Sunday, November 9, 2014

Coincidence, Connectivity and Correlation: The 3C’s of Perceptive Observation and Research

The other day, a very striking research finding that turned conventional wisdom and generational practice upside down was published widely ( It said that those who drink more than three glasses of milk (700 ml), instead of facing a lower risk of fractures as believed hitherto, faced instead a risk of higher mortality. This, obviously, is counter to the received wisdom that it is beneficial to drink more milk as it leads to greater calcium intake and thus leads to healthy bones, apart from it being a wholesome food for general human development. The study was carried out by the reputed Uppsala University of Sweden and covered 61,000 women and 45,000 men of certain age groups for more than 20 years. This study caps a series of such studies which question the past precautions, biases and beliefs on a variety of subjects, ranging from eggs and coconuts to salt and cocoa (one such study is that intake of certain types of fat is good for brain health!).

At the end of the milk research summary, however, there was a caveat that the study pointed to an association rather than a link. It suggested more investigations to conclude on the topic. This caveat is not surprising given the diversified nature of human genetics, the multi-factorial nature of human aging and disease affliction. Identification of the core ingredients of prophylactic and therapeutic potency as well as side effects and adverse effects of natural or synthetic ingredients is wrought with great complexity. Potentially, these research journeys would continue, leading one day to more conclusive and more validated hypotheses on what causes what. While the complexities of understanding these bio-chemical challenges at molecular level are understandable, it is intriguing that apparently simpler and more visible aspects of human relationships should threaten the stability of, and cause volatility in, human relationships at family, organizational, social and national levels. This blog post presents certain models of researching and understanding human behaviour as a way of development.    

Individuality and conformity

The evolution of one’s personality over the years is the result of continuous interplay of one’s quest for individuality and the individual’s ecosystem’s norm for conformity. The ecosystem could variously be the family (pre-marriage and post-marriage), the school and college, the organization and the society. At every point of time, the individual is simultaneously advised to be expressive and empowered as well as conformist and compliant. While absorbing this indoctrination, the individual also constantly observes the players and role models he or she encounters in the various ecosystems. The observed behaviours are much like the various items of food that one ingests for biological development; they are the complex ingredients of food for emotional health. Much like the example of milk above, the behavioural inputs that are embedded as features of ecosystems are akin to  inner ingredients like lactose and galactose sugar in milk that are now found to cause oxidative stress and inflammation for individuals. There are more complexities, in addition.

Nations with developing and diversified habitat conditions such as India have multiple and diverse ecosystems at different points in scales of extreme polarities; poor and rich, rural and urban, squalor and luxury, unemployed and unemployed, and so on. Amidst all this diversity, there are two common national cultural trends; aspiration for growth and passion for equity. Each individual develops his or her own personality that expresses individuality and conformity that are not only influenced by the observed behavioural inputs but also the embedded factors of the ecosystems. These influences on individual personality development and collective social motive force are rarely appreciated with the needed perspicacity so much so the pressures get built up to alarming levels. Sudden and volatile expressions of resentment in families, institutions, firms and societies are a result of insensitivity to what could constitute an optimum balance of individuality and conformity on one dimension and economic growth and social equity on the other dimension.

Observation and research

Unfortunately, by the time one gets to recognize the need for personality optimization, much of one’s personality gets formed. The only way one rebalances and optimizes one’s personality is through observation and research. And the start point of one’s observation and research must be revalidation of the hypotheses that have been allowed to embed themselves over the years; like the several food and nutrition examples that have led to contrarian conclusions through more objective and intensive observation and research. Observation is the act or faculty of watching something or someone carefully for a period of time, especially to learn something. Research takes observation to the next level. Research is the careful study of a subject, especially with a view to discover new facts or information about it. Observation and research are an essential component of personality redevelopment that has several facets to it. Observation becomes relevant only with an open state of mind while research becomes helpful only with an analytical bent of mind.

