workers are trying to function efficiently in factories that employ hundreds and even thousands. Organizing those hundreds into teams of about ten members each may help some, but there’s still a limit to how many small teams can work well together. At Semco, we’ve found the most effective production unit consists of about 150 people. The exact number is open to argument, but it’s clear that several thousand people in one facility makes individual involvement an illusion.

When we made the decision to keep our units small, we immediately focused on one facility that had more than 300 people. The unit manufactured commercial food-service equipment—slicers, scales, meat grinders, mixers—and used an MRP II system hooked up to an IBM mainframe with dozens of terminals all over the plant. Paperwork often took two days to make its way from one end of the factory to the other. Excess inventories, late delivery, and quality problems were common. We had tried various worker participation programs, quality circles, kanban systems, and motivation schemes, all of which got off to great starts but lost their momentum within months. The whole thing was just too damn big and complex; there were too many managers in too many layers holding too many meetings. So we decided to break up the facility into three separate plants.

To begin with, we kept all three in the same building but separated everything we could—entrances, receiving docks, inventories, telephones, as well as certain auxiliary functions like personnel, management information systems, and internal controls. We also scrapped the mainframe in favor of three independent, PC-based systems.

The first effect of the breakup was a rise in costs due to duplication of effort and a loss in economies of scale. Unfortunately, balance sheets chalk up items like these as liabilities, all with dollar figures attached, and there’s nothing at first to list on the asset side but airy stuff like “heightened involvement” and “a sense of belonging.” Yet the longer-term results exceeded our expectations.

Within a year, sales doubled; inventories fell from 136 days to 46; we unveiled eight new products that had been stalled in R&D for two years; and overall quality improved to the point that a one-third rejection rate on federally inspected scales dropped to less than 1%. Increased productivity let us reduce the work force by 32% through attrition and retirement incentives.

I don’t claim that size reduction alone accomplished all this, just that size reduction is essential for putting employees in touch with one another so they can coordinate their work. The kind of distance we want to eliminate comes from having too many people in one place, but it also comes from having a pyramidal hierarchy.

Pyramids and Circles

The organizational pyramid is the cause of much corporate evil because the tip is too far from the base. Pyramids emphasize power, promote insecurity, distort communications, hobble interaction, and make it very difficult for the people who plan and the people who execute to move in the same direction. So Semco designed an organizational circle. Its greatest advantage is to reduce management levels to three—one corporate level and two operating levels at the manufacturing units.

It consists of three concentric circles. One tiny, central circle contains the five people who integrate the company’s movements. These are the counselors I mentioned before. I’m one of them, and except for a couple of legal documents that call me president, counselor is the only title I use. A second, larger circle contains the heads of the eight divisions—we call them partners. Finally, a third, huge circle holds all the other employees. Most of them are the people we call associates; they do the research, design, sales, and manufacturing work and have no one reporting to them on a regular basis. But some of them are the permanent and temporary team and task leaders we call coordinators. We have counselors, partners, coordinators, and associates. That’s four titles and three management layers.

The linchpins of the system are the coordinators, a group that includes everyone formerly called foreman, supervisor, manager, head, or chief. The only people who report to coordinators are associates. No coordinator reports to another coordinator—that feature of the system is what ensures the reduction in management layers.

Like anyone else, we value leadership, but it’s not the only thing we value. In marine pumps, for example, we have an applications engineer who can look at the layout of a ship and then focus on one particular pump and say, “That pump will fail if you take this thing north of the Arctic Circle.” He makes a lot more money than the person who manages his unit. We can change the manager, but this guy knows what kind of pump will work in the Arctic, and that’s worth more. Associates often make higher salaries than coordinators and partners, and they can increase their status and compensation without entering the “management” line.

Managers and the status and money they enjoy—in a word, hierarchy—are the single biggest obstacle to participatory management. We had to get the managers out of the way of democratic decision making, and our circular system does that pretty well.

But we go further. We don’t hire or promote people until they’ve been interviewed and accepted by all their future subordinates. Twice a year, subordinates evaluate managers. Also twice a year, everyone in the company anonymously fills out a questionnaire about company credibility and top management competence. Among other things, we ask our employees what it would take to make them quit or go on strike.

We insist on making important decisions collegially, and certain decisions are made by a company-wide vote. Several years ago, for example, we needed a bigger plant for our marine division, which makes pumps, compressors, and ship propellers. Real estate agents looked for months and found nothing. So we asked the employees themselves to help, and over the first weekend they found three factories for sale, all of them nearby. We closed up shop for a day, piled everyone into buses, and drove out to inspect the three buildings. Then the workers voted—and they chose a plant the counselors didn’t really want. It was an interesting situation—one that tested our commitment to participatory management.

The building stands across the street from a Caterpillar plant that’s one of the most frequently struck factories in Brazil. With two tough unions of our own, we weren’t looking forward to front-row seats for every labor dispute that came along. But we accepted the employees’ decision because we believe that in the long run, letting people participate in the decisions that affect their lives will have a positive effect on employee motivation and morale.

We bought the building and moved in. The workers designed the layout for a flexible manufacturing system, and they hired one of Brazil’s foremost artists to paint the whole thing, inside and out, including the machinery. That plant really belongs to its employees. I feel like a guest every time I walk in.

I don’t mind. The division’s productivity, in dollars per year per employee, has jumped from $14,200 in 1984—the year we moved—to $37,500 in 1988, and for 1989 the goal is $50,000. Over the same period, market share went from 54% to 62%.

Employees also outvoted me on the acquisition of a company that I’m still sure we should have bought. But they felt we weren’t ready to digest it, and I lost the vote. In a case like that, the credibility of our management system is at stake. Employee involvement must be real, even when it makes management uneasy. Anyway, what is the future of an acquisition if the people who have to operate it don’t believe it’s workable?

Hiring Adults

We have other ways of combating hierarchy too. Most of our programs are based on the notion of giving employees control over their own lives. In a word, we hire adults, and then we treat them like adults.

Think about that. Outside the factory, workers are men and women who elect governments, serve in the army, lead community projects, raise and educate families, and make decisions every day about the future. Friends solicit their advice. Salespeople court them. Children and grandchildren look up to them for their wisdom and experience. But the moment they walk into the factory, the company transforms them into adolescents. They have to wear badges and name tags, arrive at a certain time, stand in line to punch the clock or eat their lunch, get permission to go to the bathroom, give lengthy explanations every time they’re five minutes late, and follow instructions without asking a lot of questions.

One of my first moves when I took control of Semco was to abolish norms, manuals, rules, and regulations. Everyone knows you can’t run a large organization without regulations, but everyone also knows that most regulations are poppycock. They rarely solve problems. On the contrary, there is usually some obscure corner of the rule book that justifies the worst silliness people can think up. Common sense is a riskier tactic because it requires personal responsibility.

It’s also true that common sense requires just a touch of civil disobedience every time someone calls attention to something that’s not working. We had to free the Thoreaus and the Tom Paines in the factory and recognize that civil disobedience was not an early sign of revolution but a clear indication of common sense at work.

So we replaced all the nitpicking regulations with the rule of common sense and put our employees in the demanding position of using their own judgment.

We have no dress code, for example. The idea that personal appearance is important in a job—any job—is baloney. We’ve all heard that salespeople, receptionists, and service reps are the company’s calling cards, but in fact how utterly silly that is. A company that needs business suits to prove its seriousness probably lacks more meaningful proof. And what customer has ever canceled an order because the receptionist was wearing jeans instead of a dress? Women and men look best when they feel good. IBM is not a great company because its salespeople dress to the special standard that Thomas Watson set. It’s a great company that also happens to have this quirk.

We also scrapped the complex company rules about travel expenses—what sorts of accommodations people were entitled to, whether we’d pay for a theater ticket, whether a free call home meant five minutes or ten. We used to spend a lot of time discussing stuff like that. Now we base everything on common sense. Some people stay in four-star hotels and some live like spartans. Some people spend $200 a day while others get by on $125. Or so I suppose. No one checks expenses, so there is no way of knowing. The point is, we don’t care. If we can’t trust people with our money and their judgment, we sure as hell shouldn’t be sending them overseas to do business in our name.

We have done away with security searches, storeroom padlocks, and audits of the petty-cash accounts of veteran employees. Not that we wouldn’t prosecute a genuinely criminal violation of our trust. We just refuse to humiliate 97% of the work force to get our hands on the occasional thief or two-bit embezzler.

We encourage—we practically insist on—job rotation every two to five years to prevent boredom. We try hard to provide job security, and for people over 50 or who’ve been with the company for more than three years, dismissal procedures are extra complicated.

On the more experimental side, we have a program for entry-level management trainees called Lost in Space, whereby we hire a couple of people every year who have no job description at all. A “godfather” looks after them, and for one year they can do anything they like, as long as they try at least 12 different areas or units.

By the same logic that governs our other employee programs, we also have eliminated time clocks. People come and go according to their own schedules—even on the factory floor. I admit this idea is hard to swallow; most manufacturers are not ready for factory-floor flextime. But our reasoning was simple.

First, we use cellular manufacturing systems. At our food-processing equipment plant, for example, one cell makes only slicers, another makes scales, another makes mixers, and so forth. Each cell is self-contained, so products—and their problems—are segregated from each other.

Second, we assumed that all our employees were trustworthy adults. We couldn’t believe they would come to work day after day and sit on their hands because no one else was there. Pretty soon, we figured, they would start coordinating their work hours with their coworkers.

And that’s exactly what happened, only more so. For example, one man wanted to start at 7 a.m., but because the forklift operator didn’t come until 8, he couldn’t get his parts. So a general discussion arose, and the upshot was that now everyone knows how to operate a forklift. In fact, most people now can do several jobs. The union has never objected because the initiative came from the workers themselves. It was their idea.

Moreover, the people on the factory floor set the schedule, and if they say that this month they will build 48 commercial dishwashers, then we can go play tennis, because 48 is what they’ll build.

In one case, one group decided to make 220 meat slicers. By the end of the month, it had finished the slicers as scheduled—except that even after repeated phone calls, the supplier still hadn’t produced the motors. So two employees drove over and talked to the supplier and managed to get delivery at the end of that day, the 31st. Then they stayed all night, the whole work force, and finished the lot at 4:45 the next morning.

When we introduced flexible hours, we decided to hold regular follow-up meetings to track problems and decide how to deal with abuses and production interruptions. That was years ago, and we haven’t yet held the first meeting.

Hunting the Woolly Mammoth

What makes our people behave this way? As Antony Jay points out, corporate man is a very recent animal. At Semco, we try to respect the hunter that dominated the first 99.9% of the history of our species. If you had to kill a mammoth or do without supper, there was no time to draw up an organization chart, assign tasks, or delegate authority. Basically, the person who saw the mammoth from farthest away was the Official Sighter, the one who ran fastest was the Head Runner, whoever threw the most accurate spear was the Grand Marksman, and the person all others respected most and listened to was the Chief. That’s all there was to it. Distributing little charts to produce an appearance of order would have been a waste of time. It still is.

What I’m saying is, put ten people together, don’t appoint a leader, and you can be sure that one will emerge. So will a sighter, a runner, and whatever else the group needs. We form the groups, but they find their own leaders. That’s not a lack of structure, that’s just a lack of structure imposed from above.

But getting back to that mammoth, why was it that all the members of the group were so eager to do their share of the work—sighting, running, spearing, chiefing—and to stand aside when someone else could do it better? Because they all got to eat the thing once it was killed and cooked. What mattered was results, not status.

Corporate profit is today’s mammoth meat. And though there is a widespread view that profit sharing is some kind of socialist infection, it seems to me that few motivational tools are more capitalist. Everyone agrees that profits should belong to those who risk their capital, that entrepreneurial behavior deserves reward, that the creation of wealth should enrich the creator. Well, depending on how you define capital and risk, all these truisms can apply as much to workers as to shareholders.

Still, many profit-sharing programs are failures, and we think we know why. Profit sharing won’t motivate employees if they see it as just another management gimmick, if the company makes it difficult for them to see how their own work is related to profits and to understand how those profits are divided.

In Semco’s case, each division has a separate profit-sharing program. Twice a year, we calculate 23% of after-tax profit on each division income statement and give a check to three employees who’ve been elected by the workers in their division. These three invest the money until the unit can meet and decide—by simple majority vote—what they want to do with it. In most units, that’s turned out to be an equal distribution. If a unit has 150 workers, the total is divided by 150 and handed out. It’s that simple. The guy who sweeps the floor gets just as much as the division partner.

One division chose to use the money as a fund to lend out for housing construction. It was a pretty close vote, and the workers may change their minds next year. In the meantime, some of them have already received loans and have begun to build themselves houses. In any case, the employees do what they want with the money. The counselors stay out of it.

Semco’s experience has convinced me that profit sharing has an excellent chance of working when it crowns a broad program of employee participation, when the profit-sharing criteria are so clear and simple that the least-gifted employee can understand them, and perhaps most important, when employees have monthly access to the company’s vital statistics—costs, overhead, sales, payroll, taxes, profits.

Transparency

Lots of things contribute to a successful profit-sharing program: low employee turnover, competitive pay, absence of paternalism, refusal to give consolation prizes when profits are down, frequent (quarterly or semiannual) profit distribution, and plenty of opportunity for employees to question the management decisions that affect future profits. But nothing matters more than those vital statistics—short, frank, frequent reports on how the company is doing. Complete transparency. No hocus-pocus, no hanky-panky, no simplifications.

On the contrary, all Semco employees attend classes to learn how to read and understand the numbers, and it’s one of their unions that teaches the course. Every month, each employee gets a balance sheet, a profit-and-loss analysis, and a cash-flow statement for his or her division. The reports contain about 70 line items (more, incidentally, than we use to run the company, but we don’t want anyone to think we’re withholding information).

Many of our executives were alarmed by the decision to share monthly financial results with all employees. They were afraid workers would want to know everything, like how much we pay executives. When we held the first large meeting to discuss these financial reports with the factory committees and the leaders of the metalworkers’ union, the first question we got was, “How much do division managers make?” We told them. They gasped. Ever since, the factory workers have called them “maharaja.”

But so what? If executives are embarrassed by their salaries, that probably means they aren’t earning them. Confidential payrolls are for those who cannot look themselves in the mirror and say with conviction, “I live in a capitalist system that remunerates on a geometric scale. I spent years in school, I have years of experience, I am capable and dedicated and intelligent. I deserve what I get.”

