Kinship-Like Practices Are Important In Complex Times: Lessons from a Merchant of Venice

In the absence of sufficient ability to control [1] a complex situation, humans tend to fall back on personal kinship networks as a means of improving their chances. The jilted lover returns to his parents for comfort. The wounded professional returns to her home town. The prodigal child heads back home after losing her money.

Humans also tend to fall back on kinship-like practices in complex situations, which might explain why in the digital age, there is such an emphasis on word-of-mouth recommendations, norms of reciprocity and the sharing of personal details online. I have experienced many many “serious” business people looking down their noses at this sort of sharing (“Twitter is stupid. It’s all about what people had for lunch.”) especially in the context of business (“Why do my employees care if my daughter plays Soccer?”), thinking that it is just time-wasting and off-task. But folks who see it this way may be missing the point entirely. It may not be just free love or oversharing. It may be creating kinship-like relations that provide the most trustworthy means of living and succeeding (in business too) in an increasingly fast, complex digital world.

In chapter 4 of his excellent book The Control Revolution, James Beniger suggests that the persistence of “traditional” family kinship and honor-based business relationships well into the 19th century was more than just a resistance to change, but was rather a means of controlling [1] trans-oceanic commerce in the absence of effective telecommunications and international legal sanctions. In other words, if a person was running a trans-oceanic shipping company in the 1600’s, they were faced with a hugely uncertain situation, where they needed someone they could trust completely to sell their goods on the other side of the ocean. That person was usually kin; a family member. When these kinship networks were not available, though, merchants still conducted their business relations in kinship-like ways which look strange from the perspective of 20th-century “professional” perspective:

Even when the actual kinship did not exist, people tried to evoke these sorts of feelings. As Lane (1944, p. 99) notes of Andrea Barbarigo [a real merchant of Venice who lived from 1418-1449], ‘There were in his business letters more protestations of personal affection than can be taken seriously…Conventional references to a loving concern for the agent’s future honor and profit..’ [2]

So before you assume that the next employee Twitter message about how “You should visit that sandwich shop on the corner next lunch time.” is just a waste of time, you may want to consider that it might be part of a series of kinship-like, trust-building activities that will help sustain your organization in increasingly fast, complex times.

[1] I am using the word “control” to refer to any form of influence, from slight to total control, as is suggested in James Beniger’s book [2]
[2]  Beniger, J. The Control Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1986

Related Posts:

This entry was posted in Digital Fluency, Digital Fluency, Management, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.