The triggers for an individual to be motivated to observe and research are rooted in relative success of others and one’s own outlook. At a national level, countries aspire to achieve a national comparative advantage to achieve superior economic growth; but a few countries like India tend to be sensitive, rightly so, to social acceptance of economic platforms. At an entity level, firms seek to achieve firm level competitive advantage to achieve superior business growth. At an individual level, people seek to achieve personalized intellectual advantage to achieve superior career development. These are achieved not merely through past achievements but more through contemporary benchmarking and futuristic aspiration. Korea needed to observe and benchmark with Japan to develop itself as an Asian Tiger. India desires to observe and benefit from multiple national models, from China and Singapore to USA and Japan. The US automobile industry observed and learnt from the Japanese automotive industry to rediscover itself. An NITian (a student of National Institute of Technology) observes and wonders why he or she cannot be better than an IITian (a student of the Indian Institute of Technology). The whole group in any typical class wonders why all of its constituents cannot land themselves into plum jobs offered by Google or McKinsey.

Coincidence, connectivity and correlation

The processes of observation and research have three nuances. These are coincidence, connectivity and correlation. Coincidence is the fact of two things happening at the same time by chance, in a surprising way. Life, it is said, is full of coincidences. The occurrence of someone putting in low effort and achieving high success is more a coincidence than a law (possibly related to a more compassionate evaluator rather than anything else). Connectivity is the state of two things being associated together; it is a state of association by which one causes the other. Passive or active smoking and development of cancer are connected events. Make in Japan is, for example, associated with higher quality and high cost. Correlation is a variable state of connectivity where a change in one factor is accompanied by a change in the other factor. The incidence of diabetes in a society is correlated with an increase in consumption of junk food, for example. The processes of observation and research must learn to differentiate between coincidence, connectivity and correlation. In a meritocracy, getting handpicked for performance based on random interactions would be a coincidence while knowledge and experience would more surely get connected with performance and reward. At a micro level, multiple factors like nature of qualification, type of institution, depth of experience, nature of industry etc., get statistically correlated with career advantage.

While life does have a fair share of coincidences, in so far as performance is concerned, it is best to assume that there can be no coincidence. Many people confuse opportunities with coincidences. An aspirant job-hopper travelling by plane for a scheduled interview may happen to be seated next to a CEO of a different organization in a plane; this “coincidence” may lead to a conversation and a job offer if the CEO is impressed. The opportunity may seem to be a coincidence or a matter of luck but underlying the opportunity lies the ability of the individual to network and impress, the openness of the CEO to be inquisitive, and the willingness of both to make a considered choice. Life may be full of incidents and occurrences like the one mentioned but it is the connectivity between ability and accomplishment that matters. Oftentimes, a simple two factor connectivity may not suffice. In the case of a firm, for example, a firm’s performance may be correlated to its product diversity, geographic diversity, capital expenditure premium talent pool, export share etc., different firms may have different equations of correlation for the same independent variables. Right optics and smart analytics are required to ensure that the processes of observation and research are effective.

Discrimination, differentiation

As an individual observes his or her role model or as an organization observes its industry leader, it is important to develop the right optic (the right sense of sight) to observe, and the right analytics to differentiate between coincidence, connectivity and correlation. Fortunately, both right optic and smart analytics have one faculty in common - discrimination. Discrimination is the ability to recognize differences, and more importantly, the ability to judge the good quality of anything or anyone. Discrimination comes in multiple hues. One set of hues relates to an ability to discriminate between data and information, information and knowledge, and knowledge and wisdom. Another set of hues relates to an ability to discriminate between revenue and profitability, growth and sustainability, market share and revenue share, focus and specialization, and enterprise value and market capitalization. National set of hues relates to an ability to discriminate between economic growth and per capita economic growth, employment and inflation, and economic equality and social equity. Even regulators have the needs to discriminate; for example between monopoly and monopsony, premium and predatory, private weal and public good, and proprietary protection and corporate veil.

The moment an individual, entity or nation decides to become superior, association (and correlation) between enablers and outcomes needs to be established. The correlating variables and the factors of association or connectivity need to be established. The observation and research may lead from the macro to micro as in the case of the Uppsala University’s milk and mortality study wherein the connection between higher milk consumption and higher mortality was first established and then probable contributory causes such as lactose and galactose sugar were later drilled down. In the study of leaders, an association between the leadership styles and firm performance may be first established at a macro level and the more impacting correlations established later. Firms may identify an association between operational excellence and firm performance at a macro level and seek multiple correlations thereafter. The blog post has proposed observation and research, enhanced by right optics and smart analytics and bound together by discrimination as the fundamental tool kit to think beyond coincidence, and establish connectivity and collaboration for development of individuals, entities, societies, and nations.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on November 9, 2014   


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