Units of Action

by ryan_b1 min read7th Nov 20196 comments

6

Frontpage

Unit of action is a term I have been using internally to be more specific when thinking about groups of people. This post is for fleshing out and clarifying my thinking for myself, and seeing if it would be useful to anyone else. Also it feels like there really ought to be a term for this already, and I might be able to find more information if someone knows it.

Definition

A unit of action is a group that takes actions, as a group.

I take the word unit from the military, and also from unit of analysis, reflecting my belief that this is the correct level of analysis for big-picture problems. Action is in the colloquial sense of "did something on purpose."

To be more concrete, the kinds of things I am pointing at are like families, corporations, and government agencies. The kinds of things I am pointing away from are like race, class, gender, and religion.

Causal vs correlational

One way to see the dividing line is between groups that cause things to happen, and groups to whom things happen. Families take vacations; corporations launch products; government agencies sue people for breaking regulations. The examples I pointed away from are demographic - they don't do anything as a group, but races may be segregated, genders have different bathrooms, and classes get tax breaks.

Agent heuristic

Another heuristic is whether the group can plausibly be modeled as a single agent. Following game-theoretic intuition further, the unit of action can be broken down into other units of action the same way agents can be broken apart into multiple agents. We might model one firm as one agent when looking at the behavior of firms in competition, but when looking at the behavior of one firm model the different departments within the firm as different agents. Sometimes, as in the case of the military, these components are very explicit.

Perpetual Coordination

Units of action are stable, successful-at-some-rate coordinators. I have a vague intuition that we can think of them as coordination strategies which propagate in the same way organisms have reproduction strategies, but the analogy is hardly precise; reproduction propagates genetic information, and units of action mostly propagate relationships.

Miscellaneous thoughts

  • Hierarchy is usually sufficient, but not necessary, to indicate a unit of action.
  • There is no taxonomy; it is defined by actions, not org type.
  • If a given group stops being a unit of action, I expect it to fall apart soon (split up, go bankrupt, etc).



6

6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:59 AM
New Comment

I feel like the range of useful abstractions is wider than you give credit for.

So, a government agency sues a company for breach of regulations. In many ways it acts as a unit; in others not. For example, the company may decide to blackmail (the head of the agency) into pressuring (the leader of the team pursuing the case) into dropping it or flubbing the investigation or something. You won't get very far thinking of the agency as a unit, if that happens.

(I don't think you would disagree with that, but it seemed worth making explicit.)

Going in the other direction... I think broad demographics sometimes can be usefully thought of as units. Someone making a movie might (correctly) say "if we include this aspect, then more men will see the film". It's true that "men" don't all watch a movie together, but... well, nor does every member of an agency sue a company together. If the agency can still be a unit, why not "men"?

(Because there's no explicit coordination between them as a group? But if you have to consider internal communication, the abstraction seems to lose value. Because the action "watch a movie" is performed by individuals? But the action "spend $x million on Cinema tickets" is performed by a group; and the action "submit a document to the court" is performed by an individual.)

For example, the company may decide to blackmail (the head of the agency) into pressuring (the leader of the team pursuing the case) into dropping it or flubbing the investigation or something. You won't get very far thinking of the agency as a unit, if that happens.

I tried to capture this with the game theory intuition: what this example demonstrates is that the agency has sub-units, here being the head and the investigative team. I do agree that the investigation is likely to fail, but the detail I want to highlight is that acting and the success of the action are distinct. So when an agency launches an investigation, and then the investigation is <successful|failed|sabotaged>, the real weight lies in launching the investigation and not on its outcome.

I think the intuition becomes clearer when you compare this example against one where the company decides to blackmail a key witness instead. If we imagine the agency is the FBI, I am confident you'll agree that it is a much, much bigger deal to blackmail the head of the FBI than some private citizen, even in the context of the same investigation. The simplest way to express this is that blackmailing the head of the FBI is an attack upon the agency. In both examples only one person is the target, in both cases the company does blackmail, but the consequences if discovered would be entirely lopsided.

I thought this was a good point, because it seems to contain a hidden assumption:

but... well, nor does every member of an agency sue a company together.

It is also true that everyone in the company didn't do something worth getting sued over. The intuition here is that the people that make up the agency are not a viable way to analyze what the agency is doing, even where it is technically feasible; they are the wrong unit of analysis. People aren't relevant to the agency's behavior before they join; they have much less relevance after they leave; while they are there whatever aspect of the agency you are thinking about will really only involve a subset of members. Doing things at the same time isn't the dividing line; doing them with the same purpose is.

I'm not clear on why this is:

Because there's no explicit coordination between them as a group? But if you have to consider internal communication, the abstraction seems to lose value.

Where do you see value being lost? It might be worth pointing out that the coordination doesn't have to be explicit per se, just intentional. So the men who show up to see the Expendables are not a unit of action, but a Men's Movie Club going to see the Expendables would be; further Men's Movie Club could resolve to see every new Expendables movie on opening night at a particular theater, and wouldn't need to communicate internally every time to do it because it is common knowledge. It does feel like there is something about internal communication that could mark bundles of actions, though.