I believe that the courage to show the real numbers will always have positive consequences over the long term. On the other hand, we can show only the numbers we bother to put together, and there aren’t as many as there used to be. In my view, only the big numbers matter. But Semco’s accounting people keep telling me that since the only way to get the big numbers is to add up the small ones, producing a budget or report that includes every tiny detail would require no extra effort. This is an expensive fallacy and a difficult one to eradicate.

A few years ago, the U.S. president of Allis-Chalmers paid Semco a visit. At the end of his factory tour, he leafed through our monthly reports and budgets. At that time, we had our numbers ready on the fifth working day of every month in super-organized folders, and were those numbers comprehensive! On page 67, chart 112.6, for example, you could see how much coffee the workers in Light Manufacturing III had consumed the month before. The man said he was surprised to find such efficiency in a Brazilian company. In fact, he was so impressed that he asked his Brazilian subsidiary, an organization many times our size, to install a similar system there.

For months, we strolled around like peacocks, telling anyone who cared to listen that our budget system was state-of-the-art and that the president of a Big American Company had ordered his people to copy it. But soon we began to realize two things. First, our expenses were always too high, and they never came down because the accounting department was full of overpaid clerks who did nothing but compile them. Second, there were so damn many numbers inside the folder that almost none of our managers read them. In fact, we knew less about the company then, with all that information, than we do now without it.

Today we have a simple accounting system providing limited but relevant information that we can grasp and act on quickly. We pared 400 cost centers down to 50. We beheaded hundreds of classifications and dozens of accounting lines. Finally, we can see the company through the haze.

(As for Allis-Chalmers, I don’t know whether it ever adopted our old system in all its terrible completeness, but I hope not. A few years later, it began to suffer severe financial difficulties and eventually lost so much market share and money that it was broken up and sold. I’d hate to think it was our fault.)

In preparing budgets, we believe that the flexibility to change the budget continually is much more important than the detailed consistency of the initial numbers. We also believe in the importance of comparing expectations with results. Naturally, we compare monthly reports with the budget. But we go one step further. At month’s end, the coordinators in each area make guesses about unit receipts, profit margins, and expenses. When the official numbers come out a few days later, top managers compare them with the guesses to judge how well the coordinators understand their areas.

What matters in budgets as well as in reports is that the numbers be few and important and that people treat them with something approaching passion. The three monthly reports, with their 70 line items, tell us how to run the company, tell our managers how well they know their units, and tell our employees if there’s going to be a profit. Everyone works on the basis of the same information, and everyone looks forward to its appearance with what I’d call fervent curiosity.

And that’s all there is to it. Participation gives people control of their work, profit sharing gives them a reason to do it better, information tells them what’s working and what isn’t.

Letting Them Do Whatever the Hell They Want

So we don’t have systems or staff functions or analysts or anything like that. What we have are people who either sell or make, and there’s nothing in between. Is there a marketing department? Not on your life. Marketing is everybody’s problem. Everybody knows the price of the products. Everybody knows the cost. Everybody has the monthly statement that says exactly what each of them makes, how much bronze is costing us, how much overtime we paid, all of it. And the employees know that 23% of the after-tax profit is theirs.

We are very, very rigorous about the numbers. We want them in on the fourth day of the month so we can get them back out on the fifth. And because we’re so strict with the financial controls, we can be extremely lax about everything else. Employees can paint the walls any color they like. They can come to work whenever they decide. They can wear whatever clothing makes them comfortable. They can do whatever the hell they want. It’s up to them to see the connection between productivity and profit and to act on it.

Ricardo Semler, 30, is president of Semco S/A, Brazil’s largest marine and food-processing machinery manufacturer, and his book, Turning the Tables, has been on Brazil’s best-seller list for 60 weeks. He is vice president of the Federation of Industries of Brazil and a board member of SOS Atlantic Forest, Brazil’s foremost environmental defense organization.

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12 juin 2013 3 12 /06 /juin /2013 07:47

Why My Former Employees Still Work for Me

I own a manufacturing company in Brazil called Semco, about which I can report the following curious fact: no one in the company really knows how many people we employ. When we walk through our manufacturing plants, we rarely even know who works for us. Some of the people in the factory are full-time Semco employees; some work for us part-time; some work for themselves and supply Semco with components or services; some work for themselves under contract to outside companies (even Semco’s competitors); and some of them work for each other. We could decide to find out which is which and who is who, but for two good reasons we never bother. First, the employment and contractual relationships are so complex that describing them all would take too much time and trouble. Second, we think it’s all useless information.

Semco has long been a laboratory for unusual employment and management practices. What we’re now engaged in might be called a radical experiment in unsupervised, in-house, company-supported satellite production of goods and services for sale to Semco itself and to other manufacturers by employees, part-time employees, ex-employees, and people who have never had any connection with Semco whatsoever (but who work on our premises and on our equipment). This is not at all the same thing as outsourcing. This is a borderless system of short-term, noncontractual task assignment often using Semco’s own fixed assets, some of it in Semco plants and some dispersed at a dozen sites that don’t belong to the company.

This satellite program, as we call it, sounds chaotic, can be frustrating, and is in some ways uncontrollable. It requires daily leaps of faith. It has serious implications for corporate culture. It has destroyed any semblance of corporate security. And, for the three years it has been in place, it seems to be working very well. Since 1990, 28% of Brazilian capital goods manufacturers have gone bankrupt. In 1990, 1991, and 1992, Brazilian gross industrial product fell by 14%, 11%, and 9%, respectively. Capital goods output has fallen back to what it was in 1977. But in this same period, Semco’s overall sales and profits have remained intact, and I attribute the difference first and foremost to our satellite production.

Ever since I took over the company 12 years ago, Semco has been unorthodox in a variety of ways. I believe in responsibility but not in pyramidal hierarchy. I think that strategic planning and vision are often barriers to success. I dispute the value of growth. I don’t think a company’s success can be measured in numbers, since numbers ignore what the end user really thinks of the product and what the people who produce it really think of the company. I question the supremacy of talent, too much of which is as bad as too little. I’m not sure I believe that control is either expedient or desirable.

I don’t govern Semco—I own the capital, not the company—but on taking over from my father, I did try to reconstruct the company so that Semco could govern itself on the basis of three values: employee participation, profit sharing, and open information systems. We’ve introduced idiosyncratic features like factory-floor flextime, self-set salaries, a rotating CEO-ship, and, from top to bottom—from the owner to the newest, greenest maintenance person—only three levels of hierarchy.

You might say that what we practice is an extreme form of common sense: “common” because there’s nothing we do that thousands of other people didn’t think of ages ago, “extreme” because we actually do it. Another way of looking at Semco is to say that we treat our employees like responsible adults. We never assume that they will take advantage of us or our rules (or our lack of rules); we always assume they will do their level best to achieve results beneficial to the company, the customer, their colleagues, and themselves. As I put it in an earlier article in HBR, participation gives people control of their work, profit sharing gives them a reason to do it better, information tells them what’s working and what isn’t.

With rare exceptions, this approach has been successful. We’ve had two or three strikes, but they were quickly settled, especially once the strikers saw that we would neither lock them out of the plant nor suspend their benefits during the work stoppage. (They were able to plan ongoing strike tactics while eating lunch in the company cafeteria.) We’ve had a few employees take wholesale advantage of our open stockrooms and trusting atmosphere, but we were lucky enough to find and prosecute them without putting in place a lot of insulting watchdog procedures for the nine out of ten who are honest. We’ve seen a few cases of greed when people set their own salaries too high. We’ve tried a few experiments that we later backed away from. We’ve had to accept occasional democratic decisions that management disliked, but we learned to swallow hard and live with them.

On the whole, as I say, our approach has worked. Loyalty is high, quality is excellent, and sales and profits are surprisingly good for a manufacturing company in one of the world’s most lunatic business environments. But in Brazil no state of the economy is permanent. Few last long enough to be called temporary. Surviving the ups and downs of the Brazilian economy is a little like riding a Brahma bull. It is even more like riding a Brahma bull in an earthquake. Some of the worst jolts come not from the bull but the landscape.

In 1990, the jolt that sent us into our present experiment came from the minister of finance, who, believing Brazil’s inflation was simply the result of too much money being used for too much speculation, seized 80% of the country’s cash and introduced an extended period of economic bedlam. Employers could not meet payrolls. Consumer spending vanished. Business spending shuddered to a halt. Bankruptcies soared. Industrial output plummeted.

At Semco, we had several months of zero sales. After all, what company was going to buy machinery with a ten-month delivery when it didn’t know if it could last out the week? Worse yet, back orders were canceled, or we found that our customers had gone out of business. Our marine division alone had $1.5 million of receivables that we couldn’t hope to collect and $4 million worth of products that shipbuilders could no longer pay for. We had to rent warehouse space just to store all the unsold goods.

We cut costs. We organized workers into teams and sent them out to sell replacement parts directly to ships and restaurants. We cut down on coffee breaks, locked up the copiers, canceled orders for new uniforms, turned off all the lights we could find, scrimped on telephone calls. None of it was enough, and anyway, I don’t really believe in cost-cutting. I like to think we don’t waste money even when we’ve got it. And who can say how many sales we lose when we play Scrooge with the travel money or penny-pinch the phone bills?

Finally, we called the workers together in groups of 100 and discussed what we should do. They came up with lots of ideas, and we tried them without success until we reached a point where no one had anything else to propose and neither did we—except for two unhappy alternatives: cut pay or cut workforce. We thought we could avoid layoffs by cutting salaries 30% across the board until business picked up again. But a lot of people were already struggling with bills and rents and mortgages and wanted us to start laying people off instead, so that those who stayed could at least survive. We went on searching desperately for a third way out.

And then suddenly the shop-floor committee came to us and said, “Okay, we’ll take a 30% pay cut, but on three conditions.” The first was that we increase their profit sharing by 15%, from just under 24% to just under 39%, until they got back up to their former salary levels. The second was that management take a 40% pay cut. And the third was that a member of the union committee would co-sign every check we wrote; because the workers wanted to be absolutely certain that their sacrifice would be worthwhile, they wanted to oversee each and every expenditure.

Well, at that moment, we had no profits to share, so there was nothing for us to lose and everything to gain. And by the second month, we were actually covering expenses. In their drive to save, the workers took on more and more of the former contract work. They did security and cleaning, drove trucks, even cooked the food in the cafeteria. No expense went unchallenged, and for four or five months, we made a small profit in the worst economic times any of us had ever seen.

But we kept on looking for a better solution.

In the first place, pure cost reduction has to be a temporary measure. What about training, research, new product development, and all the other seemingly peripheral activities that produce profits over the long haul? Those weren’t responsibilities we could abdicate.

And what about those checks? The dual-signature scheme was working for the moment, but management couldn’t permanently yield its power of the purse to a person chosen by the union without management input or approval.

Yet the explosion of energy, inventiveness, and flexibility we’d been witnessing was hugely attractive. And when we then added in several other factors—the need to cut our standing labor costs, the demands of Brazilian labor law, the dynamic example of our own peculiar Nucleus of Technological Innovation, which I’ll come back to in a moment—what began taking shape was a radically new principle of organization.

The Thinkodrome at the Free-for-All Corporation

Years ago, in the mid-1980s, three Semco engineers proposed a new kind of work unit. They wanted to take a small group of people raised in Semco’s culture and familiar with its products and set them free. The new group would not have to worry about production problems, sales, inventory, equipment maintenance, delivery schedules, or personnel. Instead, they would invent new products, improve old ones, refine marketing strategies, uncover production inefficiencies, and dream up new lines of business. They would have no boss and no subordinates. They would pick their own focus, set their own agendas, and have complete freedom to change their minds. Twice a year they’d report to senior management, which would decide whether or not to keep them on for another six months.

The three engineers suggested we call the new unit the Nucleus of Technological Innovation (NTI) and somewhat predictably proposed themselves as its first three members. We bought their odd idea, and then we worked out an odd form of compensation to go along with it. Their guaranteed salaries went sharply down, but they would now share in the proceeds of their inventions, innovations, and improvements. They would receive a percentage of any savings they introduced, royalties on new products they devised, a share of the profits on their inventions, and they would also be free to sell consulting services on the open market. They might have done even better as truly independent entrepreneurs, but as NTI members, Semco would cushion them against disaster and give them the support of an established and well-equipped manufacturing operation.

By the end of their first six months, NTI had 18 projects under way, and over the next few years they uncorked such an array of inventions, changes, and refinements (one of my favorites is a scale that weighs freight trains moving at full speed) that NTI’s members began to prosper mightily and Semco became unthinkable without their constant innovation and reform.

By 1990, we’d begun to feel that we’d like to NTI the entire company, liberate more creativity, tie compensation even more specifically to performance, loosen the ties that bound us all together, and scramble our overall structure. The 30% pay-cut-and-cost-reduction scheme had given us a breathing space of several months, but with the Brazilian economy in a bucket and no imminent prospect of recovery, we had to become permanently leaner and more flexible. At the same time, of course, we had a commitment to our workforce that was central to the way we did business. That commitment had been our principal reason for trying to avoid layoffs.

For most other companies, there was another reason as well: Brazilian labor law protects laid-off workers by granting them several different forms of special compensation. The largest of these comes from an individual fund for each worker to which the employer contributes 8% of wages every month. When people are fired (or retire), they collect all this accumulated money, plus interest, in the form of a lump sum. Less substantial—but, unlike the 8% fund, a great problem for many employers—is severance pay itself, which is paid on the spot out of current income and which can amount to two years’ salary in the case of workers with many years’ seniority. By the end of 1990, a lot of Brazilian companies drifted slowly into bankruptcy rather than lay people off and go bankrupt overnight. With our finances still more or less intact, this widespread problem proved in our case to be an opportunity.

Semco’s sales had gradually increased again, and we were making enough money to restore salaries to where they had been before the 30% cut. We took back our check-signing privileges. We were surviving in a crisis economy, but only just, and we began to face the fact that we had to cut our permanent staff and contract more of our work. We looked hard for a way of doing it without destroying the support system that Semco people lived on. It was here that NTI’s free-form structure suggested a solution.

Instead of giving contracts out to strangers, we decided we could just as well give contracts to our own employees. We would encourage them to leave the Semco payroll and start their own satellite enterprises, doing work, at least initially, for Semco. Like NTI, these satellites could stay under our larger umbrella by leasing our machines, even working in our plant. Like NTI, they could also do work for other companies, again on our machines and in our factories. Like NTI, their compensation would take a variety of forms—contract payment, royalties, commissions, profit sharing, piecework, whatever they could think up that we both could live with. And like NTI, they could have some beginning guarantees. In particular, we would offer all of them some contract work to cut their teeth on, and we would defer the lease payments on all equipment and space for two full years.

