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Agent-Based Simulation of Organizational Behavior: New Frontiers of Social Science Research

Secchi, Davide and Neumann, Martin (eds.)
Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 2015
ISBN 978-3319181523 (pb)

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Reviewed by Ted Anagnoson
California State University

Cover of book This edited book contains papers presented at the workshop on “Modelling Organisation Behavior and Social Agency” at Bournemouth University in the U.K. in 2014. The workshop papers focused on aspects of agent-based modelling (ABM) as ABM applies to organisational behaviour and social agency. The book contains an index to the entire volume as well as sources after each particular paper, both a plus for readers.

For students of organisations, the volume contains interesting papers on the forefront of new approaches to the study of organisations using ABM. For agent-based modellers, the study of organisations is an area where ABM can make useful contributions, illustrating points that can be further investigated with ABM or more traditional approaches.

The book is organised into four sections. The first is introductory and contains overviews. The second contains six research papers illustrating various ABM approaches to organisations. The third contains four papers on philosophical or methodological issues. The fourth has three papers on “macro aspects of organization behavior.”

Neumann and Secchi’s overview paper, “Exploring the New Frontier: Computational Studies of Organizational Behavior” has the traditional overview of each paper but also an overview of what exactly agent-based simulations are and why organisational theorists might like to use their findings. Fioretti’s chapter on “Emergent Organizations” is an overview of ABM and how it interacts with other approaches to the study of organisations, including the garbage can model of organisational choice among traditional approaches, and cellular automata and the NK model among instances of ABM approaches. He points out that ABM approaches ought to be more familiar to organisational theorists than they are, and that the problem is that organisational theorists view ABM approaches as just one more quantitative method of testing hypotheses, rather than a tool to “carry out sophisticated conceptual experiments” (38). Cowley’s “Cognition Beyond the Body: Using ABM to Explore Cultural Ecosystems” is an interesting paper that explores the evolution of sound patterns and how that might be studied using ABM.

The section on “Modeling Organizational Behavior” contains several interesting – indeed, striking – papers. Herath, Secchi, and Homberg investigate disorganisation, meaning few structural constraints, and its effects on goals and problem solving, finding that “disorganisation” results in more problem solving than a more highly structured and “organised” environment. Disorganisation “provides faster access to problems, opportunities, and solutions” (77). Kahl and Meyer analyse organisational routines, looking at the different ways routines have been modelled. The chapter contains an overview and comparison of the models used to study routines, covering an enormous amount of research. Jesi and Mollona use CoopNet, a simulation model to study networking and different organisational mechanisms and how they affect cooperation within the organisation. They find that the narrowness of the information search is a factor in the success of the model, so that elements who can search beyond their near neighbours get better results. This suggests that organisations should give workers more autonomy in selecting their information sources.

Thompsen looks at team coordination and the variable of docility, the amenability of individuals to accept and believe instructions and information within the organisation, including informally received information. He finds that teams that have moderate levels of the variable outperform teams with high or low levels, and when teams have members with different levels, it is harder to coordinate their behaviour. Secchi continues with the docility variable in his paper on “Boundary Conditions for the Emergence of ‘Docility’ In Organizations: ABM and Simulation.” He finds the most significant variable in the emergence of docility is cost, with the more successful simulated organisations providing incentives to embark on prosocial behaviour and having a more flexible environment. Breslin, Romano and Percival argue for the adoption of models of organisations adapted from biological evolution, stating that these models need at this point to be tested against data from real organisations.

In the third section, “Philosophical and Methodological Perspectives,” four papers present their analyses of philosophy of science issues. Bardone deals with the notion of “abduction” in hypothesis generation. Thuermel examines humans interacting with non-human agents in different scenarios and how these might be analysed. Plikynas and Raudys link an oscillation-based multi-agent system with experimental brain-imaging studies, looking at two different approaches to the construction of oscillating agent models. Seri uses Markov chains to analyse the long-term behaviour of models describing the spread of an infection. This section will be less interesting to organisational researchers but more so to ABM modellers concerned with the future direction of research.

The last section of the book contains three papers on macro aspects of organisational behaviour. Neumann and Cowley place the Mafia in the context of organisational thinking with ABM, along with a nice history of the Mafia and Cosa Nostra that, if you don’t otherwise know much about the history, is not to be missed. Paladini applies ABM analysis to the issues arising from the development of dams on the Mekong River; she presents some preliminary results from her model. In the last chapter, Secchi builds an ABM to illustrate the situation of a network of firms in search of a technological development partnership. The question here is what the conditions are under which a firm will seek a partner when it has done approximately half the work to develop a product. An interesting finding is that the presence of intermediaries in the market lowers the search costs for all firms, whether or not they use an intermediary or not.

All in all, this is a path-breaking book with many papers that could stimulate organisational studies, both traditionally-based and conceived using ABM.


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