My point is that "men" do seem to me like a unit of action. In the sense that - sometimes - you can usefully think of "men" as a group and make decisions based on considerations like "if we do this, men will do that".

but… well, nor does ev­ery mem­ber of an agency sue a com­pany to­gether.

It is also true that ev­ery­one in the com­pany didn’t do some­thing worth get­ting sued over. The in­tu­ition here is that the peo­ple that make up the agency are not a vi­able way to an­a­lyze what the agency is do­ing, even where it is tech­ni­cally fea­si­ble; they are the wrong unit of anal­y­sis.

To clarify my intent here: the bit you quoted wasn't "and here's why an agency isn't a unit of action", it was a "that proves too much" reply to one possible answer you might give for why "men" aren't a unit of action. But it seems you aren't giving that answer.

Where do you see value be­ing lost?

I feel like the value of an abstraction is that you can think about fewer objects. If you can only work with an abstraction by taking its component objects and breaking them down to their component objects, then it's not clear in what sense you're actually abstracting.

you can usefully think of "men" as a group and make decisions based on considerations like "if we do this, men will do that".

I agree with this, but a unit of action does not add anything to the concept; it is how marketing and advertising and politics all work currently. I want to capture something different: in particular the execution of plans or working towards a goal.

I feel like the value of an abstraction is that you can think about fewer objects. If you can only work with an abstraction by taking its component objects and breaking them down to their component objects, then it's not clear in what sense you're actually abstracting.

That's interesting, and I am deeply sympathetic to this view. I do feel differently: my lens is that abstractions are for capturing the optimal amount of information. The most important thing is knowing what information is important, and then I want the most efficient way to capture it. My thinking gets muddy, though, when I don't really know what is important. This biases me in favor of being able to capture more information if necessary because if the abstraction doesn't capture the information I need then it is useless or, what is worse, misleading.

Short digression: a background assumption of mine is that there is always an algorithm or decision making process somewhere in which the abstraction will be employed. A concrete example of this which I reread from time to time is a blog post describing algorithmic efficiency in terms of problem information. The motivating example is Matlab, which is a ubiquitous numerical problem solver in engineering: the programming language is slow and wasn't designed around performance, but they get pretty good performance when solving linear systems because their algorithms do a bunch of checks to see if specific kinds of algorithms can be applied that capture the information more efficiently. This is stuff like is the matrix square? or is the matrix triangular? which matters because in each of these cases they have a maximally efficient algorithm.

Returning to the example of the obstructed agency you gave, what I want is to be able to reason about the success case and about the failure case (which if I read you correctly, is where you think the unit of action breaks down). Rolling in the intuition about problem information, when we are thinking about the agency suing a company in a unit-of-action context:

If the lawsuit proceeds normally we have only the two objects:

[Agency, Company]

But suppose the blackmail gambit works. I still want to be able to describe what is happening, so I recurse on the agency to relevant sub-units, and we have:

[Head of the agency, Investigation team, Company]

We can imagine a scenario where the blackmail gambit is discovered and the agency responds, which probably means zeroing in on the company sub-units, like whichever VP ran the operation and his informant, which brings us to:

[Head of the agency, Investigation team, Company VP, VP's informant]

And so on. The benefit is that I only need to go down into sub-units when the units I am currently looking at fail to capture the needed details. Further, I only need to look at the relevant sub-units, instead of committing to analyzing all agents/employees or all teams, which would capture all the information I need, but might be impossible (individuals) or hideously inefficient (teams).



Caveats

1. I can see a lot of overlap with this and several senses of the the term institution. The reason I find it convenient to use a different term is that it shifts the emphasis to what specific groups are doing. For example, family is an institution, but the Templeton family is a unit of action. The corporation is an institution, but IBM is a unit of action. It also usefully excludes broader institutions, like the market or civil rights, while keeping the New York Stock Exchange and the ACLU as units of action. One way to think of it: units of action are the microphenomena of institutions, and the macrophenomena of people.

2. Coming from a firmly demographic perspective on groups, like is common in political campaigning, this could easily get fuzzy. Consider religion: Christian and Muslim are not units of action, but Mormons and Catholics are essentially big hierarchies while Sunnis, Jews and Evangelicals are not. In the campaign-view of groups, what I think of as units of action are mostly important because they are indicators for demographic groups: NAACP is an indicator of black voter support, AARP is an indicator of senior voter support, unions of working class voter support, etc. This view seems to get the most airtime by far, though I could be biased because I consume an unusually high amount of political information.

I wonder if the idea of unit testing might fit with your thinking, and perhaps have some useful approaches as well as caveats.

Perhaps also either the idea of factions or special interests in political/social choice theories -- but here fear those might be a bit too broad a "unit".