This satellite program would have obvious advantages for Semco. We could reduce our payroll, cut inventory costs by spreading out raw materials and spare parts among our new suppliers, and yet enjoy the advantage of having subcontractors who knew our business and the idiosyncrasies of our company and our customers. Moreover, we would pick up the benefit of entrepreneurial motivation. Because of profit sharing, our employees already worked evenings and weekends when necessary, without any prompting from management. Being in business for themselves ought to raise that sense of involvement higher still.

But what in heaven’s name were the advantages for our workers, who’d be giving up a secure nest at Semco for the risks of small business? And in the midst of economic bedlam? To begin with, of course, they all had the chance to make many times what they could earn at Semco—if the economy straightened out. Of course that was a big if. And should the recession persist, they might make less. But only assuming they continued to have a job at Semco, which was becoming an even bigger if with every day that passed. The fact was, they had distressingly few choices. And so did we.

We eased the transition in every way we could. We created a team of executives to teach cost control, pricing, maintenance, inventory management. To provide seed money, we gave people layoff payments on top of severance pay and all the other legally required benefits. Many also made use of their 8% nest-egg funds. No one had to start a satellite. Some took their severance and left. Some managed to stay on the payroll for months or for good. But despite the difficulties, satellites sprang up quickly. White-collar workers were the first. Our tax accountants, human resource staffers, and computer programmers all went off on their own. Then blue-collar workers in food service and refrigerations systems followed suit.

Today, about half the manufacturing we once did in-house has gone to satellites, and we think we can farm out another 10% to 20%in the coming years. Best of all, to this day only one satellite has failed. Some are expanding and looking for partners. Some satellite workers have been rehired by the company, and a few have moved repeatedly back and forth between satellite and employee status as needs—theirs and ours—shifted. Some satellites have broadened their scope so greatly that most of their time—often right on our premises, remember—is spent with customers and production partners who have no other connection with Semco whatsoever.

In 1990, Semco had about 500 employees. Today, we have about 200, plus at least that many in our satellites, with another 50 or 60 people who work for a satellite and also work for us part-time. We have employees with fixed salaries. We have employees with variable salaries made up of royalties or bonuses based on self-set objectives like cash flow, sales, profits, production units, or any one of a dozen other measures. We have employees with both fixed and variable salaries. All our employees share in our profits.

On the satellite side, compensation may take the form of a fixed fee, an hourly stipend, a percentage of increased sales, a finder’s fee, an honorarium, a retainer converting to an advance converting to a royalty, or even a simple win-or-lose commission. In one case, we had decided to kill a product-development project when one of our people picked it up from the table and said, “I’ll take it. If you’ll give me $1,000 a month, which will just pay my expenses, plus a 7% royalty for the first five years if I can make it work—I’ll take it.” So of course we gave it to him. The most we can lose is $1,000 a month, where we’d been spending $10,000 to $15,000 a month and getting nowhere. The most he can make is something like half a million, I’d guess, with the other 93% coming to Semco.

Once we posted a job for one engineer and got 1,430 résumés. We took them home in packs of a hundred, and then we interviewed for five months. In the end, we invited several dozen final candidates to a one-day seminar where we walked them through the entire company, opened our files, showed them everything we did, then asked them for proposals. We wound up hiring 41 engineers—one salaried employee and 40 satellite workers whom we paid on various forms of percentage-based commission.

In one of our plants, we’ve set aside a large room full of desks and computers to give everyone within our company sphere and, for all we know, a variety of guests and visitors from well beyond it, a place to sit and plan and ask questions and solve problems. We call it the Thinkodrome, and it’s a busy, quiet place. That Semco survives at all we owe in large part to surrounding ourselves with people who look at everything we do and ask why we can’t do it better or cheaper or faster or in some entirely novel way.

Hunting the Free Market

Our ancestors laid out the ground rules of human teamwork several thousand generations ago, and they go like this: the woman with the keen eyesight is Chief Mammoth Finder, the guy with the strong arm and the long spear is Head Mammoth Killer, and the tribal elder with the special feel for herbs and spices gets to be Grand Mammoth Cook. For now. All these positions are temporary and to some extent self-selecting. If you want to be Chief Finder, go find some mammoths and the job is probably yours. But since everyone’s well-being depends on your success, your status is also highly situational. Fail to find, and the job will pass swiftly and naturally to someone else.

Generally speaking, Semco’s production process works along similar lines, both for satellite operations and for the work we do in-house. All work, including some aspects of management, goes to people with proven track records who want the jobs and can compete for them successfully. Satellite as well as in-house business units rise and fall on their merits alone—at least in theory.

This commitment to free-market principles was put to the test about a year into the satellite program, when our marine division found itself with a good deal of idle capacity. Marine’s strategy was built on quality, not price—low volume but high margins. A shipbuilder seeking the very best performance and dependability in, say, a propeller system, tended to come to us. But with the economy in a straitjacket, orders had nearly disappeared.

On the other hand, our biscuit division, which designs and builds turnkey cookie factories for global giants like Nabisco and Nestlé, had two fairly big contracts in hand, one for about $2 million, another for $5.5 million, and was going to need a lot of skilled subcontracting. The portion of this work that marine could do would keep it occupied for four or five months, and marine’s top manager (called a counselor at Semco) went ahead and figured the contracts from the biscuit division into his budget. But biscuit’s purchasing people did not award the contracts to the marine division, which took too long to deliver, they said, and which charged too high a price for its exaggerated quality. They gave the contracts instead to satellite producers and outside contractors, including one of marine’s archcompetitors. The fight that triggered was a bitter one, and the attempts of the interdepartmental management meeting to act as go-between did not make things easier. We were of two minds ourselves.

On the one hand, we were going to pay marine employees to sit around on their hands while another division paid outsiders to do work the marine employees could have done. And on the other hand, how could we ask biscuit employees, who share in their division’s profits, to subsidize a business in trouble? Moreover, wouldn’t the subsidy just postpone marine’s inevitable reckoning with its own strategic predicament? In the end, we let biscuit have its way and endorsed the need to be as unforgiving toward our own business units as we would be toward outsiders. It was the right decision, of course. We finished the cookie factories on schedule, and the marine division—which decided to stick with its high-quality, high-margin strategy but to eliminate a number of products whose quality and cost were too high for the market—cut its staff by 70%, began farming out a lot of its work to satellites, and recovered its profitability.

Control...

At the center of Semco is a group of six so-called counselors, and all of us take six-month turns as acting CEO. We also do six-month as opposed to yearly budgeting, because an annual budget tempts managers to postpone unpleasant decisions to the third and fourth quarters.

The budget cycles are January to June and July to December, but the CEO cycles begin in March and September. In other words, we avoid what other companies and shareholders think they want—responsibility nailed down to a single man or woman. Our CEOs don’t wear themselves out trying to meet quarterly financial goals, and there’s no one person to blame if the company goes down the drain. When financial performance is one person’s problem, then everyone else can relax. In our system, no one can relax. You get to pass on the baton, but it comes back again two-and-a-half years later.

One consequence of this system is that we need to keep each other well-informed, which we do at regular weekly divisional meetings and biweekly interdivisional meetings. All these meetings are open and optional, and those who attend make decisions that those who don’t may simply have to live with.

This self-selecting element in decision making is another consequence of the deliberate fragmentation of responsibility. Like our predecessors the mammoth hunters, the people who get responsibility are the people who seek it out and meet it. In fact, the actual, ad hoc control structure we work with from day to day builds on this principle and on two others that, together, create a kind of invisible order from the apparent chaos that characterizes the Semco environment.

The first principle holds that information is the ultimate source of virtually all power. For this reason, we try to make all of it available to everyone. All meetings are open. Designs and specifications are shared. The company’s books are open for inspection by employees and for auditing by their unions. In short, we try to undercut and so eliminate the process of filtering and negotiating information that goes on in so many corporations. Meetings are chaired by the person who knows most about the subject under discussion rather than by the person who has the highest declared status or apparent income.

The second principle is that the responsibility for any task belongs to the person who claims it.

The third is that profit sharing for employees and success-oriented compensation for satellite enterprises will spread responsibility across the Semco map. With income and security at risk—and with information readily available—people try hard to stay aware of everyone else’s performance.

To give an idea of how all this works in practice, let’s take one of those turnkey cookie factories. The Big Cracker Company of Chicago wants a plant that will turn out a thousand tons a month of, say, butterscotch macaroons. To begin with, an independent agent will tell us of the project in return for a finder’s fee. We will probably put the initial customer interface in the hands of a satellite company—four men who used to be on our payroll and now work for themselves. They’ll go through the specifications with the customer, then they’ll share that information widely, announce a meeting (to which anyone can come and no one is summoned), and chair the discussion (which will cover several unexpected proposals from unanticipated participants like the guy from refrigeration with a special point of view about handling butter and coconut). Someone, a group of employees or satellites, will take on the job of costing the project, and with this cost estimate in hand, a Semco counselor and biscuit-division coordinators will then set a margin and deliver the quote to Big Cracker.

(A couple of times, we have even communicated this margin to the customer, because we thought it would be easier to justify, for example, a 12% net margin than to play the disingenuous game of claiming pencil-thin profits and no room for compromise. Our chief argument has been our profit-sharing program, since it seems so clear to us that people will work harder for more money and that a generous margin will therefore buy the customer much extra care and effort. But I’m afraid we’ve had only limited success with this approach.)

This margin-setting discussion often produces serious disagreements. In one case, we battled out the margin in a long, heated debate, and then the sales manager lowered it dramatically when he sat down with the customer. By Semco rules, that kind of last-minute capitulation is perfectly legitimate. Battle or no battle, he was with the customer, not we. Whoever holds the spear is completely in charge of bringing down the mammoth.

Let’s say Big Cracker accepts our bid and the order comes in, 600 pages long. Let’s also say we choose a coordinator for the project from outside the company, and let’s call him Bob. Bob will go through the contract and decide how he wants to divide it up. He may get help from engineering. He will certainly get help from all the meetings he holds to make decisions, which he will chair and where he will lobby for the people he wants to do each job. Next, the biscuit division’s purchasing department will negotiate contracts with the dozens of suppliers chosen. In 1991, we did about 70% of such a contract in-house. Today, that’s down to 35% or 40%.

When Bob has put together a completion schedule and time chart, everyone will go to work—each contractor, employee, and satellite responsible to no single authority but answerable to everyone. At most companies, when something goes wrong the real responsibility falls between the cracks. At Semco, the fact that Bob is not an employee makes everyone react much faster when there looks like trouble.

...And Lack of Control

Semco needs to maintain in-house just a limited number of functions—top management, applications engineering, some R&D, and some high-tech, capital-intensive skills that we do exceptionally well. We don’t care how everything else gets done, whether by contractors or subcontractors, satellites or nonsatellites, former employees or total strangers or by the very people who do the same thing for our competition. None of that matters.

When we started, people warned me that all sorts of information about our company would get into the wrong hands, that we had to protect ourselves. I heard the same argument when we started distributing profit-and-loss statements to our employees. But it’s a waste of time to worry about leaks.

First of all, we no longer know whose the wrong hands are. The competition used to be a company a mile away that made the same products we did, but now the competition comes from companies we’ve never heard of in Taiwan and Finland. Second, I’ve never seen a company overtake another because it had seen its 10K or even the specifications for a valve. Third, we want to be a moving target. We don’t care about yesterday’s information or last year’s oil pump, which in any case the competition can buy, take apart, and study to its heart’s content.

Finally, we don’t think people give out much information anyway. I know. I’ve tried on numerous occasions to get a copy of, let’s say, a pamphlet some company passed out to 1,000 employees, and nobody can lay their hands on one. The Chinese printed hundreds of millions of copies of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, and still they’re as rare as hen’s teeth.

People also warned me about the loss of central goal setting and control. I admit that the lack of control is often hard to live with. But let’s not compare Semco’s circumstances with some ideal world where managers actually get to decide what people will do and when and how they’ll do it. We have limited control over the day-to-day behavior of the people who make most of our components, but so do companies that do all their work in-house. At least none of our satellite people work nine to five and leave their problems at the plant when they go home at night—which means leaving them to management. We have motivation and responsibility working on our side. Our satellite workers are in business for themselves, so they’ll work all night to complete an order to specification and on time. And if the order is late or fails to meet our quality standards, then we’re free to give the next order to someone else. We can forget the witch-hunt and all the grief that goes into firing people or not promoting them.

As for planning and the control it presupposes, I think good planning is always situational. Thinking about the future is a useful, necessary exercise, but translating such conjecture into “Strategic Planning” is worse than useless. It’s an actual barrier to survival. Strategic planning leads us to make things happen that fly full in the face of reality and opportunity.

For example, Semco is today in the environmental consulting business, which I could not have imagined five years ago. Our gadfly NTI group was looking at one customer’s need for an environmentally active pump—a pump that would shred and process the material it moved—and saw that the company could reengineer its production line to do away with the pump altogether. Had we said, “We’re in the pump business, not the environmental business,” we might never have pursued that solution to the problem. As it was, we addressed the company’s overall need, jettisoned the pump, and when it was all over, we’d also acquired a small environmental consulting firm to flesh out our own limited expertise. More recently, we’ve also entered into a joint venture with one of the world’s leading environmental consulting groups. Today, the division represents about 14% to 15% of our total business and is growing at a rate of 30% to 40% per year.

The lesson this story teaches me is about the negative value of structure. Structure creates hierarchy, and hierarchy creates constraint. We have not utterly abandoned all control, but the old pyramidal hierarchy is simply unable to make leaps of insight, technology, and innovation. Within their own industries, pyramidal hierarchies can generate only incremental change.

Take dishwashers, one of Semco’s businesses. Dishwashers are expensive to operate and messy to use, but over the last 50 years, dishwashers have changed hardly at all. What the customer wants is a machine that washes dishes silently, cheaply, and without any mess at all, which probably means without water. I’ve recently seen indications that such a thing may be possible, but the idea could never have come from a pyramid of Semco dishwashing executives. It was one of our satellites that brought us the idea. In fact, about two-thirds of our new products come from satellite companies.

What goes for planning goes equally for culture, vision, and responsibility. We find that fragmentation is strength in all these areas. Semco has no corporate credo, for example, and no mission statement. An articulation of company values or vision is just a photograph of the company as it is, or wants to be, at one given moment. Snapshots of this kind seem to hold some companies together, but they are terribly static devices. No one can impose corporate consciousness from above. It moves and shifts with every day and every worker. Like planning, vision at its best is dynamic and dispersed.

