I was just reading The Synergism Hypothesis by Dr Peter Corning and was struck by he amount of research he did on the evolution of synergy as a scientific concept versus a philosophical one. Yes, the idea does go back to the Greeks and the introduction part of the paper makes very interesting reading. Today we hear all about synergies and how the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole if only we folly the popular principles of synergy as taught by management consultants. Ah, yes, Buckminster Fuller, what have you wrought? For those of you who have actually wasted your time reading one or more of his books on philosophy, Bucky was the great prophet of synergy. And you know, it is very appealing to believe that if we just find the right arrangements in the world we can realize great synergies and success in business, computer programming, and even personal relationships. This great principle ranks right up there with Quantitative Easing and Say’s Law. Of course I am a fan of leveraging the existing synergies, that is an even neater trick in life. But I will give you an even greater challenge, to measure synergy. I mean, if the parts can be greater than the sum or whole, then such a thing should be amenable to proper measurement, right? We could, for example, take a circular piece of paper, a flat disk, and cut it into any number of parts and viola, through the magic of synergy the placing the parts back together would create….the same size disk. Wait a minute, what happened to the synergy that was suppose to be there? Oh, it only works when we use its principles correctly.
So what are these correct principles of synergy? Anyone? Buler? Well, if you read the article in Wikipedia it would appear that placing the three atoms, one of hydrogen and the other two of oxygen has the synergetic effect of creating water. Hey, that sounds like a neat experiment. Let me take a container of x number of atoms of hydrogen and a container containing 2X number of atoms of oxygen and place them in a third container. Viola, water, right? Well, not quite, we now have a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen atoms still in a gaseous state. I thought synergy was suppose to make the mixture of gases into one liquid? Oh, that’s right, we needed energy to get the atoms to combine. So we added a specif amount of energy to get the atoms to react with each other and thus form molecules of water. That’s synergy, right? Hey, it also works in reverse, only one needs a little more energy per molecule. So what have we learned in our thought demonstration (it also works in real life laboratory experiments), that the water molecule (the whole) is larger than the sum of its parts unless you count the energy needed to combine and hold the three atoms together. But I though water was suppose to be an example of synergy?
Well, we can cite the case of pests where a particular type of pest may cause the death of ten percent of the local population of hosts. So we introduce a second pest that has the same general properties, that is, causing ten percent of the population of hosts. Then we might observe that when the two pests strike the same hosts, that population of twice bitten hosts now has a death rate of fifty percent. Ah, synergy at last! Maybe not. The expectation is that death rates should be additive or arithmetical and not geometrical. What is not in evidence is the amount of resources the body of the host has to fight off the effects of the pest that might kill him. Would it by unusual that two different pests, rather than having a synergizing effect on the host’s resources simply overwhelm those resources and the fifty percent death rate is a factor of individual variation? Take an ocean vessel and a torpedo. One torpedo in the hull might only cause one out of ten vessels to sink. We might even specify that the ones that sunk were struck in a vital area. Now let us assume that our fleet of vessels (the population of hosts) are of varying size. We might find that those of sufficient size are “immune” to sinking when hit by two torpedos. The rest may suffer from being of a too small size to stay afloat after two torpedo hits. If one torpedo hits in a non vital area but the second one does hit that vital area, then it is not synergy of the combined torpedos, is it. This thing called synergy is getting harder to pin down as to cause and effect.
The Laws of Thermodynamics will not be cheated. There are no magic bullets in physics. One cannot create something out of nothing, no how, no way. But all these management consultants have done all these wonderful experiments and shown that synergy really works. No, not true. When Henry Ford organized the assembly line he increased the productivity of the group by the division of labor. One worker doing the same operation each day could do more of that same operation than if he has to stop and do a dozen different operations. The difference is time and motion, not synergy. But that increased productivity comes at a price of boredom and lack of skill improvement. Specialization of labor attempts to make uniform parts and or processes. One can see this in may call centers. If you go to wok for Dish in a call center you sole function may be to sell Starz or some other feature. If the customer has access problems, meaning poor or no service, you are free to sell them as much stuff as you can but that will not fix their reception problem. where is the “synergy” of this call canter? It is in creating more income for the company and not better service for the customer. In short, there is no synergy, it’s all a con.
Synergy, properly understood, is the effects of things that operate together or the combined or co-operative effects. It is not the typical 2 + 2 = 5 bullshit that is passed off by some many idiots. You can blame the Greeks for their mistake in metaphysical reasoning for instilling the something for nothing idea. The fact is, we love something for nothing. It dates back to our millions of years as hunter gathers where the land provided for our means of substance. We didn’t have to grow anything, the food, except for the animals was growing on the trees and bushes or could be dug up (well, that did require a little more physical effort). Imagine, then, shifting into an agricultural society in which the something for nothing was no longer available. Pulling a plow to till the earth is hard work, no wonder we were glad to find the dumb oxen who would do it for a few oats and handful of hay a day. Childhood was always about that change of having things done for you to doing for yourself. Yes, children want to do for themselves but only to a point and that point is establishing a sense of independence and identity. Once they become teenagers then they revert back to that basic something for nothing, do it for me attitude. Our modern day meaning of Synergy is a myth, a lie, a hoax, a forfeit on human values and understandings. It has become a religious mantra on its own with high priests and legions of believers.