Weak Signal® Research
Hypothesizing Phase Transitions in the Emergence of Weak Signals

May 15, 1997

by Bryan S. Coffman


Phase Transitions
In chemistry, a phase transition is the border between one state of matter and another. As ice warms above 0 Celsius it undergoes a phase transition to liquid water. As the temperature increases to and passes 100 Celsius, liquid water becomes a gas, or steam. A change in temperature can force a change in the state of H2O. So can a change in pressure. Water on top of a mountain in Colorado boils at a lower temperature because the atmospheric pressure is lower. The diagram to the left shows a "state space" diagram for water at different temperatures and pressures. The black lines indicate the phase transitions between ice, water and vapor. We've all witnessed such transitions when observing ice cubes melting in a glass or when bringing water to a boil on a stove. If the rate of change of pressure or temperature is rapid, the change can be quite dramatic. Pouring water on a campfire is an example. If the temperature or pressure changes gradually, the water will pass the transition more gradually (depending also on the shape of the curve on the diagram).

Phase Transitions For Emerging Ideas (Weak Signals)
Perhaps a metaphorical (or real) set of phase transitions occurs as ideas are discovered or invented, and eventually become popular. If so, then it would be worthwhile to observe the phenomena around each transition point, and also the behavior of the idea's emergence between transition points. Perhaps a certain predictability might be found to help organizations detect and invest in ideas, or weak signals.

The next diagram is different from the phase diagram for water. We're hypothesizing that the two phase transitions exist and are related by time, but we aren't saying anything about what governs them (like changes in temperature and pressure reveal the phase transitions in water). The horizontal axis is time: the vertical axis can loosely be labeled "successful awareness." The higher the idea is on the vertical axis, the more it has become accepted and integrated into the culture.

The first phase transition occurs when the idea is born and first perceived. Chances are that it appears bizarre to the majority of the culture. The second transition occurs when the idea has achieved acceptance and is ingrained into the culture as a part of an ecosystem of ideas.

The distance between the two transitions varies based on the idea. Some new ideas receive market acceptance rapidly. More often, an idea will take years, decades, or centuries to fully emerge. The readers of this Journal will are likely familiar with many illustrations of the phenomenon, like the 3M PostIt Notes story. Most weak signals require other inventions and infrastructures to support them. The automobile required a network of roads and service stations in order to proliferate. Some of Leonardo DaVinci's illustrations went unrealized for centuries.

The behavior of the idea between transitions may assume three basic forms, or any combination of them: linear, curvilinear, or discontinuous. Linear transitions are probably rare--life just isn't that simple! The curvilinear growth reflects current understanding of increasing returns and may be the most common type of intertransition behavior. Discontinuous transitions involve an abrupt acceptance of the idea that takes everyone by surprise.

In practice the intertransition curve is probably a compound aggregate of the three types of curves. Most ideas suffer some sort of setback during their intertransitional period, so curves with negative slopes may be added to complete the picture.

Emergence Phenomenon and the Stages of an Enterprise Model
The preceding diagram might look familiar to students of the MG Taylor Stages of an Enterprise model. In the following diagram, the intertransition period has been compressed and the rest of the model added onto it with the stages labeled. The intertransition period begins with the start-up stage and ends with the success stage. The first phase transition occurs at start-up and the second at success.

What Next?
This paper presents only a hypothesis based on intuition. No actual data to confirm or deny the hypothesis has been gathered. Interested readers might catalog anecdotal support or challenge to the idea. If the hypothesis has merit, then organizations engaged in weak signal research might benefit from searching out common phenomenon exhibited at the phase transitions, and the types of parameters, or simple rules that might influence this behavior. If the rules can be defined, then sifting through a wide range of weak signals might be rationalized.

I suspect that the keys to quantifying the hypothesis might be found in applications of complexity theories and in agent-based computer simulations.

Other information on weak signal research may be found in the Emergent Nodes section of this website.

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