At Semco, so is responsibility. We have little control, even less organization, and no conventional discipline at all. People come and go whenever they like; many set their own compensation; divisions and units perpetuate themselves however they can; satellite companies work on our machines in our factories for us and others in a great confusion of activity; the system tying it all together is painfully loose—and this is manufacturing, much of it assembly-line manufacturing.

When I describe Semco to other manufacturers, they laugh. “What do you make,” they ask me, “beads?” And I say, “No, among other things, we make rocket-fuel propellant mixers for satellites.” And they say, “That’s not possible.” And I say, “Nevertheless...”

The point is simple but perhaps not obvious. Semco has abandoned a great many traditional business practices. Instead, we use minimal hierarchies, ad hoc structures, self-control, and the discipline of our own community marketplace of jobs and responsibilities to achieve high-quality, on-time performance. Does it make me feel that I have given up power and governance? You bet it does. But do I have more sleepless nights than the manufacturer who runs his business with an iron hand and whose employees leave their troubles in his lap every night? I think I probably sleep better. I know I sleep well.

We delivered our last cookie factory with all its 16,000 components right on time. One of our competitors, a company with tight controls and hierarchies, delivered a similar factory to the same client a year and two months late.

In 1990 and again in 1992, Ricardo Semler—majority owner of a São Paulo manufacturing company, Semco S/A, that specializes in marine and food-service equipment—was elected business leader of the year by a poll of 52,000 Brazilian executives. His book, Maverick, published recently by Warner Books in the United States and simultaneously in 14 other languages, has sold some 800,000 copies worldwide, half of these in Brazil, where it was on the best-seller list for 200 weeks. His HBR article “Managing Without Managers” appeared in September–October 1989.

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12 juin 2013 3 12 /06 /juin /2013 07:36

How We Went Digital Without a Strategy

I own a $160 million South American company named Semco, and I have no idea what business it’s in. I know what Semco does—we make things, we provide services, we host Internet communities—but I don’t know what Semco is. Nor do I want to know. For the 20 years I’ve been with the company, I’ve steadfastly resisted any attempt to define its business. The reason is simple: once you say what business you’re in, you put your employees into a mental straitjacket. You place boundaries around their thinking and, worst of all, you hand them a ready-made excuse for ignoring new opportunities: “We’re not in that business.” So rather than dictate Semco’s identity from on high, I’ve let our employees shape it through their individual efforts, interests, and initiatives.

That rather unusual management philosophy has drawn a good deal of attention over the years. Nearly 2,000 executives from around the world have trekked to São Paulo to study our operations. Few, though, have tried to emulate us. The way we work—letting our employees choose what they do, where and when they do it, and even how they get paid—has seemed a little too radical for mainstream companies.

But recently a funny thing happened: the explosion in computing power and the rise of the Internet reshaped the business landscape, and the mainstream shifted. Today, companies are desperately looking for ways to increase their creativity and flexibility, spur their idea flow, and free their talent—to do, in other words, what Semco has been doing for 20 years.

I don’t propose that Semco represents the model for the way businesses will operate in the future. Let’s face it: we’re a quirky company. But I do suggest that some of the principles that underlie the way we work will become increasingly common and even necessary in the new economy. In particular, I believe we have an organization that is able to transform itself continuously and organically—without formulating complicated mission statements and strategies, announcing a bunch of top-down directives, or bringing in an army of change-management consultants. As other companies seek to build adaptability into their organizations, they may be able to learn a thing or two from Semco’s example.

Transformation Without End

Over the last ten years, Semco has grown steadily, quadrupling its revenues and expanding from 450 to 1,300 employees. More important, we’ve extended our range dramatically. At the start of the ’90s, Semco was a manufacturer, pure and simple. We made things like pumps, industrial mixers, and dishwashers. But over the course of the decade, we diversified successfully into higher-margin services. Last year, almost 75% of our business was in services. Now we’re stretching out again—this time into e-business. We expect that more than a quarter of our revenues next year will come from Internet initiatives, up from nothing just one year ago. We never planned to go digital, but we’re going digital nonetheless.

You may wonder how that’s possible. How do you get a sizable organization to change without telling it—or even asking it—to change? It’s actually easy—but only if you’re willing to give up control. People, I’ve found, will act in their best interests, and by extension in their organizations’ best interests, if they’re given complete freedom. It’s only when you rein them in, when you tell them what to do and how to think, that they become inflexible, bureaucratic, and stagnant. Forcing change is the surest way to frustrate change.

Enough lecturing. Let me give you a concrete example of how our transformation has played out. Ten years ago, one of the things we did was manufacture cooling towers for large commercial buildings. In talking with the property owners who bought these products, some of our salespeople began to hear a common refrain. The customers kept complaining about the high cost of maintaining the towers. So our salespeople came back to Semco and proposed starting a little business in managing cooling-tower maintenance. They said, “We’ll charge our customers 20% of whatever savings we generate for them, and we’ll give Semco 80% of those revenues and take the remaining 20% as our commission.” We said, “Fine, give it a shot.”

Well, the little business was successful. We reduced customers’ costs and eliminated some of their hassles, and they were happy. In fact, they were so happy that they came back and asked if we’d look after their air-conditioning compressors as well. Even though we didn’t manufacture the compressors, our people didn’t hesitate. They said yes. And when the customers saw we were pretty good at maintaining compressors, they said, “You know, there are a lot of other annoying functions that we’d just as soon offload, like cleaning, security, and general maintenance. Can you do any of those?”

At that point, our people saw that their little business might grow into quite a big business. They began looking for a partner who could help bolster and extend our capabilities. They ended up calling the Rockefeller Group’s Cushman & Wakefield division, one of the largest real-estate and property-management companies in the United States, and proposing that we launch a 50–50 joint venture in Brazil. Cushman wasn’t very keen on the idea at first. People there said, “Property management by itself isn’t a very lucrative business. Why don’t we talk about doing something that involves real estate? That’s where the money is.”

We spent some time thinking about going into the real-estate business. We didn’t have any particular expertise there, but we were willing to give it a try. When we started asking around, though, we found that no one in the company had much interest in real estate. It just didn’t get anyone excited. So we went back to the Cushman folks and said, “Real estate sounds like a great business, but it’s not something we care about right now. Why don’t we just start with property management and see what happens?” They agreed, though not with a lot of enthusiasm.

We ponied up an initial investment of $2,000 each, just enough to pay the lawyers to set up a charter. Then we set our people loose. In no time, we had our first contract, with a bank, and then more and more business came through the door. Today, about five years later, the joint venture is a $30 million business.

It’s also the most profitable property-management business within Cushman &Wakefield. The reason it has been so successful is that our people came into it fresh, with no preconceived strategies, and they were willing to experiment wildly. Instead of charging customers in the traditional way—a flat fee based on a building’s square footage—they tried a partnership model. We’d take on all of a property owner’s noncore functions, run them like businesses, and split the resulting savings.

One customer, for example, had been using 126 subcontractors for all sorts of maintenance and security tasks. It was a nightmare to manage, it resulted in poor or haphazard service, and it was ridiculously inefficient. We took over all 126 tasks, from changing lightbulbs to managing the car fleet to maintaining elevators, and we treated each as a separate business. We tore every task apart to see how it could be done better, and we made a series of improvement proposals to the client, ranging from relatively simple operating changes (reducing security personnel by installing video cameras) to highly technical systems installations (revamping the ATM architecture to dramatically reduce downtime). We outlined the investment and the expected gain and shared the cost reduction. The client reaped big savings and service improvements and got a single point of contact for doing everything necessary to run the building. And Semco made a heck of a lot more money than it would have by charging a flat fee.

Most manufacturers would probably consider a shift from making cooling towers to managing buildings pretty radical. Before making such a leap, they’d do a lot of soul-searching about their core businesses and capabilities. They’d run a lot of numbers, hold a lot of meetings, do a lot of planning. We didn’t bother with any of that. We just let our people follow their instincts and apply their common sense, and it worked out fine.

Going to the Net

Our recent move into the digital space has proceeded in much the same way, with our people again taking the lead. In fact, some of the eight Internet ventures we’ve launched grew directly out of our earlier service initiatives. As our facility-management business expanded, for example, we extended it, through a joint venture with Johnson Controls, to managing retail facilities. As our people began to work closely with store managers, they began to notice the huge costs retailers incur from lost inventory. One employee came forward and asked for a paid leave to study opportunities in that area. We gave him a green light, and within a year he had helped us set up a joint venture with RGIS, the largest inventory-tracking company in the world. Less than two years later, the venture had become the biggest inventory-management business in South America. Now it is branching out into Web-enabled inventory control, helping on-line companies coordinate the fulfillment of electronic orders.

Our work in property management also brought us face to face with the disorganization and inefficiency of the construction business. Here, too, our people saw a big business opportunity, one that would build on the unique capabilities of the Internet. A number of the members of our joint ventures with Cushman & Wakefield and Johnson Controls banded together, with Semco’s support, to set up an on-line exchange to facilitate the management of commercial construction projects. All the participants in a building project—architects, banks, construction companies, contractors, and project managers—can now use our exchange to send messages, hold real-time chats, issue proposals and send bids, and share documents and drawings. They can collaborate even if they’re using different software, because the Web platform automatically does all the translation. The exchange is revolutionizing the construction process here in Brazil.

That business, which we’re operating as a 50–50 joint venture with the U.S. Internet software company Bidcom, has itself become a springboard for further new initiatives. One of the most exciting is the creation of a South American Web portal for the entire building industry. The portal, called Edify, provides a single point of access for all the people, goods, and services required for a construction project. It’s a place where contractors can hire tradesmen, hardware stores can sell lumber and fixtures, homeowners can buy insurance and cable television service, and real-estate agents and interior decorators can promote their offerings. We make money by charging transaction fees on all the business that takes place through the portal.

We’re also partnering with a company called eTradeshow to host virtual construction fairs within the portal. As our people began to work closely with construction companies, they realized that many sectors of the South American building trade—flooring and masonry, for example—aren’t large enough to pay the costs of physical trade shows. As a result, new ideas and products have been slow to enter the markets. We saw that on-line shows would be highly attractive to these sectors, providing them access not only to new products but to potential new partners all around the world. We’ll be holding 60 different fairs on the site. In addition, we’ll be hosting virtual versions of major international trade shows in such industries as automobiles, computers, and medical equipment. Visitors will be able to walk through a 3-D representation of the trade-fair space, collect business cards and brochures, watch presentations, and chat with sales representatives. These shows will generate fees for us while driving more traffic to the portal.

Management Without Control

Semco’s ongoing transformation is a product of a very simple business philosophy: give people the freedom to do what they want, and over the long haul their successes will far outnumber their failures. Operationalizing that philosophy has involved a lot of trial and error, of taking a few steps forward and a couple back. The company remains a work in progress—and I hope it stays that way forever.

As I reflect on our experience, though, I see that we’ve learned some important lessons about creating an adaptive, creative organization. I’ll share six of those lessons with you. I won’t be so presumptuous as to say they’ll apply to your company, but at least they’ll stir up your thinking.

Forget about the top line.

The biggest myth in the corporate world is that every business needs to keep growing to be successful. That’s baloney. The ultimate measure of a business’s success, I believe, is not how big it gets, but how long it survives. Yes, some businesses are meant to be huge, but others are meant to be medium-sized and still others are meant to be small. At Semco, we never set revenue targets for our businesses. We let each one find its natural size—the size at which it can maintain profitability and keep customers happy. It’s fine if a business’s top line stays the same or even shrinks as long its bottom line stays healthy. Rather than force our people to expand an existing business beyond its natural limits, we encourage them to start new businesses, to branch out instead of building up.

Never stop being a start-up.

Every six months, we shut down Semco and start it up all over again. Through a rigorous budgeting and planning process, we force every one of our businesses to justify its continued existence. If this business didn’t exist today, we ask, would we launch it? If we closed it down, would we alienate important customers? If the answers are no, then we move our money, resources, and talent elsewhere. We also take a fresh look at our entire organization, requiring that every employee—leaders included—resign (in theory) and ask to be rehired. All managers are evaluated anonymously by all workers who report to them, and the ratings are posted publicly. It has always struck me as odd that companies force new business ideas and new hires to go through rigorous evaluations but never do the same for existing businesses or employees.

Don’t be a nanny.

Most companies suffer from what I call boarding-school syndrome. They treat their employees like children. They tell them where they have to be at what time, what they need to be doing, how they need to dress, whom they should talk to, and so on. But if you treat people like immature wards of the state, that’s exactly how they’ll behave. They’ll never think for themselves or try new things or take chances. They’ll just do what they’re told, and they probably won’t do it with much spirit.

At Semco, we have no set work hours, no assigned offices or desks, no dress codes. We have no employee manuals, no human resource rules and regulations. We don’t even have an HR department. People go to work when they want and go home when they want. They decide when to take holidays and how much vacation they need. They even choose how they’ll be compensated. (See the sidebar “Eleven Ways to Pay.”) In other words, we treat our employees like adults. And we expect them to behave like adults. If they screw up, they take the blame. And since they have to be rehired every six months, they know their jobs are always at risk. Ultimately, all we care about is performance. An employee who spends two days a week at the beach but still produces real value for customers and coworkers is a better employee than one who works ten-hour days but creates little value.

Let talent find its place.

Companies tend to hire people for specific jobs and then keep them stuck in one career track. They also tend to choose which businesses people work in. The most talented people, for instance, may be assigned automatically to the business unit with the biggest growth prospects. The companies don’t take into account what the individual really wants. The resulting disconnect between corporate needs and individual desires shows up in the high rates of talent churn that afflict most companies today.

We take a very different approach. We let people choose where they’ll work and what they’ll do (and even decide, as a team, who their leaders will be). All entry-level new hires participate in a program called Lost in Space. They spend six months to a year floating around the company, checking out businesses, meeting people, and trying out jobs. When a new hire finds a place that fits with his personality and goals, he stays there. Since our turnover rate in the past six years has been less than 1%—even though we’ve been targeted heavily by headhunters—we must be doing something right.

Make decisions quickly and openly.

The best way for an organization to kill individual initiative is to force people to go through a complicated, bureaucratic review and approval process. We strive to make it as easy as possible for Semco employees to propose new business ideas, and we make sure they get fast and clear decisions. All proposals go through an executive board that includes representatives from our major business units. The board meetings are completely open. All employees are welcome to attend—in fact, we always reserve two seats on the board for the first two employees who arrive at a meeting. Proposals have to meet two simple criteria that govern all the businesses we launch. First, the business has to be a premium provider of its product or service. Second, the product or service has to be complex, requiring engineering skills and presenting high entry barriers. Well-considered proposals that meet those standards get launched within Semco. Even if a proposed business fails to meet both criteria, we’ll often back it as a minority investor if its prospects look good.

Partner promiscuously.

To explore and launch new businesses quickly and efficiently, you need help; it’s pure arrogance to assume you can do everything on your own. I’m proud to say that we partner promiscuously at Semco. Indeed, I can’t think of a single new business we’ve started without entering into some kind of alliance, whether to gain access to software, draw on a depth of experience, bring in new capabilities, or just share risk. Partnerships have provided the foundation for our experiments and our expansion over the years. Our partners are as much a part of our company as our employees.

Staying Free

I travel a lot in my job, and recently I’ve been spending time in Silicon Valley. I’ve been visiting Internet companies, talking with technology visionaries, and participating in panel discussions on the future of business. The new companies and their founders excite me. I see in them the same spirit we’ve nurtured at Semco—a respect for individuals and their ideas, a distrust of bureaucracy and hierarchy, a love for openness and experimentation.

But I’m beginning to see troubling signs that the traditional ways of doing business are reasserting their hegemony. Investors, I fear, are starting to force young start-ups into the molds of the past—molds that some thought had been broken forever. CEOs from old-line companies are being brought in to establish “discipline” and “focus.” Entrepreneurs are settling into corner offices with secretaries and receptionists. HR departments are being formed to issue policies and to plot careers. Strategies are being written. The truly creative types are being caged up in service units and kept further and further from the decision makers.

It’s sad and, I suppose, predictable. But it isn’t necessary. If my 20 years at Semco have taught me anything, it’s that successful businesses do not have to fit into one tight little mold. You can build a great company without fixed plans. You can have an efficient organization without rules and controls. You can be unbuttoned and creative without sacrificing profit. You can lead without wielding power. All it takes is faith in people.

Ricardo Semler is the majority owner of Semco in São Paulo, Brazil. He is the author of two previous HBR articles, “Managing Without Managers” (September–October 1989) and “Why My Former Employees Still Work for Me” (January–February 1994), and the book Maverick (Warner Books, 1993).

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8 juin 2013 6 08 /06 /juin /2013 07:53

How Safe Is Recreational Marijuana?

As more states make recreational marijuana legal, researchers fret about short- and long-term health effects

Marijuana is more popular and accessible in the U.S. than any other street drug. In national surveys, 48 percent of Americans say they have tried it, and 6.5 percent of high school seniors admit to daily use. So it was not too surprising when two states, Washington and Colorado, became the first to legalize recreational marijuana in the November 2012 general election, albeit in limited quantity, for anyone over the age of 21. Activists expect that similar measures will soon win approval in other parts of the country.

Some success with medical marijuana helped to pave the road to wider legalization of pot. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia permit possession and consumption of the drug for medical purposes. Doctors in those jurisdictions may prescribe cannabis to treat or manage ailments ranging from glaucoma—an eye disease in which the optic nerve is damaged—to menstrual cramps. Cancer patients sometimes smoke pot to relieve the pain and nausea brought on by chemotherapy, and some people with the inflammatory disease multiple sclerosis rely on marijuana to ease muscle stiffness.

Although many physicians agree that marijuana is safe enough to temporarily alleviate the symptoms of certain medical conditions, the safety of recreational use is poorly understood. Researchers worry that both the short- and long-term use of the drug may harm the body and mind. Marijuana's continued popularity among teenagers raises particular concern because the drug might hinder the ongoing maturation of the adolescent brain. Making matters worse, new growing techniques for the Cannabis sativa plant—from which marijuana is prepared—have dramatically increased the drug's potency. Some experts suggest that such high-octane weed is fueling a rise in cannabis addiction. Finally, although investigators still debate how the legalization of recreational marijuana will change road safety overall, studies indicate that the drug slows reaction time and impairs distance perception behind the wheel. Despite such evidence, most new marijuana regulations, for medical or recreational use, fail to account for these potential risks.

Weeded Out

Whether rolled into a joint or mixed into brownie batter, marijuana profoundly changes behavior and awareness. The primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), mimics the structure of molecules called endocannabinoids that the human body produces naturally. Endocannabinoids act on a group of cell-surface molecules called cannabinoid receptors that help to regulate appetite, mood and memory. Because of its shape, THC fits into these receptors, too. After all, jokes neuroscientist Giovanni Marsicano of the University of Bordeaux in France, “We don't have a receptor in the body just to smoke marijuana.”

When THC strikes specific cannabinoid receptors, it triggers domino chains of interacting molecules in neurons that culminate in both unusually elevated and abnormally low levels of various neurotransmitters (the molecules that brain cells use to communicate with one another). The result is the well-known “high” of marijuana. Suddenly, the mundane seems hilarious, and ordinary foods taste delicious. People generally feel merry, relaxed and introspective, although undesirable effects—such as paranoia and irritability—are common as well.

Marijuana also temporarily impairs an array of mental abilities, especially memory and attention. Dozens of studies have shown, for example, that people under the influence of marijuana perform worse on tests of working memory, which is the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information in one's mind. Participants in these studies have greater difficulty remembering and reciting short lists of numerals and random words. Research has further revealed that cannabis blunts concentration, weakens motor coordination and interferes with the ability to quickly scan one's surroundings for obstacles.

Such mild cognitive deficits may not endanger anyone if a marijuana user lazes on the couch, but it is a different story when someone takes that high on the road. In driving-simulation and closed-course studies, people on marijuana are slower to hit the brakes and worse at safely changing lanes. Investigators still debate, however, at what point these impairments translate to more traffic accidents. A 2009 study found an increased risk of accidents for levels of THC higher than five nanograms per milliliter of blood, which some evidence indicates is as impairing as a blood alcohol concentration around the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Typically one would have to take several puffs of a joint to reach such a concentration. Consequently, voters in Washington State have adopted 5 ng/mL as the upper threshold for drivers.

Enforcing that limit presents a technical challenge, however. Unlike alcohol, marijuana cannot be detected with a relatively unobtrusive Breathalyzer test. Police officers would have to look for it in blood—something that often requires a warrant. “There is currently no practical method for law-enforcement officers at the scene to collect blood samples from suspected DUI cannabis drivers in a timely manner,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.–based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which advocates the legalization of marijuana. Instead of using a blood test, Armentano says that police should look for poor maneuvering and the smell of pot wafting from the vehicle.

Smoke Signals

Although marijuana's immediate effects are relatively easy to monitor in the lab, the drug's long-term effects on body and mind are harder to determine. So far the results—which admittedly are subject to multiple interpretations—indicate the need for caution. In one recent study, clinical psychologist Madeline Meier of Duke University and her colleagues examined data from 1,037 New Zealanders. They found that people who began using pot earlier in life and used it most frequently over the years experienced an average decline of eight IQ points by the time they turned 38. By comparison, those who never smoked pot had an average increase of one IQ point by the same age.

A reanalysis of the New Zealand data by Ole Røgeberg of the Ragnar Frisch Center for Economic Research in Oslo, however, suggested that the IQ difference could be explained by socioeconomic factors. People who start smoking marijuana at an earlier age are often less intelligent to begin with. Even if this is true, Meier says, her study shows that the IQ drop is greatest for those who started smoking pot as teenagers rather than in adulthood, indicating a worrisome cumulative effect regardless of intelligence. This finding, she thinks, makes it all the more important to discourage the early use of marijuana among teens.

Increasingly potent marijuana of recent years may be driving a sharp rise in cannabis addiction among adolescents, according to a report released last year by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Between 1993 and 2008, the average concentration of THC in confiscated marijuana jumped from 3.4 to 8.8 percent. Meanwhile hospital and rehabilitation center admission rates for minors abusing marijuana soared by 188 percent between 1992 and 2006. In contrast, admissions for alcohol abuse for the same group over the same period declined by 64 percent.

In addition to tracking levels of THC itself, some researchers have focused on the dangers of lingering contaminants in marijuana sold on the street. Dealers typically sell cannabis by weight, so some use sand or glass beads to make their products heavier. Breathing in these particles over the years may inflame and eventually scar the lungs. An analysis published last year of data on more than 5,000 Americans did not find a decline in lung function among individuals who smoked joints two or three times a month over two decades. The authors emphasize, however, that they did not assess the effect of daily use on lung health. “Somebody should do that study if marijuana is going to become legalized and prescribed” more widely, says Mark Pletcher, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who co-wrote the paper.

Some opponents of legalization worry that lax regulation of medical marijuana foretells even looser laws concerning recreational marijuana. In states that have legalized medical pot, current laws do not guarantee the safety or quality of cannabis products or standardize levels of THC. In Oakland, Calif., people can fill a marijuana prescription at Harborside Health Center, a massive dispensary with a strict quality-control system. Elsewhere in the state, however, people get their medical marijuana at mom-and-pop outfits or on the street. The next big round of ballot initiatives to legalize cannabis in states other than Washington and Colorado could happen as soon as three years from now, in the 2016 presidential election. Until then, researchers have plenty of marijuana health risks to weed through.

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2 juin 2013 7 02 /06 /juin /2013 09:45

As more states make recreational marijuana legal, researchers fret about short- and long-term health effects By Roxanne Khamsi

Marijuana is more popular and accessible in the U.S. than any other street drug. In national surveys, 48 percent of Americans say they have tried it, and 6.5 percent of high school seniors admit to daily use. So it was not too surprising when two states, Washington and Colorado, became the first to legalize recreational marijuana in the November 2012 general election, albeit in limited quantity, for anyone over the age of 21. Activists expect that similar measures will soon win approval in other parts of the country.

Some success with medical marijuana helped to pave the road to wider legalization of pot. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia permit possession and consumption of the drug for medical purposes. Doctors in those jurisdictions may prescribe cannabis to treat or manage ailments ranging from glaucoma—an eye disease in which the optic nerve is damaged—to menstrual cramps. Cancer patients sometimes smoke pot to relieve the pain and nausea brought on by chemotherapy, and some people with the inflammatory disease multiple sclerosis rely on marijuana to ease muscle stiffness.

Although many physicians agree that marijuana is safe enough to temporarily alleviate the symptoms of certain medical conditions, the safety of recreational use is poorly understood. Researchers worry that both the short- and long-term use of the drug may harm the body and mind. Marijuana's continued popularity among teenagers raises particular concern because the drug might hinder the ongoing maturation of the adolescent brain. Making matters worse, new growing techniques for the Cannabis sativa plant—from which marijuana is prepared—have dramatically increased the drug's potency. Some experts suggest that such high-octane weed is fueling a rise in cannabis addiction. Finally, although investigators still debate how the legalization of recreational marijuana will change road safety overall, studies indicate that the drug slows reaction time and impairs distance perception behind the wheel. Despite such evidence, most new marijuana regulations, for medical or recreational use, fail to account for these potential risks.

Weeded Out

Whether rolled into a joint or mixed into brownie batter, marijuana profoundly changes behavior and awareness. The primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), mimics the structure of molecules called endocannabinoids that the human body produces naturally. Endocannabinoids act on a group of cell-surface molecules called cannabinoid receptors that help to regulate appetite, mood and memory. Because of its shape, THC fits into these receptors, too. After all, jokes neuroscientist Giovanni Marsicano of the University of Bordeaux in France, “We don't have a receptor in the body just to smoke marijuana.”

When THC strikes specific cannabinoid receptors, it triggers domino chains of interacting molecules in neurons that culminate in both unusually elevated and abnormally low levels of various neurotransmitters (the molecules that brain cells use to communicate with one another). The result is the well-known “high” of marijuana. Suddenly, the mundane seems hilarious, and ordinary foods taste delicious. People generally feel merry, relaxed and introspective, although undesirable effects—such as paranoia and irritability—are common as well.

Marijuana also temporarily impairs an array of mental abilities, especially memory and attention. Dozens of studies have shown, for example, that people under the influence of marijuana perform worse on tests of working memory, which is the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information in one's mind. Participants in these studies have greater difficulty remembering and reciting short lists of numerals and random words. Research has further revealed that cannabis blunts concentration, weakens motor coordination and interferes with the ability to quickly scan one's surroundings for obstacles.

Such mild cognitive deficits may not endanger anyone if a marijuana user lazes on the couch, but it is a different story when someone takes that high on the road. In driving-simulation and closed-course studies, people on marijuana are slower to hit the brakes and worse at safely changing lanes. Investigators still debate, however, at what point these impairments translate to more traffic accidents. A 2009 study found an increased risk of accidents for levels of THC higher than five nanograms per milliliter of blood, which some evidence indicates is as impairing as a blood alcohol concentration around the legal limit of 0.08 percent. Typically one would have to take several puffs of a joint to reach such a concentration. Consequently, voters in Washington State have adopted 5 ng/mL as the upper threshold for drivers.

Enforcing that limit presents a technical challenge, however. Unlike alcohol, marijuana cannot be detected with a relatively unobtrusive Breathalyzer test. Police officers would have to look for it in blood—something that often requires a warrant. “There is currently no practical method for law-enforcement officers at the scene to collect blood samples from suspected DUI cannabis drivers in a timely manner,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.–based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which advocates the legalization of marijuana. Instead of using a blood test, Armentano says that police should look for poor maneuvering and the smell of pot wafting from the vehicle.

Smoke Signals

Although marijuana's immediate effects are relatively easy to monitor in the lab, the drug's long-term effects on body and mind are harder to determine. So far the results—which admittedly are subject to multiple interpretations—indicate the need for caution. In one recent study, clinical psychologist Madeline Meier of Duke University and her colleagues examined data from 1,037 New Zealanders. They found that people who began using pot earlier in life and used it most frequently over the years experienced an average decline of eight IQ points by the time they turned 38. By comparison, those who never smoked pot had an average increase of one IQ point by the same age.

A reanalysis of the New Zealand data by Ole Røgeberg of the Ragnar Frisch Center for Economic Research in Oslo, however, suggested that the IQ difference could be explained by socioeconomic factors. People who start smoking marijuana at an earlier age are often less intelligent to begin with. Even if this is true, Meier says, her study shows that the IQ drop is greatest for those who started smoking pot as teenagers rather than in adulthood, indicating a worrisome cumulative effect regardless of intelligence. This finding, she thinks, makes it all the more important to discourage the early use of marijuana among teens.

Increasingly potent marijuana of recent years may be driving a sharp rise in cannabis addiction among adolescents, according to a report released last year by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Between 1993 and 2008, the average concentration of THC in confiscated marijuana jumped from 3.4 to 8.8 percent. Meanwhile hospital and rehabilitation center admission rates for minors abusing marijuana soared by 188 percent between 1992 and 2006. In contrast, admissions for alcohol abuse for the same group over the same period declined by 64 percent.

In addition to tracking levels of THC itself, some researchers have focused on the dangers of lingering contaminants in marijuana sold on the street. Dealers typically sell cannabis by weight, so some use sand or glass beads to make their products heavier. Breathing in these particles over the years may inflame and eventually scar the lungs. An analysis published last year of data on more than 5,000 Americans did not find a decline in lung function among individuals who smoked joints two or three times a month over two decades. The authors emphasize, however, that they did not assess the effect of daily use on lung health. “Somebody should do that study if marijuana is going to become legalized and prescribed” more widely, says Mark Pletcher, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who co-wrote the paper.

Some opponents of legalization worry that lax regulation of medical marijuana foretells even looser laws concerning recreational marijuana. In states that have legalized medical pot, current laws do not guarantee the safety or quality of cannabis products or standardize levels of THC. In Oakland, Calif., people can fill a marijuana prescription at Harborside Health Center, a massive dispensary with a strict quality-control system. Elsewhere in the state, however, people get their medical marijuana at mom-and-pop outfits or on the street. The next big round of ballot initiatives to legalize cannabis in states other than Washington and Colorado could happen as soon as three years from now, in the 2016 presidential election. Until then, researchers have plenty of marijuana health risks to weed through.

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29 mai 2013 3 29 /05 /mai /2013 09:42

Where Does Identity Come From?

A fascinating new neuroscience experiment probes an ancient philosophical question—and hints that you might want to get out more

Imagine we rewound the tape of your life. Your diplomas are pulled off of walls, unframed, and returned. Your children grow smaller, and then vanish. Soon, you too become smaller. Your adult teeth retract, your baby teeth return, and your traits and foibles start to slip away. Once language goes, you are not so much you aspotential you. We keep rewinding still, until we’re halving and halving a colony of cells, finally arriving at that amazing singularity: the cell that will become you.

The question, of course, is what happens when we press “play” again. Are your talents, traits, and insecurities so deeply embedded in your genes that they’re basically inevitable? Or could things go rather differently with just a few tiny nudges? In other words, how much of your fate do you allot to your genes, versus your surroundings, versus chance? This is navel gazing that matters.

In the absence of a time rewinder, the next best experiment is to do what Julia Freund and her colleagues did in a simple, yet remarkable recent study.  These investigators placed genetically identical individuals (mice in this case) in a common environment, and asked whether systematic behavioral differences could still develop between them. An answer of “Yes” would mean that there are sources of behavioral variability – “individuality,” if you will – that aren’t accounted for by the combination of genes and common environment.

In their experiment, Freund and her colleagues housed 40 genetically identical mice in a so-called “enriched” environment, and monitored their behavior over a period of three months (about 10 to 15 percent of their lifespan) during their early life. The enriched environment was very generous as far as lab-mouse accommodations go, with an approximately 36 square foot footprint, and a multi-tiered arrangement of platforms, nesting boxes, and interconnecting tubes. In these conditions, mice can exhibit a more natural set of exploratory behaviors than in the more typical confining cage.

What made this study different from, say, a study of human twins is that the subjects’ movements could be tracked in extraordinary detail over a significant portion of their lifespan. Each mouse in the study was tagged with a radiofrequency ID (RFID) transponder, whose location was monitored by one of twenty antennas inconspicuously arranged among water bottles, tubes, and nesting boxes. Every movement, chase, and sedentary spell was recorded and logged.

To study potential differences in behavior among the mice, the experimenters used a measure called “roaming entropy.” Basically, this captures how often you get out, and with how much variety. If you’re someone who mostly just darts between work and home, your roaming entropy is low. If you’re the kind of person who could conceivably be just about anywhere at any given time, your roaming entropy is high.

Initially, the mice were fairly uniform in their roaming entropy. As the weeks progressed, however, the population started to diverge, with some mice being markedly more exploratory than others. If we take the tendency to explore as a kind of crude trait, then this is one trait that elaborates over time, in a way that isn’t strictly determined by genes or available resources.

The most interesting part of the study, however, came when the researchers examined the brain changes that paralleled the changes in exploratory behavior. Before ending the experiment, the mice were injected with a compound that’s selectively incorporated into dividing cells, and hence labels adult-born neurons.  While most neurons are fashioned during early development, there are a handful of well-studied brain areas in which new neurons are continuously produced even in adulthood.

Strikingly, the mice which were the “wanderers” at the end of the study were also those who experienced the greatest proliferation of adult-born neurons. While the usual caution of correlation not implying causation applies here, the result is still intriguing. Even after the genetic die are cast at conception, and after the bulk of the neural scaffolding is laid down in early life, the brain maintains a trickle of raw potential through its ability to grow a limited number of new neurons. The authors conjecture that these neurons are involved in tailoring and tuning our behaviors, applying context-specific corrections and adjustments to the more hard-coded aspects of our behavior. In their words, the ways in which we live our lives may make us who we are.

How, exactly does this happen? The authors concede that we don’t really know. This is not to discredit them, but simply to acknowledge that any experiment addressing something as profound, contested, and metaphysically tangled as the nature-nurture question is going to generate more questions than answers.

It could be the case, for example, that epigenetic changes, in which experience modifies patterns of gene expression, give rise to different life trajectories. Or perhaps the result is really hard-line determinism in disguise. Though nominally genetically identical, there are still minute genomic differences between inbred mice. Perhaps these are sufficient to give rise to trait differences that elaborate over time. Another question, of course, is how surprised should we be by the differences in roaming entropy that were observed? Are they comparable to what would be seen among less genetically related individuals of the same species? In other words, are we talking about the difference between type A and type B personalities, or just subtle shades of A?

Regardless of these specifics, this experiment is a potent reminder that our lives are a work in progress. If we’re indeed living out a kind of tape, then it seems to be one in which the tracks can be tweaked as they’re read, even if they’re rather deep. As your brain is shaped by the choices you make, there is room for chance and noise – room for you to be unique.

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9 mai 2013 4 09 /05 /mai /2013 09:56

Et si demain nous pouvions tous avoir accès aux super pouvoir de notre cerveau. Qui n'a jamais révé de calculer plus vite que son ordinateur, dessiner aussi bien que les grands peintres, en un mot avoir les même capacités cérébrales que certains de nos Grands Hommes. Un rêve qui peut devenir réalité grâce aux travaux de Allan Snyder. 

Cet australien facilite le fonctionnement optimal de nos ressources cérébrales par la Stimulation TransCranienne. Il nous transporte aux portes de notre futur. Réalité ou fiction tout cela est tout de même réalisé dans un environnement de recherche et donc nous pouvons imaginer que les résultats sont fiables...Toutefois c'est difficilement croyable. Lisez l'article ci dessous et faites vous votre propre avis...

Conversations on Creativity with Allan Snyder

Allan Snyder on accessing savant-like skills and enhancing creative thinking

Allan SnyderProfessor Allan Snyder  is one of the most creative and cool scientists I know. Recognized for discoveries in the fields of biology, communications, optical physics andneuroscience, he received the world's "foremost prize in communication and information technology", the Marconi International Prize , in 2001 - a prize previously bestowed on the inventor of the internet and the founders of google. His discoveries in brain science are hailed in the journalNature as "breaking a 19th century mindset", and are declared "a breakthrough that could lead to a revolution in the way we understand the functioning of the human brain" by the New York Times. Snyder is currently the Director of the Centre for the Mind at the University of Sydney.

Snyder believes a 'thinking cap' might one day be possible, which would enable us to remove our ordinary filters of perception, and thereby improve memory, reduce prejudice, and make us more creative. Here I have a conversation with the award winning scientist who is inventing ways to access nonconscious savant-like skills, to enhance creative thinking, and to unravel the ingredients of extraordinary success. 

S. You have argued that savant skills are latent in all of us. Could you please elaborate why you think this is true?

A. My hypothesis is that savants have privileged access to lower level, less-processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels. Due to a failure in top-down inhibition, they can tap into information that exists in all of our brains, but is normally beyond conscious awareness.

Several lines of evidence point to this interpretation. Savant skills appear to be universal - they don't seem to vary according to what's valued in a particular society. Across different cultures, savant skills are restricted to the same domains: art, music, calendar calculating, arithmetic, and mechanical/spatial skills. The skills can emerge without training, and they're not qualitatively improved by practice. In fact, savants generally don't have insight into how they perform their skill.

Compellingly, this applies (for example) even for savant skills that emerge later in life, as a result of damage to the left temporal lobes, through frontotemporal dementia, stroke, or physical injury. Patients can suddenly and spontaneously demonstrate skills for which they previously had no interest, ability or talent. This suggests that the basis for these skills was there all along, albeit beyond conscious awareness.

Further evidence for savant skills being latent in us all comes from our lab. We've been able to temporarily induce savant-like skills in normal individuals, using non-invasive brain stimulation. For example, we've artificially induced savant-like performance in drawing, proofreading, numerosity, and reduced susceptibility to false memories. I have speculated on this in greater detail inhttp://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/364/1522/1399.full andhttp://www.centreforthemind.com/publications/integer_doc.cfm.

S. Why do you think rTMS improves a person's savant-like abilities?

rTMSA. We use low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) to inhibit the anterior temporal lobe, a region important for semantic processing, conceptual knowledge, labels and categories. In normal people, conceptual regions dominate over those that process literal detail. In effect, we attempt to inhibit (or reverse) this natural state of inhibition, to shift the balance in favour of greater access to literal detail.

Our approach is consistent with evidence that savant syndrome is often associated with left brain dysfunction or inhibition, together with right brain compensation, leading to a predilection for literal, non-symbolic skills. Or, as Oliver Sacks put it, normally, abstract and verbal powers are associated with the left or dominant cerebral hemisphere and perceptual skills with the right. We attempt to temporarily induce disinhibition of the right hemisphere in normal people.

Obscuring the meaning of something allows us to become more aware of the details that comprise it. By way of example, Betty Edwards, in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, developed techniques for improving drawing skills, including turning the object to be drawn upside down - the object's meaning is removed, improving attention to its details.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=K1AtY7Mb8-M

S. How successful have you been in inducing savant-like skills in normal individuals? If savant-like skills are latent in all of us, why don't your methods work on all of your participants? Could it be that there are individual differences in these abilities, regardless of whether they are initially hidden or not?

A. Our success in inducing savant-like skills in normal individuals using low-frequency rTMS has been moderate. Not everyone responds. There's a number of possibilities for why not all individuals show the same marked improvement. It's possible that individual differences in how detail-orientated people are to start with account for some of the variability. Some people may be closer to the precipice than others.

We're confident that savant skills latent in us all, but unfortunately there are technical issues and limitations - stimulation is less effective in people with thick hair or skulls :), and its effectiveness depends on the orientation of the brain's sulci (or grooves), as well as the amount of myelination (neural conductivity). And, TMS has relatively poor spatial resolution, making it hard to target a specific location or neural network. So, for all these reasons, it's likely that we stimulate the 'sweet spot' (or network) in some people more successfully than in others.

But, despite these complications, we believe that reliably getting any 'pig to fly' (so to speak) provides proof of principle, so we're encouraged. And, it's worth noting that our recent work using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is showing a more powerful effect.

S. Is it possible that the act of having the participants read the same sentence both times increases the chance that they will pick up the repeating word despite the fact they've received magnetic stimulation?

A. Yes indeed - that's why we compare the effects of stimulation with performance under sham stimulation (placebo). But, a famous neurologist of my acquaintance (guess who?) was once driven to distraction by my insistence that he repeatedly read one of the sentences - he failed to spot the duplicated word, even after many, many readings. It just goes to show how powerful our conceptual mind is. We tend to see what we know!

S. Are there any trade-offs to using your methods? Are there any abilities temporarily impaired when you stimulate the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL)? What potential negative consequences do you think could come as a result of turning on an area of the brain at the expense of disengaging another?

A. We haven't observed any trade-offs. But, we don't give our participants an exhaustive battery of tests - we can't, since the effect of brain stimulation wears off too quickly.

In theory, we'd predict that a person would become less conceptual, which might be reflected in a variety of ways. Consistent with this, Gorana Pobric and Matthew Lambon Ralph at the University of Manchester found that rTMS inhibition of the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL) produced difficulty in distinguishing concepts, particularly specific-level ones (e.g. golden retriever, more so than dog).

S. Why are savant skills suppressed in normal individuals?

Stephen Wiltshire PaintingA. Good question! For example, why can't we all draw photorealistically, like some autistic artists? The reason why this is so unexpected is that our brains obviously possess all the necessary visual information required to draw, but we are apparently unable to access it for the purpose of drawing. For example, our brain performs the calculations necessary to label three-dimensional objects. Yet, the difficulties of drawing even a simple sphere are legion. We are not consciously aware of how our brains derive shape from shading, perspective from gradients of texture, size invariance from distance, and so on. Somehow, autistic artists can directly tap into this lower level, less processed information, prior to it being integrated into the holistic picture.

We believe that these abilities are deliberately inhibited from conscious awareness in normal individuals. Awareness of ‘big picture' concepts, to the detriment of the details that underpin them, is neurally efficient. It enables fast interpolation and extrapolation, accelerating decision-making, especially when this is based on only partial information. While this approach can come at the cost of errors (such as illusions and prejudice), failure of concept formation means being overwhelmed by sensory details, leading to hypersensitivity and the need for rigid routines, to impose some order on things. The lack of savant skills seems a fair price to pay for neural efficiency.

It's interesting that normal people see only the whole, that it takes an abnormal mind to see the parts. I talk about this at length elsewhere (seehttp://www.centreforthemind.com/publications/JINApr04.pdf).

S. Why aren't all autistic individuals savants?

While the majority of savants are autistic, only 10% of autistic people are thought to be savants (although a recent study by Patricia Howlin from King's College London suggests the rate may be as high as 30%). This might be because autism is such a heterogeneous disorder - there's actually a spectrum of 'autisms', often coexisting with other conditions. One possibility is that the subset of autistic people displaying savant skills represents autism in its purest form, uncontaminated by other disorders, as originally characterised by a pioneer of autism, Leo Kanner, as early as 1943.

S. Are all savants autistic? Must these two necessarily go hand in hand?

Orlando SerrellThe majority of savants are autistic, but savant syndrome can also emerge later in life, as a result of damage to the left temporal lobes (through frontotemporal dementia, stroke, or physical injury). For example, Orlando Serrell became a calendar-calculating savant after being hit by a baseball on the left temporal lobe. This is captured by the Discovery Channel documentary, "Savants" (seehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgrmoVWxTlY).

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xgrmoVWxTlY

S. Why do you think savant skills are typically confined to specific domains such as art, music, calendar calculating, mathematics, and mechanics/spatial skills? What's so special about these domains?

A. The striking thing is that these skills are non-verbal. They are largely literal - literal memory, literal recall - and based on some form of privileged access. And, according to Darold Treffert, an authority on savants, they are 'right-hemisphere' skills (normally, abstract and verbal powers are associated with the left or dominant cerebral hemisphere and perceptual skills with the right).

S. When you say that savants have privileged access to raw, less-processed information, do you mean that savants somehow have the ability to see into the inner workings of a particular module (in the Jerry Fodor sense of the term module)?

A. No, although we believe different brain regions are (to some extent) specialised for different functions, we're not committed to modularity in the strong sense. We're saying that savants, unlike us, have conscious access to lower level, less processed information, before it is packaged into holistic concepts and meaningful labels.

S. As you know, Daniel Tammet is a remarkable savant who can not only do amazing things but can do amazing things and also reflect on those things. You have referred to Daniel as a "Rosetta Stone". Why is that? What combination of factors do you think makes Tammet so unique among savants?

Daniel TammetA. Yes, savants can't usually tell us how they do what they do - they say it just comes to them, they just ‘see' it. But Daniel Tammet can - he's able to describe the synaesthetic basis for his extraordinary skills. That's why he's exciting, why I've called him the Rosetta Stone. His ability to communicate and write about the inner workings of his mind amazes me - in my opinion, his books Born on a Blue Day and Embracing the Wide Sky are remarkable achievements, doubly so from someone with autism.

S. Why are autistic savant skills known to recede with maturity? What's happening in the brain that is causing the ability to go away?

A. Autism is a developmental disorder. I see it as protracted infancy, a pre-conceptual state. Everything is perceived literally and presumably this is associated with right-brain dominance.

With maturity, autistic people often become more conceptual and less literal, more left-hemisphere oriented. And, as I say, it's privileged access to literal detail that underpins savant skills. This process might be reflected in 'neural pruning' in the right temporal lobe, or articulation of the left, or both - we're a fair way off knowing. The shift is likely to be caused by a mix of deliberate 'training' strategies or programs and the incidental learning that occurs as a result of living in a 'neurotypical' world.

S. Isn't the right hemisphere localised for holistic processing? Why is it that unleashing (as it were) the right hemisphere causes an increase in more detail oriented thinking? Wouldn't you think it would boost holistic thinking instead? If savants are known to have a right-hemisphere bias, and the right-hemisphere is known to be localised for holistic thought, why would this bias result in detail-oriented thought - the opposite of holistic thought?

A. Firstly, we should have in mind that we start out in life being right-brain dominant and not holistic. This is a pre-conceptual, autistic-like, literal state.

The view that the left hemisphere is analytic, and the right hemisphere is holistic, has been around for a long time. But, it's controversial, and there are a number of paradoxes. At best, it's an oversimplification - there's a wealth of evidence that cognitive functions generally rely on the functioning of both hemispheres.

It's important to think about what's meant by 'holistic'. The literature often distinguishes the right hemisphere's holistic, or synthetic, processing from the left hemisphere's analytic approach. Left hemispheric analysis involves top-down processing, effectively producing a simplified, schematic model of reality. On the other hand, it would appear that right hemispheric synthesis is bottom-up, building from the parts to the whole to produce more veridical representations. This is consistent with our conceptualisation.

This left-right dichotomy is consistent with the observation that autism is associated with left-hemisphere dysfunction combined with right-hemisphere compensation, and with the finding that savant syndrome can emerge as a result of damage to the left temporal lobes.

The Brain That Changes ItselfIn a fascinating recent book, Norman Doidge(2007) details the case of Michelle, who was born with only a right hemisphere. While Doidge rightly celebrates the remarkable neuroplasticity exhibited by Michelle, her case is also revealing about the roles of the two hemispheres. Michelle has sensory hypersensitivities, she's got an enhanced memory for literal details, and she exhibits savant skills in calculating - I'd argue that this is a direct result of her intact right hemisphere. And, she has deficits in concepts and abstraction, which I hold to be left hemisphere-based.

But, despite this evidence, we should bear in mind that this is all very complex, and the full picture has yet to emerge.

S. What would happen if you inhibited other areas of the brain instead of the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL)? Do you have any predictions as to what would happen if other areas of the brain were inhibited?

There's a growing body of research on the effects of rTMS, both low-frequency (inhibitory) and high-frequency (excitatory), on different parts of the brain. Unsurprisingly, because inhibiting parts of the brain temporarily reduces their functioning, performance can be impaired on related tasks.

Alvaro Pascual-LeoneBut, the idea that inhibiting an area of the brain can actually improve performance is what fascinates me. Turning off part of the brain actually can switch on skills! And, in fact, 'paradoxical functional facilitation' via inhibitory rTMS is attracting significant interest, both in a clinical context and more generally. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and his colleagues at theHarvard Medical School are leaders in investigating possible therapeutic applications. For example, low-frequency rTMS to the motor cortex shows promise for post-stroke rehabilitation, as does inhibiting the prefrontal cortex as a treatment fordepression, to name just two. Stay tuned for new developments!

S. Given the enormous plasticity of the brain, are there ways of applying the TMS machine that could be integrated with brain plasticity improvement methods so as to correct disorders and improve brain function on a more permanent basis in patients?

A. Yes, as I've indicated, this is already being trialed for the treatment of stroke and other illnesses. And, I have wondered if it might be used to treat autism - if you can induce autistic-like traits using TMS, then might you be able to reverse them?

S. Does your research have any implications for understandingschizophrenia, which is sometimes characterised as the flip-side of autism?

I have to say that this is not my area of expertise, but it's an interesting question. In 2004, I speculated in the journal Nature that a number of psychopathologies could be due to intermittent access to lower level sensory processes not normally accessible to conscious awareness (seehttp://centreforthemind.com/publications/AutisticGenius.pdf).

Schizophrenia, like autism, is a complex condition. The 'positive' symptoms (e.g. psychosis) of schizophrenia are often distinguished from the 'negative' ones. The negative symptoms actually share a resemblance with aspects of autism. But, the positive symptoms do seem to contrast with autism - they are far from literal, and can be construed as 'hyperconceptual'.

Apparently, clinical trials have investigated whether positive symptoms (e.g. auditory hallucinations) can be reduced by inhibitory rTMS to the left temporoparietal cortex. If it's taken that these positive symptoms are indicative of 'hyperconceptuality', then this is broadly in line with our approach. But, interestingly, some research suggests that stimulating the left or right hemisphere is effective in reducing positive symptoms. This research is in its infancy and it will be fascinating to see how it progresses.

S. What are the implications of your research for understandingintelligence, as measured by IQ tests? The latest research shows that those with severe autism display normal levels of performance on non-verbal tests of 'fluid intelligence' (abstract problem solving) and people with Asperger's actually have enhanced levels of fluid intelligence in comparison to normal individuals. Do you think your data and theory are consistent with these findings? What are the implications for the way we currently measure intelligence?

Child taking an IQ testA. Again, intelligence (and its measurement) is not my area of expertise. My focus is much more oncreativity, and I have discussed how autism, in particular autistic genius, might shed light on creativity (seehttp://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/364/1522/1399.full andhttp://centreforthemind.com/publications/AutisticGenius.pdf).

But, I do believe our approach is consistent with multifactor models of intelligence, such as the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory. Certainly, I think that differentiating amongst cognitive abilities is meaningful and useful in revealing patterns of cognitive ability, perhaps especially for people on the autism spectrum. Impaired concept formation in autism may be reflected in lower acculturated knowledge (crystallised intelligence). But tests of fluid intelligence (with the likely exception of esoteric analogies tasks, because of their reliance on metaphor) are ideally suited to revealing autistic intelligence.

S. If savant skills are a form of reproduction, how can the abilities facilitate creativity, as you claim they can? Isn't imitation the opposite of creativity? Do you think a dash of autistic intelligence may be essential for high levels of creativity in the arts and sciences? You have argued that there may be two radically different routes to creativity: the normal route and the autistic route. Care to elaborate on this?

A. Yes, imitation is the opposite of creativity, and savant skills are largely based on mimicry. On the other hand, the major bottleneck to our creativity is that we're blinded by our expertise, by our concepts or mental templates, derived from past experience. These make us fast at the familiar but blind us to novelty. We struggle to join the dots up in novel ways - we can't help but impose prior connections.

Autistic people are less blinded - I believe that they see the dots as dots, without trying to impose previous connections. That ability can be insightful, and can lead to so-called autistic genius. I introduced this idea in 2004 (seehttp://centreforthemind.com/publications/AutisticGenius.pdf) and have recently expanded upon it (http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/364/1522/1399.full).

In isolation, neither the normal nor the autistic approach is an effective route to creativity. I agree with Hans Asperger, who as early as 1944 suggested that a dash of autistic intelligence might facilitate true creativity in the arts and sciences. Some form of privileged access to less processed information, however temporary, is probably crucial to paradigm shifts and scientific revolutions (to borrow Thomas Kuhn'sterminology). As I suggested in 2004, the autistic mind builds from the parts to the whole, whereas the normal mind is more 'top-down'. These two approaches - the normal and the autistic - working in concert is ideally suited to true creativity. Might this explain why so many creative individuals suffer from psychopathologies, especially bipolar disorder?

Imagine if we could temporarily remove or reduce left-hemispheric dominance, allowing privileged access to literal details and hence a less prejudiced mind. This could facilitate us making truly novel connections. And this, ultimately, is my dream.

S. Have you ever thought about entering your subjects into creative/problem-solving contests like Innocentive.com,NineSigma, or another "open-source innovation" collaboratives? What results might you anticipate?

InnovationA. No, I hadn't thought of it. It's an interesting idea, but it has some practical problems. We try to stick with standardised tests, to maximise reliability and experimental control. And we need tasks to take less than around ten minutes or so, because the effect of stimulation attenuates quite quickly. If we were to do it, I imagine participants might produce more innovative ideas as a result of brain stimulation, that is, that it would increase originality and CQ (an information theory metric I co-invented, which captures both the number and variety of ideas, seehttp://www.centreforthemind.com/publications/CQPaper.pdf).

S. How might your theory have implications for our deepest notions of creativity?

A. A fundamental bottleneck to creativity is our inability to join the dots up in novel ways. We have a predisposition to impose prior connections. But, creativity would seem to require that we, at least momentarily, free ourselves of previous interpretations, enabling us to link disparate ideas into a new synthesis

KaleidoscopeBut, I don't want to oversimplify the subject. Creativity is a magical quality - alluring, mysterious and quintessentially human. It has tantalised the imagination of great thinkers throughout the millennia, who have contributed immensely to our understanding. But, like a kaleidoscope you can turn this subject around, turn it around again, and again, and yet you always see something refreshingly new, something uniquely shaped by the observer. We at the Centre for the Mind keep turning that kaleidoscope.

S. Is it possible for someone to be a genius both in left hemisphere skills (such as language) and right-hemisphere skills (such as music)? If so, how is this reconciled with the competing hemisphere theory?

Peter RabbitA. Of course - we humans are diverse and amazing creatures. To take a musical example, a number of popular musicians excel at writing both music and lyrics, and Richard Wagner(most famous for Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walkure) was notable - as an exception to the rule - for both composing and writing his own librettos. And, author/illustrators like Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame) also spring to mind; as, of course, does Leonardo da Vinci.

While it's rare, those who have truly exceptional skills in both left- and right-hemisphere domains probably have reduced left-hemispheric dominance.

S. Do you think that ancient genius, like Leonardo da Vinci, had the ability to switch off certain parts of their brain, thus explaining the mystery of their greatness?

Leonardo da Vinci is one of my favourite exemplars of creativity! It's possible that he was able to switch between conceptual and literal ways of viewing the world. Certainly, some of his drawings and his observational approach to science suggest an aptitude for the literal, though in general, Leonardo seems to have been highly conceptual. But, did Leonardo master tricks to divorce himself from observing the whole, allowing him to see the parts, like Betty Edwards' drawing tricks?

I'd also suggest that the diversity of his contributions is key to his genius - working in so many different fields, he was able to take on more mindsets. In other words, he was able to take concepts from diverse areas to create a news synthesis. I've argued that the more mindsets we have, the more different views we have of the world, and the more creative we can be.

S. Do you see any way your methods could enhance higher thinking processes?

Yes. For example, using non-invasive brain stimulation could aid in problem solving and decision making, by allowing someone to examine things from a variety of perspectives, without being so committed to previous interpretations. And we're examining its potential for enhancing creativity.

A. Is an artist 'cheating' if he induces his artistic skills each time he creates a work of art?

Interesting question. It's well documented that artists though the ages have used psychoactive drugs to facilitate creative production. You could view non-invasive brain stimulation as a much milder and safer alternative method of opening 'the doors of perception'. On the other hand, if brain stimulation was only available to a select few amongst many competing for a prize or similar, that might be an unfair situation. But, we tend to put less value today on photographic realism - these aren't the times of Constable.

S. Must savant-like genius always be prompted by a psychologist in a lab, asking pointed questions? Or could this phenomenon be made endogenous and self-controlled?

A. Yes, it's an interesting idea. I've thought of combining brain stimulation with EEG-based neurofeedback to train people to access literal details on demand. But, this is futuristic - our techniques need to be refined before we'd pursue it. I wonder if Leonardo somehow learned to do this.

S. Do you foresee any potential for a more permanent enhanced state that you have been able to evoke with TMS?

Yes, it'd be possible. In a clinical context, repeated doses of TMS are given with the aim of (permanently) treating depression and other illnesses. The question is: would you want to be less conceptual and more literal, permanently? The neurofeedback method I mentioned would provide the best of both worlds, by allowing one to switch between 'big picture' and detailed thinking.

S. You have mentioned how you envision a 'thinking cap' one day that people can put on their heads to induce savant-like abilities any time they want to. Can you please elaborate on this grand vision?

Thinking CapA. Yes, I envisage a thinking cap that enables us to go uphill against our intrinsic cognitive design, that is, to remove the filters of perception, and thereby to improve memory, reduce prejudice, and make us more creative. This is admittedly futuristic, but increasingly it seems that it might one day be feasible.

S. If you did indeed produce a 'thinking cap', who would be able to use it, why, and what would the ethical implications of this be?

A. My idealistic vision would be for the thinking cap to be accessible to any healthy adult, enabling them to see the world literally and become less mindset. Maybe there'll be 'thinking cap bars', like oxygen bars, in the future, where people can pop in to top up on inspiration - just kidding, but who knows?

S. What would be the potential side effects of a thinking cap for day-to-day social interactions?

A. If the thinking cap more or less 'switched off' concepts and 'switched on' detail, then it could make social interactions awkward, autistic-like. But this is unlikely - the effect would probably be much more subtle. And, hey, let's not get carried away, we're leaping a bit forward here!

S. Will the technological ability to switch creativity on and off hinder or even prevent the possible evolution of a more efficient brain physiology?

A. Interesting! I suppose that's possible, if we were to spend an enormous portion of our lives being stimulated. But, given what we know about the brain and the complex two-way interactions between genes and the environment, it could well accelerate the evolution of the human brain.

S. You seem like a truly creative researcher with really innovative ideas. Perhaps you have already devised a thinking cap and have been keeping it all to yourself?

A. No, the thinking cap is a way off yet. And, if I had, would I be accused of cheating, like sporting champions accused of taking drugs?

I wasn't an exceptional student at school, and I think this actually helped me to become more creative. I couldn't rely on ‘textbook' approaches, so was poised (or forced) to invent my own ways of doing things. I would devote many hours to attempting what, looking back, was a novel synthesis.

And, I think that my creativity has benefited hugely from working in diverse fields, and from the cross-fertilisation that enables. It seems that the more different pictures you have of this world, the better. Somehow, our mind unconsciously juggles these different pictures, rearranging them for a new synthesis.

For example, I was awarded the Marconi Prize in 2001 for my insights about optical fibres for telecommunication. Surprisingly, this work was inspired not from research in engineering physics, but from my investigations of animal eyes!

S. Do you have any other grand visions you'd like to share?

I think it's enough to contemplate techniques that could, at least temporarily, allow us to go uphill against our intrinsic nature to be blinded by our mindsets. Just imagine what that could do for humanity! Just keep your eye on our website (see www.centreforthemind.com).

S. Thank you Dr. Snyder for this most thought provoking interview.

A. Thank you, Scott. It's provoked some intriguing new thoughts in me, too.

© 2010 by Scott Barry Kaufman

Note: Thanks to all of my students in Introduction to Cognitive Science(Yale University, Summer 2009) for being so brilliant and assisting me with the questions for the interview: Kimberly Ashayeri, Lauren Bremen, Ana Canedo-Rivas, Shangshang Chen, Jordana Confino, Maris Holmes, Jurell Houston, Brigitte Kivisto, Elizabeth Kramer, Rachel Kuschner, David Lee, Hae-in Lim, Vanessa Oates, Alyssa Schaefer, George Singer, Sherwin Soltani, Arber Tasimi, Yanbo Wang, David Witwer, and Jinghui (Elaine) Zhang.

---

 

Bio of Allan Snyder

Professor Allan Snyder is recognised for discoveries in the fields of biology, communications, optical physics and neuroscience. He received the world's "foremost prize in communication and information technology", the Marconi International Prize, in 2001 - a prize previously bestowed on the inventor of the Internet and the founders of Google.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, cited for contributions to both physics and visual biology. He is the recipient of the Royal Society's 2001 Clifford Paterson Prize for "contributions which benefit mankind." He was awarded the 1997 International Australia Prize by the Prime Minister of Australia. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and recipient of its highest award in mathematics and physics, the Thomas Rankin Lyle Medal.

He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and the recipient of its Sutherland Memorial Medal for "notable achievements in technological science, which have contributed to living standards and quality of life". He received the Tall Poppy Prize in 2000, honored as one of the "most outstanding Australian scientists of the 20th century" (Australian Institute of Political Sciences).

His other honours include the Harrie Massey Medal of the British Institute of Physics, the Mills Oration and Medal of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, the C.S.I.R.O. External Medal For Research, the Silver Jubilee Medal of the Royal Society of Victoria, and the Edgeworth David Medal of the Royal Society of N.S.W.

His discoveries in brain science are hailed in the journal Nature as "breaking a 19th century mindset", declared "a breakthrough that could lead to a revolution in the way we understand the functioning of the human brain" by the New York Times, "brave and original" in a New Scientist cover story, and are featured in The Times of London, the BBC, CNN, and Barbara Walters' ABC 20/20. The journal Science described his most recent contribution to physics as a giant step forward.

Previously, he was a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow at the Yale School of Medicine, a Royal Society Research Fellow at the physiology laboratories of Cambridge University, Distinguished Professor and Peter Karmel Chair of Science and the Mind at the Australian National University.

He is a graduate of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University College, London. Presently he is investigating ways to access nonconscious savant-like skills, to enhance creative thinking, and to unravel the ingredients of extraordinary success. Dr Snyder is the creator of the What Makes A Champion? forum, now designated an official Olympic Cultural Event held on the occasion of the Sydney 2000, the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the forthcoming 2012 London Games.

(For more information, visit http://www.centreforthemind.com)

 

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8 mai 2013 3 08 /05 /mai /2013 07:24

Secrets of the Criminal Mind

Adrian Raine argues that we must fight crime with biology

Gareth Cook: The study of the links between biology and violence has a controversial and somewhat unsavory past. Can you tell me a bit about that, and what convinced you it is still a worthy topic?

Adrian Raine: Neurocriminology pushes a lot of peoples’ buttons for lots of different reasons. There’s the obvious historical misuse of biological research – think of the eugenics movement in this country when we sterilized mentally retarded people in an attempt to raise the overall IQ of the general population. Think of Hitler and the genocide that took place. So there’s always a potential for misuse, so of course we must tread carefully. But we also have to move forward to find new solutions to old problems, and neuroscience is offering us new vistas into the criminal mind that may in the future help us reduce violence. We need not resort to drastic measures to change the brain as we did in the past with frontal lobectomies.

There are other reasons for antagonism to a biological approach. Social scientists are concerned that shiningthe spotlight on the biological causes of crime will shift attention away from important social problems like bad neighborhoods, poverty, and racial discrimination. I can understand their perspective, and they are absolutely right that we need to eradicate these social inequalities. But unless we also tackle biology, violent crime is never going to go away.

The free-will debate also raises its ugly head. People are concerned about chalking up a good portion of crime and violence to genetics and biology — what does that say about choice and agency? Was it all determined from the get-go? Are we just gene machines destined to play out our programed nature in life? Let’s face it, nobody wants to hear that, do they?

And that brings us to politics. Conservatives don’t like my work because they think it will encourage a soft approach to crime – we’ll blame crime on the brain, not the person. But liberals don’t like it either because they think civil liberties are at stake – we’ll use biomarkers to identify who is at risk for violence and lock them up before they have committed a crime, the pre-emptive strike.

Then at the end of the day we get down to plain old interdisciplinary rivalries. Neurocriminology is a new approach that is attracting attention, and threatening the status quo. Other academics can get miffed that their own work doesn’t reach the spotlight. They’re human after all. They want to protect their own turf, and you can understand their frustration that their good science might not be getting the attention it deserves.

That’s a heck of a lot of baggage. So why, despite all this, have I thought for the past 35 years that it’s a worthy topic? Because science shows that 50 percent of the variance in crime is under genetic control. OK, so we could turn our backs on biology. Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist. Like an ostrich, we could bury our heads in the sand and pretend the hunter is not there. But the tragedy is that in our blind ignorance we’ll never have the biological insights to stop future violence. And you’d better watch out – the ostrich may get shot.

Cook: What are the strongest links between biology and violence, the results that are most widely accepted?

Raine: There’s no question whatsoever that genetic influences play a very significant role in shaping crime and violence. That can no longer be disputed. What can be debated is what specific genes are involved – and in what way. The gene that codes for the enzyme MAOA does seem to be involved at some level, but there’s still a long way to go in the hunt for genes that predispose to violence.

There’s also an explosion of brain imaging research. The most replicable finding so far is dysfunction to the prefrontal cortex, the “guardian angel” in the brain that controls our impulsive behavior and regulates our emotions. Damage that emergency brake on behavior, and explosive violence is not far away.

But you know, the neurobiology of violence is far from simple. We’re clearly going to find that it’s enormously complex. At the end of the day we’ll find that multiple brain systems are in on the act.  One prime suspect in shaping psychopathic behavior is the amygdala – the seat of emotion. Psychopaths have a core emotional deficit – they lack conscience, remorse, and guilt. They just don’t feel feelings the way we do. Several studies are documenting volume reductions in this brain structure in psychopaths. The amygdala is also less activated in psychopaths when they contemplate moral dilemmas. It’s as if psychopaths don’t have the feeling for what is right and wrong – even if they know it at a cognitive level. Still, we are just at the very beginning of a long journey into understanding the brain basis to violence. We have a very long way to go.

What else at the biological level? Lots of things. At a psychophysiological level something as simple as low resting heart rate is probably the best-replicated biological correlate of antisocial and aggressive behavior in children and adolescents. We think it’s a marker for fearlessness and impulsive stimulation-seeking. High testosterone and low cortisol are hormonal candidates. In terms of neurotransmitters, low serotonin is a well-replicated correlate of impulsive violence.

But health factors are really important too, and in a way the seeds of sin are sown pretty early on in life. Mothers who smoke or drink during pregnancy are much more likely to have babies who grow up to become violent offenders. Poor nutrition during pregnancy also raises the odds of later offending. Even birth complications – especially when combined with social risk factors like the maternal neglect – raises the odds of adult violence. And let’s not forget environmental toxins like lead. They damage the brain, and not surprisingly are associated with antisocial behavior.

Cook: What do you think of the argument put forward by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, suggesting that violence has dropped dramatically as our social structures have changed?

Raine: The Better Angels of Our Nature was a masterful thesis that to my mind was right on the mark in its main argument – violence has indeed dropped over time. Sure, social structures that provide order and help contain violence have surely been a part of this, but the idea I particularly resonated to in Pinker’s book is the idea that thinking and reasoning has been one of our better angels. We’ve become smarter, more educated, and better able to reason, and partly for that reason we’ve moved away from violence.

And that’s really why I wrote The Anatomy of Violence. I want more people to understand why people commit crime. I want them to know the brain mechanisms behind these acts, and what factors, including environmental influences, shape the brain processes that predispose to violence.

Back in 1993, when I wrote an academic book, I finished with the argument that world history has shown that as society becomes more ennobled and sophisticated in its scientific understanding, conditions like epilepsy and psychosis ceased to be viewed within a moral / theological context and more within the humanitarian context of treatment. I repeat that refrain in The Anatomy of Violence. It’s something I sincerely hope for, a more enlightened society that can learn from a new and exciting body of biological knowledge on what causes offending. Chalking a violent act up to “evil” is easy, but it’s thirteenth century thinking. We need to move on into a more scientifically enlightened future.

To stop violence we have to understand its causes. For the past century we focused all our attention to only one side of the coin, the social contribution. Now it’s time to flip the coin over and examine the biological contribution. Unless we do that, we’ll never have the full picture, and we’ll go on living out the disheartening headlines that we read in newspapers today.

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30 avril 2013 2 30 /04 /avril /2013 16:05

Social learning is a more potent force in shaping wild animals' behavior than previously thought

By Karen Ravn and Nature magazine

Birds of a feather may flock together, but do birds that flock together develop distinct cultures? Two studies published today inScience find strong evidence that, at the very least, monkeys that troop together and whales that pod together do just that. And they manage it in the same way that humans do: by copying and learning from each other.

A team led by Erica van de Waal, a primate psychologist at the University of St Andrews, UK, created two distinct cultures — 'blue' and 'pink' — among groups of wild vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus aethiops) in South Africa. The researchers trained two sets of monkeys to eat maize (corn) dyed one of those two colors but eschew maize dyed the other color. The scientists then waited to see how the groups behaved when newcomers — babies and migrating males — arrived.

Both sets of newcomers seemed to follow social cues when selecting their snacks. Baby monkeys ate the same color maize as their mothers. Seven of the ten males that migrated from one color culture to another adopted the local color preference the first time that they ate any maize. The trend was even stronger when they first fed with no higher-ranking monkey around, with nine of the ten males choosing the locally preferred variety. The only immigrant to buck this trend was a monkey who assumed the top rank in his new group as soon as he got there — and he may not have given a fig what anyone else ate.

“The take-home message is that social learning — learning from others rather than through individual trial and error — is a more potent force in shaping wild animals’ behavior than has been recognized so far,” says Andrew Whiten, an evolutionary and developmental psychologist at St Andrews and co-author of the paper.

The study is striking because it is one of very few successful controlled experiments in the wild, says Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. “It hints at a level of conformism most of us until now held not possible,” he says.

Whale see, whale do
In the second study, a team led by St Andrews marine mammal science student Jenny Allen examined 27 years of whale-watching data from the Gulf of Maine, off the eastern coast of the United States, to determine whether social cues helped an innovative feeding method to proliferate among humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).

Humpbacks everywhere feed by blowing bubbles under schools of fish, which then bunch together closely to avoid swimming through the bubbles. When the whales lunge upward, they can gulp down a super-sized serving of fish. But in 1980, observers in the gulf saw something new: a humpback slapping the surface of thewater with its tail fluke before proceeding with a standard bubble feed. That year it happened just once in a sample of 150 feeding events, but by 2007, 37% of the humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine were observed using the technique, since dubbed lobtail feeding.

To determine how lobtail feeding became so popular so quickly, Allen and her colleagues applied a method called network-based diffusion analysis to observations of humpback behavior collected by the Whale Center of New England in Gloucester, Massachusetts, between 1980 and 2007. The technique assumes that individuals who spend more time together are more likely to transmit behaviors to each other. Allen's analysis found that up to 87% of whales that adopted the lobtail-feeding technique learned it from other humpbacks.

“We know that humpback songs are also culturally transmitted,” says Luke Rendell, a biologist at St Andrews and co-author of the whale study, “so here we have a population with two independently evolving cultural traditions — a culture.”

David Wiley, research coordinator at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Scituate, Massachusetts, says that the work is important and innovative. “It adds to a growing body of information demonstrating the complexity of humpback-whale behavior and its apparent roots in social learning,” he says.

http://bcove.me/c8ghduei

 

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article wasfirst published on April 25, 2013.

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